May 5, 2011
Review of Democracy Inc.
A friend of mine recently remarked she currently views a lot of parallels with the totalitarianism she sees developing and manifesting itself in the United States with what she saw when as a young woman the Nazi took over her native Germany. This confirms this reviewers opinion that America has become a “Free Country.” One is “Free” to do what he or she is told!
In his monumental work, Democracy Inc (Princeton University Press 2008), Sheldon S. Wolin explains and shows how “Inverted Totalitarianism” is taking over the United States. This is a three year old book; however, it is as important to review it now as when it first appeared because with the Democrat President Barack Obama a seamless transition has taken place from the Republican President George W. Bush as noted by A. Noam Chomsky.
Wolin convincingly shows how corporate America has taken over the United States Federal government, and how the poor turn out for elections is encouraged by the two party system in conjugation with a controlled media that feeds on entertainment and not news, and because of the huge sums of money now necessary to run for public office, encourages the lobbying and corruption by corporate America endemic in Washington politics. This is truer now than ever because to a large extent, corporate America has been moved into the corridors of power in Washington to a much greater extent than at any time in the nations history. This takes place at a time with the wealth gap between the wealthy and the rest of the population has turned into a chasm.
In this ponderous book Wolin delves into the historical precedents which have allowed the elites to run the country except for short periods of time. Now that the United States of America, the alleged oldest and leading “Democracy” in the world, has become the only “Superpower” left in the world, surely the world will be a better and safer place! Unfortunately, that is not the case. Superpower signifies the emergence of a new system. Its guiding purposes are not democratic ones of promoting the well-being of the citizens or involving them in political processes. The new identity and how it is to be measured were stated by the Bush Administration: “The United States possesses unprecedented —and unequaled—strength and influence in the world.”
Implicit in that declaration is a reformulation of the nation’s identity; it stands for sheer power, economic and military, that is measured by a global standard rather than the nation’s constitution: freed not only from constitutional democracy but from any truly political character.
Inverted totalitarianism, the true face of Superpower, represents a blend of powers that includes modern as well as archaic ones. It comprises the business corporation, the organization of science for continuous advance, and the systematic conversion of new scientific knowledge into new technological applications, especially military ones. This presumes almost unlimited development. That dynamic governs economic and political behavior, the pursuit of knowledge, the production of culture and military weaponry.
Democracy proposes a radically different conception of power. Democracy is first and foremost about equality: equality of power and equality of sharing in the benefits and values made possible by social cooperation. Democracy is no more compatible with world domination than is “the political,” which is first and foremost about preserving commonality while legitimating and reconciling differences. Both democracy and the political become distorted when the scales are continually expanded. An enlarged spatial scale both requires and promotes a technology of power that can make occupation and rule effective.
Where classic totalitarianism—whether of the German, Italian or Soviet type—aimed at fashioning followers rather than citizens, inverted totalitarianism can achieve the same end by furnishing substitutes that give a “sense of participation” without demands or responsibilities. An inverted regime prefers a citizenry that is uncritically complicit rather than involved. President Bush’s first words to the citizenry after 9/11 were not an appeal for sacrifice in a common cause but “unite, consume, fly.”
Elements of inverted totalitarianism could not crystallize in the absence of a stimulus that would rouse the apathetic just enough to gain their support and obedience. The threat of terrorism supplied that element. It could evoke fear and obedience on demand “according to unverified reports, et cetera” –without causing paralysis or skepticism.
The global pursuits of Superpower have a paradoxical effect. They cause the “homeland” to appear shrunken in comparison with its global status Lilliputian compared to the Gulliver of Superpower. The usage “Homeland” itself is revealing of a certain sense of diminution, of reduction. Somehow the inequalities of the world are not projected into the “homeland.” The refinement of methods of controlling “crowds” or the denial of due process to American citizens is, at worst, an aberration rather than a prerequisite of Superpower and a contribution to inverted totalitarianism. Empire and Superpower undermine and implicitly oppose two presumably fundamental principles of American political ideology: that the Constitution provides the standard for a government of limited powers and that American governance and politics are democratic.
Despite the incongruity and inherent tensions between unlimited global hegemony and constitutionally limited domestic power, between arbitrary power projected abroad (unilateralism, preemptive war) and democratic power responsible to the citizenry at home, the implications of Superpower, imperial power, and globalizing capital for democracy and constitutionality have not been publicly confronted.
Unlike the classical totalitarian regimes of Hitler and Mussolini—which toppled by military defeat and, most crucially, vanished shortly thereafter, leaving few traces—inverted totalitarianism will likely survive military defeat and public scorn.
In sixteenth century England certain lands were designated as “Commons,” land to be used by everyone, including the common unpropertied man; nevertheless, this land largely paid for by taxes collected from the masses of people was proceeded to be fenced off and hedges placed and bridges restricting access built by nobles. What had been public started down the road of privatization.
Popular political movement throughout America’s history have worked towards the goal of opening up politics in America to everyone, not just the moneyed elites represented by the historical precedents of James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, two founding fathers firmly opposed to Democracy. Slowly politics in the country has opened up to everyone where women and minorities now vote, and where Senators are now elected and not appointed by state legislatures.
In recent decades there has been a steady and relentless effort to reverse “common” gains, to privatize public functions, notably education, welfare programs, administration of prisons, military operations, postal services, even space travel. In addition to the strong push toward privatizing Social Security, there are persistent efforts to privatize public lands or exploit their resources. Most instances of privatization reverse achievements originally gained in the face of determined opposition from the very forces now operating or administering them.
The privatization of public services and functions manifest the steady evolution of corporate power into a political form, into an integral, even dominant partner with the state. It marks the transformation of American politics and values and political culture, from a system in which democratic practices and values were, if not defining, at least major contributory elements, to one where the remaining democratic accomplishments of the state and its populists programs are being systematically dismantled. It is notable that the current economic collapse followed the destruction and gutting of banking regulation.
It is all too evident that political campaigns, elections, legislation, and even judgeships have become so dependent on private funds, especially from wealthy and corporate donors, that our politics, too is being enclosed and the citizenry largely excluded. The tragedy is that social programs, government refutation of corporate excesses, environmental safeguards, and public education were commonalities won by dint of prolonged struggles against powerful resistance; the gains encouraged hope that democratic goals reflecting the actualities of everyday life were achievable, Privatizing these hard won gains has now become a method whereby inverted totalitarianism manifests itself in everyday life whereby a child cannot attend school unless he or she can prove that they vaccinated, and since “No Child Is Left Behind,” it insures that military recruiting takes place in every school receiving federal funds, not to mention that higher education has to a large extent been priced out of the range of the ordinary citizen.
In the United States the late twentieth-century elites shaped a politics and culture by which the stunting of popular rationality became an art form devised to solve the problem created by the admission of the masses into political life and the comparatively high levels of popular participation in electoral politics around the turn into the twentieth century. The aim was a new kind of electorate, a hybrid creation, part cinematic and part consumer. Like a movie or TV audience, it would be credulous, nurtured on the unreality of images on the screen, the impossible feats and situations depicted, or the promise of personal transformation by a new product. In this the elites were abetted by the long-standing American tradition of dramatic evangelism and its fostering of collective fervor and popular fantasies of the miraculous. It is no leap of faith from the camp meetings of the nineteenth century and the Billy Sundays of the twentieth to the politically savvy televangelist of the twenty-first century mega church.
In a world where the incredible has become banal, public rationality is over-matched. In 2006, two years after the lies of Saddam’s WMDs had been exposed, the percentage of Americans who continued to believe there were such weapons in Iraq increased from 35 to 50 percent, and a near majority believed in links between Saddam and al Qaeda. Lack of evidence notwithstanding.
The credulousness that displaces public rationality tends to relax elite rationality so that elites are tempted by grandiose objectives and unscrupulous means. The mayhem depicted on screens certainly worked not to deter but to invite official forbearance, even approval, for torture, that is, for ignoring normal practice. The temptation of “shock and awe,” of actually employing weapons of mass destruction seems not to deter elites or to violate the sensibilities of citizens conditioned to the violence in most action movies, contemporary Baghdad or Afghanistan or Pakistan seems just another cinematic episode in a long-run series.
How can elite calculation promote mass irrationality which feeds elite miscalculation? How can elites able to manipulate the masses, shape them into an irrational electorate, and then capitalize on them? The answer lies in turning Madison’s theory of interest on its head and constructing artificial majorities. Instead of discouraging “factions” from forming a majority, elites temporarily assemble or rally diverse interests without integrating them. Instead of seeking ways to block the coalescence of diverse interests, they employ the strategy of “targeting” them with a “message.” That message without necessarily promising to bestow the specific benefits the group might want, appeals to some broad “value”—for instance, a blue-collar “Reagan Democrat” might be attracted by appeals to patriotism that are, at the same time, silent about promoting labor’s right to organize.
Elites and their corporate sponsors use fear, keeping a steady drumbeat going, being forced to remove your shoes before you can board and airplane to create an inverted totalitarianism, and Democracy Inc. shows how this is done and comes about. This book is well researched and written; however, it is not an easy book to read and should be considered a book for the serious student of politics, though if one makes the effort to read it, they will be rewarded.
At the end of the book Wolin holds out hope to the long suffering American public. His solution is local political involvement, and he notes how effective the local response was after the devastation of Katrina and how disastrous was the Federal response. Wolin does not acknowledge that the extreme right wing of the Republican party has used just such tactics to set the country along such a dead end path it now follows. Wolin makes a strong case for the American public to reclaim the air waves and the broadcast media which “should be publicly owned because it has such a far reaching impact on American thought all out of portion to the influence it should have, and because it is now corporately owned, an obvious and blatant bias is built into it.