Wallerstein's comments on politics are possibly more provocative. On this front, the crisis began with the various uprisings of 1968, which were as much rebellions against a discredited "Old Left" as they were protests against conditions in the capitalist world. Wallerstein sees the "Cold War" as a period of actual effective collusion between the West and the Soviet bloc, with neither force seeking a decisive confrontation. Left and Right, at least in the eyes of the "New Left," had become "avatars of centrist liberalism" that could no longer accommodate the demands of minorities and other marginalized peoples who, in turn, no longer saw their concerns as subordinate to those of the Old Left, whether defined as Marxist, Big Labor, etc. As this happened, a "conservative right" (apparently not a redundancy) rebelled against the centrist compromises of nominally conservative establishment parties.
While Wallerstein's account seems a little Eurocentric ("1968" is still seen as a movement rather than an event across the Atlantic), I wondered whether its uncertain applicability to American history could itself explain something. What seems most different about the U.S. is that, while the splits described by Wallerstein were clearly visible, they had no structural or institutional consequences. On the Right, the "Reagan revolution" against "Rockefeller Republicans" fits Wallerstein's model. On the Left, the closest or most prominent approximation of Wallerstein's New Left was the McGovern movement in 1972. In neither case, however, was the split a schism. McGovern's dissident Democrats chose to take over the party, as did Reagan's dissident Republicans. Neither group could take over, however, without some kind of compromise with the existing establishment. That couldn't help but obscure the extent to which voters' alternatives had changed and limit the extent of the change itself. While Wallerstein contends that the political crisis, in the long run, has left the world with a choice between the hierarchical "spirit of Davos" and the egalitarian "spirit of Porto Allegre," the Republican and Democratic parties don't embody that choice. Because New Left forces tried to take over the existing "left" party, or else were marginalized, the "spirit of Porto Allegre" has no strong voice in the U.S., while "Davos" is well known as someplace where the Clintons go. Had New Left elements resisted the imperatives of Bipolarchy forty years ago, there might be a creditable party on the ground in solidarity with whatever Porto Allegre stands for -- Wallerstein himself admits that priorities are mixed on that front.
Wallerstein notes that economic uncertainty during a structural crisis "pushes popular opinion both to make demands for protection and protectionism and to search for scapegoats as well as true profiteers." That looks like a good description of populism without using the confusing word. Uncertainty drives extremism, not to mention polarization, "push[ing] both national and world political situations toward gridlock." Hoping to steer the "spirit of Porto Allegre," Wallerstein advises a short-term focus on minimizing economic pain for the weakest, even if that means accepting unnamed "lesser evils." In the "medium term," there must be victory for Porto Allegre or Davos. Wallerstein thinks his side will be helped by serious but inclusively egalitarian intellectual analysis and by the cultivation of a decentralized "alterglobalization" of "multiple autonomies," each achieving self-sufficiency and its own universalism.
Americans will be handicapped by a tendency to identify the Democratic party with progressivism even if it comes nowhere close to the ultimate spirit of Porto Allegre, unless a clear alternative voice can emerge. Fortunately, Wallerstein suggests that crisis conditions actually improve the chances for alternate visions.
The one encouraging feature about a systemic crisis is the degree to which it increases the viability of agency, of what we call “free will.” In a normally functioning historical system, even great social effort is limited in its effects because of the efficacy of the pressures to return to equilibrium. But when the system is far from equilibrium, every little input has great effect, and the totality of our inputs—made every nanosecond in every nanospace—can (can, not will) add up to enough to tilt the balance of the collective “choice.”
So if not now, when?