We situated the formation and evolution of the capitalist modern world system in the wider framework of a five thousand year world system. In this respect, we can see the double Genoese/Dutch ‘discovery’ cycle as marking a meta-systemic transition from a world system based on Eastern (Asiatic) hegemony to a world system based on Western hegemony. This was accompanied by a change in the nature of polities, with the formation of the Westphalian inter-state system.
This meta-systemic chaos, during which the Eastern and Western hegemonies coexisted, was finally resolved with the double British/American ‘conquering’ cycle, when Western agencies attained undisputed hegemony.
We can see the Empire without Emperor ‘permeating’ cycle as marking another meta‑systemic transition from a world system based on territorial hegemonies where the basic unit is the nation-state, to a world system based on a non-territorial hegemony where the basic units are world-wide, regional and local networks. This was accompanied by a change in the nature of polities, with the transfer of some of the powers and competencies nation-states had in the Westphalian inter-state system towards both higher (trans-national entities) and lower (regions within or across states) levels.
We speculate that we are now in the first part, which we have named Empire without Emperor, of a third double cycle, that we characterise as ‘permeating’. Only at the end of this double cycle would the meta‑systemic transition now taking place be completed, meanwhile the structures of the Westphalian system – nation‑states – will coexist with the structures of the Empire without Emperor – local networks embedded in a global world.
We further speculate that fragmentation without true globalisation could be the internal contradiction of the currently emerging systemic cycle of accumulation: by doing away with their home-base and becoming fully globalised, the capitalist agencies of the next systemic cycle of accumulation of capital could become an integral part of each region/clan/network, and thus overcome their resistance to ‘outsiders’ establishing global monopolies. This would be a deepening of the Empire without Emperor cycle, which has a widening mode of expansion, respecting the double cycle structure.
The capitalist world system is not at an impasse. It has been restructured and remade, and the next two to three decades will witness a new phase of material expansion and economic growth, that will however be accompanied by an increase of inequality in the world. Impasse in the capitalist world system, if it comes, is likely to arise not from not being able to renew its capability for creative destruction, nor from human antisystemic activities, but from the ever-tighter and ever-stronger ecological constraints it is creating.