A worthy ancestor

The world is out of joint and Immanuel Wallerstein, one of its great public intellectuals, has left us—albeit with tools to battle the dying kicks of capitalism.

Image from Immanuel Wallerstein interview with David Martinez, Yale University, 2015. Credit Brennan Cavanaugh via Flickr CC.

Immanuel Wallerstein passed away long before another world was made possible. His hope that somehow—out of this final crisis of the world’s capitalist system—another world would emerge, still hangs in the air. For those of us who worked closely with him in the last two decades (in the International Sociological Association and with the project The World is Out of Joint), his mentoring will be missed. It was in and through his stewardship that saw me lead a wonderful ensemble of sociologists to produce Gauging and Engaging Deviance 1600-2000 in 2013. Last but not least was his his support and contribution in constructing the Charter for the Humanities and Social Sciences in 2011 in South Africa, which in turn spawned the National Institute for the Humanities and the Social Sciences.

I was fortunate to be elected president of the South African Sociological Association in 1996, during Wallerstein’s tenure as the president of the International Sociological Association. It thrust me onto the global stage thanks to his Regions initiative. It allowed me to work closely with Teresa e Cruz Silva to gather Southern African sociological voices and allowed us to meet wonderful Latin American scholars, such as Anibal Quijano and Raquel Sosa Elizaga. My first tentative step in India was also thanks to him. Our host was non-other than TK Oommen, who is now being forced to submit his CV to the fundamentalist authorities of the JNU administration to keep his Emeritus status. It was in turn TK Oommen, Hermann Schwengel and I who created the tri-continental Global Studies Masters Program. My indebtedness to him runs into reams of paper.

Many of us after all owe to him the privilege of going global and local, even though we got lost often, in-between.

Image from Immanuel Wallerstein interview with David Martinez, Yale University, 2015. Credit Brennan Cavanaugh via Flickr CC.

Most important was his contribution to, in his language, the vital anti-systemic movements of the late 20th century: African and Latin American national liberation movements; their successes and failures their limits and possibilities. Although he was fond of Frantz Fanon, Amilcar Cabral, Julius Nyerere and Aquino de Braganza, the Mozambican scholar and activist, he was gentler in his critique of the aspirant national bourgeoisies on the continent. Whereas for them the failures were subjective and a question of the wrong choices that led to neo-colonial nightmares, for Wallerstein they were objective, a product of world systemic situations that created insurmountable obstacles to choice. This idea he carried over to his assessment of South Africa’s ruling party, the ANC, in the late 1990s.

Later on, he was to embrace with open arms the varied movements that came to constitute the World Social Forum and see in their variety a strength that ought not be abandoned. They were about the substance of an alternative as opposed to formal politics that were only defensive reactions to a weakening status quo. In this he kept the spirit of world-historic moments alive— 1848, 1968 and 1994—revolutions that failed but that have changed the world. The year 1994 although generous to South Africa has its jury still out of court, the dismantling the last race autocracy in the world has led to a serious impasse. We just hope that Wallerstein was right and that the proliferation of racism and authoritarian restorations everywhere are but the final kicks of a dying donkey.

Image from Immanuel Wallerstein interview with David Martinez, Yale University, 2015. Credit Brennan Cavanaugh via Flickr CC.

What was Wallerstein’s contribution? That a world capitalist system was in creation since European foraging and settlement; slavery and the construction of race were key to its creation; that the industrial revolution was not a “virgin birth” but a consequence of it; that the system was defined by cores and peripheries; that this system of endless accumulation has its booms and slumps; that European hegemony established a system of inter-state relations; that labor, social and anti-colonial movements have been the animus of change; that we are living through a final crisis that is by now insoluble within a capitalist carapace; that Eurocentrism and the disciplines that were created in and through European hegemony (and colonial and imperial networks of power) have outlived their fictions; that we need to open up the social sciences and make them serve an array of human forms of flourishing.

But the world is out of joint! In Wallerstein’s words:

Who will win this battle? No one can predict. It will be the result of an infinity of nano-actions by an infinity of nano-actors at an infinity of nano-moments … But this uncertainty is precisely what gives us hope. It turns out that what each of us does at each moment about each immediate issue really matters … This is an intellectual task, a moral obligation, and a political effort.

Further Reading