Today's date:
Winter 2002


After Progress in the South: Khomeini, Saddam or Migration?

Immanuel Wallerstein, the celebrated author of The Modern World-System Series, is the director of the Fernand Braudel Center at Binghamton University and the directeur d'etudes Associe at the Ecole Des Haute Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris.

The following was adapted by NPQ from comments made at the Intellectuels Du Monde meeting in Paris in February of 1997.

Paris - From 1848 to 1989, the antisystemic movements hailed their successes and excused their failures with the soothing assurance that history was with them, and therefore with those they claimed to represent-the proletariat, the peoples, the "people." In fact, this belief in the inevitability of progress was in the long run extremely demobilizing, and we are seeing today the fruits of this demobilization in the widespread disillusionment and cynicism which 150 years of such revolutionary activity has bred.

The single greatest factor that has broken the spell of the idea of historically inevitable progress has been the patent reality of North-South polarization. For over 20 years now-marked by the worldwide revolution of 1968 and culminating in the collapse of the so-called communisms in 1989-the faith in state-centered and state-promoted reformism has been steadily eroding. The "neo-liberals" have seized the occasion to shout the triumph of the free market, and in desperation this idea has had some momentary resonance. But it has no substance because those that have turned away from a belief in state-centered reformism have not turned away from the democratic egalitarian agenda that underlay this faith; rather they have turned away from the strategy that had for 150 years been assumed to achieve this agenda and in fact did not.

The story of the last 20 years is not that of the turn to the free market as the panacea but the turn to "identity"-based groups as the refuge in a time of the slow but accelerating disintegration of states. We see this both in the North and in the South, from "multiculturalism" in the US and its emerging equivalents in Western Europe to the quite non-traditionalist religious fundamentalisms across the world. The negative critique of all these movements has been very powerful and has had an enormous impact. It is their positive program that has been very murky and ill defined. Their tactics have been "deconstructive" and essentially defensive. But they have not yet staked out an alternative strategy to that of the historic antisystemic movements which they consider to have fizzled out.

Meanwhile, despite the geocultural (and hence political) confusion, the capitalist world economy proceeds on its merry way, following its well-laid-out paths of constant restructuring of the formal frameworks without changing the fundamental reality of the ceaseless accumulation of capital and its very unequal distribution.

What may we then expect in the next 30-50 years in the world economy, and what political dilemmas does it pose for us? Very summarily, we can expect ?ve years or so of worldwide depression completing the last subphase of a Kondratieff cyclical downturn [generational cycle of technological and political innovation-ed.] we have been in since 1967-1973, followed probably by another big expansion of the world economy lasting for 25 years or so.

In this "upturn" at the beginning of the 21st century, we may expect a further North-South polarization and a further economic and social marginalization of large sectors of the South. This will, of course, be nothing new, except for one great difference: the disappearance of the soporific of the belief in progress and the efficacy of the reformist state. But without this element of political stabilization, further acute economic and demographic polarization will be very explosive.

We may expect three kinds of reactions in the South, all of which have been prefigured in the last 20 years. I call them the Khomeini option, the Saddam Hussein option and the individual option.

The Khomeini option is that of radical alterity, the refusal of the geocultural framework. The Saddam Hussein option is quite different. It is the option of direct military confrontation by the South of the North. The individual option is illegal immigration from South to North. All three options have been contained as of now by the North, albeit with difficulty. They will, however, become-all three-more and more difficult to contain, as more and more instances of each occur simultaneously.

The net result over the next 30-50 years will be enormous world disorder, taking three forms: civil disorders in countries of the South, North-South armed confrontations and great civil disorder in the North (as the populations of "Southern" origin grow as a percentage of the population, but without or with inadequate political and social rights).

The issue is not to bemoan this state of affairs, nor to wish it away. The issue is to come up with a meaningful political strategy as the systemic bifurcation occurs, so that we have some chance of emerging in 50 years with a better rather than a worse "order" that will by then have emerged out of the "chaos."