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Re: Frank as a world-systemist?
by Boris Stremlin
18 March 2002 08:24 UTC
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On Sun, 17 Mar 2002, Elson Boles wrote:

> I agree with the point made above, in part.  But I'm not sure what you mean
> by "placing analytical categories outside of historical time."  I see some
> placing world-historical processes out of the historical "wholes" that they
> define (Wallerstein) while others putting everything they can into it
> (Frank), thus positing a whole so big in TimeSpace that it is tantamount to
> unilinear history, as you seem to suggest.

Then you see what I mean.  If I say I'm writing history as it REALLY
happened, I am saying my perspective is epistemologically privileged.
Historical time, as most world-systemists (at any rate) realize, is not
objectively given (nor simply imposed by the ego), but "socially
constructed".  Hence, TimeSpace is socially constructed as well,
and herein lies the crux of its historicity (although
this constructive aspect does not make it any less real).  There is a
tendency to forget the constructive nature of these TimeSpaces, and to
assert that they exist objectively, with respect to any reference point,
and hence they are always relevant, regardless of what question you are
trying to ask.  In this sense, they exist outside of history.

> The oddity in the Frank-Wallerstein debate is that Frank and Gills have no
> reason to use the unhyphenated "world system" term, except to distinguish
> their world-system as being bigger in TimeSpace than Wallerstein's.  In
> fact, Frank and Gills' use the term "world-systems" at least once,
> acknowledging that other world-systems existed in the past and elsewhere
> (Frank and Gills, _The World System, five hundred years or five thousand?_,
> 1996: 3).  Moreover, they claim to use all the same criteria to define their
> world-system as Wallerstein does: a division of labor, cycles, hegemony,
> etc.  And in the end they agree with Chase-Dunn that they ought to call
> their big system, Central World System, thus being a world-system among
> others.  (I'd personally prefer, "the Big System" or BS for short.)

It is identical except for the one (key) thing - the Weltanschauung of the
"endless accumulation of capital".  For Frank, this represents a mere
ideological byproduct of the system's functioning.  For Wallerstein (as
Frank astutely points out), it represents the crucial element of the
social construction which allows the system to function.  That amounts to
a huge difference, and one which is impossible to get at simply by
applying an "empirical" measurement of "significance", because the
significance is itself socially constructed.

> The crux of the issue is not just that the units in both cases may be
> reified by leaving out historical processes that might be relevant.  That
> seems to suggest that neither Wallerstein or Frank have any justification
> for doing so, which isn't the case.  Wallerstein, for example, seems to
> acknowledge the larger processes and that world-system's boundaries are
> fuzzy due to the connections among systems.  So, the key issue is whether or
> not the processes, events, developments -- the history -- within a thusly
> given unit are justifiably explained as significantly connected, that is, as
> interconnected and therefore exhibiting "systemic meaningfulness."

I never said either Wallerstein's or Frank's system is reified in itself
(well, Frank's isn't after the social construction of it is made
explicit, at any rate; a good lead for investigating how it is put
together is given by Samir Amin's critique of _ReOrient_ in Review).
I only suggested that they become reified only in so far as they are put
forward as the only appropriate unit of world-historical analysis.  To put
it in other words, the crux of the issue is the "naturalization" of our
units of analysis - the assumption that the TimeSpace created is identical
in every instance with a physico-geographic TimeSpace.  This is the
assumption Frank makes with respect to the 5,000 year system, and, as you
note in your paper, Wallerstein in effect makes with his 500-year one.
Not everything "within" the system in the physico-geographic sense is
explicable in terms of the proposed unit of analysis.

The problem I continue to have with your formulation is that "significant
connectedness" is unqualified as to when, where, how, and for whom.  To
say Frank's system is not significant "enough" is to naturalize those
criteria which you feel are enough.  The linkages of long-distance trade
were significant and meaningful to the people who were implicated in and
effected by it, in some places and some of the time.  Moreover, its
significance is also underlined in the amount of fruitful research it has
generated over the last decade on interlinkage and interdependence of
(Afro-)Eurasia.  If it had been deemed insignificant from the start, it
would have never been done, and we would not have the benefit of even
arguing about it.

This is not the same as saying that it was decisive in
determining the character of relationships in every instance.  It seems to
me that you are asserting that a given logic is the most significant in
every instance over a particular contiguous extent of a given Timespace.
Not only do I not agree with this, but it seems to me your own paper
militates against such a judgment as well.  If every system is open, then
every system also breaks down somewhere, in some socially constructed
TimeSpace.  Where what are usually referred to as antisystemic movements
succeed in articulating some sort of alternative, the system has broken
down, perhaps not for ever (usually not, in fact), but at least for a

> Regarding Frank's unit, he of course says yes, the developments are
> interconnected, while Wallerstein says no they're not.

Actually, Wallerstein says that he accepts Frank's explanation as "a
fairly initial and partial outline of what had been happening in the world
between 8000 BC (or so) up to 1500 AD" and he even tentatively accepts the
existence of common economic rhythms within the entity which Frank calls a
system (pp.293-4 in _The World System: 500 years or 5000?_, ed. Frank and
Gills, 1993, Routledge).  If you say something has common rhythms, it
certainly sounds like you accept the fact that it's interconnected.  He
does not call it a system because he, like you, naturalizes the criteria
of systematicity, and accepts their validity as given for all Timespaces.

>  Does Frank show the
> same degree of integration of his system that Wallerstein's shows in his?
> Frank says yes, Wallerstein says no.  Does the evidence of other writers
> tend to support Frank's view or Wallerstein's?  The upshot is that whether
> one finds Frank or Wallerstein's arguments more convincing hinges on the
> evidence and arguments that each and others bring to bear with regard to
> significant mutual causality -- systemicity -- among the people within
> demonstrated or justified unit of analysis.  I don't think ReOreint is
> comparable to M W-S in this respect.

What are the criteria of systematicity you use to make this judgment?  Do
they apply to all systems?

To me, once interconnectedness has been established (and I think in
ReOrient and in the book I cite above it has been), the issue DOES in fact
become empirical - and that involves the demonstration of the concrete
relationships between open, hence overlapping systems.  Some systems are
in fact better interconnected than others - at certain points in time and
space - although the proponents of governing systems (which is what
Wallerstein wants to investigate) always argue that their dominance is
a product of some innate, ahistorical virtue.


> system's development and transformation.  It is necessary to show the local
> "dimensions" of world-historical developments and vice-versa to build a
> concrete understanding of a system's development.

But can't "local" dimensions also be shown to be systemic?

Boris Stremlin

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