Research & Studies

“WE ARE IN THE SITUATION OF RELATIVE FREE WILL” An Interview with Immanuel Wallerstein

We are sitting here almost 30 years after our first interview in 1981 in Budapest and it seems to me that most of your predictions and analyses concerning the change in the upcoming world system proved to be right. You forecasted that the world system is in a transition phase which would take several decades. In one of your books you suggested this would take place between 1945 and 2025. Elsewhere you talk about a longer period of transformation. We are getting closer to 2025, even if we take it as a metaphor. Where are we now? Are we really heading towards a new system or further into chaos and disruption?

We are further into chaos and heading towards a new system, but the date I usually use these days is 2050 as the likely point when things will settle down into a new system. But we are definitely into chaos and have been for a while and this becomes
more and more visible all the time. That is to say, the chaos has been there for a while, but now people are noticing the chaos. That’s the difference.

Do you see any light at the end of the tunnel? What are the positive perspectives? People everywhere in the world are very interested in alternatives, also in Hungary.

The basic analytic model is on the side of complexity. The argument is that systems, all systems of any kind, at some point always move away from equilibrium, but there are structures within the system that keep moving back to equilibrium. When a system moves further and further away from equilibrium and reaches a point where the structures that bring it back to equlibrium are no longer sufficiently strong, the system begins to fluctuate enormously and there is what we call a bifurcation. Technically a bifurcation, in terms of what a chemist or physicist means, is a situation in which for a given equation there are two possible solutions which is not normally the case; but if you translate that into social science language, a bifurcation means that there are two alternative outcomes to the chaotic situation. There is a struggle, a social struggle as to which outcome will prevail. So there is a light at the end of the tunnel, but it depends on what you mean by light. If you mean by light “order” it is clear a new order will emerge out of this chaos. The question is which order and whose order and there are two alternatives. I think of these two alternatives as a better one and a worse one when looking at the current situation. That is to say, sometimes I have used lately the language of the “Spirit of Davos”, vis-à-vis the “Spirit of Porto Allegre”.

“The Spirit of Davos” is to replace the present capitalist system with another system “X” which shares some crucial features with the capitalist system. That is, it would be like the capitalist system, hierarchical, exploitative, and polarizing. But it could be a structure quite different from capitalism. That is one alternative. That’s the Spirit of Davos.

The “Spirit of Porta Allegre” is to have a relatively democratic, relatively egalitarian system. One could be much worse than the existing system. It is intrinsically and principally impossible to predict which of these outcomes will occur. The reason is that the outcome is the result of an infinity of actions, by an infinity of actors, at an infinity of moments, and an infinity of decisions. This is impossible to predict, but what one can say, and this is the positive way of looking at it, is I can translate the scientific language to the classical, philosophical language of the Western world. This is a situation usually described as the alternative of determinism, or free will that has been debated for several thousand years as alternative appreciations of how the world operates. I want to historicize it. I want to say that when a system operates normally it’s relatively determinist. That is to say, there is alot of effort to change things, but the system pushes you back to equilibrium, so in a sense, you have very little input. In a chaotic situation, when the system breaks down, it’s actually quite the opposite. A little input can yield an enormous amount of change. That is the situation of free will and we are in the situation of relative free will at the moment. That means that you, I and everyone else affects the outcome. People who deal with issues of chaos talk about the butterfly effect. The butterfly effect is that the butterfly flaps its wings at one end of the world, and at the other end of the world the climate changes as a result of this. One little butterfly affects an enormous change at the other end of the world. One has to think of all of us as being in every instance a butterfly. In that sense, what we do matters, social action matters, because it contributes to the likelihood of positive change; but you have to do it with the knowledge that you do not know who wins. You have to be willing to continue to operate and at some point, that is the logic of this system. Enough actions tile it in one direction or the other and we get a new order.Things calm down again, and we’re into a new system. That, metaphorically, is where we will be in 2050.

Read more on the Institute for Social and European Studies website.