Inverted totalitarianism

Just picked up on this review of a new book, Democracy Incorporated by the veteran American political scientist Sheldon S Wolin. It’s a study of current politics in the United States. In his review, Chalmers Johnson writes:

Given this historical backdrop, Wolin introduces three new concepts to help analyze what we have lost as a nation. His master idea is “inverted totalitarianism,” which is reinforced by two subordinate notions that accompany and promote it — “managed democracy” and “Superpower,” the latter always capitalized and used without a direct article. Until the reader gets used to this particular literary tic, the term Superpower can be confusing. The author uses it as if it were an independent agent, comparable to Superman or Spiderman, and one that is inherently incompatible with constitutional government and democracy.

Wolin writes, “Our thesis is this: it is possible for a form of totalitarianism, different from the classical one, to evolve from a putatively ‘strong democracy’ instead of a ‘failed’ one.” His understanding of democracy is classical but also populist, anti-elitist and only slightly represented in the Constitution of the United States. “Democracy,” he writes, “is about the conditions that make it possible for ordinary people to better their lives by becoming political beings and by making power responsive to their hopes and needs.” It depends on the existence of a demos — “a politically engaged and empowered citizenry, one that voted, deliberated, and occupied all branches of public office.” Wolin argues that to the extent the United States on occasion came close to genuine democracy, it was because its citizens struggled against and momentarily defeated the elitism that was written into the Constitution.

It’s a powerful thesis, and the key is the way in which power is exercised not through coercion but through the passivity of its population: through consumerism, through the triumph of the market, through popular mythology, and through the neutralising of dissent in the Universities. Privatisation is a primary tool of managed democracy; both through the actual removal of democracy from the public sphere, but also by focussing the attention of the citizens on the peripheral issues – often of personal politics – which ensure that they do not engage with fundamental issues of wealth and power.

And another key issue is the Superpower issue: militarism, and the domination of political life by military imperatives. Wolin writes:

“Imperial politics represents the conquest of domestic politics and the latter’s conversion into a crucial element of inverted totalitarianism. 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. No major politician or party has so much as publicly remarked on the existence of an American empire.”

Important, impressive stuff, offering key insights into modern American politics; and powerfully relevant for us here in Britain too.


2 thoughts on “Inverted totalitarianism

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