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.
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.