Reviewed by Tom Angier
Sheldon Wolin is best known for his magisterial work, Politics and Vision (1960). Covering the course of Western political theory from Plato to modern liberalism, it was reissued in 2004, with 200 additional pages devoted to Marx, Nietzsche and a further excursus on liberalism. Democracy Incorporated – which first appeared in 2008 – could be said to deepen this move into the present, since notwithstanding its brilliant forays into the American and European political past, it is firmly focussed on the first decade of the 21st century (or what Wolin, only half-jokingly, labels the reign of ‘George II’). Clearly, the dangers of such a project are manifold. One thinks here, for instance, of Timothy Garton Ash’s History of the Present (2000), which, besides marking the decline of a political writer from trenchant critic of Soviet totalitarianism to devotee of the status quo, demonstrated its substantial obsolescence within a year. Not so Wolin. Despite being written shortly before both the financial crisis and the Obama victory, the main lineaments of his analysis are still alarmingly cogent. As he maintains in his 2009 Preface, Obama’s presidency can at best be ‘mitigative’, rather than hailing a substantial reversal of the ‘drift rightwards’. Or as Wolin puts matters at the close of his devastating critique, ‘the system would remain in place even if the Democratic Party attained a majority’ (287). So what is this ‘system’, and how does it work?
The system is one of ‘inverted totalitarianism’, and it works through what Wolin calls ‘managed democracy’. Although both terms raise problems, I want to put these on one side for the moment, and concentrate on how Wolin unpacks them conceptually, and spells out their social consequences. In elucidating ‘inverted totalitarianism’, Wolin uses ‘classical totalitarianism’ as a foil. Whereas German Nazism, Italian Fascism and Soviet Communism all attempted the mass political mobilisation of their respective citizenries, inverted totalitarianism thrives amid passive, politically demobilised citizens, who rarely move beyond their allotted role as ‘viewer-consumers’ (196). Whereas classical totalitarianism has aims that are largely in step with its propaganda, inverted totalitarianism trumpets its ‘democratic’ aims and credentials (60), though its priorities are overwhelmingly economic and expansionist. While classical totalitarian regimes are comparatively deliberate and overtly coercive in their mode of action, relying on the cult of a charismatic leader, inverted totalitarian regimes result from a largely unintended confluence of circumstances (46), and rely on leadership that resembles most closely that of a CEO (102). While classical totalitarianism has some socialistic aspects (sometimes systematically and obviously so, as in Communism), inverted totalitarianism is wedded to the corporations, which are profoundly indifferent to the welfare of the poor.
Though Wolin is clear that inverted totalitarianism has not been perfected in all its aspects – in this sense, it remains, indeed, a ‘spectre’ – since Reagan and Thatcher it has become ever more entrenched, largely through the development of ‘managed democracy’. The latter has two main foci, which are spelt out directly in chapters 3 and 8. On the one hand, government assimilates itself increasingly to the modes of a business corporation. Contra the classical republican ideal of disinterested public service, therefore, government becomes increasingly elitist and top-down, the realm of dynamic managers who claim expertise in running the nation for maximal profit. This amounts to a ‘corporate revolution’ in politics (146), or a ‘merger’ between capitalism and democracy (34), the upshots of which are a depreciation of democracy qua representation of and accountability to the people, an ‘antipolitical culture of competition rather than cooperation’ (138), and an aggressive programme of privatisation (not to mention a greater willingness to tolerate corruption). On the other hand, the demos is treated as akin to a group of shareholders, whose overriding interest consists in seeing the ‘delivery’ of strong economic results. Although the basic forms of popular self-government remain in place, their content is, accordingly, hollowed-out. More and more branches of the state become subordinate to the machinations of hugely rich lobbying interests, discouraging people from real, participative democratic action. And this growing ‘civic lassitude’ (140) is encouraged still further by the etiolation of debate in the mainstream, corporate media, which tends to present politics as a spectacular personality contest.
If this analysis of a ‘democracy without citizens’ – in which popular sovereignty is reduced to ‘consumer sovereignty’ (65) – sounds too Cassandra-like, Wolin backs it up with detailed history. (This history is, admittedly, heavily US-centric, but since the US is perhaps the limiting case of a managed democracy, this focus is instructive.) Wolin rides roughshod over the standard American self-image of being the world’s most robust democracy. In chapters 11-12, he traces the evolution of American democracy back to the Putney debates of the 1650s, in which Ireton upheld the interests of ‘independent’ property-owners against Rainsborough, who championed the rights of the non-landed, and therefore non-voting classes (252). It was Ireton’s anti-egalitarian position which, Wolin maintains, effectively triumphed in post-revolutionary America. Hamilton and Madison (unlike Jefferson) were deeply sceptical of democracy, precisely because it threatened the extant distribution of property and wealth: portraying the popular will as infected by ‘passion’, they confined ‘reason’ to a class of ‘guardians’, which was purportedly blessed with the insights of ‘cool and sedate reflection’ (229). They hence went about constructing a political system in which elaborate checks and balances stymied the wishes of the democratic majority, thereby ensuring a politics of ‘deadlock’ (234), which could be resolved only by the intervention of the powerful.
According to Wolin, then, though the ‘political coming-of-age of corporate power’ (xxi) took centuries, the conditions for managed democracy were instituted early on. The one real exception on this road to inverted totalitarianism was Roosevelt’s New Deal ‘experiment’ of the 1930s, which Wolin discusses in chapter 2. This ‘counterimaginary of a state-regulated capitalism’ (24) was a valiant attempt to control corporate activity for the common good, but it did not survive World War II. This ‘constitutional imaginary’ succumbed, steadily, to a Cold War ‘power imaginary’ (19), which was prepared by the US’s wartime taste of global power. This power imaginary replaced a preoccupation with welfare, participation and equality, with what Wolin terms a ‘dematerialised’ ideology of patriotism, anticommunism and fear (27). This new, Manichean ideology, although not explicitly in the service of corporate wealth and inequality, certainly had these as its corollaries. And this because, first, the Soviet Union was (nominally) committed to anti-capitalism and a thorough-going egalitarianism, thereby lending capitalist individualism a patriotic aura, and impugning its detractors. Secondly, the Cold War generated a massive increase in defence spending, which in turn made the American economy highly dependent on the corporate defence industries. And thirdly, since all enmity was now directed at Communism, any suggestion that there might be economic enemies at home became seen as artificially and invidiously divisive, or even (as in McCarthyism) tantamount to Communism itself.
Wolin presents this corporate-friendly power imaginary as reaching its zenith under the presidency of George W. Bush (chapters 1, 4-6, 10). It is here, he argues, that we find the ultimate yoking of American ‘Superpower’ – now openly and unashamedly global – with corporate power. For under the new Manichean dispensation of ‘freedom’ versus ‘Islamism’, we see uncharismatic creatures of the business world (notably Rumsfeld, Cheney and the imperial President/CEO himself) entering and leaving government at will. Owing to this revolving door, Iraq has become the site for enormous American corporate profits, and a self-serving ‘free’ trade agenda has been forced ruthlessly on weaker countries (85). On the home (or ‘homeland’) front, there has been further financial deregulation, and hence not only corporate scandals (193-4) and a steep growth in inequality, but also the pièce de resistance of the banking crisis (together with Bush’s subsequent bail-out). Wolin at several points suggests that the projection of vast power abroad is itself sufficient to undermine genuine democracy (see, for example, 242-8), since it effectively subordinates domestic concerns to military expansion, and brands those who oppose the latter ‘unpatriotic’. But as the rest of his analysis makes clear, such expansion is inseparable from economic imperatives, and it is these that, at root, make participatory democracy merely ‘fugitive’. For through deregulation, citizens are increasingly denied the use of state power (110, 195), and moreover are so harried by job insecurity and the rigours of the modern workplace that participation becomes (literally) very costly (108-9).
There are further fascinating elements to Wolin’s critique – centrally, his shrewd readings of Fundamentalist Christianity (chapter 7), and Straussian intellectualism (chapter 9), both of which are committed to ‘archaic’ creeds, yet have followers who exploit the latest opportunities afforded by money and power. But the themes I have explored above constitute the backbone of Wolin’s analysis. Although I think that analysis highly convincing overall, I want to raise a few questions about it in the space remaining. To begin with, one might question the cogency of ‘totalitarianism’ as a general heuristic. Given the deep disparities Wolin notes between previous totalitarian and recent US regimes (see §2 above), it is unclear which features of totalitarianism he thinks the latter preserve. Despite his illuminating analogy between President and CEO, Wolin clearly does not equate corporate with traditional totalitarian elitism, which involved charismatic leaders and ‘loyal followers’ who did not claim to be democrats (54). Presumably, the main totalitarian component he thinks has been ‘inverted’ is total, oppressive and therefore antidemocratic control: whereas this was sought politically by, say, the Nazi regime, it is now effected economically. But given Wolin admits that what he calls ‘economic mobilisation’ (91) is not centrally orchestrated or in fact deliberately intended (xviii), is his talk of ‘totalising’ or ‘mobilising’ forces really warranted? Perhaps he could just point to the oppressiveness and antidemocratic nature of current economic conditions, and leave it at that. After all, if those conditions were more totalitarian (in the sense of being centrally and deliberately orchestrated), they would be easier to overthrow.
Another major issue one could raise is the realisability of Wolinian ‘democracy’. Although ‘democracy’ is an honorific for Wolin, and essential to his critique, he freely acknowledges that ‘Those fugitive moments when the demos acted, challenging the structure of power, even influencing it, were typically the initiatives of a fraction, not of a collective whole’ (278). So not only is genuine democracy confined to rare episodes, it seems to rely on what is essentially a fiction – viz. ‘we, the people’ – which has to be conjured up by those claiming to do its bidding. Worse, Wolin seems in doubt even about the desirability of the people acting as a whole. ‘The demos will never dominate politically’, he avers, adding that ‘In an age where identities are potentially plural and changing, a unified demos is no longer possible, or even desirable: instead of a demos, democratic citizenries’ (290). This ambivalence about the virtue of democratic majorities is in evidence also elsewhere. For instance, although Wolin tends to represent the US citizenry as the collective victim of an oppressive ‘system’, he more than once shifts the blame squarely onto its shoulders. ‘Much as one is justified in blaming Bush and his coterie’, he holds, ‘one also needs to figure in the culpability, complicity, and apathy of the citizenry’ (242). Indeed, much as he condemns Hamilton’s rhetoric about an unstable, irrational populace, he himself claims ‘It is unlikely that the restraints of rationality can be expected from the demos, for its emotional state [can be] deliberately inflamed by its leaders’ (248). But this rather sweeping condemnation of ‘demotic irrationality’ (285) calls into question Wolin’s conception of democracy, and whether, even if it were realisable, it would not be (as arguably it was under FDR) replete with paternalistic elements.
To end, one might question whether, notwithstanding Wolin’s masterful indictment of our ‘fearful new world’ (71), in which ‘misrepresentative government’ (262) has brought about an ‘insecurity system’ (109) that threatens millions, the future is unremittingly bleak. For since 2010, we have seen the ‘demos’ at its best not only in the Wisconsin resistance to militant corporate power, but also throughout the Middle East, and in the popular protests against spending cuts in the UK. Perhaps Wolin’s hope for a locally-rooted ‘democratic counterelite’ (291) will yet be realised, at least in some places, and stem the tide of the corporate revolution.
8 May 2011