Immanuel Wallerstein on the Global Left and Right

EDITORIAL, 16 Jan 2023

#779 | Johan Galtung - TRANSCEND Media Service

Immanuel Wallerstein is unique.  Nobody else has presented such a coherent theory of what he calls the modern world-system–World-Systems Approach–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 Wallerstein and 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 for which local elites used to kill and rule; now having to do most killings itself.

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, it does! And he 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, ageism, centrism, 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 1-1-1994 (the day NAFTA came into force), and the first Porto Alegre meeting 2001.  I was active 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-Belize-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, also protecting People; People fighting for the basic needs survival, wellness, freedom, identity.

I see Western history as expansion/contraction–also 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, 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 egocentric loneliness?  With Islam expanding, offering wecentric togetherness sharing for basic needs?

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

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

New Middle Ages. But all ages are “middle”, between one and the next.  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 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, and 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 a sloppy expression, only “after modernity”.  The hypothesis offered here is contraction, in an oscillating history; brought about in both phases in the West by less sense of balance than in other civilizations.  The bigger the exaggeration, the bigger the power, but the bigger is also the fall–Germany, Russia, Turkey, Spain, France, England, USA.

Let what will happen happen, 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, leave;
  • Promote an exit from this rhythm in favor of a balanced both-and.

How about “global” as the other civilizations?  Except Islam they are much older than “modernity”, and have survived.  Perhaps through more diversity, symbiosis, balance.  Maybe West can learn from that.


Johan Galtung, a professor of peace studies, dr hc mult, is founder of TRANSCEND International, TRANSCEND Media Service, and rector of TRANSCEND Peace University. He was awarded among others the 1987 Right Livelihood Award, known as the Alternative Nobel Peace Prize. Galtung has mediated in over 150 conflicts in more than 150 countries, and written more than 170 books on peace and related issues, 96 as the sole author. More than 40 have been translated to other languages, including 50 Years-100 Peace and Conflict Perspectives published by TRANSCEND University Press. His book, Transcend and Transform, was translated to 25 languages. He has published more than 1700 articles and book chapters and over 500 Editorials for TRANSCEND Media Service. More information about Prof. Galtung and all of his publications can be found at

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One Response to “Immanuel Wallerstein on the Global Left and Right”

  1. All very well, dear Johan, but all the senseless killing and the general chaotic, violent and critical state of the planethas nothing to do with Capitalism. It has to do with keeping millions of workers in employment. All modest, simple, often poor workers whose only chance of survival, having regular meals a roof, feeding their family, etc is given to them by the War Industry or Armed Forces.

    Even if weapons, explosives, missiles, military vehicles cost ZERO and nobody benefitted materially from their production, what else can you do with grenades, landmines, machine guns, bullets, bombs, rockets, torpedoes, F-16s, F-35s, Apache helicopters, warships (appropriately called “Destroyers”) other than kill, kill and kill?

    Same as with pianos, violins or guitars. Even if no one benefitted financially from their production, the outcome of their existence is Music.