We must overcome the colonial denial
Wallerstein versus the woke
If we want to overcome racism in the nation, we have to do it in the right way. The anti-racism ideology distorts contemporary reality through the selection of facts and data, ignoring inconvenient yet available and relevant facts/data. And the anti-racism ideology has a very limited understanding of history of the nation and the world, and thus it is disseminating among our people a superficial and partial understanding (see previous commentaries). This is not the right way. Our people have to be educated in accordance with a historical and analytically accurate understanding of our nation and the world. Moreover, as a matter of strategy, rather than accusing people of racism or some other social sin, we ought to focus on understanding and changing the structures that are the legacy of the colonial foundations of the contemporary world order. Because racism, like all dimensions of our social reality, is rooted in colonialism.
Anti-racism ideology is influenced by philosophical relativism and skepticism with respect to cultural narratives, tendencies that emerged in Western Europe during the course of the twentieth century, especially expressed in critical neo-Marxism and in French post-modern thought. But alongside these developments in the academic world, other dynamics were emerging in the post-World World II world. The colonized peoples of Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean and the anti-imperialist movements of Latin America were reaching the zenith of their challenge to the European-centered world-system, in which the new hegemonic power was the United States of America, a land in which post-modern skepticism had little resonance. The USA was in those days a land where the people by and large believed in the promise of democracy; because for white men and their families, who constituted the great majority of the population, the USA truly was the land of opportunity, especially for us European immigrants of the period 1865 to 1925. Leftist academics did not fully grasp this global political morality play, involving the forces of Third World national liberation and a U.S. neocolonial imperialism that sincerely presented itself as the essence of democracy. Both sides in this historic confrontation rejected post-modern skepticism out of hand, as having nothing to do with real human experiences. Both sides were convinced that the true and the right could be understood and acted upon; and both were convinced that they stood on the side of the true, the right, and the good.
It was Immanuel Wallerstein who crossed the bridge uniting the two opposed versions of the true and the right, when as a young North American academic he traveled to Africa and encountered African nationalism at the height of its anti-colonial drive. He would spend the rest of his life working out the implications of the conversion in understanding that he experienced in that encounter as a young man in Africa. He ultimately was unable to fully escape American ethnocentrisms, French relativisms, and the limitations of the academic world, so that his project was not fully completed. But he did provide the foundation for understanding the structures of global colonial domination, with a body of writing that described the historical development of the modern world-system. This body of work clearly established the most fundamental lesson of our era: the colonial foundations of the capitalist world-economy and the modern world-system. At the same time, Wallerstein pointed the way toward the necessary transformations, in the name of social justice, in the structures of the world-system, a project that is unfolding today in theory and practice, driven by the socialist and progressive governments and movements of the Third World.
In 1974, in the preface to the first volume of the Modern World-System, Wallerstein wrote of his intellectual conversion in Africa. He writes that his experiences in colonial Africa during the time of the African anti-colonial movements enabled him to see that European and African Nationalist conceptions are fundamentally different. He writes: “I went to Africa first during the colonial era, and I witnessed the process of ‘decolonization,’ and then of the independence of a cascade of sovereign states. White man that I was, I was bombarded by the onslaught of the colonial mentality of Europeans long resident in Africa. And sympathizer of nationalist movements that I was, I was privy to the angry analyses and optimist passions of young militants of the African movements. It did not take long to realize that not only were these two groups at odds on political issues, but that they approached the situation with entirely different sets of conceptual frameworks.” In contrast to the colonial mentality of the Europeans in Africa stood the “colonial situation” framework of African nationalism. “The nationalists saw the reality in which they lived as a ‘colonial situation,’ that is, one in which both their social action and that of the Europeans living side by side with them as administrators, missionaries, teachers, and merchants were determined by the constrains of a single legal and social entity.”
Wallerstein’s encounter with the African nationalist movement stimulated a process of reflection that enabled him to understand that the use of “society” as the unit of analysis, common in the Western social science of that time, created obstacles for understanding the “colonial situation,” which was shaped by a relation between two political, economic, and cultural entities and systems. Wallerstein arrived to the conclusion that “the correct unit of analysis is the world-system,” and he committed himself to the task of describing its historical development. In this project, he ignored disciplinary boundaries among history, economics, sociology, and political science in order to formulate “the world-systems perspective,” an alternative to the dominant Western social scientific paradigm, and an alternative that takes into account the insights of the twentieth century Third World national liberation movements.
Wallerstein identified four stages in the development of the modern world-system: (1) the origin of the system on the foundation of the Iberian conquest of vast regions of the American continents, establishing a world-economy, with Western Europe as its core and Latin America and Eastern Europe as its periphery (1492-1640); (2) a stage of stagnation, characterized by competition among core powers, during which the basic structures of the system were preserved and reinforced (1640-1815); (3) the expansion of the system from 1815-1917, made possible by the conquest of vast regions of Africa and Asia by European powers; and (4) 1917 to the present, characterized by the development of imperialism and neocolonialism as new forms of core domination and by the emergence of anti-colonial and anti-neocolonial movements in the Third World.
As it has evolved through these stages, the world-economy has been characterized by continuous structures. The colonized zones constitute the periphery, which functions to provide markets, raw materials, and cheap, forced labor; and the core zone is formed by the colonizing countries, which functions as the manufacturing, commercial, and financial center. There is a global geographical division of labor between core and periphery, in which the periphery exports raw materials and low-wage manufacturing goods; and in which the core produces high-wage manufacturing and high-tech goods. By their very nature, these structures provoke the resistance of the colonized; and at the same time, the maintenance of these global economic structures requires continuous intervention by the core powers. In accordance with this fundamental defining reality, the political-economy of the world-system ultimately arrived to be a neocolonial world-system, with imperialism as the necessary and continuous foreign policy of the core powers.
Wallerstein, therefore, formulated an integral historical social science that sets aside the separation of history and the social sciences and the fragmentation of the social sciences; and that is global in scope, transcending national political-economic systems. Wallerstein’s work empowers intellectuals to understand the structures of the world-system, through which a number of issues become clear: the sources of global inequality; the factors in the ascent of the United States to a position of global dominance; the necessity of imperialism, if the structures of the world-system and U.S. hegemony are to be preserved, yet the fundamental contradiction between imperialism and pretentions of democracy; the imperialist interests behind the Cold War, human rights, and war on terrorism foreign policy ideologies; the reasons for massive migrations from peripheral and semi-peripheral to core zones; and the long-term unsustainability of world-system structures, making necessary global structural transformation.
In addition, from a world-systems perspective, the logic and unavoidability of anti-colonial movements of national liberation become clear, movements that seek above all sovereignty, that is, national control of the political, economic, and cultural institutions of the nation, thus emancipating the nation from colonial structures. If we internalize the world-systems perspective, and if we undertake personal encounter with the anti-colonial movements (see “The quest for the true and the right,” April 13, 2021), we begin to see the logic and necessity of socialism for the Third World. For in order to liberate the nation from the colonial situation, there is: the need to nationalize foreign companies, taking control of the national economy from foreign hands; the need for the full support of the people, taking into account the powerful enemies that are being made, thereby establishing the need to develop structures of people’s power and popular participation, alternatives to the façade of representative democracy and its mechanisms of elite control; and the need for public control of the media, to prevent the dissemination of ideologies that distort reality through corporate-owned media, thereby confusing the people.
In the period 1964 to 1972, the African-American movement was beginning to develop an incipient world-system consciousness. It was beginning to grasp the colonial foundations of the modern world order, with formulations in this direction expressed by Malcolm X, black power advocates, and Martin Luther King. And the theme was retaken by Jesse Jackson in the 1980s, who called for a post-imperialist foreign policy of North-South cooperation (see “The black awakening of 1964 to 1972,” April 16, 2021; “The Rainbow Coalition challenges the establishment,” April 27, 2021).
However, public discourse in the United States today demonstrates little consciousness of the colonial foundations of the modern world-system. It is characterized by what I call the colonial denial. The academic world has much responsibility for this, inasmuch as the continued fragmentation of philosophy, history, and the social sciences and indifference to the Third World perspective expressed from below function to obscure the colonial foundations of the modern world-system.
The anti-racism ideology in the United States shares in the colonial denial. It makes some references to colonialism, but such references are far from being central to the anti-racist discourse. The black anti-racists share the white ethnocentric blindness to the colonial foundations of our social problems and ideological dilemmas.
If humanity is to rectify the historic crimes committed against peoples of color in the modern era, it cannot do so through anti-racism in the core zone; but through a transformation of the global structures imposed during the era of colonialism, that today reproduce inequalities between core and periphery; and that stoke remnant racism in core zones.
Overcoming the colonial denial is the fundamental task at hand. Not anti-racism, but anti-colonialism is our challenge. Racism originated as an invention to justify colonialism; today the neocolonial world-system no longer depends upon racist legitimations. Our fundamental social sin today is not racism, but the ethnocentrism that is implied in the colonial denial. Far more important than the remnant racism of individuals are the economic and political structures that have been built on a colonial foundation, taken for granted today.
In subsequent columns, I will be describing the structures of the capitalist world-economy, as understood not from vantage point of classical Marxism, but from the world-systems perspective. And I will be exploring the historic development of colonial domination and the transition to new forms of colonialism, posing as democracy.
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