Lisa Duggan
Beacon Press, 2003

Reviewed by María Amelia Viteri, Ph.D. candidate in Social Anthropology at American University

The modern debate around notions of democracy has been characterized by an ideological struggle between the liberal democratic idea of liberty espoused by John Locke and the civic republicanism put forth by Jean-Jacques Rousseau (Vatter, 2000).

Within this framework, Lisa Duggan, the author of The Twilight of Equality? opens a space to understand the politics within the representation of power embedded in the negotiation of identities and the ‘naturalization’ of genders. This book explores how neoliberalism and different key authors have used, explored, omitted and further exacerbate the analysis within the domain of the “culture wars” and the search for equality. This is done by looking at history, specific case studies, and cultural politics in the United States and its implications in foreign policies.

Moreover, Twilight of Equality? provides an exhaustive account of the different stands in which neoliberalism has been constructed, through a wide-ranging analysis on how the different social, economic and political stances have come together to support it. The telling of this historical background enables the reader to position himself/herself within an array of identity markers, public/private dichotomies, and situational rhetoric.

In this context, a key focus of the book is a discussion of the gap between cultural and identity issues taken within a political economy framework and the assumptions constructed thereby. Further exploration of the subject allows the reader to easily grasp the different concepts derived from binary oppositions such as public/private, state/family, and culture/nature. The public/domestic dichotomy, for example, has situated all women-related biological processes within roles associated with them, when analyzed from a western perspective.

In doing so, Duggan moves the discussion beyond an inequality issue attached to welfare policies to a global framework, looking at its implications in the so-called developing countries, where a space for cultural politics is also provided. For instance, the rhetoric created around the idea of personal responsibility extensively promoted by neoliberalism – which associates unnecessary goods accumulation with well-being – has been used to shape notions around productivity and diversity. The redefinition of these concepts has further increased hierarchies of race, gender and sexuality not only in the United States but worldwide: material goals and identity politics are not separated but used to obscure apparently neutral economic policy.

Using the example of a controversy that arose during a conference in 1997, Duggan illustrates how the dynamics of power and control were imposed by “new democrats”, and how the neoliberalism agenda has been connected to politics in order to further reinforce and promote a moralistic/punitive view of sex that exacerbates definitions of identity. The conference, sponsored by the Women’s Studies Program at the State of New York (SUNY), emphasized issues of women’s sexuality, diversity and dissent. Held as part of a relatively ordinary annual conference at SUNY New Paltz, “Revolting Behavior: the Challenges of Women’s Sexual Freedom” triggered a backlash by conservative republicans who used the conference as a way to mobilize ideas of morality to attack sexual libertinage. The French sociologist and philosopher Pierre Bourdieu (1997), for example, also exhaustively discusses how institutions reinforce power relations within a social network that serves only the wealthy, through mechanisms that leave little space for agency or free-will, as was evident in the outcry after the SUNY conference.

Duggan further demonstrates this point in her discussion of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Towers and the Pentagon, using them as a framework to explain the beginning of a mainstream discourse within the dominant national lesbian and gay civil rights organizations. This discourse is based on superficial notions of multiculturalism and a double-voice rhetoric that distances itself from progressive claims on challenging hetero-normativity –the idea that sexual intercourse takes place only between a man and a woman, and consequently all other behavior is seen as deviant.

The implications of 9-11 a posteriori were manifested in a redirection of this agenda toward the inclusion of the gay population in the military and in marriage, underscoring the traditional definition of nuclear family. Instead of examining the notions embedded within family and the domestic in relation to neoliberalism as a system, the Independent Gay Forum (IGF) sought for a new gay paradigm based on a homo-normativity that further supported the neoliberal agenda.

In this sense, marriage is seen as a strategy for privatizing gay politics and culture for the new neoliberal world order, with supporters such as Andrew Sullivan who further proclaim a public inculcation of “conservative goods” (values). Through discourses such as Sullivan’s, equality is redefined against the civil rights agenda, and turns the discussion away from contesting the meanings behind individual liberty. This implies that personal responsibility and equality will be redefined as a gay identity based on nature-nurture notions.

Duggan goes on to analyze other discourses (those by Naomi Klein, Todd Gitlin and Richard Rorty) taken within a normative media frame, to reveal the social movement’s political arena and the need to carefully understand neoliberal politics in relation to coexisting and shifting relations of power along multiple hierarchies, which will lead to the defeat of nationalist, unequal policies built on the notion of the Other. This notion governs and regulates access to a variety of resources including money, knowledge, freedom, reproduction, leisure time, recreation and pleasure. Political economy must therefore be understood as operating through racial, gendered, and sexual hierarchies. Duggan uses Nancy Fraser’s distinction between the politics of recognition and the politics of redistribution, as well as Judith Butler’s argument based on sexual regulation as the core component in historically changing modes of economic distribution, to illustrate socialist and feminist-left writers and their influence on the construction of an inclusive cultural, social and identity politics.

In her closing section, Duggan contemplates the need to find ways of thinking, speaking, writing and acting that account for other people’s struggles for social justice in a dialogic rather than pedagogical search for social justice. Calls for action will rest on the urgent need to change the signifier and the significant in identity politics, which can be manifested as a redefinition of modern paradigms in an effort to challenge the neoliberalism course of action and its dangerous outcomes.

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1977. Outline of a Theory of Practice. Trans. by Richard Nice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Vatter, Miguel E. 2000. Between Form and Event: Machiavelli’s Theory of Political Freedom. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers Group.

María Amelia Viteri is a Ph.D. candidate in Social Anthropology with a concentration in Race, Gender and Social Justice at American University. Her current research project is “Sex Work: Dichotomies Under Pleasure.”

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