Crises and conflicts in the U.S.

Published : Feb 13, 2004 00:00 IST

Interview with Immanuel Wallerstein, U.S. historical scholar.

Immanuel Wallerstein, Senior Research Fellow at Yale University and Director of the Fernand Braudel Centre at Binghampton, New York, is among the most influential historical scholars of modern times. He is associated with the distinct theoretical position of viewing the evolution of modern capitalism as the growth of a "world system" in which all parts of the globe were interconnected. Mumbai was his second World Social Forum session after the 2002 event in Porto Alegre. He thinks the move to Mumbai a "highly successful one" and a significant event for the WSF. Excerpts from an interview he gave Sukumar Muralidharan:

How would you characterise the WSF as a player on the terrain of global politics?

The basic concept of the WSF has been to be a broad camp of multiple kinds of movements, none of which dominates the situation, but talk to each other and collaborate to the degree they can. Another thing about the WSF is that there is a tension inside it, between those who want to keep it as an open forum and those who want to organise direct, political action. That tension has been there from the beginning. What is healthy is that this time, in this forum, it is being openly and publicly discussed. And I think there is an effort on everybody's part to find a solution which would maintain the forum as what is called an "open space". The WSF would not be a single organisation which would exclude people who did not go along with it, but would still allow within its framework, groups who would like to go forward with actual political action. In point of fact, the forum has already inspired political action. There is no question that the February 15, 2003 demonstrations against the war around the world, emerged out of people who were active in the forum. I would even say that it was a direct result of the existence of the forum but it was not a forum activity as such. I think that distinction will be and should be maintained.

You have recently sought to work out a typology of social movements, or what you call revolts against the "system". And historically you have identified nationalist movements and socialist movements as two distinct types, which often tended to merge one into the other.

I put it the other way. The nationalist and socialist movements have identified themselves as separate and distinct types for a hundred or more years. I have on the other hand tried to argue that they had more similarities than they admitted. The differences were partly geographic, the socialist movements were in the developed world and the nationalist movements were in the Third World. In any case, I lumped them all together as the Old Left, and I saw 1968 as a key moment when the Old Left was called into question for its strategy and for its failure to change the world. I have since identified a succession of movements when people have tried to replace the Old Left. There were the Maoist movements that flourished in the early-1970s and disappeared in most parts of the world, partly because of the collapse of Maoism in China. They were followed by the so-called New Left movements, like the Greens, women's movements, identity movements, sexual movements, and so on. Then there were the human rights movements which tried to attack another kind of problem. These movements were all critical of the Old Left and insisted upon the importance of the problems they put forward, and they have been very successful in getting these accepted. But then they have gone into very much the same strategic dilemmas as the Old Left. And I put the WSF as the most recent and most successful variant of trying to create an anti-systemic movement, one that would encompass a very wide range of existing movements without trying to suppress them but in fact allow them full space, have them talk to each other and try to understand each other's language and try to find the common grounds they can without a hierarchical structure. It has been, I think, marvellously successful, but whether it will continue being so depends upon the degree to which it can solve the problem of continuing to be an open space, while permitting some kind of structure for political activity.

You have come out with a rather radical diagnosis that we are witnessing the end of the American Empire, and that the only choice now is whether the U.S. will give in to the inevitable or fight its way down, taking a number of people down with it. Is this, in the light of what we are seeing now, a prognosis that you would stand by?

Oh yes. I think the U.S. has been in decline for the last 30 years and the explanation of the current policies is not the strength, but the weakness of the U.S. It is a programme to restore the strength of the U.S. by intimidating the rest of the world. It has failed and it has actually made the U.S. even weaker. Before (President George) Bush came to power, the U.S. was in a slow decline. I think it is going to be in a relatively fast decline in the next decade because of what Bush has done.

Somehow this does not square with the general perception that the 1990s were a period of unparalleled U.S. power, when it could get just about anything it wanted. The U.S. could militarily intervene anywhere it chose, the economy was on a roll, the stockmarket was booming...

The stockmarket booming is an illusion. If you look at the 1970s on, at no point was the world economy in good shape. But there was an attempt by members of the "triad" to export unemployment to one another. So the 1970s were pretty good for Western Europe and the 1980s were pretty good for Japan, and the late-1990s were very good for the U.S. But it was a total myth that the U.S. was doing well. There was a lot of speculation and the money flowed into the U.S. Yes, the U.S. is the strongest military power and it will remain that for the next 20 or 30 years. That means nobody can declare war on the U.S. But the question is: can the U.S. declare war on another country and win? I don't think it has won the war in Iraq. It is in a very weak position and I think the structure is going to collapse around it very soon. And it doesn't have enough troops to start another war. It is militarily a lot weaker than people think.

So this is in a sense related to the decline of American economic power and the loss of hegemony.

You know, if you are hegemonic, you don't have to use your military power - that is the whole point of hegemony. When you've got to use your military power, that is a bad sign. Machiavelli taught us that a long time ago - that if you have to use force you are weak, not strong. Nobody has gone in with the U.S. - I of course exaggerate because Britain went in and the U.S. also got a few minuscule troops from other countries. But basically, they went into Iraq alone. And they have been paying the bills for it. I remind you that in the first Gulf War, the U.S. did not pay the bill. It was paid by Germany, Japan, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Not one of the four states gave a cent to the U.S. this time.

You have the twin deficits in the U.S. - the current account and budget deficits, one feeding into the other - being funded by huge inflows from countries that have positive savings. This has been sustained so far because the dollar has been seen as a hegemonic currency. Now I understand that in the U.S. there is a tremendous build-up of debt right down to the household and the firm. If there is a contraction of the funds inflow for whatever reason, would that feed down the line and impinge on the debt situation of the average household?

There are the debts of individuals and of course if they have enough debts, they go bankrupt. There are the debts of State governments, which can't go bankrupt and they also, under the rules of the U.S., can't have debts. So they have to cut back - on education, on fire departments, on jails, on health services, and so on. That squeezes people and makes them very unhappy. Then there is the U.S. government debt. Now the U.S. government, because of the role of the dollar, can accumulate debt from here to kingdom come. That can be paid in two ways - either you can cut back on services or you can borrow still further. But services have been expanding - military services of course, but also for electoral reasons, other kinds of services. So the Bush administration has to borrow, which means that other countries have to invest.

At the moment, the two major investors in U.S. treasury bonds are Japan and China. The first thing to be said is that they are already cautious. They are investing less in the last six or eight months, because if the dollar collapses further, they are losing their money. On the other hand, they are supporting the major buyer of their exports. So it is a little tricky. They don't want to let their major buyer collapse because that will hurt their economies, but on the other hand, they don't want to put their money in a place where they can't get it back. And they are getting more and more hesitant and at some point, they will pull the plug. This means that the U.S. economy is dependent on the decisions of Japanese and Chinese investors. That is not exactly a position of strength.

On top of that, the U.S. has another major problem, which is shared with the European countries but not with the Third World. We have an extensive programme of welfare aid to the elderly. This covers most of the population - they are all voters and most of them are conservative voters. And the numbers are growing because of the so-called baby-boom. And because we have a declining population growth, the percentage of people paying in annually is less than the percentage of people taking out. So in about 10 years' time we will have a crisis - either we can borrow immense amounts of money to pay for that or we can cut back on the armed forces. That is a real financial dilemma for the U.S. that is of immense consequence. The U.S. economy is now a house of cards in many ways.

Obviously, there are all the makings of a serious social crisis there, because of the growing demands of the baby-boomers and the lower accruals into social security and the general spiralling of household debt. But in the U.S. political system we see a curious lack of alternatives - the "one party posing as two" kind of syndrome. So if there is this kind of a social crisis brewing and there isn't sufficient creative political thinking about alternatives, we could have some pretty dangerous political outcomes.

You're right. I think internal conflict in the U.S. is reaching the point of civil war. It is more likely in the U.S. than in Western Europe by far. We have an enormous under-class that is growing all the time, we have illegal immigration that is immense, we have a poverty rate that is incredible, we have a larger percentage of our population in prison than almost any other country in the world. We have social problems galore and they could explode. It is a situation waiting for somebody to light a match.

Will that be manifested externally or internally? Could the U.S. just embark upon a course of war against the planet, impelled by its own internal social crisis?

It might. It is not something that I would rule out. Very hard to say at this point, because it depends upon the political balances within the U.S. and between the U.S. and the rest of the world as it develops the next five to ten years. This year is a year of great risk, because if the neo-conservatives fear that six months from now they could lose the elections, they may urge actions on Bush as their last chance. It is a risky time.

Finally, is the social forum kind of process going to make a difference in the context of the upcoming crisis in the U.S.? Is the process spreading roots widely enough and deeply enough to make a difference?

Yes, it is spreading roots in the U.S. and I certainly hope it is going to make a difference. I am not sure what else will make a difference.

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