Immanuel Wallerstein's European Universalism, The Rhetoric of Power


In his book European Universalism, Rhetoric of Power, Wallerstein demonstratees how the so-called universal values promoted by Western Europeans ever since the sixteenth century, be they Christian, democratic or scientific, were a mere justification of Western intervention around the world. These values meant to be encrusted in natural law, are in Wallerstein's opinion neither truly universal nor beneficial to humankind.

The Author:

Immanuel Wallerstein is an American sociologist, senior research scholar at Yale, director emeritus of the Fernand Braudel Center at Binghamton University and a research fellow at the Maison des Sciences de l'Homme in Paris. He began his career as an expert on post-colonial African affairs, and then became a historian and theorist of the global capitalist economy.

His many books include After Liberalism, Utopistics, the Decline of American Power, as well as the multi-volume The Modern World-System, arguably his most important book.

Introduction: the politics of universalism today

The world shaped by the media and political leaders today appears as a struggle between good and evil, in which the Europeans naturally represent the good. What is meant by "good" is a set of European values and truths presented as universal, which are the justification of European intervention policies in the world.

There are three main types of universalism invoked by Europeans:

- human rights and democracy

- the superiority of Western civilisation in terms of universal values (linked with the theory of the 'Clash of civilisations')

- the scientific truths of the market.

These three themes are constantly reiterated in the speeches of current politicians, but they actually have been so ever since the sixteenth century, as well as their counter-arguments.

Wallerstein's aim is precisely to show how the values put forward by Europeans are partial and biased. He also tries to discuss what could be the roots of a genuine universalism. This last question is not pointless, for the outcome of this central ideological struggle will determine the world-system that will replace the current collapsing one built on the capitalist world economy.

The first step towards rethinking universalism is to surmount the self-evidence of European values (human rights, democracy, the moral superiority of Western civilisation and the inescapability of submission to the market), and analyse how they have come to be thought as universal: this is precisely the task undertaken by the book.

I. Whose Right to Intervene? Universal Values against Barbarism

The modern world-system has been characterized by the expansion of Europeans into the whole world. This expansion has been legitimised by values presented as universal because encrusted in natural law. Hence, colonisation was not only seen as a greater good for humankind, but also historically inevitable. Of course, the reality of European expansion diverged quite a lot from the image promoted by Europeans. This was felt by the peoples undergoing colonisation, but also by some European intellectuals, who fed the debate on the morality of expansion. Such debates are actually as old as the expansion itself, and the one between Bartolomé de Las Casas and Juan Ginés de Sepulveda concerning the Spanish conquest of the Americas is highly relevant.

Las Casas attacked the legitimacy of the evangelising mission of Europeans with arguments which can still be opposed to the Human Rights justification of inter-state intervention.

A. How Las Casas refuted the justification of 15th century colonisation.

Arriving in America, Spaniards destroyed the Inca and Aztec empires, conquered the land and submitted local populations to forced labour. Las Casas came to the Americas in 1502 as the first priest. While first agreeing with the system, he soon came to denounce it and returned to Spain to convince European leaders. He first succeeded in his task, since both Emperor Charles V and the Pope edicted texts against enslavement. But these texts encountered resistance from the colonists and could never be implemented.

In 1550, Charles V convened a panel of specialists to arbitrate a debate between Las Casas and his most persisting opponent, Sepulveda. The documents prepared for the debate provide us with the arguments of both men. In Democrates Segundo, About the Just Causes of the War Against the Indians, Sepulveda made four arguments to defend Spanish policies, which were all refuted by Las Casas.

1. Indians are naturally barbarous.

First, the notion of barbarity must be clearly defined: does it qualify unlettered and uneducated people, or does it refer to savage and cruel behaviour? If we restrict the meaning of barbarous to the second characteristic, then first, it can apply to only a minority, and to isolated and rare phenomena, and second, we can find such behaviours among peoples said to be "civilized". To emphasise this point, Las Casas underlines that the Romans considered the ancestors of Spaniards as barbarous. In this context, how can the Spaniards justify colonisation by a natural superiority?

2. Practices like idolatry and human sacrifice are contrary to natural law and should be punished by Spaniards.

Las Casas' answer was jurisdiction, which he explained with a comparison with non Christians in Europe. Jews and Muslims inhabiting Christian lands had to abide by the law, but could not be punished for following their own religious rules. It was of course even truer of non-Christians living in non-Christian lands. Only heretics could be judged by the Church for violating their pledge. Therefore, idolatry could only be judged by God Himself, and the Spaniards were not qualified to do so.

This answer could be criticised for its indifference to the suffering of innocents, which was Sepulveda's third contention.

3. Spaniards must defend the innocent victims of the Indians.

Las Casas addressed this issue with the principle of minimal damage: in short, the freeing of innocents must not been carried out by a greater harm than the one suffered by these innocents. To illustrate his argument, he gives the example of sacrificed children eaten by the Indians. First, this practice was restricted to a small number of groups and limited to a few children. Then, the principle of minimal damage implies that the less harmful of two situations should be chosen. In this case, the Spaniards' massacres perpetrated in the name of the defence of innocents being sacrificed generate two greater harms:

1) the harming and killing of innocent people to punish the guilty, which is contrary to justice. Spaniards should not have killed men, women and children of all tribes to punish only a few individuals.

2) the Indian rejection and hate of the Christian religion as a consequence of the injustice being committed against them.

Las Casas also argues that the defence of innocents should be carried out through conversion rather than though punishment for their sins (meaning killing them), since Indians commit these sins by ignorance of God, and do not seem have the obstinacy to want to continue to commit them.

These arguments are also linked with the fourth argument raised by Sepulveda, namely spreading evangelisation.

4. Spanish rule facilitates evangelisation by protecting people spreading the universal values.

Men can convert only through free will; this implies that peaceful relations with the Indians are the best way to spread evangelisation.
As Sepulveda's beliefs coincided with Spanish interests, Las Casas was not given much of a hearing in Europe, and Europeans continued to justify their intervention in the world by their civilising mission until the first half of the twentieth century. Throughout these five long centuries, the debate between colonial states and the protesting minority has been the same.

B. How Las Casas' arguments can refute modern inter-state intervention.

A wind of change started blowing in the second half of the twentieth century, with the liberation movement which led colonies to independence and sovereign. Though, in practice, this did not put an end to interference. The civilising mission of Europeans was no longer morally valid, but a new notion, that of "human rights", was to play exactly the same role as a justification of universal values to continue inter-state intervention. Even non-European states, such as Israel, Vietnam or Tanzania, based their armed and violent intervention in other African and Asian countries on human rights, and met the support of some European countries. With the "ethnic purification" occurring in most of the new states resulting from the collapse of Yugoslavia, some intellectuals claimed not only for the right to intervene, but also for the duty to intervene. For Bernard Kouchner in particular, the right to intervene could be reconciled with state sovereignty as follows: the international community must respect national sovereignty only if the state is a democracy. Though, this reasoning had to ignore that some countries may engage in barbaric acts with the support of the majority of the population, as it was the case in Rwanda. If Kouchner was in favour of outside intervention in Rwanda, it was not because it was a dictatorship, but because he considered the acts to be barbaric.

To solve this contradiction, Wallerstein proposes to apply Las Casas' arguments to the situations in Iraq and Kosovo.

1. The presumed barbarity of the people targeted by the intervention.

The situations in Iraq and Kosovo are very complex, and it is not easy to draw a line between the barbarians and the non-barbarians. "In Kosovo, was it the Serbs, the government of Yugoslavia, or a particular group of people headed by Slobodan Milosevic? In Iraq, was it the Sunni Arabs, the Baath party, or a particular group of people headed by Saddam Hussein?" But analysing carefully the situation implies a great loss of time, the intervenors argue, and such urgent, pressing issues can suffer no delay. However such unreflected intervention may well lead to grievous mistakes.

2. The punishment of crimes against humanity.

Las Casas opposed three questions to that argument: "Who defined them as crimes, and were they so defined at the time they were committed? Who has jurisdiction to punish? Is there someone else more fit than we to engage in the punishment?"

Definition of the crimes.

Crimes were undoubtedly committed in the Balkan conflicts, and recognised by the opposing political leaders, since they accuse each other of committing them, which means they consider such acts to be crimes. The question then was how to weigh the respective responsibilities of the different groups. The set up of special international courts was meant to do this job. But Milosevic's trial raised two questions: must the alleged crimes be considered as crimes, or were they merely generally accepted behaviour? And were all the criminals being tried, possibly including people from the country of intervention?


The question of jurisdiction addressed both the procedure by which the courts must be established and the narrow geographical definition of their potential jurisdiction.

Alternative ways and people more fit to handle the crimes.

In both cases, the legitimacy of the people intervening was contested. In Kosovo, NATO ended up handling the intervention both because Russia could have vetoed UN resolutions stigmatising Serbia and because the European Union refused to act without the active support of the United States. In Iraq, the United States intervened against the will of a great majority of countries, and the two arguments they put forward are strongly contestable. First, the threat of mass destruction weapons has emerged as being completely unfounded. Second, the claim to eliminate the dictator who had committed crimes against humanity appeared highly hypocritical in the light of the fact the United State had previously supported Saddam Hussein precisely at the time when the crimes were committed.

3. The defense of the innocent

According to Las Casas' principle of minimal damage, the punishment must do less harm then it prevented. In the Balkans conflict, this principle has been respected: though ethnic cleansing had already been largely perpetrated, the intervention was able to slow down the violence and in all cases did not make the situation worse. Iraq's case is greatly different: if Saddam Hussein's oppression has disappeared, economic well-being there has decreased, everyday violence has increased as well as the number of militant Islamists, the situation of women has been degraded, and the number of civilians killed and wounded in the intervention is hardly unimportant.

4. The right and duty to spread democracy.

If democracy means a little more than elections with multiple political parties, and includes for example a decision-making instance controlled by the majority of the population, the right for minorities to express themselves, and open political debate, it must mature internally, and external intervention is counterindicated.

Intervention is a right appropriated by the strong, and legitimised by a moral justification. This doctrine is deeply ambiguous and anti-egalitarian, since it condemns the crimes of dominated people and justifies those of the strong. The universal values put forward by Europeans are a social creation to ensure domination over other peoples. As such, they cannot embody a global universalism. They are just the hard core of the biased doctrine Wallerstein calls "European universalism".

Las Casas' lesson is to call European universalism into question and encourage us to seek for a really global universalism, constructed on an egalitarian basis.


The distinction between an Eastern world and a Western world was defined after the Greco-Persian war in the fifth century before JC. The term “Orient” progressively shifted it’s geographical boundaries in time by pushing them further eastwards and compromising the studies of  western orientalists. West being to the opposite of East ("And never the 'twain shall meet", R. Kipling), the distinction was easily adopted in the West and was increasingly used by them to define far away people with different cultures and languages which were hitherto unknown to them, encapsulating exoticism into one big word. Gradually, this concept, and its ideas, developed and we can now say that « Orientalism »is much more than a word. It is a contextual concept created by Western dominance.

Orientalism can be defined as having been since the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the study by Western scholars of the Eastern world. The word “Orient” comes from the Greek root “heoros” meaning rising sun and the Latin root “oriens” meaning rising. Orientalism inspired many artists through time who, particularly in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, brought a new human sense to this verbal definition, making it a concept, a western concept. Indeed, the dangers and failures of such an understanding have been highlighted by some writers who have called into question the universal values and thus the Western interpretation of Eastern reality.

Immanuel Wallerstein says that The Baron de Montesquieu initially pointed out the Western ‘view’ in his book “Lettres Persanes” published in 1721. He then explains that what Montesquieu really revealed through this book was the feeling of particularism, more specifically “how we can arrive at an appropriate balance between the universal and the particular”. Indeed, he raises an essential identity issue. What is meant by 'how can one be a Persian'? Does it mean how can one come from elsewhere? Elsewhere being the unknown ? The East has been defined since the Greco-Persian War as the Orient. Therefore it is an elsewhere which is historically and originally situated as 'Persian'. Wallerstein proves how wrong this understanding can be, by “inverting the hierarchy”. Pushing for reconsideration, he makes the following thought-provoking-statements : “The “Persians” could have conquered Europe” and “in the long run of history, it would have been the “Persians,” not the Europeans, who would have been the exemplars of universal values.” These considerations evoke identity, alterity, universalism and particularism, and universal values thus become a question of one's point of view.

In 1963 Anouar Abdel-Malek published an article arguing against the western Orientalist conception and what it englobed. However his article did not have the same impact as Edward W.Said’s “Orientalism”, a book published in 1978, for as Abdel-Malek stated: “Any rigourous science that aspires to understanding must subject itself to such revision (…) those who yesterday were still the “object” of study (…) today are its sovereign “subject”. “Orientalism” became a general debated issue on the “mode of knowledge and interpretation of the reality of the non-Western zones of the modern world.” Wallerstein explains that Said was “on the margins of several identities”, he was indeed a ‘Westernized Eastern’, an American-Palestinian graduated, living and practicing within the Western system, who called Orientalism “a style of thought”. Following Foucault’s footsteps in his book, Said more particularly studied relations between the Arab-Islamic world and the Western powers.

Said’s book discusses the fact that through the term “Orient”, Westerners have tended to amalgamate Eastern societies, making them similar to each other and different from themselves, dismissing the multiplicity encompassed in their overall limits.Said explained that this naturally created the prejudiced thought that the East was the opposite of Western society, giving a negative connotation to Orientals and providing an imperial tool for Western colonial power. Said argues that Western scholars must have been biased by their own universalism when studying other cultures, languages and people. Through Wallerstein’s analyses of Said we can understand how universality was opportunistically expounded by the West. Indeed, not the whole truth is revealed. In order to legitimize the supremacy of this system and make it a norm, democracy seems to have prevailed, but was democracy general then? The West and the East had indeed similar points of views at times and in some regions or systems but they were clearly differentiated by a system which selected beliefs made prevalent.

Wallerstein adds to this that there is “nothing so ethnocentric, so particularist, as the claim of universalism.” He compares this issue to the Sepulveda-Las Casas debate as universalism is the basis of the issue and explains how when it came to jeopardising the crown's interests Las Casas’ revendications were hushed. The author sees this type of supremacy as a need for the “self-justification” of one’s universal values. Wallerstein summarizes these statements in one paragraph, saying that “the transformations of the balance of power in the world-system ended the simple certainties about universalism that prevailed for most of the history of the modern world-system and which entrenched the binary oppositions that were deep in all our cognitive frameworks, and served as the political and intellectual justification of the dominant ways of thinking.”

This is how we come to wonder how one can be a non-orientalist. Referring back to our own identity, can one designate one single definition of universality in human beings despite all their differences? Thus the author raises the issue of the essentialist particularism of Orientalism sustaining Said’s discourse on biased intervention. The world revolutions brought awareness of these facts and shifted the term to “scientific universalism”. Wallerstein describes science as another means of supremacy based on meritocracy. We can say that to a certain extent, this “style of thought”, as Said would say, can be transposed into recently 'justified' Western supremacy over Eastern regions which have led to Western legitimized interventions (the Iraq war). On a more general basis, it can be said that Wallerstein associates this one way point of view with material and immaterial colonialism.


In a third part of the book, which deals with Scientific Universalism, Emmanuel Wallerstein raises the following issue: How do we know the truth?

In the contemporary world the author distinguishes two modes of universalism: Orientalism and Scientific universalism. Orientalism is described as “ the mode of perceiving essentialist particulars ” and its universal quality as “ the permanence of a set of essential particularisms ”. The other mode is the scientific universalism which corresponds to “ the assertion of rules ”, of general laws which must explain all the phenomena of the real. In the search of truth, after 1945 Orientalism, or Humanist universalism, was gradually devalued. Conversely, Scientific universalism gained in terms of legitimacy, of social prestige and became the unique and sole way possible to discover the truth. Emmanuel Wallerstein proposes an analysis of this historical establishment of a hierarchy between these two modes of knowledge.

Wallerstein establishes a connection between the epistemological revolution and the capitalist world-economy. He describes the capitalist world-economy as a historical system, in which he distinguishes three periods: an origin, a period of normal functioning and a period of terminal structural crisis. We can analyse the capitalist world-economy as a system because some rules or constraints are identifiable, but its systemic features come within cyclical rhythms. Moreover, Emmanuel Wallerstein notes that we cannot dissociate the historical evolution of it system and some secular trends. At the end of this theoretical approach the author describes the capitalist world-economy system in terms of oscillations around a moving equilibrium. However in the current world-system, because of its secular trends, the oscillations cannot return to their moving equilibrium. So, to re-emerge from chaos we must create a new order during this period of terminal structural crisis.

After this theoretical description Emmanuel Wallerstein proposes a concrete analysis of why this means that the modern world-system is currently in systemic crisis.

The fundamental principle of a capitalist world-economy, and of all its institutions, is the endless accumulation of capital. This system is based on an axial division of labour between core and peripheral production processes. A network of sovereign states within an interstate system regulates this division, which entails a social, economic, political and cultural polarization of the world. Within the system three main elements equally assure what Emmanuel Wallerstein calls a “cultural and intellectual scaffolding”. These elements are: the association between universalistic norms and racist-sexist practices, the domination of centrist liberalism on the geoculture and the epistemological division between the two cultures.

In order to understand the current structural crisis, Emmanuel Wallerstein devotes time to describing the three mains types of overhead costs of production: personnel, inputs and taxation.

The class struggle has always been the most important determinant of the cost of personnel. Between the employers, the trade-union organisations and the workers a strategic game takes place, which determines if production stays in a location or is displaced. The employers set up in the rural zone so as to pay their workers so much less. However in the course of time, the workers progressively become organized and then their demands in terms of remuneration increase. In this context the employers often decide to repeat the process. In fine the constant relocation involves a “deruralization” of the world which means the increase of the cost of personnel on average worldwide.

At the same time, some political and societal decisions have recently begun to force the producers to take on their responsibility for the detoxification of waste, the replacement and regeneration of raw materials and the costs of transport.

Furthermore, as a reaction to popular pressure, there has been an increase in taxation worldwide on the producers.

Therefore, even if the producers and the employers try to thwart the general movement, the trend towards increase in the three main costs cannot be stopped in the long term.


“What has the structural crisis of the world system to do with the structures of knowledge, the university system of the world and scientific universalism? Everything!”

In fact, the structures of knowledge play an important role in the functioning and justification of the political, economic and social structures of the system. Wallerstein analyses three aspects of the structures of knowledge in the modern world-system: the modern university system, the epistemological divide between the so-called two cultures and the special role of the social sciences.

The modern university is defined by its bureaucratisation and centralisation. The division in departmental structures is also a feature of the modern university. Wallerstein demonstrates a relationship between the organisation of disciplines, the separation of knowledge and the separation between the two cultures.

In the division of the world of knowledge Wallerstein notes the ambiguous situation of the social sciences, in the battle between the two cultures. Some representantives of the social sciences, mostly economists, political scientists or sociologists want to be part of the scientific camp. In the Humanistic (literary and philosophical) camp some historians or disciples of oriental studies can be found. But Wallerstein also points out the fact that the line separating the 'Two Cultures' (Literary and Scientific) after 1945 has become more blurred.

After the world revolution of 1968, with the institutional crisis and the structural crisis of the world system, the three aspects of the structures of knowledge started to lose their solidity. Then, the world university was confronted with the problem of world economic stagnation and was subjected to multiple pressures in different directions: notably denomination and teaching, for instance. Moreover the universities have become actors in the market-place by transforming their professor’s research results into patents they can exploit. And at the same time some individual professors have been taking their distance from university structures to be able to exploit their own research or to escape from the commercial atmosphere of the universities. According to Wallerstein “the result may well be an exodus of some of the best scholars/scientists”.

But at the same time, in order to understand the fact that the two-culture divide has become more blurred, Wallerstein emphasises the importance of two major knowledge movements of the twentieth century : complexity studies in the natural sciences and cultural studies in the humanities. Complexity studies reject the idea of linear time and the idea of time-reversible processes. Cultural studies reject the idea of some universal canon of beauty and of norms of the good inspired by some natural law . These studies insist on the social context of all value judgements. And the most important point for Wallerstein is the fact that with complexity studies and Cultural studies the epistemological distinction between the two cultures has become a subject of controversy. In this perspective both knowledge movements ultimately place themselves in the field of social sciences and every discipline is thus having to begin to use a “mix of methodologies”, including those once reserved to other disciplines. Also, in the past thirty to fifty years, the rise of new quasi-disciplines: area studies, women’s and gender studies, ethnic studies, urban studies, development studies or gay and lesbian studies for instance have been notable. The new disciplines in the social sciences entail more overlapping of boundaries, but also a more acute financial squeeze.

At the end of the analysis Wallerstein says that three things may be possible over the next twenty to fifty years. Perhaps the modern university may cease to be the principal locus of production or of reproduction of knowledge. It is possible that the new knowledge movements will bring about an epistemological reunification. And it is possible that the social sciences will be subject to a profound reorganization.

In short, the structures of knowledge have entered a period of anarchy and bifurcation, just like the modern world-system.


In a fourth part of the book, Wallerstein questions the complex crossover between the Power of Ideas, and the Ideas of Power, and whether it is possible to reach a world based on the principle of learning both 'to give and to receive'?

According to Wallerstein: “ The modern world-system could not have been created and institutionalized without the use of force to expand its boundaries and control large segments of its population”. The powerful need to establish their legitimacy for their own cadres but also for those whom they have dominated, and therefore need to demonstrate the inherent superiority of the powerful, the moral right of the powerful. To demonstrate this search for acceptance of their domination, Wallerstein refers to the debate between Las Casas and Sepulveda when they were arguing about a basic issue: What rights did the Spanish conquistadores in the Americas have in relation to the indigenous populations? Or, better perhaps,what rights did indigenous populations have in relation to the Spanish conquistadores?

But this debate was not conducted only in the sixteenth century and the word “democracy” is often used to legitimize aggression and military dominance. Wallerstein says that the “ Sepulveda mode was already beginning to wear thin in the eighteenth century”. In fact Orientalism was a more subtle version of Sepulveda ‘assertions. Orientalism was a mode of essentializing the other and at the same time the way to demonstrate the inherent superiority of the Western World, because the others were incapable of proceeding to “modernity”. The cultural possibilities of the Western World and of Orientalism were not considered as similar. So, a new form of justification of the Western World’s domination was created.

It was with the decline of the utility of Orientalist arguments that we see the advent of the domination of Scientific universalism, of Science as truth. The difference between science and the humanities became the last means to justify European domination and the distribution of power in the modern-world.

In the last chapter, Immanuel Wallerstein sums up about European universalism. That universalism was, as we can see in the third chapter, connected with an “exoticizing” approach to the Orient. We can highlight the main ideas of his conclusion as follows:

The author advocates a new approach and highlights new issues for scientists and intellectuals to reflect on : Can there be a universalism that is not only European (so particularist), but a universal universalism ?

Knowledge should serve to know, not only to be used. European universalism had undoubtedly an ideological meaning : in history, Westerners have used knowledge and science to increase the impact of their real or ideological domination. This view is opposed to the that of the intellectuals who seek to counter the thirst for power and justify a type of knowledge based on Bachelard's doctrine of « savoir pour savoir, jamais pour utiliser”. Furthermore it can be said that this leads to a stimulating and inspiring resource of intellectual knowledge for decision-makers.

He encourages intellectuals to operate an historicization of our intellectual analysis. This historicization of intellectual analysis for Wallerstein corresponds to the necessity of a macro-interpretation in interraction with the current transition of the world. For Wallerstein it is neccessary to place any reality being immediately studied within the larger context, “the historical structure within which it fits and operates.” This is a condition for reaching the goal of a universal universalism.

The author recalls that if intellectuals pursue the “task they are called on to pursue in an age of transition, they will not be popular.” However, to him, the role of the intellectual is crucial in our world. They have to persist in trying to analyze the world system in its era of transisition and in “clarifying the alternatives available and thereby the moral choices we have to make, and finally, in illuminating the possible political paths we wish to choose.” Wallerstein attributes a dominating space to the intellectual's role in post-modern society, as they are required to illuminate the choices facing political decision-makers. However, in this world, the power of decision is not in the hands of intellectuals, but in those of political decision-makers.

Wallerstein explains how we are “at the end of a long era, which can go by many names. One appropriate name could be the era of European universalism.” And that we are currently moving on to a new era : “one possible alternative is a multiplicity of universalisms that would resemble a network of universal universalisms.” A sentence quoted from Senghor best resumes Wallerstein’s contemporary intellectual point of view: “vivre le particularisme jusqu’au bout pour y trouver l’aurore de l’universel” or more precisely the dawn (l’aurore) of universal universalism.