From Immanuel Wallerstein, The Modern World-System: CapitalistAgriculture and the Origins of the European World-Economy in theSixteenth Century. New York: Academic Press, 1976, pp. 229-233.


The Modern World-System

Immanuel Wallerstein


In order to describe the origins and initial workings of a worldsystem, I have had to argue a certain conception of a world-system. Aworld-system is a social system, one that has boundaries, structures,member groups, rules of legitimation, and coherence. Its life is madeup of the conflicting forces which hold it together by tension andtear it apart as each group seeks eternally to remold it to itsadvantage. It has the characteristics of an organism, in that it hasa life-span over which its characteristics change in some respectsand remain stable in others. One can define its structures as beingat different times strong or weak in terms of the internal logic ofits functioning.

What characterizes a social system in my view is the fact thatlife within it is largely self-contained, and that the dynamics ofits development are largely internal. The reader may feel that theuse of the term "largely" is a case of academic weaseling. I admit Icannot quantify it. Probably no one ever will be able to do so, asthe definition is based on a counterfactual hypothesis: If thesystem, for any reason, were to he cut off from all external forces(which virtually never happens), the definition implies that thesystem would continue to function substantially in the same manner.Again, of course, substantially is difficult to convert into hardoperational criteria. Nonetheless the point is an important one andkey to many parts of the empirical analyses of this book. Perhaps weshould think of self-containment as a theoretical absolute, a sort ofsocial vacuum, rarely visible and even more implausible to createartificially, but still and all a socially-real asymptote, thedistance from which is somehow measurable.

Using such a criterion, it is contended here that most entitiesusually described as social systems --"tribes," communities,nation-states--are not in fact total systems. Indeed, on thecontrary, we are arguing that the only real social systems are, onthe one hand, those relatively small, highly autonomous subsistenceeconomies not part of some regular tribute-demanding system and, onthe other hand, world-systems. These latter are to be suredistinguished from the former because they are relatively large; thatis, they are in common parlance "worlds." More precisely, however,they are defined by the fact that their self-containment as aneconomic-material entity is based on extensive division of labor andthat they contain within them a multiplicity of cultures.

It is further argued that thus far there have only existed twovarieties of such world-systems: world-empires, in which there is asingle political system over most of the area, however attenuated thedegree of its effective control; and those systems in which such asingle political system does not exist over all, or virtually all, ofthe space. For convenience and for want of a better term, we areusing the term "world-economy" to describe the latter.

Finally, we have argued that prior to the modern era,world-economies were highly unstable structures which tended eitherto be converted into empires or to disintegrate. It is thepeculiarity of the modern world-system that a world-economy hassurvived for 500 years and yet has not come to be transformed into aworld-empire--a peculiarity that is the secret of its strength.

This peculiarity is the political side of the form of economicorganization called capitalism. Capitalism has been able to flourishprecisely because the world-economy has had within its bounds not onebut a multiplicity of political systems.

I am not here arguing the classic case of capitalist ideology thatcapitalism is a system based on the noninterference of the state ineconomic affairs. Quite the contrary! Capitalism is based on theconstant absorption of economic loss by political entities, whileeconomic gain is distributed to "private" hands. What I am arguingrather is that capitalism as an economic mode is based on the factthat the economic factors operate within an arena larger than thatwhich any political entity can totally control. This givescapitalists a freedom of maneuver that is structurally based. It hasmade possible the constant economic expansion of the world-system,albeit a very skewed distribution of its rewards. The onlyalternative world-system that could maintain a high level ofproductivity and change the system of distribution would involve thereintegration of the levels of political and economicdecision-making. This would constitute a third possible form ofworld-system, a socialist world government. This is not a form thatpresently exists, and it was not even remotely conceivable in thesixteenth century.

The historical reasons why the European world-economy came intoexistence in the sixteenth century and resisted attempts to transformit into an empire have been expounded at length. We shall not reviewthem here. It should however be noted that the size of aworld-economy is a function of the state of technology, and inparticular of the possibilities of transport and communication withinits bounds. Since this is a constantly changing phenomenon, notalways for the better, the boundaries of a world-economy are everfluid.

We have defined a world-system as one in which there is extensivedivision of labor. This division is not merely functional--that is,occupational--but geographical. That is to say, the range of economictasks is not evenly distributed throughout the world-system. In partthis is the consequence of ecological considerations, to be sure. Butfor the most part, it is a function of the social organization ofwork, one which magnifies and legitimizes the ability of some groupswithin the system to exploit the labor of others, that is, to receivea larger share of the surplus.

While, in an empire, the political structure tends to link culturewith occupation, in a world-economy the political structure tends tolink culture with spatial location. The reason is that in aworld-economy the first point of political pressure available togroups is the local (national) state structure. Culturalhomogenization tends to serve the interests of key groups and thepressures build up to create cultural-national identities.

This is particularly the case in the advantaged areas of theworld-economy--what we have called the core-states. In such states,the creation of a strong state machinery coupled with a nationalculture, a phenomenon often referred to as integration, serves bothas a mechanism to protect disparities that have arisen within theworld-system, and as an ideological mask and justification for themaintenance of these disparities.

World-economies then are divided into core-states and peripheralareas. I do not say peripheral states because onecharacteristic of a peripheral area is that the indigenous state isweak, ranging from its nonexistence (that is, a colonial situation)to one with a low degree of autonomy (that is, a neo-colonialsituation).

There are also semiperipheral areas which are in between the coreand the periphery on a series of dimensions, such as the complexityof economic activities, strength of the state machinery, culturalintegrity, etc. Some of these areas had been core-areas of earlierversions of a given world-economy. Some had been peripheral areasthat were later promoted, so to speak, as a result of the changinggeopolitics of an expanding world-economy.

The semiperiphery, however, is not an artifice of statisticalcutting points, nor is it a residual category. The semiperiphery is anecessary structural element in a world-economy. These areas play arole parallel to that played, mutatis mutandis, by middletrading groups in an empire. They are collection points of vitalskills that are often poetically unpopular. These middle areas (likemiddle groups in an empire) partially deflect the political pressureswhich groups primarily located in peripheral areas might otherwisedirect against core-states and the groups which operate within andthrough their state machineries. On the other hand, the interestsprimarily located in the semiperiphery are located outside thepolitical arena of the core-states, and find it difficult to pursuethe ends in political coalitions that might be open to them were theyin the same political arena.

The division of a world-economy involves a hierarchy ofoccupational tasks, in which tasks requiring higher levels of skilland greater capitalization are reserved for higher-ranking areas.Since a capitalist world-economy essentially rewards accumulatedcapital, including human capital, at a higher rate than "raw" laborpower, the geographical maldistribution of these occupational skillsinvolves a strong trend toward self-maintenance. The forces of themarketplace reinforce them rather than undermine them. And theabsence of a central political mechanism for the world-economy makesit very difficult to intrude counteracting forces to themaldistribution of rewards.

Hence, the ongoing process of a world-economy tends to expand theeconomic and social gaps among its varying areas in the very processof its development. One factor that tends to mask this fact is thatthe process of development of a world-economy brings abouttechnological advances which make it possible to expand theboundaries of a world-economy. In this case, particular regions ofthe world may change their structural role in the world-economy, totheir advantage, even though the disparity of reward betweendifferent sectors of the world-economy as a whole may besimultaneously widening. It is in order to observe this crucialphenomenon clearly that we have insisted on the distinction between aperipheral area of a given world-economy and the external arena ofthe world-economy. The external arena of one century often becomesthe periphery of the next--or its semiperiphery. But then toocore-states can become semiperipheral and semiperipheral onesperipheral.

While the advantages of the core-states have not ceased to expandthroughout the history of the modern world-system, the ability of aparticular state to remain in the core sector is not beyondchallenge. The hounds are ever to the hares for the position of topdog. Indeed, it may well be that in this kind of system it is notstructurally possible to avoid, over a long period of historicaltime, a circulation of the elites in the sense that the particularcountry that is dominant at a given time tends to be replaced in thisrole sooner or later by another country.

We have insisted that the modern world-economy is, and only canbe, a capitalist world-economy. It is for this reason that we haverejected the appellation of "feudalism" for the various forms ofcapitalist agriculture based on coerced labor which grow up in aworld-economy. Furthermore, although this has not been discussed inthis volume, it is for this same reason that we will, in futurevolumes, regard with great circumspection and prudence the claim thatthere exist in the twentieth century socialist national economieswithin the framework of the world-economy (as opposed to socialistmovements controlling certain state-machineries within theworld-economy).

If world-systems are the only real social systems (other thantruly isolated subsistence economies), then it must follow that theemergence, consolidation, and political roles of classes and statusgroups must be appreciated as elements of this world system. And inturn it follows that one of the key elements in analyzing a class ora status-group is not only the state of its self-consciousness butthe geographical scope of its self-definition.

Classes always exist potentially (an sich). The issue isunder what conditions they become class-conscious (fur sich),that is, operate as a group in the politico-economic arenas and evento some extent as a cultural entity. Such self-consciousness is afunction of conflict situations. But for upper strata open conflict,and hence overt consciousness, is always faute de mieux. Tothe extent that class boundaries are not made explicit, to thatextent it is more likely that privileges be maintained.

Since in conflict situations, multiple factions tend to reduce totwo by virtue of the forging of alliances, it is by definition notpossible to have three or more (conscious) classes. There obviouslycan be a multitude of occupational interest groups which may organizethemselves to operate within the social structure. But such groupsare really one variety of status-groups, and indeed often overlapheavily with other kinds of status-groups such as those defined byethnic, linguistic, or religious criteria.

To say that there cannot be three or more classes is not howeverto say that there are always two. There may be none, though this israre and transitional. There may be one, and this is most common.There may be two, and this is most explosive.

We say there may be only one class, although we have also saidthat classes only actually exist in conflict situations, andconflicts presume two sides. There is no contradiction here. For aconflict may be defined as being between one class, which conceivesof itself as the universal class, and all the other strata. This hasin fact been the usual situation in the modern world-system. Thecapitalist class (the bourgeoisie) has claimed to be the universalclass and sought to organize political life to pursue its objectivesagainst two opponents. On the one hand, there were those who spokefor the maintenance of traditional rank distinctions despite the factthat these ranks might have lost their original correlation witheconomic function. Such elements preferred to define the socialstructure as a non-class structure. It was to counter this ideologythat the bourgeoisie came to operate as a class conscious of itself.. . .

The European world-economy of the sixteenth century tended overallto be a one-class system. It was the dynamic forces profiting fromeconomic expansion and the capitalist system, especially those in thecore-areas, who tended to be class-conscious, that is to operatewithin the political arena as a group defined primarily by theircommon role in the economy. This common role was in fact definedsomewhat broadly from a twentieth-century perspective. It includedpersons who were farmers, merchants, and industrialists. Individualentrepreneurs often moved back and forth between these activities inany case, or combined them. The crucial distinction was between thesemen, whatever their occupation, principally oriented to obtainingprofit in the world market, and the others not so oriented.

The "others" fought back in terms o their status privileges--thoseof the traditional aristocracy, those which small farmers had derivedfrom the feudal system, those resulting from guild monopolies thatwere outmoded. Under the cover of cultural similarities, one canoften weld strange alliances. Those strange alliances can take a veryactivist form and force the political centers to take account ofthem. We pointed to such instances in our discussion of France. Orthey can take a politically passive form that serves well the needsof the dominant forces in the world-system. The triumph of PolishCatholicism as a cultural force was a case in point.

The details of the canvas are filled in with the panoply ofmultiple forms of status-groups, their particular strengths andaccents. But the grand sweep is in terms of the process of classformation. And in this regard, the sixteenth century was indecisive.The capitalist strata formed a class that survived and gaineddroit de cite, but did not yet triumph in the political arena.

The evolution of the state machineries reflected precisely thisuncertainty. Strong states serve the interests of some groups andhurt those of others. From however the standpoint of the world-systemas a whole, if there is to be a multitude of political entities (thatis, if the system is not a world-empire), then it cannot be the casethat all these entities be equally strong. For if they were, theywould be in the position of blocking the effective operation oftransnational economic entities whose locus were in another state.And obviously certain combinations of these groups control the state.It would then follow that the world division of labor would beimpeded, the world-economy decline, and eventually the world-systemfall apart.

It also cannot be that no state machinery is strong. For in such acase, the capitalist strata would have no mechanisms to protect theirinterests, guaranteeing their property rights, assuring variousmonopolies, spreading losses among the larger population, etc.

It follows then that the world-economy develops a pattern wherestate structures are relatively strong in the core areas andrelatively weak in the periphery. Which areas play which roles is inmany ways accidental. What is necessary is that in some areas thestate machinery be far stronger than in others.

What do we mean by a strong state-machinery? We mean strengthvis-a-vis other states within the world-economy including othercore-states, and strong vis-a-vis local political units within theboundries of the state. In effect, we mean a sovereignty that isdefacto as well as de jure. We also mean a state thatis strong vis-a-vis any particular social group within the state.Obviously, such groups vary in the amount of pressure they can bringto bear upon the state. And obviously certain combinations of thesegroups control the state. It is not that the state is a neutralarbiter. But the state is more than a simple vector of given forces,if only because many of these forces are situated in more than onestate or are defined in terms that have little correlation with stateboundaries.

A strong state then is a partially autonomous entity in the sensethat it has a margin of action available to it wherein it reflectsthe compromises of multiple interests, even if the bounds of thesemargins are set by the existence of some groups of primordialstrength. To be a partially autonomous entity, there must be a groupof people whose direct interests are served by such an entity: statemanagers and a state bureaucracy.

Such groups emerge within the framework of a capitalistworld-economy because a strong state is the best choice betweendifficult alternatives for the two groups that are strongest inpolitical, economic, and military terms: the emergent capitaliststrata, and the old aristocratic hierarchies.

For the former, the strong state in the form of the "absolutemonarchies" was a prime customer, a guardian against local andinternational brigandage, a mode of social legitimation, a preemptiveprotection against the creation of strong state barriers elsewhere.For the latter, the strong state represented a brake on these samecapitalist strata, an upholder of status conventions, a maintainer oforder, a promoter of luxury.

No doubt both nobles and bourgeois found the state machineries tobe a burdensome drain of funds, and a meddlesome unproductivebureaucracy. But what options did they have? Nonetheless they werealways restive and the immediate politics of the world-system wasmade up of the pushes and pulls resulting from the efforts of bothgroups to insulate themselves from what seemed to them the negativeeffects of the state machinery.

A state machinery involves a tipping mechanism. There is a pointwhere strength creates more strength. The tax revenue enables thestate to have a larger and more efficient civil bureaucracy and armywhich in turn leads to greater tax revenue--a process that continuesin spiral form. The tipping mechanism works in other directiontoo--weakness leading to greater weakness. In between these twotipping points lies the politics of state-creation. It is in thisarena that the skills of particular managerial groups make adifference. And it is because of the two tipping mechanisms that atcertain points a small gap in the world-system can very rapidlybecome a larger one.

In those states in which the state machinery is weak, the statemanagers do not play the role of coordinating a complexindustrial-commercial-agricultural mechanism. Rather they simplybecome one set of landlords amidst others, with little claim tolegitimate authority over the whole.

These tend to be called traditional rulers. The political struggleis often phrased in terms of tradition versus change. This is ofcourse a grossly misleading and ideological terminology. It may infact be taken as a general sociological principle that, at any givenpoint of time, what is thought to be traditional is of more recentorigin than people generally imagine it to be, and representsprimarily the conservative instincts of some group threatened withdeclining social status. Indeed, there seems to be nothing whichemerges and evolves as quickly as a "tradition" when the needpresents itself.

In a one-class system, the "traditional" is that in the name ofwhich the "others" fight the class-conscious group. If they canencrust their values by legitimating them widely, even better byenacting them into legislative barriers, they thereby change thesystem in a way favorable to them.

The traditionalists may win in some states, but if a world-economyis to survive, they must lose more or less in the others.Furthermore, the gain in one region is the counterpart of the loss inanother.

This is not quite a zero-sum game, but it is also inconceivablethat all elements in a capitalist world-economy shift their values ina given direction simultaneously. The social system is built onhaving a multiplicity of value systems within it, reflecting thespecific functions groups and areas play in the world division oflabor.

We have not exhausted here the theoretical problems relevant tothe functioning of a world-economy. We hake tried only to speak tothose illustrated by the early period of the world-economy increation, to wit, sixteenth-century Europe. Many other problemsemerged at later stages and will be treated, both empirically andtheoretically, in later volumes.

In the sixteenth century, Europe was like a bucking bronco. Theattempt of some groups to establish a world-economy based on aparticular division of labor, to create national states in the coreareas as politico-economic guarantors of this system, and to get theworkers to pay not only the profits but the costs of maintaining thesystem was not easy. It was to Europe's credit that it was done,since without the thrust of the sixteenth century the modern worldwould not have been born and, for all its cruelties, it is betterthat it was born than that it had not been.

It is also to Europe's credit that it was not easy, andparticularly that it was not easy because the people who paid theshort-run costs screamed lustily at the unfairness of it all. Thepeasants and workers in Poland and England and Brazil and Mexico wereall rambunctious in their various ways. As R. H. Tawney says of theagrarian disturbances of sixteenth-century England: "Such movementsare a proof of blood and sinew and of a high and gallant spirit. . .. Happy the nation whose people has not forgotten how to rebel."

The mark of the modern world is the imagination of its profiteersand the counter-assertiveness of the oppressed. Exploitation and therefusal to accept exploitation as either inevitable or justconstitute the continuing antinomy of the modern era, joined togetherin a dialectic which was far from reached its climax in the twentiethcentury.

 


Back tothe Syllabus