Interview with Prof. Immanuel Wallerstein. Paris, Maison de Sciences de
lHomme, June 25, 1999.
Interviewers: Anand Kumar, Frank Welz.
Content of this page:
Unit of analysis -- Refusal of culture as a separate domain -- Refusal of derivatism of culture -- Constancy and change -- Methodenstreit -- Historicity -- French Revolution -- Formation of three ideologies -- Dominance of liberalism -- Double-reaction of periphery (Example of Ferhat Abbas) -- Homogenization -- Polarization -- Ethnicity -- Failure of (old) antisystemic movements -- New antisystemic movements -- Complex transition -- Tasks for sociology -- Epistemology -- Culture as a reflection-arena and as a battleground -- Always world-system analysis -- Intellectual biography
Kumar: In the beginning of your analysis of social changes in modern times you started with the colonial context of social changes and from there you moved on to modernization theory and its limits. And then you realized that we can not go forward in the 20th century unless we go backwards. And then you decided that probably the long 16th century is the beginning of a new phase of human societies and experiences. And therefore sociology must go there and then come as far as possible. And in the process you realized that sociology itself is rather weak unless it gets into a broader frame. And you told about the need to have a new approach what will be not only interdisciplinary but unidisciplinary, a new kind of social science. And then sociologists started treating you as a historical sociologist. Now with that kind of journey we would like to understand how do we locate analysis of cultural globalization in the modern social sciences.
Wallerstein: I think what you
described is my search for the appropriate unit of analysis. And what I came to feel some
thirty years ago is that all modern social sciences in the last 150 years has had
explicitly or at least implicitly a unit which was in fact the state. And we assume that
social action occurred within the framework of the states. States had political
structures, states had economy, states had culture, states had unities of various kinds,
and each state was in some sense independent logically and every other states were
following parallel paths. And I came to feel, that didn't make sense, fundamentally didn't
make sense; that that is not where a social action occurred, it occurred within the
framework of larger historical systems which I called world-systems. And then, yes, I
thought that the modern world-system was a break, a significant break from previous kinds
of world-systems and that it took the form of a capitalist world-economy. And that
therefore to understand the modern world and how it operated one had to see it as a
developing historical process of the creation of, a functioning of, and the expansion of a
capitalist world-economy. Initially - I have to say that the word world does not mean the
entire globe, it means a large unit. But in fact one of the characteristics of the
capitalist world-economy is that over seven centuries it expanded to incorporate the
entire globe by the nineteenth century. So I shifted my emphasis to a different unit of
analysis, which was that of the world-system and concentrated my concerns on the modern
world-system which is, as I said, a capitalist world-economy. And now it's true that then
turned me to necessarily some basic epistemological questions. I didn't realize that at
first, initially, but I realized that when I saw I'm getting criticized for not conforming
to various epistemological norms, that I then realized were widespread and oppressive - if
you will - but in any case I thought incorrect. So it is true that I had to turn my
attention then to the questions of what is the discipline, what are the boundaries of a
discipline, what's the logic of a discipline. And then what I now talk of: what are the
structures of knowledge that we have constructed to frame the ways in which we think and
ways in which we teach others to think, which is the university system, and whether they
are adequate. Well, I don't think they're adequate, and I don't think they're correct and
I do think they're breaking down, but that's another story.
So where does world culture fit into all of this? Well, one of the basic things to which I object, about the way social science has in fact been expanded and taught and developed over the last 150 years, is that it accepted an assumption of liberal ideology, that in the modern world the characteristic, the defining characteristic of modernity was the separation of social life into three relatively autonomous spheres, a political sphere centering around the state, an economic sphere centering around the economy and more vaguely a sort of socio-cultural sphere centering around civil society. And these were a) factually separate, b) they ought to be, there was a moral imperative that we should keep them separate, and c) that we therefore had to study their logics separately. So that in fact the major disciplines concerning the study of the modern world have been three: economics studies the market, political science studies the state and sociology studies the civil society. That is the logic, the intellectual logic of this distinction. So where does culture come to fit in? I refuse the idea that culture is a separate domain from the economy and from the political processes. I think one of the major intellectual problems we have is how to evolve a language which will enable us to talk of them as integrated processes and not as separate processes - I see that as a major need of the next 10, 20, 30 years since we all slip linguistically into that.
Kumar: So you have said that culture actually is a trap in which modern world and world-system are arrested and secondly also that culture is a battleground, intellectual battleground in the modern world-system. And therefore it is by definition a derivative result, coming out of these very integral processes. So if you look backwards now, how a student will understand the meaning of culture in the discourse of modern world-system analysis?
Wallerstein: I think derivative is a word which I don't
like and which reflects exactly the point of view against I'm fighting. If there are three
separate spheres than one can ask which sphere is primary? And it is in fact true as a
reflection of the history of the disciplines that there has been a whole school of thought
which has said that the economic sphere is primary, other spheres are derivative, a crude
form of Marxism has always argued that base versus a superstructure. And it is in fact
true that a large number of liberal thinkers have argued about the primacy of the
political sphere and suggested that other things derived from it. So that in a sense in
the nineteen-seventies more or less as a kind of reaction against the large role that both
these views had played in modern social science, a number of people tried to say: no, no,
culture is really the primary sphere and the other spheres are derivative. They sometimes said
this in the negative form of saying: culture is not derivative of the others but in fact culture is a very curious concept. On the one hand when we
talk about culture, we suggest that there is some kind of set of ideas or practices which
are long standing, which are prior to the individuals birth, and which are in some
sense determining what this person is doing. So there is in the word culture as it's
usually been used a sense of historicity and of permanence, of longer permanence. So that
people say, well the economy can change, the state structure can change, but the cultural
underpinnings of the society remain the same. And so the people say, well India is still
different from the Western world, and Southern Europe are different from Northern Europe
and so forth. That on the one hand. And then on the other hand it's quite clear that
culture - we're talking about things that change with such incredible rapidity that it's
astonishing. Take language: languages are after all are normally considered a major part
of what we mean by culture. Language changes every day. The English language is not the
same as it was three days ago, ten years ago. Read a book in the nineteenth century and
you already realize that no one will talk that way today, read a book written in the 16th
century and you realize that it's a little hard to understand, read a book written in the
13th century and you know its another language although it seems to be somewhat
similar. So language is changing every moment. How can that be some long-standing
underpinning. Well, some things change and some things remain the same. Now, this is true
of any cultural sphere. Of music, take music, goodness! People always discuss the fact
that adults, let's say people aged thirty and over, tend to discuss the fact that they do
not understand why their children, fifteen, enjoy the music that they do enjoy which
sounds to them very curious music. They remember other kinds of music from where they were
fifteen and of course their parents have said the same thing. So obviously musical tastes
are constantly changing. And we know that? We write books about it. So here is this
phenomenon that's supposed to be the same always and therefore underpinning other things
and always changing. How can we deal with that? Surely we can't deal with it by making
rhetorical statements, like the primacy of culture. Because we have to understand why it
is constantly changing and this immediately gets us into the so-called economic and
so-called political spheres. Obviously it changes because the power structure changes.
Obviously it changes because it has some meaning in terms of the market either reflecting
changes in it or attempting to seek changes in it. And obviously in turn all these other
spheres are constantly changing. That is we live in a world - we have never lived in any
other kind of world - in which things remain the same and change simultaneously, and which
gets me into the epistemological question.
In the 19th century, more or less about 1750, we have moved in a world of two cultures in which we have argued that there are two epistemologies, there is the epistemology of science and there is the epistemology of the humanities or the philosophy. And on the one hand it's an epistemology which insists that the only way to truth is via experiment, via disprovable hypothesis, etc., just the so-called scientific method, and another sphere which insists, no, the way to truth is through insight, hermeneutic insight, through understanding of particularistic developments as opposed to universalistic generalizations, etc. So we have had this war that is going on for good 200 years. But not before, historically before it was unified, but it was going on for these 200 years. And social sciences have been pulled apart in this what came to be called in the late 19th century this Methodenstreit', the division between the nomothetic and the ideographic epistemologies. I don't think this makes any sense. I think we have to understand how the so-called divorce between science and philosophy came into existence? Why it's been challenged today? Why will it probably go out of existence in the twenty-first century?
But in the meantime, when I come back to my unit of analysis which is the world-system, I say it is a historical system, and I insist on the term historical system. Why? Because the word system reflects the fact that is a continuing structure which repeats itself and the word historical insists that it is changing every moment. And I'm therefore trying to say that any analysis has to simultaneously talk about continuity and change, not as separate categories. Because everything is both - the same and different in every moment. If it weren't the same we couldn't use words about it - if I call this a table it means it shares some characteristics with other tables - any word that I use, any concept I use is a structural concept. On the other hand I know that there are changes. So then we have to say there are changes and changes - some changes are more important than others. And that's what gets us into the idea of a historical system. So if you have that concept you have a historical system it has boundaries. Spatial boundaries, sure, which can change over time. But also temporary boundaries. Systems begin, they live and then they come to an end, these are not eternal phenomena. And therefore we have three intellectual questions about any system: How did it begin, how can we explain the genesis of the system, it's a very particularistic problem concerning a particular moment in the historical time, how did this system come into existence. Question in terms of the modern world-system is the origins of capitalism. Then how does the system function? That's a very structural question. So I can begin to talk about the structures that characterize this system and can argue that from 16th century to today those structures in variation have continued. And then I can talk about the fact that the system is going to come to an end. And therefore I have to understand how it will come to an end, why it will come to an end, approximately when it will come to an end. So it's these three characteristics of a system, of a historical system that are crucial to intellectual analysis.
Kumar: So you have talked about historical capitalism and its six contradictions, where ideology, as it is the essence of culture in your approach, plays the role of legitimizing the dynamics of the system, with both systematic as well as counter systemic movements. So the function of culture is very vital in the world-system approach in terms of the ongoing dynamics of the system. Here a question comes to our mind, that in the context of globalization of culture as it is a globalization of the system, what are the agencies which mediate between various sections of society, and what are the agencies which contribute to the making and changing and maintenance of the cultures?
Wallerstein: I think we have to take this question historically. If I argue that the capitalist world-economy came into existence more or
less in the long 16th century, more or less in what is today Western Europe
plus the Americas plus parts of Eastern Europe and Southern Europe, I'm saying that it was
functioning in the sense that it was an existing division of labor which worked in certain
specific ways which one can elaborate: core areas and peripheral areas, there was a
certain kind of a set of capitalist processes and the primacy of the endless accumulation
of capital. I have to say also that it brought into existence a set of political
institutions which were appropriate for the creation of modern state system and all
wrapped within an inter-state system which is a very different structure from anything
that we have had before. Now the curious thing, perhaps not curious, but the fact is that
as the system came into operation one of the compromises that was used to sustain it and
to keep it from pulling apart was that they talked a language to describe it which was
incorrect and inappropriate. They talked a feudal language from the 16th to the
18th century. They still had aristocracies and privileges and orders and they
justified things in terms of that. So in a sense at the level of the entire system the
cultural language was out of sink with what was actually going on. Now this changes
suddenly and profoundly with the French Revolution.
The French Revolution is not important for France, I know that sounds shocking, but it made relatively little difference to its political structure, it made relatively little differences in the economic structure. What the French Revolution did was change the cultural situation in the capitalist world-economy as a whole. It was the French Revolution that legitimated two ideas which were around before but did not get widespread sanction. Idea number one was that political change is normal. It's not that political change occurs, but that it's normal. Political changes always occurred, but if you look at all the intellectual justifications, prior to the French Revolution for political changes the justifications were that they were not changes. That they were restauration of some situation of an earlier point in time, that they were bringing the system back to its proper function. People argued that the changes were not changes. And all of a sudden people were saying, changes are really changes and changes are normal and changes are good. It's an evolving world. That was a new idea: the legitimacy of political change. And within twenty years it suddenly spread, it was like a jinnee let out of the bottle and you couldn't pull it back in. Then there was a second idea. When the capitalist world-economy begins to function in the 16th century. I said we create a state system. State-system is based on a mythical concept called sovereignty. The mythical concept is that every state is autonomous within its boundaries and there is no area that is not within somebody's boundaries. It's mythical because no state is truly autonomous. But what happened is that we now have a major shift from the idea that the sovereignty resides in the monarch or some aristocracy and that the sovereignty resides in something that you have to put in quotes: "the people". And that absolutely transforms the cultural situation of the capitalist world-economy.
Kumar: You have talked in another context the question of culture has to do with the agency which can create culture and contain it. Then you pointed out that nation-state, ethnic groups and ideological groups, whether religious or political, are the three great creators and containers and where the nation state is the most important and historically most significant container and determinant of culture. In that context we now want to look at the dynamics of cultural globalization and again go back to French revolution to 1968 kind of scenario which is there in your arguments.
Wallerstein: Well, the French Revolutions
consequences: the legitimation of a) the normalcy of change and b) the sovereignty of the
people, of course were extraordinary revolutionary ideas because if the people is
sovereign and change is normal, the people can keep changing a system all the time. And
this is of course very upsetting to people who were in power. So the major - what should I
call it - the major political problem of the world-system after the French Revolution was,
how would it contain the populations within it now that these new ideas had gained
legitimacy. And that's where I think the political ideologies come in. The political
ideologies are created as a response to the legitimacy of these new cultural ideas. It is
no accident that the first political ideology to be created is conservatism. Conservatism
emerges within a year, I mean the two great books, Burkes and de Maistres,
both written in the seventeen-nineties. You didn't have to argue for conservatism before
you had the French Revolution. Suddenly there were people arguing, these ideas are
terrible, they are disastrous, let's stop them, let's push the clock back. That's why we
sometimes call them reactionary ideas. And when conservatism emerges as an ideology saying
the ideas are disastrous, let's push the clock back, let's put our faith in traditional
"institutions", etc. Liberalism comes forward as another ideology; says: no,
that's not the way to handle the situation. What we liberals say is: the ideas are
correct, change is normal, people are sovereign but now we have to implement these ideas
and it has to be done sensibly, rationally, not too fast. And above all has to be done
skillfully. That is we need to have experts, specialists who will decide how to implement
the kinds of changes which are good and inevitable, but only if they are done rationally.
And for a while we just had conservatives in the pulls. But within the liberal faction
emerged a radical faction who said: no no no, let's take it easy. The ideas are good,
progress is inevitable. But who are these specialists and why should we trust them? The
people themselves should promote this change directly and as fast as possible. And so
emerged the pattern of the modern world.
The pattern of the modern world in the 19th and first half of the 20th century has three main ideologies: on the right the conservatives, in the center the liberals and on left the radicals or sometimes they were called the Marxists or the socialists or whatever - the language varies. And basically they were arguing about how to control these dangerous ideas espoused by the dangerous classes, and with what speed one should move. Well, after 1848 the conservatives realized that the idea, that we could just throw these values out, just didn't work. And so they said: ok, we're for change too, but as slowly as possible and with great reflection and after 1848 the radicals said: well it isn't so easy to have a spontaneous revolution. They get put down. That's what happened at 1848. So we better plan for it carefully. Let's create structures and organizations which will somehow take power. And we now get the 1848-on pattern, of the liberals in the center and the radicals and the conservatives on each side of them more or less beginning to espouse a variant of liberal ideas. And we move forward for a long period to the dominance of liberalism, as what I call the geoculture of the world-system because it's a set of ideas which seems to dominate political and intellectual processes throughout the world until of course 1968.
Perhaps, maybe you want me to ask about 1968...
Kumar: Actually I wanted to go back to this whole question of cultural globalization, in the context of these three major forces which mold and remold culture, that is nation-state, ethnic groups and ideological, religious and ideological formations in these times. Because you have talked at one point that in the first exposure of globalization during imperialism-colonialism phase, there were three possibilities for incorporation or so-called assimilation. And they were, either you take religion and with the religion the whole cultural baggage, if religion was resisted, then language and rest of it. And even if the language was resisted then technology. These were three levels of possible incorporation of new areas in expansion phase of these curves or cycles. Now at this point we see that there is an argument that science and the possibility of assimilation within a just democratic discourse will be the solution of the contradictions of capitalist system. And you said that these two have really played in the making and maintaining of the capitalist world-system in spite of a variety of contradictions. So the problem with science as a universalizing element of new global culture and the problem of assimilation I say democracy as the mode of integration of everybody into an emerging new reality. These things have been questioned by you and they make us wonder then about world culture. If science and democracy are both taken out from the alternative scenario then what is left to say that world culture is going to be a better situation than what is this today in terms of nation-states and some kind of a universal interrelation around accumulation network?
Wallerstein: I think we have to look at two simultaneous processes. On the
one hand I've discussed the emergence of the three major ideologies. And in a sense they
spread everywhere and become something which is transnational. There are conservatives,
there are liberals, there are radicals almost everywhere. And get in variations of the
terminology but basically the idea is the same. Because it reflects a problem of the
On the other hand this is a hierarchical system in which some areas are privileged economically and politically over others. And it sometimes took the form of formal colonization, sometimes it was informal, and that's sort of irrelevant. The system was expanding. It was pulling areas into its periphery and it was treating them less well. That is to say less well economically, less well politically, less well socially. So all these areas had in some sense to decide what they would do vis-a-vis the strong centers? How they would react to it? And basically culturally they came up with two opposite solutions. There were those in the colonial world and other peripheral areas who said the secret of our potential, improvement of our situation is to quote "assimilate", to copy to the extent that we can the exact forms of culture, in the larger sense of the term, that seem to work so well. And this could take the form of adopting particular sets of political and economic ideas, it could take the form of religion, either converting to Christianity or, which has to be noticed in the nineteenth century, changing our religion so that they're not too different. So we get forms of Islam and forms of Hinduism and forms of Buddhism and forms of Judaism and so forth which are strangely similar in their theology to forms of 19th century Christianity, which is itself a new version of Christianity. So you can assimilate in many ways, linguistically and so forth.
And then there was another group always at the same time and in all these areas who said: no, that's absolute madness. That just gets us in as junior- partners at best, means that we have to give up what is ours, what distinguishes us. And so we have to be 'culturally nationalist'. We have to reassert our values. We have to show that we are distinct. We have to resume our own languages, we have to reassert our own religions, we have to do things differently. Now the interesting thing is that neither of these tactics work. That in fact if you assimilate you accept the logic of the fact that you are inferior and the best you can do is to try to copy the superior people, so you can never copy them perfectly or they will never say that you have copied them perfectly. So it doesn't work. If you go on a cultural separatist track, what happens is that you find you don't have the skills that are important to in fact operate well within the functioning the world-system which is before them. So, in fact what we can see as a matter of history is that in country after country there has been a zigzag.
There's a very famous case in Algeria, Ferhat Abbas, who - in the nineteen-thirties political leader - has said, I have searched everywhere to see if there's an Algerian people and an Algerian culture. I can't find it. It doesn't exist, I am a Frenchman, all I demand is my rights as a Frenchman. Now it's the same Ferhat Abbas who twenty years later becomes the first President of the Algerian Provisional Government. Because he said, they didn't let me assimilate. They refused in a fact. So the only alternative is total independence for Algeria. So there is kind of a zigzagging in back and forth. We can see it in the tension between Nehru and Gandhi in India, we can see it in the tension today in Iran within the framework of the Khomeini-group, between the successor of Khomeini and the actual president. It is the tension over an impossible problem to resolve or at least in the way that it has been attempted up to now.
Kumar: At the moment we see a new understanding of cultural globalization because of this cyberspace exploration and transnational communication through satellite communication, television, internet etc. Now is this giving you enough basis to say that there is a new wave of cultural globalization since the nineteen-sixties in the context of locating in nineteen-sixty-eight? Or it comes to somewhere like nineteen-eighties which is related with so-called wave of liberalization.
Wallerstein: Well look, for several hundred years now
we have been talking the language of cultural globalization. Obviously one of the
phenomena of the modern world has been the improvement of communication-systems which
means that people can learn faster than they previously learned about things that happened
in far points in the world. And it's particularly fast now with the internet, but you
know, 100 years ago we thought it was very fast with radio and 50 years before that we
were amazed how fast it was with the telegraph-system and 100 years before that we were
thinking that newspapers were this incredible phenomenon. So I don't think it's new. It's
true it's faster. But look what happens: on the one hand you can say, well, America
dominates the world culturally, what evidence would the people give? Well, they would say,
everybody plays American music. Well, at one level that's true, at one level the cultural,
the musical fads of the 30 or 40 years has spread rapidly to the rest of the world where
they listen to this music, seem to enjoy it, listen to it even in English. On the other
hand take a phenomenon like jazz which has now become a world phenomenon. If you listen to
jazz-groups, even in Western Europe but in the rest of the world, what you suddenly notice
is that it's a different jazz. It's the same jazz but it's a different jazz. It's a jazz
that incorporates melodic themes and melodic styles which have had a history in that part
of the world. So in fact, yes it's homogenizing the world, we're all enjoying jazz, and
it's not homogenizing the world, it's exactly the opposite, we have a hundred thousand
kinds of jazz. And indeed that becomes a part of the glory.
So I'm not persuaded that we are in any sense more culturally homogenized today than we were several hundred years ago for the simple reason that we are not economically homogenized and we are not politically homogenized. We are polarized and the polarization is greater than it has ever been. In fact one could make the paradoxical argument that before the modern world - for let's say - take any arbitrary moment in time, in the 12th century different parts of the world were culturally more similar to each other than they are today. It is perfectly true that they spoke different languages, had different religions, etc., they even had different foods, kept their households in different ways, but if you analyze the structure as comparative social scientist like to do, or anthropologists, etc. we see certain kind of patterns which get repeated in almost all these societies. And today precisely because we are in a single system, which is however an extraordinarily polarized system, one of the modes of resistance is to constantly create new rebellious cultural forms. Now the system deals with it in an interesting way. What the people on top of the system do is they incorporate Afro-jazz. Let's go back to jazz. Jazz was not started by English aristocrats but was started by black Americans, right, as a mode of resistance. And what happened was that the white Americans took it over and the wealthy took it over. And than you have to create new forms, you have to constantly - it's a running game to create the new forms of resistance which are then - how should I say - you try to tame them by pulling them in and taking them over: even language. What we think of as the most lower class terms of English today turn out on linguistical analysis, to be the forms of American English that were used by the high aristocracy in the United States in the late 19th century, were then learned by their maids who came from lower class groups, who purveyed back to the lower class groups, who took it over in order to imitate the high aristocracy. As soon as the high aristocracy realized that the lower strata were now imitating them they changed their accent. So it is a constantly changing game and it is about power relation and about polarization etc. In this sense we are far from being unified and homogenized. We're more different than ever, even though we're living within a single geoculture of the world-system.
Kumar: Then will you agree that this process of globalization is also creating simultaneous ethnicisation as some people have argued and therefore the future, as a homogenized future, through cyberspace and with lower level of functions and role of nation-states is not in the making. And we will not really be having twenty-first century as a century with less role for nation-state and more role for something other than nation-state?
Wallerstein: Well, I have to begin to put that question into several points
in time. The so-called process of ethnizisation is not new. It's a
constant of the modern world-system. We had an ideology or a generalized statement which
people have believed, that modernity is the end of ethnicity and therefore ethnicity is
somehow anachronistic and therefore will disappear. So people are surprised today that it
hasn't disappeared and seems indeed to have increased if anything. But that's because that
was just an ideological statement. It wasn't an analytic statement that it will disappear.
Ethnicity is, and has been historically the mode of organizing different strata within
states. It's been imposed from on top and from on bottom, and from on bottom as a mode of
resistance and from on top as a mode of socializing people into lower strata roles -
right. Ethnicity is absolutely arbitrary. The categories are arbitrary. If you trace it in
any given country over 100 years, and you see that even the names change and certainly who
is included in, who is included out. What is constant is that there is an upper stratum
which is given some kind of name and a whole series of lower strata which are ethnic
groups. That's how the system has been functioning.
Now, one of the things that has happened, and that's new, is that there has been a breakdown in the legitimacy of the state-system and of the states. That comes from something that I have not discussed up to now which is the historic failure of the anti-systemic movements that goes back to the ideologies. When the radicals after 1848 said, you can't have spontaneous revolutions, they don't work. We have to organize. They did organize historically. And they organized into several major forms. We have the social movements which broke down historically then into two main varieties - social democrats and communists. We have the national liberation movement in the third world. What all these movements shared, not what distinguished them but what they shared, was a strategy which they evolved in the late 19th century which is - what I call, they called in fact - the two-step strategy: first take power in the state then change the world, because if you don't have power in the state you can't change the world. And the interesting thing is when we compare these movements in the eighteen-seventies and those of 1945 you would say, they're fairly week. They really haven't been able to get anywhere. And all of a sudden from 1945 to the seventies they have blossomed in political strength to such an incredible point that they did in fact take power everywhere: the communist world one third, the Asia, Africa, Latin-America basically in the hand of national liberation movements and in the western world the social democratic parties at least were sharing power. So they suddenly came to power and they could suddenly be judged on the strategy whether they in fact could change the world once they had really achieved state power. And basically I argue that 1968 as a world-revolution was a revolution of those who judged these movements to have failed in their promise to have changed the world.
Now what conclusion therefore culturally did people draw from that? Withdrawing a sense that the movements would in fact change the world if they came to power and therefore that they were in any sense "revolutionary", really, and more than just another political structure. And therefore withdrawing also their sense of legitimacy of the state. Because you see, once you believe that the movements will change the world: in fact it doesn't make you more radical, it makes you more patient. They then say: well, the movements have to come to power and you have to give them time and then they can change the world, etc. So it was verily a very depoliticizing thing.
Now if you lose your faith in that, then you will see no reason why the state-structures which presently look so bad should be sustained, if you don't think that they inevitably going to improve which was what the movements have argued. So I see a real collapse in the legitimacy of the state structures, because of the collapse of the legitimacy, of the belief in, the faith in anti-systemic movements. And that has led to a new kind of ethnicity which isn't really the same at all. It's a very unoptimistic, highly defensive sense of group in a situation in which state power doesn't seem to be on your side. It is in any case collapsing and you have to take back from the state the control of the modes of self defense such as police operation, etc. This is what we're seeing, and we're not seeing it only in the Balkans. We're seeing it in the so-called core-countries or developed countries as well as in the rest of the world. And this is what I think is a major phenomenon of the present and of the next 50 years. But that I again take to be a sign to come back to my business about historical systems of the moment of breakdown of the capitalist world-economy not the moment of normal functioning which we had roughly from about 1500 to about 1950 or 60 or 70.
Kumar: In your writing it seems that 1968 is a great benchmark of the later part of the twentieth century to understand the new economic and new politics. In sociology classrooms we talk about new social movements which were transnational, transideological, and beyond any kind of class boundaries. Where you have women's movement, ecological movement and human rights movement as three dimensions of new global politics or new global political culture. And in your writing also there is some element of underlining about their significance in the making of a new world order or moving on towards better tomorrow vis-a-vis the transition, which is so impending with the breakdown of the legitimacy of state as a central actor.
Wallerstein: Well, the new social movements are new in relations to the old ones obviously. The old ones were, what I have already outlined, basically the social democratic parties, the communist parties and the national liberation movements. And the old ones had the two-step ideology which was centered on taking power in the state. The new movements basically emerge as critics of the old movements, critics in two ways: 1. You left people out. You left us out. You left women out. You left minority groups out, you left all sorts of people out. So even if you brought about reforms they weren't reforms for everybody, you forgot us. That's one kind of critic. And the second is taking state power didn't seem to have worked so maybe we should think about something else, global, local, etc. And maybe we should think about other issues than just 'economic' issues by which people meant wage-issues, organization of work-issues, etc. Now the new social movements pushed this argument. Now, at one level they were very successful. They're very successful if you compare, pick up any newspaper or magazine that considers itself somewhere on the left politically and compare an issue of 1955 with an issue of 1999 and you will see that the complaints of the new social movements are taken seriously in 1999 and they weren't in 1955 or 1965. So in that sense they are successful, they've made their point and people have heard it. On the other hand they've come along and said, we're going to do things in a new way. And it's not quite clear that they have in fact done things in a new way. The green movements are a very good example of that. They were going to somehow not repeat the errors of the social democrats but eventually they had their internal fights and they were taken over by, what I would call, a new variant of social democrats using tactics that are not strongly different from them. They are replacing the social democrats but they are not changing the format. That has been one of the problems with the women's movements as well. So they've had their voice heard but their promise to be truly new has not yet been fulfilled. Which has left a void. People are feeling uncomfortable, there's no question. They are looking. They are talking. Look if I can get back to the idea that the world-system is in crisis: if it's in crisis, if it's collapsing one has to say what are people with power and privilege are going to do. And I can tell you what they're trying to do, that's very clear: they're going to try to figure out how to put into place a new system because the old system is no longer working, that will somehow in a new form reproduce their power and privilege. And since they're a) intelligent b) wealthy and c) powerful - I'm sure they will come up with some very interesting, important structures and ideas and they may, well, succeed. What can run counter to that obviously are movements that would try to transform the world in a more democratic and egalitarian direction. Here I have to bring in the whole idea of the sciences of complexity. What we have learned from them is that when a system, any kind of system, enters a moment of bifurcation and therefore is coming to an end two things happen: the structure becomes chaotic and secondly it becomes one in which small input gets great output as opposed to a normally functioning system in which great input gets small output. That's very important to remember. Because that means that we're going to be in a chaotic, confused situation which is going to be a real struggle about the new order that is going to constructed and in which our behavior really matters. That is to say unlike fifty or a hundred years ago when we worked very hard and organized very hard and in the end it didn't get very far, the revolutions turn out not to be so revolutionary. Now very little input will get very great output. But it's again, if I can use a modern metaphor, it's like sitting at a computer-laptop with one of those squares which if you touch it moves things in various directions. And everyone who has done this knows that they're extremely sensitive and if you touch it by mistake something happens very very quickly and you may regret the something that happened. So you have to be rather careful how you touch that area on the laptop, you have to do it with a certain sureness and a certain knowledge of what you intend. Well, I think the world-system is now a bit like that: every little touch by us in the next twenty to fifty years is going to have a big impact and it may not be the impact we want if we touch it in the wrong way. So we have to talk a lot and think a lot and worry a lot about the ways in which we should in fact make this collective struggle.
Welz: Because the situation in the twenty-first century is so open and because we have this kind of influences, does it mean that we should concentrate on specific elements as sociologists or shall we focus the main structures of this development?
Wallerstein: Well, I think as obviously sociology has long been a study of existing reality with a kind of overlay of social work, of affecting it in some way. So I think we have to really understand what is the contemporary situation and what is new and what is not new. I think that's one of the most difficult things to decide. Secondly I think we have to work hard intellectually on overcoming the concept of the two cultures and deriving a new unified epistemology in the world of knowledge which will enable us to deal with this world. And thirdly I think we have to act collectively as social scientists, as historical social scientists which is the phrase I would use. We have to put away this myth of the uninvolved, value neutral scientist. None of us are value neutral. None of us can be value neutral. It's not even desirable to be value neutral. In fact, the most important thing I would say is to have a collective debate about what constitutes substance of rationality and to try to move the world in that direction. But saying that, of course, I don't therefore think that we should get propagandists for party-structures - quite the contrary: we serve no use in that function. We serve our use as analysts and as critics. But as involved critics in the process of the transformation of the world.
Welz: On the one hand you are arguing for the old culture of the sciences of a unified approach.
Wallerstein: Well, yes I'm certainly arguing for the fact that the so-called divorce between the philosophy and science, and therefore the divorce between the search for the good and the search for the true which was invented as part of the modern world-system and part of the capitalist world-economy and which has let us astray and which is collapsing now. It has to be replaced by a new integrated, epistemologically integrated search for knowledge of the true and the good simultaneously. That has a lot of implications for the organization of knowledge, in the university system, in the disciplines and so forth, which would follow from that but basically it means - I entitled one of my books 'Unthinking Social Science', not rethinking social science but unthinking social science. Because I was arguing in this book that in the nineteenth century we adopted a whole set of ideas which grew out the liberal ideology into a kind of paradigm which has constrained us - it's like blinkers on a horse. We can't see all sorts of things. We have to take off the blinkers. We have to look more widely than we have looked and we have to get out of our system. Some of the ideas which are so strongly rooted there that we hardly notice that. I remind you that I spoke of the problem of refusing the legitimacy of the idea that there were three separate domains of social action - the political arena, the economic arena and the socio-cultural arena, that all these things were implicated and integrated completely. But then we have to develop new kinds of language. It's not so easy. We're brought up on this. We're all trained on this, we all think this way and it keeps coming out. It's coming out in me and I'm struggling against it, so I'm sure it's coming out in other people. This is part of the process of unthinking. And the unthinking will occur in the process of trying to work through what will be a viable epistemology for a reunified world of knowledge.
Welz: Is there any contradiction in this that from my understanding when you
argue for a new science of complex we are, maybe this is a cultural phenomenon too, and
... (Wallerstein: Yes)
On the other hand I think that your main argument is according to world-system theory, that culture is a kind of weapon on the battleground of interest-groups.
Wallerstein: Well, let's say that it's both. A culture is a battleground of interest-groups, and if we transform the society we obviously have to transform the cultural patterns we utilized to analyze the real world. So the battleground is not merely a battleground in the sense that I put forward a cultural claim in order that I make more money or that I get political power, I put forward a cultural claim in order to change the geoculture in order to transform the way people think about the world which will be part of the process of transforming everything else in the social-orders since they're all deeply interlinked and can't be separated. So I don't find a problem with that. I never understand it when people say that I'm not interested in culture. I'm centrally interested in, what most people call, culture which is sets of ideas which we utilize to analyze the world-system of knowledge, language, religion, the arts, all of these are modes of organizing our collective life which reflect and are reflected in all the other arenas. I mean the concept of market is a cultural idea and we have cultural beliefs about the market which are in fact analytically untrue and which is one of the constraints on how we operate. The concept of political sovereignty is a cultural idea and it's a very forceful one and we believe in it and we act on it and in other historical systems they didn't have the concept of sovereignty. And they had other sets of ideas which organized the world in different ways. So it's not, the whole business of ideas, how should I say - the fight over primacy is a non-fight because there aren't separate arenas, it's a single unified arena which expresses itself. And I'm not sure that it is even useful to use the words economy, polity and culture. But we haven't got better ones for the moment. And we bequeath these words but I don't want to verify them and I don't want to exaggerate their meaning and I certainly don't want to be naive about saying that, you know, that if we change the culture we can then do something in some other arenas, so these are all part of a single process.
Welz: In one of your articles about this topic you wrote 'Some return to God others look to culture or identity'. Does it mean for us that we should not study culture because it's useless for understanding the world situation?
Wallerstein: No, not at all. But I'm being critical of how some people use
the concept of culture. They're using the concept of culture and the belief in culture as
a kind of fetish in the same way that some people use the concept of God as a fetish,
which as all fetishes keeps us seeing what's real, what's really going on. So if we talk
about cultural studies in the last thirty years because that's come to be a phrase that
people use and I suppose they feel the domain in which the people recognize themselves. Of
course this is a very wide group of people. And people do cultural studies in many
different ways and some of that I think is terrific and some of that I think is nonsense
and some of it I think is in between. So I certainly don't say, you shouldn't study
culture. I feel I've studied culture all my life in the same sense that people use the
Normally I think that my earliest writings talk about culture. In my first book about Africa I was talking about the ways people were writing history. That is a cultural phenomenon and pointing out the issues that have been debated in post-colonial Africa or late-colonial Africa about how to think about their own history. That's a cultural issue. So of course you have to study that, I always have, I always will. But I don't like the term cultural studies because it verifies the whole concept that there is something special and separate and different - cultural studies. I am engaged in world-systems analysis, that is to say that I study world-systems in all their forms and expressions as integrated systems. And I have to therefore understand how the state-system works and how the division of labor works, how the structures of knowledge works and the household-systems operate and so forth. In fact I've studied all of those things specifically and my research center has studied all of those things specifically and I never felt I was moving from one field to another. I was engaged in world-system analysis all that time
Welz: Because the time was running so fast on the one hand and on the other hand because of the needs of our interview, we'd like to ask you about your biographical ... career.
Kumar: The last component, which should be like the scheme like a self statement about your scholarly journey.
Wallerstein: Well fine. As a young person I was very interested in politics, in American politics and also in the third world, I was very interested in India actually in my teens. It was still the major colonial movement. I got interested in Africa because I actually went there, I did this in a non scholarly form originally. I went to a youth-congress that happened to be held in Africa. And I decided, o.k. I would focus on Africa as the zone of my intellectual activity and I did that for some ten, fifteen, twenty years. At a certain point I realized that I was, in my own phrase, running after the headlines and that didn't seem to me to be very sensible. And I had a bad idea which turned out to be definitively good. My bad idea was: if that are new nations they must be following the same pattern as earlier new nations and who are the earlier new nations? I decided, well that must be England and France and other countries in the sixteenth century. So I better go back and look at them in order to understand Africa. When I went back of course I began to realize that the whole way of thinking about this was wrong and that developed into beginning to write the Modern World-System, see it as a world-system. And so initially I thought I was engaged in changing the unit of analysis and of doing a sort of historical sociology of this system. I then discovered as I began to present myself that I was attacked, often not on empirical grounds. People wouldn't say, you're wrong in your description of this or that, not in any important way. They would say your methodology is wrong, it's not disprovable hypothesis, they would give me a kind of Popperian critic, you don't have specified theories etc. So I began to realize that I had to tackle the epistemological questions. I also began to realize that I had to look into the varied institutional structures, like households for example, structures of knowledge. So that got me moving into more and more domains but specifically it moved me from just looking at the modern world-system as a sort of historical system into the issue of genesis, which I've written about, and collapse. And then at some point, I mean I have been influenced by Braudel on longue durée, I was influenced by Prigogine on the sides of complexity and the concepts of bifurcation. First time I heard Prigogine speak, and I didn't even know who he was at that point in time, I said My God, these are ideas that are expressing what I have been feeling but I didn't know how to express them. And I felt an immediate resonance and so I began to study all this. And I now feel I use it a lot. So I'm concerned with the collapse of the current world-system and therefore at the same time the collapse of the structure of knowledge that's underlying that. That moved me towards the project which became that of the Gulbenkian-commission on the restructuring of the social sciences. It was an attempt to analyze how social science came to be the way it was, where it was going, and where it might be going better. And so presently what am I writing about? Well, on the one hand I'm not writing really very much about Africa anymore because that's gotten absorbed into writing about, I'm still continuing the attempt to describe, what happened historically to the capitalist world-economy. I've only written three volumes of that, I'm into the fourth volume, it'll be at least five. And I have been writing constantly and regularly about what's going on at the present moment, why it isn't globalization but transition to a new world-system that I've been discussing with you. And I have been writing about what's going on in the world of knowledge and I've discussed with you: the collapse or the breakdown of the two cultures, the fight against it and so forth, the reorganization that would come as a consequence. So I have to do all these things simultaneously. Well, everybody else has to do these simultaneously, but I'm describing my own itinerary. And of course 68 did play an important role personally, because I was involved in it as a young professor at Columbia University and I was very active during the events. But 68, I guess, helped purge the last of the liberal premises which I had imbibed in my own education, which everybody else had imbibed, but since it was such an anti-centrist-liberal revolution it opened my eyes to how deep were the assumptions, were buried in me as well as in other people and I have just tried to work that up more explicitly in my own thinking sense. So 68 was important and the current collapse - I think that it is a collapse, I've tried to explain that in 'Utopistics' and in other books - is preoccupying me. Therefore, the questions aren't only what is happening but what to do about what is happening.
Kumar: Thank you very much, Sir.