Democracy Inc.

Sheldon S. Wolin
2008/2010

Wolin writes that “unlike classical totalitarian regimes, which boasted of their totalitarian character, inverted totalitarianism disclaims its identity.” He notes that “doubtless most Americans would indignantly protest that their political institutions and Constitution are the antithesis of a totalitarian regime.”

The authors of the political crisis books that I’ve been reviewing lately have all had a personal ax to grind — a betrayed idealist, an infantilized cancer patient, an unappreciated academic.

Sheldon S. Wolin avoids some of the invective of  other writers in this set, presenting his case in standard Academicese, but he shares the sense that something’s going fundamentally wrong in American society.

The problem is the corporatist takeover of the political system, and Wolin describes its motives, mechanisms, and meanings in Democracy Inc. — Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism.

Wolin calls the repressive changes instituted under the cover of 9/11 a “paradigm shift” from the partial egalitarianism that resulted from the New Deal, the GI Bill, and the civil and voting rights reforms of the 1960’s. The collapse of the twin towers silenced effective dissent, and the forces of inegalitarian privilege took every advantage.

The key tactic driving the shift to inegaitarianism, Wolin writes — and here we can see the influence Wolin’s ideas have had on Chris Hedges — was to globalize and institutionalize a state of limitless war — and a limitless role for the “just” application of American power:

The new paradigm would display a unique feature, one virtually unknown to previous versions of national identity. It would define the scope of its dominion by postulating an enemy—terrorism— that had no obvious limits, neither temporal nor spatial, nor a single fixed form. Thus the new paradigm introduced a monumental change that redefined national identity, overshadowing “republic” and “democracy.” The “United States,” hitherto a name that denoted the lower half of a continent, now signified a global empire.

Wolin calls the new American order “inverted totalitarianism,” and it results in “managed democracy.”

Totalitarianism typically concentrates power in one person, party, or institution. The present case, Wolin argues, is different:

Inverted totalitarianism, in contrast, while exploiting the authority and resources of the state, gains its dynamic by combining with other forms of power, such as evangelical religions, and most notably by encouraging a symbiotic relationship between traditional government and the system of “private” governance represented by the modern business corporation.

Wolin explains the shift in the focus of power:

In coining the term “inverted totalitarianism” I tried to find a name for a new type of political system, seemingly one driven by abstract totalizing powers, not by personal rule, one that succeeds by encouraging political disengagement rather than mass mobilization, that relies more on “private” media than on public agencies to disseminate propaganda reinforcing the official version of events.

Wolin writes that “unlike classical totalitarian regimes, which boasted of their totalitarian character, inverted totalitarianism disclaims its identity.” He notes that “doubtless most Americans would indignantly protest that their political institutions and Constitution are the antithesis of a totalitarian regime.”

The greatest strength of this “de-focused” power is “political disengagement.” With the trappings of democracy intact, with a permanent enemy to fight, with economic distress turning citizens inward toward self-preservation instead of outward toward greater participation in public affairs, with an intractably even split between red and blue voters, with a ubiquitous consumer culture for distraction and meaningless fulfillments — with all of this, the corporate takeover of power flies under the radar, secure in its anonymity, content to leave the signs of power with others while gathering the real power to itself.

The “genius” of the new system “lies in wielding total power without appearing to, without establishing concentration camps, or enforcing ideological uniformity, or forcibly suppressing dissident elements so long as they remain ineffectual.”

Wolin claims, “Where classic totalitarianism … aimed at fashioning followers rather than citizens, inverted totalitarianism can achieve the same end by furnishing substitutes such as ‘consumer sovereignty’ and ‘shareholder democracy’ that give a ‘sense of participation’ without demands or responsibilities.”

Inverted totalitarianism strives, therefore, for a “managed democracy,” or “democracy lite,” a no-threat version of citizenship that keeps the people away from the power.

Wolin writes, “Classical totalitarianism mobilized its subjects; inverted totalitarianism fragments them.” He asserts that “a main object of managed democracy: the expansion of private (i.e., mainly corporate) power and the selective abdication of governmental responsibility for the well-being of the citizenry.”

The ethos of the twenty-first-century corporation is an antipolitical culture of competition rather than cooperation, of aggrandizement, of besting rivals, and of leaving behind disrupted careers and damaged communities.

Wolin explains that “corporate power and its culture are no longer external forces that occasionally influence policies and legislation. As these have become integral, so the citizenry has become marginal and democracy more manageable.”

The citizenry is reduced to an electorate whose potency consists of choosing among congressional candidates who, prior to campaigning, have demonstrated their “seriousness” by successfully soliciting a million dollars or more from wealthy donors. This rite of passage ensures that the candidate is beholden to corporate power before taking office.

And,

The symbiosis of corporation and governmental institutions and the normalization of corruption are perfectly embodied in the institutionalization of the lobbying industry. In matters of public policy and governmental decision making, lobbying demonstrates how little the actions of the electorate matter.

Wolin argues that managed democracy as he describes it is the key tool by which inverted totalitarianism is achieved:

The symbiosis of corporation and governmental institutions and the normalization of corruption are perfectly embodied in the institutionalization of the lobbying industry. In matters of public policy and governmental decision making, lobbying demonstrates how little the actions of the electorate matter.

This is, of course, depressing stuff — Bread and circuses, with minimum wage bread and reality TV circuses. No wonder people like Chris Hedges and Barbara Ehrenreich are so distressed.

The rest of us shouldn’t be feeling so hot, either!

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