[DEBATE] : (Fwd) Debating Wallerstein

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sat May 31 07:03:14 MDT 2003

This showed up on the Debate email list. My reply follows. Warren Wagar is
a world systems theorist.

>----- Original Message -----
>From: <wwagar at binghamton.edu>
>Sent: Saturday, May 31, 2003 12:43 AM
>Subject: Re: Comments on a Wallerstein article
>Louis Proyect is certainly correct in pointing out that U.S.
>imperialism and militarism did not begin with the administration of George
>W. Bush.  William J. ("Bomber") Clinton compiled an enviably virile record
>of unleashing American armed force against various small countries,
>and who can forget George I, who took Panama and beat the hell out of
>Iraq?  And before that, there was a certain Ronald Reagan who seized
>Grenada and illegally funded fascist armies in Central America, and, oh
>yes, Vietnam, and in fact what about 1898 when President McKinley
>conquered the Spanish Empire, or 1848 when President Polk subjugated 2/5
>of Mexico with the stalwart assistance of General (later President) Zachary
>Taylor?  And there were all those many brave "Indian fighters" who helped
>reduce the indigenous American population by 95% in the course of a
>few centuries.  And so many other he-men I haven't even mentioned, like
>General (later President) George Washington, General (later President)
>Andrew Jackson, General (later President) William Henry Harrison, General
>(later President) U.S. Grant, Colonel (later President) Theodore
>Roosevelt, and General (later President) Dwight Eisenhower.
>As for the British Empire, Proyect is again correct in
>representing it as a vast imperium spanning the planet and subjecting
>hundreds of millions of Africans, Asians, Australasians, West Indians, and
>many others to its sway.
>The problem is that he ignores the most important punctuation mark
>in world-systems analysis, the hyphen.  When Wallerstein and many others
>use the term "world-empire," they are not referring to an empire with
>possessions all over the world.  They are referring to a polity that
>literally incorporates a whole world-system (another hyphen!).  Some of
>the states under the thumb of the imperial superpower may exercise limited
>autonomy at the pleasure of the empire.  They could pay tribute or
>otherwise sing for their supper.  There might also be a few states only
>nominally under the control of the empire, if at all, within the system.
>But world-empire was the name of the game throughout much of premodern
>world history throughout the world.  From Sargon of Akkadia through Cyrus
>the Great and Asoka and Shihuang of Qin and the Caesars and the Abbasids
>and the Moguls and Moctezuma, the impulse to unite a whole ecumene under a
>single sovereign power was seemingly irresistible.  The emperors exacted a
>high price for their services, but sometimes they provided peace and
>security for long periods of time and even presided over cultural "golden
>The point, of course, is that no such world-empire existed in the
>15th Century in Western Europe when it began its long climb to global
>ascendancy.  This facilitated the rise of modern capitalism.  It also
>provided the space in which the many national actors in the modern
>world-system could accumulate "empires"--but not "world-empires"
>threatening the stability and equilibrium of the system as a whole.  The
>establishment in the 17th to 19th Centuries of overseas "empires" by
>Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands, France, Britain, Belgium, and Germany
>did not seriously threaten the balance of power in the European-based
>world-system, nor did the accession of the United States to the roster of
>official imperial powers in 1898.
>In my reading of modern European history, as in Wallerstein's,
>only three European countries made a concerted attempt to overturn that
>balance of power and establish a system-wide political empire, a true
>"world-empire."  The first was the Hapsburg Empire under Charles V in the
>16th Century, when Spain and most of the German/Italian world acknowledged
>a single sovereign.  The second was Napoleonic France in the first 15
>years of the 19th Century (although I think Napoleon was significantly
>prefigured by the overweening ambitions of the Bourbon monarchy from the
>days of Louis XIV onward).  The third was Hitler's Third Reich (although I
>think he was significantly prefigured by the overweening ambitions of the
>Hohenzollern monarchy in the era of Kaiser Wilhelm II).  These imperial
>powers came close to achieving their goals, but were always defeated by
>raising up more enemies than they could handle.
>In this whole story, England (later the United Kingdom) did not
>ever seek global political domination.  That is the difference between the
>immense British Empire and the futile schemes of a Bonaparte or a Hitler.
>Britain fought the Napoleonic Wars and Britain fought the two World Wars
>to restore, not to topple, the European balance of power.  It was quite
>comfortable with a Europe of many sovereign nations, especially since its
>capitalists prospered for so many years in a world market not subject to
>the regulations and restrictions of a world-imperial superpower.
>What seems to be happening now is not a resurgence of macho
>militarism in the United States, which has always exhibited all the worst
>symptoms of this disease of the male gender (with ample support from its
>womankind), but an overt attempt to rush into the power vacuum left by the
>collapse of the Soviet Union and establish the United States as both the
>sole superpower and the sole ultimate arbiter of world politics.  I
>hesitate to describe this new hyper-machismo as the quest for a true
>world-empire in Wallerstein's sense of the term, but it comes pretty
>close.  If the United States, with a few pliant satellites (such as the
>U.K., Spain, Poland, and Australia!), can pretty much tell the U.N. what
>to do, invade and occupy any country at will, bomb anybody it pleases, and
>dictate the meaning of democracy (that is, you cannot choose socialism,
>the rule of Islamic law, or any government that opposes American foreign
>policy, even if all of you want such damnable things), then we are
>perilously near to world-empire, Oval Office-style.  And I do not care to
>hear any speculation, at this stage, about a mighty European Union or a
>hypothetical Sino-Japanese juggernaut that might some day soon checkmate
>American ambitions.  The overwhelming military power of the United States,
>its fast-growing population (as opposed to the steadily declining
>populations of Europe and Japan), and its still virtually hegemonic
>economy consign all such speculation, at this time, to the category of
>wishful thinking based on largely mechanical readings of earlier cycles of
>rise-and-fall.  Some day, sure!  But not for a while.  Perhaps not for a
>damned long while.
>As for the rest of Louis Proyect's commentary, I am sympathetic.
>Of course the billionaires are divided.  Wallerstein is to be commended
>for pointing out how many are deeply and legitimately troubled by the way
>the policies of the Bush zealots endanger capitalism itself, but they may
>not make any difference at all in what Washington decides.  The
>capitalists go their way and, as Proyect reminds us, the only alternative
>is working-class revolution.  I wish that Wallerstein and all
>world-systems folks would devote at least as much time and energy to
>discussing and urging the implementation of strategies of resistance and
>revolution as they do to analysis of how the system has worked and works
>today.  Any fool, well, any wise fool, can see that the system is
>irremediably broken.
>But I think we do have to understand, with Wallerstein, that the
>rules of the global encounter of nations and economies have changed since
>1989.  We live in an era when it has become possible for enormously
>intelligent (if malevolent) people to dream again of world-empire, with a
>hyphen.  Their figurehead is a C student.  He says, "I know what I
>believe, and I believe that what I believe is right."  Forget him.  These
>people behind the scene govern the world's sole superpower.  Through their
>stooge and others of his contemptible ilk, they will stand for re-election
>in 2004.
>Do what you can.

Warren writes, "England never sought global political domination." That is
because it didn't need to. By the Victorian era, it had direct possession
of India, effective control of China and most of Africa. People like Niall
Ferguson extol the British Empire for its seemingly benign character. Why
world systems theorists would resonate with this is beyond me. This cedes
too much to England. From the point of view of the German ruling class, the
Versailles treaty did not leave Europe in a balance of power after WWI. It
was legitimate grievances against British and American heavy-handedness
that allowed Hitler to gain a hearing.

When Warren says that the USA rushed "into the power vacuum left by the
collapse of the Soviet Union", it sounds as if there is about as much
connection between the collapse of the USSR and the US's bid to rule the
world as there is in somebody salvaging the wreck of a 17th century Spanish
galleon that they accidentally ran into off the coast of Florida. In fact,
the imposition of a powerful US military presence in Kosovo, Afghanistan
and now Iraq is directly related to the rise of the US as a hegemonic power
during WWII. The first goal was to smash the USSR; the next was to
establish economic and military domination in a region traditionally
controlled by Great Britain. This has nothing to do with machismo or lack
of machismo. These policies were hammered out by Yale graduates who work
for the CIA and State Department and who would very likely weep
uncontrollably at a Maria Callas Aida performance.

To repeat myself, I find the distinctions between Napoleonic France,
Hitlerite Germany and Bush W. on
one hand and Victorian England and JFK on the other to be overstated. JFK's
showdown with the USSR over Cuba's right to defend herself from invasion
brought this country closer to a nuclear Armageddon than any other time in
our history. Some might attribute this to 'machismo'. I prefer to think of
it as an imperial hegemon acting in its class interests, the rest of the
world be damned. You don't have to be a bible-thumping C student from Texas
to risk humanity in this fashion. You simply have to be committed to
private property and the US's role as king of the mountain.

Louis Proyect, Marxism mailing list: http://www.marxmail.org

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