I Introduction

En fin de compte, nous croyons que l’attitude scientifique, entendue dans un sens très large – un respect pour la clarté et la cohérence logique des théories et pour la confrontation de celles-ci avec les faits – est aussi pertinente en sciences humaines qu’en sciences exactes. Mais il faut être très prudent au sujet des prétentions de scientificité en sciences humaines, et cela vaut également pour les courants aujourd’hui dominants en économie, en sociologie et en psychologie. Tout simplement, les problèmes traités par les sciences humaines sont extrêmement complexes, et les arguments empiriques étayant leurs théories sont souvent assez faibles.[1](Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont 1997: 194)

The question to be set and answered in this work is difficult to pinpoint in a single, clear-cut sentence. It first arose when I read ‘The End of the Nation-State’ by the énarque Jean‑Marie Guéhenno. In a very French style, citing no references but displaying a discreet knowledge of olde world culture in a few key passages, his plausible ideas seemed to explain much of what is going on in the contemporary world – not specific events, but what seemed to be the factors shaping them. There was however something lacking, which was to situate ‘The End of the Nation-State’ in a broader context: historical, political, economic, social.

This context was given to me by ‘The Long Twentieth Century’, Giovanni Arrighi’s masterpiece. To work through the book, which covers a six hundred year time span, is a rewarding uncovering of a wealth of historical detail and of analysis. The different epochs of the unfolding of a world-wide capitalist system are analysed and compared, with similarities between events and structures separated by time and space drawn where they exist, and the fundamental differences pointed out and clarified. The ideas slowly and carefully presented seemed to explain much of what had been going in the world for centuries. It seemed even possible and plausible to extend Arrighi’s ideas to areas mentioned in the book only in passing, or not at all. The only problem was the Epilogue, which suggested the possible direction of development for the next few decades, and seemed to me to be unlikely and implausible.

The solution to both my problems seemed to be clear. Both Guéhenno and Arrighi take a global view. But it was necessary to integrate the short time-scale post-Cold War structures set out by Guéhenno into the long time-scale structures set out by Arrighi. This amounts to substituting ‘The End of the Nation-State’, after suitable changes, for the Epilogue of a suitably changed ‘The Long Twentieth Century’. I thus arrived at the concept of ‘the long twenty-first century’, which is simply a re-positioning of one theoretical framework into a more-encompassing one. I then attempted to flesh out the concept by drawing from other authors related – as well as even seemingly unrelated – theories and concepts.

After having defined the answer, I could then search for a suitable question. This led to an even more serious problem, which was that the only possible question for my answer is wider, deeper and more complex than I could possibly hope to argue in a satisfactory and satisfying way. Nevertheless, this is the question that this work sets out to answer, albeit in a necessarily minimal fashion:

How is the historical capitalist world system changing towards which, in particular European, structures?

The argument to be presented is complex. It has many facets, often seemingly unrelated. The main areas and concepts touched are: the pre-capitalist world system; the capitalist world system; the transition between the two; history, long waves, and in particular systemic cycles of accumulation of capital; hegemony; the idea of the core‑periphery world structure; the origin and evolution of the inter-state system; globalisation; the consequences of the new information and communications technologies; network forms of organisation; exclusion and poverty in advanced industrialised states; the new social movements; democracy; Europe; the European Union; ethnical and national identity; nationalism and regionalism; defence and security in the post-Cold War era.

The argument deals with theoretical arguments, many of which come from received theory, or in fact, as we have seen, theories, between which bridges were built and connections established. Other theoretical arguments have been given a new shape and meaning, by extracting them from their original context, and inserting them in a new theoretical framework.

This has implications for the methodology adopted. Each part of the argument is divided into smaller sub-arguments, each one of them relatively straight-forward and easy to follow, and as self-contained as feasible. These sub-arguments constitute the sub‑sections of this work. While this approach is intended to make the whole work more accessible, it also means that there is a danger of the main, complex, argument being lost amongst its many bits. To try to avoid this happening, we strive to cross-reference the text extensively, establishing connections between its constituent parts, and short introduction and conclusions sections are included in each chapter.

Chapter II is dedicated to setting out the theoretical framework that will be used in this work. A particular version of world system theory will be adopted. While alternative approaches will be indicated where relevant and convenient, this blend of world system theory was chosen for its internal consistency, simplicity, and elegance. We will argue that there has been a single world-system for about five thousand years, which has however undergone major transformations. We will concentrate on the post-1500 capitalist world system. The most important concepts introduced will be the related concepts of systemic cycles of accumulation of capital and hegemony in the world system, that together constitute one ‘long century’. We will examine the successive hegemonies, from the Genoese, to the Dutch, to the British, and finally, to the US one. The specific characteristics of each one of these hegemonies will be studied, but we shall see that there are extensive commonalitites; it is those common properties that define the ‘long century’ structure, as opposed to a given instance of a systemic cycle of accumulation of capital or of hegemony. An important concept is that of the world-wide core-periphery structure, which involves the transfer of demoted activities to peripheral geographic regions that function as suppliers of cheap labour and raw materials.

In chapter III the new concept of ‘the long twenty-first century’ will be introduced and expanded. It will be argued that the United States of America can no longer fulfil the role of hegemon in the post-Cold War world system. In fact, the key argument will be that no single state can attain hegemony, and hence the emerging systemic cycle of accumulation of capital will not be led by any given state. The new hegemony, which we will call ‘Empire without Emperor’, is hegemonless. We will argue that this is the consequence of the technological basis of the long twenty-first century, that is, information and communications technology, that has deep consequences across the economic, political, and social fields. In particular, it leads to a changing of the core‑periphery structure. Where it used to be defined by geography – the First and Third Worlds, it is now more diffuse. The Third World can be re-introduced within the First, and a small amount of First World can be exported to the Third. We thus arrive at the concept of the non-geographic core-periphery structure, that is superimposed to the traditional geographic one.

The theoretical concepts introduced in the previous chapters are then applied to the concrete European arena in Chapter IV. As it would have been impossible to study all the major trends and undergoing changes in Europe, only a few important ones were selected, which we believe are of major importance to the development of Europe in the next two to three decades. They are the European Union as a new kind of polity and its functions vis a vis the inter-state system and the world system; the threat of the rise of nationalisms in Europe; the new social movements and their organisation and role in the non-geographic core-periphery system; the direction towards which the concept of democracy is changing in Europe; and the new defence and security issues in Europe. All these areas will be examined under the framework developed in the previous chapters, where the concept of a stateless hegemony is central.

One should be aware that, especially in the social sciences, theories cannot be proven absolutely. This is caused by the sheer complexity of the subject matter, as well as by lack of empirical evidence that can be directly applied to test the truth of a given theory. Choosing one theory over another for its internal consistency, simplicity, and elegance is a question of taste and style, and it is often argued that panoramic, grand theory views of history and society are undesirable because they must necessarily ignore the multitude of detail of real life. This criticism is valid, and so is the common answer that studying each detail as separate from everything else leads to a fragmentation of knowledge that makes vain even the hope of using one’s knowledge to act on the world.

Finally, it is a matter of personal conviction that a theory should be judged both on practical and aesthetic grounds. I argue that the relevant practical ground on which to judge a theory is its validity and fruitfulness, which I take to be the variety of different propositions it is able to explain; and I assert that internal consistency and simplicity are my favoured aesthetical concerns when developing a theory, as they often are in the natural sciences. Whether the theory developed here meets these criteria or not is not for me to evaluate. Following Arrighi, all I ask is a patient hearing and that this work be taken and judged as a whole and not only in its discrete parts.



[1] When all is said and done, we believe that the scientific attitude, taken in a very broad sense – respect for clarity and logical coherence of theories, as well as confrontation of the theories with the facts – is as applicable to human sciences as to the exact sciences. But one must be very prudent about pretensions of scientific status in humanities, and this is equally valid for the currently dominating trends in economy, sociology and psychology. Quite simply, the problems approached by the humanities are extremely complex, and the empirical arguments supporting their theories are often very weak (NPB translation).