Going off Semi Periphery Boundary: Tribute to Immanuel Wallerstein

Author: Naldo Helmys

Immanuel Wallerstein, an 89-year-old International Relations theorist, has just breathed his last on Saturday (8/31). His work, The Modern World System which was published in 1974, is honoured as one of the important canons conveying discrepancy among nations under the world capitalist system in particular. Semi periphery, his coined term, interestingly refers to middle caste states that their development is differentiated between the wealthy core and the impoverished periphery.

The world or capitalist system theory could be simplified. It examines states as unequal economic classes rather than pure political entities. Instead of being grouped according to a geopolitical constellation, states have been divided into two large economic blocks, i.e. the North and the South countries. These terms suit geographical consciousness immediately, though anomaly is pervasive. Australia, for instance, despite its location in the southern hemisphere, is noticed as the North country. Being loose in physical division, the gap between both groups have been too obvious to ignore for decades. While the North countries are leading with advanced industry, technology, and economy, their counterparts are often depicted as impoverished raw-material producers.

For some, global trade obscures the North-South inequality through interdependency mechanism. Southern products, either good raw materials or cheap labours, are necessary to maintain the wealthy North industries, whereas the latter’s technology goods are overrunning the developing country markets. The more single market is intensified, the more human needs are fairly distributed.

However, the promise of capitalism to benefit those who participate in global market sounds like adagio, which cannot find its faster phase. Rather than function as turning point modernizing and transforming countries into a great economic player, semi periphery is more or less a buffer to avoid the world capitalist system collapse. It means semi periphery countries such as Indonesia has just little opportunity to establish solid prospering economy. Should Indonesia has risen to the position of the world-leading economy, according to Wallerstein’s world system theory, the superpower will interpret such rising as a challenge to the world order. The U.S. reluctance to trade fairly with China by proclaiming the trade war could be a textbook example of how difficult the rising economy plays in the neoliberal system.

Indonesia’s failure to reach 5.3% of economic growth this year illustrates how difficult the situation is when the global economy is worsened by competition among the core and the semi periphery. Slapping punitive tariffs between the U.S. and China on each other exports keeps international trade acceleration at a distance. Even this situation affects European markets though they are noticed as the wealthy North. Thus, how does a middle country like Indonesia go off this problem? Should it break its semi periphery boundaries by arguing its Indonexit (Indonesia Exit)?

Escaping could be challenging as Wallerstein’s world system theory does not provide strategies for semi periphery to reach the core level. It is inherited within what substance contained by the term itself. Semi periphery is either a sickened core state or a rising periphery. The former could be depicted by weakened Spanish or Portuguese imperial before British domination in the eighteenth century. The latter, however, is illustrated by rising South Korea, Singapore, or China, especially after the Cold War. Meanwhile, no matter how great the rising economy is, there is no chance to penetrate the core boundaries.

Moreover, though Wallerstein just realise a structural crisis in the capitalist world system, he, based on some latest publications, did not sure either the system will collapse soon. Unlike radical Marxist theories, he did not see a revolutionary strategy or class struggle as an option to smash capitalism. There is no chance to fight the neoliberal economic system that has been able to cure itself after an economic recession. Marxist claim that capitalism could be demolished by class struggle and will be followed by better communism is disproved. Free market is even getting larger, and the importance of neoliberal institutions such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and World Trade Organization, is growing.

Despite the pessimistic view, Wallerstein’s world system theory is going to be more significant. The theory should be considered as part of historical sociology tradition rather than Marxist political agenda. Like most sociologists on this tradition, Wallerstein had worked with history by analysing the emergence and development of capitalism particularly in European society.

This approach gives us important epistemological issues that it is pivotal to understand certain country’s development and modernization within an international framework rather than in isolation. To simplify, those who want to understand why some countries are getting to rise in economy while the others are going less developed should understand the position of those countries in a certain world system before jumping to internal situation such as political stability, natural resources availability, or human capital capability. It does not mean these domestic factors not required.

Beritahu Temanmu


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