Immanuel Wallerstein’s series on The Modern World-System forms the centrepiece, over forty years in the making, of a provocative, wide-ranging and prolific career devoted to analysing the construction of the contemporary global order, from what he sees as its origins in the 16th century to its supposed unravelling over the last several decades.footnote1 A long gap separates the latest volume—the fourth, in what is now envisioned as a six- or seven-part work—from its predecessors, which were first published in 1974, 1980 and 1989. The first three, with informative new prefaces in which Wallerstein replies, with characteristic assurance and good humour, to his many critics, have now been reissued by the University of California Press in a handsome set, along with Volume iv. Wallerstein’s radically original approach is once again helpfully summarized in its concluding chapter, where it is crisply counterposed to the ‘usual view’ of the long 19th century of 1789–1914 as the age of multiple revolutions—above all, perhaps, to Hobsbawm’s ‘dual’ French and Industrial Revolutions—whose outcomes would culminate in the Great War’s clash of rival imperial powers.
For Wallerstein, the ‘so-called industrial revolution’ was not a unique, British-based development but merely a cyclical upturn in the mechanization of industrial production, of a sort that had occurred a number of times before and would do so again. Nor was the French Revolution in any sense a ‘bourgeois’ one, as commonly imagined, since France had been part of the ‘capitalist world-economy’ since the 16th century. For Wallerstein, it was a failed anti-capitalist revolution, a final, doomed attempt to defeat England’s bid to become the world-system’s new hegemonic power. In his view, the modern world-system has been driven by two great cyclical processes. The first is economic: Kondratieff waves of expansion and stagnation, roughly fifty years in length. The second, much slower cycle involves the rise and fall of hegemonic powers in the inter-state system. His analytical account of its development in The Modern World-System has proceeded chronologically, but also thematically, through a series of long yet overlapping time periods.
The first volume, ‘Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World-Economy’, spanning the ‘long 16th century’ of 1450–1640, described the creation of a ‘capitalist world-economy’ based on trade and agriculture but with a growing urban-industrial sector, its core increasingly concentrated in Northwestern Europe, especially France and England, after 1559. Volume ii, ‘Mercantilism and the Consolidation of the European World-Economy’, covering the years 1600–1750, analysed the rise of the bureaucratic state, the emergence of the post-1648 inter-state system and the struggle of successive powers—Dutch, French, English—for hegemony over it, as processes that consolidated the core ‘capitalist world-economy’, despite the overall economic slowdown of the 17th century. Volume iii, ‘The Second Era of Great Expansion of the Capitalist World-Economy’, runs from the mid-18th century through to the 1860s. After cordially dismissing all existing accounts of colonial expansion, capitalist industrialization and 1789, Wallerstein focuses on the struggle for hegemony between Britain and France, won by the latter in 1815, and the incorporation of large zones previously external to the ‘capitalist world-economy’ into its periphery, or semi-periphery.
The latest addition to the series, Volume iv, ‘Centrist Liberalism Triumphant, 1789–1914’, builds upon this strikingly original—and, of course, highly contested—construction. In its preface, Wallerstein writes that each volume has been designed to stand by itself, as well as forming part of the larger series, and it seems proper to take him at his word. But the result of having covered roughly the same period in Volume iii from a political-economic perspective leaves this account of 19th-century liberalism devoid of any consideration of the roles that the rise of industrial capitalism, the slave trade or colonial expansion might have played—giving it an oddly old-fashioned character, as a work of 19th-century Western European diplomatic and intellectual history in which the motive force appears to be the rulers’ political will. After the historiographical iconoclasm of the earlier volumes, Wallerstein reverts here to a more conventional narrative, seeing the French Revolution as the ideological watershed of the modern order and tracing its ramifications, above all in France and Britain, through the creation of liberal parliamentarist states, the revolutions of 1848, the growth and containment of workers’ and women’s movements, and the establishment of the modern social sciences. This takes the story up to the eve of the First World War.
‘Centrist Liberalism Triumphant’ elaborates themes that Wallerstein had begun to broach in essays of the early 1990s, most notably the ideas of a ‘geoculture’ and of liberalism as a centrist doctrine which, over the course of the 19th century, incorporated its rivals, conservatism and radicalism, to become not merely the dominant ideology of the world-system, but really the only one—a world culture with no outside. While the ‘capitalist world-economy’ had existed in its essential features for nearly three centuries by the time of the French Revolution, he has long argued, it still lacked a ‘legitimating geoculture’. In the struggles of 1789–1815, a ‘trinity’ of competing ideologies—conservatism, radicalism, liberalism—emerged. ‘Centrist liberalism’ not only triumphed over the others, it also subsumed them within the structures that it formed and dominated. Wallerstein stresses that he is offering not an account of liberalism as a political philosophy, a ‘metaphysics of the good society’, but as an ideology—that is, ‘a political meta-strategy’ which aimed to counter both the radical demands for popular sovereignty and the restorationist conservatism unleashed by the French Revolution; it thus posited itself as ‘centrist’ from the start. It was liberalism’s very conceptual fuzziness—its wide range of meanings, economic, political and social—that enabled it ‘to secure maximal support’.