Immanuel Wallerstein: The Structural Crisis: Middle-Run ImponderablesAlainet,18 enero 2013 I have previously laid out why I think the capitalist world-system is in a structural crisis, and why this leads to a worldwide political struggle over which of two alternative outcomes will prevail: one that results in a non-capitalist system that retains all the worst features of capitalism (hierarchy, exploitation, and polarization); or one that lays the basis for a system that is based on relative democratization and relative egalitarianism, a kind of system that has never yet existed.
There are however three imponderables in the process of systemic transition. These are three phenomena whose roots are in the historical developments of the modern world-system, and which could "explode" in some sense in the next twenty to forty years in an extremely destructive manner, with very uncertain consequences for the worldwide political struggle.
These three imponderables are climate change, pandemics, and nuclear warfare. They are not imponderable in the dangers they pose for all of humanity. They are imponderables in terms of the timing of any disasters. Our knowledge about each of these is extensive but there are enough uncertainties and differences of views among those who have studied seriously these issues that I do not believe we can be sure what exactly will happen. Let us discuss each in turn.
Climate change seems an unquestionable reality, except for those who reject this reality for political or ideological reasons. Furthermore, everything that has been causing climate change is actually accelerating rather than slowing down. The political differences between wealthier and less wealthy states as to what should be done about climate change make an accord that would mitigate the risks appear unattainable.
However, the earth's ecological complexity is so great, and these changes so extensive, that we do not know what kinds of readjustments will occur. It seems clear that water levels will rise, are already rising, and this threatens the drowning of vast land areas. It also seems clear that the average temperatures in various parts of the world will change, are already changing. But this can also result in shifting the location of agricultural production and energy sources to different zones in ways that might in some sense "compensate" for the acute damage to other zones.
The same thing seems to be true of pandemics. The enormous "advances" of world medicine in the last hundred or so years that have seemed to bring so many diseases under control have simultaneously created a situation in which humanity's ancient enemy, the germ, has found new ways to be resistant and to create new kinds of maladies that our medical forces find extremely difficult to combat.
On the other hand, we seem to be beginning to learn that germs can sometimes be humanity's best friend. Once again, our knowledge seemed great but, when all is said and done, turns out to be pitifully small. In this race against time, how fast will we learn? And how much must we unlearn, in order to survive?
Finally, there is nuclear war. I have argued that there will be significant nuclear proliferation in the decade or so to come. I do not see this as a danger in terms of interstate warfare. Indeed it is almost the contrary. Nuclear weapons are essentially defensive weapons and therefore reduce, not increase, the likelihood of interstate wars.
However, there are several imponderables. The motivations of non-state actors are not necessarily the same. And there are some no doubt who would like to get their hands on such weapons (as well as on chemical and biological weapons) and use them. In addition, the limited ability of many states to protect such weapons from seizure or purchase may facilitate their acquisition by non-state actors. Finally, the actual use of such weapons is necessarily in the hands of some individuals. And the possibility of a "rogue" state agent, a Dr. Strangelove of fiction, is never to be ruled out.
It is perfectly possible that the world weathers the global transition to a new world-system or systems without any of these catastrophes occurring. But it is also possible that it doesn't. And, if it does weather the transition, it is also possible that the new world-system will take the kinds of measures that will reduce (even eliminate) the likelihood of any of them coming to fruition.
Obviously, we cannot simply sit back and see what happens. We need to pursue whatever measures we can in the immediate present to minimize the possibility of the "explosion" of any of these three imponderables. However, as long as we find ourselves in the modern world-system, what we can accomplish politically is limited. That is why I call them imponderables. We cannot be sure what will actually happen and what effect it will have on the transition.
Let me make myself clear. None of these dangerous occurrences would end the process of structural transition. But it could affect seriously the balance of political forces in the struggle. It seems already clear that one major way in which many people react to these dangers is to pull inward in a heavily protectionist and xenophobic way, thereby strengthening the hand of those who are seeking to create an oppressive system (even if it be a non-capitalist one). We see this tendency already almost everywhere. It means that those who seek a system that is relatively democratic and relatively egalitarian have to become clearer about what is happening and work harder at developing political strategies that will counter this trend.
(January 15 2013)
- Immanuel Wallerstein, Senior Research Scholar at Yale University, is the author of The Decline of American Power: The U.S. in a Chaotic World (New Press).
Copyright ©2013 Immanuel Wallerstein – used by permission of Agence Global