Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism By Sheldon Wolin
It is by now commonplace to observe that democracy is in a weakened state in the United States. But could it be that the U.S. is no longer a democracy at all, if it ever truly was? According to Princeton emeritus political scientist Sheldon Wolin’s chilling new volume Democracy, Inc: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism (2008), the United States is becoming a totalitarian state posing as a democracy. Under the rules of what Wolin calls “inverted totalitarianism,” corporate and state power have become deeply “co-joined” and practically “unbridled.” The popular majority of the citizenry — the People — in whose name U.S. “democracy” purports to function is politically uninterested, infantilized, obedient, distracted, and divided. An increasingly spectator-ized and subordinate public is shepherded by the professional political class across a painfully narrow business- and Empire-friendly field of political, policy, and ideological “choices.” Those harshly limited options are presented in periodic superficial, candidate-centered and corporate-crafted elections that function as anti-democratic exercises in capitalist marketing and managerial control. These spectacular rolling extravaganzas privilege candidate image and other trivial matters over substantive questions of policy and ideology, with campaign consultants and advertisers selling candidates like they sell candy or cars. They help keep the interrelated issues of the ever-growing rich-poor gap, corporate power, and imperial militarism (the last two topics are taboo in “mainstream” U.S. political life) “off the table” of acceptable debate and public scrutiny even though they are of primary interest to most American citizens. By Wolin’s account:
The citizenry, supposedly the source of governmental power and authority as well as participant, has been replaced by the ‘electorate,’ that is, by voters who acquire a political life at election time. During the intervals between elections the political existence of the citizenry is relegated to a shadow-citizenship of virtual participation. Instead of participating in power, the virtual citizen is invited to have ‘opinions’: measurable responses to questions predesigned to elicit them. (p. 59)
…In elections parties set out to mobilize the citizen-as-voter, to define political obligation as fulfilled by the casting of a vote. Afterwards, post-election politics of lobbying, repaying donors, and promoting corporate interests — the real players — takes over. The effect is to demobilize the citizenry, to teach them not to be involved or to ponder matters that are either settled or beyond their efficacy. (p. 205)
Once votes have been counted (or not) in America’s totalitarian system, the people” fade back into the woodwork. Politicians from both sides of the nation’s corporate-sponsored “one-and-a-half party system” — the more explicitly authoritarian Republicans or the “inauthentic opposition” advanced by neoliberal corporate Democrats (whose 2004 presidential candidate made a point of stating his opposition to the redistribution of wealth) — proceed to do precisely what the American ex-citizenry wishes them not to do. They advance empire, inequality, and repression, concentrating riches and power ever further upward in what has long been the industrialized world’s most unequal and wealth-top-heavy society.
American “democracy” has been “domesticated” by modern managerial business technique. Its wild democratic risk has been removed for and by the Few. It has been quietly subsumed by corporation, whose mission is to guarantee returns on capital by minimizing chance and maintaining a “stable” environment (including a safely supine domestic population) for investors. Democracy has been incorporated.
In this pseudo-democratic Brave New America, corporate power no longer answers to political controls. The needs of the popular majority are relentlessly subordinated to the “quest for ‘economic growth’” and to the foreign policy elite’s imperial perceptions of “Superpower’s” needs and the so-called “national interest.” “Economic growth” and “national interest” are code words for whatever capital wants and cloak the regular state-capitalist practice of funneling wealth and power from the Many to the Few. The demoted “people” are kept in perpetual fear and prodded to cower under the umbrella of the National Insecurity State by an endless so-called “War on Terror,” heir to the imperial Cold War. The Few steal elections, shred civil liberties, and launch illegal, immoral, and aggressive wars and occupations without serious fear of popular resistance. Young black males — formerly a leading source of protest — are dragooned into the burgeoning mass incarceration state. The use of state power to alleviate poverty and ameliorate inequality is shamed as dangerous public overreach but the use of that power to shamelessly advance corporate interests and pay off big money election investors is celebrated in the ironic name of the “free market.” Working peoples’ living standards are savagely rolled back and working-class sons and daughters are shipped off to kill and die in bloody campaigns of colonial conquest — wars that are waged on false pretexts and serve the interests of the Few while the costs are spread across society and fall with special force on the poor. It’s a “Hood-Robin” system.
Policy-relevant political power is “monopolized by the Few,” who “possess the skills, resources, and focused time that enables them to impose their will on a society the vast majority of whose members are overburdened and distracted by the demands of day-to-day survival” (p. 277). Those demands grow ever more difficult as corporate and imperial masters deepen their stranglehold over American politics, policy, culture, and “life.” It’s a vicious circle that threatens to blow out democracy’s last glowing embers in the “land of the free.”
This American “totalitarianism” promotes more than just specific policies and practices that serve the corporate and financial “elite.” It also advances a “totalizing” and authoritarian notion of the perfect and final society. The 2002 National Security Strategy of the United States defines America’s grand historical mission as advancing “freedom” and the “single sustainable model of for national success: freedom, democracy, and free enterprise” along with “development, free trade, and free markets.” As Wolin notes, “the freedoms dangled before the unfree are, in reality, disguised power” — the heavily state-protected and publicly subsidized power of multinational corporations, global high finance, and the military empire required to advance and protect capitalist profit (”development”) on a global scale. “When the NSS document presents the ‘free market’ as one of the three components of the ideal political system,” Wolin observes, “the market is a surrogate, a stand-in for globalization/empire.” (p. 85)
And the deeply authoritarian reality of empire, Wolin notes, is an unmentionable topic under American totalitarianism.. “The subject of [U.S.] empire,” Wolin observers, “ is taboo in [U.S. political] debate. No major politician or party has so much as publicly remarked on the existence of an American empire.” (p. 192)
Brave New America
Wolin calls the American pseudo-democratic political system “inverted totalitarianism” to differentiate it from the openly statist totalitarianism of classic European fascism (principally German Nazism) and Soviet Stalinism. The earlier totalitarian systems mobilized millions to rally behind centralized state power and a single personal ruler. They explicitly and rapidly demolished democratic and parliamentary institutions and elevated personalized state rule over markets and private profit.
The American model, by contrast, has evolved more slowly and under the guise — and in the name of — of democratic institutions and ideals, without open authoritarian intent. It “succeeds by encouraging political disengagement rather than mass mobilization.” It “relies more on ‘private’ media than on public agencies to disseminate propaganda reinforcing the official version of events.” (p. 44) It makes “capitalism” its official “regime ideology,” trumpeting the virtues of “free markets,” “free trade,” and “free enterprise” (code words for authoritarian state-capitalist corporate-managerial rule), which are falsely conflated “democracy.”
“Inverted totalitarianism” wraps itself in the language and lingering, watered-down legacy of democratic freedom and constitutionalism. It advances “leaders” who are the products but not the architects of the system. It does not crush popular government under the iron heel of dictatorship but rather renders democracy ever-more feckless and irrelevant through regular systemic corruption, popular exhaustion, cultural privatism, popular division/diversion, mass misinformation, and mass entertainment.
Unlike classic 20th century fascist and Soviet (red fascist) totalitarianism, it requires no great sacrifice or strength on the part of its subject populace. It creates a “soft,” childish, and fearful citizenry that is asked mainly to buy things, to watch their telescreens (which largely filter and package the world in terms fit for corporate and imperial hegemony), and perhaps to occasionally vote for its favorite corporate-vetted and “misrepresentative” political candidates every few years.
“Inverted totalitarianism’s” ideal “good Americans” pretty much stay at work, home, the bank, and the mall. They are happy to leave big political and policy decisions and public affairs to designated experts and protectors from the professional political class that has emerged to serve the combined and interrelated interests of the corporate and imperial Few. In Wolin’s view, they represent the corporate-era fulfillment of the British political philosopher Thomas Hobbes’ arch-authoritarian notion — developed in Hobbes’s book Leviathan (1651) — of the good society as one that combines the absolute power of the ruler with a populace that loathes and runs from political engagement:
Leviathan was the first image of superpower and the first intimation of the kind of privatized citizen congenial with its requirements, the citizen who finds politics a distraction to be avoided, who if denied ‘a hand in public business,’ remains convinced that taking an active part means to ‘to hate and be hated,’ ‘without any benefit,’ and ‘to neglect the affairs of [his] own family.’ Hobbes had not only foreseen the power possibilities in the oxymoron of private citizen, but exploited them to prevent sovereign power from being shared among its subjects. Hobbes reasoned that if individuals were protected in their interests and positively encouraged by the state to pursue the wholeheartedly, subject only to laws designed to safeguard them from the unlawful acts of others, then they would soon recognize that political participation was superfluous, expendable, not a rational choice. Civic indifference was thus elevated to a form of rational virtue,… [justifying the emergence of] an apolitical citizenry… [immersed in] private concerns.” (p.75)
Classic totalitarianism assembled, rallied, and projected the “masses.” It beat up, intimidated, arrested, tortured, and killed dissenters. By contrast, the American model of totalitarianism demobilizes and inverts the populace, keeping it (us) focused on personal, private, and family concerns — and on its corporate telescreens. Antiwar and social justice activists don’t generally have to be beaten and jailed; they are deleted and occasionally mocked and marginalized on the Ten O’ Clock News, leaving little mark on degraded public perceptions and history.
“Inverted totalitarianism’s” pacified, apathetic, ignorant, and deceived public is content to leave history to be made by supposedly wise and benevolent masters like Dick Cheney, Karl Rove, James Baker, and Donald Rumsfeld, who follow in the Nazis’ footsteps by launching criminal and supposedly “preventive” wars of aggression sold on brazenly false pretexts that are dutifully advanced by dominant media, including the Orwellian claim to be exporting democracy through colonial conquest. Since the Few learned from Vietnam not to send a citizen’s army into bloody colonial “service,” today’s wars are fought by a safely segregated caste of mostly working class imperial mercenaries.
In Brave New America, the People do not need to be hardened and rallied to inflict violence on designated ideological and ethnic enemies of the state at home or abroad. Their main jobs are to buy stuff, watch their telescreens and pursue their private interests. The definition of meaningful popular participation in the polity is reduced largely to casting an occasional vote in carefully crafted elections where none of the candidates are foolish enough to think they could run viably funded and broadcast campaigns in the name of the social-democratic and anti-imperial beliefs that most Americans privately and passively tell pollsters they hold. Meanwhile the ex-citizenry is encouraged to believe that it is in charge of the nation.
There is no serious push back in the corporate media, naturally enough, or even in the universities, since “the Academy ha[s] become self-pacifying.” (p. 68) As for the Democrats, Wolin observes that they offer no real or relevant opposition to the more explicitly plutocratic and militarist despotism of the Republicans. If anything, Wolin argues, the Democratic Party deepens “inverted totalitarianism’s” hold by capturing and co-opting reformist impulses within a broadly corporatist framework and by enhancing the illusion of meaningful popular representation within a system designed to keep the populace and democracy at bay:
“The Democrats’ politics might be described as inauthentic opposition in the era of Superpower. Having fended off its reformist elements and disclaimed the label of liberal, [the Democratic Party] is trapped by new rules of the game which dictate that a party exists to win elections rather than to promote a vision of the good society. Accordingly, the party competes for an apolitical segment of the electorate, ‘the undecided,’ and puzzles how best to woo religious zealots. Should Democrats somehow be elected, corporate sponsors make it politically impossible for the new officeholders to alter significantly the direction of society. At best, Democrats might repair some of the damage done to environmental safeguards or to Medicare without substantially reversing the drift rightwards. By offering palliatives, a Democratic administration contributes to plausible denial about the true nature of the system. By fostering an illusion among the powerless classes that the party can make their interests a priority, it pacifies and thereby defines the style of an opposition part in an inverted totalitarian system. In the process it demonstrates the superior cost-effectiveness of inverted totalitarianism over the crude classic versions.” (p. 201)
Capitalism v. Democracy: “The Dictatorship of the Bourgeoisie”
Wolin’s book is not without problems. Its annotation and detailed reference to current and recent events is painfully thin. It spends too much time on classical antiquity and past thinkers (the U.S. Founders, Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Tocqueville) relative to more modern U.S. business and political history and current events. It pays essentially no attention to the concrete empirical record of corporate evolution and rule and narrow-spectrum, business-friendly politics in U.S. history — a record that predates the Progressive Era (1900-1920), when the American philosopher John Dewey rightly proclaimed that U.S. “politics are the shadow cast on society by big business.” As the historian Richard Hofstader noted sixty years ago in his widely read text The American Political Tradition: “the range of vision embraced by the primary contestants in the major [U.S.] parties has always been bounded by the horizons of property and enterprise… They have accepted the economic virtues of capitalist culture as necessary qualities of man… That culture has been intensely nationalistic.”
Wolin seems remarkably unaware of, or unwilling to cite, Left thinkers who have written valuable works on capitalism, imperialism, and the trumping of American and Western “democracy” by concentrated economic and political power. Some of the ignored names that come to mind are Charles Derber (who writes in interesting and informative ways about successive “corporate regimes” that have ruled American politics since the late 19th century), C. Wright Mills, G. William Domhoff, Ralph Milliband, Ellen Meiksens-Wood, Alex Carey (an expert on corporate propaganda’s longstanding war on U.S. democracy), William T. Robinson, Jeff Faux, Joel Bakan, William Greider, David Montgomery, and (last but not least) Noam Chomsky.
Given Wolin’s taste for historical texts and theories on politics, I was disappointed that he did not join Chomsky in citing Aristotle and Thomas Jefferson on the core contradiction between wealth inequality (an inherent characteristic and tendency of capitalism) and democracy. Then there’s the largely invisible (in Wolin’s book) Karl Marx, for whom capitalist democracy, being a system of class rule, amounted to a “dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.” Democracy and capitalism have never mixed and never will, as generations of progressive thinkers have long argued.
Wolin underestimates or ignores the significant extent to which German Nazism reflected and acted on the desires of the German bourgeoisie.
Wolin writes in often excessively abstract and academic language despite his book’s popular, general-audience title. This style cannot help but ironically limit his book’s relevance as an antidote to elitism.
He missed, I think, a good opportunity to capture the often forgotten significance of Aldous Huxley’s novel Brave New World, as relevant to the United States’ particular brand of authoritarianism as George Orwell’s more Soviet-focused Nineteen Eighty Four. In Huxley’s dystopia, corporate-state masters divert people away from meaningful matters of serious public concern, transporting them to politically harmless states of childish amusement, personal preoccupation, and drugged, narcissistic fascination.
Wolin shows no appreciation of left “cultural theory” since Antonio Gramsci and the Frankfurt School, ignoring thinkers (themselves admittedly often hyper-abstract) who contributed critically to the analysis of corporate totalitarianism and capitalist cultural hegemony.
Wolin ignores the large number of Americans who do seem to represent efforts towards a mobilized far-right project. I am thinking here especially of the evangelical “American fascists” that Chris Hedges has warned us about across the vast swaths of so-called “Red State America.” And I can’t escape the possibility that a harder form of more explicitly fascist-like totalitarianism (already experienced by millions of very disproportionately black inmates and permanent felons in the United States’ Prison Nation) awaits Americans who have been softened up by the “inverted” variant Wolin describes.
The iron fist lives on beneath the silk glove of corporate neoliberal paternalism. I wonder how many (if any) mass antiwar or immigrant rights or global justice demonstrations Wolin has attended in the last decades. It is not uncommon to directly confront the reality of state repression right here in the U.S. during such events, as I would guess many Dissident Voice readers can attest. (We shall see how many protestors get tasered, beaten, and perhaps even [we hope not] killed in Denver and St. Paul over the next few weeks).
Last but not least, Wolin’s terminology is problematic. Charles Derber’s more concrete historical notion (developed in his 2005 book Hidden Power) of successive and inherently authoritarian corporate regimes — Derber places us in the age of the “third corporate regime,” dominated by the transnational corporation, aggressive global Empire, and rampant social insecurity at home — is much better than Wolin’s somewhat abstract and potentially bewildering concept of “inverted totalitarianism.” As a Kansas-based progressive- Democratic activist (who prefers to remain anonymous) recently wrote to me in a thoughtful reflection on Wolin’s book:
Wolin’s term ‘totalitarian’ is a fabulous contribution, but to say it is ‘inverted’ is not a viable, easily grasped, understandable label. It is too easily interpreted as ‘opposite.’ I think it is far better to say the corporate regime IS a form of totalitarian governance or is totalitarian via managed, intentional propaganda, apathy, ignorance, passivity, a lack of spare time, and a two-party, money-controlled, corrupt, plutocratic system. If I had to pick one adjective to distinguish American ‘totalitarianism’ from the fascist, violence-based systems of Hitler and Stalin I wouldn’t say ‘inverted’ but would say (ala Huxley) ‘pacified totalitarian’ or ‘propaganda-based totalitarian’ or ‘money-controlled totalitarian.’ ‘Inverted’ seems confusing at best.
Still, Wolin has done some very important and properly dark descriptive work on the United States’ dangerously constricted political culture at this terrible stage in the development of Brave New America. As the liberal political scientist Robert Dahl noted in 1959: “[If] political preferences are simply plugged into the system by leaders [business or other] in order to extract what they want from the system, then the model of plebiscitary democracy is substantially equivalent to the model of totalitarian rule”
That’s pretty much where we are half a century later in “America, the greatest democracy that money can [and did] buy.” In its presidential as in its other elections, Laurence Shoup noted last February, U.S. “democracy” is “at best” a “guided one; at its worst it is a corrupt farce, amounting to manipulation, with the larger population projects of propaganda in a controlled and trivialized electoral process. It is an illusion,” Shoup claims — correctly in my opinion — “that real change can ever come from electing a different ruling class-sponsored candidate” Beneath and beyond the regular, much-ballyhooed election spectacles, wealth and power are concentrated ever-further upward over and above the sadly irrelevant U.S. public’s secretly progressive, social-democratic and anti-imperial policy preferences. Because of this chasm between public opinion and policy, the People find no meaningful institutional and political expression in “Superpower’s” “managed” and “ersatz-,” “pseudo’” and even “anti-”democracy” — thus the reality of its totalitarian nature.
And it is probably useful to have the full authoritarian darkness of this harsh reality acknowledged and described by someone like Wolin, who has long operated in the belly of the beast. He is an Ivy League academician who has long functioned within the elite mainstream of U.S. social science and not on the “lunatic fringe” to which serious left-progressive thinkers are sadly consigned in the American ideological system — consistent with the notion that U.S. government and political culture are totalitarian.
Brave New HOPE?
For what it’s worth, my new book Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics suggests that the ongoing “Obama phenomenon” is more than consistent with Wolin’s bleak thesis. It exposes Barack Obama as a conservative, corporate, militarist Democrat posing as a democratic progressive and suggests that the phenomenon is helping de-mobilize, co-opt, and contain (incorporate) the citizenry at the same time that it may be expanding the electorate.
In the United States’ dangerously narrow, corporate-totalitarian political culture, many people can’t process serious and substantive criticism of the Obama phenomenon from the left as anything but an argument to elect John McCain and/or a purely personal assault on Obama. But my dichotomy is not Obama versus McCain. It is (i) corporate- “managed democracy” versus grassroots popular activism against Dr. Martin Luther King Jr,’s “triple evils that are interrelated” (capitalism, racism, and imperialism) and against other and related evils (sexism, corporate-eco-cide, state terrorism and repression) as well. It is also about the timeworn battle between capitalism and democracy. Understood in terms of these deeper dichotomies and conflicts, what people do for two minutes on the holy day of the quadrennial election spectacle is a secondary matter.
My main concern is that citizens and activists find or maintain some relevant way to be and stay true to the actual historical Left’s commitment to popular resistance and mobilization under either an a McCain or an Obama presidency. And while a conservative corporate-neoliberal Obama victory may be preferable to an extremist and neoconservative McCain triumph in the short term, I fear that an Obama ascendancy carries serious related risks of excessive progressive self-pacification and threatens to dangerously re-legitimize the totalitarian politics of corporate rule and Empire. As Greg Guma recently noted in a thoughtful reflection on Obama as “The New Jimmy Carter”: “the truth is that, in Obama, a worried establishment has found the vessel through which they hope to restore international and domestic stability.” As Guma rightly observes, “Obama, like Carter, can be useful [to the U.S. power elite] in calming things down and re-establishing confidence in the legitimacy of the current political order. In short, he can reinforce the argument that ‘the system’ still works.”
Our current corporate-totalitarian political order doesn’t “work” for any but the Few. It is a grave threat to human survival and peace, justice, and democracy at home and abroad.