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  • The End of the World As We Know It: Social Science for the Twenty-First Century
  • Axel van den Berg
Immanuel Wallerstein , The End of the World As We Know It: Social Science for the Twenty-First Century, Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1999, 278 pp.

For those who haven't followed Immanuel Wallerstein's recent work very closely, this collection of speeches and major addresses delivered during the 1990s to academic audiences around the globe probably offers a handy, if rather repetitive, summary. Wallerstein certainly has not lost his taste for sweeping generalization: the title of the book is meant quite literally, without irony or hyperbole. According to Wallerstein, the end is nigh, not only for capitalism, but also for the very structure of scientific knowledge as we have known it for the past several hundred years. Their joint demise is scheduled to take place within the next 50 years or so.

The book is divided in two parts. Part I, "The World of Capitalism" is mainly devoted to the claim that, contrary to most current reports, "[w]e are living not the final triumph of world capitalism but its first and only true crisis" (30). The main causes of this terminal crisis are the following: 1) world-wide deruralization is robbing capitalism of its last reserves armies of cheap and compliant labour without which it is effectively doomed; 2) the ecological crisis is forcing the internalization of the environmental costs of capitalist production which is impossible without fatal cuts in profitability; 3) the democratization of the world is producing world-wide demands for decent and secure income, education and health care none of which capitalism can afford to provide on a global scale without unsustainable profit loss; 4) the retreat of state power, crucial for propping up capitalist profits as well as the capitalist world-system, because of a massive, world-wide loss of faith in its ability to solve the problems caused by world capitalism. Consequently, the "disintegration of the modern world-system, of capitalism as a civilization" (33) is finally really upon us. [End Page 324]

What strikes me most in this account is the degree to which it rests on cultural and political rather than the old materialist arguments. The greatest and ultimately fatal threat to capitalism does not come, in Wallerstein's view, from an impoverished proletariat or economic crises but from the democratic "geoculture" spawned by the French Revolution. Its revolutionary ideal of sovereignty of "the people" posed a continuous challenge to the elites of the capitalist world-system who have been busy ever since trying to contain its potentially dangerous implications.

For a long period of time, from 1848 to 1968 to be exact, the dominant containment strategy of the liberals enjoyed a remarkable degree of success. It consisted of three limited concessions: universal suffrage, the welfare state, and a racist, exclusionary nationalism. During the 20th century, this strategy was expanded to include national self-determination and the promise of economic development for the "underdeveloped" countries as well. In addition, the liberals were careful to counter the potentially dangerous implications of popular suffrage by a variety of restrictions, most important among which was the effective limitation of the options to be considered by "the people" to those offered by "competent experts," those sufficiently rational and educated to rule out anything "extreme." In this way, liberals succeeded in restricting public debate to "technical" questions of formal rationality while keeping the ultimate goals served, the underlying substantive rationality, off the political agenda. Social scientists enthusiastically collaborated in this overall strategy as they were offered a key role as policy "experts." All this, of course, under the cloak of "value freedom" according to which matters of ultimate ends are inherently "irrational" and thus not decidable by rational argument. Finally, and perhaps most perniciously, the liberals were able to co-opt the Old Left, that is, virtually all anti-systemic movements from the socialists of the North to the liberation movements in the South, into their pacification program with the reformist promise of fundamental change "in the long run." Thus, "[b]y the twentieth century, it could be said that the only...


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pp. 324-328
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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Archived 2007
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