Monday, June 25, 2012

Wallerstein's Take On Economics

In 1983 Immanuel Wallerstein, a very good sociologist, well-known, usually associated with “world systems theory,” gave his take on capitalism. I just saw the book as a reissue. “Verso,” the publishing company or imprint was also the publisher of the original. On the back, it says that Wallerstein outlines the chief characteristics of capitalism, “[c]onsidering the way capitalism has changed and evolved over the centuries, and what has remained constant.
    That sounds good; I would like to know what these chief characteristics are. However, I always have trouble with Wallerstein (and every other economist, save Schumpeter!). I see on the back cover that a “companion essay”, “Capitalist Civilization,” is also mentioned. "Maybe I should look Wallerstein," I think. After all, so many of the words and concepts I am encountering here seem to resonate with my own views and theories.But I know there are going to be problems, because I remember paddling my canoe up this river previously.
    An interesting thing is that upon reading a bit of Wallerstein’s introduction he mentions “that a theoretical formulation is only understandable and usable in relation to the alternative formulation it is explicitly or implicity attacking; and that it is entirely irrelevant vis-á-vis formulations about other problems…” OK. This is why I stopped reading Wallersteing, I remember now. It is basically an unwieldy sentence. The first part is OK. The first part of the sentence circumscribes it—limits it—and that's fine. But then, here comes the second, and the second part of the sentence, after the semicolon, makes it complicated. I am pretty sure I am going to have problems. I am pretty sure I am right about these things. He is talking about the limits that exist when a writer is making assertions, or positing a theoretical view, for others to read. That's fine, because that is his experience and I get the feeling that he really knows what he is talking about. But why does he have to just keep worm holing into the topic, as if there will be no end to it? It seems like we can only accept the complete sentence, with both parts, if we simply accede to Wllerstein's native genius.
     Regarding the first two pages of the first lecture or chapter, he speaks of capital accumulation, of “the relations this holder of capital had therefore to establish with other persons in order to achieve this goal.” That also sounds like my own body of thought, but I am afraid that is as far as we can take it. There are so many possible ways to understand capitalism, and so small is the chance that someone else will take the same path through the subject area that I did. By “goal,” he means the investment of capital. He is talking about how  the capitalist “accumulates,” or tries always to create more of the same. That counts as a mention of capitalistic social ties, or social relations, which is something of which usually I am the only person interested. So far, Wallerstein using the same language. But the mention of "relations...with other persons" is circumscribed by his interest only in "capital" and "accumulation," and not any other kinds of social ties, not to mention any of the original approaches I have taken to this topic.
    Sure enough, after this initial moment of hope, the text veers off in all kinds of directions that have nothing in common with what I do, in my work. Any similarity of myself and Wallerstein, I suspect, is going to be superficial.
    Here is a bit more by him, on how the word “capital” applies to “capitalism.” He says that whenever accumulation of capital “regularly took priority over alternative objectives, we are justified in saying that we are observing a capitalist system in operation.” That’s fine. I have no objection. What it means, b. t. w. is that capitalists want profit—it is a bit like saying that they operate to get a profit.
    He bases his discussion on the notion of “capital,” though, as if that is  the only way to look at the subject of "capitalism," but I never do that. “Capital, for Wallerstein, is something that the capitalist, or the producer, or entrepreneur, wants to increase—obviously for himself (i.e. as profit) and, somehow, this increases capital as a whole. Actually, to look at it that way is very limiting. Does Wallerstein, I wonder, make any distinction between capital as it takes different forms, such as the forms: product, infrastructure, or money? Doesn’t that make a difference?
     I do not really know how good Wallerstein is. I just know I always get scared off pretty early. Hope I ain't prejudiced or anything...

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