by Immanuel Wallerstein
The list of countries with enduring and worsening civil strife is growing. A short while ago, the world media were highlighting Syria. Now they are highlighting Ukraine. Will it be Thailand tomorrow? Who knows? The variety of explanations of the strife and the passion with which they are promoted is very striking.
Our modern world-system is supposed to permit the Establishment elites who hold the reins of power to debate with each other and then come to a “compromise” that they can guarantee. Normally these elites situate themselves in two basic camps – center/right and center/left. There are indeed differences between them, but the result of the
“compromises” has been that the amount of change over time is minimal.
This has operated as a top-down political structure, within each country and geopolitically between countries. The outcome has been an equilibrium slowly moving upward. Most analysts of the current strife tend to assume that the strings are still being pulled by Establishment elites. Each side asserts that the low-level actors of the other side are being manipulated by high-level elites. Everyone seems to assume that, if their side puts enough pressure on the
elites of the other side, these other elites will agree to a “compromise” closer to what their side wants.
This seems to me a fantastic misreading of the realities of our current situation, which is one of extended chaos as a result of the structural crisis of our modern world-system. I do not think that the elites are any longer succeeding in manipulating their low-level followers. I think the low-level followers are defying the elites, doing their own thing, and trying to manipulate the elites. This is indeed something new. It is a bottom-up rather than a top-down politics.
Bottom-up politics is sometimes alluded to when the media speak of “extremists” becoming important actors, but the locution “extremists” misses the point too. When we are amidst bottom-up politics, there are versions of every complexion – from the far right to the far left, but including ones in the center. One can bemoan this, as did
Yeats in one of his oft-quoted lines from The Second Coming:
“The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”
But note that Yeats is attributing the category of “best” to the old elites. Are they really the best? What is indeed true, to cite one of Yeats’s less quoted lines, is that “the falcon cannot hear the falconer.”
How then can we navigate politically in such an environment? It is very confusing analytically. I think however that step one is to cease attributing what is happening to the evil machinations of some Establishment elites. They are no longer in control. They can of course still do great physical harm by imprudent actions. They are by no means paragons of virtue. But those of us who wish to seek a better world to emerge from this chaotic situation have to depend on ourselves, on our own multiple ways of organizing the struggle. We need, in short, less denunciation and more constructive local action.
The wisest lines of Yeats are the last two in the poem:
“And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”
As our existing historical system is in the process of dying, there is a fierce struggle over what kind of new historical system will succeed it. Soon, we may indeed no longer live in a capitalist system, but we could come to live in an even worse system – a “rough beast” seeking to be born? To be sure, this is only one possible collective choice. The alternative choice is a relatively democratic, relatively egalitarian system, also seeking to be born. Which one we
shall see at the end of the struggle is up to us, bottom-up.
Immanuel Wallerstein’s Commentary No. 377, May 15, 2014; originally posted at http://www.binghamton.edu/fbc/commentaries/