Immanuel Wallerstein

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Immanuel Wallerstein (1930–2019) was a sociologist primarily concerned with world-systems. Born in New York City, he developed his sociological thought by writing political essays, akin to his essay against McCarthyism, which was as he noted, not so much against communism as it was an address from the practical right to the sophisticated conservatives. He also studied nationalist movements in African nations, writing his Ph.D. on them. Because of this and other work he did, criticism of Eurocentric viewpoints and their position within the world-society became a core tenet of his work, permeating his writings.[1]


Wallerstein takes a historical approach to understanding the world-system of our current anarcho-capitalist structure we have today. He notes the evolution from isolated nations to nations that increasingly interact with and trade with each other. Throughout this development of relationships, the countries eventually establish a hierarchy of trade, a clear pecking order at which one holds power over another for one reason or another.

This theory of world-systems is increasingly relevant today due to current events, such as wars overseas and trade wars otherwise. To fundamentally understand the structure of world powers and their role in the capitalist 'market', the world-system, one has to understand the different types of countries that exist today, what roles they play, and how much power they have. In particular, it follows heavily from Marx's thought about the division of labor, and Wallerstein takes it to the macro level, understanding countries in the forms of their own divisions of labor and how it contributes to the totality of the world-market. [2]


One recurring theme in Wallerstein's work is about quasi-monopolies, which is the near-perfect representation of a monopoly. While it is nearly impossible for a country to have a total monopoly on the world-market, they are able to sustain a relatively temporary quasi-monopoly on the market for a variety of reasons: perhaps their resource production is very high compared to another countries, and the costs they bear are the least in the world. Or, perhaps, the country in question maintains its quasi-monopoly by interfering with other countries' development of technology or production, sabotaging it to the point at which only the initial country remains powerful enough to continue its position in society. [3]

Types of countries[edit]

Wallerstein discusses three types of countries in the world-economy. In a world capitalist economy, there is going to be a set of countries that fit in a certain hierarchy: core, semi-periphery, and periphery. In this hierarchy, it is not relevant which countries are where in the order of significance, but rather the form at which the economy is maintained and operated. Wallerstein discusses a happening such as the "shuffling of the deck", which is when countries' economies change and shift to fit a changing world-economy. Essentially, a core country can become a periphery, and vice versa. This is a relatively rare occurrence, but it does happen and shows that the order is not immutable. That being said, just like a deck of playing cards, there is always a country on the top of the order no matter what the order is. This drive for taking the position of the top is hallmarked by the vying of states to establish and maintain their power.


Core countries in a world-economy are those that hold the strongest role in relation to the rest of the countries. They typically have steady control over the means of production, whether it be within their borders or outsourced in other countries. The political power of core countries also have power over other countries, and hold an unequal relationship with them with core countries clearly holding the power over the other country. The capability for that country to try to exercise power over or protest against the core country is usually slim to none.

In addition, they tend to be high in resources and on the coastline, due to their geographies being established near rivers and other sources of water, similar to the early establishment of hunter-gatherer societies. This intergenerational wealth and power stemming from early access to resources compared to establishments of societies in less-resource-rich areas creates a sense of geographical privilege that results in their position in the world and nation that allows them to have a higher development of technology, knowledge, and general society.


Semi-periphery nations don't have as much power as core nations, but also hold some amount of power over periphery nations. They have a medium amount of resources, are somewhat capable of keeping their own economic systems functioning independently, but are also somewhat dependent on trade from the more powerful countries allowing them easier access to the resources that they aren't as capable at processing or having access to. They are able to run things themselves to a degree, but are, at the end of the day, wholly dependent on the trade and relationships they hold with other more powerful countries.


Periphery nations are the ones that tend to be the most destitute and the least capable of processing the resources they have access to. A testament to the overlapping development of countries over time, some countries simply don't have the capability to run resources on their own, and are still limited in their agricultural development. Core and semi-periphery countries are more capable of doing these things, so they exercise control over periphery nations, such as by trading with them, giving them technology, establishing institutions like industrialized factories in their geography, and other demonstrations of the hierarchy of control that higher countries have over the lower-developed ones. [4]

Types of income for workers[edit]

Due to the monetary nature of the world-economy, it is important to analyze the ways that people gain profits. Each person gains different forms of profits depending on their position in the micro and macro economy, and as a result it is necessary to see how people get their resources. This is because households are the primary place where socialization and understanding ones place in the world economy happens. How households get their income and where they are getting these kinds of income are indicative for what kinds of economies that these households live in.

Five types of income[edit]

  1. The stereotypical wage. This is acquired by payment via inclusion in a production process. This is a type of payment that is advantageous to the employer, whether it be a core country or a landowner, in that they are free to terminate the contract at any given time.
  2. Subsistence activity. This refers to resources that the household is able to develop on its own, such as its farm or ranch associated with said household. With increasing industrialization and centralization of institutions, this type of income is steadily decreasing in the world, yet still happens in various nations. This signifies a lack of dependence on countries and companies giving them work.
  3. Petty commodity production. Similar to a wage, but instead of gaining a wage from a 'have', the work is done within the house and sold to the masses acting as a 'have'. Rather than looking for work externally, one makes the work for themselves and sells to the general populace directly gaining all appropriate profits.
  4. Rent. When a person owns a certain land or material, they are position to allow someone else to use it for a cost/time evaluation. People pay you a preset cost in order to use a material or land for a certain amount of time, resting on the idea of private ownership.
  5. Transfer payments. More common in the modern world, this takes place in the form of gifts, wills, and moral obligations of money that people have on each other. These are irregular, and are usually not a reliable source of income, but also only happens in places where people have concentrated wealth that they are able to transfer to someone else, rather than having a resource-growing scheme in place to create capital. It's the difference between transferring raw capital and producing capital.

The ideal workforce[edit]

From these forms of income, Wallerstein posits that the most beneficial social group to hire for a job is a semi-proletariat household. Where a proletariat household is one that purely or mainly works for wages, a semi-proletariat household is one that requires less on wages in comparison, and has access to other forms of income as a result. The reason why semi-proletariat households are desirable for capitalists and world-capitalists is because workers in a semi-proletariat household are able to subsidize their own individual life-costs with the additional income they have. A proletariat household earning less income entirely would require a higher wage to subsidize their costs of rent, food, medicine, and education. A semi-proletariat household, however, has the capability to subsidize some of these necessary costs, and are therefore more capable of taking lower wages. The lower wages can be given to the worker, the more surplus value of the profit goes to the capitalist owner.

There are a few caveats to this idea. One is that a desire may be instituted in semi-proletariat workers, in that they may seek to become 'proletarianized', in that they would no longer attempt to gain their other forms of profit in favor of attempting to gain higher wages from the work-owners. Another caveat is that employers themselves would be interested in paying their workers more, because long-term consumption with as low wages as possible for semi-proletariat workers would mean that they wouldn't be sustainable in the long run. Therefore, over time it is in both the interest of the worker and the owner to raise the wages, whether it be due to a change in the demographic or in the economy.[5]

Maintaining strong states[edit]

There are multiple ways that a state attempts to retain its control of the economy. Common tactics that are used to uphold their position in the world-economy, these are by no means guaranteed to work. However, they have a high enough likelihood of working that they are still used as forms of short-term control over less powerful countries and sometimes even more powerful ones to attempt to establish their position in the world-market. They are as follows:


Patents are where a country or company claim ownership to a certain idea or technology. This type of intellectual property restriction places a disadvantage to smaller, less developed nations because they may be able to purchase that technology or invention, but are unable to produce it themselves. Core countries may have the capabilities to reverse-engineer said patented technologies, but it requires a lot of education, resources, and knowledge, three things that lower-developed countries do not have easy access to. This blockade to the development of their own technology, relying solely on the outsourcing of resources and influx of finished technologies, the production process can be simultaneously developed close to home, yet the knowledge itself is so far away.


Tariffs are taxes placed on the importing and exporting of goods from one country to another. If a periphery or semi-periphery country wants to participate in the world-economy, they are disadvantaged even more by being required to pay extra costs for things that already are costly to import. While they are marketed as 'protectionist' for the countries in charge, the question must be raised: protection for whom? The obvious answer is the country that holds the lopsided economic power. Tariffs enacted between two sparring core countries, on the other hand, can be seen as an attempt at declaring one country's power over the other. This can potentially cause a 'trade war', as the space in the world-economy is being contested between the two nations.

State Subsidies[edit]

State subsidies and tax benefits for countries who are doing a specific thing are another way to demonstrate a states power over another. To benefit a certain country whilst simultaneously allowing the core country to do something in the country is a way that they can retain control. For instance, if a core country suggests to establish a factory or extract certain resources from a nation for the exchange of lowering costs for them in regards to trade, it established a controlled avenue at which the lower-powerful country is able to gain a temporary economic advantage, but for the core country to achieve long-lasting advantages in resource management.


The military/muscle is an obvious way that a strong state can try to establish its power over another. The stereotypical response of armed forces or even the declaration of war in an attempt to maintain control over the countries that may not have the military or weapons capable of fighting back. This type of enforcement has interesting effects in regards to the weapons economy, given that certain states and periphery countries gain an inordinate access to weaponry and specific technology due to the prevalence of the US warfare market. However, ultimately it's the country with the most muscle that is able to establish its economic control over the weaker state.

Large-scale buyers[edit]

Large-scale buyouts happen when core countries are able to mass-produce objects. Because the country has the control over the means of production of these objects, they are able to set the prices for them and how they are distributed amongst the market. As a result, they are able to price it highly because the main consumers of the trade, other core countries, have no problem spending that economic power gaining those resources. On the other hand, semi-periphery and periphery countries with little to no economic resources are forced to pay inordinate fees for the same objects, their monetary gains aren't capable of attaining the same buying power as those in core countries. As a result, using more resources to buy the same things that core countries buy means they have less resources for research and development in themselves, furthering the inequalities and solidifying the unequal relationship they have with the core countries.

Regulations on producers[edit]

Regulations on the producers for how the items must be produced can be easy to get around from the perspective of a big supplier, but from a smaller producers cutting corners and taking advantage of the lack of regulations perspective, the added rules and restrictions placed on them puts a major hamper on the production they're trying to accomplish. Things such as humane restrictions, carbon emission restrictions, and ocean pollution restrictions all hold latent economic effects on these smaller producers, both states and companies, that cause them to be further disadvantaged in the world-economy and solidifying their position as a periphery country.[6]

Universal/antiuniversal norms[edit]

There are two ways that people in the world-economy are able to legitimize this massive inequality. Universal/antiuniversal norms are a set of rules that apply to all members of a world-economy. In a sense, its a set of predispositions that are placed amongst all individuals in a classification system to justify the world-capitalist structure that exists today.

Claims of work[edit]

Universal norms are those that are claimed to be true. People commonly will say they believe this, and will positively affirm them. Claims of work refer to the idea that if a country or individual work hard enough, that they deserve whatever happens to them based on the work that they perform. This falls short for an important reason: it completely disregards the temporal aspect at which countries are development-wise, whether they are industrialized or not, and it disregards the actions that other countries have in the influence they have in the development or underdevelopment of these countries that are in disrepair. The universal norm of work assumes an independently developing country, though this is not the case. Nevertheless, the general idea of equality is pervasive enough to legitimize inequality as a result of countries not working as hard as others.


Anti-universal norms. They are anti-universal not in the sense that they do not exist universally, but that they are rejected by the general populace (for the most part). Anti-universal norms such as racism and sexism serve to further legitimate systemic and global inequalities, given that they represent predisposed ideas about ability in the face of a system, and whether they are able to be able to adapt to a situation or not. These types of norms aren't just emboldened by racism and sexism, but are rather hallmarked by the institutional oppression of a certain social or status group. Another example of this would be nationalism; the idea that certain countries are better than other countries for abstract reasons, rationalized by certain thought processes. The general idea is that there indeed is a hierarchy, and an implicit acknowledgement that it isn't so much based on ability and instead on abstract things such as 'culture' or 'biology'. [7]