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Knowledge in an age of transition

Wallerstein and the future
La connaissance à l’ère de la transition. Wallerstein et l’avenir
Gennaro Ascione
p. 105-125


Immanuel Wallerstein était l’un de ces sociologues qui confrontent constamment leurs analyses des structures de l’injustice et de l’inégalité avec le problème de l’avenir. En tant que penseur moderne, il fournit des formes rationalisées de prévisions qui se sont avérées. Il a eu raison d’anticiper le moment et la configuration de l’ère de transition que nous vivons actuellement, d’autant plus que les pandémies influencent le changement historique mondial et fonctionnent comme un nouveau régulateur social dans différents domaines. Wallerstein s’est engagé dans l’avenir comme expert ainsi que comme intellectuel public préoccupé par le présent de la politique mondiale. Cette attitude est cohérente avec sa compréhension du changement social historique global. Car impliquer la théorie sociale dans le débat public peut informer la culture par le savoir et participer à des transformations en cours, afin d’avancer vers un monde moins injuste et moins inégalitaire. Cette tension vers l’avenir exige une compréhension profonde du rôle politique et transformateur de la théorie sociale en cette ère de transition, qui peut se produire à travers la transgression intellectuelle des frontières spatio-temporelles de la modernité où la théorie sociale a donné sa légitimité à ses propres fondements épistémologiques.

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Knowledge at the turn of modernity

1In the modern world, the function of prediction that during the Middle Ages and Antiquity belonged to auspices, negromants and shamans, pertains to social scientists. The legitimacy of their attempts at foreseeing draws from the claim of scientificity that methodology aspires to guarantee. Whereas oracles adopted the shared social belief in the evocation of gods and superhuman entities, or magicians interpreted natural or cosmological signs, modern knowledges adopt the invocation of the scientific method to establish their views about the future as true, probable, possible, rational, thereby distinguishing them from pure conjectures or claptrap. Nonetheless, the vast majority of the forms of knowledge that social science produced in the XIX and XX centuries eludes the problem of the future: either in terms of what will happen or in terms of what should happen; either in explanatory or in normative terms; either as the existing world or as the desirable world. In fact, to the extent it eludes the problem of the future, social science conforms to the Western teleology of Eurocentrism: the myth of unilinear progress, the plea for modernization and the salvific power of globalization (Wallerstein, 1995). Yet, the tension between explanation and norm designs the vast intermediate region of what could be, which is where social scientists perform their social function and express their own ability to contribute either to the status quo or, alternatively, to a just society. Immanuel Wallerstein was among those social scientists who constantly confronted their analyses of the structures of injustice and inequality with the problem of the future, in order to move towards a less unjust and less unequal world (Wallerstein, 1998a). Wallerstein engaged with the future as a public intellectual, through books, articles and even commentaries on world politics that he regularly wrote for an audience wider than academics. Even the last of his monthly commentaries, published on July 1st, 2019, exactly one month before he passed away, shows his awareness of its timeliness: This is the end. This is the beginning (Wallerstein, 20191).

2His attitude towards the public and scholarly engagement with the future is coherent with his understanding of global historical social change. For involving social theory into public debate may inform culture through knowledge that challenges dominant understandings of the world, and participates into ongoing transformations in a radical manner (Wallerstein, 2016). Wallerstein’s belief in the transformative power of knowledge draws from the particular politics of method he endorsed. For Wallerstein, historical processes of social change are better addressable within the world as a singular space-time where large-scale and long-term phenomena take place. Human social organizations respond to logics of structuration that, however not fully explicative of historical reality, produce detectable patterns (Kontopoulos, 2006). These patterns suggest alternative paths for further development that are neither fully undeterminable nor infinite in number (Hopkins and Wallerstein, 1982). World history may not be fully predictable in the events that will mark it, nevertheless its structures express a rationale that the social scientist is called to grasp, individually and collectively. Therefore, social scientists are all involved in the attempt at delineating the trajectories of social phenomena, even when they limit themselves to describe social change. When they accept dominant understandings as such, they contribute to the current inertia of processes, even though the actual outcomes inertia leads to remain not deterministically known in advance for every point in space-time, contrarily to the naïve epistemological underpinnings that the social sciences borrowed from classical physics during XIX and XX centuries.

  • 2 In 1992, the group submitted its interim findings to a group of scholars who went to Binghamton fo (...)
  • 3 In order to delineate the different approaches to the analysis of hegemonic trajectories between A (...)
  • 4 For a substantial introduction to the wide specter of topics covered by complexity theory at the t (...)

3Wallerstein connoted his work as a protest against the established perception of the future since the early stages of his intellectual contribution to world history, sociology, political economy, and international relations theory, and across the four volumes of his magnum opus about the modern world-system (Wallerstein, 2011a; 2011b; 2011c; 2011d). Together with his early fellows and intellectual conspirators Terence Kilbourne Hopkins and Giovanni Arrighi, he studied the future transformations of world capitalism since the late 1970s. In so doing, they altogether revolutionized the way social theory can grasp the future. After having institutionally established and consolidated their World-Systems Analysis research stronghold in 1976 at the Binghamton University, from the turn of the 1980s to 1993 circa, the three scholars animated the Trajectory Research Working Group of the Fernand Braudel Center for the Study of Economics, Historical Systems, and Civilizations of Binghamton University (Hopkins and Wallerstein, 1996). This specific research project produced intense exchanges between the researchers in the group and other scholars in world academic institutions who shared analogous urges to think the world. 2From this effort, two main works resulted in the years that followed: the first is The Age of Transition, a collective book edited by Hopkins and Wallerstein, published in 1996; the second is Chaos and Governance in the Modern World System, by Giovanni Arrighi, published in 1999. 3 Arrighi’s book develops, augments and restructures the argument about hegemonic transitions that The Age of Transition had traced. Taken together, these works forecasted historical facts that have taken place indeed; facts that form our recent past and inform our current present. Arrighi was right in delineating the reasons why China would have been—as it, uncontestably, currently is—the contender to the role of hegemonic world power in the international system ruled by the United States of America. This claim was part and parcel of Wallerstein and Hopkins’ overall understanding of the future of global capitalism. Wallerstein, because of his intellectual debt with the French historian Fernand Braudel as well as his acquaintance with complexity theory in the version elaborated by the Russian-born physician and chemist Ilya Prigogine, developed a subtle and sophisticated notion of historical time.4 This theoretical acquisition prompted his capacity to look ahead. The by-product of such a capacity has been as crucial as simple: Wallerstein maintained that the structures of world capitalism would have entered a state of turbulence that would have placed the world in front of successive bifurcations. He was right.

4Bifurcation conveys a certain degree of choice between divergent alternatives. Informed choice in front of what the path to undergo can contribute to a better or a worse scenario, out of which a new world order could eventually stem (Wallerstein, 1999a). Wallerstein also clarified the time span for these transformations. He registered that an ultimate turbulence had started during the 1970s, when a conjunctural crisis came along with the challenge to the existing world order produced by ThirdWorldism. The counter-insurgent response that the dominant strata put in place against the revolt of mid-income former colonial states configured the reaction of the Northern powers to re-establish acceptable levels of profit through financialization against the real economy. This response took the semblance of neo-monetarism. It demolished the welfare state in central/Northern countries and introduced work flexibility. It fueled industrial innovation with huge investments in information and communication technologies: from satellites to the Internet infrastructure. This response to the conjunctural crisis of accumulation and underconsumption fit the logic of capital as Marx had already delineated it in Capital Vol. 1. Nonetheless, it has proved unable to re-establish acceptable margins of profits; financialization has overcome real economy augmenting the width of oscillation and it has transmuted the last conjunctural crises into a structural crisis that cyclically smashed world-economy with wider intensity until 2008 disruption with the relative dissolution of massive accumulated value. All these successive crises happened according to a pattern of development that world-systems analysts had intercepted since the first occurrence (Amin, Arrighi, Frank, and Wallerstein, 1982).

5The contradictions that generated global turbulence belonged to the inner logic of capitalism, therefore the paths disclosed have generated increasing fluctuations that make the departure from the condition of relative equilibrium irreversible. Wallerstein affirmed that this irreversibility would have affected the institutional asset of global capitalism, transforming it in something else, between the 1990s and 2025. From then onwards, he predicted instability would have reigned until 2050 (Wallerstein, 1998b). Wallerstein, together with his fellows, was right, once again.

6In 2020, we have been thrown into the full awareness that we are living an age of transition. The particular way this happened was not Wallerstein’s concern, even though, as McNeill (1976) narrated and Mike Davis anticipated (2005), the Covid-19 pandemic cannot be reduced to an “event” in world history: it is not an event, nor what Braudel relegated to the “dust in the eyes” blown by the histoire événementielle. Nonetheless, after the irruption of the pandemics that promises to function as a social regulator, it becomes clear that modernity as we know it has entered a state of extreme fragility. In order to read the transition, Wallerstein provided us with the powerful intellectual tool of unthinking (Wallerstein, 1991b). Following Marxian historicism, he prevented us from seeing historical capitalism, thus capitalist civilization, thus modernity, as a trans-historical condition in human history (Wallerstein, 1991a). He demonstrated that modernity was either a historically determined era in human history, or the universalist hubris of Western particularism, or an ideology to manage the world under a specific hegemonic condition that favored Europe and the West (Wallerstein, 1997). From within the horizon of modernity itself, Wallerstein was able to look ahead. Today, modernity seems to be an unstable construction, either as an era or as an emancipatory ethos (Ascione, 2016). We used to think that modernity had its onset in 1492 (Quijano and Wallerstein, 1992). Yet, it is as much accepted that this temporal threshold proves meaningful only ex-post (Wallerstein, 1991c). Columbus did not even know that he had landed on a continent unknown to European cartographers. The process of colonization took decades and decades to reconfigure power and institutions at the global scale before culminating with the British Empire overcoming the Chinese Empire, after the Opium Wars (1839-1860). Finally, a geoculture where modernity accounted for a global ideology to manage European centrality lacked until the XIX century, when the social sciences were born co-extensively with the nation-state. Conversely, the world, synchronically, has come to acknowledge that something epochal happened in 2020. An era of transition has begun together with the awareness of such a change.

Beyond the promises kept by Wallerstein’s historical social science

7The awareness of living an era of transition sheds light over global institutional change. During the age of transition, institutions transform themselves. Even though institutions are not autonomous entities, they are analytically distinguishable spaces. From an analytical point of view, institutions are vectors of social change. In other words, they are historical configurations of power that organize the collective and individual activities of humans. The evolution of these vectors designs trajectories of development. Among the vectors of modern capitalism that Wallerstein confronted with, the structures of knowledge occupy a particular place (Lee and Wallerstein, 2000). Knowledge involves self-reflection. It is where the system thinks of itself. Therefore, to the extent the structures of knowledge register increasing fluctuations, they are called to consider their own transitional ability to understand the world and accept their growing inability to come to terms with understanding the world through the usual tools of analysis. During the age of transition, the structures of knowledge are called to radically assess the conditions that produce the limits of understanding they must acknowledge about their own activity and scope (Wallerstein, 1998c). These limits correspond to what Wallerstein indicated as the manifold pressures that the instability of the system puts on the structures of knowledge as such. He envisioned three possible paths:

It is possible that the modern university may cease to be the principal locus of the production or even of the reproduction of knowledge, although what would or could re-place it is scarcely being discussed. It is possible that the new epistemologically centripetal tendencies of the structures of knowledge may lead to a reunified epistemology (different from both of the two principal existing ones) and which I think of, perhaps provincially, as the “social scientization of all knowledge.” And it is possible that the social science disciplines will collapse organizationally and be subject to a profound re-organization (perhaps forced into by administrators), whose outlines are most unclear (Wallerstein, 2003a: 19).

8The striking adherence of this threefold scenario to the conditions of the structures of knowledge ruled by neoliberal academic power remained unforeseen to him. It consists in the magnitude of the complex process exacerbated the current bifurcation characterized by the pandemics: the radical transformation of the relation between authorities, expert knowledge and subjectivity.

9The ability to provide accurate provisions was a supposed prerogative of expert knowledge. The reference model to forecasting was incarnated by the so-called “hard” sciences. This is why the social sciences always aspired to the status of legitimation that natural sciences enjoyed. Wallerstein championed a different understanding of science, where complexity theory questioned the authority of classical mechanics, and disclosed knowledge at large to a sustainable uncertainty (Wallerstein, 1998c: 321):

The belief in certainties, a fundamental premise of modernity is blinding and crippling. Modern science, that is, Cartesian-Newtonian science, has been based on the certainty of certainty. The basic assumption is that there exist objective universal laws governing natural phenomena, that these laws can be ascertained by scientific inquiry.

10Now, with the pandemics, expert knowledge shows its own uncertainty. The epistemological meaning of what Wallerstein drew from complexity theory exceeds the strict realm of expert knowledge, spreading from core (in the sense of presumed more reliable) scientific disciplines to other fields of knowledge. This condition of uncertainty materializes Wallerstein’s intuition that history would have inverted the relation between social and natural sciences. While during the XIX and XX centuries social sciences envied the degree of certitude of natural science, the acceptance of uncertainty in natural science demonstrates that social science is not epistemologically inferior. A proof of such a new condition consists in the exchange and osmosis between natural and social science in the realm of demographic studies, which create analytical tools that can work across different “populations”: virus, bacteria, plants, animals, or humans. This is because, for Wallerstein (1998c: 231-232):

Human social systems are the most complex in the universe, therefore the hardest to analyze […] It is precisely in the periods of transition from an historical system to another one (whose nature we cannot know in advance) that human struggle takes on the most meaning. Or, to put it in another way, it is only in such times of transition that what we call free will outweighs the pressures of the existing system to return to equilibria. Thus, the fundamental change is possible, albeit never certain and this fact makes claim on our moral responsibility to act rationally [emphasis added], in good faith, and with strngth to seek a better historical system.

11To act rationally implies understanding the new conditions of collective existence. In the current period of transition, something is happening that appears strikingly new: experts and authorities share uncertainty with subjects and citizens. Suddenly, we are called to not fully trust expert knowledge to the extent they socialize the awareness of the uncertain horizon they live with. Nonetheless, this condition does not automatically allows free will to clarify what the direction towards a better future should be. The flip side of uncertainty is a state of political confusion and indeterminacy that solicits the recourse to unilateral decision-making and forced implementation of top-down political decisions.

12Here, the world finds itself in a struggle where the global elites and the media apparatus that partake in the struggle act like the two horses that Wallerstein saw pulling in two opposite directions. On the one hand, who champions democracy advocates the return to the former system of social polarization modelled upon the U.S.A. social organization; on the other hand, who champions equality advocates to reduce the space of democracy in the name of a better system to come, modelled upon China social organization. According to Wallerstein, instead, the struggle for democracy and equality should move together, in parallel, hand in hand:

13We cannot know what this would look like in structural terms, but we can lay out the criteria on the basis of which we call an historical system substantively rational. It is a system that is largely egalitarian and largely democratic. Far from seeing any conflict between these two objectives, I would argue that they are intrinsically linked to each other. An historical system cannot be egalitarian if it is not democratic, because an undemocratic is one that distributed power unequally, and this means that it will also distribute all other things unequally. And it cannot be democratic if it is not egalitarian, since an inegalitarian system means that some have more material means than others and therefore inevitably will have more political power (Wallerstein 1998c: 322).

14Wallerstein made clear an important point: the future, in an age of transition, does not depend on institutional engineering. Institutions as forms of social organization are produced by changing social relations, therefore they consist in social relations that are to be designed according to different logics, which involve a certain degree of creativity by the subjects who intend to move toward one direction or another. Ruling strata of world population are already actively working to re-transform the world economy under different shapes. If capital is a social relation, dominant strata attempt at changing the rule of the game by preserving the quintessential social relation that capital imposes: exploitation. Capitalist accumulation finds new paths to guarantee the margins of profitability that the fluctuations and turbulence since the 1970s relegated to the financial sector, that is, away from the productive sectors: financial economy, today, notwithstanding the systemic crises of 2008, accounts for the 80% of global profits (Harvey 2017).

15Wallerstein grasped the fundamentally contradictory nature of historical capitalism through a deep analysis of the historically determined forms that the crisis of accumulation expressed. He saw in the historical development of this contradiction the trajectory pushing the system towards its own structural limits, towards the asymptote.

16The privileged need more than merely adopt a radically different rhetoric, however. They have to use the rhetoric to establish a radically different set of institutions. And here they have two more problems. One lies in their own camp, and in two forms. The first is that what may be good for a group as a worldwide whole may not at all be good for subgroups among the privileged. The losing subgroups will, of course, be unwilling to go along, and that can disrupt the political viability of the operation. It is impossible even to attempt to predict the details (Wallerstein 1999a: 86).

17The response that the dominant strata of world economy are giving to the current crisis of accumulation is based on the political construction of the economy itself, yet implements logics that contradict the mantra of classical economy and neo-liberalism, which still recall about the self-regulative capacity of the law of demand and supply, even though it appears, at least, suspended. Projected backwards, this confirms how unnatural capitalist economy is. Suddenly, the support to basic income becomes a viable option whereas it appeared a chimera. This happens both in those countries of the North where savings are quantitatively conspicuous, like Europe, and in those other countries where the demand is historically supported through debt, like the United States. Therefore, the level of consumption of the North decreases less than it actually should, since it is artificially supported through monetary maneuvers by the central banks. Inflationist economic politics are not taboo anymore even though which investments are profitable, apart from those directly connected to health, remains more than obscure while entire industrial sectors disappear from the geoeconomic map of the world-economy. This implies a revivification of the nation-state that the ideology of globalization wanted to extinguish in the long run. The State strongly intervenes in economy: basic incomes, partial nationalization of strategic assets such as energy or air transportation, and health care that moves from the status of service to that of infrastructure. At the same time, the perspective of economic and social improvement, which had been one of the main promises of capitalist modernity as universalistic project, slightly disappears from the historical horizon of the world. The attack that radical theory and the social movements had launched against the myth of progress was correct (Wallerstein 1999a: 59). Yet, when it materializes into a self-evident political horizon, the times are ready for a different ideological asset to emerge.

18The geopolitics of historical capitalism, under these active pressures, does not modify the trajectories that Wallerstein described. In fact, it points straightforwardly toward the radicalization of economic inequality, while a new global ideological structure is still missing. Geographically, capital immobilized in rich countries under the semblance of welfare systems, savings, and real estate properties, completes its mobilization started during the 1970s in order to freely flow eastward to create new efficiency based on dispossession and over-exploitation. Politically, the hierarchy in global labor force, articulated through the interconnection of structural racism and sexism, remains solidly in place: untouched (ibid.: 20).

19Fortunately, dominant strata are not the only player, even though the stronger. Social movements are fighting for equality, against sexism and racism in the North and the West. Social movements are uprising for equality, democracy and civil rights in the East and the South. This scenario gives a complementary image of how the quest for alternative paths to a different global social organization configures a natural reaction to the global designs of dominant strata (Dufoix and Hanafi 2020). Sociologically, these multiplex movements put theory in front of a limit that the black activist and theorist Angela Davis has underlined in a recent interview. The leadership of these movements is rarely individual, it is mostly always collective (Bakare 2020). Wallerstein acutely formulated the problem of the relation between individual and collective rationality in terms of a theoretical problem that might appear quite sophisticated within the sociological imagination we are used to. This is why it remained largely underdeveloped while, in fact, it is crucial.

20In his presidential address to the XIV World Congress of Sociology, he described Freud’s psychology as a sociological challenge to social science at large (Wallerstein 1999b: 12):

21Pushing, however, the logic of the search for rational explanation of the seemingly irrational, Freud led us down a path whose logical conclusion is that nothing is irrational from the point of view of the actor […] This is such a challenge that I would argue we have not even begun to confront it […] The only consistent conclusion we can draw is that there is no such a thing called formal rationality […] In the face of Freud’s challenge, some have thrown up their hands with glee, and have become solipsistic, and some have fallen back on repeating the mantra of rationality […] Freud’s challenge to the very operationality of the concept of formal rationality forces us to take more seriously the Weberian pendant concept of substantive rationality […] Formal rationality is usually presented as the most effective means to an end. And once given that, everyone is formally rational. Substantive rationality is precisely the attempt to come to terms with this irreducible subjectivity, and to suggest that nonetheless we can make intelligent, meaningful choices, social choices.

22Contemporary social movements are creatively elaborating patterns of participatory protests that bring a new substantive rationality whose allergy to strong leadership challenges the constitutive complementarity between formal rationality, as extreme form of universalism, and solipsism, as extreme form of particularism. This complementarity has been the philosophical base of Western dominance and modern capitalism. For the unquestioned reliance on the totalizing universalistic pretensions of modernity had its own existential counterpart into the idolatry of individualism.

23Substantive rationality from a counter-hegemonic perspective unleashes two generative forces.

24The first consists in downshifting formal rationality incarnated in Western knowledge to the status of one among the other substantive rationalities. This does not necessarily mean the complete disavowal of the West as an overall geohistorical entity. It rather transforms Western knowledges from the epistemological guardian of a fake ontological supremacy into one among the many sets of heuristic tools available to cope with the complexity of the world. In so doing, substantive rationality points at geocultural equality by making visible and legitimate possible connections with other substantive rationalities that had been silenced or marginalized through the colonial history of modernity: the condemnation of heresy, evangelization, colonialism and imperialism. Given that social science must be aware that the very notion of substantive rationality draws its own legitimacy from the dominance of the Western colonial conceptual archive, therefore still remains an intellectual membrane seen from the Western side of the colonial border.

25The second consists in the possibility for social science to fully acknowledge the equally universal value involved in other substantive rationalities. The vast constellation of these epistemological Others has been able to preserve alternative substantive rationalities and contain the disruptive force of individualism within complex systems of collective organization about property rights, ecology, division of labor, distribution of wealth, power and resources, notwithstanding the attack that western hegemonic capitalist power had protracted along the entire history of modernity. These substantive rationalities include but are not limited to indigenous knowledges in the former colonial world, subaltern knowledges in the North, marginalized civilizational knowledges defeated through war and predatory practices across the continents and their cultures. This awareness calls for new dialogues and practices based on the critique to individualism and the simultaneous dismantling of aggressive ethnocentrism, being it Eurocentric, Sinocentric, or even differently allocentric.

26This is because dominant strata are creatively engaged in the politics of institutional engineering. But they do not form a single bloc. They have never been able to form it because of the inner intra-class contradictions animating their internal dialectics. At the same time, the quest for a just society involves an even stronger social creativity and the possibility of strategic alliances to come between old and new collective social actors.

27In this search for substantive rationality, for the good society (or at least the better society), one thing we have on our side is human creativity. Here, there is no limit to the potential. What we know about complex systems is that they are self-organizing and that they repeatedly invent new formulas, new solutions for existing problems. I do not, however, wish to sneak here a concept of inevitable progress, because creativity is not necessarily or always positive. What works is not necessarily what is morally good. And the morally good is not achieved simply by preaching it (Wallerstein 1999a: 82).

28What, therefore, should the role of intellectuals be in the changing structures of knowledge during an age of transition?

Intellectuals, social theory, and the just society

  • 5 The so-called “gang of four” (Immanuel Wallerstein, Giovanni Arrighi, Samir Amin, and Andre Gunder (...)

29Wallerstein focused on the relation between progressive movements and social change along its lifelong concern with justice, equality and democracy. 5He also touched the problem of the role of intellectuals in social movements (Wallerstein 2002). And, finally, he went deep into the ambiguous role of intellectuals in front of power and the status quo:

The relation of knowledge specialists, intellectuals, to persons of power, persons in power has always been an ambiguous one, fraught with tension and dishonesty. Intellectuals are essential to the ability of persons in power to remain in power. They illuminate the realities and the alternatives that exist. At the same time, they are dangerous to those in power, first of all because they can serve opponents, and secondly because they can expose the follies and the deceptions of those in power. On the other hand, intellectuals do not exist in a void. They need material support, which is difficult to obtain without at least the passive assent of those in power. And they need a public audience, which is difficult to maintain if they are merely the mouthpieces of the powerful (Wallerstein 2003a: 1).

30Among who do the intellectual work, who is engaged in social science directly speaks both to the rulers and to the ruled. For rulers, it adjures them at least to preserve their privileged status from any possible risk of scale-down, by ordering and shaping the turmoil of social change and any who appear to question those privileges; meanwhile, the combination of disproportional distribution of wealth with technological hubris amplifies ad libitum the ancestral gamut of likely material desires. As far as the ruled are concerned, it adjures equal wellbeing and empowerment regardless of their ascribed status; but two ways are anticipated: either they consciously accept the rules or they try to change them. In both cases, the horizon of the ruled remains designated by a chronological mantra which postpones the desired improvements to the days to come. At a glance, the ruled seem to have far more with which to reproach social theory.

31Yet, during an age of transition, something different happens: a new self-awareness of the intellectual work can emerge. Social scientists are called to rethink about the ambiguous position they occupy in front of power during this bifurcation and mobilize creatively their own theoretical imagination. Wallerstein clarified that not every practitioner is an intellectual. This does not imply that the latter is a human of a higher anthropological order nor that the intellectual conforms to the xixth century image of a romantic genius of theoretical invention. Drawing from Gramsci and Weber, Wallerstein maintains that:

Is there then something special about the role of the intellectual? Yes, there is. What we mean by an intellectual is someone who devotes his/her energies and time to an analytic understanding of reality, and presumably has had some special training in how best to do this. This is no small requirement. And not everyone has wished to become a specialist in this more general knowledge, as opposed to the very concrete particular knowledge we all need to perform any task competently. The intellectual then is a generalist, even if his general scope is in fact limited to a particular domain of the vast world of all knowledge (Wallerstein, 2003a: 22).

32Social theory incarnates the effort to critically produce and reconfigure this self-awareness. And it conveys a global historical significance. Social theorists have become intellectuals under Western hegemony and within the limited epistemological structures of modernity (Ascione 2016). Therefore, self-awareness articulates into three steps. 1) To openly confront the re-configuration of global power wherein thoughts emerge. 2) From this newly established awareness, social scientists are able to “provincialize” their own knowledge. 3) This means to “anthropologize” their role both in time and space: in time, confronting with non-modern knowledges on an equal base; in space, confronting with non-Western knowledges on an equal base.

331) The relation between geopolitical and economic power, on the one hand, and the ability to impose or hegemonize concepts and narratives, on the other hand, is not easy to explain within any relation of cause-and-effect, derivation or influence schema. Nonetheless, the fate of the structures of knowledge that have been able to naturalize the historical transitional dominance of the West is affected by ongoing transformations of world politics and of global social stratification. Compared to a few decades ago, not so many scholars would subscribe to the notion that modernity is a pure, original, superior European creation. Europe and the West alone are no longer the self-contained locus for the genesis of the modern. Modernity, which for more than two centuries has been the major ideological means of managing Western supremacy within the international system, is now the theoretical space of confrontation between many powers and different counter-powers seeking to establish who modernity belongs to, and what it is, was and will be. Wallerstein’s endeavor to produce a social history of the epistemology of the social sciences grasps a central aspect of this story (Wallerstein 1991b). Social theory is about the promise of understanding and predicting that it is able to show to power, where power is broadly conceived in multiple, hierarchical and shifting configurations. In other words, social science as a whole cannot be oblivious to the fact that a consistent part of its historical legitimacy derives from the constitutive relation between the political and geopolitical dimensions of power produced by colonial expansion and what Abdel-Malek (1972) named the historical surplus-value (Wallerstein, 1999b). This historical surplus-value that the ruling groups have accumulated through cultural hegemony, as well as through violent, consensual, or fortuitous processes of appropriation of knowledge. This surplus-value accumulation implied the destruction of a vast variety of cultures, epistemologies, cosmologies and practices. This surplus-value remains, together with some relative advantages in several sectors of the finance, military and high-tech industries, a considerable reserve of power to be re-invested in order to preserve some of the privileges previously associated with global domination and colonial rule (Wallerstein, 2003). Yet, as geopolitics changes and surplus-value is transferred, redistributed, destroyed and dispersed, social science faces new needs, unexpected questions and new promises to make.

342) This geocultural displacement makes the borders between Western social sciences and other forms of knowledge more porous. Western social science use to preserve their position of primi inter pares by claiming an ontological supremacy over other forms of knowledge from other geohistorical or social standpoints and locations. Yet, to the extent their presumed universal legitimacy is weakened by the current crisis of the structures of knowledge in the current age of transition, their value is not lost to the extent that what was supposedly an ontology is rethought in terms of a heuristics, that is, in the last instance, a way among other ways of knowing the same realm of reality. In this regard, Trouillot (1995) suggested that social science can be understood from a reverse anthropological perspective.

353) This perspective consists in rediscovering the otherness at the heart of the self of modernity; the exotic inside the West; the savage within civilization. Bennetta (1978) disclosed an epistemological path for social sciences that has remained largely unexplored. She suggested that natural science and social sciences, taken together, have performed some of the functions that are homologous to a set of social activities which ruling elites have always considered politically crucial both to orient the process of decision-making and to legitimate their power: divination. Therefore, social science can “inform” in the double meaning of the term: both providing information and acting as a formative principle for action. The promise of social theory was to reoccupy part of the space left vacant by the abandonment of divination in the realm of knowledge for political purposes. The historical reasons for this abandonment were not merely internal to the progressive development of knowledge through secularization; rather they were conjunctural, political, ideological and geopolitical. Nor can these reasons be explained exclusively in terms of the pressure for continuous technological advances imposed by capitalist accumulation. The realm that social theory came to reoccupy was complementary to, rather than derivative of, the realm of natural sciences after the collapse of late medieval scientia. Social science has mimicked natural sciences to the extent that it transposed the burden of prediction onto collective, thus more controllable procedures, in the hope of containing arbitrariness through method. At the same time, social theory inherited from divination the claim of totalizing the activity of interpretation and prediction in all human affairs, from the individual unconscious to society as a whole. The political economy of behavioral big data is the latest epigone of this progeny.

Conclusion: from theory to ϑεωρός

36Taking the path of unthinking further, social theory is equally distant both from being universal and from being understandable exclusively within “modern” categories of its own. Its ways of establishing logical causal relations between present, past and future acquired their adequacy within a specific historical configuration of power. Wallerstein exposed the fragile foundations of this power. He made them visible in order for critique to create the grounds for intellectual revolt. This intellectual revolt went under the rubric of world-systems theory. It learned from the limits of its own critique to Eurocentrism that, within modernity, the possibility of unthinking the limits of social theory was doomed to failure. Within the ability to trespass the borders of modernity, the critique to Eurocentrism turns into “anti-Eurocentric Eurocentrism” (Wallerstein, 1997) since modernity was the anthropological horizon set by the capitalist world-system to its civilizational geoculture.

37Wallerstein’s heritage calls for radically re-interrogating social theory engagement with politics, starting from the critique of the changing conditions wherein knowledge is produced. Without such a constant tension toward itself, social theory is unable to see its own limits. Wallerstein has accompanied social theory to the threshold of this age of transition. In every age of transition, the word theory loses its etymological sense and acquires a historical meaning. The Greek word θεωρέω ceases meaning the abstract process of observation and tells the story of the group of individuals who were called by the historical circumstances to leave the city and pay a visit to the oracle, in order to ask news about the future. This is where the ϑεωρός enter the scene. The age of transition is the pure age of prophecy. During the age of transition, more than any other historical period, analyses do not simply explain: they influence actions, choices, facts, and processes, by informing that generative, essential yet fragile space that is human thought, even though not necessarily in the direction needed, wanted, or hoped. Therefore, celebrating Wallerstein implies thinking the future in order to making the world more desirable and the system more just than it has been so far.

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1 The full archive of Wallerstein commentaries is available at the URL: <>.

2 In 1992, the group submitted its interim findings to a group of scholars who went to Binghamton for a three-day seminar: Bruce Cumings (History and Political Science, Northwestern University), David Gordon (Economics, New School for Social Research), Otto Kreye (Starnberger lnstitut, Germany), Saul Mendlowitz (World Order Models Project, New York), Alejandro Portes (Sociology, Johns Hopkins University), Robert Wade (Development Studies, University of Sussex, UK), and Boaventura de Sousa Santos (Centro de Estudos Sociais, University of Coimbra, Portugal). See Hopkins and Wallerstein (1996: preface).

3 In order to delineate the different approaches to the analysis of hegemonic trajectories between Arrighi and Wallerstein, see also Arrighi (1994, 2007).

4 For a substantial introduction to the wide specter of topics covered by complexity theory at the time when Wallerstein got acquaintance with it, see Laszlo (1991).

5 The so-called “gang of four” (Immanuel Wallerstein, Giovanni Arrighi, Samir Amin, and Andre Gunder Frank), together with Terence K. Hopkins, devoted its attention to anti-systemic movements under many respects and with different emphases, analyzing either agrarian, working-class, socialist, nationalist, civil rights movement across five centuries, but with more accuracy and insights, from the XIX century onwards (Arrighi, Hopkins, and Wallerstein, 1986 and 2012; Amin, Arrighi, Frank, and Wallerstein, 1982).

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Gennaro Ascione

Gennaro Ascione travaille sur les épistémologies des sciences humaines, de la science et de la modernité, des études mondiales, de la théorie décoloniale et postcoloniale au département des sciences humaines et sociales de l’université de Naples, « L’Orientale ». Il est associé de recherche au Centre pour les relations internationales de l’université de Delhi, au Centre de théorie sociale de Warwick et à l’Arts Santa Mònica de l’université de Barcelone. Il est cofondateur du réseau mondial Towards a non-Hegemonic World Sociology (UNESCO et Fondation Maison des sciences de l’homme, Paris) et membre de la Colonial, Postcolonial, Decolonial Working Group British International Studies Association et du Center for Gender and Postcolonial Studies, L’Orientale, Naples. Parmi ses publications : A sud di nessun Sud. Postcolonialismo, movimenti anti-sistemici e studi decoloniali (Odoya, 2009); America latina e modernità. L’opzione decoloniale. Saggi scelti (Arcoiris, 2014); Science and the Decolonization of Social Theory: Unthinking Modernity (Palgrave-McMillan, 2016).

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