Wallerstein on the Global Left and Right

EDITORIAL, 12 Sep 2016

#446 | Johan Galtung

Wallerstein is unique.  Nobody else has presented such a coherent theory of what he calls the modern world-system, from “the long 16th century” up till today; essentially capitalist.  There are ups and downs during those four centuries.  He is very much at home in the economic Kondratiev cycles–A for up, B for down, but not that much down–and in the political-military hegemonic cycles of the would-be hegemons in the same period.  Read Immanuel Wallerstein, become wiser.

He warns against the Global Right “Lampedusa tactic” of “changing things so that they remain the same”. And insists on Liberty, Equality and Fraternity for the Global Left–but sees the French Revolution more as normalizing change than as people’s sovereignty.  Like faith in the middle classes: they are actually helping the Global Right, when in minority they are enlarged by the majority working classes, when in majority they neglect the working class minority left behind.

Right now Wallerstein sees capitalism in crisis with no remedy–of which I am not so sure–and the US hegemony also in a crisis with no remedy–a view I share–, as the fall of an empire with local elites killing for them; now they have to do most of the killing themselves.

The Global Right, in power for a long time, is now faltering.  Time for the Global Left?  Or, does Zizek’s brilliant formula “the left never misses a chance to miss a chance” apply?

Wallerstein: Yes!, and offers six Global Left proposals:

  • Use, promote, the Spirit of Porto Alegre, the World Social Forum;
  • Use electoral tactics at least to defend what has been achieved;
  • Demand ever more welfare state–free education, health, life income;
  • Make liberals liberal: open borders, have companies pay for failure;
  • Fight racism (and we might add: sexism, middleagism, centrism, homophobia, etc.)
  • Decommodify, education-health as human rights, not buying-selling.

No problem agreeing with these general principles.  But concrete cases of the Left progressing may be more problematic: the Zapatista revolt in Chiapas 1 Jan 1994 (the day NAFTA came into force), and the first Porto Alegre meeting in 2001.  This author was present in both.

Chiapas: The “Zapatista Revolt” was marketed by a clever outside professor; the “revolt” imported high culture from central Mexico.  No Maya revolt in Chiapas-Yucatan-Guatemala-Belice-Honduras for equality.

Porto Alegre: an impressive parade of the diversity in “another world is possible” message; many worlds in search of unifying themes and action. Like the theme of inequality. And the action of boycotting companies with unacceptable CEO/worker income ratios.

HOWEVER, more basic: Wallerstein’s breathtaking overview is limited and limiting; to the West, and to one period, “modernity”.  Not Global; and Right vs Left–pro-contra capitalism–is modern. Modernity fostered State, Capital and People: Capital produced more capital and met material demands from people who could pay; State cooperated with Capital, was bought, but also protected People; People fight, for their basic needs survival, wellness, freedom, identity.

I see Western history as expansion/contraction cycles—before, Greco-Roman expansion–now contracting, in a world with Islam, Hindu, Buddhist, Chinese, Japanese civilizations to mention some–neglected by Western universalist arrogance and ignorance.  Next door is Islam, suffering from the same universalism, “the only true faith for all at all times”, and counter-cyclical to the West: when one contracts the other expands.  Right now Islam expands and the West contracts.

“Right” stands for Capital growth for material, body, demands; “Left” for State-People cooperation against Capital, for distribution.  BUT, for distribution of what?  Of the same?  Of more things that lead to more empty lives marred by more egocentric loneliness?  With Islam expanding, offering We-centric togetherness, sharing for basic needs?

Crisis, indeed.  But the way out could be a new discourse, less material, more spiritual; something to live for, not only from.  Could be for causes beyond egocentric satisfaction; religions offer answers, so do causes like peace, development, environment, the UN Three.

Could be driven by the incredible creativity of the human spirit, beyond God’s Creation, consuming arts and sciences produced by others, and by becoming creative producers.  Or, simply searching, wandering and wondering monks, not letting material things stand in the way.

New Middle Ages? Look, all ages are “middle”, between past and future.  “A new contraction phase, into inner, more spiritual lives, into smaller units”, is more indicative.  Maybe in Europe and USA with 500 rather than 50 autonomous units?  Woven together, cooperating for more mutual and equal benefit; wanting less, hence struggling less?

And the economy?  In “land, labor, capital” or “Nature, Humans, Capital”, nature and humans are indispensable. Not only as means, inputs in an economy for growth, distribution or both, but as absolute ends in themselves.  The economy must balance naturism, humanism and capitalism, so must economics. Today’s “economics” focuses on capital and growth.  Throw it out, produce a human-nature focused economics.

Modernity with its dominant State-Capital-People discourse and reality is now fading.  What comes next?  “Post-modernity” is an empty expression, meaning “after modernity”.  The hypothesis offered here is contraction, in an oscillating history; stimulated in both phases in the West by less sense of balance than found in other civilizations.  The bigger the expansion, the power, the bigger the contraction, the fall. Look at Germany, Russia, Turkey, Spain, France, England, USA–.

What happens happens, but add to Wallerstein’s Six Western Left Six humanist-naturist for more balance in the coming contraction:

  • Lift up suffering humanity at the bottom, for full participation;
  • Lift up suffering nature at the bottom, for full participation;
  • Promote a Western We-culture of togetherness and sharing;
  • Promote a materially simpler, spiritually richer, creative life;
  • Promote equivalents of monasteries, with freedom to join, to leave;
  • Promote an exit from the rhythm in favor of more balanced, both-and.

And global? Maybe reaching other civilizations? Except Islam they are much older than the West, and have survived.  Perhaps through more diversity, symbiosis, more balance.  Maybe the West can learn from that.


Johan Galtung, a professor of peace studies, dr hc mult, is founder of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace, Development and Environment and rector of the TRANSCEND Peace University-TPU. Prof. Galtung has published 1669 articles and book chapters, over 400 Editorials for TRANSCEND Media Service, and over 167 books on peace and related issues, of which 41 have been translated into 35 languages, for a total of 135 book translations, including ‘50 Years-100 Peace and Conflict Perspectives,’ published by the TRANSCEND University Press-TUP.

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5 Responses to “Wallerstein on the Global Left and Right”

  1. Leejah Singh says:

    Thoughtful and expansive thinking from Prof Galtung.

    Yet I find the “less sense of balance than found in other civilizations” to be more wishful thinking than reality. The “Other civilization” I know from my native India and from China/other Asia, is no less unbalanced than the West. We are even more focused on growth than you and whatever balance you may think we carry from tao, hindi and buddist tradition is more in the mind of you, than in the reality of ourselves.

    You can argue that this is a result of outside influence, but the very ideas of Empire (= growth, conquest and submission) is just as rooted in age-old Asian cultures as in Western. I may be that the impulse is human, more than local, regional or ideological. For better or worse..

  2. There is a briefer solution to the current global chaos. “We the people” of the world insisting that the protection of human rights be enforced globally(see Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And national sovereignty (States Rights)be subservient to human rights. What we now have is a global system where the powerless UN must allow nation states to do whatever they want…especially if they have nuclear weapons and/or a big military.

    • Werner T. Meyer says:

      That is exactly what would end the US empire AND CAPITALISM.
      It would transform Wallerstein’s Capitalist World System into a World empire. With a world government instead of the interstate System.

      It is a dangerous strategy; 3 actors have tried it so far:

      1 Charles V at the beginning
      2 Napoleon I
      3 Adolf Hitler

      the next may be
      4 The Davos tribe (hierarchical faction) in the middle of this century.

      I prefer a MORE decentral solution (Porto Alegre tribe, anarchist faction)

      For details see Wallerstein’s contribution to “Wallerstein, Immanuel / Collins, Randall / Mann, Michael / Calhoun, Craig (2013) : Does Capitalism Have a Future? Oxford: Oxford University Press, USA.”


      Werner T. Meyer

  3. Werner T. Meyer says:

    Perhaps this summary can help to clarify our options:

    SUMMARY Wallerstein’s narrative about the end of capitalism

    Wallerstein, Immanuel et al. (2013) Chapter 1 Immanuel Wallerstein: Structural Crisis or why Capitalism may no longer find Capitalism rewarding

    The system here is the “Modern World system”, the economic and interstate System created in the long 16th century and due to end according to Wallerstein in the 21th century. The system covers the world economy as well as the states.
    The system has had a quite predictable behavior over the centuries with linear trends and 2 cyclical processes: economical Kondratiev-cycles and geopolitical hegemony-cycles . One of the long-term upward trends is ever increasing commodification of all inputs into economic production. Another is the increase of input costs due to the commodification and unionization of labor and thus its declining elasticity. We will be able to observe this mode of operation for some time in the future, but we have to closely watch the decreasing investment opportunities due to the rising costs and declining profits. At some points the system will come to a bifurcation point: Its elites will no longer find it rewarding. After that point, things become liminal and unpredictable for a while before a new economic, geostrategic and … system is established. Wallerstein can only guess, that 2 camps of actors will be interested in shaping the new solution: the “spirit of Davos” camp and the “spirit of Porto Alegre” camp. Their solutions will differ at least by the parameters hierarchy, exploitation and polarization. But there are more than 2 solutions because each camp is split again into multiple actors.

    I draw this conclusion: even complex systems are predictable over some periods and regions of state space. But they may bifurcate. It is highly recommendable to make educated guesses about the when and where. (Wallerstein does not panic and is a welcome guest at meetings of the spirit of Porto Alegre camp.)

    Werner T. Meyer

    • Leejah Singh says:

      Mr Meyer


      One of my interests is the dynamics of these prognosis’es. Wallerstein’s tends (and is often criticised for) ignoring the cultural differences in lieu of pure economics, where Prof Galtung is very much concerned with and explores the cultural aspects as well. I don’t know how will be the better prognosticator but time will show…