Thursday, October 16, 2008

Wallerstein's rhythmanalysis: forget the dust

Immanuel Wallerstein's latest diagnosis of the world-system is up:

Commentary No. 243, Oct. 15, 2008

"The Depression: A Long-Term View"

Strikes me that Wallerstein is practising a type of multi-temporal analysis, effectively analysing the different political-economic cycles in play in the present conjuncture. There is a marvellous essay by Ernst Bloch on the politics of time during the rise of the Nazis, where Bloch argues that Hitler effectively conducted three different social formations by appealing to the divergnet senses of time each had. Bloch's essay in Heritage of Our Times is also, I would argue, a form of rhythmanalysis: disaggregating an ensemble of rhythms, separating out what feels like arrhythmia so as to understand and perhaps explain the sense of asynchrony, a contemporary non-contemporaneousness, felt in the 1920s. [some discussion of Bloch's ideas here]

History is no entity advancing along a single line, in which capitalism . . . as the final stage, has resolved all the previous ones; but it is a polyrhythmic and multispatial entity, with enough unmastered and as yet by no means revealed and resolved corners (Heritage : 62)

Like uneven development, history as polyrhythmic poses a problem for analysis that wants to spatialize social formations, that wants to divide the world into substance blocs. A rhythmanalysis eschews the tyranny of the scopic by focussing attention on rhythms whether they be seen, heard, smelt, tasted or felt. Rhythms then.


Of course everyone is asking what has triggered this depression. Is it the derivatives, which Warren Buffett called "financial weapons of mass destruction"? Or is it the subprime mortgages? Or is it oil speculators? This is a blame game, and of no real importance. This is to concentrate on the dust, as Fernand Braudel called it, of short-term events. If we want to understand what is going on, we need to look at two other temporalities, which are far more revealing. One is that of medium-term cyclical swings. And one is that of the long-term structural trends.

The capitalist world-economy has had, for several hundred years at least, two major forms of cyclical swings. One is the so-called Kondratieff cycles that historically were 50-60 years in length. And the other is the hegemonic cycles which are much longer.

Wallerstein's conclusions:

What happens when we reach such a point is that the system bifurcates (in the language of complexity studies). The immediate consequence is high chaotic turbulence, which our world-system is experiencing at the moment and will continue to experience for perhaps another 20-50 years. As everyone pushes in whatever direction they think immediately best for each of them, a new order will emerge out of the chaos along one of two alternate and very different paths.

We can assert with confidence that the present system cannot survive. What we cannot predict is which new order will be chosen to replace it, because it will be the result of an infinity of individual pressures. But sooner or later, a new system will be installed. This will not be a capitalist system but it may be far worse (even more polarizing and hierarchical) or much better (relatively democratic and relatively egalitarian) than such a system. The choice of a new system is the major worldwide political struggle of our times.

As for our immediate short-run ad interim prospects, it is clear what is happening everywhere. We have been moving into a protectionist world (forget about so-called globalization). We have been moving into a much larger direct role of government in production. Even the United States and Great Britain are partially nationalizing the banks and the dying big industries. We are moving into populist government-led redistribution, which can take left-of-center social-democratic forms or far right authoritarian forms. And we are moving into acute social conflict within states, as everyone competes over the smaller pie. In the short-run, it is not, by and large, a pretty picture.

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