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Emergency Sex After Liberalism

OK, that wasn’t fair. Two books I just finished, Emergency Sex and Other Desperate Measures by Kenneth Cain, Heidi Postelwait, and Andrew Thomson, and After Liberalism by Immanuel Wallerstein, fit together in an unexpected way. The first one was a fairly light read, interesting primarily for being first-hand accounts of three idealistic “young” people working for the U.N. in Cambodia, Somalia, Rwanda, Bosnia, and Haiti during the 1990s when each of those places was wracked by variations of ethnic cleansing, fascist terror and horrifying incomprehensibly savage civil war. But as often happens when you read more than one book at a time, themes suddenly overlap and a deeper understanding springs up.


Wallerstein’s book is a collection of quite repetitive essays (but in an oddly useful way, since his ideas are sometimes dense and far from the common wisdom, so repetition helps get them across). He is known as a “world system” theorist, and his argument here is that we’ve moved out of a geoculture that held sway from apx. 1789 (the French Revolution) to 1989 (the collapse of the “Communisms”), and that that geoculture was fundamentally Liberalism. He describes how the French revolution gave rise to two basic new ideas: that political change is normal and acceptable (even desirable), and that sovereignty resides in “the people” not in a monarch or state. In the face of the first idea three ideologies arose, conservatism (which sought to retard change as much as possible), liberalism (which sought to manage it ‘rationally’ and work inexorably to a perfect system through gradual improvement), and socialism (which wanted to do something similar to liberalism, but much faster and more abruptly). It’s a long, drawn out analysis, but he convincingly shows that all three ideologies really came to agree in practice on strengthening the state, that the other two were the enemy, and that “development” was the goal of the proper management of society.

I’ll let you read the book to get the whole story–it’s a crucially important analysis of where we are. In his analysis, 1989 ended an era, and now we’ve moved into a “Black Period” of 25-50 years in which world capitalism is going to end (for a range of reasons, many of which we know well, from ecological exhaustion to the demise of a belief in “progress”), but what will replace it is very much up for grabs. He wrote these essays prior to or in 1993, so he couldn’t know what we would endure in the past decade precisely. In some areas he calls it exactly wrong (e.g. he posits that the democratic culture of the U.S. is too strong to allow a far-right assault on civil liberties–oops!).

But the curious synergy between his overarching world-systems analysis and the on-the-ground facts as experienced and reported by the three authors of Emergency Sex… is fascinating. Because we have entered a new period and the old expectations and rules are breaking down. Conservatism is on the march and wreaking havoc everywhere as it dismantles all the vestiges of the “liberal” deal wrought through so much sacrifice and death over the past 150 years. American idealism and a belief in the U.N. as a vehicle for rational progress is thoroughly debunked by the experiences of these three erstwhile do-gooders.

Here’s a handy quote from Wallerstein’s “The Collapse of Liberalism” and if it throws you with its assumptions, I really urge you to read it and get the full argument:

“The true meaning of the collapse of the Communisms is the final collapse of liberalism as a hegemonic ideology. Without some belief in its promise, there can be no durable legitimacy to the capitalist world-system. The last serious believers in the promise of liberalism were the old-style Communist parties on the former Communist bloc. Without them to continue to argue this promise, the world’s dominant strata have lost any possibility of controlling the world’s working classes other than by force. Consent is gone, and consent is gone because bribery had gone. But force alone, we have known since at least Machiavelli, cannot permit political structures to survive very long.”

We know the Bushists are ahistorically delusional, and that they were re-elected by insisting on an unhinged view of American power and control. The mass media (today I heard that FearChannel is going to broadcast 5 minutes of Fox News headlines every hour on the hour! Lovely!) will not challenge the temporary hegemony of the madmen running the asylum known as the U.S. government and military. And OxFam reported today that the world’s poorest countries are paying an average of $100 million PER DAY to the rich countries in debt payments! How long do you really think this can last? Can the U.S. military and its propaganda wing on the home front hold it together for more than a few months? years? and the dollar keeps sliding (so far, I think this is a controlled devaluation, but it could spin out of control rapidly, beginning the long-awaited collapse of the housing/mortgage bubble, the unraveling of the U.S.-China economic dance, etc.)…

A fascinating, but worrying time to be alive and trying to engage in a life-affirming agenda of political change. Wallerstein makes the useful point (perhaps delusional too?) that during these periods between geocultural world systems, when everything is breaking down and force is dominating, it’s more important than ever to work in our lives to create the models and institutions and agendas that might reshape the world in a more profoundly democratic direction than it has ever been. A last quote from his last essay, referring to our coming battles:

“These battles will be political battles, but not necessarily battles at the level of the state. Indeed, precisely because of the process of delegitimizing the states, many of these battles (perhaps most of them) will go on at more local levels, among the groups into which we are reorganizing ourselves. And since these battles will be local and complex among multiple groups, a complex and flexible strategy of alliances will be essential, but it will be workable only if we keep in front of our minds the egalitarian objectives… You may think that the program… is far too vague… it is as concrete as one can be in the middle of a whirlpool… [you must] know to which shore you want to swim. And make sure your immediate efforts seem to be moving in that direction. If you want greater precision than that, you will not find it, and you will drown while you are looking for it.”

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