ISA Homage to Immanuel Wallerstein

I am thankful to Sari Hanafi, Geofrey Players and Chris Dunn, for inviting me to be a part of this beautiful homage to one of the most important intellectuals of our times. Wallerstein was a thinker who had a critical focus on modernity, and who committed to unveil its temporality, its plots and fragilities, in order to make a contribution to transcend it, or at least, as he said, its capitalistic version.

Here I will speak about three concepts, that are fundamental not only in understanding Immanuel Wallerstein´s thinking, but also for further investigating the leads that he proposed, in order to decipher reality, as well as to analyze those leads critically.


Following the paths that Marx and Braudel unveiled, Wallerstein coined the concept of world-system, viewing social constructs as complex and ever changing processes, articulated around a node of coherence or world-vision, that despite its infinite and diverse interconnections, maintains a common referential meaning. A troubled, even antagonistic one, nevertheless cohesive.

From the Marxian idea of accumulation of capital, to the Braudelian concept of material civilization and from there to Wallerstein’s world-system, the intelligibility of social phenomena has progressively incorporated complexity, allowing us to understand  the multidimensional composition of life.

When Immanuel Wallerstein talked about systemic crisis, pointing towards the cultural revolt of 68 as a split or tipping point, many intellectuals rejected the idea. From the perspective of the world-system, that was nothing more than the first sign of a process, to be later ratified by the so-called oil crisis of 1973. This also manifests, since 50 years ago, as the ecological decline that swallows forests and jungles, as it desertifies the land, cancels the life conditions for thousands of species, and exponentially multiply the extinction rates, while it melts glaciers, rises the ocean level and heats the planet.  It is the world-system, as a complex whole, that loses its coherence and, using Wallerstein´s words, gets out of joint.

For Wallerstein, this is the moment of systemic dissipation. 

The modern capitalistic world-system does not have the conditions to perpetuate itself anymore, because it went beyond its point of no return. Although, there is no way of turning back because moving forward implies to distend the straps of social ordinance, to keep losing coherence and to enter a deep process of dislocation.

Material civilization 

The materiality of the modern capitalistic world-system, immanently linked to its rationale, was mainly constructed with fossil fuels, plastic, the automobile and cement, as its building blocks. With wheat and meat as the dietary basis, and the codification of thought in binary instructions, as an appropriating drift.

It is this material civilization of modernity, and the capitalistic world-system, that entered a state of crisis. It has no reverse gear, yet it has a corrosive gas pedal. In 2019 the peak oil was reached, and after that, there is no way to change the pattern of energetic consumption without critically changing the current way of life. Yet the way of life is conditioned by this materiality, that observes no limit or boundary, as to the objectivation or appropriation process. The world-system has worn out its own conditions of perpetuation, the very material civilization, that provided it with possibilities, now takes them away from it.

One of Wallerstein’s latest projects, Polarization Project, in which I had the privilege of participating, gathered a group of researchers that under his coordination, was set to asses and analyze the 5 centuries, give or take, of the present world-system. It revealed two things: that it is immanently polarizing, and therefore it cannot lead to the general well-being, and also the irreversible exhaustion of its life cycle.

This world-system became unsustainable.


The horizon that Wallerstein has in sight is not the collapse, but the bifurcation. This is, the configuration of a different vision of the world, proposing different meanings, that achieves a level of social articulation, that is sufficiently coherent, to become the new systemic axis: it is, the advent of a different world-system, forged in the very insides of the one that today declines. This bifurcation could be virtuous, as a result of emancipatory practices (finding a symbiosis between society and nature, for example), nevertheless, it could also be dystopian, built from the outgrowths of the system that fights extinction (in the style of the sovereignties and territorialities of the organized crime). Immanuel used to say, the possibilities are 50-50.

Due to the systemic complexity, the future is highly uncertain. The only certainty we have is the irreversibility of a process, once it goes beyond its point of no return.

Three groups of questions for critical reflection

The best homage that we can offer to an outstanding and profoundly critical thinker, such as Immanuel, is to keep walking, with critical steps, on the paths he opened. Thus, observing reality from my place of enunciation, quite different from his, despite our closeness, I want to ask three questions to him, to all wallerstinian thinkers, and to myself.

1.- Colonial processes, also studied by him, and the different modalities of capitalistic dominance, succeeded in imposing a world-wide world-system, as well as in dislocating or subsuming the pre-existing civilizations. However, today’s capitalism loses momentum, and those civilizations emerge, carrying their own cosmovisions, different from those imposed by the capitalistic world-system, and also different from the ones they had 500 years ago. It is hard to assert, that they are world-systems themselves, even spatially limited ones, yet, it is also complicated to assert, conclusively, that they are not. Wallerstein recognizes the coexistence of several world-systems, world-economies, world-empires and mini systems prior to the modern one. The hints of their existence, point towards the possibility for more than one world-system operating at the same time.

Is it then possible to think, of an aftermath of the current world-system, in which diverse world-systems coexist?

2. The emergencies in different parts of the world, that appeared facing the systemic crisis, defend ways of life that seem, in many ways, different to that of capitalism, and seem to correspond to other material civilizations, alive, more or less articulated, and coherent. These civilizations have wisdoms (in plural), methods of generating knowledge, and ways of relating to the environment, that are clearly opposed to the dominant ones.

Can we then think of material civilizations, that were turned invisible, although not destroyed, as entities with the power of self-reconstruction?

3. When Wallerstein talks about bifurcation, he does so in singular, maybe thinking of a world-system that is different to the current one, but equally omnipresent. Nevertheless, what we observe in reality today, is a compound of emergencies, that display some common, yet hardly reducible, elements. Shouldn’t we then accept the possibility of a plurality of yet-to-come world-systems? Furthermore, granting the idea of a plurality of emergencies, these seem to come from two sources: the first one are civilizations that have not been fully dislocated, and are in full interaction with the modern world-system, and the second one are experiences that emerge as critical and contradictory products, generated in the very entrails of the modern world-system. Would it be possible to think in a confluence or fusion between them? Or would it be more accurate to think of a differentiated coexistence? And in this case, could we call that a plurality of systems or mini-world-systems? Or would this plurality be a temporary moment in the conformation of a new all-encompassing world-system?

Should we rather think of a new world-system, as one of unity within diversity?

I hope time will allow us to see the solution of this uncertain and defiant puzzle.

Ana Esther Ceceña

February 2021



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