24 March 2009

"Inverted Totalitarianism"

I've been reading Sheldon S. Wolin's Democracy Inc. Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism over the past two weeks. Wolin is an octogenarian political scientist, and maybe it's because he's old that I find this 2008 title almost instantly obsolete. But the real reason is that the whole book seems to be a labored effort to come up with new jargon to explain why the Bush Administration was evil. I'm not about to say it wasn't, but the fact that Wolin identifies the nature of what he calls "inverted totalitarianism" almost completely with the Republican Party circa 2000 gives his project a certain datedness. Worse, it makes the book appear more partisan than it needs to be, even though Wolin has no illusions about the usefulness of the Democratic Party.

So what is "inverted totalitarianism?" According to Wolin, it's what we were living under during the Bush regime, or may be living under soon if Republicans regain power. It's an "inverted" form of totalitarianism as the term is commonly understood in two major ways. First, the commonly recognized totalitarian regimes of Mussolini, Hitler and Stalin (Wolin persistently credits the bad elements of the Soviet Union to Stalin rather than Lenin) were built from the ground up by self-made men, dictators consciously revolutionizing the existing order. But inverted totalitarianism is generated by the existing order itself. Taking George W. Bush as his exemplar, Wolin explains that Bush didn't create a totalitarian order, but was in some sense created (or decided) by it. This actually resembles the old Marxist explanation for fascism, which described it as an emanation of capitalism in its death throes. The second major difference is that old-school totalitarianism was all about mobilizing the populace into an obedient mass through propaganda that exhorted people to serve the state, while inverted totalitarianism strives to demobilize the populace, coveting a passive rather than strictly obedient population. What makes it totalitarian despite the inversion, Wolin claims, is the common desire for unlimited power for the leadership and a powerless citizenry below. While most people identify totalitarianism with the imposition of some kind of collective consciousness on individuals, inverted totalitarianism wants nothing of the kind. But the inversion is only another means to the same totalitarian end of unobstructed power.

I have a hard time buying Wolin's thesis. I think he correctly describes a lot of phenomena out there, but the concept of totalitarianism, if you take it seriously and don't just dismiss it as a scare-word, is too closely tied to the idea of a regimented collective consciousness for Wolin's description of the U.S. to fit. I'm afraid that his use of the term simply reflects his hysterical attitude toward Bush (who is often referred to mockingly as "George II" in a way that suits a blog but not a treatise). The more that he takes a broader view of things, the more Wolin makes sense, but too often he seems to be making a special case against the just-departed administration. That leads him to strain to account for details that perplex him, like the support of much of the "religious right" for the party of capitalist "creative destruction," and vice versa. He tries to hard to explain a single eight-year period, but his more general discussion seems more relevant than his specific complaints.

Ironically, for all his attempts to coin new phrases, Wolin is at his best when he makes very old arguments. His basic thesis about the U.S. is that the country's economic forces quickly evolved beyond the constitutional government's ability to regulate them effectively, to the point where they came to dominate the government and bend it to the interests of business. The key component of inverted totalitarianism is convincing citizens that they have no power and no right to regulate the economy. Earlier writers would see this as proof of the advent of plutocracy or oligarchy, and some of the Founders warned against just such an outcome. But the promotion of a laissez-faire or "every man for himself" worldview left the field open for wealth to master the state.

The consecration of economy means that in the trinity of 'freedom, democracy and free enterprise' the three elements are not of equal standing. Freedom and democracy are clearly subservient to free enterprise, a relationship that, by providing 'cover' for the political incorporation of the corporation, assumes great significance in light of the fact that the economic structures defining free enterprise are inherently autocratic, hierarchical, and primed for expansion. When the claims and needs of the economy trump the political, and bring in their wake strikingly unequal rewards and huge disparities in wealth and power, inequality trumps democratic egalitarianism.(91-2)

Wolin seems to be saying that, in real democracy, there really won't be, or shouldn't be, such a thing as "free enterprise" as we know it. In his view, democracy governs all social interactions, including the economic, or it isn't democracy. This puts him on one side of a very old dispute, one that goes back at least as far as ancient Athens. If there has been a sort of two-party system throughout "Western" history, it has pitted those who believe that the object of politics is the best interest of all against those who think the best system maximizes rewards for the best people. Wolin is with the democrats, while those he criticizes are elitists, no matter how much those people rail against "elitists" themselves. But this is a two-front conflict. Elitists often argue pragmatically that power in society should go to those most qualified to use it, while democrats aspire to a condition where everyone is equally competent to perform any public task, but have to construct a state to make that a reality. Wolin sides with the democrats here as well, however utopian that vision might be. In most basic terms, history reveals a conflict between those who use politics to secure rights they believe they already have ("natural rights") and those who understand that politics is the only basis of rights in a civilized society. As a historian of political science, Wolin stands on the shoulders of giants, and to get a clearer picture of what's been going on all along, and how today's troubles fit the bigger picture, we should probably consult those giants first. But if you're looking for some philosophically sound talking points to use against Republicans today, Wolin could come in handy.


alex said...

I think Wolin is being proven right with the most recent US Supreme Court decision conferring unlimited
"freedom" on Corporations to openly "express" themselves in our political process to install their cronies as they have hitherto done stealthily. Inverted totalitarianism is being perfected in the US.

Faith said...

Wolin has been writing about this since the sixties. I wonder what his thought about the current administration are.