Immanuel Wallerstein – European Universalism: The Rhetoric of Power

Introduction: The Politics of Universalism Today

W. starts with the recognition that when fighting on the side of “good,” the pan-European world relies on appeals to universalism as the basic justification of their policies.  This universalism usually takes one of three forms: 1) universalisms about human rights and “democracy; 2) universalism in the context of a clash of civilizations wherein the “Western” is the superior civilization; and 3) the universality of the scientific truths of free-market economics and neoliberal reform.  According to W. these three universals have been in place since at least the 16th century in European thought.

Chapter One: Whose Right to Intervene?  Universal Values Against Barbarism

The three universalisms mentioned in the introduction have always been debated on moral grounds.  W. starts his book by tracing the first instance of some of these debates by considering the Spanish conquest of the Americas in the 16th century.  Working against the Spanish policy of encomienda or forced servitude, Las Casas had an intellectual enemy in Sepulveda who argued for the Spanish exploitation of the Amerindians.  For S. the Amerindians deserved their position because they were barbarians and heretics and because the Spanish had divine law on their side to civilize.  Arguing against this position meant arguing against a system that generated HUGE financial gains for the colonizer/universalizer.  ($ is tied to these universalisms)  Las Casas argued against Sepulveda by noting how languages are rationalized through alphabetization, heresy means acceptance of a Christian paradigm and that most social systems have a rough moral equivalence.  Las Casas also noted that “collateral damage” was a reality and that stringent measures of the Spanish and Church against the people could weaken the argument toward conversion in the future through free will, not coercion.  Fast forward a couple hundred years and W. notes that many of the arguments put forth by these Spanish theologians haven’t changed.  Despite religion and “civilization” not being valid justifications for colonization, the new rhetorical ploy replaced these terms: human rights.  Human rights has not been the perview of most governments so NGOs have come to represent this universalism.  Interestingly states have also used the appeal to human rights to conduct wars – because these states were attempting to “maximize justice” they were justified morally in natural law (if not international law).  For W., the adoption of the Las Casasian position about human rights and self-determination came into international use and acceptance at exactly the same time as decolonization in the mid 20th century.  In essence, the Sepulvedian position was merely transformed into a human rights stance – and universalism still operates.  This universalism of human rights is directly tied to nation-state sovereignty. If a state isn’t democratically sovereign, then human rights intervention is justified.

Working through the Yugoslavian war in the post-independence period, W. notes how the interventionist position yielded some confusing/conflicting problems:  are all individuals who committed “barbourous” acts being brought to justice?  What court has the authority to claim jurisdiction over these crimes and is able to make decisions based on these actions?  Who is included in this universal argument about human rights abuses?  Considering the doctrine of “minimal damage” W. argues that the intervention in Kosovo might be justified using this method; however, the US invasion of Iraq most certainly would not because the end result damaged far more than the result before action by the US.  Relying on Sepulveda’s last argument about individuals needing to come to Christianity without coercion, W. notes that the spread of “democracy” operates on much the same principle.  Beyond the right to “vote,” democracy in all it’s attendant forms of expression and being must be arrived at organically, not imposed by foreign powers.

Against this whole system, W. argues that “all of this ambiguity (about intervention) comes within the framework of accepting the values of intervenors as universal ones.  If one observes that these universal values are the social creation of the dominant strata in a particular world-system, however, one opens up the issue more fundamentally” (27).

Chapter Two: Can One Be a Non-Orientalist?  Essentialist Particularism

In this chapter W. traces how the Europeans dealt with civilizations that – at one time or another – were considered “high” – they had a history, literature, language, religion, etc.  After a brief period of curiosity about these civilizations, Europeans then needed to subject these populations into a system that generated their own economic surplus.  The argument put forward by Europe was that only European civilization could have produced modernity – the world of the European now.  Because this modernity was the definition of true universal values, it wasn’t only a moral good but a historical necessity.  Because non-European countries didn’t share this history, they must have been regressive or at least frozen in their historical trajectories.

W. notes that there is nothing so ethnocentric, so particuarlist as the claim of universalism because that way of being comes from a particular place.  Working through Said, W. notes that they post 1968 movements have – for the most part – ended the simple certainties about universalism and it’s attendant binaries; however, he also recognizes that we have not achieved a consensus about what alternative framework – a framework that permits us all to be non-Orientalists – could be theorized.  In doing this theorization, we must answer an attendant question, “Are there such things as universal values at all and if so when and under what conditions might we come to know them?”  Acknowledging that universalisms are typically produced by prophetic proclamation or the discovery of a natural right by exceptional people, W. also rejects a radical relativism because it is operating as yet another universalism.

Arguing against European universalism by noting that the “We could have done it just like you” or “You’ve got the ball at present, but we have had it for longer in human history” is what Said calls “Occidentalism” and what W. calls “anti-Eurocentric Eurocentrism” because it still understands the epistemology of the world in European terms.  As an alternative, W. argues that the capitalist world-economy underpins the world system but that this world-system has come under attack from within in the post-1968 world.  As such, we are “required to universalize our particulars and particuarlize our universals simultaneously in a kind of constant dialectical exchange.”

Chapter Three: How Do We Know the Truth?  Scientific Universalism

This chapter traces the rise of scientific universalism as a response to universalist humanism.  Because humanist universalism relied on a subjective set of assertions, scientific universalism offered an objective alternative to this system of ethics.  Working through the capitalist world system’s history and current moment of bifurcation, W. contends that the process of change in the capitalist system can be seen from a macroviewpoint (where change is somewhat unexplainable because of randomness) to a microviewpoint understood from a space of individual choice.  Noting that the system works through 3 main elements (combination of universalistic norms and racist-sexist practices; a geoculture dominated by centrist liberalism; and an epistemological division between two cultures), W. demonstrates that the system operates on 3 costs of production: people, inputs, and taxation.  Because the cost of all three are rising, there is a squeeze on profits and we are nearing a point of equilibrium.  In the way of personnel, companies have managed to go transnational in order to finding cheaper, less organized labor pools; however, there are increasingly fewer places to relocate for cheaper labor.  Corporations have a similar situation with inputs – waste, distribution networks, and raw materials were once taken care of by the state; however, the corporation has had to bear the brunt of these factors increasingly in recent times (global toxification, lack of raw materials, lack of government subsidies for transport).  Finally, the rise of taxes is tied to the global popular demands for education, health care, and lifetime income.  The fight against all three of these factors has taken the name neoliberalism.

But how does the capitalist global system work with the structures of knowledge?  According to W. everything.  The empiricists of the 18th century and forward – who came to be known as scientists – divided from the humanists of the university to create two cultures.  Of course the scientists were able to contribute to industry, so their form of knowledge became a commodity.  The two sides also fought against one for the right to dominate the socialization process of youth in educational settings.  The end result was a bifurcation wherein the scientists take up the issue of truth and the humanists look to the good and beautiful.  Occupying a third space are the social scientists.  Yet, because of a slow-down in the world economy, the university and it’s attendant two cultures has had to revise its operations to cope with the financial squeeze.  This has resulted in increased teaching loads, a two-tier faculty system, corporatization of the university, and research exploits by governments and other organizations of power.  All of this is pushing some academics out and returning the university to the pre-1800 model of irrelevance.  In response to this entire system, cultural studies and complexity studies reject this epistemology and instead locate themselves in the domain of the social sciences because a) complexity notes that social systems are the most complex of all systems and that science is an integral part of culture; and b) cultural studies maintained that you can’t understand anything outside of social context and the power structures wherein something is located.  Three things could happen from this situation: 1) the university looses relevance; 2) the social scientization of all knowledge; and 3) a complete redo.  In conclusion, W. notes that the last and most powerful European universalism of scientific universalism is on its way out.

Chapter Four:  The Power of Ideas, the Ideas of Power: To Give and to Receive?

W. begins the chapter by recapping how Sepulveda’s argument against barbarism doesn’t hold up.  To replace it, Europeans created a universalism bound up in Orientalism: a system made to reify and essentialize the other thereby demonstrating the superiority of the West in its celebration of the current modernity.  This movement of Orientalization worked for a while because it held promise of modernization/Westernization; however, the equality offered by induction into this system didn’t pan out and social inequality beget unrest.  When this system also failed, the two culture system of the modern university stepped in and reified scientific truth – facts – as the most powerful form.  Scientific universalism existed outside culture and also strongly contributed to the world capital system; however, that very system would eat it away from the inside.  The fact that the powerful scientists access to objective truth was made possible by their own social location made this the most powerful narrative because its “bootstraps” nature existed outside of culture.

In the quest for what W. calls the “universal universalism” or a universalism that “refuses essentialist characterizations of social reality, historicizes both the universal and the particular, reunifies the so-called scientific and humanistic into a single epistemology, and permits us to look with a highly clinical and quite skeptical eye at all justifications for “intervention” by the powerful against the weak” (79) W. seeks a place of giving and receiving.

W. argues that a couple of things need to happen: 1) the first need is the historicization of our intellectual analysis.  This has led W. to be able to locate the world-system not only in itself, but also in an age of structural crisis and transition.

W. recognizes that the end of European universalisms might be giving way to a multiplicity of universalisms that might resemble a network of universalisms.  To recognize this system, intellectuals need to analyze the system (as analysts), make judgements about goodness and beauty (as humanists), and be political individuals (by marrying our analysis with our judgement – to unite the true with the good and beautiful).

Leave a Reply