A critique Immanuel Wallerstein

This chapter first appeared in 1991 as "World system versus world-systems: a critique," in Critique of Anthropology 11 (2).

I wrote my article "The West, capitalism and the modern world-system" (Wallerstein 1992) before I read Andre Gunder Frank's and Barry K. Gills's various recent writings in which they insist that there was no historic transition from anything to capitalism (anywhere, and specifically not in sixteenth-century Europe) because whatever happened in Europe in the sixteenth century was simply a (cyclical?) shift within the framework of an already existing "world system," which has existed (for Frank and Gills) for several thousand years. Frank and Gills refer primarily to a geographic zone, called by some the oikumene, which goes from eastern Asia to western Europe and southward to include at least south Asia, south-west Asia, and northern Africa.

This is an interesting and important thesis, but its argument is directed at me only to the degree that it is directed at anyone and everyone who does not wish to "abandon [the sacrosanct belief in] capitalism as a distinct mode of production and separate system" - apparently so large a group that it includes (dixit various acknowledements) even the "friends" whom they have asked to make "reflective comments" on their papers.

My paper was written not at all contra Andre Gunder Frank and Barry K. Gills but rather contra all those - from Maurice Dobb to E.L. Jones to W.W. Rostow - who believe two things simultaneously: (a) something distinctive occurred in (western) Europe which was radically new somewhere in early modem times; (b) this "something" was a highly positive or "progressive" happening in world history. My position is that (a) was true but that (b) was distinctly not true.

I shall not repeat the detailed argument of my previous paper. But permit me to spell out the logic of my presentation there. Basically, the paper has two parts. First, I sought to establish that most of the traditional ways of distinguishing capitalism from other previous historical systems used weak distinctions in that they did not hold up under the light of empirical investigations. These traditional differentiae specificae included extensive commodity production, profit-seeking enterprises, wage labor, and a high level of technology. I called all these elements "protocapitalism" since, without them as a part of the whole, one couldn't have capitalism. But I argue their presence was not enough to call a historical system a capitalist system.

They were not enough because, I argued, each time the agents who used these elements seemed as if they might be able to go further and create a true capitalist system, they were repressed or destroyed in one way or another. And what then distinguishes a self-sustaining long-lived capitalist system, I asked? To which my answer was that the differentiae specificae was, and was only, that the system was based on a structural priority given and sustained for the ceaseless accumulation of capital. Not, I insist, merely for the accumulation of capital, but for the ceaseless accumulation of capital.

It is my view that such a system was created, initially in Europe in the sixteenth century, and then expanded to cover the entire world. It is my view also that no historical system that ever existed before can be plausibly seen as operating on the principle of structural priority to the ceaseless accumulation of capital.

I made this argument not (I remind readers) in order to counter Frank and Gills but in order to counter all those who regarded such a transformation as a progressive "miracle." That is what brought me to the second half of my article - the attempt to account for the peculiar weakness(es) of western Europe that it permitted such a disaster to occur. I found the weakness in the implausible contemporaneity of four collapses - those of the seigniors, the states, the Church, and the Mongols.

Let me speak to the Mongols issue once again, since Frank reopens it in chapter 6 above. The importance of the Mongols is negative. My argument was that the three other "collapses" were not enough since one might have expected that they would have led, by occurring jointly, to the conquest of western Europe by an external power, which would have ended the possibility of the descent into capitalism. However, since the Mongols "collapsed," this led (through several intervening steps) to the momentary collapse of the world trading system of which Frank speaks, the weakening of its component sectors, and hence the impossibility for anyone to conquer western Europe at that particular moment in time. For one moment in historical space-time, the protective anticapitalist gates were opened up and capitalism "snuck in," to the loss of all of us.

Having restated my position on the "contra-miraculous" nature of the origins of capitalism as a historical system, let me briefly address Frank's own views. In his article (1990), he makes a case for the growth over thousands of years of an interrelated trade network that he calls the "world system." I believe in fact his account is a fairly acceptable initial and partial outline of what had been happening in the world between 8000 bc (or so) up to 1500 ad. I agree that there were many major nodes of political-economic activity, which I prefer to call "world-empires," and that these world-empires entered into long-distance trade (often? regularly? this is still to be demonstrated) with each other. I agree too that these world-empires included in the trading network of the oikumene various zones that were not organized as "world-empires." I even agree that, as a consequence, there may have been some common economic rhythms between them.

However, I do not believe that this trading network at any point of time was based on an axial division of labor involving integrated production processes. And therefore, for me, by axiom they did not form a single historical system, since I use that term to mean precisely something based on an axial division of labor involving integrated production processes. Of course, we may all define terms as we wish. This is the definition I have found useful, since it is the only one that accounts for the lives of limited duration of all these various systems, and for the ways in which they have functioned historically during their lives.

I do not believe that trade alone makes a system. I have tried on at least four occasions (Wallerstein 1973, 1976, 1989: ch. 3; Hopkins and Wallerstein 1987) to spell out the distinction between trade in "luxury" goods and trade in "bulk" goods or "necessities," and to indicate the consequences of the distinction. Even if it is difficult on occasion to draw the line empirically between the two kinds of trade, I continue to believe the distinction to be key analytically. It permits us to distinguish trade within a historical system (primarily in "necessities") and trade between separate systems (primarily in "luxuries"). Because of the technology of transport before modern times and hence because of its high cost, "long-distance" trade had necessarily to be in low-bulk, high-profit goods, and these had to be "luxuries."

Note a detail in word usage that distinguishes Frank and Gills from me. They speak of a "world system." I speak of "world-systems." I use a hyphen; they do not. I use the plural; they do not. They use the singular because, for them, there is and has only been one world system through all of historical time and space. For me there have been very many world-systems. For example, I do not consider that what many historians call China or the Chinese empire has been one system. There have been a number of successive systems in the geographic zone called China. The Han rose and fell. The Tang or the Ming is not the same historical system, even if the geographic location, the outward form (a "world-empire"), and some cultural features were the same. The "modern world-system" (or the "capitalist world-economy") is merely one system among many. Its peculiar feature is that it has shown itself strong enough to destroy all others contemporaneous to it.

This brings us to the hyphen. My "world-system" is not a system "in the world" or "of the world." It is a system "that is a world." Hence the hyphen, since "world" is not an attribute of the system. Rather the two words together constitute a single concept. Frank and Gills's system is a world system in an attributive sense, in that it has been tending over time to cover the whole world. They cannot conceive of multiple "world-systems" coexisting on the planet. Yet until the nineteenth century, or so I contend, this has always been the case.

Far from being Eurocentric, my analysis " wticizes" Europe. Europe is historically aberrant. In some ways this was a historical accident, not entirely Europe's fault. But, in any case, it is nothing about which Europe should boast. Perhaps Europe and the world will one day be cured of this terrible malady with which Europe (and through Europe the world) has been afflicted.

This brings us to the future. For that we have to return to a schematic view of the past. Thus far, I believe, we have had three historical eras on the planet earth. There was the period before 8-10,000 bc about which we still know very little. The world Was probably composed of a large number of scattered minisystems.

Then, there was the period from 8-10,000 bc to circa 1500 ad, There were in this period multiple instances of coexisting historical systems (of the three main varieties: world-empires, world-economies, minisystems). None of them was "capitalist" in that none of them was based on the structural pressure for the ceaseless accumulation of capital. Gloria Deo! As I said, I do not disagree that, among many of the major "world-empires," there was a growing network of long-distance trade. And perhaps this "crowding together" accounts in part for the outbreak of the malady that is capitalism. I say perhaps, because I do not like the ideological implications of this. I prefer my explanation of a fortuitous simultaneity of events. The two modes of explanation are not necessarily incompatible one with the other.

The third period began circa 1500 ad. The aberrant system, our capitalist world-economy, proved aggressive, expansive, and efficacious. Within a few centuries it encompassed the globe. This is where we are today. I do not think it can last too much longer (for my arguments, see Wallerstein 1982). When its contradictions make it no longer able to function, there will be a bifurcation, whose outcome it is not possible to predict. This outcome, however, will be radically affected by small input, hence by our input. The world is neither continuing to inch forward to a perfect oikumene, as some might suggest, nor remaining in a relatively stable state of social imperfection. Just because our inadequate analyses based on nineteenth-century social science are now proving to have badly misled us does not mean we have to fall into a variant of eighteenth-century triumph of universal reason. Just because it is useful to probe more intelligently into the patterns of the pre-1500 era does not mean we may ignore the unpleasant and dramatic caesura that the creation of a capitalist world-economy imposed on the world. Only if we keep the caesura in mind will we remember that this historical system, like all historical systems, not only had a beginning (or genesis), but that it will have an end. And only then can we concentrate our attention on which kind of successor system we wish to construct.


Frank, A.G. (1990) "A theoretical introduction to 5,000 years of world system history," Review 13 (2) (spring): 155-248. Hopkins, T.K. and Wallerstein, I. (1987) "Capitalism and the incorporation of new zones into the world-economy," Review 10 (5/6) (supplement): 763-79. Wallerstein, I. (1973) "Africa in a capitalist world," Issue: A Journal of Africanist Opinion 3 (3) (fall): 1-11.

覧 (1976) "The three stages of African involvement in the world-economy," in P.C.W. Gutkind and I. Wallerstein (eds) Political Economy of Contemporary Africa, Beverly Hills, CA: Sage, 35-63.

覧 (1982) "Crisis as transition," in S. Amin, G. Arrighi, A.G. Frank, I. Wallerstein, Dynamics of Global Crisis, New York: Monthly Review Press; London:

Macmillan, 11-54.

覧 (1989) The Modem World-System, vol. 3: The Second Great Expansion of the Capitalist World-Economy, 1730-1840s, San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

覧 (1992) "The West, capitalism, and the modem world-system," Review 15 (4) (fall): 561-619. Prepared as a chapter in J. Needham (ed.) Science and Civilization in China, vol. 7: The Social Background, pan 2, section 48: "Social and economic considerations" (forthcoming).

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