When times are good, and the world-economy is expanding in terms of new surplus-value produced, the class struggle is muted. It never goes away, but as long as there is a low level of unemployment and the real incomes of the lower strata are going up, even if only in small amounts, social compromise is the order of the day.But when the world-economy stagnates and real unemployment expands considerably, it means that the overall pie is shrinking. The question then becomes who shall bear the burden of the shrinkage – within countries and between countries. The class struggle becomes acute and sooner or later leads to open conflict in the streets.
In the 1950s, Wallerstein decided that the struggle to overcome Western control of the rest of the world was the 20th century’s biggest issue. For him, the “world-system” is a unit of analysis with its parts all interdependent. Broadening Wallerstein’s analysis, climate change and diminishing pools of natural resources imply, in Wallerstein’s term, a “class struggle” between have-much and have-little countries as well as among economic classes within the same nation. Many posts onwww.weconsumetoomuch.com outline a tsunami of evidence that human activities, particularly our burning four cubic miles of hydrocarbons a year, has changed world climate, and that larger changes are in the pipeline. Climate change models predict that global warming will be much less damaging to northern tier lands, like Canada, the northern United States, Denmark and Russia, than to tropical and sub-tropical countries. Human history has many examples of people pulling up stakes and migrating to survive; immigration is already a hot topic because millions from the South have entered the United States illegally and stayed, undocumented aliens in a shadow economy. Accelerating deterioration from climate change will ratchet up pressure to flee collapsing economies.
There are ways for the South to pressure the North in a Wallerstein “class struggle” beyond sending illegal immigrants. Tropical rain forests are important for fixing carbon dioxide, for supporting most of our planet’s animal, plant and bacteria species, and as a storehouse of environmental benefits. Burning and clearing rain forests harms everyone, but their preservation is beyond the control of wealthy northern countries. Poor Southern countries with tropical rain forests may insist that rich Northern countries pay to keep them alive. They may also be OPEC-like attempts to create stricter monopoly pricing for Southern raw materials the North needs. More directly, the United States spends almost as much on military forces as the rest of the world combined, partly to guard its access to natural resources, partly to deter direct violence against the United States. I don’t know how this movie plays out, but without doubt we live in interesting times.