Wallerstein, Immanuel. Alternatives: The United States Confronts the World.
As a Ph.D. student at the University of Texas, I studied historical research methods under Gideon Sjoberg. The required readings included works by Theda Skocpol (Vision and Method in Historical Sociology, 1984) and Charles Tilly (Big Structures, Large Processes, Huge Comparisons, 1984) and introduced me to the writings of Marc Bloch (The Historian's Craft, 1953), Karl Polanyi (The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time, 1944), and Fernand Braudel (The Structures of Everyday Life: Civilization and Capitalism, vol. 1, 1981). It also was the first time that I read the works of Immanuel Wallerstein (The Capitalist World-Economy, 1979; World Systems Analysis: Theory and Methodology, 1982) and his student Daniel Chirot (Social Change in the Twentieth Century, 1977; Social Change in the Modern Era, 1986).
Because I had already undertaken an extensive study of the works of Karl Marx, Wallerstein's extension of Marx's work to a world system had great resonance for me. I still discuss his work in my teaching. When I read that he had published a critique of the Bush administration, I was anxious to read an analysis of U.S. politics through the lens of World Systems Theory.
Alternatives is the publication of Wallerstein's "web commentaries on the state of the world" (p. vii) from January 15, 2001, to February 15, 2004. These postings are framed by two previously unpublished works. "Part I--Terrorism: The Bush Fiasco" posits a long decline of U.S. global leadership that nurtures an aggressive militarist posture among many in the United States. "Part III--The Possible and the Desirable" outlines possible future trajectories in a transforming political and economic global structure.
Early in Alternatives, one notes the voices of two Wallersteins. There is Wallerstein the social scientist whose work caught my attention over twenty years ago and Wallerstein the political pundit opining on Bush administration policy and its consequences. A review of Alternatives requires commentary on both voices.
Wallerstein the social scientist comes forward in allusions to the U.S. position in the "world system" (p. vii) in the Preface. This Wallerstein claims that the U.S. position in the world system is in a non-reversible "decline" (p. 3). In part, that decline is pegged to the slumping dollar (pp. 15-16). The decline of the dollar is tied to the emergence of Japan and Europe as economic powers (pp. 43, 73) and the U.S. economy's growing dependence upon China and South Korea (p. 136).
Wallerstein the social scientist notes that the decline of the Soviet Union represented for the United States "a disaster, from the standpoint of control over its allies" (p. 104) as the rationale for U.S. global leadership disappeared. This Wallerstein notes the growing independence of Asia (p. 145) and how the invasion of Iraq encourages the development of weapons of mass destruction "for one little bomb can cause enough havoc to make it very expensive for the U.S. to go preemptive" (p. 145). Finally, in the North-South economic struggle of the world system, Wallerstein predicts that the South's desire for structural changes in the economic system will lead to a decline of the standard of living in the North.
Wallerstein the political pundit dominates the discourse of the text, not because this voice is more insightful, but because it is more incendiary. The political pundit, in October 2001, sees the possibility of "international crisis" within five years (p. 36). Wallerstein suggests that there are those within the Bush administration pushing for the possible use of "tactical nuclear weapons some where or other" (p. 40).
The threat of nuclear weapons appears often in the book. In his April 1, 2002 entry, "Iraq: How Great Powers Bring Themselves Down," Wallerstein the pundit states that, by backing the hawks in Israel, "Bush will conduct warfare that will destroy many lives immediately, lead to turmoil in the Arab-Islamic world of a kind and at a level hitherto unimagined, and perhaps unleash nuclear weapons ... " (p. 48). On September 15, 2002, Wallerstein warns that the Iraq war "will probably lead to the use of nuclear weapons" (p. 68).
The use of hyperbole by Wallerstein extends further. Often, in the text, Wallerstein speaks of the "macho-militarists" (e.g., p. 77) guiding Bush policy. On April 1, 2003, he asserts that it is a certainty that U.S. post-Iraq policy "will now move on to further military threats" (p. 111). On July 1, 2003, Wallerstein compares Iraq to Watergate, suggesting that, like then, now "thieves are falling out" (p. 120). A more egregious statement can be found in Wallerstein's April 1, 2003 entry, "The End of the Beginning," where he states, "We have entered a period of world chaos" (p. 108).
After reading such bombastic language and, as it turned out, failed predictions (e.g., the use of nuclear weapons, invasions of other countries), it is hard to accept the dire message of the conclusion that suggests, among other things, "[t]he outlook is not very good for the long term survival of the capitalist world economy" (pp. 155-56).
Wallerstein has the opportunity to bolster his claims or tie several of his more extreme statements to the analytical strength of his prior works. But for readers looking for such elucidation, it appears that Wallerstein assumes prior knowledge of such key concepts as Kondratieff cycles (p. 74) or refers them to his earlier works (e.g., pp. 30, 41, 42, 108) leaving readers to undertake the task of linking what appears to be exaggerated prose to more substantive analysis.
Though I found Alternatives to be extraordinarily readable, I was disappointed in a text that seemed to be more the prose of a political pundit than the insights of a social scientist helping readers understand U.S. policy and the global economy. Defenders might argue that these failings are an artifact of the nature of the work--i.e., the publication of a string of commentaries. However, similar works like Paul Krugman's The Great Unraveling: Losing Our Way in the New Century (2003) demonstrate that a collection of essays or editorials can contain more substance than Wallerstein offers in Alternatives.
Michael L. Hirsch, Ph.D.
Chair--Division of Liberal Studies
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|Author:||Hirsch, Michael L.|
|Publication:||International Social Science Review|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2006|
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