Sunday, September 10, 2006

Focusing on the Big Picture: Wallerstein's Commentaries

As the 5th anniversary of 11 September 2001 approaches, lots of bloggers and other commentators are writing either in proper commemoration of the sacrifices made by so many on that fateful day or, alternatively, criticizing the disgusting way that the Bush-Cheney Administration has tried to gain political benefit from the September 11th attacks. I agree wholeheartedly with both of these approaches, but I feel that I have little to add that isn't being said elsewhere.

Therefore, I wonder if I can offer something a little different, something to draw our attention to the bigger picture. One of my favorite intellectuals of the late 20th century is Immanuel Wallerstein, whose multi-volume series on "The Modern World-System" begun in the 1970s has been enormously influential in the halls of Academia. Wallerstein has challenged us to think about major developments in world history--especially concerning the rise and spread of capitalism--not as events happening within national boundaries but as part of a larger, interconnected world-system that links together people from very different places and in very different economic circumstances.

It must be said that Wallerstein's scholarship--a kind of hybrid historical social science that attempts to erase boundaries between sociology, economics, and politics--initially appealed mainly to university scholars who (at least in part) could follow his dense, probing, and sophisticated analysis. Over the years, however, Wallerstein has written increasingly for a wider audience. Hallmarks have included his recent, slim introduction to world-systems analysis for the novice, and especially his biweekly series of "Commentaries" on current events, often placing them in historical perspective, which appear on the website of the research institute he founded and directed (until very recently) at Binghamton University in New York, the Fernand Braudel Center (FBC).

For this blog, it is these Commentaries that I wish to commend to readers, since they are easily available on-line (click here for a direct link) at the FBC website. Every two weeks, he offers a new brief but thoughtful Commentary, roughly the length of an op-ed piece. He writes with a kind of knowing, detached omniscience that may at first seem strange. They have a certain "realpolitik" quality to them, which seems to say "this is what is really happening whether you like it or not." His ideas are often against the mainstream grain, but they are almost always well informed about the big picture.

Many of Wallerstein's recent Commentaries have focused on the role of the U.S. in world affairs, which seems a fitting big-picture theme for thinking about the larger context of 9/11. His latest one, "The Tiger at Bay: Scary Times Ahead," considers the declining influence of the U.S., which he has long seen as predictable but now accelerated by Bush-Cheney policies and actions. He then ruminates on the likely reaction of the "Cheney cabal" to the increasingly likely Democratic electoral success in 2006, ending with the following provocation: "Everyone worries about civil war in Iraq. How about in the United States? Scary times ahead!"

1 comment:

Rob said...

Wallerstein's commentary is sagacious and provocative. I tend to agree with him most of the time. Yet his analysis is disturbing. As you put it, he states the truth whether we like it or not. The truth he sees is often unpleasant. And impossible to dismiss.