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As an atheist it is sometime easy to become hyper focused on what those people over there are doing wrong and how they need to fix their views and join the 21st century.  Sheldon Wolin takes this view and compares it to what we have going on right now in society, rightly criticizing the capitalist-consumption aesthetic that, by any other name, is doing exactly what religion does.

 

“There was , he [Max Weber] contended, no room any longer for occult forces, supernatural deities, or divinely revealed truth.  In a world dominated by scientifically established facts and with no privileged or sacrosanct areas, myth would seemingly have a difficult time retaining a foothold.  Not only did Weber underestimate the staying power of credulity; he could not foresee that the great triumphs of modern science would themselves provide the basis for technological achievements which, far from banishing the mythical, would unwittingly inspire it.

    The mythical is also nourished from another source, one seemingly more incongruous that the scientific-technological culture,  Consider the imaginary world continuously being created and re-created by contemporary advertising and rendered virtually escape-proof by the enveloping culture of the modern media.  Equally important, the culture produced by modern advertising, which seems at first glance to be resolutely secular and materialistic, the antithesis of religious and evangelical teachings, actually reinforces the dynamic.  Almost every product promises to change your life: it will make you more beautiful, cleaner, more sexually alluring, and more successful.  Born again, as it were.  The messages contain promises about the future, unfailingly optimistic, exaggerating, miracle-promising – the same ideology that invites corporate executives to exaggerate profits and conceal losses, but always with a sunny face.  The virtual reality of the advertiser and the “good news” of the evangelist complement each other, a match made in heaven.  Their zeal to transcend the ordinary and their bottomless optimism both feed the hubris of Superpower.  Each colludes with the other.  The evangelist looks forward to the “last days”, while the corporate executive systematically exhausts the world’s scare resources.”

Sheldon Wolin.  Democracy Incorporated, pp. 12-13.

So, I think it is time to work on our own epistemology.  I’d like to be able to square our expectations of others with those we place on ourselves.

 

Take a look at what’s going on, look at the article.   Should we be worried?  You tell me.

 

henryford“Resisting the monopolies on left theory by Marxism and on democratic theory by liberalism, Wolin developed a distinctive—even distinctively American—analysis of the political present and of radical democratic possibilities. He was especially prescient in theorizing the heavy statism forging what we now call neoliberalism, and in revealing the novel fusions of economic with political power that he took to be poisoning democracy at its root.”

Wolin throughout his scholarship charted the devolution of American democracy and in his last book, “Democracy Incorporated,” details our peculiar form of corporate totalitarianism. “One cannot point to any national institution[s] that can accurately be described as democratic,” he writes in that book, “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.” 

Inverted totalitarianism is different from classical forms of totalitarianism. It does not find its expression in a demagogue or charismatic leader but 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.

“Unlike the Nazis, who made life uncertain for the wealthy and privileged while providing social programs for the working class and poor, inverted totalitarianism exploits the poor, reducing or weakening health programs and social services, regimenting mass education for an insecure workforce threatened by the importation of low-wage workers,” Wolin writes. “Employment in a high-tech, volatile, and globalized economy is normally as precarious as during an old-fashioned depression. The result is that citizenship, or what remains of it, is practiced amidst a continuing state of worry. Hobbes had it right: when citizens are insecure and at the same time driven by competitive aspirations, they yearn for political stability rather than civic engagement, protection rather than political involvement.”

Inverted totalitarianism, Wolin said when we met at his home in Salem, Ore., in 2014 to film a nearly three-hour interview, constantly “projects power upwards.” It is “the antithesis of constitutional power.” It is designed to create instability to keep a citizenry off balance and passive.

He writes, “Downsizing, reorganization, bubbles bursting, unions busted, quickly outdated skills, and transfer of jobs abroad create not just fear but an economy of fear, a system of control whose power feeds on uncertainty, yet a system that, according to its analysts, is eminently rational.”

Inverted totalitarianism also “perpetuates politics all the time,” Wolin said when we spoke, “but a politics that is not political.” The endless and extravagant election cycles, he said, are an example of politics without politics.

“Instead of participating in power,” he writes, “the virtual citizen is invited to have ‘opinions’: measurable responses to questions predesigned to elicit them.”

Political campaigns rarely discuss substantive issues. They center on manufactured political personalities, empty rhetoric, sophisticated public relations, slick advertising, propaganda and the constant use of focus groups and opinion polls to loop back to voters what they want to hear. Money has effectively replaced the vote. Every current presidential candidate—including Bernie Sanders—understands, to use Wolin’s words, that “the subject of empire is taboo in electoral debates.” The citizen is irrelevant. He or she is nothing more than a spectator, allowed to vote and then forgotten once the carnival of elections ends and corporations and their lobbyists get back to the business of ruling.

“If the main purpose of elections is to serve up pliant legislators for lobbyists to shape, such a system deserves to be called ‘misrepresentative or clientry government,’ ” Wolin writes. “It is, at one and the same time, a powerful contributing factor to the depoliticization of the citizenry, as well as reason for characterizing the system as one of antidemocracy.”

The result, he writes, is that the public is “denied the use of state power.” Wolin deplores the trivialization of political discourse, a tactic used to leave the public fragmented, antagonistic and emotionally charged while leaving corporate power and empire unchallenged.

“Cultural wars might seem an indication of strong political involvements,” he writes. “Actually they are a substitute. The notoriety they receive from the media and from politicians eager to take firm stands on nonsubstantive issues serves to distract attention and contribute to a cant politics of the inconsequential.”

“The ruling groups can now operate on the assumption that they don’t need the traditional notion of something called a public in the broad sense of a coherent whole,” he said in our meeting. “They now have the tools to deal with the very disparities and differences that they have themselves helped to create. It’s a game in which you manage to undermine the cohesiveness that the public requires if they [the public] are to be politically effective. And at the same time, you create these different, distinct groups that inevitably find themselves in tension or at odds or in competition with other groups, so that it becomes more of a melee than it does become a way of fashioning majorities.”

mgandi   Currently reading Democracy Incorporated by Sheldon Wolin.  He speaks of totalitarianism in a different form as opposed to that described by Hannah Arendt, but of what he terms inverted totalitarianism in which the state is hollowed out to serve corporate interests rather than those of the public.  Thus quote originates from chapter 4 in which two ways in which nations can slip into autocratic rule.

“Tocqueville democrat comfortable with despotism and Hobbes’s free rationalist who opts for absolutism share an elective affinity.  Tocqueville imagines a despotism made possible because citizens have chosen to relinquish participatory politics, which he and singled out as the most remarkable, widespread, and essential element of American political life.  By abandoning their intense involvement with the common affairs of their communities in favor of personal ends, they, like signatories to Hobbes’s contract, have chosen to be apolitical subjects rather than citizens. 

   The contemporary moral to be drawn from our detour through Hobbes and Tocqueville is this: while it may prove possible to mobilize voters around the slogan “Anything to beat Bush!” it take more persistence, more thoughtfulness to dismantle Superpower and to nurture a democratic citizenry.  The lesson of Hobbes and Tocqueville can be boiled down to a brief but chilling dictum: concentrated power, whether of a Leviathan, a benevolent despotism, or a superpower, is impossible without the support of a complicitous citizenry that willingly signs on to the covenant, or acquiesces, or clicks the “mute button.”

 

– Sheldon S. Wolin, Democracy Incorporated p.80-81.

Reposting because it is important.  Thanks to The Nation for hosting Sheldon Wolin’s article.

Invertedtotalitarianism“The war on Iraq has so monopolized public attention as to obscure the regime change taking place in the Homeland. We may have invaded Iraq to bring in democracy and bring down a totalitarian regime, but in the process our own system may be moving closer to the latter and further weakening the former. The change has been intimated by the sudden popularity of two political terms rarely applied earlier to the American political system.

“Empire” and “superpower” both suggest that a new system of power, concentrated and expansive, has come into existence and supplanted the old terms. “Empire” and “superpower” accurately symbolize the projection of American power abroad, but for that reason they obscure the internal consequences. Consider how odd it would sound if we were to refer to “the Constitution of the American Empire” or “superpower democracy.” The reason they ring false is that “constitution” signifies limitations on power, while “democracy” commonly refers to the active involvement of citizens with their government and the responsiveness of government to its citizens. For their part, “empire” and “superpower” stand for the surpassing of limits and the dwarfing of the citizenry.

The increasing power of the state and the declining power of institutions intended to control it has been in the making for some time. The party system is a notorious example. The Republicans have emerged as a unique phenomenon in American history of a fervently doctrinal party, zealous, ruthless, antidemocratic and boasting a near majority. As Republicans have become more ideologically intolerant, the Democrats have shrugged off the liberal label and their critical reform-minded constituencies to embrace centrism and footnote the end of ideology. In ceasing to be a genuine opposition party the Democrats have smoothed the road to power of a party more than eager to use it to promote empire abroad and corporate power at home. Bear in mind that a ruthless, ideologically driven party with a mass base was a crucial element in all of the twentieth-century regimes seeking total power.

Representative institutions no longer represent voters. Instead, they have been short-circuited, steadily corrupted by an institutionalized system of bribery that renders them responsive to powerful interest groups whose constituencies are the major corporations and wealthiest Americans. The courts, in turn, when they are not increasingly handmaidens of corporate power, are consistently deferential to the claims of national security. Elections have become heavily subsidized non-events that typically attract at best merely half of an electorate whose information about foreign and domestic politics is filtered through corporate-dominated media. Citizens are manipulated into a nervous state by the media’s reports of rampant crime and terrorist networks, by thinly veiled threats of the Attorney General and by their own fears about unemployment. What is crucially important here is not only the expansion of governmental power but the inevitable discrediting of constitutional limitations and institutional processes that discourages the citizenry and leaves them politically apathetic.

No doubt these remarks will be dismissed by some as alarmist, but I want to go further and name the emergent political system “inverted totalitarianism.” By inverted I mean that while the current system and its operatives share with Nazism the aspiration toward unlimited power and aggressive expansionism, their methods and actions seem upside down. For example, in Weimar Germany, before the Nazis took power, the “streets” were dominated by totalitarian-oriented gangs of toughs, and whatever there was of democracy was confined to the government. In the United States, however, it is the streets where democracy is most alive–while the real danger lies with an increasingly unbridled government.

Or another example of the inversion: Under Nazi rule there was never any doubt about “big business” being subordinated to the political regime. In the United States, however, it has been apparent for decades that corporate power has become so predominant in the political establishment, particularly in the Republican Party, and so dominant in its influence over policy, as to suggest a role inversion the exact opposite of the Nazis’. At the same time, it is corporate power, as the representative of the dynamic of capitalism and of the ever-expanding power made available by the integration of science and technology with the structure of capitalism, that produces the totalizing drive that, under the Nazis, was supplied by ideological notions such as Lebensraum.

In rebuttal it will be said that there is no domestic equivalent to the Nazi regime of torture, concentration camps or other instruments of terror. But we should remember that for the most part, Nazi terror was not applied to the population generally; rather, the aim was to promote a certain type of shadowy fear–rumors of torture–that would aid in managing and manipulating the populace. Stated positively, the Nazis wanted a mobilized society eager to support endless warfare, expansion and sacrifice for the nation.

While the Nazi totalitarianism strove to give the masses a sense of collective power and strength, Kraft durch Freude (“Strength through joy”), inverted totalitarianism promotes a sense of weakness, of collective futility. While the Nazis wanted a continuously mobilized society that would not only support the regime without complaint and enthusiastically vote “yes” at the periodic plebiscites, inverted totalitarianism wants a politically demobilized society that hardly votes at all. Recall the President’s words immediately after the horrendous events of September 11: “Unite, consume and fly,” he told the anxious citizenry. Having assimilated terrorism to a “war,” he avoided doing what democratic leaders customarily do during wartime: mobilize the citizenry, warn it of impending sacrifices and exhort all citizens to join the “war effort.” Instead, inverted totalitarianism has its own means of promoting generalized fear; not only by sudden “alerts” and periodic announcements about recently discovered terrorist cells or the arrest of shadowy figures or the publicized heavy-handed treatment of aliens and the Devil’s Island that is Guantánamo Bay or the sudden fascination with interrogation methods that employ or border on torture, but by a pervasive atmosphere of fear abetted by a corporate economy of ruthless downsizing, withdrawal or reduction of pension and health benefits; a corporate political system that relentlessly threatens to privatize Social Security and the modest health benefits available, especially to the poor. With such instrumentalities for promoting uncertainty and dependence, it is almost overkill for inverted totalitarianism to employ a system of criminal justice that is punitive in the extreme, relishes the death penalty and is consistently biased against the powerless.

Thus the elements are in place: a weak legislative body, a legal system that is both compliant and repressive, a party system in which one party, whether in opposition or in the majority, is bent upon reconstituting the existing system so as to permanently favor a ruling class of the wealthy, the well-connected and the corporate, while leaving the poorer citizens with a sense of helplessness and political despair, and, at the same time, keeping the middle classes dangling between fear of unemployment and expectations of fantastic rewards once the new economy recovers. That scheme is abetted by a sycophantic and increasingly concentrated media; by the integration of universities with their corporate benefactors; by a propaganda machine institutionalized in well-funded think tanks and conservative foundations; by the increasingly closer cooperation between local police and national law enforcement agencies aimed at identifying terrorists, suspicious aliens and domestic dissidents.

What is at stake, then, is nothing less than the attempted transformation of a tolerably free society into a variant of the extreme regimes of the past century. In that context, the national elections of 2004 represent a crisis in its original meaning, a turning point. The question for citizens is: Which way?”

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