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The Core, the Periphery, and Human Rights

Immanuel Wallerstein presents world system theory as a description of global society. This society is made up of two primary groups: the core and the periphery.

The core is what we often think of as the industrialized nation-states of the world, including the United States and most of Europe. These countries have more stable governments and economies. Typically these countries would fall within the broadly defined category of capitalist democracies.

Most of the rest of the world (the vast majority of the world) fall within the periphery. Commonly known as the “developing” or “third” world, these nation-states have either less than fully industrialized economies and have either undemocratic governments or unstable democratic governments.

World system theory views this disparity between the core and periphery as the result of a political economic arrangement which is imposed, perpetuated, and controlled by the core. Institutions such as the World Bank or the IMF are supposedly set up to assist the periphery but they actually tie the developing nations into a global capitalist system which in the end benefits the core — often times at the expense of the periphery. While I consider the World Bank and IMF to have many great qualities, they do not, and cannot, change the larger landscape of inequality.

As I considered the implications of world system theory, my mind quickly turned to an experience I have while teaching at BYU-Idaho (I was there from 2006-2009). I was observing an introductory-level international relations course and the topic of the day was human rights. The discussion eventually turned to the issue of torture, particularly the use of torture by those in the service of the United States government.

For many in the class, torture was just fine as long as it was saved American lives. As a Kantian, I find this lack of impartiality and general rejection of basic universalism to be a bit disturbing. At first, my reaction is to point out that American conservatism is a form of cultural relativism where tradition and interest, rather than principle, determines the course of action. While this might be the case, I think the world system theory might offer a better explanation.

It is not so much that these students are immoral or relativistic, but they are a product of the core. They view the world from the perspective of “What is in it for me?” This question quickly becomes “What is good for the United States?” Now there is a certain irony in this because the national interest of the United State (whatever that is determined to be) might not actually be beneficial to the middle-class 21 year-old sitting in a classroom in Rexburg. Yet, a common response amongst these students was that torture was tolerable if it would save thousands of American lives.

The well-being and rights of this fictional individual holding possible information about a terrorist attack does not seem to matter much in this equation. It is almost automatically assumed that this character must have information if the United States is torturing him (in this class they were even open to torturing a child if needs be). We view this person in the same way that capitalists view the worker: as a means to achieving the desired ends of the bourgeoisie/core.

World system theory has typically viewed such things as the core tinkering or interfering with economic arrangements or the core undermining election results that they disapprove of as proof of this exploitation of the periphery at the hands of the core. But torture, and related issues in the supposed “War on Terror,” have shown a stark contrast between how the standards of international law and human rights are applied to the core and how those standards are applied to the periphery. Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic (Serbia would likely fall within the semiperiphery) was quickly brought to trial for human rights violations. As was former Liberian leader Charles Taylor. We condemned Saddam Hussein for his politically motivated torturing. Oft times these acts are used as examples of why those in the periphery are not capable of government themselves and why they are in need of the benevolent guidance of the core.

However, when the torture is done in the name of the United States (or similar powers), not only is it defended by many, but it is not punished or examined. The United States even exited treaties and institutions that might undermine their pursuits. When visiting China last week, Secretary of State Clinton treaded lightly on the issue of human rights in because it was a potential obstacle to talks of other issues more important to the economic interests of the core. The core ultimately decides when and where human rights are applied.

This practice seems to have been adopted by students, particularly rather nationalistic ones, who are hesitant to recognize human rights out of concern for the limitations which it might place on national objectives. I think this is partially due to the fact that they, as members of the dominant core nation, will likely not be subjected to such torture (at least that is what they think). It is always the bad guy who gets tortured. And we are never the bad guy. If only they could see themselves from the perspective of the periphery.

Once a student from the above mention class stopped me in the hall and asked why he should care about Africa (he was studying for a map quiz). It does not impact him or matter to the world (the core), he said. He continued by saying that the United States does not have more than two American embassies in Africa. I quickly informed him that the United States has embassies all over Africa and that it matters because they are people too. He was not impressed. I went back to my office and closed the door. I sighed.

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Comments

  1. “At first, my reaction is to point out that American conservatism is a form of cultural relativism where tradition and interest, rather than principle, determines the course of action. While this might be the case, I think the world system theory might offer a better explanation.”

    Actually, I see those two ideas as being fundamentally related. And I think you’re on to something. I also see the framework of world system theory applying to smaller groups–nations, communities, jr. high schools, even families. For example, who are the people most likely to be put in jail for things like not paying traffic fines? We’ve got ourselves cores and peripheries all over the place.

    The only way to fight the natural instinct of the core to protect the status quo is to see people as people. I want to (have to?) believe that is possible.

  2. Some critics of world-systems theory feel that it places too much emphasis on nation-states rather broader class divisions that permeate political communities on all levels.

    “The only way to fight the natural instinct of the core to protect the status quo is to see people as people. I want to (have to?) believe that is possible.”

    I think Jacob from the Book of Mormon and King Benjamin would agree. However, many of my students are RMs who have dealt with the global poor and poor immigrants. Many pitied them, but stopped short of respect. Sad.

    Margy: Thanks for visiting and commenting on my lonely blog!

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