< < <
Date Index
> > >
Wallerstein's commentary -- over optimistic?
by Elson Boles
15 November 2002 15:54 UTC
< < <
Thread Index
> > >
I think this is among the more interesting and well-written of
Wallerstein's recent commentaries.  In a nutshell, and in the middle
run, the conservative's popularity may collapse as his father's did when
war and polarization caught up to him by 1992, and it seems likely that
US allies will stand up and resist.  

However, I wouldn't underestimate America's middle run support for
"laissez faire fascism" at least nor more than the world underestimated
Germany's support for national-socialist imperialism.  For Americans,
the "war on terrorism" is, however, comparable to the start of the Cold
War at Potsdam.  The US is still the only country to have used nuclear
weapons -- and on innocent civilians at that.   The fear of more attacks
on American soil has not been known since Pearl Harbor.  The New Fear
will go along way for the conservatives, much further than did the Gulf
War for Bush Sr.  What's more, the context of the war on terrorism is
very new in the world-system, and so the middle-run outcome is less
predictable since the old rules no longer apply.  We are in a
bifurcation.  The New Fear would be in other respects analogous to the
start of the Cold War, but for two profound differences: one, it marks
the full undoing of the last era of Great Peace and the entry into
chaos, and two, the vast military power held by the old (and now testy)
hegemon is unprecedented, with no other state coming close to the US
non-nuclear power.  There is some evidence from what we've seen in the
Gulf War, former Yugoslavia, and Afghanistan that the US can win wars
against states from the air, and limit ground forces to "mopping up"
activities.  But of course the US cannot stop terrorism.  And so the war
on terrorism may cyclically feed terrorist attacks and in turn grow the
New Fear, which will likely last longer than the short run.  That is
what Bush and company are planning on in the middle run.

Fernand Braudel Center, Binghamton University


Commentary No. 101 - Nov. 15, 2002

"Bush: Fear Conquered Hope"

Mr. Bush had his way - in the U.S. elections, in the U.N. Security
Council. With Lula's victory, hope conquered fear. With Bush's victory,
fear conquered hope. There is much satisfaction now in Mr. Bush's
administration. They think they can get their program fully carried out.
They are counting on a Congress and a Security Council that will
continue to follow the Bush agenda. They think they have Saddam Hussein

What is their agenda? The interesting thing to note is that they have a
short-term agenda and a long-term agenda, but absolutely no middle-term
agenda. Their short-term agenda within the United States is to satisfy
their three constituencies - the economic conservatives, the social
conservatives, and the macho militarists. The economic conservatives are
interested primarily in two things: lower taxes and reduction of the
constraints environmentalist considerations have put on them. The social
conservatives are interested in legislating sexuality, harsher penalties
for lawbreakers, and freedom to own and use guns. The macho militarists
are interested in enhancing U.S. military power and using it. 

These short-term objectives can be implemented by making the tax cuts
permanent, ending the estate tax, appointing rightwing judges to the
federal courts, and invading Iraq. Now that they have the power to do
these things, they will do them. The one thing one can say about the
Bush administration is that they don't waffle. They only make the
concessions they absolutely have to make; otherwise they bulldoze their
way through all the forests. No doubt there will be a few obstacles in
their way - an occasional difficulty with the Congress (a Senate
filibuster or two, a few "moderate" Republicans who hesitate to go all
the way on particular bills), an attempt by other countries to interpret
Saddam Hussein's future actions less dyspeptically than the version we
shall hear from Condoleeza Rice. But the Bush administration's response
to obstacles is brutal action to overcome them. And since it seemed to
have worked this November, they have no incentive to mend their manners.

But why did it work? It seems clear that the overwhelming answer is fear
- the fears of the American people, the fears of the rest of the world.
September 11 shook up the American people. But if it did so, it is
because they were already anxious, and September 11 simply crystallized
a vague sentiment into a pressing concern. The American people are
afraid of terrorists; they are afraid of Moslems; they are afraid of
strangers. It is the sense that the U.S. is no longer as strong as it
once was, is no longer as respected as it once was, is no longer as
appreciated as it once was. It is the fear that the American standard of
living is in danger - the fear of inflation and of deflation, the fear
of losing employment. It is the fear that, as they live longer, they no
longer live as well, because the health care for the older part of the
population is far weaker than people expect and want. President Bush
responds to that fear not by saying there is no problem, but by saying
that there is a problem to which he has a remedy - tough, determined
action. The Bush administration exudes confidence in itself and this
attracts fearful people, enough at least who give their vote to

Of course, none of this explains how the U.S. got a 15-0 vote in the
Security Council for its resolution - one that was a bit watered down no
doubt, but nonetheless one that permits the U.S. to proceed and, in due
time, to invade Iraq. What accounts for this vote is also fear. But it
is not Saddam Hussein who inspired this fear. There is not a single
member of the Security Council which, in the absence of the drive by the
U.S., would have brought this issue to the table. There is not a single
member who really believes that Saddam Hussein poses a short-term threat
to the peace of the world, or who thinks that action against Iraq is a
priority concern of the world community.

So why did they all in the end vote for the resolution - even France,
Russia, and China, even Syria? The answer is very simple. They are all
afraid of the Bush administration. It has made it very clear that it
will take whatever punitive action it can against any country which gets
in its way seriously - not merely Mauritius or Syria, but Germany and
Canada. So each of these countries has had to weigh the short-term
consequences of defiance. And the price seemed high. Thus, although they
wiggled, and got some (not too many) face-saving concessions, in the end
they buckled. There was once a time when the friends and allies of the
U.S. lined up happily behind U.S. leadership in a world crisis. That
time is over. Now they line up unhappily because they are afraid, not of
the U.S. in the abstract, but of the Bush administration concretely.

One thing that has made this possible has been the worldwide collapse of
the reformist center. There is a remarkable parallel, largely unnoticed
in the press, between the last French elections and the last U.S.
elections. The initial expectation was that the Socialists would win in
France. The initial expectation was that the Democrats would win in the
U.S. They both lost the crucial subvote by a very narrow margin. Le Pen
edged out Jospin for second place in the first round by a tiny
difference. A shift of 50,000 votes in two states of the U.S. would have
given the Democrats control of the U.S. Senate.

There was a common factor to the two defeats - the exhaustion of the
historic program of the two parties. In both countries, large numbers of
voters said that the party no longer stood for anything, that it was
trying to imitate the conservatives, while losing its base. This is a
reflection of the long-standing decline of the traditional center-left
movements, which once dominated the world scene. Following the
elections, both parties lack a clear leader and a clear program. They
are beset by internal debates about whether they should move further to
the center (and try to whittle away votes from the conservatives) or
move to the left (and try to recoup the votes of the disillusioned). It
is not an easy choice tactically, because either choice will lose as
well as gain votes. And neither tactic will work if there is no clear
program. But will there be?

So, in the short run, the Bush agenda seems likely to prevail. In the
long run, the Bush administration knows too what it wants - few
restraints on the acquisition of wealth (no matter how much this results
in national and world economic and social polarization); a rollback on
the liberal social mores that have been enveloping the world scene; and
de facto authoritarian structures, which define democracy as making
minor choices among elite groups every few years.

But can they get from the short-term agenda to the long-term agenda? The
Bush administration simply assumes that it can; it doesn't waste its
time thinking about the middle term. This is its Achilles heel. Can it
really contain the havoc the Iraq invasion will cause in Middle East
politics? Are average Americans really ready to devote the lives of
their children and their money on behalf of Bush's agenda, especially if
it doesn't pay off in security and prosperity, which it is unlikely to
do? Can the dollar really stand the additional strain on its
credibility? Can the U.S. really block nuclear proliferation? Can it
really hold in check the populist upsurge that is occurring in Latin
America? How soon will China, Japan, and Korea come to terms with each
other in ways that the U.S. won't like?

The aggressive opening chess moves of the Bush administration have been
spectacular. But have they been wise, even from their point of view? Can
fear really triumph over hope for very long?

Immanuel Wallerstein

[Copyright by Immanuel Wallerstein. All rights reserved. Permission is
granted to download, forward electronically or e-mail to others and to
post this text on non-commercial community Internet sites, provided the
essay remains intact and the copyright note is displayed. To translate
this text, publish it in printed and/or other forms, including
commercial Internet sites and excerpts, contact the author at
iwaller@binghamton.edu; fax: 1-607-777-4315.

These commentaries, published twice monthly, are intended to be
reflections on the contemporary world scene, as seen from the
perspective not of the immediate headlines but of the long term.]

Email this Commentary to a colleague 

Elson Boles
Assistant Professor
Dept. of Sociology
Saginaw Valley State University
University Center
Saginaw MI, 48710

< < <
Date Index
> > >
World Systems Network List Archives
at CSF
Subscribe to World Systems Network < < <
Thread Index
> > >