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On Contact: Inverted totalitarianism

Chris Hedges discusses the work of political philosopher Sheldon Wolin with Professor Wendy Brown, University of California, Berkeley, a student of Wolin’s.

Wolin, who died in 2015, is our most important contemporary political theorist, one who laid out in grim detail the unraveling of American democracy. In his books ‘Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism’ and ‘Politics and Vision’, a massive survey of Western political thought that his former student Cornel West calls “magisterial,” Wolin lays bare the causes behind the decline of American empire and the rise of a new and terrifying configuration of corporate power he calls “inverted totalitarianism.” Wolin throughout his scholarship charted the steady devolution of American democracy and in his last book, ‘Democracy Incorporated’, wrote: “One cannot point to any national institution[s] that can accurately be described as democratic, surely not in the highly managed, money-saturated elections, the lobby-infested Congress, the imperial presidency, the class-biased judicial and penal system, or, least of all, the media.” He argued that America’s system of inverted totalitarianism is different from classical forms of totalitarianism. It finds its expression in the faceless anonymity of the corporate state. Our inverted totalitarianism pays outward fealty to the facade of electoral politics, the Constitution, civil liberties, freedom of the press, the independence of the judiciary and the iconography, traditions and language of American patriotism, but it has effectively seized all of the mechanisms of power to render the citizen impotent.

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CH: Welcome to On Contact.  Today, we’re discussing the work of the political philosopher Sheldon Wolin with Prof. Wendy Brown.

WB: Would it be useful to just try to say a little bit about what he means by inverted totalitarianism?

CH: Yes.  Please, yes.

WB: Okay.  Let’s try to do that.  So he understands the risk of using this term because we hear the term and, you know, any mildly educated sentient being is going to think the ‘30s and ‘40s in Europe and/or depending on your political predilections, the Soviet Union.  And so Wolin knows it’s risky but he wants us to see that it is possible to have a society that is so de-democratized and that has turned against democracy at the level of its governing powers, and has so consolidated the force of the media, the evangelical church, the intelligentsia, the corporate and financial sectors of the economy, and state power that you do have something like a total society.

CH: Sheldon Wolin who died in 2015 is probably our most important contemporary political theorist.  One who laid out in grim detail the unraveling of American Democracy.  In his books, “Democracy Incorporated” and “Politics and Vision” a massive survey of western political thought that his former student Cornel West calls “Magisterial.”  Wolin lays bare the causes behind the decline of American empire and the rise of a new and terrifying configuration of corporate power he calls inverted totalitarianism.  Wolin, throughout his scholarship, charted the steady devolution of American democracy and in his last book “Democracy Incorporated” wrote “One cannot point to any national institution that can accurately be described as democratic, surely not in the highly managed, money-saturated elections, the lobby-infested Congress, the imperial presidency, the class, biased judicial and penal system, or least of all the media.”  He argued that America’s system of inverted totalitarianism is different from classical forms of totalitarianism.  It finds its expression in the faceless anonymity of the corporate state.  Our inverted totalitarianism pays outward fealty to the facade of electoral politics, the Constitution, civil liberties, freedom of the press, the independence of the judiciary, and the iconography traditions and language of American patriotism and democracy, but it’s effectively seized all of the mechanisms of power to render the citizen impotent.  Joining me to discuss the seminal work of political theory is Prof. Wendy Brown, class of 1936, first professor of Political Science, and a core faculty member in the Program for Critical Theory at the University of California, Berkeley, who--and I know this from Sheldon Wolin himself, was considered by him to be one perhaps his most brilliant student.  Thank you, Prof. Brown.  Let’s begin with the break that Wolin made.  He--and you’ve written about this.  He wasn’t a Marxist.  He kind of fell into a category of its own--of his own.  Can you explain what that category is?

WB: Certainly, Chris.  And let me just say it’s a pleasure to be here and to be talking about Sheldon Wolin with you.  Wolin was certainly not a Marxist but he was a leftist.  And for many, that would mean as a political theorist, oh, he must have been a kind of radical democrat or Arendtian.  But he wasn’t quite those things either.  He was a really sui generis.  He was a thinker who drew on the entire history of western political thought, as well as his deep knowledge of American history and American intellectual contributions, to track the development and the predicaments of democracy across the three to four hundred years, if you want to kind of leave it loose like that, that democracy took shape in the US.  And his radicalism pertained to the fact that he was both interested in the denigrations we’re familiar with of democracy, what capitalism does to it, what racism does to it, what exclusions at the cite of gender and so forth does to it.  But he went well beyond that to track the specific forms of power, governing power that in his view undid democracy in the last 40 years.  And this is what makes him really a novel, original thinker.  He was interested in the way that the peculiar amalgam of corporations and the state starting in the ‘70s, not just the service of the state to the economy but the amalgam of the state and the--and corporate power.  And it’s adduction as well of the media, of the military, and so forth.  The way that that changed the very form and force of governing powers in the US to demobilize democracy, to neuter it at its core, and to create what he called managed democracy on the one hand and superpower on the other.  And we can break those terms down as we talk.

CH: He cites the start of this as being the aftermath of World War II, correct?

WB: Correct.

CH: And what happened after World War II?

WB: For him--well, of course the common story is what happened World War II is you get FDR, you get the new deal, you get the social state, you get democracy toward the improvement of life conditions for the many, and an increasing development of state power on behalf of the people.  But Wolin was smart enough to see that while he never disputed that that was happening, at the same time, what’s happening in the post-war period is the development of expertise and science, increasingly understood as properly governing us, and the development of the corporate form in political economy.  And it’s the development of corporations in his understanding and their increasing place in governing and in harnessing science and technology to their purposes that begins to transform the nature of governing even before we get to the Reagan Revolution.

CH: He was also quite critical of mass media.  This is from the book.  “Cinema and television share a common quality of being,” he says, “…tyrannical.  In a specific sense, they are able to block out, eliminate whatever might introduce qualification, ambiguity, or dialogue, anything that might weaken or complicate the holistic force of their creation of its total impression.”  What is that he--he’s attempting to argue in terms of mass communication that of course has now enveloped on a 24-hour basis, American society and global society?

WB: You know, this is one of these places where we’re going to feel the slightly dated quality of the book because of course there’s no acknowledgement of social media, which has become so important in transforming understandings of what’s going on in the world, ways we communicate, and of course ways we imbibe knowledge.  But what Wolin was already onto was the extent to which media was increasingly harnessed not in his view by the state but by corporate to delivery certain kinds of understandings of what was happening, and to limit what he understood to be the deliberative or we could say cognitive dimensions that democracy requires.  So his critique here is a fairly standard one for the ‘80s and the ‘90s, namely that mass media was increasingly saturating us with distraction, with sound bites, as we called them then, and less and less with serious accounts or narratives of the world that we live in.  He was especially distressed in that.  So we should--we should just add this book was penned during the era of the George W. Bush presidency, both sessions of it.  And it’s important to see that Wolin is very much motivated but he considered to be the media’s abetting of our tolerance of the Bush v. Gore decision that is the manipulation of a national election by the Supreme Court, which he said the media basically sold to us as acceptable, and he was especially worked up about the media’s tolerance of the imperial wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  And in his view, it’s this turning point in the media’s playing down of two things that he sees that’s really gouging democracy and democratically delivered information, deliberation, and accountability.  That--that’s one reason he goes after the media the way he does.

CH: Let’s talk about war.  He himself was a veteran.

WB: Yes.

CH: He was a--what was he, a bombardier or something in South Pacific?

WB: Yes.  Yes, indeed.  Yeah.

CH:  But he understands the corrosive force of the imperial project internally.  So, perhaps now we can talk about the relationship between what he calls managed democracy and superpower.

WB: So let’s just get our terms first, maybe.  For him, managed democracy is a situation in which democracy has not been overtly overthrown, but is neutralized.  And it’s neutralized by a lot of different courses, including for him the fact that it’s reduced essentially to elections.  And he finds it very telling that we no longer talk about citizenries, we talk about electorates.  He also finds it telling that we no longer talk about a, citizenry.  Rather, we talk about targeted pieces of the electorate, a divided electorate.  So, democracy is managed by reducing it, by containing it, by organizing it, by targeting it, and by limiting its force, limiting the force of the demos.  Superpower is the term he coins to talk about this robustly imperial moment in early 20th--21st Century America.  So, managed democracy has to do with what’s happening domestically.  Superpower has to do with his understanding of what the US is becoming as it projects its power and its ideals outward.  And here, he’s, again, very focused on the Middle East wars, but he’s also focused on the extent to which Bush himself understood his mission as a President to be that of bringing America’s power to the rest of the world, and America’s model of existence to the rest of the world.  And for Bush, Wolin believes that’s the model of corporately managed democracy.

CH: Great.  When we come back, we’ll continue our conversation about the political theorist Sheldon Wolin and his book “Democracy Incorporated” with Prof. Wendy Brown.  Welcome back to On Contact.  We continue our discussion about the work of the political theorist Sheldon Wolin and his book “Democracy Incorporated” with Professor, Wendy Brown.  So he, in the book, talks about what happens when National Defense becomes corporatized, and he writes, “The fixation upon mobilization and rearmament inspired the gradual disappearance from the national political agenda of the regulation and control of corporations.  The defender of the free world needed the power of the globalizing expanded corporation not an economy hampered by trust busting.  Moreover since the enemy was rapidly anti-capitalist, every measure that strengthened capitalism was a blow against the enemy.”  This really encoded language became a way to revoke all of the regulations brought about by the New Deal and programs by the New Deal to bring us where we are in it.

WB: Yes.  That’s exactly Wolin’s argument, that on the one hand deregulation at home, which means, as he put it essentially giving all power to those who already have power and leaving the rest of the citizenry dangling.  But on the other hand, where you started in that quotation was also with the military.  His concern is that even military organization and power is being increasingly outsourced and amalgamated with corporate power.  And this then becomes a rather different argument from those who say, “Oh, US wars are imperial because they’re serving global capital.”  That’s not Wolin’s point.  His point is more subtle.  It’s the point that what you have in an increasingly out sourced military and a military that is creating conditions favorable for global capital.  Iraq is a prime example, became a playground for international capital as soon as Saddam Hussein was toppled.  What you have in that combination is the transformation of American government legitimated by its service to the people and it’s transformed instead into something that is operating on behalf of corporate interests, and the military itself is increasingly saturated with that dimension.

CH: He argues that through inverted totalitarianism, you get a figure like Biden, you get a figure like Obama, Bush that there’s a--and he’s right, of course, there’s a complete continuity largely between on real issues, maybe not on cultural issues but certainly on imperial and capitalist issues.  He says that it’s essentially access to cheap credit and cheap consumer goods that act as a kind of pacifier--political pacifier that prevents the rise of a demagogue.  I remember asking him whether if when you took away that access to cheap credit and those cheap consumer goods, would you get a demagogue and he conceded that perhaps.  And I’m interested in your thoughts about Trump, and how it fits with his notion of inverted totalitarianism.

WB: It’s a good question, Chris.  It’s tricky because what Wolin is trying to depict with inverted totalitarianism and maybe we should spend a minute or two trying to break up in the term.  But what he’s trying to depict is a form of power, total power over the people that is not exercised by a charismatic or demagogic leader.  And that does not involve overt repression, and the use of the state for repressive or tyrannical purposes.  And does not have I guess I would say characteristics of the Trump regime.  But what Wolin has done so brilliantly I think is give us the markers that would explain how that regime comes to be possible.  It’s not within the ambit of what he’s talking about because he’s trying to talk about the kind of control that is possible without a Trump, that we already had inverted totalitarianism before we got Trump, but it does help explain why that--as you say, once you--once you get rid of the external enemy, once you get rid of the preoccupation with terror that’s focused--that focuses the Bush years, how you could turn that inward toward rancor and resentment against immigrants, against minority races, against feminists, and environmentalist, and how you could produce a demagogic leader.  But maybe would it be useful to just try to say a little bit about what he means by inverted totalitarianism?

CH: Yes, please.  Yes.

WB: Okay.  Let’s try to do that.  So he understands the risk of using this term, because we hear the term and, you know, any mildly educated sentient being is going to think the ‘30s and ‘40s in Europe and/or depending on your political predilections, the Soviet Union.  And so Wolin knows it’s risky, but he wants us to see that it is possible to have a society that is de-democratized and that has so turned against democracy at the level of its governing powers, and has so consolidated the force of the media, the evangelical church, the intelligentsia, the corporate and financial sectors of the economy, and state power that you do have something like a total society.  What he doesn’t want to be saying and he doesn’t want to be misunderstood as saying, “Oh, we’re at risk of losing all our civil liberties.”  His point is actually, you can have your Liberties.  You can have your consumer pleasures.  You can have your choice of 2,000 TV channels.  And still have completely lost democracy.  So totalitarianism stands for, in his view, that inversion of democracy into its opposite, which for him is not tyranny, but an anti-democracy in a totalitarian force.  And then he spends a lot of the book in, I think, a totally fascinating contrast between classic totalitarianism, which depends on mobilization of society, personal rule, control of the economy, heavy bureaucracy, and inverted totalitarianism which depends on more abstract powers, political demobilization of the citizenry, private media, not propaganda, corporate style management, not tyranny, and what he calls the porosity of documents like the Constitution, which can be radically re-signified to enable corporate control, torture, and other such things.

CH: That’s an important point because you’re right.  This does make it different from classic totalitarian societies about it’s not just demobilization but it’s about inducing a kind of lethargy within the population.  He said, “Managed democracy is democracy systematized.”  What does he mean by that?

WB: He means that it’s the opposite of what democracy must be, which is uncontainable, unchannelable energies of the people for a public or common purpose.  And once it’s systematized, those what he calls demotic energies are gone.  So once democracy is organized as target or focus groups, and targeted populations, and electoral manipulation, and pollsters who feed us the positions that they intend to be asking us about, once you get that systematization, then you’ve lost what he calls that demotic energy, the energy of the demos which he no longer believes can be an energy that can fully rule because we’re too large for that.  He thinks democracies only work at small scales and relatively simpler societies, but he does think democratic uprisings or democratic challenges, what he calls fugitive democracy can bring us back to institutions that facilitate that.  And so that’s really his program for the future.  You know, the book was written before “Occupy Wall Street” and it was certainly written before “Black Lives Matter” and it--and it was certainly written before, you know, the Bernie Sanders movement that then, you know, comes out of both.  But that’s what Wolin is trying to--is trying to reseed or energize.  He’s very clear that--go ahead.

CH: He pulls out of Ancient Greece, the destruction of the demos with the Athenian imperial power that crushes Athenian democracy.  I just want to close the last minute and half on Max Weber because he likes Weber a lot.  And there’s that short essay that everyone should read called “Politics as a Vocation” because there was a kind of Calvinist streak--I speak as a former seminarian, Presbyterian, where it’s a constant battle which Weber understood and that’s what he meant by Politics as a vocation.  And Wolin argued that every time you turned your back, those dark forces that would seek to eradicate your civil liberties and your freedom would immediately go to work.  So it’s a kind of perpetual never-ending fight.  Just in the last minute, can you, kind of, explain that idea?

WB: Wolin really appreciated this part of Weber as you say, the part that understood politics as Weber puts it as a slow boring through hard boards, by which he didn’t mean a march through the institutions, but rather that you have to endure and perdure with a cause but also with a certain sobriety that anchors that cause, understanding that you’re in it for the long haul, and that you keep pursuing ideals or cause, however you want to put it in politics without becoming faint of heart, without whimpering or whining that your team didn’t win, and above all, without imagining that you ever finally achieved your cause, because as you say, Weber understands it in his existentialist post-Nietzschean way as a constant battle, a constant struggle between forces that disagree.  And so you don’t quit, you don’t give up, you don’t whimper, you don’t turn to God, you just keep enduring and perduring.

CH: Well, and Weber also understood that against a faceless bureaucracy, it may be impossible in modernity to even overcome it but that you still had to struggle against it anyway.  That was Professor Wendy Brown on the work of the political theorist, Sheldon Wolin, and his book “Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism.”  Thank you.

WB: Thank you, Chris.

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