Last week, someone described as “one of the greatest social theorists of our time” appeared on campus, bearing a joyful message that surely brought warmth to the heart of every radical on this campus: in 30 years, the capitalist system will not exist. To prove such a statement would be a tall order for anyone, but perhaps “the greatest social theorist of our time” could fill it, and indeed the speaker, one Immanuel Wallerstein, did try to make such an argument.
I assume that Wallerstein did not solicit the embarrassingly obsequious title of “greatest social theorist of our time,” though judging by his ideas, perhaps it is accurate, considering that the term “social” has since come to mean “Marxist” and the term “theorist” has since come to mean “activist.” In any case, the content of Wallerstein’s speech solidly refutes the notion that he deserves any award other than the prestigious PWIMIDATE (Professor Who Is Most In Denial About The Eighties) award, for which he might have to fight Noam Chomsky.
It speaks volumes that the original headline of the article in question was mistakenly “Renowned Socialist speaks at Wesleyan”—a title which is not altogether inaccurate, considering that Wallerstein’s theory of the capitalist world economy, as described by the article, reads like some demented nightmare fresh from the mind of Josef Stalin. The article explains that Wallerstein’s theory “stratifies nations into the core (exploiters), the semi-periphery (exploiters that are also exploited), or the periphery (exploited).” Such talk of “exploitation” certainly recalls the tired, old rhetoric of socialist leaders, and Wallerstein’s ties to the anti-globalization movement suggest strongly that, even if he is not a socialist, he is hardly a supporter of capitalism.
In any case, if Wallerstein is a socialist, I find it exceedingly amusing that he has the gall to talk about exploitation, when the only historical examples of full-scale socialism have involved horrendous levels of social repression and, sometimes, slave labor as a necessary mechanism for the continuation of the socialist system (see Josef Stalin’s Gulags, Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward, Che Guevara’s Firing Squads and Hugo Chavez’s recent suppression of freedom of the press for examples).
However, setting aside the repellant nature of what Wallerstein may believe, let’s consider what he actually believes. There is an obvious problem with Wallerstein’s ideas about the “core” and “periphery,” which is that he never gives a concrete definition of “exploitation,” and so his statement could be applied to pretty much any situation, even one in which the medium of currency exchange is puppies. Then again, perhaps the article’s writer simply did not have the space to give a concise and precise definition of every element of Wallerstein’s ideology, hence the vagueness. Knowing that this could be the case, I took the liberty of checking the Wikipedia entry on Wallerstein. I discovered that his actual argument is that the “core” and “periphery” are actually elements of a complex multinational division of labor that systematically creates unequal trade agreements between countries. According to Wallerstein, this division of labor will never be altered, but will always lead to unequal treatment (“exploitation”) and, as such, must be abolished in the name of equality, social justice, etc. etc.
On the microeconomic level, Wallerstein has a point. It is true that, economically speaking, not everybody can be rich. Disparities in income are essential to illuminate the actual value of money, hence the concept of inflation; or, to put it more simply, some people have to work at McDonald’s.
However, Wallerstein is making a very grave error when he assumes that the same people will always be at a disadvantage, no matter what advancements take place. Chile stands as a living counterexample to his statement, as do China, India and every other developing country that once was impoverished but now is on its way up, thanks to the rising tide of trade liberalization. Of course, one can’t expect Wallerstein to acknowledge this, since he’s first in line to receive the PWIMIDATE.
This brings me to a larger point about Wallerstein’s ideas: they’re simply out of date. Wallerstein sees what he calls “liberalism” as on the way out because of the “World Revolution,” an event that has made the U.S. spiral into decline, even after 40 years of change (in the same way that we’ve never invented cell phones and Richard Nixon is still President). Wallerstein may have plugged his ears and hummed since 1968, but that doesn’t mean that nothing has changed since then.
To begin with, though we are embroiled in a war that many people see fit to compare to Vietnam, the Iraq War is by no means identical to Vietnam (except insofar as radical leftists wanted to sabotage both for political gain). Moreover, and perhaps most damningly for Wallerstein’s apparently anti-capitalistic hopes, communism has been crushed, as has its ideological mini-me, socialism. Only Latin American tyrants and sociologists, neither of which are credible sources outside of the Ivory tower, still attempt to resurrect either system.
Finally, though Wallerstein appears to see the rising of “forgotten peoples” such as blacks, women and gays as indicative of the end of American society, he apparently has neglected to notice that (with the exception of the gay rights movement) these movements have run their course, now having been relegated to the outer peripheries of Hegelian-Gramscian madness. And even if Wallerstein is correct in saying that gays, women and blacks have risen up, that does not necessarily imply the fall of capitalism.
If anything, capitalist ideology—with its truly egalitarian emphasis on color-blind, gender-blind, sexual-orientation-blind merit—can crush every last trace of prejudice in its persistent search for higher profits. Could socialism do the same? Perhaps, but considering that “National Socialism” lead to the extermination of six million of my kind, I remain skeptical.
In the end, I have only one source of agreement with Wallerstein, which is that we must make a “moral choice about what to support.” I know I’ll take my stand with capitalism, but hey, what do I know. I’m not the “greatest social theorist of our time”!