Monday, October 20, 2008

Book review: World-Systems Analysis: An Introduction

World-Systems Analysis: An Introduction by Immanuel Wallerstein

This book, and the world-systems approach, is an antidote to learning about the world by following "current events" in "the news" - the kind of approach taken, for instance, by people who were surprised by the onset of the current financial crisis.
"Part of the problem is that we have studied these phenomena in separate boxes to which we have given special names - politics, economics, the social structure, culture - without seeing that these boxes are constructs more of our imagination than of reality. The phenomena dealt with in these separate boxes are so closely intermeshed that each presumes the other, each affects the other, each is incomprehensible without taking into account the other boxes.
World-systems analysis meant first of all the substitution of a unit of analysis called the 'world-system' for the standard unit of analysis, which was the national state. On the whole, historians had been analyzing national histories, economists national economies, political scientists national political structures, and sociologists national societies. World-systems analysts raised a skeptical eyebrow, questioning whether any of these objects of study really existed... they substituted 'historical systems' [for these objects].
[The] world-economy was said to be marked by an axial division of labor between core-like production processes and peripheral production processes, which resulted in an unequal exchange favoring those involved in core-like production processes. Since such processes tended to group together in particular countries, one could use a shorthand language by talking of core and peripheral zones" or of core, peripheral, and semiperipheral states depending on the types of production processes predominant in each particular state. Core processes are those which are relatively monopolized (oligopoly) and highly profitable (think aerospace and genetic engineering); peripheral processes are relatively free market and less profitable (think textile manufacturing). "When exchange occurs, competitive products are in a weak position and quasi-monopolized products are in a strong position. As a result, there is a constant flow of surplus-value from the producers of peripheral products to the producers of core-like products. This has been called unequal exchange.
The strong states, which contain a disproportionate share of core-like processes, tend to emphasize their role of protecting the quasi-monopolies of the core-like processes. The very weak states, which contain a disproportionate share of peripheral production processes, are usually unable to do very much to affect the axial division of labor, and in effect are largely forced to accept the lot that has been given them. [] The semiperipheral states which have a relatively even mix of production processes find themselves ... [u]nder pressure from core states and putting pressure on peripheral states. ... These semiperipheral states are the ones that put forward most aggressively and most publicly so-called protectionist policies. ... They are eager recipients of the relocation of erstwhile leading products, which they define these days as achieving 'economic development.'"
Core states would be the G8, and the OECD countries; semiperipheral states would be "emerging markets" like the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) countries, and peripheral states would be those also called underdeveloped or "least developed countries." This is a much clearer and more useful perspective than that of looking at the world solely as what this or that particular nation is up to.

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