The world-systems approach allows us to view and understand change at a macro-structural level. It becomes especially useful when looking at long term, often cyclical, trends in the world-economy. Using this approach and method, my most recent research examining world-economic stratification for the period 1965 to 2015, has demonstrated that there has been a general macro-structural move toward the middle of the world-economic hierarchy. And yet, at the country level, positive GDP growth has not necessarily translated to reduction of within-country inequalities. In this context, the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) could provide a means to understand and potentially address and narrow underlying causes of income inequality within nation states.
In the modern capitalist world-system, nation states are heavily interconnected through social-economic-political competition. Structure and hierarchy is inherent to the capitalist world-system and inequality is naturally embedded within it. According to Immanuel Wallerstein, credited for world-systems theory, mobility within the political world-economic system, although possible, is limited (in particular, see The Capitalist World-Economy). Yet, this does not mean that this inherent inequality in the structure of the capitalist world-economy cannot be addressed. Despite the seeming rigidness of the system, recent advances by populous countries previously at the bottom of the world-economic hierarchy have pushed the boundary of between-country inequality. My research shows that more countries are moving from the periphery to the middle but this means that there are less countries in the periphery left to be exploited. In the abstract, it is a good thing that more countries have moved up. Yet, crowding in the center/semiperiphery could have dire consequences for those left at the bottom at least in terms of how the world-system works. The SDGs, with commendable targets such as good health and well-being, clean energy, gender equality, could potentially confront the root causes of continuing within-country inequality. Still, at the core of the SDGs is a continued focus on industrialization and GDP growth that is problematic as this contradicts some of its more basic objectives. History has shown us that while industrialization, which implies a commitment to factory work and the division of labor, could increase GDP output, it has the unavoidable consequence of ecological damage, increased inequality, and entrenched poverty – all things the SDGs are supposed to reduce.
World-Systems as Analytical Tool and Method to Understanding Structural Inequality
Dependency and modernist theorists of the 1950s looked at the world-economy and saw the exploiters and the exploited – rich industrialized countries exploiting the poor, and natural-resource-rich countries. In the post-colonial landscape Immanuel Wallerstein recognized that the rigidly dichotomized view of the world in the existing discourse was lacking; that the modernizing project through industrialization did not suddenly cause poor countries to become rich; and that the power structure in place and unequal exchange at play was more complex than was previously presented. In fact, there appeared to be a group of countries that appeared semi-permanently stuck between the rich (core) countries and the poor (periphery) countries – the semiperiphery. For Wallerstein, the inequality that the modernists and dependency theorists saw and thought could be overcome through certain measures (such as industrialization) was actually an inherent condition of the capitalist world-economy. This structurally unequal system was kept in balance through the very existence of this semi-periphery which benefited just enough from the world-economic order to avoid falling back into the periphery but not enough to move into the core. Simultaneously, the core exploits the semiperiphery, while the semiperiphery also exploits the periphery. Core countries benefit the most from the surplus derived from global commodity chains as opposed to peripheral countries which gain no benefit. Those that make up the core engage in capital-intensive reproductive accumulative activities compared to the periphery which mostly engage in labor-intensive primary accumulation. The semiperiphery engages in both types of economic activities.
In the post-colonial period, colonial powers were part of the core and that the colonies were part of the periphery; but which countries are part of the semiperiphery? Daniel Chirot had argued (Social Change in the Twentieth Century) that decolonization would eliminate the periphery. But this view only works if one took the view that by dismantling the colonizer-colony link, questions of lingering/established power dynamics, dependency and its political, social, cultural, military, and economic causes disappeared into thin air. Besides, what of those countries which were not part of the colonizer-colonized configuration? And certainly, no longer being a colony did not necessarily translate into being part of the core or even had the possibility of becoming part of the core. Which countries can and had the potential of being part of the semiperiphery?
In my research, I have used the method devised by Giovanni Arrighi and Jessica Drangel to determine how the world-economy is stratified in their seminal 1986 article in Review titled “The Stratification of the World-Economy: An Exploration of the Semiperipheral Zone.” For the authors, “the differences in the command over total benefits of the world division of labour must necessarily be reflected in commensurate differences in the GNP per capita.” Therefore, a country’s gross national product per capita (GNP PC) was used as a stand-in for a state’s mix of core-peripheral activities in the world division of labor. Arrighi and Drangel used a country’s population as a percentage of the world population as a function of that country’s GNP PC, to determine global economic stratification.
Based on their method and using World Bank data of Gross National Income per capita (GNI PC) (Atlas method) and population statistics, I computed world-economic stratification for the period 1965 to present. According to Wallerstein, a large periphery engaged in a largely unequal exchange with the small semiperiphery and even smaller core, represents the ‘normal condition’ of the world-system. However, in my study (and that of my colleagues at the Arrighi Center), there appears to be a clear movement away from the classic world-systems mode of distribution in which majority of the world’s population falls into the periphery. Our interpretation of this movement and its implications vary. One of my arguments is that a large part of this movement to the middle is driven by China, given that it makes up almost a third of the world’s population, and its incredible economic growth during the 1990s and well into the 2000s. This is clearly demonstrated in the data which is visually represented below.
Country positions in the world-economy for the year 1990
Country positions in the world-economy for the year 2000
A Place For the SDGs?
And yet, as remarkable as this trend is, with its implications for global inequality, within-country inequality is still incredibly high for those upwardly mobile populous countries such as China, India, Brazil, South Africa, and many others. For example, the World Bank’s gini coefficient (a measure which indicates the level of income inequality within a given country) estimate for China in 2012 was .49, with extreme inequality marked at .40.
Social scientists have long made the connection that at the heart of structural inequality within states are issues such as poor health and educational outcomes, problems surrounding gender equality, and poor ecological policies among many others. These are directly related to, and are determinants of poverty. Although the SDGs have been criticized as being costly, non-specific, broad and decidedly aspirational, the intentions are good. The objective of eliminating poverty as a means of reducing overall inequality is commendable especially in the areas of ecological consciousness vis-à-vis combatting climate change, ensuring clean water, conserving the oceans etc. But of course, good intentions can only go so far. Still, while the SDGs on the surface appear to address the foundational causes of poverty and inequality, they also rely quite heavily on how well countries are able to increase their GDP growth through industrialization and export-oriented growth. This, quite problematically, implies that poverty can be reduced or eliminated but requires accelerated GDP growth to do so.
The SDGs emphasis and goal of 7% GDP growth for Least Developed Countries (LDCs) is not only, for the most part, untenable, but would most likely increase within-country inequality, poor labor conditions, and encourage non-ecologically sound strategies. Even at the macro-sociological level, the findings of my study which suggest an increase in total world population (at the national level) in the semiperiphery, a focus on GDP growth could translate into a push by those very same upwardly mobile countries to take more exploitative policies toward the LDCs.
As previously stated, the capitalist world-economy is structurally unequal, but this does not mean that we cannot address some of the underlying causes of this inequality. Grounded, achievable SDGs, without this emphasis on GDP growth would be a start. But what we should really begin to ask, pragmatically, is whether creating “sustainable” societies (or a “sustainable” world-system) is feasible under the modern capitalist world-economy. Is responsible consumption, sustainable industrialization and production really possible within this capitalist system? And realistically, what is the alternative. Or was Wallerstein on to something when he said: ‘We should not be seeking to ‘develop’ our separate states; this is the lure and the trap of the capitalist system. We should be seeking to transform the system as a whole, which requires recognizing our own states as both agents in this transformation and barriers to it’ (The Politics of the World-Economy)?
Marilyn Grell-Brisk, Assistante-Doctorante à L’Institut de sociologie à L’Université de Neuchâtel. She is currentlyABD in Sociologyat the University of Neuchâtel. Since Fall 2015, she is a regular participant in theInstitute for Research on World Systems' Working Group, at the University of California, Riverside. She spent 2015 at the Arrighi Center, Johns Hopkins University. Marylin received her MA in Political Science from theUniversity of Lausanneand my BA in Government fromClaremont McKenna College. Her research interests include world-systems theory; comparative historical sociology; development; China-Africa and South-South relations; transnationalization; class formation and global governance.
Is a capitalist world-economy and industrialization-driven growth fundamentally contradictory to an environmentally friendly and sustainable society and world-system? Is it in the interest of core states to have a world-system that is more equal and environmentally safe? Are peripheral countries solely responsible for the fate of their societies not only in terms of diminishing poverty but also with regards to ecological degradation? What are the implications for implementing the SDGs if more of the world population is moving to the center (semiperiphery)?
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Cover Image: Photo: Dean Chahim/flickr/cc (via Common Dreams)