Wednesday 5 July 2006

European Universalism: The Rhetoric of Power

Immanuel Wallerstein

The 84 pages of this book - a collection of lectures given at the University of British Columbia - are nowhere near adequate to perform the task Wallerstein sets for himself, which is no less than a history of European universalist thought from the sixteenth century to the present day. What emerges is a disappointingly thin and characteristically sketchy overview that continues to treat ideas as mere epiphenomena of the only logic that matters to Wallerstein: the inexorable expansion of capitalism.

Wallerstein’s basic thesis is that there have been three ‘crucial and large scale notions over time to legitimise power: the right to intervene against barbarians; the essentialist particularism of Orientalism; and scientific universalism’ (p71). The first three chapters deal briefly with each of these notions, all of which merely constitute ‘a cultural-intellectual scaffolding’ to make the capitalist world-system ‘work smoothly’ and to facilitate its sole logic, ‘the endless accumulation of capital’ (p54).

There is some good and interesting material in European Universalism. For instance, Wallerstein’s first chapter examines the sixteenth-century controversy between Bartolomé de Las Casas and Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda over the right of intervention into Amerindian life in the age of the conquistadors. The basic elements of the legal-moral arguments around intervention are indeed all present in this contest, and reminders of the longevity of such concerns are a useful caution to neophiles. But is it really the case that, as Wallerstein claims, ‘nothing that has been said since has added anything essential to the debate’ (p11)? Is it really the case that there has been a seamless transition from concern with barbarism to modern human rights, then to Orientalism, and then to scientific universalism, with each new thought system simply emerging to rationalise capitalist expansion and domination?

Any student of modern interventionism must reject such over-arching claims because the details often let Wallerstein’s thesis down. For instance, he states that in the Tanzanian intervention in Uganda and the Vietnamese intervention in Cambodia (both in 1978), ‘the justification from the interveners’ point of view was human rights… undoing extremely vicious and dictatorial regimes’ (p15). Actually, although a human rights justification might have garnered them more support, neither state actually defended their actions on these grounds, offering the UN a ‘two wars’ explanation: they engaged in an act of legitimate self-defence, while an indigenous rebel movement overthrew the hated regime (see Nicholas Wheeler’s Saving Strangers). It also makes little sense to explain these interventions in terms of capitalist expansion since Tanzania and Vietnam were both socialist states, Chinese and Soviet allies respectively. The same can be said of the Brezhnev Doctrine of ‘limited sovereignty’, which justified intervention in states that threatened to escape from the Soviet orbit.

What a meta-historical explanation for intervention and the ideology surrounding it misses is the politics of intervention, which are crucial in every case, guiding the shape and the content of interventions. Contrary to Wallerstein’s schema (and betrayed by some of the very examples he uses), it is not just Western, capitalist states that have engaged in interventions. Wallerstein is guilty of the very Euro-centrism he pillories in his chapter on Orientalism.

Wallerstein’s theory of ideological change is also dubious. The Sepulveda justification has ‘worn thin’ because 500 years of ‘the use of brutal force’ to correct ‘barbarian’ behaviour seems to have produced few empirical benefits. Thus, he argues, Orientalism emerged as a replacement justification, made doubly necessary by the encountering of ‘civilised’ others like the Indians and Chinese; Orientalism recognised their advanced status but viewed them as held back in some way, in need of Western ‘help’ to modernise. This ‘began to wear thin’ as those assimilated by the West recognised the scant benefits and demanded their countries’ independence. And thus, ‘scientific universalism’ emerged to replace Orientalism (pp71-7).

This is intellectual history at its crudest: ideas do not simply rise and fall in this mechanistic manner. The humanitarian interventions of the 1990s reflected the longevity of ideas about correcting ‘barbaric’ behaviour, while calls for ‘state-building’ and ‘democratising’ interventions reflect an obviously Orientalist belief about the inability of foreign peoples to make progress alone (see Francis Fukuyama’s After the Neocons). Scientific universalism has been around far longer than the last 50 years, and universalistic scientific discoveries were both driven by the logic of expansion (eg, astronomy for navigation in the fifteenth century) and contributed towards that expansion (eg, the superior technological power of the nineteenth-century imperial powers both ‘justified’ and facilitated their dominance). Furthermore, it is the political action Wallerstein marginalises that is often the engine of change: Wallerstein himself notes that what created the space for Edward Said to attack Orientalism - and thus the basis of the whole system - was the emergence of post-colonial states, which has little to do with capitalist expansionism and a lot to do with ideology and politics.

Wallerstein claims (carried over from earlier work like Utopistics) that capitalism is in profound crisis due to a ‘global profit squeeze’. Why? Because the costs of production are everywhere rising: labour, because the ‘de-ruralisation’ of the world has left few places to which capitalists can shift production to avoid organised labour; inputs, because of the rising environmentalist demands for corporations to pay the full costs of resource usage rather than passing on the costs to society; and taxation, because of democratisation and demands for the expansion of public goods provision (pp. 55-8). As a description of the world today, this seems wholly spurious. Odder still is Wallerstein’s prescription for how to exploit this crisis to ‘move beyond European universalism—this last perverse justification of the existing world order’, which establishes a final contradiction of his view of ideas as mere epiphenomena of power. He claims there is a ‘special role’ for intellectuals to play: they must refute the idea of ‘two cultures’, sciences and humanities, and create a ‘unified epistemology’, re-combining the roles of analyst, moral being and political actor by ‘historicising’ their analyses. But if ideas simply emerge to rationalise existing power arrangements, how can intellectuals play a role in changing the status quo?

Nevertheless, the call for historicising is a welcome one. We must indeed ‘place the reality we are immediately studying within the larger context’ because ‘we can never understand the detail if we do not understand the pertinent whole… exactly what is changing, how it is changing, and why it is changing’ (p. 82). But to suggest that this is the mechanism that will create a new world order seems rather unrealistic. This is especially true when we consider Wallerstein’s tendency not to answer the most important questions he poses for himself: in answer to the query, ‘Can one be a non-Orientalist?’, he rather limply states (after a tedious rehearsal of Said’s arguments) that it would require that we ‘universalise our particulars and particularise our universals simultaneously… It is not an easy game’. Indeed not - and Wallerstein really doesn’t make it any easier.



Enjoyed this article? Share it with others.


Culture Wars in association with the Battles in Print, specially commissioned essays for the Battle of Ideas festival, with 2010’s essays now online.

Like what you see? - keep it that way, support Culture Wars online review.