1 World-Systems

Much of this work explores the idea of civilization. It attempts understand, primarily, to what extent the term civilization still applies in the early 21st century and to what extent the concept of civilization might prove useful for human society moving forward. Many detailed histories of past civilizations are available. We will not attempt to reproduce those stories here. Rather, the goal in this work is to offer a variety of analytical frameworks that help us get a grip on the idea of civilization in the contemporary world. One such framework is world-systems theory. To a great extent, world-systems theory concerns itself not with the commanding heights of civilization like art and architecture, focusing instead on the infrastructure of economic production, trade, and power relationships. The idea of world-systems puts a material foundation under the study of civilizations, with the idea of civilization itself generally having far loftier connotations. Like all foundation work, world-systems theory is thus a bit dry and structural. But we will make good use of that structure as we attempt to scale higher in following chapters.

World-systems theory is most associated with the work of Immanuel Wallerstein. The idea is to define a unit of analysis for social history that is larger than a nation-state, but smaller than the entire world. In ancient times, for example, China, India, Mesopotamia, Egypt, and the Americas were relatively unconnected with each other, so each would have been a different world-system. World-systems theory focuses on economic and political variables primarily. This leads to a series of related definitions:

World system – a world-system that expands to include the entire world. The current world system arose from events such as the opening of Japan in 1853, which completed the process begun by Columbus in 1492 of connecting all major world societies to the European world-system.

World-economy – the economic dimension of a world-system. In historical times, there were multiple world-economies. Currently, all previous world-economies have merged.

World economy – a single system of trade and production encompassing the whole world. We have this now. This does not rule out the idea of trade barriers, tariffs, national monopolies, and other measures to create relative isolation of certain national economies from the world economy. (The presence of a world economy does not imply wide-open globalism by all its participants). But the current existence of a world economy is demonstrated by the impossibility of understanding national or local economies without reference to global trends, technologies, and trading patterns.

World-empire – a political unit encompassing an entire world-system. Ancient empires ruling most of their known worlds are examples of world-empires. The term world-empire is to some extent a matter of degree. Historical world-empires typically had wide range trading relationships with frontier peoples or via long distance shipping or caravans with other world-empires. So even the most extensive world-empires were less extensive than their world-economies. World-empires thus reflect times in history when political authority was relatively consolidated in the core of a world-system, as compared to other times when empires break down and the world-system contains many competing sovereign kingdoms, cities, or states.

World empire – an empire covering the entire world. This has not been seen yet. In spite of the success of European powers colonizing much of the globe after 1492, these powers always competed with one another, so none could form a world empire. Likewise, despite the United States rise to preeminent world power after 1945, in the post-World War II era the US has always experienced significant competition from states such as the USSR and the People’s Republic of China. Whatever one thinks of arguments invoking US “imperialism” in recent times, the US remains one of many sovereign nation states in a global political system that falls sort of world empire.

Civilization – historians who focus on culture primarily, or who consider cultural change as a significant causal factor in historical evolution, tend to favor the term “civilization” over “world-system”. An exception is David Wilkinson, who in one article declared that “Civilizations are World-Systems!” (Wilkinson, 1995) Wilkinson’s equation of world-systems with civilizations is unusual. World-systems theory typically sees political and economic variables are being most fundamental, with cultural variables being more dependent. Civilization theorists generally see cultural variables has being largely independent, if not fundamental. The definition of the term “civilization” involves many complexities and will be addressed more completely in following chapters.


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