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Inverted totalitarianism: what we’re up against

How to persuade the reader that the actual direction of contemporary politics is toward a political system the very opposite of what the political leadership, the mass media, and think tank oracles claim that it is, the world’s foremost exemplar of democracy?

S.S. Wolin

I said: That [corporations are people] ruling was a nightmare in theory, but even if the SCt had ruled the other way, we’d just get more of what we have now, which is a completely corporation-dominated politics.

Donkeytale responded: That ruling was more than a nightmare in theory. It has huge practical implications. Watch and see.

And I elaborated: . . . corporations already more or less rule this country. The only thing they and theirs’re afraid of at this point is riots and shit like that, so they will occasionally throw the rabble a bone. This is the way it’s been for awhile; we’ve long been post-democracy in the U.S., the death knell was two or three decades ago.

BTW, I’m not saying we had anything more than a ragged, corrupt, semi-democracy from the 1930s to the 1970s, but it seems to me simply a fact that union members had more sway over the political system back then, and for awhile almost 50% of [working] U.S. adults were in unions. But it’s a minor point . . . At this point popular control through the normal electoral channels is close enough to nothing to be meaningless. That’s what matters and will matter going forward, and that all happened before the SCT’s big decision.

Only later did I stumble on Monday’s Chris Hedges essay, Democracy in America Is a Useful Fiction, which is an extended rant/riff on Sheldon Wolin’s Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism. Hedges’ essay is a fiery, intellectually intense deja vu of that little exchange with donk. He begins:

Corporate forces, long before the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, carried out a coup d’état in slow motion. The coup is over. We lost. The ruling is one more judicial effort to streamline mechanisms for corporate control. It exposes the myth of a functioning democracy and the triumph of corporate power. But it does not significantly alter the political landscape. The corporate state is firmly cemented in place.

The fiction of democracy remains useful, not only for corporations, but for our bankrupt liberal class. If the fiction is seriously challenged, liberals will be forced to consider actual resistance, which will be neither pleasant nor easy. As long as a democratic facade exists, liberals can engage in an empty moral posturing that requires little sacrifice or commitment. They can be the self-appointed scolds of the Democratic Party, acting as if they are part of the debate and feel vindicated by their cries of protest.

Here’s another great paragraph by Hedges derived from Wolin:

Hollywood, the news industry and television, all corporate controlled, have become instruments of inverted totalitarianism. They censor or ridicule those who critique or challenge corporate structures and assumptions. They saturate the airwaves with manufactured controversy, whether it is Tiger Woods or the dispute between Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien. They manipulate images to make us confuse how we are made to feel with knowledge, which is how Barack Obama became president. And the draconian internal control employed by the Department of Homeland Security, the military and the police over any form of popular dissent, coupled with the corporate media’s censorship, does for inverted totalitarianism what thugs and bonfires of books do in classical totalitarian regimes.

Read it, it’s a fantabulous consciousness raising rant! I’m going out and getting the Wolin book, myself. Chalmers Johnson wrote an enlightening and enthusiastic essay of Wolin’s book back in May, 2008. (A minor point, btw, is that Wolin’s sense of the ‘real democracy-ness’ of the New Deal days matches my own) (emphasis added):

. . . Wolin introduces three new concepts to help analyze what we have lost as a nation. His master idea is "inverted totalitarianism," which is reinforced by two subordinate notions that accompany and promote it — "managed democracy" and "Superpower," the latter always capitalized and used without a direct article. . . .

Wolin writes, "Our thesis is this: it is possible for a form of totalitarianism, different from the classical one, to evolve from a putatively ‘strong democracy’ instead of a ‘failed’ one." His understanding of democracy is classical but also populist, anti-elitist and only slightly represented in the Constitution of the United States. "Democracy," he writes, "is about the conditions that make it possible for ordinary people to better their lives by becoming political beings and by making power responsive to their hopes and needs." It depends on the existence of a demos — "a politically engaged and empowered citizenry, one that voted, deliberated, and occupied all branches of public office." Wolin argues that to the extent the United States on occasion came close to genuine democracy, it was because its citizens struggled against and momentarily defeated the elitism that was written into the Constitution.

"No working man or ordinary farmer or shopkeeper," Wolin points out, "helped to write the Constitution." He argues, "The American political system was not born a democracy, but born with a bias against democracy. It was constructed by those who were either skeptical about democracy or hostile to it. Democratic advance proved to be slow, uphill, forever incomplete. . . ." Wolin can easily control his enthusiasm for James Madison, the primary author of the Constitution, and he sees the New Deal as perhaps the only period of American history in which rule by a true demos prevailed. . . .

On inverted totalitarianism’s "self-pacifying" university campuses compared with the usual intellectual turmoil surrounding independent centers of learning, Wolin writes, "Through a combination of governmental contracts, corporate and foundation funds, joint projects involving university and corporate researchers, and wealthy individual donors, universities (especially so-called research universities), intellectuals, scholars, and researchers have been seamlessly integrated into the system. No books burned, no refugee Einsteins. . . ."

The main social sectors promoting and reinforcing this modern Shangri-La are corporate power, which is in charge of managed democracy, and the military-industrial complex, which is in charge of Superpower. The main objectives of managed democracy are to increase the profits of large corporations, dismantle the institutions of social democracy (Social Security, unions, welfare, public health services, public housing and so forth), and roll back the social and political ideals of the New Deal. Its primary tool is privatization. Managed democracy aims at the "selective abdication of governmental responsibility for the well-being of the citizenry" under cover of improving "efficiency" and cost-cutting.

Johnson describes Wolin’s surprisingly optimistic conclusions and his own, far less so:

Toward the end of his study he produces a wish list of things that should be done to ward off the disaster of inverted totalitarianism: "rolling back the empire, rolling back the practices of managed democracy; returning to the idea and practices of international cooperation rather than the dogmas of globalization and preemptive strikes; restoring and strengthening environmental protections; reinvigorating populist politics [yada yada] and rolling back the distortions of a tax code that toadies to the wealthy and corporate power."

Unfortunately, this is more a guide to what has gone wrong than a statement of how to fix it, particularly since Wolin believes that our political system is "shot through with corruption and awash in contributions primarily from wealthy and corporate donors." It is extremely unlikely that our party apparatus will work to bring the military-industrial complex and the 16 secret intelligence agencies under democratic control. Nonetheless, once the United States has followed the classical totalitarianisms into the dustbin of history, Wolin’s analysis will stand as one of the best discourses on where we went wrong.

Consider reading both essays and maybe buying the book. I think Wolin’s perspective (along with his new vocabulary) may be the first satisfyingly complete grok of the deep, systemic ‘democracy problem’ we’ve all seen most clearly since 2000 in the U.S.

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