How Africa shaped Immanuel Wallerstein

Africa and its peoples were central to the great Immanuel Wallerstein's intellectual development and political activism.

Still from Immanuel Wallerstein interview shoot with David Martinez; Yale University, April 20, 2015. Image credit Brennan Cavanaugh via Flickr (CC).

In a reflective essay about his career written in 2000, Immanuel Wallerstein—the American sociologist, economic historian, and world-systems analyst, who died at 88 on August 31 at his home in Connecticut—wrote that “it was Africa that was responsible for undoing the more stultifying parts of my educational heritage.”

Wallerstein, who grew up in New York City and went to Columbia University, wrote about how, in 1951, he attended an international youth congress, and there met many delegates from Africa, “most of whom were older than I and already held important positions in their countries’ political arenas.” The following year, he traveled to Dakar, Senegal for another youth congress. “Suddenly, at this early point, I found myself amidst the turmoil of what would soon be the independence movements (in this case of French West Africa).” The result was that Wallerstein “decided to make Africa the focus of my intellectual concerns, and of my solidarity efforts.”

Surprisingly, this part of his biography has been marginalized in obituaries of Wallerstein. He ended up writing a PhD dissertation that compared the Gold Coast (Ghana) and the Ivory Coast “in terms of the role voluntary associations played in the rise of the nationalist movements in the two countries.” He would remain involved in the academic field of African studies for at least the next two decades, becoming president of the African Studies Association in 1973, at a tumultuous time for that organization. Ultimately, he authored several important books on African politics and economics.

Over time, Wallerstein shifted from African studies to interrogate the workings of capitalism more globally, but as he wrote in that same essay, “I have since moved away from Africa as the empirical locus of my work, but I credit my African studies with opening my eyes both to the burning political issues of the contemporary world and to the scholarly issues of how to analyze the history of the modern worldsystem.”

In 2005, Wallerstein wrote in his book Africa: The Politics of Independence and Unity:

[H]aving emerged from colonial rule, Africa is determined to be subject to no one but itself. The depth of its sensitivity to outside control, the suspicion of outside links, should not be misinterpreted, however. It is not a rejection of the world. It is an embrace of it. For African nationalists held, as one of their cardinal criticisms of colonial rule, that it maintained Africans in a cocoon, that the colonial administration hindered contacts with, even knowledge about, areas and peoples outside the particular network.

Wallerstein observed among post-independence Africans “a strong desire to taste the forbidden fruit, to…enter into relations with all those parts of the world somehow previously withheld from [them].” Wallerstein’s earliest contributions to African studies may have overstated this “withholding,” however. For it was (and remains) in the nature of global capitalism to expand beyond any number of borders, both political and discursive. For instance, the Hollywood film industry, in its various forms, had not been “withheld” from Africa prior to independence; its colonizing power was apparent on the continent as early as the 1920s, and it can be seen today in the dominance of Marvel movies in multiplexes from Lagos to Cape Town. Other agents of extractive capitalism—oil and mining companies chief among them—also “entered into relations” with Africa well before the acceleration of decolonization, bringing with them all manner of cultural forms and social practices. The fruit that Wallerstein had (and kept) in mind was, then, mostly monetary—a matter of profits withheld, of resources reliably siphoned away.

As Wallerstein once observed, “the market has been rigged against competition by states and by custom,” and nowhere is this more apparent than on the African continent. Considered in aggregate, Wallerstein’s decades-spanning research offers an indispensable periodization of Africa’s victimization by, and conflicted internalization of, those aspects of the capitalist world-system that Wallerstein himself did so much to limn. He helpfully identified three distinct phases: 1750–1900 (an epoch dominated by merchant capital); 1900–1975 (characterized by the rise of automobility and petro-chemical industries, with merchant capital increasingly forced to operate alongside industrial-investment capital); and the period after 1975, which Wallerstein, writing in 1976, could only sketch in hypothetical terms, and through recourse to then-emergent discourses of postcoloniality.

Consider, as well, Wallerstein’s remarkable account, in Africa and the Modern World, of the continuities between pre-colonial missionaries and those American anthropologists who, infiltrating Africa in the post-independence period, often acted as “secular missionaries,” assuming “the role of counselor and advisor to African institutions, overtly and covertly, explicitly and implicitly, invited or uninvited.” Wallerstein’s swipe at the field of anthropology was no simple internecine battle—no crude spat between related academic disciplines—but a serious, even self-critical examination of academe’s complicity in the normalization of capitalism and its effects.

In 1976, Wallerstein recognized (along with the anthropologist, Africanist, and labor studies scholar Peter Gutkind) that the “dialectics of the political economy of Africa are now as much influenced by… internal polarization”—by, that is, the widening gap between the elite and the impoverished—“as by neocolonial hegemony.” Nearly half a century later, the class-based cleavage that Wallerstein took so seriously is, of course, sharper than ever.

The ongoing relevance of Wallerstein’s work is scarcely in dispute. It is partly rooted in the idea, advanced by Wallerstein and his associates in the early 1980s, that powerful capitalist agents—from Hollywood studios to oil majors—manage to “constantly reconstitute” the world-economy in ways that dramatically affect Africa and Africans. It remains, however, necessary to emphasize the continuousness of Africa’s incorporation into international capitalism—into the global political economy—and thus to complicate Wallerstein’s influential account of the “phases of African involvement” in the capitalist world-system. After all, as Wallerstein himself averred (in collaboration with Gutkind), “it is the past, rather than some evolutionary dynamics, which has shaped the present.”

Further Reading