the world systems theory

Written by Wardah Kayani 11:46 am

The World Systems Theory and Covid-19

The implications of the world systems theory, proposed by Immanuel Wallerstein, can be seen in the influence of the coronavirus on the economy of each state affected by the virus. The author asserts that while the virus has heavily impacted the rich core states, they are still better off as compared to the developing and underdeveloped states. She explains that the pandemic has made the North-South divide even more apparent; it has made it clear that the world cannot have a unified economy.

China’s Capitalism and its relation to Covid-19

The world systems theory (WST) is a sociological perspective put forth by Immanuel Wallerstein. It explains the world in terms of a global economic system in which some countries benefit at the expense of others. The theory condones the Marxist understanding of capitalism and posits that the capitalist system seeks to accumulate capital relentlessly by exploiting labor to achieve this end.

The proponents of the world systems theory assert that this exploitation manifests itself when the core countries—the global North—exploit the fruits of the labor of the periphery countries—the global South—while a third category, the semi-peripheries, lie in the middle of these two extremes. Most importantly, for WST, the hallmark of the core countries includes actively seeking to widen their territory, expanding into new avenues, and unceasingly capitalizing on novel products.

With this notion of the world systems theory in mind, the Covid-19 pandemic can be seen as an unintended consequence of the capitalist economic model. Emerging in the Wuhan district in China in late 2019, the first case of the virus was traced to the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market. The market has earned notoriety for being one of China’s niche wet markets, selling live wild animals for consumption.

The classic example of China capitalizing on animals, that are otherwise seen unfit for consumption, breathes life into the theory’s argument that capitalism seizes every opportunity to milk new products. While China may not subscribe to the capitalist ideology, its economy is still mostly based on the capitalist economic model.

Therefore, the virus, which is heavily linked to the consumption of animals from the live animal market, quickly spread in the affluent circles of China; with the help of globalization, it was then spread throughout the world by those who possessed the means to travel across the world. This, therefore, marked the conversion of the virus from a local infection to a worldwide pandemic, and the practical implications of the world systems theory. 

Understanding the World Systems Theory

The world systems theory argues that in a capitalist world, many forms of labor exist; countries themselves do not have autonomous economies, but they are rather a constituent of the global economy of the world. As a result, these economies are classified into three categories depending on their division of labor i.e. core, periphery, and semi-periphery.

The core countries are economies that are free and able to dominate others without being dominated themselves. The peripheries are the countries that are dominated by the core and have their resources exploited. Whereas, the semi-periphery countries lie between the core and the periphery. These countries are dominated by the core while they dominate the peripheries.

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This system of the world economy is based on a tripartite division where the core exerts productive, trade, and financial dominance; whereas, the periphery and the semi-periphery are limited to their provision of low-skilled labor. This argument of the world systems theory, which classifies countries, into different categories can further help elucidate the widened disparities in different walks of life in the wake of Covid-19.

Covid-19 and the Status Quo of Division

One of the main arguments of the world systems theory rests on the might of the core countries against the periphery and the semi-periphery, especially in the context of the impenetrability and inaccessibility of the core. The fact that peripheral countries seldom have direct flights to the core is just one such example of the power dynamic that restricts the access of the periphery into the core.

Although the core only allowed residents of the periphery entry into the core after much scrutiny even before the covid-19 pandemic, this constriction has increased tenfold during the pandemic. From the onset of the pandemic, these restrictions on entry to the core have been further strengthened to solidify an already guarded divide between the North and the South. This initially manifested itself in the form of completely suspended international travel which left international trade in shambles and airports abandoned.

As many core countries, such as the US, moved to declare Covid-19 a national health emergency, closing their airspace, and terminating international flights were just some of the measures taken to contain the pandemic in its early days. The European Union also issued a 30-day international travel ban for all non-essential travel.

The fact that the countries which earn substantial revenue of their GDP from tourism and international travel could afford to suspend international travel, reeks of the financial privilege they have earned off of the hard work done by the periphery. This puts the arguments of the world systems theory in an even clearer perspective. 

The Future of One World as One Economy

While the global pandemic has affected all countries of the world, the magnitude of damage it has caused to the different economies of the world is not the same across the board. For this reason, the idea of “one world, one economy” serves no other purpose than to cushion the blow for those countries whose economies have suffered the most during this pandemic.

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Furthermore, this concept of a singular world economy is ambitiously egalitarian, adopting it would mean putting an end to the tripartite division of the world economy to some extent. For the world to function as one economy, a pre-requisite would be a level playing field that would prevent the core from further exploiting the periphery. In a vastly capitalist world, this prospect seems next to impossible as the very foundation of the core rests on the work done and the labor provided by the periphery.

However, despite the exploitation of labor by the North, since the beginning of capitalism in the 16th century, the 21st century pandemic caused a halt in this practice. For the first time in centuries, the exploitative practices of the core countries stopped, not the least because of the spirit of humanity in such trying times, but rather because even the cheap labor suddenly became too costly to incur; hence, the labor had to be laid off.

With such economic prospects at hand, the transition into a single economy would be painstakingly difficult since it would require breaking free from inequalities first. Given the current situation of the global pandemic, which has led the global economy to a combined recession of 5.2% in 2020, recovering from it and then moving towards a unified world economy seems to be nothing more than a distant hope. At best, it would only gaslight the periphery and the semi-periphery into accepting a false façade of a potential economic unity in the world.

Medical Care as a Global Industry: Revisiting the First Wave

The pandemic has been especially trying on the global health care system as the number of total Covid-19 cases in the first wave alone soared past 10.5 million people. Moreover, the total number of Covid-19 cases, globally, has crossed 129 million, and it is continuously increasing. The core is innocent of the perils of the inefficient health care system which has plagued the periphery and semi-periphery countries for decades.

The fact that even the health care industry of the core countries, despite being far superior to the other 2 categories, had surrendered to the wrath of Covid-19 has been both alarming and intriguing at the same time. The broken healthcare system of the USA, which had faced a dearth of medical equipment and cash despite receiving $175 million in bailout funds, resembled a scene from the health care departments of the periphery countries.

Similarly, with Italy being overwhelmed with over 100,000 cases around the June of 2020, the inadequacies in the healthcare system left doctors with the gut-wrenching job of prioritizing who lives and who doesn’t after ventilators fell short in supply. Such instances of core countries mimicking the circumstances of the periphery is just one example of how countries could potentially move out of one tripartite division and enter another, as explained in the world systems theory.

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A Post Covid-19 World: Is Globalization here to stay?

The world systems theory mainly analyses the relationship between the three types of divisions among the economies of the world, and how the interaction between states of different divisions brings social change to the world. This analysis rests on a substantial amount of globalization; without which, the tripartite would be self-contained units with no opportunity for either to dominate or be dominated. It is because of their connectivity that they can interact with one another.

Such deep-rooted economic connections are difficult to break despite the looming pandemic that has caused a global plummet in international flows, with a decline in trade, foreign direct investment, and tourism. Although this signifies a halt in the fruits of globalization, it is no indicator of a collapse of the global market in the near future, even after the pandemic ends.

The current trends show signs of a reinvigorating international flow as soon as the pandemic ends, depending on the state of global growth patterns, supply policies, and the ever-evolving technological advancements. Therefore, despite the global economy taking a deep plunge into recession, it is unlikely that the world would be moving forward with disconnected international markets. Hence, it can be concluded that even after Covid-19, globalization is here to stay.


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About the Author(s)

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Wardah Kayani is currently pursuing an undergraduate degree in development studies and harbors a keen interest in history, theology, and international development.

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