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Some, however, suggest a weakness in dealing with potential counter-arguments. He could have simply pointed to the negative long-term consequences of modern agricultural methods, but instead tried to raise doubts about their current utility as well. His thesis does not require him to refute all advantages of capitalism, yet he sometimes treats this as his task, to his own detriment. Another issue is how he deals with historical evidence.

As a self-described political sociologist, Wallerstein makes no claim to be a historian.


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Nevertheless, as an academic he has a responsibility to remain true to the evidence at hand. This burden is not always realized. He never provides sources for the facts he cites and occasionally makes unsubstantiated claims, such as his argument that 15th century elites may have deliberately created capitalism as an inegalitarian system to pre-empt harmful trends towards economic equality. Ideas published in a book inherently gain legitimacy in the eyes of the public, so a claim this radical should not be promulgated without some evidence of this class-based intentionality.

Nevertheless, the most popular criticisms of his book are misplaced. Many critics see it as failing to consider the vast cultural differences contained in the periphery.

Historical Capitalism With Capitalist Civilization 3 - iqegumybiwyf.ml

This is undeniably true, but only because homogenization is the essence of his project. Wallerstein wants to transform a system as vast and layered as global capitalism into a more understandable model so that the reader can step back and view it in its entire systemic form. Criticisms of this approach are tantamount to denying that such models should not exist — an argument that can be made, but one that rings hollow when one considers how imperative it is that the public understand the insidious ways in which capitalism can operate.

Similarly, arguments that his approach is core-centric, while true, simply reflect the extent to which Europe has dictated sometimes by force the implementation of the global capitalist system. There is a place for a book that accedes to these criticisms and tracks how exactly the history of capitalism differs across the globe. However, Historical Capitalism with Capitalist Civilization is not trying to be that book.

Instead, it is a highly illuminative investigation of the ways that the core states — and specifically their producer classes — manage to dictate capitalist operations across this globe, and the many inherent contradictions that will lead to its end. While Wallerstein has issues with overreach and accuracy, he handily achieves his ultimate purpose of portraying capitalism as a unique temporally and spatially bound system. Book Review. By Sam Hull. Image Credits: Diego Rivera.

The core did not need to invoke its latent force to remain in control, because each transaction was already inherently unequal. Unequal exchange is an ancient practice. What was remarkable about capitalism as a historical system was the way in which this unequal exchange could be hidden; indeed, hidden so well that it is only after five hundred years of the operation of this mechanism that even the avowed opponents of the system have begun to unveil it systematically.

Rather, the apparatus of force came into play only when there were significant challenges to an existing level of unequal exchange. One accumulates capital in order to accumulate more capital. Capitalists are like white mice on a treadmill, running ever faster in order to run still faster. In the process, no doubt, some people live well, but others live miserably; and how well, and for how long, do those who live well live? The more I have reflected upon it the absurd it has seemed to me. Not only do I believe that the vast majority of less well-off materially than in previous historical systems but, as we shall see, I think it can be argued that they have been politically less well off also.

So imbued are we all by the self-justifying ideology of progress which this historical system has fashioned, that we find it difficult even to recognize the vast historical negatives of this system. Even so stalwart a denouncer of historical capitalism as Karl Marx laid great emphasis on its historically progressive role. Even where particular state constitutions paid ideological lip service to constraints deriving from religious or natural law doctrines, they reserved to some constitutionally-defined body or person the right to interpret these doctrines.

The three instances are the hegemony of the United Provinces Netherlands in the mid-seventeenth century, that of Great Britain in the mid-nineteenth, and that of the United States in the mid-twentieth. In each case, hegemony came after the defeat of a military pretender to conquest the Hapsburgs, France, Germany.

The basis of the victory was not however military. The primary reality was economic: the ability of accumulators of capital located in the particular states to outcompete all others in all three major economic spheres — agro-industrial production, commerce, and finance. The word movement implies some collective thrust of a more than momentary nature.

Historical Capitalism

In fact, of course, somewhat spontaneous protests or uprisings of workforces have occurred in all known historical systems. They have served as safety-values [sic] for pent-up anger; or sometimes, somewhat more effectively, as mechanisms that have set minor limits to exploitative process. Labor-socialist movements have found that nationalist themes were central to their mobilization efforts and their exercise of state power. But nationalist movements have discovered the inverse.

In order to mobilize effectively and govern, they had to canalize the concerns of the work-force for egalitarian restructuring. As the themes began to overlap heavily and the distinctive organizational formats tended to disappear or coalesce into a single structure, the strength of anti-systemic movements, especially as a worldwide collective whole, was dramatically increased. It was that of universalism.

Karl Marx said that religion was the opiate of the masses. Raymond Aron retorted that Marxist ideas were in turn the opiate of the intellectuals. There is perspicacity in both these polemical thrusts. But is perspicacity truth?

I wish to suggest that perhaps truth has been the real opiate, of both the masses and the intellectuals. On the contrary, meritocracy reinforced hierarchy. Finally, meritocracy as an operation and scientific culture as an ideology created veils that hindered perception of the underlying operations of historical capitalism. Historical systems however are just that — historical. They come into existence and eventually go out of existence, the consequence of internal processes in which the exacerbation of the internal contradictions lead to a structural crisis.

Structural crises are massive, not momentary. They take time to play themselves out. Historical capitalism entered into its structural crisis in the early twentieth century and will probably see its demise as a historical system sometime in the next century. What will follow is hazardous to predict. The system may prolong its life by slowing down some of the activities which are wearing it out, but death always looms somewhere on the horizon.

The idea of progress justified the entire transition from feudalism to capitalism. It legitimated the breaking of the remaining opposition to the commodification of everything, and it tended to wipe away all the negatives of capitalism on the grounds that the benefits outweighed, by far, the harm. One might arguably suggest that the opposite is true. I seek to paint no idyll of the worlds before historical capitalism. They were worlds of little liberty, little equality, and little fraternity.

The only question is whether historical capitalism represented progress in these regards, or regression. Is not the industrial worker strikingly better off today than in ? The industrial worker, yes, or at least many industrial workers.

Historical Capitalism ; with, Capitalist Civilization

They eat less well, and certainly have a less balanced diet. They unquestionably work harder — more hours per day, per year, per lifetime. And since they do this for less total reward, the rate of exploitation has escalated very sharply. Let me be clear. Both the dominant position of men over women and generalized xenophobia were widespread, virtually universal, in prior historical systems, as we have already noted. But sexism was more than the dominant position of men over women, and racism more than generalized xenophobia. Sexism was the relegation of women to the realm of non-productive labor, doubly humiliating in that the actual labor required of them was if anything intensified, and in that productive labor became in the capitalist world-economy, for the first time in human history, the basis of the legitimation of privilege.

This set up a double bind which has been intractable within the system. Racism was not hatred or oppression of a stranger, of someone outside the historical system. Quite the contrary, racism was the stratification of the work-force inside the historical system, whose object was to keep the oppressed groups inside the system, not expel them. It created the justification of low reward for productive labor, despite its primacy in the definition of the right to reward.

It did this by defining work with the lowest remuneration as remuneration for the lowest-quality work. This double bind was equally intractable. Since biology was in any immediate sense unchangeable socially, we had seemingly a structure that was socially-created but was not amenable to social dismantling. This was of course not really so.

What is true is that the structuring of sexism and racism could not and cannot be dismantled without dismantling the entire historical system which created them and which has been maintained in critical ways by their operation. Hence, in both material and psychic terms sexism and racism , there was absolute immiseration. Instead, the correct basic image is that historical capitalism was brought into existence by a landed aristocracy which transformed itself into a bourgeoisie because the old system was disintegrating.

If this new image is correct, however, it radically amends our perception of the present transition from capitalism to socialism, from a capitalist world-economy to a social world-order. They were not structures external to the historical system but the excretion of processes internal to it.

Hence they have reflected all the contradictions and constraints of the system.

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They could not and cannot do otherwise. Their faults, their limitations, their negative effects are part of the balance-sheet of historical capitalism, not of a hypothetical historical system, of a socialist world-order, that does not yet exist. It is the avatar of all our religious eschatologies: the coming of the Messiah, the second coming of Christ, nirvana. It is not a historical prospect, but a current mythology. Socialism, by contrast, is a realizable historical system which may one day be instituted in the world.

It seems to have declined in the South as well in the twentieth century, although whether this is true in periods of stagnation in the world-economy or only true of the periods of expansion is less clear. We know that, in the industrialized countries, those aged sixty or older have a greater ability to survive ailments than previously because of advances in medical technology. These two changes — decline of infant mortality and extension of life for those who have reached sixty years — account for a large part, even perhaps all, of the increased average longevity.

War is quite clearly not a phenomenon particular to the modern world-system. On the other hand, once again the technological achievements of capitalist civilization serve as much ill as good. One bomb in Hiroshima killed more people than whole wars in pre-modern times.

Alexander the Great in his whole sweep of the Middle East could not compare in destructiveness to the impact of the Gulf War on Iraq and Kuwait. And this surplus-value has been distributed amongst a far larger percentage of the population than in any previous historical system.


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  • Before , in the various historical systems that existed, there was almost always a rich or richer stratum. But, before , this stratum was extremely small in size. Symbolically we may refer to one percent of the population, though in some cases the percentage may have been larger. In capitalist civilization, the number of persons who have shared in the surplus-value has been much larger. This is the group referred to as the middle classes. They are a significant stratum. But it would be quite in error to exaggerate their size.

    It raises the question of who has decided what scientific risks were worth taking, and what have been the consequences in terms of the power structures of the world. Has not capitalist civilization offered the world the first flourishing of a universalizing model of freedom? Is not the very concept of the legal and moral priority or human rights an invention of the modern world?