Mark Saey | Civiclab

2.3. One world.

To after the Christmas holidays get back on track as fast as we could, we went to a march of undocumented migrants, refugees and several civil society organisations in Brussels.

Why the march? (Flyer)

‘We, the people without legal residence, we are here. In this city. In this country. We live here. Our home is here. We even went to school and had trainings here before we were declared “illegal”. We work here, in the illegal circuit, because we have no other option. Some of us have been here for already a very long time. Six, seven, eight years, these are no exceptions. Meanwhile they lock us up in jails, even our children are being imprisoned. We are being randomly taken out of our homes, from the streets, the tram, our – black – shop floor. Ever more, again. Many of us simply can’t return to their country of origin. That is why we urgently demand a different asylum and migration policy. Concretely: an immediate stop to the random arrests, lock ups and deportations. Regularisation on clear and humane criteria.’

Mark Saey | UDEP A'pen | Civiclab

From a student’s diary:

‘Not only people without legal residence took to the streets. Also many others came to show their solidarity. As we did. All these different nationalities united on one square, looked like a colour box. I enjoyed this special cosmopolitan atmosphere surrounding the “Groenplaats”. And then … then we started to march and walked through Antwerp’s inner city, alongside a thousand people sharing the same opinion. The group feeling was overwhelming. With a smile unity was accomplished … if only everything on this earth could be done like that. Social change doesn’t happen overnight, one has to fight for it! And we did protest, with words, all together: “Nous ne sommes pas dangereux, nous sommes en danger! Regulariser tous les sans papiers!” (We aren’t dangerous, we are in danger! Regularise all “illegals”!) The slogans resounded through the streets and were written on the several signs people carried with them. (…) After a lot of cheering and sharing sympathy we arrived at a little square where the thousand of us could barely fit on. Many seemed to have coloured papers with them on which were written the stories of deported friends and family members. These papers were hung on a climbing frame with gift ribbons. I also hung one there and than quietly sat down and enjoyed this beautiful moment while strong speeches were held by union representatives and others. The frame made me think of our one world connecting all.’ (JWW, p.217-218)

The third step in the Analysis, for the courses History and Geography, was to answer the questions about the causes of the different global problems that cause so many people to flee. To answer those one needs a general understanding of the development of the modern world. This was taught on the basis of the following text material.

From Modernization to World-systems analysis.[1]  

  1. Modernization theory

For a long time most social scientists agreed that every country had its own independent development. This development followed a general pattern. Every country started its development from a primitive or traditional start-phase and then went through a preparation phase to a take-off then industrial phase and finally arrived as a developed consumer society. This generally accepted theory was called modernization theory or the theory of progress. The most well-known examplarary work in this tradition was the famous theory of Walt Rostow written down in his The Stages of Economic Growth (1960) subtitled A Non-Communist Manifesto – which wasn’t all that surprising since it was written during the Cold War when the US as a consumer society was far more developed than the USSR).

Mark Saey | Theory of progress | Civiclab

According to modernization theory all countries found themselves in different phases of a same pattern of development. They all were headed towards mass consumption on the road of progress to become like the USA. This theory had its impact on the ideas and plans to aid the “developing countries”. Did a country find itself lagging behind then it had to try and copy the policies of the countries that were ahead. Then it would soon realize the same kind of progress. This reflected – not surprisingly – the self-esteem of the rich “developed” countries. The fact the developing countries lagged behind was explained by their lack of technological innovation, free market economy, work ethic, science and civilization. It was generally thought their culture was inferior or insufficiently western. Their lagging behind was, all things considered, their own fault. The developing countries simply had to adapt themselves as soon and fast as possible or in the talk of those decades: “modernize” if they wanted the aid of the international community (the World Bank and IMF in particular).

These kind of grand theories give people a view of the world that influences education and the way people in general think about themselves and their society> They construct the structure of social thought. For instance, modernization theory showed people an image of the world divided in several different and independent countries, each with their own society. In school children would learn, in History or Geography (or from any and every teacher), about the history of their own country as it hurdled down the road of progress. That way they learned to see themselves als primarily and often exclusively “nationals” – as Belgian, German, American, Ghanean, and so on. The world was a stage on which one could see societies on a ladder of progress: at the top the modern ones, at the bottom the primitive or retarded ones.

These opinions remained – although soon there would rise protest within the social sciences as more countries in the real world became politically independent – common beliefs for still decades to come. In 1994 the Dutch mathematician and

physicist Wim Rietdijk could still write: ‘Human rights, individual freedom and a rational system of values are that much a result of the general technical-industrial development that is part of the “modern project”, that this project has every moral right to present itself in most respects as the example. To claim next to technical-industrial superiority also moral superiority over the oceans of corruption and poverty caused by the inefficiency, stand-still and group privileges in the Third World.’ (in: Cauwenberg S.W. (red.): Westerse cultuur: model voor de hele wereld?, Kampern: Kok Agora)

2. Dependencia

Although modernization theory in the West remained the dominant worldview, in the late sixties begin seventies some intellectuals in the South began to ask critical questions leading to a full blown critique showing the theory of progress misrepresented the world. The posed questions like: If all countries are making progress why then life in so many countries is getting worse? If all countries follow a similar pattern how is it then that the US, being a very young state, could find itself ahead of the UK in such a short time? Can countries somehow skip stages then? And if so, why should Third World countries try to copy the development of the Western countries? If in the rich countries life on the road of progress becomes ever more rational, how to explain the resurgent nationalist spirit in those countries? And so on.

These critical scientists, the most well known Andre Gunder Frank (who coined the phrase “the development of underdevelopment”), exposed modernization theory as ideology more than science. Most of all it was criticized for not paying due attention to colonialism and neocolonialism – long since independent states in the South still being economically exploited and internationally suppressed and manipulated politically by the North.

Underdevelopment in the eyes of the critics was not so much a question of traditionalism or backwardness but of dependence (hence the name dependency or dependencia theory). During the period of colonialism the economies of the South were organized so that they served the needs of the North: as cheap shops for resources and labor, exporters of agricultural products (monocultures) and importers of expensive finished products coming from the North. Neocolonialism keeps this relationship of development of underdevelopment going in spite of the formal independence of the Southern countries by securing the powerful in the South execute policies favorable to the North and a tiny rich minority in their own countries.

Mark Saey | Unequal exchange | Civiclab

The critics thus showed that countries don’t develop independently bu are parts of a larger whole wherein there exists a relation of dependence between rich and exploited poorer countries. That of course changes the explanation and the judgment over underdevelopment in the world. The theory of progress was called racist and blamed for only helping the wealthy countries and their multinational corporations to stay in power. And, on top of that or so one can add, anthropological research showed that the cultures in the former colonies often were far more “rational” than most believed.

But the dependencia analyses also had some shortcomings. It is not so that all countries in the “South” stay as poor or become poorer. Countries in the “North” in history also lost power and status. What’s more, not all countries fit into either the rich (metropol) group either the poor (peripheral) group. Quite some form a third category unidentified by the dependency theorists. The critique that modernization theory lacked an understanding of colonialism was correct, but the image of the world should be much more dynamic and diversified. Also other, especially political and cultural phenomena escaped the attention or theory of the dependistas. These shortcomings kept modernization theory a live since it could point them out time and again.

  1. World-systems analysis

At the beginning of the eighties other critical researchers reworked the ideas of the scientists from the South. Inspired also by French historians researching economic developments on the long term and by the best work Marxism still had to offer, they would construct a global view on world-history.

Their global perspective is called world-systems analysis (WSA). The founder of the research tradition is Immanuel Wallerstein, author of Historical Capitalism (1993, N.Y.: Verso) and the now four volume long The Modern World-System (1972-2011, N.Y./San Diego: Academic Press/UCP). In the course of two decades more new developments can change scientific disciplines, but WSA caused a real earthquake in the social scientific world-view that hasn’t ended yet.

First of all, WSA agrees with dependencia that countries or nation-states are but parts of the real society. Thanks to the focus on globalization this insight is now finally gaining ground. But according to WSA globalization is no new phenomenon but something that has been going on for hundreds of years. This means social thought over the past 200 years was on a wrong track, meaning the modern worldview lacks the possibilities for a profound understanding of humanity’s future.

In this broad confrontation with modern social thought WSA also shares the dependistas critique that – by paying hardly any attention to colonialism – modernization theory indeed is an example of what the geographer Blaut has in the nineties, on the basis of research into history handbooks, aptly and without hesitation called The Colonizer’s Model of the World (1993, N.Y.: The Guilford Press).

But WSA also differs from dependencia. It has, as we shall explain shortly, that more dynamic and diversified view of modern world-history to handle the shortcomings of dependencia. Next to that WSA unites the different social scientific disciplines in a unidisciplinary way. Social reality is one indivisible whole making economics inseparable from sociology, political science and history. WSA’s approach transcends the opposition between the focus in the particular or temporal of the historian and the concentration on what stays the same of the social scientist. To WSA reality is both historical and structural. That’s why it calls its research objects “historical social systems”.

Mark Saey | Civiclab | Historical-Capitalism
Mark Saey | Colonizer's model of the world

3.1. Historical social systems

World-systems analysts look at societies as historical social systems: wholes with a beginning and ending in time and space. The geographical boundaries are determined their division of labor: all the work needed to keep the system going. There have been three sorts such systems in world history.

3.1.1. Mini-systems (one economy, one political system, one culture)

This is the WSA name for what are traditionally known as primitive societies. Integrating the work of the anthropologists on the rationality of their cultures world-systems analysts no longer use that name. These social systems indeed had (according to modern standards) little technical means – some agriculture, hunting and gathering, simple housing, shorter life expectancy – but they often were rather democratic in their group decisions and also had a far more nature respecting way of life than the kind we have nowadays.

Essential to the structure of these mini-systems is that their division of labor had one political overarching structure and one culture. Not that one didn’t trade with other social systems or that there were no contacts but these were for ‘luxury reasons’ rather than out of necessity. Most social systems in history were mini-systems. Still our genetic structure is partly inherited from the way of living in those systems. The last was to disappear at the beginning of the 20th century.

3.1.2. World-empires (one economy, one political system, multiple cultures)

These historical systems (the Aztek Empire, the Roman, Chinese, …) also had one division of labor and one political system – wherein everyone partly worked to produce a surplus for the political core that afterwards was distributed amongst cadres of the system, hence the name redistributive world-empires) but they had multiple cultures within their geographical boundaries. For example Germania and Egypt at one time both were part of the Roman Empire but had very different habits and morals than the ones common in Rome. The last world-empire was to disappear in the 20th century.

3.1.3. World-economy (one economy, multiple political systems, multiple cultures)

Until today there has been but one historical social system that was capable of encapsulating the entire planet. The modern world-system or historical capitalism. This also has one single division of labor but contrary to mini-systems and world-empires also multiple political units or subsystems (states in an interstate system). Contrary to mini-systems but like world-empires it has multiple cultures within its borders.

This system did not come into existence during the 18th or 19th century (with the Industrial Revolution beginning in England as modernization theory would have it) but in the long 16th century.

3.2. The modern world-system

3.2.1. Structure

Our society originated in the long 16th century when, during the crisis of the feudal system, al large part of the land lords (the nobility) transformed itself into capitalists that would produce for the world market. Fundamental was that they could do this across national borders. Contrary to mini-systems and world-empires, this modern system would function without a political center capable of keeping in check the economic powers: one world-economy, multiple national states. In some other parts of the world the were other beginnings of capitalism but none was to achieve what in Europe developed with the aid of what conquests in South America delivered: cheap resources, silver and gold, produced with forced labor. Rich Europeans succeeded in   subjugating the local population, often forcing it to slave labor for their profits. In the rich zones of this world-system strong states would develop, in the poorer zones weak states.

That is how the political-economic structure of the system that would five centuries later cover the entire globe came into existence. A structure with core zones (with developed technology, “free” labor, strong states) and peripheral zones (with less developed technology, forced labor and weak states). Peripheral zones deliver cheap resources, labor and agricultural products to the core zones of which they import the more expensive finished products. And within this structure states compete with each other to house as much profitable activity in their territory.

Between core and periphery there is a third category: the semi-periphery. This has features of both core and periphery and is the zone where states try to get the population behind the needs of their national industry. As an in-between category it hides the fundamental contradictions and inequality from view. To the periphery it is exploiter, to the core it is the exploited.

Mark Saey | Interdependent world | Civiclab

This three-fold structure would endure but during its history it was not always the same zones and countries that occupy the same positions. The United Provinces were the strongest in the 18th century while in the 19th it was England and in the 20th the US. In the periphery and semi-periphery there also were changes of position. The aforementioned three also were the so-called world-hegemons of their time. On the basis of their strong economic position, political power and financial strength they could stabilize the international system of competing states to their advantage and submit the rest of world society to system sustaining cultures. They could present themselves as the examples to be followed, the modernities of their age.

3.2.2. Dynamic

In capitalism economic decisions are not made democratically but by the owners of capital (companies, machines, …) for profit purposes. In this they profit from states and influence governments to strengthen their position: to control laborers, get subsidies, erect trade barriers against cheaper competitors, or stimulate free trade when they are the strongest in the world market. A strong state isn’t necessarily a big state (with a large government apparatus or one where the ruler shows of his power). A national state is strong when to the measure it secures the competitive advantages of “its” capitalists and upholds a policy that doesn’t cut too deep into the profits to keep laborers from revolting. The idea that capitalism equals free market is fiction.

Because productive decisions are not made democratically the system often runs into problems: overproduction crises causing the world-economy to stagnate. When too many capitalists produce the at a certain moment profitable goods, buyers or demand will become scarce. In these crises capitalists try to get out of the bottlenecks taking several measures like:

– creating a monopoly (corporate take-overs)

– adapt prices (make ‘m cheaper)

– innovate (make new profitable goods)

– rationalize (replace labor with machines, fire laborers)

– delocalize (transport production to zones with less labor rights and lower wages)

This however also creates unemployment and poverty and consequently resistance. To neutralize this capitalists have to meet some demands. But this means cutting into the profits they make. This loss they eventually will overcome by looking for new cheap labor, resources and markets outside the system. That’s how the system would incorporate other societies and eventually cover the entire globe.

3.3.3. The end of the modern world-system.

In the WSA perspective the theory of progress induced people to associate themselves with their own country first and foremost and look down on who stays behind on the ladder towards the ultimate end of mass consumer culture. This type of identification suited the national states since for most of the time in their history they tried to strive for cultural homogeneity. Although our society in fact is a world-system, this way the limits to people’s morality of attachment were drawn around their “own people”, consequently justice or righteousness became a national matter more than anything else.

The ones fighting the system would in practice also strengthen the state with their policy of achieving state power. Achieve it they did. In the West the labor movement could forge the welfare state in several countries, in the South national liberation movements decolonized their countries and in the East the communists took power. But by integrating into the national state – the “liberal compromise” as Wallerstein has it – these anti-systemic movements lost their appeal. In the real world society states are being pinned the one against the other and by taking state power one does not change the system.

Around 1970 the next phase of world-economic stagnation announced itself. Again the capitalist class tried to overcome the crisis by taking back from the labor class what it had to share with it in the previous phase. The collapse of the communist regimes would make neoliberalism the only possible future in the eyes of many. More aggressive than before the capitalist class, via the IMF, WTO and the WB, tried to force the states to privatize public services, lower wages and liberate markets to enhance their profits. New fear, ignorance, political cynicism and fight over privilege made for a come back of the irrational nationalist, populist and extreme right wing sympathies.

But on top of this stagnation now, according to WSA, comes the crisis of the system itself. Several developments on the very long term now come their closure or structural end. Of these we have highlighted but one: globalization. Another one also has been on people’s minds already for a while: the environmental problem(s) that cannot be solved within or by this system. Companies can no longer externalize the costs for cleaning up the mess they create. Land reform in the South will be necessary to change the devastating monocultures there. Especially in the wealthy countries, but also elsewhere, the rich will have to give up their royal lifestyles of “more than a couple planets” – meaning economic growth and ever rising materialist consumption can no longer be regarded as normal.

The closing exercise for both History and Geography was drawing out on blind world maps the following WSA overview of modern history. This way not only did the students review their general knowledge of world’s parts and modern history, it also became clear to them that this world-system is reaching its end.

Modern History Table | Civiclab

[1] This text material is based on lectures the author gave at Ghent University, reworked in Saey M. (1994): Wereld-systeem analyse. Een antwoord op1968, Brussel: IMAVO, see also here.