Totalitarianism: It Can Happen Here

Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism
By Sheldon Wolin
(Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008)
ISBN-10: 0691135665
ISBN-13: 978-0691135663

Domesticated Democracy

It is by now commonplace to observe that democracy is in a weakened state in the United States. But could it be that the U.S. is no longer a democracy at all, if it ever truly was? According to Princeton emeritus political scientist Sheldon Wolin’s chilling new volume Democracy, Inc: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism (2008), the United States is becoming a totalitarian state posing as a democracy. Under the rules of what Wolin calls “inverted totalitarianism,” corporate and state power have become deeply “co-joined” and practically “unbridled.” The popular majority of the citizenry — the People — in whose name U.S. “democracy” purports to function is politically uninterested, infantilized, obedient, distracted, and divided. An increasingly spectator-ized and subordinate public is shepherded by the professional political class across a painfully narrow business- and Empire-friendly field of political, policy, and ideological “choices.” Those harshly limited options are presented in periodic superficial, candidate-centered and corporate-crafted elections that function as anti-democratic exercises in capitalist marketing and managerial control. These spectacular rolling extravaganzas privilege candidate image and other trivial matters over substantive questions of policy and ideology, with campaign consultants and advertisers selling candidates like they sell candy or cars. They help keep the interrelated issues of the ever-growing rich-poor gap, corporate power, and imperial militarism (the last two topics are taboo in “mainstream” U.S. political life) “off the table” of acceptable debate and public scrutiny even though they are of primary interest to most American citizens. By Wolin’s account:

The citizenry, supposedly the source of governmental power and authority as well as participant, has been replaced by the ‘electorate,’ that is, by voters who acquire a political life at election time. During the intervals between elections the political existence of the citizenry is relegated to a shadow-citizenship of virtual participation. Instead of participating in power, the virtual citizen is invited to have ‘opinions’: measurable responses to questions predesigned to elicit them. (p. 59)

…In elections parties set out to mobilize the citizen-as-voter, to define political obligation as fulfilled by the casting of a vote. Afterwards, post-election politics of lobbying, repaying donors, and promoting corporate interests — the real players — takes over. The effect is to demobilize the citizenry, to teach them not to be involved or to ponder matters that are either settled or beyond their efficacy. (p. 205)

Once votes have been counted (or not) in America’s totalitarian system, the people” fade back into the woodwork. Politicians from both sides of the nation’s corporate-sponsored “one-and-a-half party system” — the more explicitly authoritarian Republicans or the “inauthentic opposition” advanced by neoliberal corporate Democrats (whose 2004 presidential candidate made a point of stating his opposition to the redistribution of wealth) — proceed to do precisely what the American ex-citizenry wishes them not to do. They advance empire, inequality, and repression, concentrating riches and power ever further upward in what has long been the industrialized world’s most unequal and wealth-top-heavy society.

American “democracy” has been “domesticated” by modern managerial business technique. Its wild democratic risk has been removed for and by the Few. It has been quietly subsumed by corporation, whose mission is to guarantee returns on capital by minimizing chance and maintaining a “stable” environment (including a safely supine domestic population) for investors. Democracy has been incorporated.

In this pseudo-democratic Brave New America, corporate power no longer answers to political controls. The needs of the popular majority are relentlessly subordinated to the “quest for ‘economic growth’” and to the foreign policy elite’s imperial perceptions of “Superpower’s” needs and the so-called “national interest.” “Economic growth” and “national interest” are code words for whatever capital wants and cloak the regular state-capitalist practice of funneling wealth and power from the Many to the Few. The demoted “people” are kept in perpetual fear and prodded to cower under the umbrella of the National Insecurity State by an endless so-called “War on Terror,” heir to the imperial Cold War. The Few steal elections, shred civil liberties, and launch illegal, immoral, and aggressive wars and occupations without serious fear of popular resistance. Young black males — formerly a leading source of protest — are dragooned into the burgeoning mass incarceration state. The use of state power to alleviate poverty and ameliorate inequality is shamed as dangerous public overreach but the use of that power to shamelessly advance corporate interests and pay off big money election investors is celebrated in the ironic name of the “free market.” Working peoples’ living standards are savagely rolled back and working-class sons and daughters are shipped off to kill and die in bloody campaigns of colonial conquest — wars that are waged on false pretexts and serve the interests of the Few while the costs are spread across society and fall with special force on the poor. It’s a “Hood-Robin” system.

Policy-relevant political power is “monopolized by the Few,” who “possess the skills, resources, and focused time that enables them to impose their will on a society the vast majority of whose members are overburdened and distracted by the demands of day-to-day survival” (p. 277). Those demands grow ever more difficult as corporate and imperial masters deepen their stranglehold over American politics, policy, culture, and “life.” It’s a vicious circle that threatens to blow out democracy’s last glowing embers in the “land of the free.”

This American “totalitarianism” promotes more than just specific policies and practices that serve the corporate and financial “elite.” It also advances a “totalizing” and authoritarian notion of the perfect and final society. The 2002 National Security Strategy of the United States defines America’s grand historical mission as advancing “freedom” and the “single sustainable model of for national success: freedom, democracy, and free enterprise” along with “development, free trade, and free markets.” As Wolin notes, “the freedoms dangled before the unfree are, in reality, disguised power” — the heavily state-protected and publicly subsidized power of multinational corporations, global high finance, and the military empire required to advance and protect capitalist profit (“development”) on a global scale. “When the NSS document presents the ‘free market’ as one of the three components of the ideal political system,” Wolin observes, “the market is a surrogate, a stand-in for globalization/empire.” (p. 85)

And the deeply authoritarian reality of empire, Wolin notes, is an unmentionable topic under American totalitarianism.. “The subject of [U.S.] empire,” Wolin observers, “ is taboo in [U.S. political] debate. No major politician or party has so much as publicly remarked on the existence of an American empire.” (p. 192)

Brave New America

Wolin calls the American pseudo-democratic political system “inverted totalitarianism” to differentiate it from the openly statist totalitarianism of classic European fascism (principally German Nazism) and Soviet Stalinism. The earlier totalitarian systems mobilized millions to rally behind centralized state power and a single personal ruler. They explicitly and rapidly demolished democratic and parliamentary institutions and elevated personalized state rule over markets and private profit.

The American model, by contrast, has evolved more slowly and under the guise — and in the name of — of democratic institutions and ideals, without open authoritarian intent. It “succeeds by encouraging political disengagement rather than mass mobilization.” It “relies more on ‘private’ media than on public agencies to disseminate propaganda reinforcing the official version of events.” (p. 44) It makes “capitalism” its official “regime ideology,” trumpeting the virtues of “free markets,” “free trade,” and “free enterprise” (code words for authoritarian state-capitalist corporate-managerial rule), which are falsely conflated “democracy.”

“Inverted totalitarianism” wraps itself in the language and lingering, watered-down legacy of democratic freedom and constitutionalism. It advances “leaders” who are the products but not the architects of the system. It does not crush popular government under the iron heel of dictatorship but rather renders democracy ever-more feckless and irrelevant through regular systemic corruption, popular exhaustion, cultural privatism, popular division/diversion, mass misinformation, and mass entertainment.

Unlike classic 20th century fascist and Soviet (red fascist) totalitarianism, it requires no great sacrifice or strength on the part of its subject populace. It creates a “soft,” childish, and fearful citizenry that is asked mainly to buy things, to watch their telescreens (which largely filter and package the world in terms fit for corporate and imperial hegemony), and perhaps to occasionally vote for its favorite corporate-vetted and “misrepresentative” political candidates every few years.

“Inverted totalitarianism’s” ideal “good Americans” pretty much stay at work, home, the bank, and the mall. They are happy to leave big political and policy decisions and public affairs to designated experts and protectors from the professional political class that has emerged to serve the combined and interrelated interests of the corporate and imperial Few. In Wolin’s view, they represent the corporate-era fulfillment of the British political philosopher Thomas Hobbes’ arch-authoritarian notion — developed in Hobbes’s book Leviathan (1651) — of the good society as one that combines the absolute power of the ruler with a populace that loathes and runs from political engagement:

Leviathan was the first image of superpower and the first intimation of the kind of privatized citizen congenial with its requirements, the citizen who finds politics a distraction to be avoided, who if denied ‘a hand in public business,’ remains convinced that taking an active part means to ‘to hate and be hated,’ ‘without any benefit,’ and ‘to neglect the affairs of [his] own family.’ Hobbes had not only foreseen the power possibilities in the oxymoron of private citizen, but exploited them to prevent sovereign power from being shared among its subjects. Hobbes reasoned that if individuals were protected in their interests and positively encouraged by the state to pursue the wholeheartedly, subject only to laws designed to safeguard them from the unlawful acts of others, then they would soon recognize that political participation was superfluous, expendable, not a rational choice. Civic indifference was thus elevated to a form of rational virtue,… [justifying the emergence of] an apolitical citizenry… [immersed in] private concerns.” (p.75)

Classic totalitarianism assembled, rallied, and projected the “masses.” It beat up, intimidated, arrested, tortured, and killed dissenters. By contrast, the American model of totalitarianism demobilizes and inverts the populace, keeping it (us) focused on personal, private, and family concerns — and on its corporate telescreens. Antiwar and social justice activists don’t generally have to be beaten and jailed; they are deleted and occasionally mocked and marginalized on the Ten O’ Clock News, leaving little mark on degraded public perceptions and history.

“Inverted totalitarianism’s” pacified, apathetic, ignorant, and deceived public is content to leave history to be made by supposedly wise and benevolent masters like Dick Cheney, Karl Rove, James Baker, and Donald Rumsfeld, who follow in the Nazis’ footsteps by launching criminal and supposedly “preventive” wars of aggression sold on brazenly false pretexts that are dutifully advanced by dominant media, including the Orwellian claim to be exporting democracy through colonial conquest. Since the Few learned from Vietnam not to send a citizen’s army into bloody colonial “service,” today’s wars are fought by a safely segregated caste of mostly working class imperial mercenaries.

In Brave New America, the People do not need to be hardened and rallied to inflict violence on designated ideological and ethnic enemies of the state at home or abroad. Their main jobs are to buy stuff, watch their telescreens and pursue their private interests. The definition of meaningful popular participation in the polity is reduced largely to casting an occasional vote in carefully crafted elections where none of the candidates are foolish enough to think they could run viably funded and broadcast campaigns in the name of the social-democratic and anti-imperial beliefs that most Americans privately and passively tell pollsters they hold. Meanwhile the ex-citizenry is encouraged to believe that it is in charge of the nation.

There is no serious push back in the corporate media, naturally enough, or even in the universities, since “the Academy ha[s] become self-pacifying.” (p. 68) As for the Democrats, Wolin observes that they offer no real or relevant opposition to the more explicitly plutocratic and militarist despotism of the Republicans. If anything, Wolin argues, the Democratic Party deepens “inverted totalitarianism’s” hold by capturing and co-opting reformist impulses within a broadly corporatist framework and by enhancing the illusion of meaningful popular representation within a system designed to keep the populace and democracy at bay:

“The Democrats’ politics might be described as inauthentic opposition in the era of Superpower. Having fended off its reformist elements and disclaimed the label of liberal, [the Democratic Party] is trapped by new rules of the game which dictate that a party exists to win elections rather than to promote a vision of the good society. Accordingly, the party competes for an apolitical segment of the electorate, ‘the undecided,’ and puzzles how best to woo religious zealots. Should Democrats somehow be elected, corporate sponsors make it politically impossible for the new officeholders to alter significantly the direction of society. At best, Democrats might repair some of the damage done to environmental safeguards or to Medicare without substantially reversing the drift rightwards. By offering palliatives, a Democratic administration contributes to plausible denial about the true nature of the system. By fostering an illusion among the powerless classes that the party can make their interests a priority, it pacifies and thereby defines the style of an opposition part in an inverted totalitarian system. In the process it demonstrates the superior cost-effectiveness of inverted totalitarianism over the crude classic versions.” (p. 201)

Capitalism v. Democracy: “The Dictatorship of the Bourgeoisie”

Wolin’s book is not without problems. Its annotation and detailed reference to current and recent events is painfully thin. It spends too much time on classical antiquity and past thinkers (the U.S. Founders, Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Tocqueville) relative to more modern U.S. business and political history and current events. It pays essentially no attention to the concrete empirical record of corporate evolution and rule and narrow-spectrum, business-friendly politics in U.S. history — a record that predates the Progressive Era (1900-1920), when the American philosopher John Dewey rightly proclaimed that U.S. “politics are the shadow cast on society by big business.” As the historian Richard Hofstader noted sixty years ago in his widely read text The American Political Tradition: “the range of vision embraced by the primary contestants in the major [U.S.] parties has always been bounded by the horizons of property and enterprise… They have accepted the economic virtues of capitalist culture as necessary qualities of man… That culture has been intensely nationalistic.”1

Wolin seems remarkably unaware of, or unwilling to cite, Left thinkers who have written valuable works on capitalism, imperialism, and the trumping of American and Western “democracy” by concentrated economic and political power. Some of the ignored names that come to mind are Charles Derber (who writes in interesting and informative ways about successive “corporate regimes” that have ruled American politics since the late 19th century), C. Wright Mills, G. William Domhoff, Ralph Milliband, Ellen Meiksens-Wood, Alex Carey (an expert on corporate propaganda’s longstanding war on U.S. democracy), William T. Robinson, Jeff Faux, Joel Bakan, William Greider, David Montgomery, and (last but not least) Noam Chomsky.

Given Wolin’s taste for historical texts and theories on politics, I was disappointed that he did not join Chomsky in citing Aristotle and Thomas Jefferson on the core contradiction between wealth inequality (an inherent characteristic and tendency of capitalism) and democracy. Then there’s the largely invisible (in Wolin’s book) Karl Marx, for whom capitalist democracy, being a system of class rule, amounted to a “dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.” Democracy and capitalism have never mixed and never will, as generations of progressive thinkers have long argued.

Wolin underestimates or ignores the significant extent to which German Nazism reflected and acted on the desires of the German bourgeoisie.

Wolin writes in often excessively abstract and academic language despite his book’s popular, general-audience title. This style cannot help but ironically limit his book’s relevance as an antidote to elitism.

He missed, I think, a good opportunity to capture the often forgotten significance of Aldous Huxley’s novel Brave New World, as relevant to the United States’ particular brand of authoritarianism as George Orwell’s more Soviet-focused Nineteen Eighty Four. In Huxley’s dystopia, corporate-state masters divert people away from meaningful matters of serious public concern, transporting them to politically harmless states of childish amusement, personal preoccupation, and drugged, narcissistic fascination.

Wolin shows no appreciation of left “cultural theory” since Antonio Gramsci and the Frankfurt School, ignoring thinkers (themselves admittedly often hyper-abstract) who contributed critically to the analysis of corporate totalitarianism and capitalist cultural hegemony.

Wolin ignores the large number of Americans who do seem to represent efforts towards a mobilized far-right project. I am thinking here especially of the evangelical “American fascists” that Chris Hedges has warned us about across the vast swaths of so-called “Red State America.” And I can’t escape the possibility that a harder form of more explicitly fascist-like totalitarianism (already experienced by millions of very disproportionately black inmates and permanent felons in the United States’ Prison Nation) awaits Americans who have been softened up by the “inverted” variant Wolin describes.

The iron fist lives on beneath the silk glove of corporate neoliberal paternalism. I wonder how many (if any) mass antiwar or immigrant rights or global justice demonstrations Wolin has attended in the last decades. It is not uncommon to directly confront the reality of state repression right here in the U.S. during such events, as I would guess many Dissident Voice readers can attest. (We shall see how many protestors get tasered, beaten, and perhaps even [we hope not] killed in Denver and St. Paul over the next few weeks).

Last but not least, Wolin’s terminology is problematic. Charles Derber’s more concrete historical notion (developed in his 2005 book Hidden Power) of successive and inherently authoritarian corporate regimes — Derber places us in the age of the “third corporate regime,” dominated by the transnational corporation, aggressive global Empire, and rampant social insecurity at home — is much better than Wolin’s somewhat abstract and potentially bewildering concept of “inverted totalitarianism.” As a Kansas-based progressive- Democratic activist (who prefers to remain anonymous) recently wrote to me in a thoughtful reflection on Wolin’s book:

Wolin’s term ‘totalitarian’ is a fabulous contribution, but to say it is ‘inverted’ is not a viable, easily grasped, understandable label. It is too easily interpreted as ‘opposite.’ I think it is far better to say the corporate regime IS a form of totalitarian governance or is totalitarian via managed, intentional propaganda, apathy, ignorance, passivity, a lack of spare time, and a two-party, money-controlled, corrupt, plutocratic system. If I had to pick one adjective to distinguish American ‘totalitarianism’ from the fascist, violence-based systems of Hitler and Stalin I wouldn’t say ‘inverted’ but would say (ala Huxley) ‘pacified totalitarian’ or ‘propaganda-based totalitarian’ or ‘money-controlled totalitarian.’ ‘Inverted’ seems confusing at best.

Still, Wolin has done some very important and properly dark descriptive work on the United States’ dangerously constricted political culture at this terrible stage in the development of Brave New America. As the liberal political scientist Robert Dahl noted in 1959: “[If] political preferences are simply plugged into the system by leaders [business or other] in order to extract what they want from the system, then the model of plebiscitary democracy is substantially equivalent to the model of totalitarian rule”2

That’s pretty much where we are half a century later in “America, the greatest democracy that money can [and did] buy.” In its presidential as in its other elections, Laurence Shoup noted last February, U.S. “democracy” is “at best” a “guided one; at its worst it is a corrupt farce, amounting to manipulation, with the larger population projects of propaganda in a controlled and trivialized electoral process. It is an illusion,” Shoup claims — correctly in my opinion — “that real change can ever come from electing a different ruling class-sponsored candidate”3 Beneath and beyond the regular, much-ballyhooed election spectacles, wealth and power are concentrated ever-further upward over and above the sadly irrelevant U.S. public’s secretly progressive, social-democratic and anti-imperial policy preferences. Because of this chasm between public opinion and policy, the People find no meaningful institutional and political expression in “Superpower’s” “managed” and “ersatz-,” “pseudo’” and even “anti-”democracy” — thus the reality of its totalitarian nature.

And it is probably useful to have the full authoritarian darkness of this harsh reality acknowledged and described by someone like Wolin, who has long operated in the belly of the beast. He is an Ivy League academician who has long functioned within the elite mainstream of U.S. social science and not on the “lunatic fringe” to which serious left-progressive thinkers are sadly consigned in the American ideological system — consistent with the notion that U.S. government and political culture are totalitarian.

Brave New HOPE?

For what it’s worth, my new book Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics suggests that the ongoing “Obama phenomenon” is more than consistent with Wolin’s bleak thesis. It exposes Barack Obama as a conservative, corporate, militarist Democrat posing as a democratic progressive and suggests that the phenomenon is helping de-mobilize, co-opt, and contain (incorporate) the citizenry at the same time that it may be expanding the electorate.

In the United States’ dangerously narrow, corporate-totalitarian political culture, many people can’t process serious and substantive criticism of the Obama phenomenon from the left as anything but an argument to elect John McCain and/or a purely personal assault on Obama. But my dichotomy is not Obama versus McCain. It is (i) corporate- “managed democracy” versus grassroots popular activism against Dr. Martin Luther King Jr,’s “triple evils that are interrelated” (capitalism, racism, and imperialism) and against other and related evils (sexism, corporate-eco-cide, state terrorism and repression) as well. It is also about the timeworn battle between capitalism and democracy. Understood in terms of these deeper dichotomies and conflicts, what people do for two minutes on the holy day of the quadrennial election spectacle is a secondary matter.

My main concern is that citizens and activists find or maintain some relevant way to be and stay true to the actual historical Left’s commitment to popular resistance and mobilization under either an a McCain or an Obama presidency. And while a conservative corporate-neoliberal Obama victory may be preferable to an extremist and neoconservative McCain triumph in the short term, I fear that an Obama ascendancy carries serious related risks of excessive progressive self-pacification and threatens to dangerously re-legitimize the totalitarian politics of corporate rule and Empire. As Greg Guma recently noted in a thoughtful reflection on Obama as “The New Jimmy Carter”: “the truth is that, in Obama, a worried establishment has found the vessel through which they hope to restore international and domestic stability.” As Guma rightly observes, “Obama, like Carter, can be useful [to the U.S. power elite] in calming things down and re-establishing confidence in the legitimacy of the current political order. In short, he can reinforce the argument that ‘the system’ still works.”4

Our current corporate-totalitarian political order doesn’t “work” for any but the Few. It is a grave threat to human survival and peace, justice, and democracy at home and abroad.

  1. Richard Hofstader, The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It (New York: Vintage, 1989 [1948]), pp.xxxiii-xl. []
  2. Robert Dahl, “Business and Politics: a Critical Appraisal of Political Science,” in Robert Dahl, ed., Social Science Research on Business: Product and Potential [New York, 1959], p. 53. []
  3. Laurence H. Shoup, “The Presidential Election 2008,” Z Magazine, February 2008, p. 31. []
  4. Greg Guma, “Barack Obama: The New Jimmy Carter,” ZNet, July 28, 2008. []

Paul Street (paulstreet99@yahoo.com) is a veteran radical historian and independent author, activist, researcher, and journalist in Iowa City, IA. He is the author of Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Paradigm 2005); Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (Routledge 2005): and Racial Oppression in the Global Metropolis (Rowman&Littlefied 2007). Street's new book Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics can now be ordered. Read other articles by Paul.

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  1. Michael Hureaux said on August 23rd, 2008 at 10:47am #

    Both Wolin’s book and your own sound like some enlightening reading, Paul, and some serious thinking about what’s going on in this mess we live with. I actually think of our current order as a sort of Huxleyan nightmare, for the same reasons as our friendly enemy, the teacher Neil Postman has suggested, to wit, that our “civilization” is endangered not so much by the fact that people are laughing at and engaging with things that are mortal social illnesses, but that we’ve forgotten why we’re laughing and engaging.

    The Brave New World we’re taking on has constructed the most insidious and effective form of state violence and repression ever seen by people. CLR James commented in his essay “Dialectical Materialism and the Fate of Humanity” (1950) that the postwar imperium would reach levels of barbarity that made Hitler and Stalin look like amateurs, and given the levels of carnage our so-called leaders have introduced to Iraq, I think James pegged it right. 1.2 million dead and 4 million displaced as a result of a civil war that our “government” generated is a war crime of Stalinist dimensions, but these jackasses who govern us plow this little fact under just as readily as the Hitlerians they condemn. And on we go.

    I will be looking for both books. I have to say I don’t think it’s so essential that radical historians always be included in the credits so long as dialectical method is present, I think historians like Richard Hofstadter employed such technique without ever using the word, and most effectively too. I think the hardest thing, as a teacher, is getting students to understand that the spirit of a theory is entangled even with its backwards practice, and I do believe we owe the postmodernists much hell for this problem they’ve created for us. Certainly one result of their moralistic blathering are students of history who reject the whole of democratic theory on the basis of how the imperium and white supremacy have manipulated the term “democracy”, and so-called socialists who dismiss Bolshevism on the basis of its own worst excesses and crimes. Students of history, however, and particularly people who think of themselves as radicals, now more than ever have a responsibility to work with the dialectic, and be the dialectic, or model the dialectic, as opposed to just pointing out masters of the form.

  2. polack in idaho said on August 23rd, 2008 at 3:46pm #

    In late 70′s in Poland, people who opposed the system (including a modest contribution of this writer) would often spend an inordinate amount of time and energy trying to find the best-fitting term to describe it. Such as “quasi-totalitarianism” ; it was not a truly totalitarian system, because the people running it did not have a sufficient animus (thank goodness) to shed blood, torture, and kill at will – openly… Very rarely, they would attempt to utilize these instruments of power (kill a priest, torture a union activist), usually initiated by mid-level police functionaries. In late Soviet Union, it was also (from what I new) this “mild” form of absolute rule. Perhaps a good term would be “benign totalitarianism” in a sense of a “benign tumor” – always present threat, that may well kill you eventually, but not right away. The system is based on a threat/promise: you will be just fine – IF you don’t make trouble. The difficulty, of course, is that it is much easier to make good on a threat, than on a promise – because everything comes to a grinding stop. It is impossible for humans to be happy in this situation (and it matters little how they feel consciously; the body knows better) – and with a profoundly unhappy populace, it becomes difficult to deliver anything other than ersatz substitutes for everything – from food, housing, and health, to ambition, interests, sex, and religion). Eventually system has to collapse under unbearable weight of self-inflicted wounds – contradictions, lies, harsh reality. One cannot violate nature (and human psyche is part of it) forever, inasmuch as there is only small hope for us at present, because one CAN violate it for a long time. However, something’s gotta give – 10, 20, 50 years from now?

  3. Dogger said on August 23rd, 2008 at 6:48pm #

    “Inverted totalitarianism’s” pacified, apathetic, ignorant, and deceived public is content to leave history to be made by supposedly wise and benevolent masters like Dick Cheney, Karl Rove, James Baker, and Donald Rumsfeld, who follow in the Nazis’ footsteps by launching criminal and supposedly “preventive” wars of aggression sold on brazenly false pretexts that are dutifully advanced by dominant media, including the Orwellian claim to be exporting democracy through colonial conquest. Since the Few learned from Vietnam not to send a citizen’s army into bloody colonial “service,” today’s wars are fought by a safely segregated caste of mostly working class imperial mercenaries.

    We live today in a country that has invaded another country for no good reason. The reasons given by the administration for invasion have been shown to be difinitively untrue, even likely to have been lies.
    Still the general American public to a large extent is patriotic and proud.
    Support today for American militaristic imperialism is roughly equal to German Nationalistic pride in 1939 following the invasion of Poland. Both invasions were justified by the governments and national medias as acts of defense, protecting fearful publics from attack.
    We invaded in foreign nation with no just cause, killing thousands to millions, and destroying infrastructure and uprooting and displacing millions. And yet there is today political discourse about victory and success in Iraq, and of troops coming home with honor. And our soldiers are called heroes; what is heroic about defeating a vastly inferior army seeking to defend its own homeland; what is heroic about unjustly invading a foreign sovereign nation?
    The invasion of Iraq was no act of defense, not at all. Any statement about winning a war of conquest ignores entirely any small measure of ethics. To frame decisions about bringing troops home around concepts of victory and honor is to ignore the reality of the unjust military invasion that began the occupation. The only factors of importance in troop withdrawal should be the minimization of troop casualties, and minimization of further harm done to Iraqi citizens and the Iraqi nation. Issues of pride and glory show a level of inhumanity that is all too present in the manipulation of American identity and values. Our troops should be brought home safely and quickly, and they should be given the greatest of care for their futures, for their health and education and overall well being. To care about the troops is to bring them safely home; to support the continued occupation of a nation, to continue to keep American soldiers in harms way for no good reason is to be arrogantly egotistical.
    Our nation’s military continues to increasingly benefit corporate wealth interests while having less and less impact directly upon the public. Haliburton, Blackwater Etc. are replacing public troops, with private interests. We are burdened with the costs of war, with financing a military that costs exponentially more than that of any other nation in the world. Our financial burden for the milotary is immense, while our economy is collapsing, like the soviet’s in the 80′s.
    The “safely segregated caste of mostly working class imperial mercenaries” is increasingly promoting public apathy as private interests enlist foreign mercenaries to replace the traditional American soldier. We are outsourcing our military, and in doing so, reducing troop pay and benefits, while increasing corporate profit and influence.
    As a public we have become so detatched from involvement in and responsiblility for our federal government. The conflation of nationalistic, militaristic, patriotism with apathetic misinformed awareness should be an embarrassment to us all.
    American democracy is dead. The American public is too stupid, apathetic and misinformed to make decisions even in its own interest. As individuals we struggle and compete to survive, while the wealth and resources that we could share are disributed upward to an immensely empowered few.
    As a public we have failed to take care of ourselves. We are brainwashed, incompetent fools. Our democracy is dead because we have given it away.
    The American dream has become a selfish pursuit of individual wealth and prosperity. We don’t care about one another. We try to take care of ourselves and in our selfish pursuit of individual well being we have lost community. Without community there is not democracy. We struggle against each other while our rulers work together to continue to further entrench their power.
    Our education and health care systems are inferior to most of the rest of the developed world. Our prison and justice systems are a mess and money and population.
    I am embarrassed to be an American. I am embarrassed to be part of a public that has chosen militaristic excess over general wellfare. I am embarrassed that my nation has unjustly invaded another nation seeking wealth, and continuing occupation seeking victory and pride. I am embarrassed mostly by the general apathy of the American public to it all.

  4. multipole said on August 23rd, 2008 at 8:42pm #

    “”If I had to pick one adjective to distinguish American ‘totalitarianism’ from the fascist, violence-based systems of Hitler and Stalin I wouldn’t say ‘inverted’ but would say (ala Huxley) ‘pacified totalitarian’ or ‘propaganda-based totalitarian’ or ‘money-controlled totalitarian.’ ”

    That none of these adjectives nail the point is entailed by the fact that they are so diverse. They are plausible only inasmuch as no further adjectives are closer to the central point of inversion: Instead of the cruelty raining down, it seeps up from below. So why not hit the point on the head?

    Concrete history is a kaliedoscope of superficial labels. Abstract terms force you engage at a deeper level.

  5. Brian Koontz said on August 23rd, 2008 at 9:06pm #

    “Our current corporate-totalitarian political order doesn’t “work” for any but the Few. It is a grave threat to human survival and peace, justice, and democracy at home and abroad.”

    That’s false. Poor Americans are far richer than the world’s poor, a testament to the results of successful imperialism and the corporate-totalitarian political order. The Mob Underlings reap the benefits of Mob successes, however disproportionately in relation to the Mob Boss.

    Whether it’s a “grave threat to human survival” is dependent upon the degree of success of the American-led multinational-corporate empire in perpetuating worldwide slavery. If it’s successful the world will become enslaved rather than killed – if things get out of control a worldwide or small-scale holocaust may occur.

    As for “peace, justice, and democracy” – there have never been any of those things in the United States. The state was founded on a war to secure power for the domestic elite, it proceeded by capitalist logic, including the internal colonization of the genocided native population, perpetual war against both them and the imported Africans, repression of women, perpetual exploitation of non-Americans, and theft and exploitation of the domestic poor by the rich. “Peace”, “justice”, and “democracy” are words in a dictionary, as well as words that sometimes are reflected in other places or in small-scale incidents.

    By “grave threat” you can only mean that it threatens a demographic previously unthreatened – privileged (middle-class) whites. When the Neocons and their neoliberal doctrine came to power middle class whites panicked – they were no longer safe and would have to join (in a far muted form of exploitation) the ranks of so many other victims of the American state. It’s only been with the rise of neoliberalism that the white bourgeois intelligentsia has “discovered the horrors of imperialism” – where were these horrors during the supposed “Golden Age of American Democracy” – the Bretton-Woods post-WWII period?

    An alien, observing this, cannot be blamed for having little sympathy for the suddenly fearful bourgeois whites, who write treatises on the horrors of neoliberalism.

    “Peace, justice, and democracy”? Those concepts cannot have true meaning until such time as the “good” people of the world operate by something other than selfishness, greed, and fear.

    The mantra of the modern Western left is “neoliberalism is going too far” – summed up in Naomi Klein’s ideology. This left, which complains so much about the “narrow political spectrum in America” might want to explore the narrow ideological spectrum they themselves exist in.

    The Imperial Left exists within an imperial society. For all their knowledge of imperialism, they don’t know themselves.

  6. john andrews said on August 24th, 2008 at 12:33am #

    ‘Democracy and capitalism have never mixed and never will, as generations of progressive thinkers have long argued.’

    I think this may be a crucial error in left thinking: democracy is a form of political philosophy and capitalism is a form of economic philosophy. So to say they never mix is a little like saying oil and water never mix – but it doesn’t mean they can’t exist side by side.

    The essential problem in our modern ‘democracies’ is the link between wealth and political power. Cut that link and humane society becomes a real possibility. Wealth is not the problem. If you compare some rich and famous movie star with the CEO of some multi national corporation, both of whom are rich far beyond their needs, only the CEO is a serious threat to society because of her almost certain influence in government. Their wealth per se, is irrelevant.

    The left is missing an important point here, because its traditional wealth distribution message alienates the rich, many of whom have more genuine social consciences than socialists; and wealth distribution simply isn’t necessary – what’s necessary is to eliminate the existing link between wealth and power, and to equalise justice and opportunities for all. Wealth can exist within a humane society – they do not have to be contradictions in terms.

    Free Democracy is a solution.
    http://www.freedemocrats.co.uk.

  7. michael said on August 24th, 2008 at 6:50am #

    The polack said it very well. we all do well here if we don’t make trouble. down here on the street we used to call it “staying out of the system” which is becoming harder and harder to do. DWI roadblocks and the “three strike rule” make sure some of us get vacuumed up by the system. God forbid you should appear at a protest or motorcycle rally. That consigns you to the police video files forever. Also if a person doesn’t conform to the average dress or appearance code in this democracy he or she is much more likelly to be incorporated into the system. Yeah we are free and I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else (too old for New Zealand anyway) but I’m careful to keep my mouth shut and confine my protests to contributions to progressive web sites sent in cash to street addresses. After all I sure don’t want to become a “no fly list” victim as I just may want to take a trip one day. Michael

  8. Joseph Danison said on August 24th, 2008 at 12:49pm #

    “It is by now commonplace to observe that democracy is in a weakened state in the United States.”

    It is immediately obvious that Paul Street needs to examine his fundamental assumptions when one considers that democracy has never existed in the US. The Constitution describes a representative republican form of government. In the minds of James Madison and other founders, democracy was a synonym for “mob rule”.

    This is no mere word quibbling. A democratic system and a representative republic are distinct political structures. The founders laid the framework for corporate oligarchy and that is what we are experiencing today, “representative” corporate oligarchy.

    The question is then how did this corporate oligarchy achieve its preeminence and overwhelm the restraints imposed by the need to seek public approval that elections imply? The answer lies in the privatized monetary system. The golden rule is that those who have the gold make the rules. If you own the goose that lays the golden egg, the Federal Reserve System, you can buy everything that money will buy, votes, media, essential industries, resources, and the souls of those who put them up for sale.

    I would judge that the book under review and the reviewer are both well-intentioned but naive and uninformed.

  9. bozhidar balkas said on August 24th, 2008 at 5:00pm #

    the basic structure of governance on int’l and intranat’l levels had not changed an iota for at least 12, 000 yrs.
    there was/is a (tho stratified) ruling class and a nonruling class in all lands thruout ages.
    every empire i know of, sought to expand by any means whatsoever. in case of US, it even used tw0 a-bombs.
    and no amount of evolution or revolution may change the basic structure of governance.
    but hope runs eternally! who knows??! thank u

  10. John Hatch said on August 24th, 2008 at 5:15pm #

    Dick Cheney pretty well said that Americans should vote, and then shut up and go away for four years. And that’s what they do.

    As for the vaunted invading troops that everyone wants ‘safe’. (What about the killer mercenaries? Do we want them safe as well?) Not me. I care about as much for American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan as I would have for German ones in Poland or France. Less, in fact, because the Germans were conscripted.

  11. Brian Koontz said on August 24th, 2008 at 5:26pm #

    “As for the vaunted invading troops that everyone wants ’safe’. (What about the killer mercenaries? Do we want them safe as well?) Not me. I care about as much for American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan as I would have for German ones in Poland or France. Less, in fact, because the Germans were conscripted.”

    Troops are little worse than the “good” people who support multinational corporations either directly (by being employed by them) or indirectly (by being employed in a structure that interacts positively with them).

    Even if Americans were so “moral” as to not join the military, the state would merely turn to non-American mercenaries, using tax dollars gained from the “good” Americans who refuse themselves to fight.

    The state as a capitalist, imperialist, dominative structure has to be shut down. Quibbling about the morality of troops doesn’t solve anything.

  12. DanE said on August 24th, 2008 at 7:30pm #

    Thank you Brian Koontz! You’re making a lot of sense, and you are consistent from Jump to Finale which alas cant be said of many others who have made good pts here & there but then drifted off into Crackpotlandia.

    The comparison Street forgets to make is to the pre-Freed Mandela Republic of South Africa, which was quite democratic in its reflection of the popular will of the White minority in its classic Liberal parliamentary & judicial institutions while ruling the Majority with an Iron Hand no softer than Hitler’s.

    Maybe some wd benefit from considering Woodrow Wilson and WWI which he sold as necessary “To make the world safe for Democracy”, by which he apparently meant the then all-encompassing (nd by Wilson consistently defended)Jim Crow System which formed the basis of the Demock-rat Pty’s “Solid South” so important to FDR’s “New Deal” snowjob.

    Street might also ponder the institutional framework installed by the “Founding Fathers” of the Confederate States of America which was at least as “democratic” in form as the institutions of the US of A at the time of the Fort Sumter attack.

  13. paul street said on August 25th, 2008 at 7:15am #

    Never said (in this piece or anywhere else) that the U.S. was founded as a democracy and have written at length about the authoritarian foundations of the early Republic…so one of the lectures I got above is unrequired. Still, there have been numerous popular struggles to create various democratic victories and values and institutions in the U.S. since the founding and one can talk reasonably about ebbs and flows — strengthenings and weakenings — of democratic capacities and sensibilities in the U.S. over time.

    For what its worth, Wolin has a chapter on the antidemocatic philophies and actions of the Founders.

    I disagree with the commenter who thinks we can reconcile democracy and wealth inequality (the latter is an inherently deepening characteristic aspect of capitalism, which is about more than monetary control). I’m with Aristotle, Jefferson, Marx, Lenin (who used Marx’s “dictatorship of the bourgeoise” phrase to desceibe so-called capitalist democracy) and Chomsky on that.

    Capitalism (and I would say class society) and democracy are not just merely different – they are opposed and work at cross purposes. That’s part of why the Founders created a proprietors’ republic, not a democracy.

    Dogger’s reflections strike me as understandable.

    DanE.’s South Africa reference takes things to a new level of bizarre.

  14. cg said on August 25th, 2008 at 11:45am #

    S.A. itself has taken ‘things’ to a new level of bizarre. ANC style..
    Funny how one of the richest and most vital nations of the earth could maintain such a low to no profile. Unless its by design..
    I mean, what can they do other than fill the screen with Mandela’s smiling face?
    Move him out of the way and the movie suddenly turns into something like “Escape From New York.”
    The only thing that work’s in the ANC’s communist miasma of S.A. is them there mines.
    “The spice must flow.”

  15. i on the ball patriot said on August 25th, 2008 at 6:04pm #

    Election Boycott 08!!!!
    When you play the crooked game you legitimize it.
    Write your supervisor of elections and let them know why you won’t vote, use the phrase; ‘No confidence in government’!
    Its time for a massive vote of, “No confidence in government!”
    Make your vote really count by actively and loudly not voting.
    Stand up and refuse to be counted as a mindless dumb ass!

  16. Bob said on August 26th, 2008 at 2:17pm #

    I shudder to think of the time and energy most writers on DV waste! Just think of the what they could accomplish if they concentrated on something worthwhile, instead of the constant drivel of conspiracies.

  17. Giorgio said on August 26th, 2008 at 6:22pm #

    Totalitarianism: It Can Happen Here?
    What? It’s already here!
    The fact that Ron Paul or Ralph Nader are not already languishing in jail is a measure of how smart these guys are. They don’t want to make martyrs of them. They just neutralize them into a corner and let them YAP! YAP! to their heart’s content, it’s good enough for them…

    Adolph Hitler must be spinning with envy in his grave!
    I made just a little incursion into Poland, so he gripes, and the whole
    world jumps on me, calling me a fascist!…These guys smart bomb half the world to smithereens and what do they call them? LIBERATORS!

    Joseph, you were a DumbAss as my propagandist! Look how this guy Murdoch does it, he keeps all these minds under control. Feeds them all garbage and they think it’s manna from heaven!

    Then he slumps back into his recurrent deppresion groaning that if he lost it all, it was because his collaborators were never up to scratch…

    NB. Hey,Bob, I agree, it is a waste.

  18. Dissident Voice : Cross Examining Capitalism said on September 20th, 2008 at 6:01am #

    [...] Totalitarianism, 2008, Princeton University Press, Princeton, N.J; See also Paul Street, “Totalitarianism: It can Happen Here,” Dissident Voice, August 23, 2008. [↩]Al Gore, An Inconvenient Truth, Rodale Books, 2006. [...]

  19. Marky said on January 20th, 2009 at 8:28pm #

    Intresting comments,
    I would like to add that this book is part of the system and as “thinkers” making comments we are pacified by the current system. Reading the book is like our sanctioned 2 mins hate where we are allowed to be angry at the system befeore we go back to the mall….. The problem is that unless Thinkers become Doers then we have already lost.

    I have been pacified – I dont intend to do anything about the current situation.