Capitalist World System

Capitalist World System


From the beginning Marx saw capital as international
in scope. It was the development of new markets in the Far East and the colonization of the
Americas that provided the stimulus for capitalist development in Europe. Marx wrote: “Modern industry has established
the world-market, for which the discovery of America paved the way. This market has
given immense development to commerce, to navigation, to communication by land. This
development has, in its time, reacted on the extension of industry; and in proportion as
industry, commerce, navigation, railways extended, in the same proportion the bourgeoisie developed,
increased its capital, and pushed into the background every class handed down from the
Middle Ages.” This capitalist world-system view is becoming
increasingly prominent in modern macrosociology through the work of Immanuel Wallerstein,
John Bellamy Foster, Andre Gunder Frank, and Stephen Sanderson. According to this view, the modern nation
state exists within a broad economic, political, and legal framework called a world-system.
Just as individual behavior cannot be fully understood without reference to the society
in which they are members, individual societies or nation states cannot be understood without
reference to the world-system in which they are embedded. Modern nation states are all
part of the world-system of capitalism, and it is the origin, operation, and evolution
of this world-system that serves as the focus of world-systems analyses. Capitalism, according to Immanuel Wallerstein,
has evolved beyond national political boundaries, now operating on a world stage with the freedom
to maneuver within and between states. The size of the world-economy is only limited
by the level of communications and transportation technology. There is a division of labor and rewards within
its systems, with an increasing proportion going to “core countries” (the industrialized
countries of Western Europe, the U.S., Canada, and Japan) and, within these core countries,
an increasing proportion going to owners and managers of capitalist enterprises. From the start, world-systems theorists have
demonstrated, capitalism has had a division of labor that encompassed several nation states.
The capitalist world-system began in Europe in about 1500 and under the spur of the accumulation
of capital, expanded over the next few centuries to cover the entire globe. In the process of this expansion the capitalist
world-system has absorbed small isolated hunting and gathering and simple horticultural societies,
horticultural and agrarian societies, world-empires, as well as competing world-economies. The capitalist world-economy was created by
establishing long-distance trade in goods and linking production processes worldwide,
all of which allowed the significant accumulation of capital in Europe. But these economic relationships
were not created between regions in a political vacuum. The modern nation state was created
in Europe, along with capitalism, to serve and protect capitalist interests. What was in the interests of early European
capitalists was the establishment of a world-economy based on an extremely unequal division of
labor between European states and the rest of the system. Also in their interests was
the establishment of strong European states that had the political and military power
to enforce this inequality. The capitalist world-economy is a mechanism
of surplus appropriation that is both subtle and efficient. It relies upon the creation
of surplus through constantly expanding productivity. It extracts this surplus for the benefit of
the elite through the creation of profit. This is far more efficient than the extraction
of tribute by force. It has the added advantage of softening and
disguising the exploitive relationship. It becomes difficult for the victim to identify
her exploiter, or even for the exploiter to recognize that he is expropriating surplus!
All of it is left to–and defined by–market forces. In such situations it is difficult
to organize and coalesce against an enemy, difficult to revolt. The capitalist world-system is based on a
two-fold division of labor in which different classes and status groups are given differential
access to resources within nation states, and the different nation-states are given
differential access to goods and services on the world market. Both types of markets–those
within and those between nation states–are very much distorted by the power of elites. The capitalist world-economy can be divided
into core states, semi-peripheral, and peripheral areas. The peripheral areas are the least
developed; they are exploited by the core for their cheap labor, raw materials, and
agricultural production. The semi-peripheral areas are somewhat intermediate,
being both exploited by the core and taking some role in the exploitation of the peripheral
areas. In the recent past they have been expanding their manufacturing activities, particularly
in areas that are no longer very profitable for core countries. The core states are in geographically advantaged
areas of the world such as Europe and North America. These states promote capital accumulation
internally through tax policy, government purchasing, sponsorship of research and development,
financing infrastructural development (such as sewers, roads, airports–usually publicly
financed but privately constructed), and maintaining social order to minimize class struggle. Core states also promote capital accumulation
in the world-economy itself. For historical reasons, these states have the political,
economic, and military power to enforce unequal rates of exchange between the core and the
periphery. It is this power that allows core states to dump unsafe goods in peripheral
nations, pay lower prices for raw materials than would be possible in a truly free market,
exploit the periphery for cheap labor, lax environmental, consumer, and worker safety
laws, erect trade barriers and quotas to their advantage, and establish and enforce patents. It is the economic, political, and military
power of the core that allows significant capital to be accumulated into the hands of
a few; the capitalist world-system that produces and maintains the gross economic and political
inequalities within and between nations. As with capitalism within nation states, world-systems
theorists argue, this power is not uncontested, it is the subject of struggle. True to their
roots in Marx, world-systems theorists see internal contradictions within the system
that cause political and economic instability and social unrest. Eventually, Wallerstein
and others predict, a world-wide crisis will be reached and the system will necessarily
collapse, opening the way for revolutionary change. If you are interested in the big picture you
should take a look at Macro Social Theory, a book that reviews the theories of classical
macro social theorists such as Karl Marx, Max Weber, and Emile Durkheim as well as the
work of many who extended their theories to better reflect modern times such as Immanuel
Wallerstein, Gerhard Lenski, and George Ritzer. Also see Sociocultural Systems: Principles
of Structure and Change to learn how these insights contribute to a fuller understanding
of modern societies. These books can be purchased at most online
bookstores or at Athabasca University Press. If you are short of funds Athabasca also offers
a free pdf version of the work. A significant portion of the royalties I receive
for these books go to the Rogers State University Foundation in support of students in the Liberal
Arts. I thank you for your support and interest.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *