Book of the Week: Democracy Incorporated

Andreas Hess shivers at a glimpse of our future

July 10, 2008

In Democracy in America Alexis de Tocqueville famously cautioned that democracy would not necessarily guarantee the coming of a better society. Because of the ubiquity of democratic habitus forms and aspirations there was also a chance, the Frenchman claimed, that democracy might end up in the dictatorship of the many. Almost 170 years later, Sheldon S. Wolin, one of America's best-known political theorists and author of such modern classics as Politics and Vision (1960; new, expanded edition 2004) and Tocqueville between Two Worlds (2001), argues that de Tocqueville's worst fears have indeed come true - but in a way not envisaged in Democracy in America.

Wolin maintains that what we are currently witnessing in the US is the most developed form of managed democracy. It is the consequence of a very nasty historical backlash, a result of the cunning of history, as Hegel would have put it. What originated as a fear of the other - that is, the totalitarian regimes that the US fought in the Second World War (National Socialism and Fascism) and the similar regimes that were later confronted in the Cold War in the form of the Soviet Union and its satellites - has now turned inwards, particularly since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

Inverted totalitarianism is something entirely new that should not be confused with the old theory and practice of earlier 20th-century totalitarianism. George W. Bush is neither Hitler nor Stalin reincarnated, nor is the US political system a system controlled by one monolithic party. There is also no sign that a social movement led by a Fuhrer is somehow pushing a radical agenda that intends to eliminate a part of its own population or anyone else.

In contrast to past totalitarian regimes, inverted totalitarianism is, as the attribute indicates, first and foremost inward-looking. It relies heavily on what Wolin calls "political imaginary", supported by corporate power and "suffered" by a radically demobilised citizenry. While in the first half of the century, at least, the New Deal stood for some hope in terms of social reform and also managed to appeal to a democratic and widespread anti-totalitarian sentiment during the Second World War, reality became redefined and distorted soon after by military and corporate thinking during the Cold War.

With the help of a self-styled power image, fostered and developed during this time, the US has, over the past 20 years or so, metamorphosed into some model of "superpower", a not yet fully realised political prototype that hardly recognises the distinction between homeland and Ausland any more.

Unlike early 20th-century totalitarian rule, the new hallmark of the system is a totalising power that is not based on a charismatic or personal model. As Wolin points out, "the leader is not the architect of the system but its product". Distinguished also from the old model with its permanent mobilisation, the new form of inverted totalitarianism encourages passivity and political disengagement.

Propaganda patterns are also different; managed democracy needs no state-controlled TV to feed the public the official version of events. It needs only the happy and voluntary cooperation of privately organised media. Moreover, inverted totalitarianism and managed democracy are not the outcome of premeditation or conspiracy but rather stem from a sociologically hard to disentangle "coalescence of unintended consequences".

In all of this the state has a new, inverted role to play. It is not engaged in social spending, its new and rather illiberal task is to intervene in the most personal of affairs (that which others have called the bio-political dimension). Above all, the new regime is acting unconstitutionally and, since what it is doing is also illegitimate, it is in desperate need of extra-legitimation. This is the very reason why the new regime is eager to legitimate its power through the constant re-invigoration of democratic myths ("the Founding Fathers", "the Original Constitution", "free speech"), which are then repeated like a mantra in order to make citizens (and potential allies) believe the new ideology.

Yet the brutal truth is that economics and economic ideology with a little help from its friends - the business corporations, the organisation of science and the ideology of technological application - has replaced politics. And it is limitless. The new Leviathan knows no borders any more. As Wolin poignantly puts it, "both democracy and the political become distorted when the scales are continually expanded".

In his argumentation Wolin differs considerably from other radical democrats. He does not believe in American conspiracies (as Chomsky does), nor in Empire and Multitude (a la Negri and Hardt), nor is he concerned with superficial appearances of capitalism that are interpreted as if they were the very substance (as in the work of Naomi Klein). Instead, Wolin's argument against the totalising aspects of an all-embracing capitalism is rooted in a long democratic tradition of demotic politics - that is, politics in which it is important not to remain a passive couch potato but rather to become actively engaged as a citizen.

Wolin knows that there are no easy solutions, particularly not when it comes to representative democracy. The spontaneous, informal, episodic, often improvised actions of citizens are by nature fugitive while governments usually last longer. Demos and elites are involved in a continuous power struggle. From this we should not conclude that democracy's prospects and the vision of more democratic citizenries are inevitably doomed. In order to regain trust and time for the luckier moments of fugitive democracy we just need to escape the current futurist visions and politics of managed democracy that promise everything yet never deliver - at least not for the many.

Wolin's view of the current American political system might seem exaggerated and Orwellian. However, let's not forget that the last century, which was the bloodiest and most extreme in the history of humanity, made Orwell's prognosis almost look good. Let's hope that the same doesn't happen to Wolin.

Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism

By Sheldon S. Wolin

Princeton University Press 376pp, £17.95

ISBN 9780691135663

Published 1 May 2008

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