and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism
nolead begins By Sheldon S. Wolin
Princeton University Press. 376 pp. $29.95
nolead ends nolead begins
Reviewed by Chris Hedges
The United States, if it does not radically alter course, will become a totalitarian state. That is the argument of Sheldon S. Wolin's
This is no political screed. It is a brilliant, nuanced, and detailed dissection of the abject failings of the American political system by one of the nation's preeminent political theorists. It is a work that will rank as one of the most important pieces of political philosophy of the new century. By the time Wolin, who taught political philosophy at Berkeley and Princeton, is finished, it is clear that unless Barack Obama radically restructures corporate and military industrial power, our democracy is doomed.
Wolin uses the term inverted totalitarianism to describe our descent into despotism. "Inverted" totalitarianism does not revolve around a demagogue or charismatic leader, as "classical" kinds of totalitarianism do. The power centers of inverted totalitarianism are corporate and usually anonymous. It does not openly discredit democracy. It pays homage to the democratic ideal, patriotism, and the Constitution while quietly subverting democratic institutions.
The New Deal was the closest the nation came to a popular democracy, according to Wolin. But the rise of the country as a superpower after World War II led, in Wolin's eyes, to an increasingly tamed or "managed democracy." The unchecked power of a corporate elite made possible inverted totalitarianism. It has developed "imperceptibly," he writes, "unpremeditatedly, and in seeming unbroken continuity with the nation's political traditions."
In inverted totalitarianism, pliant legislators are elected by citizens - but they are beholden to armies of corporate lobbyists. Corporate media, which control nearly everything we read, watch or hear, lock out critics of corporate power (as an example, Wolin names Ralph Nader) and imposes a bland uniformity of opinion.
In totalitarian regimes such as Nazi fascism or Soviet communism, economics was subordinate to politics. "Under inverted totalitarianism," writes Wolin, "the reverse is true: economics dominates politics - and with that domination come different forms of ruthlessness."
It is hard to argue with Wolin's thesis, especially as hundreds of billions in taxpayer dollars are funneled to Wall Street while the rest of us wonder if we will have a job next month.
"The new system, inverted totalitarianism, is one that professes to be the opposite of what, in fact, it is," Wolin writes. "It disclaims its real identity, trusting that its deviations will become normalized as 'change.' "
Wolin notes that the framers of the Constitution distrusted and often feared popular democracy. They established constitutional restraints - the Electoral College is one - to protect the power of the elite. The rise of democracy was a slow, arduous struggle, decade after decade, that pitted citizens against the elite. The republic existed for three-quarters of a century before the formal end of slavery. It was an additional 100 years before black Americans were assured their voting rights. It was not until the 20th century that women gained the right to vote and trade unions were able to engage in collective bargaining.
"Far from being innate," Wolin writes, "democracy in America has gone against the grain, against the very forms by which the political and economic power of the country has been and continues to be ordered."
The hijacking of government by corporations has permitted the military-industrial complex (which, in a clever sleight of hand, is no longer considered part of the government) to bleed the country. "Big government may be the problem," Wolin quips, "but military is the solution." The social programs implanted by the New Deal have been reduced or eliminated as part of the "selective abdication of governmental responsibility for the well-being of the citizenry" under cover of cost-cutting and improving "efficiency." The official U.S. defense budget for fiscal year 2008 is $623 billion. The next closest national military budget is China's, at $65 billion, according to the Central Intelligence Agency. And yet, even in the midst of our economic collapse, the two main political parties refuse to challenge the right of the military-industrial complex to gorge itself on taxpayer dollars.
Imperialism and democracy are, Wolin writes, incompatible. But imperial politics is what we have, and since our leaders refuse to limit the resources devoted to sustaining empire, democracy will perish.
"Imperial politics represents the conquest of domestic politics and the latter's conversion into a crucial element of inverted totalitarianism," Wolin writes. "It makes no sense to ask how the democratic citizen could 'participate' substantively in imperial politics; hence it is not surprising that the subject of empire is taboo in electoral debates."
Wolin has only one blind spot, a minor one. He believes that no one actively challenges the way things are because the lives of ordinary people are "materially tolerable and safer" in the United States. But this ignores what is happening to consumers and working people in the present economic downturn. As tens of thousands of workers join the ranks of the unemployed daily, as they watch helplessly as their homes are foreclosed on, and as they are unable to pay for health insurance, they could easily turn inverted totalitarianism into classical totalitarianism. And demagogues too often crawl up out of the slime to prey on those in despair during a crisis.