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Historical Capitalism: With Capitalist Civilization

By Immanuel Wallerstein

What distinguishes the historical social system we are calling historical capitalism is that in this historical system capital came to be used (invested) in a very special way. It came to be used with the primary objective or intent of self-expansion.

Historical capitalism involved therefore the widespread commodification of processes that had previously been conducted other than via a ‘market’.

The historical development of capitalism has involved the thrust towards the commodification of everything.

The economics of capitalism has thus been governed by the rational intent to maximize accumulation. But what was rational for the entrepreneurs was not necessarily rational for the workers.

Historical capitalism did in fact breed a homo economicus, but he was almost inevitably a bit confused.

Historical capitalism, is, thus, that locus of productive activities within which the endless accumulation of capital has been the economic objective

My own view is that the genesis of this historical system is located in late-fifteenth-century Europe, that the system expanded in space over time to cover the entire globe by the late nineteenth century, and that it still today covers the entire globe.

The producer seeking to accumulate is concerned with two different aspects of labour-power: its availability and its cost.

A group of persons existed who were permanently available for employment, more or less to the highest bidder.

We refer to the persons who sell their labour as proletarians.

In historical capitalism, there has been increasing proletarianization of the work-force.

Under historical capitalism there has been a steady devaluation of the work of women and a corresponding emphasis on the value of the adult male’s work.

The adult male wage-earner was classified as the ‘breadwinner’, and the adult female home-worker as the ‘housewife.’

Thus was sexism institutionalized.

We must rid ourselves of the simplistic image that the ‘market’ is a place where initial producer and ultimate consumer meet.

In historical capitalism, such market-place transactions have constituted a small percentage of the whole. Most commodity chains have not been random in their geographical directions. They have tended to move from the peripheries of the capitalist world-economy to the centres or cores.

The key to hiding this central mechanism lay in the very structure of the capitalist world-economy, the seeming separation in the capitalist world-system of the economic arena and the political arena.

Thus did historical capitalism actually create the so-called historical levels of wages which have become so dramatically divergent in different zones of the world-system.

We have spent much time on delineating how historical capitalism has operated in the narrowly economic arena. We are now ready to explain why capitalism emerged as a historical social system.

So imbued are we all by the self-justifying ideology of progress which this historical system has fashioned, that we find it difficult even to recognize the vast historical negatives of this system.

We can see by comparing the Europe of 1650 with 1450 that the following things had occurred. By 1650, the basic structures of historical capitalism as a viable social system had been established and consolidated.

Furthermore, if one substituted 1900 for 1650, one would find that most of the comparisons with 1450 still hold true.

It is only in the twentieth century that we shall see that the historical system of capitalism has, after four to five hundred years of flourishing, finally come into structural crisis.

The creation of historical capitalism as a social system dramatically reversed a trend that the upper strata feared, and established in its place one that served their interests even better.

It is thus no accident that the control of state power, the conquest of state power if necessary, has been the central strategic objective of all the major actors in the political arena throughout the history of modern capitalism.

The fact that frontier changes have had immediate impacts on the patterns of the social division of labour in the world-economy has been central to the considerations of all those who favoured or opposed particular frontier changes.

The second element of state power of fundamental concern to the operations of historical capitalism was the legal right of states to determine the rules governing the social relations of production within their territorial jurisdiction.

All these state decisions were taken with direct reference to the economic implications for the accumulation of capital.

In short, the power to tax was one of the most immediate ways in which the state directly assisted the process of the accumulation of capital in favour of some groups rather than others.

The structural base of the economic system and the clearly-perceived interests of the major accumulators of capital were fundamentally opposed to a transformation of the world-economy into a world-empire.

These considerations formed the objective basis of the so-called balance of power, so that no single state could successfully conquer all the others.

Entrepreneur against entrepreneur, economic sector against economic sector, the entrepreneurs located in one state, or ethnic group, against those in another—the struggle has been by definition ceaseless. And this ceaseless struggle has constantly taken a political form, precisely because of the central role of the states in the accumulation of capital.

‘democracy’ or ‘liberty’ against ‘feudalism’ or ‘tradition’ have not been struggles of the working classes against capitalism, they have been essentially struggles among the accumulators of capital for the accumulation of capital.

Once that is remembered, one is able to make a great deal of sense out of the political history of the modern world.

Historical capitalism has operated within a world-economy but not within a world-state. Quite the contrary.

The political consequence internally has been the continued exploitation of the labour-force, if in a reduced and ameliorated form in many instances.

Changes in state structures have altered the politics of accumulation; they have not yet been able to end them.

Historical capitalism has involved a monumental creation of material goods, but also a monumental polarization of reward. Many have benefited enormously, but many more have known a substantial reduction in their real total incomes and in the quality of their lives.

But over the whole of the time-space zone encompassed by historical capitalism, the endless accumulation of capital has meant the incessant widening of the real gap.

Racism has thus been a cultural pillar of historical capitalism. Its intellectual vacuity has not prevented it from unleashing terrible cruelties.

Historical capitalism entered into its structural crisis in the early twentieth century and will probably see its demise as a historical system sometime in the next century. What will follow is hazardous to predict.

The crisis of historical capitalism is often spoken of as the transition from capitalism to socialism.

We do not know yet how a socialist world order would operate.

Existing states or movements which call themselves socialist are phenomena of the present, that is of the historical capitalist world-system, and must be evaluated within that framework.

But the future world order will construct itself slowly, in ways we can barely imagine, never mind predict

The Marxist embrace of an evolutionary model of progress has been an enormous trap, which socialists have begun to suspect only recently

The few crumbs that have existed in historical capitalism for the working classes have always been concentrated in core areas. This is still disproportionately true.

The real danger occurs precisely now, as historical capitalism approaches its most complete unfolding—the further extension of the commodification of everything,

At the very most, 5 to 10 per cent of the world’s population can engage even once in a tourist expedition.

Faith in science reflects the confidence in the endlessly expanding possibilities of capitalist accumulation.

Human rights are precisely not a universal value but a reward of privilege.

The world of capitalist civilization is a polarized and a polarizing world.

What has preserved the system thus far has been the hope of incremental reformism, the eventual bridging of the gap.

Capitalist civilization has reached the autumn of its existence.

The modern world-system as such is approaching, is probably already in, a systemic crisis

We can be sure some new historical order will emerge. We cannot be sure what that order will be.

We are thus moving into a time of massive local, regional, and world disorders, a time of troubles, which will be far less structured (and therefore far less contained) than the German-US world wars of the twentieth century and the wars of national liberation that came in their wake.

Where shall we come out? For out of chaos comes new order. We cannot know for certain, except for one thing. Capitalist civilization will be over; its particular historical system will be no more.

It will not be the end of history, but in a real sense its beginning.

The human social world is still very young in cosmological time.