Axial Class Struggle

An Interpretation of Immanuel Wallerstein’s Vision

The recent BBC re-interpretation of “social class”, which posits seven classes in the UK, ((BBC News, “Huge survey reveals seven social classes in UK”, retrieved 08 April 2013)) helps call our attention to the entire purpose of a theory of class and how misguided the theory is in this case. By creating seven social classes, the analysis appallingly plays into the Conservative regime’s hands by creating absurd standards within which social mobility is now suddenly easier. According to the new theory, I have scaled three social classes between the ages of thirteen and eighteen. Why hadn’t this scale been thought of by feudal overlords, and waved in the faces of revolting peasants? Surely peasants alone could be divided into the four classes of ditch-diggers, pig-keepers, goat-herders and aspiring jesters. Rather than classes being based on a distinction between “those who control capital and those who are employed by them”, ((Wallerstein, I. M., World-Systems Analysis: An introduction (Duke University Press, Durham, 2004), p. 92.)) the new BBC-backed model seems to simply lower the standard with which we judge social mobility, to make it appear that polarization between extreme rich and poor no longer exists in the UK when, in fact, it does.

In 2010 and 2011, I was contributing to a blog on global inequality called “Totality”, located at, and helped to cover some of American sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein’s ideas. These concerned the systemic division and struggle between the impoverished swathes of the world called the “periphery” and the privileged minority sector of countries referred to as the “core” in world-systems analysis. I am writing this essay to distribute some of these same teachings again, in hope of continuing to export an understanding and interest in the Wallersteinian interpretation of global inequality.

Wallerstein’s evaluation of class struggle departs from Old Left Marxist ideology, and is based on a broader and more comprehensive theory sprung from New Left origins that seeks to address the world as a single integrated global social system.  ((Wallerstein, “The Rise and Future Demise of the Capitalist World System”, p. 71-105 in The Essential Wallerstein (The New York Press, New York, 2000), p. 71-74.)) The old ideology placed a great emphasis on interpreting a struggle based inside nations between the proletariat and bourgeoisie, as the two social classes were so called. ((World-Systems Analysis: An introduction (Duke University Press, Durham, 2004), p. 96.)) These terms do not hold great importance in Wallersteinian theory, which is concerned with understanding the unequal and unjust development of civilization on a global scale. ((“Class Formation in the Capitalist World-Economy”, p. 315-323 in The Essential Wallerstein (The New York Press, New York, 2000), p. 316.)) “Nations”, which are really delusions spread by the unjust international system itself, ((World-Systems Analysis: An Introduction (Duke University Press, Durham, 2004). p. x.)) cannot become socially just inside, because social justice cannot be developed in isolation and has to be imposed globally if it is to be real at all, given how the world is an integrated social system.

An accurate class struggle concept must consider the fact that the world is an integrated social system. It does not have to be considered as divided into workers and capitalists, but instead it includes the entire spectrum of people from corporate executives and regime leaders in Western states to the very poorest and most violated people of the world living perhaps in Haiti, Palestine and Afghanistan. Although not intending to be concretely accurate, these are possible representations of the two ends of the spectrum we are dealing with, and they help suggest the value of Wallersteinian theory concerning the vast inequality that separates the world’s people geographically into oppressors and oppressed. ((Class Formation in the Capitalist World-Economy, 316.)) If those two camps can be understood through a global narrative, the narrative is represented in Wallerstein’s theoretical works.

The “axial division of labor” is really the nexus of Wallerstein’s analysis of the world system, and that nexus is the source of its injustices.  ((World-Systems Analysis: An Introduction (Duke University Press, Durham, 2004). p. 23-24.))  The axial division of labor provides the rationalization of the primary structural inequality in the world, and all the other smaller inequalities that are ultimately ideologically linked to the same rationalization. The axial division of labor repeatedly lends the structural requirements for the main inequality of the North and South, the developed and underdeveloped regions.  ((Ibid.))

Due to the centrality of the axial division of labor, it follows that class struggle concepts must be equally re-thought to consider two sectors of the world, periphery (“Third World”, “underdeveloped”, etc.) and core (“Western, “developed” etc.) as the two struggling poles of global society. They can also be called the proletarian countries and the bourgeois countries, if we are in the business of depicting states as belonging to classes. Immanuel Wallerstein famously posited the existence of a middle tier of countries called the semi-periphery that is constructed for the sole purpose of diffusing and undermining awareness of the class struggle of core and periphery.  ((Ibid. 90-91))  There remains, still, a strong geographic and social distinction between the core people of the world system and the peripheral people of the world system. It would be misguided to depict this division of labor between global rich and poor to a satisfactory level of detail with maps, because it would lend unnecessary simplicity to a very complex social reality, although this division can be generalized as a North-South divide for the convenience of those who care about illustrating it.

The implications of what can be called an axial class struggle, which follows from the axial division of labor, could be disheartening to those who subscribe to worker movements and their connected Old Left ideology. The best example of Old Left reluctance to accept Wallerstein’s geographically consequential class model is found in a sample of feuding between one of Wallerstein’s key influences, Arghiri Emmanuel, and Old Left theorist Charles Bettelheim. The latter was disturbed by the implications of a narrative in which workers in the North apparently exploit their fellow workers laboring in the South.  ((Bettelheim C., “Theoretical Comments by Charles Bettelheim”, p. 271-322 in Emmanuel, A., Unequal Exchange: A Study of the Imperialism of Trade (Monthly Review Press, London, 1972), p. 301-303.))  But that exploitation is real, and we can say it happens because workers in the richer core countries enjoy and demand greater wages although that apparent self-empowering is a call for draining more capital from the vulnerable workers in poor countries. This unfortunate reality cannot be doubted, given the manner in which surplus value is transferred from poor to rich countries in Emmanuel’s theories. It could also be supported if we bring in the ideas of the Algerian revolutionary Frantz Fanon, whose primary concern was the “illuminating and sacred communication”  ((Malley, R. The Call From Algeria (University of California Press, London, 1996), p.131.)) among all the people of the formerly colonized continents.

The real scare for ideologues of the Old Left would be that, if we consider the world system as a whole, the exploitation of the billions of people in the South is of far greater concern and priority to equality and social justice than any level of exploitation of the workers in the North. This understandably has the potential to give rise to a disturbing vision for the Old Left: a world where progressive politics has lost its traditional workers’ movements and socialist parties and replaced them with disparate Third-Worldist sympathizers of the Global South. However, that vision prioritizing sympathy for the Global South is merely what must rationally follow when we gain a more accurate view of our global social system. Note that the term “sympathy” rather than “solidarity” is used in this essay, to avoid confusion with the “worker solidarity” notion which cannot be defended if the nation-state unit of analysis of class struggle is erroneous and the world system unit of analysis is more useful.  ((Wallerstein, World-Systems Analysis: An introduction (Duke University Press, Durham, 2004), p. 16.))  This implies that the workers of one region or political unit are possibly exploited by the workers of the next.

Although there is a significant departure from Old Left ideas and Marxist orthodoxy in the interpretations voiced in this essay, the Wallersteinian view does not necessarily seek to discredit groups and ideologies but would prefer to convince them to look upon the global social system with different emphases. Of these emphases, the greatest is placed on the oppression of the vast impoverished poor zones of the world economy and society. Although defense of minorities and women are also of great emphasis in the Wallersteinian line of thought, nothing could demand greater attention than the reality that the richer locales and states in the world economy are constantly exploiting and defrauding the vast majority of the world population. That class relation is what should be the primary target for criticism and action by people who newly consider the many and diverse New Left ideas rather than continuing to pursue an Old Left doctrine.

Class theories are not correct or incorrect, but they do vary in their level of usefulness. The class theory given as an example at the beginning of this essay was of the least useful kind, while the class theory of Immanuel Wallerstein dealing with the opposing poles of privilege and deep oppression on a world scale is the most useful. The usefulness of a class theory is judged by the degree to which it can help the struggle of the under-represented, the disenfranchised and the oppressed. It is not judged by the degree to which it can validate hegemony and blur and distort our recognition of inequality.

This essay has probably trodden a fine line between an academic kind of commentary and a layperson’s kind of commentary, and may have shown lax attention to terminology in favor of rhetoric, but such is necessary to convey the message accurately. Practical advice on how to possibly address the axial class struggle might be appropriate, but it will have to wait for another essay. This essay is written in the hope to encourage progressives to reconsider their former conception of class struggle and turn to adopt a Wallersteinian view of the world as a battlefield between the ruling minority camp of the Global North and the underrepresented majority camp of the Global South. In its most abridged interpretation, the class struggle occurs both between different countries and within them, and is the concern of all those peripheral groups and countries who know themselves to be massively underrepresented and deprived by the state and interstate machineries of the world system.

Harry J. Bentham is a British futurist blogger who has been a contributor at a number of think tanks including the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies since 2013. His work at Press TV and the multi-faith Beliefnet website has gained increasing attention and praise, including in the international media. Commentaries on political and ethical controversies by Bentham have been published at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, H+ Magazine, Dissident Voice and numerous other publications. He edits The Blog. Read other articles by Harry.