Saturday, April 13, 2013

165: Arrighi, Hopkins & Wallerstein's Antisystemic Movements

From my notes from December 13, 2011 (!)

Author: Giovanni Arrighi, Terence K. Hopkins & Immanuel Wallerstein
Title (Year): Antisystemic Movements (1989)


The five essays that make up Arrighi, Hopkins, and Wallerstein’s Antisystemic Movements, all of which were presented between 1982 and 1988 at the International Colloquia on the World Economy, progressively theorize and explicate the new world-system and the antisystemic movements that shape and are shaped by it.  Although system and resistance are dialectically related, all resistence is directly shaped by the structures and processes of the world-system; the purpose of this volume is to reexamine patterns and successes of antisystemic movements thus far.  To theorize the world-system, AH&W expand on Weber’s distinction between class-based (economic) and status-based (prestige) political communities, which, in turn, is based on Marx’ base and superstructure.  They articulate status-based communities to autonomous nation-states and class-based communities to the increasingly global world economy, where economic and political competition are increasingly being replaced by giant transnational corporations managing vast circulations of capital.  States become striated into three rings of power: the core states, which conveniently include the US, USSR, Japan, China, and Western Europe; the semi-peripheral states, which are mostly communist, and the peripheral states which are going through various iterations of radical nationalism.  As capitalism goes global, power becomes centralized in the core, but capital becomes decentralized as it goes further and further in search of Third World countries that can’t resist its exploitation.  However, while increased globalization of capitalism leads to increased oppression of the world’s peoples, this process also leads to greater opportunities for transnational resistance, because capitalism’s “integrating tendencies” lend structure and organization to the resistence that is always-already fomenting just beneath the surface.  When oppression becomes too acute, antisystemic activity responds.  The dilemma of antisystemic activism, however, is that historically it has been aimed at overturning the state, but in the era of global capitalism it should really be aiming to overturn the capitalist system, because capitalism, not states, is where the power lies now.

I have to admit, I find a lot to like in world-systems theory, partly because it is clearly and succinctly theorized and partly because its global perspective helps explain processes that might be invisible or less logical at a smaller scale.  Although the authors touch on a mere two dozen sources in their bibliography, they spend pages explaining each element of their theory and how they used Adam Smith, Karl Marx, Max Weber, or Emile Durkheim to derive it, a process which, while keeping their work solidly within the Enlightenment canon, clearly anchors their ideas in the history of Western thought.  Thus, they are able to derive a political model from the familiar base-and-superstructure, explain that class is by definition a class in itself but nationalism is a class for itself (because it involves mutual recognition of non-economic similarities), and show that at a global scale, class and status become fused at the level of the state and therefore at the level of the (dialectically necessary) antisystemic movement.  Likewise, they can show that while social movements generally occur in direct action against the state, the new global capitalism – and the resulting fusion between base and superstructure at the state level – make it possible for revolution to occur at the global scale, both because the theory works out neatly and because all of the states are thoroughly and irrevocably interconnected.  The combination of theory and global scale makes world processes and world revolution visible and legible.  It also has an eerie ability to make sense of the relationships between, say, the Arab Spring, the teetering Euro, and the Occupy Wall Street movement: increased interconnectivity both renders economics more important than statehood and helps protesters mobilize class- and status-based identities and rhetorics to protest the New World Order.

Despite my infatuation with neat theoretical explanations, however, AH&W’s world-systems version of social movement theory is not without its problems.  Beyond the obvious lack of empirical evidence, world-systems theory, as Tilly reiterates in Big Structures, operates at such a large scale that only sweeping generalizations are possible; this leads to an erasure of the very differences between peoples and movements that can help explain their development, rise, and fall.  Further, characterizing social movements as merely the dialectical partner of global capitalism assigns all agency to the capitalist system and leaves nothing but structurally pre-ordained crumbs for antisystemic activists – or for any social actors, for that matter.  And far from being dynamic, the picture of the world that world-systems theory creates is resolutely static, with its three concentric rings of power, continually-suffering oppressed peoples, and linear trajectory from 1848 to 1968, which the authors call the “great rehearsal.”  The great rehearsal for the glorious revolution?  In spite of their insistence on a dialectical structure, the authors come off as rather heavy-handed Marxists, moulding world history into some slow but steady progress toward the final liberatory revolution.

Despite this heavy-handedness – and in some cases because of it – AH&W’s world-systems take on social movements is connected to many writers working on similar problems at the same time and has had a profound impact on the study of social movements.  The authors cite Marx, Smith, Weber, and Durkheim as their primary influences, and these are all very visible in the text, but Foucault and Althusser are also quite present, particularly in their conception of politics as a closed system and power as inescapable.  Although he disagrees with their choice of scale, Charles Tilly’s Big Structures shows that he was strongly influenced by their nation-state/world-economy tension as well as by the dialectical relationship between social movements and the structures they are moving against.  Tarrow’s Power in Movement belies a similar understanding of these tensions, though he (and Tilly) insist that the large-scale theory be paired with empirical evidence of historically contingent social movements.  Finally, and more recently, geographer David Harvey has adapted world-systems theory for the present day and has used it to advocate for revolution from within the system.  Thus, despite its faults, world-systems theory has been incredibly useful for scholars of social movements, and I imagine it will continue to do so.

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