Monday, June 21, 2010

World Systems and Exploitation

In the past I have of course discussed the structures of exploitation inherent in the current world economy, and the evils of American Imperialism (and the pathetic nature of the Vatican surrender to it). Personally, I think it can be seen as a form of institutionalized usury, though not necessarily just in monetary policy.

Today I'd just like to give a concrete summary of just exactly how the structure of the world economy is exploitative, using this article on Immanuel Wallerstein's World Systems Theory.

One basic premise of the theory is that consideration of domestic economies is rather useless when it comes to getting the big picture. Because they are not self-sufficient, analysis of their internal economic system is useless. Only analysis of the "world systems" as a whole can show all the actors involved and the flow of value.
[A World System's] self-containment as an economic-material entity is based on extensive division of labor and that they contain within them a multiplicity of cultures. It is further argued that thus far there have only existed two varieties of such world-systems: world-empires, in which there is a single political system over most of the area, however attenuated the degree of its effective control; and those systems in which such a single political system does not exist over all, or virtually all, of the space. For convenience and for want of a better term, we are using 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 either to be converted into empires or to disintegrate. It is the peculiarity of the modern world-system that a world-economy has survived for 500 years and yet has not come to be transformed into a world-empire--a peculiarity that is the secret of its strength.

This peculiarity is the political side of the form of economic organization called capitalism. Capitalism has been able to flourish precisely because the world-economy has had within its bounds not one but a multiplicity of political systems. I am not here arguing the classic case of capitalist ideology that capitalism is a system based on the noninterference of the state in economic affairs. Quite the contrary! Capitalism is based on the constant absorption of economic loss by political entities, while economic gain is distributed to "private" hands. What I am arguing rather is that capitalism as an economic mode is based on the fact that the economic factors operate within an arena larger than that which any political entity can totally control. This gives capitalists a freedom of maneuver that is structurally based. It has made possible the constant economic expansion of the world-system, albeit a very skewed distribution of its rewards. The only alternative world-system that could maintain a high level of productivity and change the system of distribution would involve the reintegration of the levels of political and economic decision-making. This would constitute a third possible form of world-system, a socialist world government.
That is one of the important structural features of the current world economy: actors act within a sphere larger than that controlled (or at least governed) by any one government. An American company, for example, can then get labor from countries that have no minimum wage. And the US, of course, can put up tariffs against poor countries to help our companies, and the poor countries cannot retaliate in kind.
We have defined a world-system as one in which there is extensive division of labor. This division is not merely functional--that is, occupational--but geographical. That is to say, the range of economic tasks is not evenly distributed throughout the world-system. In part this is the consequence of ecological considerations, to be sure. But for the most part, it is a function of the social organization of work, one which magnifies and legitimizes the ability of some groups within the system to exploit the labor of others, that is, to receive a larger share of the surplus.
If we look at the world today we will see that First World countries have largely become service economies, the "Second World" (however you now would define it) is industrial, and the raw materials and cheap labor come from the Third.

As Wallerstein says, modern capitalism is far from "non-interference" by the government in economics. In fact, the State is a huge factor in the (exploitative) workings of the current world economy.
In a world-economy the first point of political pressure available to groups is the local (national) state structure. Cultural homogenization tends to serve the interests of key groups and the pressures build up to create cultural-national identities. This is particularly the case in the advantaged areas of the world-economy--what we have called the core-states. In such states, the creation of a strong state machinery coupled with a national culture, a phenomenon often referred to as integration, serves both as a mechanism to protect disparities that have arisen within the world-system, and as an ideological mask and justification or the maintenance of these disparities.

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

There are also semiperipheral areas which are in between the core and the periphery on a series of dimensions, such as the complexity of economic activities, strength of the state machinery, cultural integrity, etc. Some of these areas had been core-areas of earlier versions of a given world-economy. Some had been peripheral areas that were later promoted, so to speak, as a result of the changing geopolitics of an expanding world-economy. The semiperiphery, however, is not an artifice of statistical cutting points, nor is it a residual category. The semiperiphery is a necessary structural element in a world-economy. These areas play a role parallel to that played, mutatis mutandis, by middle trading groups in an empire. They are collection points of vital skills that are often poetically unpopular. These middle areas (like middle groups in an empire) partially deflect the political pressures which groups primarily located in peripheral areas might otherwise direct against core-states and the groups which operate within and through their state machineries. On the other hand, the interests primarily located in the semiperiphery are located outside the political arena of the core-states, and find it difficult to pursue the ends in political coalitions that might be open to them were they in the same political arena.
I think we can vaguely see the core, semiperiphery, and periphery as mapping onto the First World, Second World, and Third World as commonly conceived. And as he says, the Semiperiphery is not merely a gray area between the two. It has the essentials structural role of doing the "unpopular" functions which benefit the First World, but which deflect attention from it. Americans are often want to point to the Soviet Union or Red China as exploitative and evil States. And they may be. But that is/was because of where they are embedded in the world economy.

In other words, the Master has the luxury of distance that allows him to be pretend to be kind and genteel. It is the Overseer who has to bear the unsavory position of both being inferior to the master, but also hated by the Slaves for his cruelty. It's one of the reasons I think bourgeois self-righteousness against slavery, the slavery of the past, is so ironic; slavery is simply a social position that is intrinsically neutral, though it almost always tends towards exploitation. And it still exists, at the foundation of the capitalist system, it's just been diffused onto whole nations of people as a whole which in many ways has made it worse, not better.
The division of a world-economy involves a hierarchy of occupational tasks, in which tasks requiring higher levels of skill and greater capitalization are reserved for higher-ranking areas. Since a capitalist world-economy essentially rewards accumulated capital, including human capital, at a higher rate than "raw" labor power, the geographical maldistribution of these occupational skills involves a strong trend toward self-maintenance. The forces of the marketplace reinforce them rather than undermine them. And the absence of a central political mechanism for the world-economy makes it very difficult to intrude counteracting forces to the maldistribution of rewards.

One factor that tends to mask this fact is that the process of development of a world-economy brings about technological advances which make it possible to expand the boundaries of a world-economy. In this case, particular regions of the world may change their structural role in the world-economy, to their advantage, even though the disparity of reward between different sectors of the world-economy as a whole may be simultaneously widening.
In other words, anecdotal evidence is useless. Showing that one country improved when it adopted "democracy" or "free markets" or conformed to neoliberal structural-adjustment...proves nothing. I would suspect that the Core powers sometimes allow a country to improve as a form of propaganda, as an example to the other slave-nations to say, "Look, if you become nice and obsequious and tributary to us, you can have a nicer situation." Of course, if they all did, it couldn't be true, there wouldn't be enough to go around and still keep the Core's ridiculously high standard of living.

As regards "communist" countries in the 20th-century and the "fall of communism, Wallerstein says we should, "regard with great circumspection and prudence the claim that there exist in the twentieth century socialist national economies within the framework of the world-economy (as opposed to socialist movements controlling certain state-machineries within the world-economy)." As I have discussed before, it doesn't really matter what the domestic economy is. What matters is the world economy, and all the "communist" states...were still functioning in a capitalist world economy when it came to trade (and international trade totally dwarfs domestic economy in our world).

I am especially interested, however, about what he has to say about class and the rise of the middle class:
Since in conflict situations, multiple factions tend to reduce to two by virtue of the forging of alliances, it is by definition not possible to have three or more (conscious) classes.


To say that there cannot be three or more classes is not however to say that there are always two. There may be none, though this is rare 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 said that classes only actually exist in conflict situations, and conflicts presume two sides. There is no contradiction here. For a conflict may be defined as being between one class, which conceives of itself as the universal class, and all the other strata. This has in fact been the usual situation in the modern world-system. The capitalist class (the bourgeoisie) has claimed to be the universal class and sought to organize political life to pursue its objectives against two opponents. On the one hand, there were those who spoke for the maintenance of traditional rank distinctions despite the fact that these ranks might have lost their original correlation with economic function. Such elements preferred to define the social structure as a non-class structure. It was to counter this ideology that the bourgeoisie came to operate as a class conscious of itself...
This claim by the middle class to be the "universal class," or at least that it should be, is in some ways the distinctive feature of the current world social, cultural, and political situation under American hegemony. It is this class, the parasitic capitalist class, that is in control of the strong State machinery.
Strong states serve the interests of some groups and hurt those of others. From however the standpoint of the world-system as a whole, if there is to be a multitude of political entities (that is, if the system is not a world-empire), then it cannot be the case that all these entities be equally strong. For if they were, they would be in the position of blocking the effective operation of transnational economic entities whose locus were in another state.

It also cannot be that no state machinery is strong. For in such a case, the capitalist strata would have no mechanisms to protect their interests, guaranteeing their property rights, assuring various monopolies, spreading losses among the larger population, etc. It follows then that the world-economy develops a pattern where state structures are relatively strong in the core areas and relatively weak in the periphery. Which areas play which roles is in many ways accidental. What is necessary is that in some areas the state machinery be far stronger than in others.
I've discussed before how the fact of a multiplicity of governments has always been a cause for war and exploitation. Because governments only represent their own citizens, and so when some "outside" group (either geographically or socially) is excluded from the scope of citizenship or government, the government of one nation will obviously not defend them from exploitation by its own citizens. They're "supposed to" rely on their own governments, but of course with the structural differential in the strengths of States, this simply is not a practical answer.

Why is America so concerned about stopping other nations from getting nuclear bombs? I personally assume it's because they don't want anyone questioning our hegemony. Why is there this big anti-immigrant sentiment? Because if the US government had to embrace all the Mexicans as citizens too, and guarantee them minimum wage, and give them infrastructure, and protect them, and give them various social services...well, the loss of the economic "gradient" across the border would not be advantageous to the standard of living of those current living here.

I will end simply with something interesting he says about "tradition," which though it refers to political and economic traditionalism, is certainly relevant to us:
In those states in which the state machinery is weak, the state managers do not play the role of coordinating a complex industrial-commercial-agricultural mechanism. Rather they simply become one set of landlords amidst others, with little claim to legitimate authority over the whole. These tend to be called traditional rulers. The political struggle is often phrased in terms of tradition versus change. This is of course a grossly misleading and ideological terminology. It may in fact be taken as a general sociological principle that, at any given point of time, what is thought to be traditional is of more recent origin than people generally imagine it to be, and represents primarily the conservative instincts of some group threatened with declining social status. Indeed, there seems to be nothing which emerges and evolves as quickly as a "tradition" when the need presents itself.

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

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