Sauron, Meet Wallerstein: Middle-earth as a World-System

This semester I am teaching college geography for the first time. After looking at a number of different textbooks, I finally settled on one that uses the (in)famous world-systems approach of neo-Marxist scholar Immanuel Wallerstein as a template to examine political geography. For those unfamiliar with world-systems theory, here’s a brief primer.

Wallerstein was a sociologist specializing in Africa. While teaching at SUNY-Binghamton he published, between 1974 and 1989, the three volumes of The Modern World-System. A fourth volume came out in 2011, and before he died in 2019 Wallerstein had published several dozen more works, almost all on the same broad topic: that the planet is dominated, at least economically, by a capitalist “world-system” created by the Europeans–specifically the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, French and English/British–starting in the 15th century AD. These countries formed the first “core” which economically exploited the rest of the world, which was divided into “periphery” and “semi-periphery.” The biggest difference between the latter two is that nation-states in the semi-periphery are striving enter the core. whereas those in the periphery will not, or cannot, do so–at least without great effort and time.

Wallerstein’s world-system is different from a “world-empire,” which would control the whole world politically–and which has never existed in human history. At least not yet. It posits a world-economy, instead.

The core of todays world-system consists of the Anglosphere, most of of western Europe, and Japan–the only non-Western or former Western colony to make it into that club so far. The semi-periphery is led by the BRICS: Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. Argentina and Iran are also in this grouping. The periphery is most of the rest of the planet, mostly what we used to call the “Third World.” Some of these are debatable, of course. We have talked much in my classes this term about whether China should be included in the core now. Ditto for Israel and South Korea. And where do you fit Turkey?

At this point let me add that I am about as far from a Marxist, neo or not, as one can get. I agree with Wallerstein that his world-system theory does accurately lay out how the global capitalist system was created. Yet I strongly disagree that global capitalism is always and forever a zero-sum, exploitative regime benefitting only the core powers. If that were so, then how to explain the massive reduction in global poverty over the past few centuries? Capitalism may be a poor system–but, as Churchill observed about democracy in a political sense, it’s the best economic system humans have yet devised. Global socialism would not be able to feed a population of 8 billion people.

But what has Wallerstein to do with Sauron? Well, as some readers of this blog may know, I published a book a few years ago on the political history of Middle-earth. So teaching political geography using world-systems theory led me to start thinking whether the template would work for Tolkien’s world–specifically, the Third Age thereof. After all, for decades scholars have fine-tuned Wallerstein’s theorizing to include world-systems even in the ancient world. So why not extend it back to Middle-earth? Tolkien himself stated that “this ‘history’ is supposed to take place in a period of the actual Old World of this planet” (Humphrey Carter, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, p. 220).

I attempted to apply the core/semi-periphery/periphery paradigm to Middle-earth at the time of the War of the Ring, assuming that the Free Peoples had a form of agrarian or oligarchic capitalism.

I put Gondor, as the most populous and powerful kingdom, in the core–along with its close (both geographically and politically) ally Rohan. Core powers have the strongest central governments and militaries, sufficient tax base, a complementary bourgeoise and working class, and are free from outside control.

In the semi-periphery I placed the Elven and Dwarven polities, the Shire, and the lands of the Beornings and Woodmen. Why? They have relatively weak governments, are not very industrialized (in fact, the Elves avoid it!), and by-and-large depend upon the core states for military protection. (Yes, this is a bit unfair because virtually everyone in late-Third Age Middle-earth depends on Gondor in this regard–which is why Boromir was correct to point out that out [starting at 2:16 in this clip from The Fellowship of the Ring].)

The periphery consists of the the areas controlled by Sauron, and those allied with him: Mordor, Harad, the lands of the Easterlings; but also Dol Guldur and the Orc fortress of Mount Gundabad in the far north of the Misty Mountains. Peripheries are poor, little industrialized, tend to depend on only one type of economic activity (slaving and slavery?), contain large numbers of poorly educated, and possess weak or nonexistent government institutions.

I was tempted to place these in another category entirely, one which Wallerstein created, but which is rarely used anymore: “external area,” a region totally cut off from the world-system. Antarctica was originally typologized as such by him. But it’s hard to believe that the Men of Harad and those in the lands to the east of Dorwinion engaged in absolutely no trade with their fellow humans in the northwest of Middle-earth–as much as their god-king might have tried to prevent their doing so. His Orcs, on the other hand, were a different matter. He could, and did, control them to an extent far beyond that of the Haradrim and Easterlings. In that regard, it might make sense to posit Mordor, Dol Guldur and Mount Gundabad as either external to the rest of Middle-earth–OR as aspiring, Sauronic alternative core areas. I wasn’t sure what to do with Moria, but eventually I lumped it into the semi-periphery.

There you have it. My first pass at a Wallersteinian, world-systems analysis of Middle-earth. What say you? Let me know in comments!

Special thanks to my old friend Tony Arrasmith, artist and photographer extraordinaire, who turned my crude scrawls on a map of Middle-earth into those professional shaded areas.

2 thoughts on “Sauron, Meet Wallerstein: Middle-earth as a World-System

  1. What of Isengard? Where do the wandering rangers fit? What of Aman?

    I’m thinking we’re seeing in LOTR a world in transition between systems, at the close of one age and the beginning of another. It is hard to tidily use the World System approach to classify it neatly.


    1. Isengard is not a country; it’s a fortress with a population of two. Well, plus 10,000 Orc soldiers. It’s not really a country.
      The Dunedain are stateless, and the Wallersteinian paradigm doesn’t really account for such.
      Aman is outside Middle-earth, certainly in the Third Age.
      And I totally agree that the world-system approach does not fit neatly here. Certainly the configuration would change in other millennia of the Third Age, as well as–of course–the Second.
      Thank you for taking the time to wade in!


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