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Immanuel in Soweto in August 2006

Two faces of time in the modern era—Immanuel Wallerstein and his intervention on the issue of cultures in conflicts

This is part of a collection of essays is organized by Professor Lau Kin Chi on behalf of the Executive Team of the Global University for Sustainability, in remembrance of Professor Immanuel Wallerstein on the anniversary of his death on August 31, 2019. Click here to see all essays in this collection. —Eds.

On September 20, 2000, Professor Wallerstein gave a lecture titled “Cultures in Conflicts? Who are we? Who are the others?” at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. I was invited to serve as his commentator. Before I left, I wrote a manuscript for my response and hurried to the Beijing Airport, but in a hurry, I did not check the clearance requirements in advance. As a result, I was unable to go to Hong Kong at the customs due to document problems. My comment was read out by the conference organizer, so I missed the opportunity to communicate face to face with Professor Wallerstein. Later, the organizer of the HKUST event told me that Professor Wallerstein was very interested in the questions raised in the comments, and he wrote to ask for the manuscript afterwards. Still, I did not have the opportunity to talk to him in person.

On my way home from the airport, I got very frustrated with what had happened, and urged  by this frustration, I started to reflect upon the concept of “border.” In general, the word “border” refers to the line dividing two nation-states, while the Customs mark the inside and outside of a country. However, if we take the example of Hong Kong, “border” does not only mean the boundaries between nations, nor the Customs necessarily mark the inside and outside of a country, because there exist borders within borders, and Customs within Customs. The Special Administrative Region (SAR) is just such a political form that is both internal and external. Professor Wallerstein points out in his paper that within such categories as class or race, there exists a complex, overlapping internal hierarchy, and the same also applies to the notion of “border.” The SAR is a flexible creation, one that can be found in nascent state in some ancient Chinese forms of governance, for example, the chaogong (“tributary”) relations. Since the Peace of Westphalia the idea of sovereignty has been used for the mutual recognition of the legitimacy of one’s governance in international relations. It has to distinguish strictly, as a matter of principle, the inside from the outside (that is, the so-called “non-interference of internal affairs”). But history has told us that this principle has been taken as both true and not true; you only need to have a better reason and sufficient power. Since the nineteenth century, the issue that has most confounded Chinese people is perhaps that of sovereignty: given that China has long been a legitimate political body, why is there still the issue of sovereignty or that of building a sovereign state? Are we not a sovereign state yet? Stranger still, in the case of China, this sovereignty produced by mutual international recognition had to be achieved through the signing of the so-called “unequal treaties.” This is a paradox or irony indeed: “unequal treaties” require an equal signing subject, and it must possess sovereignty. Thus, in order for the “unequal treaties” to be effective, the Qing had to be acknowledged as a sovereign state, so that it could have the legal right to cede its land and make compensations. One hundred years after the Opium War, the People’s Republic of China, which was the largest political body in the world, was established, but in the United Nations, it was not even recognized as a sovereign state. There are really too many ironies in history. Hong Kong has been transformed from a colony to the SAR, from a distinct internal-external relation to an indistinct one.

By redefining a range of categories, Professor Wallerstein’s paper “Cultures in Conflicts? Who are We? Who are the Others?” seeks to reconstruct the scenario of the world, using a kind of political economy of culture to replace various Enlightenment thoughts—the presuppositions of various social sciences and their classification systems. Within the analytical framework adopted by Professor Wallerstein, the year 1989 seems to be a historical watershed. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, history has entered into a new phase—what some have called the “post-Cold-War” age. Francis Fukayama is even more direct, proclaiming that history has come to an end. But what does it actually mean by this notion of the “end of history”? Is it the end of the ideological struggles between socialism and capitalism? Is it the end of heroic history (as a result of the end of subjectivity brought about by the market, democracy, and equality)? The end of the Hegelian history of ideas? The end of nature (as human society has become more “natural” than nature itself)? The end of the nation-state (given that we are already in the age of globalization)? Or is it the end of historicity itself? Why is this “end of history” formulated as the beginning of a new historical age characterized by the “clash of civilizations”? What, then, is culture or civilization? What are the implications of the “we’s” and the “others” implicit in these concepts? In his paper, Professor Wallerstein does not argue or answer directly if history has come to an end or not, or if the new century is best described in terms of a clash of civilizations. What he strives to do is to question or to unthink the epistemological bases of such propositions, which are built upon a set of fundamental premises and categories of contemporary social sciences. The most important thing here is what constitute the epistemological bases for the “end of history” thesis or the “clash of civilizations” thesis?

Professor Wallerstein analyzes three sets of concepts, namely time, universalism, and particularism. To be more exact, what he analyzes is the politics revolving around the three concepts. In his usage, these concepts are—and must be—plural in number. This illustrates not so much the multiplicity of the concepts themselves but that of the politics surrounding them. The “end of history” thesis, the “clash of civilizations” thesis, and multiculturalism all in their different ways demonstrate the politics of time, universalism, and particularism. Of the three sets of problems, Professor Wallerstein gives less attention to the issue of time, being more concerned with the problems of universalism and particularism. My commentary is something of a reverse, focusing more on the problem of time and discussing briefly the other two issues. This is pure coincidence: in my Introduction to the book Anti-Market Capitalism, which was published under the title of “Economic History, or Political Economy?” in the same year (Tianya,2000:5), I happened to examine the issue of time, but my emphasis there is on the dialectics between linear, evolutionary time and cyclical time.

Professor Wallerstein’s criticism of the universalistic notion of time follows the general trajectory in the rethinking of modernity, namely the critique of linear, evolutionary time. The “end of history” thesis is based upon the presumptions of a linear, evolutionary teleology, conceiving the market and some form of democracy as the ultimate end of history. Professor Wallerstein retorts that history can have completely different standards of periodization, and within each period there also exist all kinds of differences. Therefore, the teleological notion of time has to be replaced by a pluralistic one, which is clearly closer to concrete history (instead of formal history or abstract time). My response is that the “end of history” thesis is grounded in a dual meaning of time: first, the linear, evolutionary time mentioned by Professor Wallerstein, from which the notion of the “end of history” derives. Second, the end of history does not mean that history has stopped moving altogether, but only that its pursuit of the ultimate goal has given way to a kind of self-circulating operation. The “end of history” thesis, therefore, is still grounded in a cyclical conception of time. Such cyclical movement is closely related to the imagining of “secular time” within the Enlightenment. This secular notion of time views society as a stage for self-activity: the complete separation of social activity from a kind of transcendental or higher time. Sacred time subordinates social activities to a higher logic or norm such as kings, ancient laws, or God, while secular time sees them as wholly autonomous, independent, and developing out of interactive relations. If this notion of secular time is placed within the political economy tradition, we can see immediately that the concept has its origins in the latter’s discussions about the cyclical processes of the self-operation of capital and civil society, in Quesnay’s continuous operation of production processes, or in Adam Smith’s notion of the self-regulating market. Its actual content is precisely the modern rights system and economy.

The self-regulating market is built upon a secular, self-circulating concept of time, and its establishment is the result of the replacement of concrete historical processes by abstract secular time (the self-circulating production and circulation processes). Scholars trained in the tradition of Scottish liberalism oppose Hegel’s idea of history, claiming that the latter’s metaphysical conception of history as the self-unfolding of the Absolute Spirit is entirely opposed to the empirical historical narrative adopted by Adam Smith. However, if we compare the four stages of historical development—the Oriental, the Greek, the Roman, and the European—in Hegel’s philosophy of history with the ones (hunting and fishing, nomadism, agriculture, and commerce) proposed by Smith from the standpoint of economic history, it is not difficult to find the similarities between them. Smith conceived the development from agricultural to commercial society as a transition from the European feudal society to the modern market society. The modern, commercial age thus has an intrinsic historical relation with the European society. On the one hand, Smith was a historian, and what he said about the economy was a kind of historical description. On the other hand, however, the model of market movement he proposed was an abstract process. It can embody the spirit of history because Smith showed that this market model was the result of historical developments on the one hand, and constituted the intrinsic laws of history on the other. Smith divided history into different modes of social existence, and Hegel gave spatial forms to them. In his discussions about the development of the economic structures of society Marx conceived of four historical stages—Asiatic, primitive, feudal, and capitalist. I see this as a synthesis of the Smithian and Hegelian conceptions of history.

What we have to further ask is: why is it that the concept of time can be so naturally transformed into spatial relations? Why do the self-operating production and circulation pro- cesses need to resort to historical concepts? The secret here lies not in Hegel’s dialectical logic itself, but in the social conditions under which this logic was able to come into being: on the one hand, in the activities of capital mentioned above, the temporal relations between production, circulation, and consumption have to be achieved through such spatial activities like colonization, overseas markets, and so on. On the other hand, these kinds of spatial relations are not external to the activities of capital, but rather a historical relation internal  to them. They can be transformed into some kinds of temporal relation within the activities of the market, i.e., the upward spiral of the production, circulation, and consumption of commodities. Thus, the teleology of modern time is also one that underlines the operation of capital, and its utterly secular nature has to be protected by the sacredness of progress, nature, and Absolute Spirit, while the most exposed “secular form” of the latter is often colonialism, imperialism or some form of ultra-imperialism under different grandiose names. The concept of natural order in colonialism and even the revolts against it are ultimately incorporated into this dialectics. The logic of revolutions is not only built on the logic of a linear, progressive teleology, but also takes as its premise the overcoming of this linear logic and its replacement by the logic of an eternally cyclical time. The logic of self-circulation becomes the end point of the logic of the teleological notion of time.

Within the political economy tradition, the cyclical notion of time is always replaced by a linear, irreversible one. This is because the self-operation of the production, circulation, and consumption of commodities constantly falls into a state of crisis, and the operation of Capital has to take as its premises the creation of new markets, new opportunities, and new speculations or investments. In this process, the self-circulating, secular, and natural conception of time is necessarily replaced by one that is linear, transcendental, and equally natural. The former corresponds to the Smithian conception of time, the latter Hegelian. If we look more closely at Smith’s delineations of the stages of historical development and those of civil society by Hegel, we can find out clearly that Smith’s idea of secular time contains a historical, transcendental dimension, and Hegel’s historical, transcendental notion of time also contains a secular, self-circulating dimension. Historical capitalism can neither be purely self-circulating, nor can it free itself from the demands of the divine will or teleology or other external constraints. The notion of the “secular” is always constructed by means of contrast, no matter the image of the object of comparison, whether it be God or utopia, is distinct or not. From the above analysis, we can see the importance of the issue of time, as it constitutes the basis of social science that has gradually been formed since the nineteenth century

The second category analyzed by Professor Wallerstein is that of universalism. What he proposes here is an antinomy, viz., multiple universalisms. The key idea of universalism is that it assumes the existence of a general law or truth applicable to all things in the world, and therefore has to be unitary, unique, and unified. In the modern world, there exist three most obvious forms of universalism—those deriving from the world religions, from the Enlightenment ideals, and from imperialism—all of which contain some kind of repressive mechanism. These three forms of universalism have never provided us with a theory of multiple universalisms which Professor Wallerstein proposes by resorting to some ancient wisdoms, for example, Christianity and Hinduism. Such a concept reminds me of the Chinese thinker Zhang Taiyan. Zhang analyzed the various problems brought about by modernity (the nation-state, imperialism, Hegelian teleology, etc.), claiming that the universalism of the Enlightenment, particularly its teleological view of the world, has provided new premises for imperialism and internal oppressions. Yet he did not simply revert to a kind of cultural particularism. On the contrary, he endeavored to propose a pluralistic cosmology through  a reinterpretation of Zhuangzi’s Qiwu Lun (On the Equality of All Things) and the Buddhist theory of cosmic “truth”: Qiwu Lun is an egalitarian doctrine, but its concept of equality takes as its premise a respect for the uniqueness of different things. Therefore, Zhang suggested that the equality of things had to be predicated on their differences and variations. What he explicitly rejected is not only the sacred hierarchical system of the ancient times, but also the rationalistic one of the modern era. Zhang’s thinking appeared in the late Qing and early Republican period, when China was actively learning from the West. Yet Zhang by and large clung to wisdom from the ancient times. Amidst the tides of nationalism and the tides of industrialization and militarization, why did he put forth such a concept of multiple universalisms? First, Zhang was a member of the Revolutionary Party, a committed nationalist, and a scholar deeply identified with the Chinese cultural tradition. His many writings seem to prove that he is more a “particularist” than a “universalist.” However, in the words of Professor Wallerstein, he is a proponent of multiple universalisms, and thus a proponent of multiple particularisms. Without the cultural perspective of particularisms one will not be able to get rid of the oppression of colonialism through production and the establishment of social organizations, nor to provide the historical premises, through a demand for the right to national self-determination, for the political rights of the repressed races within/without the nation-state. Therefore, particularism has to be used to destroy the myth of universalism. Yet particularism can also be seen as an extension of universalism. In this sense, it is not unique particularism but multiple universalisms and multiple particularisms that presents a challenge to the universalistic aspirations of colonialism. Second, Zhang’s multiple universalisms is also conscious of the repressive mechanisms of unique universalism and unique particularism within the society, that is, the repression of other modes of social existence by reasserting the universality and particularity of certain mechanisms or rights. For example, civil rights have to be respected, but the notion of the citizen itself takes as its premise the will or contract of a common body, and thus this particular idea of civil rights may constitute a form of repression to other ways of life. This pattern can be further extended to other cases. For example, the absolute priority of universal human rights may be a form of repression to other things in the natural world. Indeed, Zhang’s pluralistic cosmology and pluralistic egalitarianism seem to me a precursor of contemporary ecological movements. I notice that Professor Wallerstein traces the origin of his idea of multiple universalisms to some ancient “wisdom,” which he contends has been abandoned by the worldview of humanism-scientism in recent times. “Wisdom” is not only a tool to unthink social science, but can also be the basis of some kind of new knowledge. Zhang Taiyan’s intellectual praxis can perhaps be taken as a specific example. His critique of modernity was conducted not at the level of an unthinking of social science but in the course of actual social movements. My feeling is, Professor Wallerstein is prepared to reconstruct a new genealogy of knowledge under the guidance of this “wisdom.” How, then, do we link this kind of intellectual praxis to actual social movements?

The third category analyzed by Professor Wallerstein is particularism. Here he touches on the problem of difference and its critique of universalism often explored in contemporary cultural studies. However, what he strives to show is not unique particularism but multiple particularisms, which is more or less comparable to what he calls multiple universalisms. There are, for example, the particularisms of ethnic minorities, the declining middles, the bottom groups, the effete snobs, the dominant elites, and so on.

The three sets of issues examined above reveal the complex political struggles involved in historical processes and in contemporary societies. As everyone knows, Professor Wallerstein is not only an advocate of anti-systemic theory, but also directly involved in social and political struggles. However, in this paper, Professor Wallerstein does not get into the realm of sociopolitical struggles directly. On the contrary, he tries to use his analysis as a basis to call into question the presumptions of contemporary social sciences, including cultural studies. Multiple temporalities, multiple universalisms, and multiple particularisms offer a paradoxical view of the world, and any attempt to understand the world from the standpoint of unique time, unique universalism, and unique particularism represents a distortion of it. Here Professor Wallerstein seems to revert to a kind of holistic, pluralistic thinking reminiscent of the political economy of the nineteenth century, which seeks to subsume the various disciplines, whether economic, political, legal, or cultural, under a single system. It is his conviction that we need to unthink those approaches that separate the political, economic, and socio-cultural realms into different categories. Clearly, the idea of the world-system or historical capitalism which he repeatedly uses is precisely such a composite concept, a more fundamental category that cannot be simplistically generalized as a political, economic, or cultural idea. In fact, Professor Wallerstein not only seeks to re-connect the internal links between politics, economics, and culture, thereby defying the imposed boundaries that separate them; he also tries to eliminate the “two cultures” theory proposed by C. P. Snow, thus bringing once again social science and natural science together as an epistemic whole. Such a conception of knowledge provides an epistemological and cosmological perspective to the way we understand the problems of the “we’s” and the “others.” From the viewpoint of multiple temporalities, multiple universalisms, and multiple particularisms, categories such as class or race cannot define clearly the properties of the “we’s” implicit in them, for there are classes within a class, and races within a race. These concepts can only be established from the standpoint of unique universalism and unique particularism. As the relationship between the “we’s” and the “others” becomes ambiguous, the ontological properties of “we-ness” collapses, thereby making the concept of the “others” vague and ambiguous, too. Therefore, when the “unique” world exposes its internal contradictions and reveals its multiplicity, the limitations of those basic categories used to describe this world will become clear. For example, social science is often viewed as a science about society, and it goes without saying that nature is taken as its other. But from the standpoint of multiple universalisms and multiple particularisms, the “we-ness” constructed between man and nature is highly suspicious, for nature is part of society, and society is part of nature, just as science is part of culture. And it is also in this sense that cultural studies should not be seen as the study of culture taken as a distinct category separated from the sociopolitical, economic or legal realms. Rather, it concerns the study of culture as a political and economic arena. At the end of the paper, Professor Wallerstein does not provide us with a complete methodology, but he asks us to read more widely and to reflect on the most fundamental epistemological questions, so as to get closer to that elusive idea of multiple universalisms.

At the end of the comment, I asked: From the perspective of multiple universalisms, then, is there any basic explanatory category, such as world-system, capitalism, or commodification? And what are the relations between these categories and other notions like class and race? Today, twenty years later, reviewing his explorations is still important for thinking about the foundations or premises of various popular propositions, especially the subject premises that are so firmly separated by universities, national institutions, and library classification systems. In fact, he has pointed out a way of refuting the theories of the clash of civilizations and the end of history by his practice of “unthinking social sciences”. Wisdom, the word he repeatedly mentions, deserves further exploration.

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