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The Decline of American Power: The U.S. in a Chaotic World

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Author: Immanuel Wallerstein

Paperback: 160 pages
Publisher: New Press, The (July 2003)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1565847997
ISBN-13: 978-1565847996

The internationally renowned theorist contends that the sun is setting on the American Empire.

Today, the United States is a superpower that lacks true power, a world leader nobody follows and few respect, and a nation drifting dangerously amidst a global chaos it cannot control.
—From The Decline of American Power

The internationally renowned theorist contends that the sun is setting on the American Empire. The United States in decline? Its admirers and detractors alike claim the opposite: that America is now in a position of unprecedented global supremacy. But in fact, Immanuel Wallerstein argues, a more nuanced evaluation of recent history reveals that America has been fading as a global power since the end of the Vietnam War, and, in the long term, its response to the terrorist attacks of September 11 may well hasten that decline. In this provocative volume Wallerstein—the "visionary" (Diplomatic History) originator of world-systems analysis and the most innovative social scientist of his generation—turns his practiced analytical eye to the turbulent beginnings of the 21st century. Wallerstein upends conventional wisdom to produce a clear-eyed—and troubling—assessment of the crumbling international order and America's precarious footing at its pinnacle.

In this provocative volume Wallerstein—the "visionary" (Diplomatic History) originator of world-systems analysis and the most innovative social scientist of his generation—turns his practiced analytical eye to the turbulent beginnings of the 21st century. Wallerstein upends conventional wisdom to produce a clear-eyed—and troubling—assessment of the crumbling international order and America's precarious footing at its pinnacle.

*Link for Further Reading: U.S. Weakness and the Struggle for Hegemony: http://monthlyreview.org/2003/07/01/u-s-weakness-and-the-struggle-for-hegemony

Review: The Decline of American Power: The U.S. in a Chaotic World

From the outset, Immanuel Wallerstein stresses the decline of American economic, political, and social power. Arguing that the European and Japanese Post War economies, both of which U.S. largesse helped to facilitate, have brought parity to international economics, reducing America’s once unilateral dominance. Moreover, the cultural influence enjoyed by U.S. society masked its economic diminishment as capitalist European and Japanese consumers purchased U.S. cultural commodities skewing its actual contraction. Pointing out five current realities about the U.S. (they are as follows: the limits of its military power, the depth of anti-Americanism, 1990’s economic hangover (presumably worsened by today’s crisis), the contradictory pressures of nationalism, and the frailty of its civil liberties) that hamper its once dominant position Wallerstein announces early on, “The economic, political and military factors that contributed to U.S. hegemony are the same factors that will inexorably produce the coming U.S. decline.” (13)

A collection of lectures, The Decline of American Power at times seems a bit disjointed, while in addition, some arguments repeat themselves in several chapters. However, the work ultimately addresses several issues and themes central to the U.S.’ future international position. Wallerstein locates much of America’s decline as connected to the Post 1968 era (he points to four cold war symbols of U.S. impotence: Vietnam, the revolution of 1968, the Fall of the Berlin Wall, and Sept. 11th). With it collapsed a popular faith in centrist liberalism as many 1968 protesters rejected U.S. hegemony, the U.S.S.R’s complicity in this dominance, and the failure of previous radicals or old left to consolidate their acquisition of state power into the expected or promised reforms. [note: he additionally notes, repeatedly, “The collapse of communism in effect signified the collapse of liberalism by removing the only ideological justification behind U.S. hegemony.” (21), the acquisition of power by the old left refers to the previous anti-systematic movements page 64). Rising costs of material inputs (i..e the “externalization of costs” wage relocation depends on new areas to exploit but only so many and only so cheap), pressure on capital accumulation, and the expanding bureaucracies of democratization (where people want lower taxes but more services) conspire to damage U.S. and western economic interests. Economic structural weaknesses coupled with a decline in state powers that once protected various businesses has also contributed to declining U.S. fortunes. Wallerstein views the current world system as hierarchical, polarizing and unequal, an interstate system “in which some states” are stronger than others. (131) Wallerstein argues in several moments that globalization and the current U.S. economic system are neither new nor fixed, the current global economic system exists in transition. Its parameters and central drive remain unknowns. State and non-state actors need to understand this context acting accordingly. Like other transnational leaning scholars, Wallerstein views most subjects outside of their nation-state existence. He stresses the importance of broader lens from which to view history. For example, in one chapter when discussing anti-semitism in modern day Austria (or more precisely Haider’s and his nationalist’s party ascension to power), Wallerstein suggests the historical presentation of the Nazi’s as an outlier among European governments was false. Rather the Nazi’s failed not in persecuting the Jews but rather in attempting to wipe them out. Other Europeans recognized the need for an “inferior” ethnic/racial group which could be exploited economically and politically when need be. (he goes on to suggest the arrival of Asian and African workers throughout the EU provides one insight). Similarly, Wallerstein notes that citizenship or national membership serves as much to exclude as to include. [note: again like many scholars he takes the social sciences to task for 1) their myopic treatment of Asians and Africans i.e. historians and others portraying these places as without history before European arrival and 2) examining nation states in isolation] However, he also notes that new academic developments emerged despite the failures of social scientists “The very same moment of history saw the maturing ofa string of new academic emphasis, one that had begun in the 1970s but seemed to reach and acme in the 1990s. It came to be known generally as cultural studies”, a feisty academic position stressing multiculturalism.

At times, The Decline of American Power treads into debates about simultaneity, spatial orderings, and the fluid nature of time. In these examples, Wallerstein echoes modernist concerns about time that other writers such as David Harvey and Frederick Jameson discuss in their respective scholarship while his dips into more existential territory reminds readers of Arjun Appadurai. For example, when Wallerstein notes that “we live in many of these social temporalities, simultaneously,” then follows that no unique universalisms exist but “also that science is the search for multiples universalisms can be navigated in a universe that is intrinsically uncertain and therefore hopefully creative,” (130) he seems to point to the fractured overlapping nature of existence that Modernity at Large addressed, though to Wallerstein’s credit he utilizes far more accessible language. [note: one drawback might be however that Wallerstein devotes little to no time to technological advance and its affect on spatiality and simultaneity, to be fair its not really the thrust of the book but at the same time it affects much of what’s he’s discussin.] Moreover, Wallerstein’s work echoes the efforts of postmodernists to ascribe marginalized groups a seat at the cultural table when universalisms impose themselves broadly, “people take refuge in particularisms,” but that minorities only follow such routes when attempts at citizenship (meaning equal citizenship) have been denied or held back by illegitimate force. [he locates numerous particularisms form the aforementioned minorities – notes reminiscent of Hobsbaum’s exploration of how minorities choose identities or carve out niches in societies-, the assertion of bottom groups to an identity critical to political mobilization, effete snobs, dominant elites among others]. The tensions between temporalities, particularisms and universalisms, have created a “central locus of political struggle” in which the culture of protest has been commodified. What then is labeled as a clash of civilizations is actually an economic bifurcation that places the economic system in crisis, leading to ruptures.

Perhaps, more than anything, Wallerstein places faith in the creation of a new system. His emphasis on the murkiness of the future should not stand as pessimism but rather optimism. Wallerstein seems to truly believe great change lay before the world, change that could create a non-hierarchical system of anti-system movements. He sees s a system in which intellectuals act as interpreters between movements. Taking cues from the Port Allegre conference rather than Davos, Wallerstein lays out several examples for the future 1) use defensive electoral tactics 2) push democratization always 3) make liberal center fulfill its promises [note: he makes the interesting point that if they push center left then it reorients the middle i.e. in American politics the opposite has been shown to be true with the hard right forcing the center right into increasingly polarized positions so he may have a point], make antiracism the defining measure of democracy and move toward decommodification. In the drama and struggle of recent decades new social movements based on new memberships have emerged such as the Greens, environmentalists, feminists, ethinic/racial minorities, human rights groups and anti-globalization protesters. They must debate their goals and the current transition while not neglecting short temr gains as well including electoral politics.

About the Author

Professor Immanuel Wallerstein received his PhD from Columbia University in 1959. He is the former President of the International Sociological Association (1994-1998), and chair of the international Gulbenkian Commission on the Restructuring of the Social Sciences (1993-1995).

He writes in three domains of world-systems analysis: the historical development of the modern world-system; the contemporary crisis of the capitalist world-economy; the structures of knowledge. Books in each of these domains include respectively The Modern World-System (3 vols.); Utopistics, or Historical Choices for the Twenty-first Century; and Unthinking Social Science: The Limits of Nineteenth-Century Paradigms.

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