Possible Futures of the World-System in Long-Term Evolutionary Perspective

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* Article: Social Evolution and the Future of World Society. By Christopher Chase-Dunn. World Futures The Journal of General Evolution 63(5-6):408-424, July 2007. (DOI: 10.1080/02604020701404083)

URL = https://www.researchgate.net/publication/233709271_Social_Evolution_and_the_Future_of_World_Society

"World-systems are defined as intersocietal networks of regularized inter-action."


Special Issue: journal of world-systems research: Globalizations from ‘Above’ and ‘Below’ – The Future of World Society

An earlier version of this article was presented at the symposium on “The Future of World Society,” University of Zurich, and published in the conference volume (Chase-Dunn).


"World society has been emerging on a global scale, but the old world-system of multiple cultures continues to exist at the same time that a global culture is in formation. In this article the author discusses the relations among these forms of integration in the contemporary system, the coming dark age of deglobalization, and the potential for the eventual emergence of a collectively rational and democratic global commonwealth."

Contextual Quote

"Capitalist accumulation usually favors a multicentric interstate system because this provides greater opportunities for the maneuverability of capital than would exist in a world state. Big capitals can play states off against each other and can escape movements that try to regulate investment or redistribute profits by abandoning the states in which such movements attain political power."

- Christopher Chase-Dunn [1]


Christopher Chase-Dunn:

"This comparative perspective, which combines archaeology and ethnography with world history, allows us to see important patterns that are much more clearly visible once one systematically juxtaposes smaller, older systems with larger, more recent ones.

It becomes apparent that while early core/periphery hierarchies were unstable and power was not projected over very long distances, the emergence of new techniques of power allowed core/periphery hierarchies to become spatially larger and more stable. States, markets, empires, religions, military infrastructure and organization are all important institutions that allow greater integration and more efficient long-distance exploitation and domination. Small-scale stateless world-systems have very little in the way of core/periphery hierarchy (e.g., Chase-Dunn and Mann 1998).

The other important recurrent pattern that becomes apparent once we use world-systems as the unit of analysis for analyzing social evolution is the phenomenon of “semiperipheral development.” Th is means that semiperipheral groups are unusually prolific innovators of techniques that both facilitate upward mobility and transform the basic logic of social development. This is not to say that all semiperipheral groups produce such transformational actions, but rather that the semiperipheral location is more fertile ground for the production of innovations than is either the core or the periphery. This is because semiperipheral societies have access to both core and peripheral cultural elements and techniques, and they have invested less in existing organizational forms than core societies have. So they are freer to recombine the organizational elements into new configurations and to invest in new technologies, and they are usually more motivated to take risks than are older core societies. Innovation in older core societies tends toward minor improvements. Semiperipheral societies aremore likely to put their resources behind radically new concepts. Thus knowledge of core/periphery hierarchies and semiperipheral locations is necessary for explaining how small-scale inter chiefdom systems evolved into the capitalist global political economy of today.


The semiperipheral development idea is also an important tool for under-standing the real possibilities for global social change today because semiperipheral countries are the main weak link in the global capitalist system the zone where the most powerful anti-systemic movements have emerged in the past and where vital and transformative developments are most likely to occur in the future. The hegemonic sequence of the last four centuries (the rise and fall of hegemonic core states) is the modern version of an ancient oscillation between more and less centralized interstate systems. All hierarchical systems experience a cycle of rise and fall, from cycling in inter-chiefdom systems to the rise and fall of empires, to the modern sequence of hegemonic rise and fall. In state-based(tributary) world-systems this oscillation typically took the form of semiperipheral marcher states conquering older core states to form a “universal empire”(see Figure 1).One important consequence of the coming to predominance of capitalist accumulation has been the conversion of the rise and fall process from semi-peripheral marcher conquest to the rise and fall of capitalist hegemons that do not take over other core states. The hegemons rise to economic and political/military preeminence, but they do not construct a core-wide world state, at least up to now. Rather, the core of the modern system oscillates between unipolar hegemony and hegemonic rivalry."


The British Hegemonic Wave

Christopher Chase-Dunn:

"The most relevant for comprehending our own era is the story of the nineteenth century and its tsunami (tidal wave) of capitalist globalization under the auspices of British hegemony. Transnational anti-systemic movements, especially the trade union movement and the feminist movement, emerged to contend with global capitalism. Workers and women consciously took the role of world citizens, organizing international movements to contend with the increasingly transnational organization of an emergent global capitalist class. Political and economic elites, especially finance capitalists, had already been consciously operating on an intercontinental scale for centuries, but the degree of international integration of these elites reached a very high level in the late nineteenth century. The British created the Concert of Europe after defeating Napoleon. This was an alliance of conservative dynasties and politicians who were dedicated to the prevention of any future French revolutions. The British Royal Navy sup-pressed the slave trade and encouraged decolonization of the Spanish colonies in the Americas. The English Anti-Corn Law League’s advocacy of international free trade (carried abroad by British diplomats and businessmen) was adopted by most European and American states in the middle of the century. The gold standard was an important support of a huge increase in international trade and investment (Chase-Dunn et al. 2000; O’Rourke and Williamson 1999). The expanding Atlantic economy, already firmly attached to the Indian Ocean, was accompanied by an expanding Pacific economy as Japan and China were more completely and directly brought into the trade and investment networks of Europe and North America. American ginseng was harvested in Pennsylvania as an important commodity export that could be used in lieu of silver in the trade for Chinese silk and “china. ”The nineteenth century wave of capitalist globalization was massively con-tested in a great globalization backlash. The decolonization of Latin America extended the formal aspects of state sovereignty to a large chunk of the periphery. Slave revolts, abolitionism and the further incorporation of Africa intothe capitalist world-system eventually led to the abolition of slavery almost everywhere. Within Europe socialist and democratic demands for political and economic rights of the non-propertied classes strongly emerged in the world revolution of 1848.

There is quite likely to be another round of rivalry among core states. Indeed, the imperial over-reach pursued by the current Bush administration is provoking some of this kind of rivalry within the core. Global elites achieved a rather high degree of international integration during the late nineteenth century wave of globalization, but this did not prevent the World Wars of the twentieth century."


The Hegemonic Cycle

Christopher Chase-Dunn:

"The hegemonic sequence is not a simple cycle that takes the same form each time around. Rather, as Giovanni Arrighi (1994) has so convincingly shown, each “systemic cycle of accumulation” involves a reorganization of the relation-ships among big capitals and states. And the evolutionary aspects of hegemony not only adapt to changes in scale, geography and technology, but they also must solve problems created by resistance from below (Silver 2003; Boswell and Chase-Dunn 2000). Workers and farmers in the world-system are not inert objects of exploitation and domination. Rather, they develop new organizational and institutional instruments of protection and resistance. So the inter-action between the powerful and less powerful is a spiral of domination and resistance that is one of the most important driving forces of the developmentalhistory of modern capitalism."