Book Review - The Twilight of Equality? by Lisa Duggan


The US, as a model competition state in Philip Cerny's memorable phrase, does constitute an appropriate case for a thorough study of the neoliberal agenda enshrined after the deliberate disintegration of welfarism beginning in the 1970s. Since the US is a bastion of capitalism and a perfect example of a economic, social and cultural contradictions, it is not sheer coincidence that this formidable book is being published at this time.

Historian Lisa Duggan began redefining conventions in her acclaimed book Sapphic Slashers: Sex, Violence, and American Modernity. She continues the tradition in this short, descriptive, and energetic, if occasionally overheated, effort which solidifies her status as an expositor of American radical politics. Duggan draws from the tense well of history – in all its potency – to reconstruct the genesis of economic, social, political, and cultural inequalities in America. She shows how the US, by adopting the utopian paradigm of material prosperity for all (or rather the mighty), began to shove aside its welfarist disposition to cater to the voluptuous, largely selfish appetites of corporate interests. But this move was not an attempt to reallocate scarce resources as claimed; rather, it was a blatant struggle to uphold the interests of a select few and to institute a power play dominated by neoliberal actors.

Duggan is analytically on-target when she brings to light the fissures that form when the 'public' is systematically differentiated from the 'private' in state, economic, familial, and civil societal spheres. The 'public' arena as viewed by neoliberal politics is emphatically the state and its apparatuses, whilst the 'private' dimension is the family. Not surprisingly, this distinction would go on to create a false separation of the cultural from the economic. By viewing the economic as synonymous with the 'private,' the former is heralded and given unprecedented dominance while the latter is obscured, deemphasized or outrightly belittled.

Three developments would arise from these events. First, the dualistic construction of publicness/privateness catalyzes the neoliberal order’s superficial vision of 'reform' without the democratization of inclusion – an arrangement which obfuscates an understanding of changing conceptualizations of identity.

Second, consideration is given neither to the disenfranchised, disparaged and delineated 'other' nor to the realities of forcefully ebbing equality, racism, genderism, and sexuality-based oppression, simplified and softened by rhetorics of economic or political reordering.

Third, and most importantly, a distinction would materialize between the once unbroken continuum of economic and identity politics, and thus spawn epileptic crises in the realm of affirmative and corrective activism. Duggan shows how the separation between the economic, political, and cultural has created a militating gap and rigid dichotomies in progressive-left politics. These opposing camps are manifested in such forms: 'economic vs. cultural, universal vs. identity-based, distribution vs. recognition-oriented, local or national vs. global branches.'

In a characteristic manner, Duggan’s far-reaching, radical point of view takes on sharply pedagogical and reductive analyses of left politics. Her narration could be irritatingly opinionated in some respects but overall brilliantly bold and coherent. She rebuts the puritanical and the implicit, and makes a potent case for various hues of the unrepresented or underrepresented in American politics.

Nothing in The Twilight of Equality? is out of reach for those already familiar with the central ideas – whether it’s the injustices of exclusion, the history of the dismantling of social braces under neoliberal auspices or the complexities of sexual an politics. However, for the often grandiloquent language of her discourse and the highly-charged academic terminologies she employs immodestly, Duggan might appear somewhat abstruse or elevated to the very people she ought to reach the most – those un-Ivory Towerized activists who create tangible quantum effects, change-wise, across the landscape.

Many would probably agree with Lisa Duggan’s cleverly outlined thesis, many more would likely disagree. Regardless, hers is not only a historical-political critique of the contradictions laden in US neoliberal politics, but a socio-cultural evaluation of changes that have taken place in society since the demise of Keynesian-type economics. Duggan is hopeful about the ordering of America’s steps toward 'newly imagined possibilities for equality in the twenty-first century.' No doubt, hers is a sensible kind of hope.

Lisa Duggan The Twilight of Equality? Neoliberalism, Cultural Politics, and the Attack on Democracy Boston, Beacon Press, 2003.

--Akinbola E. Akinwumi is a writer and researcher based in Lagos, Nigeria.

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