As students of logic have long understood, there are a wide variety of relationships beside the null set and identity. The only quality that may top difference is indifference. Which is why clarity over what we mean by a “dialectical” relationship may hold particular importance for us.
For example, while no one, I am certain, will question whether there is a conflict between the interests of wage-workers and investors in the private company for which they work, this is not the same as saying that labor and capital bear a dialectical relationship to one another. And I suspect that one of the problems we find with I Wallerstein is that his interpretive framework is insufficiently well-articulated to differentiate the one from the other.
I Wallerstein consistently takes up the position of the “oppressed” over against the “oppressor,” and for this he is to be admired and emulated. And, yet, this oppositional framework does not yet disclose whether this opposition is also dialectical.
The importance of this distinction is more than academic. If, as Marx argued, the relationship between Capital and Labor is dialectical, then these two elements (the dia– in dialectic) mutually reinforce one another in such a manner that the further elaboration of the one—e.g., Labor—entails a further elaboration of the other—e.g., Capital. If, however, the relationship is only oppositional or contradictory, then one can well imagine a transformation in one of these elements—e.g., the elimination of Capital—that leaves the other—e.g., Labor—fully intact.
This is not to suggest that a society in which, for example, all investments were public and all dividends shared publically would not constitute a huge change in social relations. It is only to suggest that such a society, so long as it maintained Labor among its elements would not, in fact, have eliminated Capital. Rather, it would only have socialized Capital, which, however significant, still maintains the dialectical relationship that (according to some critiques of capitalism) is part and parcel of what capitalism is by definition.
However, we need not take the Capital-Labor relationship as our point of departure. One might also take—as I Wallerstein does—the condition of women, minorities, indigenous populations, or alternative sexual orientations—as instances of oppression. And, there is no doubt but that members of such groups often find themselves oppressed by members of the “dominant” grouping, even when this “dominant” grouping is numerically equal to or smaller than their own, as is certainly the case with women and persons of color. And, yet, it is also clear that the line between these kinds of opposition and the dominant social formation are poorly grasped by the term “dialectic.” Is the relationship between Male and Female dialectical, so that, for example, we might anticipate a supercession of the Male-Female dialectic by some Third? Or is the relationship between communities of color and the global north dialectical so that we might anticipate the supercession of this north-south dialectic in some equatorial third?
Clearly the pursuit of such lines of inquiry would lead us into a wide range of absurdities in short order.
But, let me see if I can recover some of the coherence immanent to I Wallerstein’s theory and therein suggest an alternative path. I Wallerstein, I believe, is actually directing his critique against traditional Marxist social theory which, as we have seen, took the industrial working class as its point of departure. The problem here, as we have suggested, is that the modern world displays a wide range of oppositions that fit uneasily if at all into the Labor-Capital opposition proposed by traditional Marxism. Since, however, I Wallerstein believed that this opposition formed the core of K Marx’s critique of capitalism, he was compelled to abandon this dimension of Marxism and replace it with a theory of justice. This theory of justice, in turn, placed distributional issues and fairness at its center.
Yet, having adopted this alternative model for conceptualizing the oppositions within the contemporary world-system, he could do no more than offer formal, operationally defined interpretive categories in the place of Marx’s immanently derived categories. Thus, for example, where Marx noted the increasingly abstract, homogeneous, and undifferentiated character of value determined by labor in modern capitalism and related this value dialectically to the manner in which capital is formed and accumulated, Wallerstein adopts a vantage-point of absolute formal justice, in effect blaming one side of this dialectic (Capital) for the oppression of the other (Labor) and taking up the cause of Labor in the conflict. This absolute (and transcendental)vantage-point of justice completely overlooks, however, the dialectical relationship that Marx was eager to identify.
More to the point, this means that Wallerstein overlooks the ways that capitalism constitutes a totally integrated world that lends itself to the kind of unidisciplinary approach that he is recommending.
Yet, whereas Marx theorizes why such a unidisciplinary approach might be adequate to the capitalist social formation—it is adequate because abstract time and value mediate social relations in a comprehensive and totalizing manner—Wallerstein again simply lays blame for disciplinarity at the feet of western scholars who, piecemeal, were making sense out of a world that, prior to their arrival, was whole and unitary.
Firstly, the western world can hardly be accused of inventing distinctions or difference. (Note M Foucault’s amusing opening paragraph to The Order of Things, originally written by J Borges.) Secondly, I am not sure that I Wallerstein wants to fault the preponderance of difference or the absence of a totalizing logic for the kinds of domination that have prevailed under capitalism. But, third, Wallerstein’s transcendental and decidedly non-dialectical critique fails to grasp the dialectical and immanent relationship between the specific totalizing narratives developed by scholars and the partial and incomplete approaches they adopted within the disciplines—a relationship between whole and part for which the commodity form may itself serve as the ultimate archetype.
Yet, it is a fourth and final dimension of Wallerstein’s argument that may set the entire issue in clearest relief. Recall that Wallerstein embraces F Braudel’s identification of capitalism with the anti-market. This is because, for Braudel as for Wallerstein, the state is the agent whose regulatory framework compels social actors to behave contrary to their nature and to treat their labor as simply another commodity, like unto any other. In pre-capitalist or non-capitalist societies, by contrast, markets embedded in and governed by communities prevailed.
This would suggest that the reintroduction of markets, absent state or monopoly intervention, would also signal the end of capitalism. Capitalism, therefore, is not characterized so much by abstract value determined by abstract labor time expended as much as by state (or monopoly) intervention in markets and communities.
This explanation places the state and human agency at the center of Wallerstein’s interpretation; that is to say, makes Wallerstein’s interpretation dependent upon an institutional arrangement and human will.
When Wallerstein notes that his approach is not consistent with orthodox Marxism’s explanation, he is correct. And, yet, insofar as orthodox Marxism held to a non-dialectical understanding of the proletariat—e.g., Labor is not a partner in, i.e., stands outside, the form of domination unique to capitalism—orthodox Marxism proposes a similarly willful resolution to the “contradiction” within capitalism: Labor defeats Capital and assumes power. Moreover, insofar as orthodox Marxism faulted not the process of commodity production and exchange (not value formation itself, but rather the party who appropriates value, i.e., the bourgeoisie), Wallerstein offers a very similar critique as orthodox Marxism. The problem with capitalism is institutional and organizational, not practical. [That is to say, for Wallerstein we need not concern ourselves with the specific way that abstract labor time expended becomes socially generalized and comes to mediate social relations by way of the abstract value that abstract labor confers to the products of labor. Of interest to Wallerstein is not the pratice through which this value is constituted, but rather whether the value so-constituted is distributed fairly.]
An immanent critique, by contrast, holds that, since the relationship between Labor and Capital is mutually constitutive, the determinate resolution to the contradiction “annihilates” both, giving rise neither to the victory of one over the other, nor to the reproduction of the practical regime that gave rise to the contradiction—e.g., to the production of abstract value by abstract labor—but to a regime of practice in which both Labor and Capital are “sublated” or overcome.