Reviewed by James Hodgson
Such remarkable depth, however, does not come at the cost of breadth. The essays collected in this volume, which Wolin had a hand in selecting up until his death in 2015, examine a remarkable range of political thinkers and subjects: the nature of American democracy, and its relationship with modern capitalism; conservatism, postmodernism, and critical theory; the political thought of Hobbes, Marx, Weber, Arendt, Foucault, and Rawls; and the nature of the vocation of the political theorist. All are explored with exceptional clarity, originality, and rigour.
The choice of subjects is not scattershot, however. Roughly, the essays can be divided into two groups: those concerned with the nature and fate of democracy in age of capitalist de-politicization, and those concerned with the nature of political theorising, specifically the tradition Wolin identifies of “epic” political theory. These groupings were noticed by Wolin himself, who, with characteristic sagacity, noted the tension in his work between the commonality of democracy and the elitism of political theory (elite, not only in sense of intellectual exceptionalism, but also as largely sceptical of or hostile to democracy.
I will not attempt a critical appraisal of so formidable and diverse a collection in this review. Instead, I will attempt to elucidate the main contours of Wolin’s political thought, followed by some reflections on its enduring relevance and contemporary significance for both American politics and for academic political theory. In line with the two recurrent themes of the collection, I begin by relating Wolin’s conception of political theory and the historic role of the political theorist. I then move to examine Wolin’s conception of democracy – fugitive democracy – from which the collection takes its name.
It is perhaps inevitable that when discussing a political theorist’s view of his own subject, a measure of biographical detail is required. As he recounts them, Wolin’s formative experiences were those of “a child during the era of the Great Depression, a flier in World War 2, a Jew during the era of the Holocaust, and an activist during the sixties – all, except the last, experiences dominated by loss” (33).
At the time when Wolin’s Politics and Vision: Continuity and Innovation in Western Political Thought appeared in 1960, the status of political theory as an academic discipline was uncertain. Prior to its publication, leading histories of Western political thought took their subject to be simply the ideological overgrowth of various political institutions as they appeared throughout history, and presented their contents in encyclopaedic form. Wolin, however, took political theory to be a distinct intellectual tradition, one with its own preoccupations and vocabulary.
The task of the political theorist, according to Wolin, is always to confront the questions “what is political?” and “how can politics be adequately theorised?” With the latter question, Wolin did not lack for subject matter. The student demonstrations of the 1960s, the Cold War and its rhetoric of capitalism (not democracy) versus communism, and the presidencies of Nixon, Ford, and Reagan are all treated here, either directly or indirectly. Political theory, thought Wolin, should entail an element of political commentary. In political theory as it is practiced today, however, this element is largely absent. In part because of this, Wolin’s essays are refreshing simply because they seek to engage with and to theorise real politics; not only this, but they do so with a high level of sophistication and without recourse to unnecessary abstraction.
Wolin’s conception of political theory itself was heavily influenced by Thomas Kuhn’s seminal The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. This is evident in two senses. Firstly, Wolin’s delineation of a paradigm of classical political theory, derived from Plato and Aristotle, which claimed philosophical foundations and assumed a critical standpoint from society. This paradigm had been supplanted in the academy by the behavioural revolution and the rise of social science, although not as a theoretical paradigm. Rather, the real paradigm shift had taken place in wider society, with the growing routinisation demanded by modern economic and social structures, displacing the critical view of the classical tradition.
What lessons, therefore, can the contemporary practitioner extract from Wolin’s conception of political theory? Certainly, it will fall on deaf ears among much of the community inspired by the work of John Rawls, whose work Wolin at first praises and then dismisses as a kind of idealisation of the status quo (262). One suspects, however, there will be a more receptive audience among political theorists committed to some form of realism, as the need to theorise actual politics is one which recent events have given a new and compelling urgency.
However, we cannot all be epic political theorists (nor is it clear that we should we wish to be). The role of the philosophical under-labourer is therefore absent in much of Wolin’s work. One assumes that his own work serves as a model; that we should aim our theoretical lens on our actual political institutions while always maintaining a critical distance, drawing attention to gross inequalities and inconsistencies in whatever public fora are available to us.
What is the source of this incongruence? Simply put, there is a tension between the rhetoric of the current political system – one which preaches equality – and the reality of the economic system – one which results in gross inequality. Genuine participatory democracy relies on an economic system where people are afforded the time and the means to participate. In the current context, that means social democracy. The current arrangements, of course, are to the benefit of political elites. It is worth noting here that Wolin was highly critical of the ‘politics of difference’ and interest group politics, precisely because it conceives of politics as a scramble for scarce resources and, claims Wolin, is manufactured by elites to divide an otherwise unified demos.
Moreover, the current form of managed democracy gives rise to a new form of totalitarianism. Wolin distinguishes this from classic totalitarianism, which sought to mobilise the masses as its support, and for the state to exert control over the economy. The new form of “inverted” totalitarianism, says Wolin, is just the opposite: it relies on turning the masses into politically apathetic consumers, and takes the form of the capitalist economy exerting control over the state. The Founders of the United States recognised the former danger, and thus sought to limit the role of the population in political decision-making. But the latter has been buoyed up by the later American experiences of imperialism abroad and consumer capitalism at home.
It is, of course, natural to extrapolate Wolin’s thought to contemporary politics and to the election of Donald Trump to the Presidency. Trump certainly represents a form of authoritarianism, and yet the democratic moment was against Trump; he lost the popular vote by 3 million, and was put into office by the mechanism of the Electoral College, designed by the Framers to constrain the American demos. With this in mind, it is difficult not to feel sympathy with Wolin’s conception of fugitive democracy when the democratic populace would do better than their governing institutions.
Furthermore, does Trump represent a return to classical totalitarianism, as he has been successful in mobilising his supporters? This is doubtful. Trump relies on the apathy of disparate groups (African-Americans, Hispanics, white working class Americans) to form common cause, and seeks to hollow out the American state for his own economic interests. This is the ‘politics of difference’ which Wolin decried at its most pernicious. As dispiriting as recent political developments may be, however, they do point to the prescience and enduring relevance of Wolin’s political writings, even if only “as a memorial to the aspirations of thought” (118).
1 July 2017