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WS theory - an outsiders view
by Clint Ballinger
06 April 2002 19:48 UTC
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Dear WSN:

I happened to be reading a review of
"Nonzero : The Logic of Human Destiny (Vintage)"   by
Robert Wright on Amazon and ran across the paragraph
below. It seems to hold a lot of truth.

"Nonzero is another of the recent works that
approaches meta-history using large amounts
anthropology, sociology and science. The large scale
view of history (meta-history on a Toynbee scale) has
been somewhat abandoned by historians in the last two
generations. The few schools that have adopted such
approaches, such as World-Systems, seem to have an
academic and political axe to grind winding up as
intellectual cul-de-sacs rather than pathbreaking

For a group of scholars who nominally want to look at
the "big picture" more than others there seems to be
an inordinate amount of bickering in WS theory over
minutiae of definitions and such compared to actual
There is an interesting parallel in another heterodox
academic area, Austrian economics. I disagree
strongly, as I imagine many WS analysts likewise do,
with much of the mathematical and narrow econometric
approach of mainstream economics. In researching this
I attempted to find the best critiques of the overuse
of mathematics in economics, and "Austrians" are of
course noted for this. I disagree with most "Austrian"
analysis, but do find important aspects of their
anti-math critiques useful. As an aside, I would
HIGHLY recommend an excellent article that sums up
most of these points called "Why I Am Not an Austrian
Economist"   by  Bryan Caplan, an unusually lucid
economics writer of the "Virginia School" of public
choice analysis
 (  at    

This article gives a wonderfully clear overview of
both neoclassical (which alone makes the article
worthwhile) and Austrian economics. Likewise, Caplan,
towards the end of the article, gives a brief but
devastating critique of the overuse of math in
economics (his "ten most useful ideas in economics"
argument- check it out- it is good, and interesting,
because Caplan is a Princeton trained expert in the
use of mathematics in economics). 
At any rate, what made me think of Caplan's article in
relationship to WS is his paraphrasing of Deng
Xiaoping, "One should not talk of methodology every
day. In real life, not everything is methodology." He
says this because Austrians became known for constant
bickering over minutiae of methodology. WS seems to
have fallen into a similar trap.

There is also a famous quote about Austrian economics
by Milton Friedman who said  that "there is no
Austrian economics - only good economics, and bad
economics." Caplan adds to this that "Austrians do
some good economics, but most good economics is not
Austrian."  Might this not apply to WS theory? There
is no world systems macro-history, only good
macro-history and bad macro-history. World systems
theorists do some good macro-history, but most good
macro-history is not world systems macro-history. 

This is my view from the outside.

Clint Ballinger
Dallas, Texas

PS A nice review of recent macro-histories is: 
Stokes, Gale (2001) "Why the West? The Unsettled
Question of Europe's Ascendancy," Linguafranca vol. 11
no. 8
http://www.linguafranca.com/print/0111/cover.html ;
version of "The Fates of Human Societies: A Review of
Recent Macro-histories," in The American Historical
Review 106, no. 2 (April 2001): 508525.

I believe "Louis Proyect"  project posted the
Linguafranca article here several months ago, but it
is worth mentioning again. 

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