Friday, October 30, 2015

Democracy Upside Down

It's not surprising that in its obituary of Sheldon Wolin, who died last week, the New York Times studiously avoided any mention of the term for which this political philosopher is most famous: inverted totalitarianism. Instead, the obit's headline misleadingly and somewhat crankily blared that Wolin was an expert on "the limits of popular democracy."

So it was all the more eerily prescient that in an interview with Chris Hedges last year, Wolin observed that it is essentially verboten for the media-political complex to openly declare that American democracy has been kicked upside the head, resulting in the creation of the Total Capitalistic State. Speaking such a truth might give the plutocratic ruling class a bad case of agita, even if it's mentioned in the obituary of the man who made educating the public about this inconvenient truth his life's work.

Wolin was talking about the capture of private media and public institutions by unfettered capital long before Bernie Sanders started running for president, of course. And given that such plain-speaking from within the political establishment is as rare as a snowball in hell, whether Bernie does in fact have a chance in hell of winning the Democratic nomination has been rendered moot. He is changing the dialogue. He is mentioning the S word, (socialism) and the world has not come to an end. That is quite a revolutionary breakthrough in the historic scheme of things.

The recent rise of Bernie Sanders is comparable to the rise of Theodore Roosevelt's Bull Moose Party in the early 20th century. TR failed to win the presidency under that populist banner, but the rhetoric still became part of the conversation. Wall Street was put on notice. And by the time the market crashed in 1929, the populist stage was set for Cousin Franklin's New Deal.

What Sheldon Wolin has called the radical experiment, "an unprecedented expansion of state power during peacetime" of FDR's great social programs has been under reactionary attack ever since, with the Democrats wimping out to Republicans when they are not actually aiding and abetting them. The Cold War and the fight against Communism was the initial excuse for shredding the safety net, with that excuse now morphing into the perpetual War on Terror. Fear and want, they think, will keep people quiet.

 That Sanders is even getting mainstream coverage on the proposed expansion of New Deal programs should at least put a temporary halt to their open evisceration by the GOP, and their piecemeal evisceration by Clintonian Third Way Democrats. To that extent, he is right about his campaign being tantamount to a revolution.
It's the beginning of a counter-counterrevolution against the corporate capture of government."The ultimate merger would be between capitalism and democracy," Wolin wrote of the right-wing war against the New Deal in Democracy, Inc. "Once the identity and security of democracy were successfully identified with the Cold War, the stage was set for intimidation of most politics left of right."

Unlike Nazism, Stalinism and fascism, inverted totalitarianism in the United States is "a system driven not by an individual ruler, but by abstract totalizing powers, one that succeeds by encouraging political disengagement rather than mass mobilization, that relies more on 'private' media than on public agencies to disseminate propaganda reinforcing the official version of events."

Here's looking at you, New York Times, from your boosting corporate political candidates, to your boosting preemptive wars of aggression, to bowdlerizing the message of one your harshest, most accurate critics in the obituary that you just deigned to write about him. 

"Managed democracy" is the definition of inverted totalitarianism. American democracy is largely contained within the now-permanent electoral process. We are invited to give our opinions on candidates and wedge issues rather than upon substantive issues. We're invited to rail against Ben Carson's snake oil and Marco Rubio's sordid finances instead of the things, like medical care and paychecks, that affect us personally. We're invited to equate voting for a pre-selected candidate with legitimating that candidate.

Wolin wrote, "The United States has become the showcase for how democracy can be managed without appearing to be suppressed. This has come about, not through a Leader's imposing his will or the State's forcibly eliminating opposition, but through certain developments, notably in the economy, that promoted integration, rationalization, concentrated wealth, and a faith that virtually any problem -- from health care, to political crises, to faith itself -- could be managed, even subject to control, predictability and cost-effectiveness in the delivery of the product. Voters are made as predictable as consumers.... The regime ideology is capitalism, which is as virtually undisputed as Nazi doctrine in 1930s Germany."

Another word for this state of affairs is "neoliberalism," or as Margaret Thatcher charmingly defined it, "There is no alternative." (TINA.)

That is why, even though he might not have a chance of winning, Bernie Sanders is turning TINA right on its over-inflated head. He's chasing away the apathy that the oligarchs are counting on. He's afflicting the comfortable. And that includes Hillary Clinton. Even if she wins the presidency, she will lose political capital and public approval for every campaign promise that she decides to break.

Meanwhile, here is the complete 2014 Real News Network conversation between Sheldon Wolin and Chris Hedges. It's divided into eight 20-minute parts, so you can watch it at your leisure.


Tommybones said...

Here is the sad truth about our so-called democracy. It's actually a "marketplace" where the rich shop for their political whores.

A quote from Pawlenty on JEBs! poor performance at the last debate:

• Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty: “He’s going to have to up his game, or the marketplace is going to move away from him.”


Pearl said...

Sent: Friday, October 30, 2015 5:06 PM
Subject: Can Bernie Sanders’s followers create a true leftist movement? from The Washington Post

Jay–Ottawa said...

My three hours spent with Wolin and Hedges were well spent.

They cover a lot of ground. Political philosophers like Wolin carry on the tradition of the Greek Academy. Those ancients were often wrongheaded when it came to their preferences for the good society, but they gave us the categories and the vocabulary that remain useful down to our day. They also placed Justice high among the civic values. Wolin does well with the intellectual gifts handed down by the ancients. He uses those old categories and vocabulary to explain the situation to Americans who people the latest empire. A sense of justice guides his work.

I was particularly taken by his elaborations on "The Public" (around 1:55), a concept and value that has lost much ground to the countless "Private Interests" that dominate the culture today. Unspoken but present between the lines of Wolin's argument about "The Public" was another ideal or abstraction we refer to as "The Commons."

It was also helpful to hear Wolin's comments in the next segment about a few major American publications said to cater to the Left. Without the civic education provided by people like Sheldon Wolin and some of those publications, it is unlikely citizens will be able to understand the nature of the society they form. Thanks, Karen, for the link.

Karen Garcia said...


You're right, the interview was the equivalent of a college seminar on the history of democracy and political philosophy. Corey Robin also has a nice tribute to Wolin here:

I first learned about Wolin through Hedges' "Death of the Liberal Class," which introduced the theory of inverted totalitarianism to a wider audience.

Jay–Ottawa said...

Ay, Karen, basta! Why didn't you just slip the Corey Robin's site into your blog roll, quietly, and let it go at that? Oh, wait, it's already there.

So I went over to Corey Robin's site, as you wickedly suggested, to read his celebration of Sheldon Wolin. Then I checked "About" at the top of that blog to learn more about Corey Robin. Then I read other articles on the site. Now I'm hooked.

I see how Corey Robin has done more than praise Wolin. He has picked up, so ably, the mantel of his departed teacher. I'm still at the breakfast table reading my laptop over a bowl of abandoned cereal, and it looks like I'm about to miss lunch too because I can't quit reading one artful paragraph after another by this Corey Robin guy, who's often quoting other political (and literary) thinkers.

Reading such writers once in a while is indeed like a graduate seminar, where we can overhear "a dialogue across the ages" on political theory providing a valid perspective about today. It surely does beat wasting time day-in, day-out with the likes of Dowd, Krugman, Brooks, et al., dwarfs by comparison, who give you a thimble full of knowledge in a bucket full of water, meted out drop by drop. Why complain endlessly about them? Just seek out a better source. If your taste inclines to factoids and hidden agendas, stick with the Times. If it's understanding and wisdom you prefer, join Wolin and Robin.

A tip to other visitors of Sardonicky: If you want to finish your to do list this weekend, do NOT go to the Corey Robin blog that Karen cited above.

Jay–Ottawa said...


Meredith NYC said...

Thanks for interesting post, Karen! I never heard of Wolin. I found this on Alternet.---

Reviewed: Democracy Incorporated by Sheldon S. Wolin.
Inverted Totalitarianism: A New Way of Understanding How the U.S. Is the U.S. has succumbed to an unacknowledged totalitarian temptation.
By Chalmers Johnson / Truthdig, May 18, 2008

Also see NYT the other day....
“Paul Singer, Influential Billionaire, Throws Support to Marco Rubio for President.” Over 900 comments, making good points that most NYT columnist avoid about the sale of democracy.

And Tom Edsall, a Columbia U Pol Sci prof, writes complicated op eds on the Dems and big money without once citing the elephant, Citizens United.

Then his next piece, titled Silver Lining of Citizens United --(!)—proposed overly complicated work arounds, in local politics only, not federal, that no other world democracy has to put up with, since more public funding is a norm in their national elections.
Thus their super rich can’t so legally dominate govt, so average citizens have some input. Our fates are controlled by our king makers, the power behind the US thrones, courtiers and congress. This in a nation established to repudiate aristocracy.

Then see the Andy Borowitz New Yorker satire, “Billionaire Acquires Rubio Pending Physical”.

See Times page 1 article on how 158 families dominate the campaign donations. These articles at least bring us the reader commentary on what the columnists avoid--the awful truth of elections for sale.

I’m reminded often of Soviet blackouts on truth, and the rewriting of history, with citizens and media isolated from outside info on how the democracies operated. Now we in the US are isolated from these comparisons, in the internet age. Not direct censorship, just pressure of conformity. The moderate Repubs were thrown out of the party, like the Soviets purged their govt of any diversity and competition.

With big money in politics setting the norms, and big media campaign ad profits paid for by billionaires like Koch, Adelson, Singer, etc, conformity is easy, while pretending otherwise.

We’re just glad for the Dems to save us from the extreme radical rw crazies, per Paul Krugman using the Gop. He criticized the ‘mainstream media’ scams in last column---so let him be a positive example instead of shilling for Hillary and the joys of Obamacare. He actually said that Bernie Sanders hasn’t made specific how his ideas would work. A financial transaction tax is ignored...itisn’t specific enough? HC by contrast has been specific enough?

The irony is that Bernie Sanders is a conservative---he aims to restore our democratic traditions, now abandoned by radicals! Instead we get funhouse mirror distortion parading as liberal punditry.

“Competition and diversity” is just what we lack in the main media.
It’s now built in to our politics that it’s too left wing to push redress of inequality by govt action. The pundits conform. Wall St in the Dem cabinets is a norm.

So the concentration of wealth/power is achieved without actual censorship or dictatorship, while we boast of the 1st amendment, the very thing used by the Court to justify CU , while the rw uses our founding ideals of freedom from big govt to seduce the masses against their own interests.

That's why in 2015, we’re still the only 1st world nation without health care for all as a right, or employee protections and union bargaining power.

See book by Steven Hill "Raw Deal: How the 'Uber Economy' and Runaway Capitalism Are Screwing American Workers". The past system of secure employment with benefits is weakened, leaving millions unprotected against various calamities, as p/t, on call or contract workers. They are ‘Free’, on their own.

See nyt editorial How Mergers Damage the Economy oct 31 with comments. Continual legalized monopolies undermine the competition and entrepreneurship the rw uses in sloganeering against govt regulation.

Pearl said...

Some rambling Halloween thoughts.

Although I don't have the strength or energy presently to check out the work of the two men that Jay and Karen have been reading and discussing, it paints an interesting picture pertaining to the present. These books and articles should be required reading in classrooms of all student ages representing democratic theory in a supposedly democratic country. Easier said than done.

Today, we have representatives from right to extreme right who seem to have bought the country for the rest of us on their terms. And when a non believer seeks the presidency, speaking of a different future involving a political revolution, reactions become shock and awe at different ends of the spectrum.

This new (old) vision has started a new look at the realities involved with all the tumult you might expect as a result. Despite the NYTimes' simplification of the facts we are obviously not going to be able to return to the destructive behavior of the past and have to carve a new mountain to go up or down on.

As Bernie has tried to say, it is not about Hillary or himself or any of the different Republican clowns anymore, and we have to tread carefully.

It is all overwhelming and is the reason people do not like to be involved in basic change. We need many more Karens and Jays who themselves must feel overwhelmed but who are our translators of all the knowledge pouring in via the computer-internet.

I hope some answers will be forthcoming that will make sense and be more uniting than separating. I wish there was more editing in the media so we could see the trees more clearly in the forest without having to find so many articles of merit to read for answers.

Among other things I think there are too many people living on our planet (are you listening Pope Francis?) which explains the tough one child laws the Chinese did not plan well. I recall seeing news movies in my childhood showing millions of Chinese marching in long starving and dying lines trying to survive during those Depression years. Now, the two child rule is not drawing many couples to replicate themselves once more as it is too difficult and expensive to raise them. Same about a recent report from Cuba along the same lines.

This is a real problem to tackle for a future president.

Pearl said...

How Will We Reach an Ecological Civilization and Who Will Build It? via @sharethis

From Truthout

voice-in-wilderness said...

Thanks for highlighting Sheldlon Wolin, both the obituary and the interviews. While I check obits in my local paper, I have not yet formed the habit of checking them (online) in the NTimes