Sheldon S. Wolin: Saving Us from Ourselves
Democracy is one of the most analyzed, celebrated, condemned, and investigated forms of government the world has ever seen. Many political theorists and thinkers have grappled with the idea of democracy and how it has been applied in both theory and reality. Of the many radical political thinkers of the 20th and 21st centuries, Sheldon S. Wolin’s ideas and theories on democracy are some of the most intriguing and unique. That is not to say however that Wolin has focused only on democracy in his many decades of work. He has studied and come up with theories on a plethora of modern political topics and controversies. In addition to his many works on democracy, Wolin is also deeply concerned with ideas of Empire, Superpower, Totalitarianism, Intellectuals and the role and political uses of modern technology in society. His view on such topics will have even more weight in the coming years as more and more people give up their autonomy in favor of convenience and comfort.
Sheldon S. Wolin has been an influential radical political thinker for nearly half a century. He has enjoyed a long academic career as a professor at University of California Berkeley as well as Professor Emeritus at Princeton University in New Jersey. Though he has now retired from teaching formal classes Wolin’s interest in radical political thought has never ceased. In 2008, at the age of 86 he published his most recent book; Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism. In this monumental work, Wolin investigates democracy and coins several new terms, which he is now famous for, showing that time has not slowed Sheldon S. Wolin down one bit.
I had the great honor to meet with Sheldon Wolin in person during my undergraduate work at Humboldt State University in 2009. He agreed to come speak with students and answer their questions about his latest book; Democracy Incorporated. In the incredible discussion that followed, we covered topics ranging from the histories of totalitarianism and democracy to how his theories on the two are being played out today in what he refers to as ‘Managed Democracy’ and ‘Inverted Totalitarianism.’
Sheldon S. Wolin has been responsible for many great works in radical political thought over his long career. He published his first book in 1960. Entitled Politics and Vision: Continuity and Innovation in Western Political Thought. In this breakthrough book Wolin investigates the political and philosophical histories of Western Civilization all the way up to the Modern Age. He studies the works of such philosophers as Plato, Martin Luther, and Machiavelli all the way up to the more recent works of Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche. Studying the works of Marx and Nietzsche would have a profound effect on Wolin as the theories raised by these two heavyweights in the world of political thought would be echoed in many of his later published works.
During his time at the University of California Berkeley, Wolin was witness to many political demonstrations and riots. These raw acts of political action by students affected Wolin deeply and served as inspiration for many of his works in the future including; The Berkeley Student Revolt: Facts and Interpretations, published in 1965 and The Berkeley Rebellion and Beyond: Essays on Politics & Education in the Technological Society, published in 1970. Throughout his career as a political thinker Wolin’s focus has been on the role of the state in a democracy. This notion of the state managing democracy and the voting populous has been a consistent theme throughout much of his work.
Wolin on Democracy:
Sheldon S. Wolin is perhaps most famous in the academic community for his extensive work on theories relating to democracy. His central critique of American democracy is the privatization of the system. Mingling with the distractions of modern media technology and the corporate world has caused the practice of democracy to be regarded as trivial or routine. In a modern example; why would a person care about who is running for their county supervisor, someone who is extremely important on the local government level, when the new shipment of Apple iPads has arrived at the electronics store? Voter apathy is crucial to Wolin’s argument that we have now reached a ‘managed democracy.’ The term ‘Managed Democracy’ may not have been invented by Wolin, but he is the person who has put it under the spotlight. According to Wolin, “Managed democracy is centered on containing electoral politics; it is cool, even hostile toward social democracy beyond promoting literacy, job training, and other essentials for a society struggling to survive in the global economy. Managed democracy is democracy systematized.” (Wolin.2008, 47)
The United States of America for Wolin is the sort of proving grounds for managed democracy today. To him, “the United States has become the showcase of how democracy can be managed without appearing to be suppressed.”(Wolin.2008, 47) In following the ideas of Karl Marx, Wolin has determined that Americans continually suffer from a false consciousness, in believing that they live in a thriving democracy; not only that, but the greatest democracy in the world. Wolin points to the increasing privatization of the democratic system and the idea of democratic mythology as the causes for the ever-increasing management of the democratic process. On privatization Wolin believes that the interests of corporations i.e. making a profit will overshadow the need for the social services that some people require. “The strategy followed by privatization’s advocates is, first, to discredit welfare functions as ‘socialism’ and then either to sell those functions to a private bidder or to privatize a particular program.” (Wolin.2008, 136) This process of privatization is also transforming the manner in which voters are educated and participate in the democratic system. When corporations have such a firm hold on the government, as they do today “voters are made as predictable as consumers.” (Wolin.2008, 47) Voters do little to question the role of corporations in the government because under the system of managed democracy the mythology of democracy is held out in the forefront for all to see and hopefully believe.
The idea of the democratic mythology is a double-edged sword however, on one-hand the romanticized tales of democracy in the past serve to educate young people on the practices of the democratic process. Children are taught the exploits of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and other legendary American characters while at the same time democratic mythology blinds the voting populous to the problems and perversions of the democratic system’s current iteration. People appear to be under the assumption that if it ain’t broke on the surface then don’t even question to fix it. In the chapter of Democracy Inc. entitled, Democracy’s Perversion, Wolin argues that, “plausibly, democratic mythology might linger on [even] after democratic practices have lost substance, thereby enabling mythology, passivity, and empty forms to serve a type of totalitarian regime.”(Wolin.2008, 53) Even after democracy has vanished in America, we will still cling to the idea that it exists. The inertia of the system will then be the only thing carrying us. Why would we do this? Would we know any better?
According to Wolin this type of situation is not pessimism or even conspiracy theory, it has already happened before! Wolin gives many examples throughout history of the perversion of democracy and the rise of totalitarianism. The rise of Nazism in the democratic Weimar Republic of Germany, the rise of Fascism in Italy and the rise of totalitarianism in the Soviet Union are all recent historical examples of managed democracy. So why and how have we already forgotten? Blame can be placed on several factors including poor civic and history education, an uninterested apathetic citizenry and the culture of consumption perpetuated by the capitalist system. If a democracy has been managed well enough, the people may not even notice when it is gone. What the managed democracy is eventually replaced with is a complete and democratically legitimate system of totalitarianism.
Wolin on ‘Inverted Totalitarianism’:
The term ‘inverted totalitarianism’ has been popularized by Sheldon Wolin in his many works on the subject. Wolin defines inverted totalitarianism as the antithesis of Superpower. In that a Superpower focuses on the outward projection of power, while inverted totalitarianism is interested with maintaining a certain societal status or status quo. This idea is very similar to the works of Italian communist Antonio Gramsci and his theories on hegemony. The idea of inverted totalitarianism was created by Wolin to classify what he saw as a new form of government. A government “driven by abstract totalizing powers, not by personal rule, 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 the events.” (Wolin.2008, 44)
While the system of totalitarianism has existed in different forms for millennia, Wolin believes that inverted totalitarianism is a relatively new creation. “Inverted totalitarianism has emerged imperceptibly, unpremeditatedly, and in seeming unbroken continuity with the nation’s political traditions.” (Wolin.2008, 46) Wolin makes it very clear that inverted totalitarianism differs greatly from what he calls “classic totalitarianism” as seen in Nazi Germany or Fascist Italy. Those regimes focused on the state stepping in a directing every aspect of society. Institutions such as religion, universities and news and opinion media were often abolished and outlawed in these classic totalitarian systems. Inverted totalitarianism does the opposite. Wolin claims that under the inverted system the state is actually in league with the social institutions as they represent the most benign forms of mass control and power over the people.
Inverted totalitarianism does not see itself as malevolent or evil, rather the opposite. Because it has been combined with evangelical religions and the modern business corporations, people do not see this totalitarian regime as a threat to their freedom, even as it gradually erodes away at it. It is the perfect system of control and containment because the people living in it do not even know that they are being controlled. Wolin defines the inverted totalitarian system as, “the political coming-of-age of corporate power.” (Wolin.2008, xiii) However, one cannot speak properly on inverted totalitarianism without also looking at the idea of Superpower.
Wolin on Superpower:
In discussing the rise of new forms of governance like inverted totalitarianism, Sheldon Wolin brings into the discussion a key part of inverted totalitarianism; its antithesis: Superpower. The term superpower has been a part of the American experience for over a century. Even in the non-political realm, the word ‘super’ brings up iconic images of heroes like Captain America and of course Superman; powerful men who have a tremendous responsibility to control their power and not bring the Earth to ruin. The political idea of superpower is no different. Superpower is the outward projection of a nation on the rest of the world. Another way to describe the idea of superpower is empire building. The United States, just as ancient Rome before it, is continually expanding its power and influence over the globe. Having military bases on every continent certain makes the United State’s intentions clear as a military expansionist empire. However, it is not just military might that makes a nation a superpower. Wolin defines superpower as, “the union of state and corporation in an age of waning democracy and political illiteracy.” (Wolin.2008, 131) Dealing with a politically apathetic citizenry is a common theme in many of Wolin’s works. As the world becomes increasingly more complex both economically and politically it will be vital that citizens are educated and more involved in the democratic process. However, as long as democracy is managed and systematized by corporate interests, inverted totalitarianism and superpower will continue to endure. Under the system of superpower, policy is no longer occasionally affected by corporate interests, it has become the standard. When a democracy is managed so well by so few, what need is there for an educated, interested, voting citizenry?
To Wolin, superpower has become so vast and penetrating that it has actually developed a ‘constitution’ of its own, sometimes in contrast with the traditional constitution of the state. The power to create its own constitution gives a superpower incredible influence. But how does it acquire this power? Wolin believes the key to the success of superpower is a series of “dynamic powers.” Science, technology and capital are the key components of superpower’s strength. “These are vital to the imperial reach and the globalizing drive of corporations.” (Wolin.2008, 132) Through applying these powers onto the populous, superpowers are able to “redefine [their] citizenry as respondents rather than actors, as objects of manipulation rather than autonomous.” (Wolin.2008, 132)
In chapter 8 of Democracy Inc. entitled The Politics of Superpower, Wolin discusses the role academics and intellectuals have played in perpetuating the aura of superpower. These educated people are perhaps the most twisted contradictions in society, on one hand being academics means that these people are supposedly concerned with the education of the citizenry, while at the same time they feel that the world has become too complex and intricate for major policy decisions to be left to indecisive, constantly shifting voters. However, it is a vicious cycle as then the citizenry becomes disengaged due to the overwhelming feelings of superiority created by the intellectual elite. The struggle between the intellectual elite and the working middle class is not something new that has emerged with the ideas of inverted totalitarianism and superpower, but they are now more magnified than ever.
Wolin on Elites and Intellectuals:
Intellectuals have a great responsibility to society. As the most educated and foresighted people, it falls on the intellectuals to look out for those who were not as fortunate to receive the education that they are able to achieve. This line of thinking, while practical is also extremely dangerous. This was exactly the case in revolutionary communist Russia in 1917 under the direction of Vladimir Llyich Ulyanov better known as Lenin. Lenin felt that the communist party should be a ‘vanguard’ party, one which is one the frontlines of the revolution, instructing the un-educated masses what is really best for them. Lenin and Marx before him saw the communist revolution as a natural one. When the revolution failed to materialize even after Marx’s death, other devout “orthodox” Marxists such as Lenin felt that the masses were never going to start a revolution unless someone told them to. That someone happened to be himself, a well educated intellectual.
Wolin feels that under the system of inverted totalitarianism the same situation as with the Russian revolution is occurring today. For Wolin however it is the opposite. Intellectuals under the systems of managed democracy and inverted totalitarianism believe that the decisions of today’s world and consequences thereafter are much too complex for the average Joe Six-pack to deal with. Joe should instead just give up his political power to a team of intellectuals who are vastly more educated. Wolin believes that this process is a direct result of the capitalist system which we live under. In perfect world according to Wolin “political elites would be entrusted with power and rewarded with prestige; capitalist elites would be rewarded with wealth and power. Because both represent the best, they are, in that view, entitled to power and reward.” (Wolin.2008, 159) Unfortunately, according to Wolin this is not the world we live in. Under the rule of systems like Superpower and inverted totalitarianism, intellectuals by definition are at odds with each other. While they are entitled to power because of their exceptional skills, it is also their responsibility to guide society because they have been educated on what is best for all. Wolin’s position on the role of intellectuals in society is more easily open to criticism due to the fact that Wolin himself falls into the role of the educated intellectual. It is very easy for someone as educated and well-respected as Sheldon S. Wolin to write on the problems of managed democracy and the role of intellectual elites in society because he has the background and the privilege necessary to do so. The average American voter is more concerned with earning a paycheck and putting food on the table for their family. They are perhaps more willing to accept the system of inverted totalitarianism as long their basic needs for life are still being met. Critics would say that this is where Wolin’s argument loses some steam. The fact that he himself is an educated intellectual, arguing about the dangers of listening to educated intellectuals may cause him to be viewed as “out of touch” by mainstream America.
The concerns raised by Sheldon S. Wolin in his works will prove to be even greater in the future. His view on such topics as managed democracy, inverted totalitarianism and the role of Superpowers will have even more weight in the coming years as more and more people give up their autonomy in favor of convenience and comfort. The rise of a concerned and educated populous is the only thing in Wolin’s mind that can save us from permanently kneeling at the throne of inverted totalitarianism or something even worse!
Wolin, Sheldon S. 2008.Democracy Inc.: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism. Princeton University Press.
Wolin, Sheldon S. 1960. Politics and Vision: Continuity And Innovation in Western Political Thought. Little, Brown Publishers. Boston.