The depression: a long-term view.

Author:Wallerstein, Immanuel
Position::History of financial crises - Essay

The depression has started. Journalists are still coyly enquiring of economists whether or not we may be entering a mere recession. Don't believe it for a minute. We are already at the beginning of a full-blown worldwide depression with extensive unemployment almost everywhere. It may take the form of a classic nominal deflation, with all its negative consequences for ordinary people. Or it might take the form, a bit less likely, of a runaway inflation, which is simply another way in which values deflate, and which is even worse for ordinary people.

Of course everyone is asking what has triggered this depression. Is it the derivatives, which Warren Buffett called "financial weapons of mass destruction?" Or is it the subprime mortgages? Or is it oil speculators? This is a blame game, and of no real importance. This is to concentrate on the dust, as Fernand Braudel called it, of short-term events. If we want to understand what is going on, we need to look at two other temporalities, which are far more revealing. One is that of medium-term cyclical swings. And one is that of the long-term structural trends.


The capitalist world-economy has had, for several hundred years at least, two major forms of cyclical swings. One is the so-called Kondratieff cycles that historically were 50--60 years in length. And the other is the hegemonic cycles which are much longer.

In terms of the hegemonic cycles, the United States was a rising contender for hegemony as of 1873, achieved full hegemonic dominance in 1945, and has been slowly declining since the 1970s. George W. Bush's follies have transformed a slow decline into a precipitate one. And as of now, we are past any semblance of US hegemony. We have entered, as normally happens, a multipolar world. The United States remains a strong power, perhaps still the strongest, but it will continue to decline relative to other powers in the decades to come. There is not much that anyone can do to change this.

The Kondratieff cycles have a different timing. The world came out of the last Kondratieff B-phase in 1945, and then had the strongest A-phase upturn in the history of the modern world-system. It reached its height circa 1967--73, and started on its downturn. This B-phase has gone on much longer than previous B-phases and we are still in it.

The characteristics of a Kondratieff B-phase are well-known and match what the world-economy has been experiencing since the 1970s. Profit rates...

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