Utopistics by Immanuel Wallerstein (1998) – Book Review
Utopistics: Or, Historical Choices of the Twenty-first Century may be the quickest and most accessible way to get into the theories of American historical social scientist Immanuel Wallerstein, so it should be a recommended book for political “futurists”. An expansion on talks Wallerstein gave in 1997 at the University of Auckland, the book is short enough to be studied by any reader in a day. It is divided into three essential chapters to give an overview of modern political history, address factors that are weakening the current world order, and talk about possible alternative world orders. Making it relevant to h+ readers, it is certain that Wallerstein’s Utopistics is encouraging a realist kind of futurism, distinctive in its position that any succeeding civilization will likely depart from the current arrangements of sovereign states and “citizens”.
Before you scoff at the word “utopistics” as a euphemism for utopianism, it must be said that the last thing utopistic theorists are meant to be concerned with is talk of “utopias”, which Wallerstein calls “dreams of heaven that could never exist on earth”. Utopistics as an exercise is not utopianism, but the “serious assessment of historical alternatives” (p. 1). It is the “sober, rational, and realistic evaluation of human social systems, the constraints on what they can be, and the zones open to human creativity” (p. 1-2). This is a very productive approach to theorizing about the future, as it avoids promoting naïve expectations about human behavior and focuses instead on the social constraints and emerging opportunities or breakthroughs in human creativity. To avoid being starry-eyed and formulating unrealistic targets, we must keep our focus on developing appropriate uses for the grimy but certainly undeniable social and technological trends in the world. In spite of this realism, it is still incumbent on us to believe a better world is possible and to speculate on what it might look like (p. 2).
In Wallerstein’s theory of the history of social change (p. 1-33), as presented in his main academic works, the current world order with its exploitative economic features and disparities originated in the Sixteenth Century (p. 9). Revolutions provided pressures for this world order to gradually evolve, although ratios of global inequality and exploitation have not decisively changed since the Sixteenth Century. Even though the French Revolution “failed”, it disseminated “widespread assumptions of what is accepted as the legitimate premises of political action”: the understanding of social change as normal, the requirement of popular sovereignty for states, and the modern idea of citizenship (p. 14). Modern politics, with its distinction of left and right, is a feud emerging from the French Revolution even though the tacit admission of all modern politics is that the French Revolution values won and are the basis of modern state legitimacy (p. 15-19). States are not autonomous but an “institutional feature” in a global social system. National revolutions have presented no challenge to the exploitative features of the world order because they fail to change the global institution and eliminate nation-state regimes. (p. 10). Citizenship, Wallerstein teaches, is the practice of exclusion and the conferring of privileges. The idea of one being a citizen and another not being a citizen justifies exploitation by replacing class divisions with national borders, thus “excluding from the division of surplus value and political decision making the vast majority of the world’s population” (p. 21). As for the trajectory of this archaic historical world order, “pervasive antistatism” (meaning the inherent weakening of the nation-state system) undermines an “essential pillar” of the modern world that has been used to justify disparity (p. 32). “So-called globalization”, writes Wallerstein, is actually “the crisis of this system” (p. 32) and does not (in the long run of history) benefit the powers that be. The reason the world order is in crisis is because of the loss of legitimacy (p. 4), primarily of the nation-states system.
In the second chapter (p. 35-64), Wallerstein talks about the transition we are allegedly living in the early stages of (p. 35). He cautions that there is “a time of troubles, a black period that will last as long as long as the transition lasts” (p. 33). We should not necessarily be shocked by the social problems and horrors of current times, because in the long term they are part of a historical transition. This is described as “a period of conflicts and aggravated disorders, and what many will see as the collapse of moral systems” (p. 35). Our individual and group efforts will be able to create shockwaves, because the ability of the system to automatically restore equilibrium will disappear with the loss of legitimacy. The state system has been required to protect monopolies with patents and other, more subtle means (p. 36-37). Wallerstein rejects the idea that the current profit-driven economic system takes “unlimited laissez faire” as a pillar, instead arguing that strong states back up monopolies and are a pillar for the profit-driven system (p. 38). Ultimately, “state structures” are weakening and the trends results in the weakened capacity for monopolies (p. 46). The trend is dissected to reveal the “growing collapse of the ideology of liberalism and the vulnerability of corporations” – itself caused by the “increased democratization of the world and the deligitimation of the states linked to it” (p. 48). For the affairs of ordinary people in the social system, the transition carries significant dangers. Delegitimization of states leads to a fear of security threats such as violent crime and ethnic conflict (p. 51-52). This vicious social breakdown noted by Wallerstein seems to resemble what is commonly reported in South Africa, above all other places. To explain the social symptoms, Wallerstein notes the incapacity of states to provide effective and credible policing and protection for members of society who traditionally felt the state gave them security (p. 52-53):
“What had been seen by many as the friendly and protective police officer comes to be seen as the somewhat dangerous and often arbitrary police officer” (p. 53)
In response, people lose confidence in the state, and seek “extrastate self-defense” (transnational activism and other searches for security that will not rely on the state) as their refuge. They feel the state owes them nothing, and can be expected to reject taxation ever more fiercely. In sum, if a state is lawless and incompetent, it has no reason or right to survive and is nothing more than an illegitimate regime.
Wallerstein illustrates another trend delegitimizing the state system. Democratization of technology (especially weapons technology) and movements of people (especially from poor “non-White” states to traditionally “White” states) are disintegrating forces working against modern states. To express Wallerstein’s tolerance of both such trends, he states that from his perspective, “nuclear proliferation is inevitable” (60-61). Some would argue a more positive case that a similar explosion is happening with information through the web and its activists. Not all is looking grim, because highly creative emerging technologies may soon also be spread around the world with no regulation and have liberating effects. Chaos may produce some undesirable situations, but history is never free of inconveniences, and “chaotic realities produce, by themselves, orderly systems” (might take 50 years) (p. 63). Wallerstein encourages us to strike the historical iron while it is still hot, promising “the world of 2050 will be what we make it” although it will entail “terrible political struggle”. This gives politics in this period the opportunity to help shape the structural features of the social system that will dominate the next five hundred years (p. 82).
In the third chapter (p. 65-89), Wallerstein draws our attention to two questions. First, what kind of world do we want to live in? Second, by what paths could we likely achieve our target (p. 65)? To determine which kind of world we want to live in, Wallerstein identifies three defining dilemmas that are the basis for the arguments about whether or not the current world is good. The first dilemma is material abundance versus material inequality, the second is liberal political structures versus the exclusion of most humans from decision-making, and the third is longevity versus degraded quality of life (p. 66). In sum, the dilemma is a maximally democratic and egalitarian new system versus a system conserving the privileges that already exist (p. 69). The defining feature that enables the conservation of privileges is the social priority of making profit (p. 70). This priority must be deactivated to construct a superior social system. Enter the global social challenge that must be completed prior to 2050:
“Could one devise a structure that would give primacy to maximizing the quality of life to everyone (presumably the original Benthamite liberal ideal) while at the same time limiting and controlling the means of collective violence so that everyone felt relatively and equally secure in their person and enjoyed the widest possible range of individual options without threatening the rights of others (presumably the original John Stuart Mill ideal)?” (p. 70)
To achieve this, Wallerstein recommends rejecting remuneration (p. 71-76) in favor of “nonprofit productive enterprises” flanked by systems that will punish “true sloth and incompetence”. In addition, Wallerstein rejects meritocracy in its present form, accusing it of keeping racial, gender and cross-borders inequalities “stacked” and offering insufficient chances for the social system to truly adjust towards equality (p. 76-77). A better solution, he suggests, is to use a system whereby an employer picks employees randomly from a large middle tier of achievers and discards the minorities of top achievers and bottom achievers. This, Wallerstein says, would “drastically reduce institutionalized racism-sexism” (p. 78). A method of stopping a new privileged “nomenklatura” (bureaucratic class) emerging is to remove the economic rewards of participating in politics and enforce limited terms in office (p. 79). One can see from these forecasts that Wallerstein sees a role for a bureaucratic government in administrating the egalitarian post nation-state world, but believes it must have carefully designed democratic safeguards to maximize efficacy and decrease corruption. Interestingly, Wallerstein cites advances in information technology as the guarantor of true popular political participation in a much truer sense than what is observed in current “democracies” (p. 80). With regard to limited natural resources, Wallerstein expresses the idea that human creativity is a resource that has no limits (p. 82). Perhaps the most difficult barrier to Wallerstein’s hypothetical alternative world is something he cautioned us about earlier in the book. Namely, that an alternative system needs to be more than simply constructed: it also needs to achieve legitimacy, or it will fail (p. 4).
In terms of the efforts of the privileged side to preserve their privilege through the transition, Wallerstein’s view is that the habit of exercising caution in the face of global change simply reflects the view of the “better off” (p. 6). Those who have much to lose will tread carefully. Further, they cannot be reasoned with when we are trying to build a better order. Appealing to ethics won’t get them to surrender their privilege (p. 83). They will try to conserve their privilege using either repression or co-option by “giving away a small piece of the pie in order to save the rest” (p. 89). Any successor system that beneficiaries of the current system are allowed to devise would probably follow the “di Lampedusa Strategy” by co-opting “a lot of the terminology of the discontented”, e.g. it could be an ecology movement (p. 85) still aimed at conserving privileges.
Whatever the future holds, Wallerstein’s argument is that the stakes are high in this alleged period of transition. The disadvantaged section of the world, he argues, has “never been as badly off” relative to the privileged section of the world (p. 89). As the reader should be able to discern from this review, the analysis is “neither optimistic nor pessimistic” (p. 90), and it is not particularly pretty, but it aims to be useful and remains certainly worth consulting.