Capital, Colony, Core: an Introduction to World-Systems Analysis
Capitalism cannot be understood except as a global system. Such is the guiding insight propelling the work of Immanuel Wallerstein, whose World-Systems Analysis provides a grand theoretical account of the origins, evolution, and eventual dominance of a system whose basic characteristics are fundamentally global—its intercontinental arrangement into wealthy “cores,” liminal “semi-peripheries,” and colonial and postcolonial “peripheries.” For Wallerstein, the World System is predicated on a world-wide division of labor: core nations specialize in high-skill, capital intensive work, peripheral countries in low-skill labor and resource extraction—weaving a global circuit of exchange that tends to enrich the core nations (or, at least, certain classes within them) and dispossess the periphery. And, while the system is far from static—countries can rise from peripheral positions and fall away from the core—its structure is fixed: capitalism cannot, by nature, lift all boats. Yet, how did the world system, as Wallerstein theorizes it, come to be? How does World-Systems Analysis relate to, and help illuminate, colonial and postcolonial history? And, how can Wallerstein’s work help us understand, and make predictions about, both the U.S. “core” economy and the increasingly turbulent global capitalist system?
In this course, we will read from the major works of Immanuel Wallerstein as we explore the major concepts and theory of World-Systems Analysis, as well as its strengths, weaknesses, and points of compatibility with and difference from competing understandings of national and global capitalism, from mainstream to Marxist to postcolonial accounts. Guided by Wallerstein’s World-Systems Analysis: an Introduction, we will start by looking at the theoretical and methodological foundations of World-Systems Analysis—its borrowings from Marx, Fernand Braudel’s longue duree history, and the core-periphery framework of dependency theorists such as Samir Amin or Paul Sweezy—and discuss Wallerstein’s attempt to present a holistic account that, as he saw it, transcend the “three supposedly distinctive arenas” of society, economy, and politics. What’s gained in attempting to understand world phenomena as a totality, rather than examining it by discipline? We will then examine the World System as an account of the rise and continued evolution of the capitalist world economy. What are the rudiments of the world system, and how does it work? How can we understand the relational positions of core, semi-periphery, and periphery, and what does it mean for an understanding of historical and modern imperialism and postcolonialism? We’ll then turn our focus to the cultural dimensions of the world system, asking: How can we understand the power of ideas as determinants of global economic reality, from ideology to racism, sexism, and social movement activism? Finally, we will use World-Systems Analysis as a frame for thinking about current capitalist crises and possible alternatives. How can Wallerstein’s work help us understand the trajectory of the global capitalist economy, and its local ramifications, particularly in light of apparent U.S. decline, the rise of China, and accelerating climate change? Can Wallerstein’s holistic theory of global capitalism help us envision and articulate alternative arrangements and futures? In addition to World-Systems Analysis, we will also read from Wallerstein’s Race, Nation, Class: Ambiguous Identities and Does Capitalism Have a Future?, as well as secondary sources.
Course ScheduleThursday, 6:30-9:30pm ET
October 21 — November 11, 2021