Democracy Inc. – book review

by Robin Samuel

Go here for the video version of this book review.

DemocracyDemocracy Inc makes the case that democracy in the US is struggling. The author argues that the US is a democracy in name only.

Wikipedia states about the author: “Sheldon S. Wolin (born August 4, 1922) is an American political philosopher and writer on contemporary politics. Wolin is currently Professor of Politics, Emeritus, at Princeton University, where he taught from 1973 to 1987

Wolin makes the case that our political system is not what most of us believe it to be: egalitarian, democratic and one where power resides with the people.  He claims that the US political system today is a version of a total system, one that he calls “inverted totalitarianism”.  He compares the modern day system to that of traditional totalitarianism, e.g., Nazi Germany, Stalinism, Mussolini’s Italy.

Like traditional totalitarian states, myth is an important mechanism for keeping the masses believing and in line.  Wolin cites the parallel examples of myth in the making:  Hitler landing in a military air field surrounded by loyal admirers and Bush II landing on an aircraft carrier with the deck filled with loyal troops.  The strong leader image. The fantasy of benevolence.

Although the book does not focus on the 9/11 event, he makes a comparison to the burning of the Reichstag. Both events were significant in accelerating the threat to the domestic system of power.  About the media’s treatment to 9/11 he asks:  “In a society where freedom of speech, media and religion are guaranteed, where quirkiness is celebrated, why was the result unison?”   Almost on cue, the media fell into line and seemingly knew instinctively what their role should be. Wolin is saying that this is exactly how the media would operate in a traditionally totalitarian state.

Unlike the traditional totalitarian states, the inverted version does not depend on any one leader and does not rely on personal charisma to survive. It is modeled along the lines of a corporate “head”, the corporation’s public representative.  Among the classical dictatorships, the dictatorship did not survive the dictator’s death. “In the inverted system the leader is a product of the system, not its architect; it will survive him”.

What does democracy do in war? It becomes a tyrant, a despot. With the advent of perpetual war, the public is kept in a state of fear, the transition to a totalitarian state is made easier.  The case for a surveillance state, secret courts, torture now all seem tolerable.

The modern US acts in a strangely schizoid manner with respect to the message given to the citizenry.  When it comes to foreign affairs, the public is told that these matters are better dealt with by experts, it is better to trust the government.  The domestic message is the opposite, “The domestic message says that the citizenry should distrust its own elected government, thereby denying themselves the very instrument that democracy is supposed to make available to them.  A democracy that is persuaded to distrust itself, that applauds the rhetoric of “get government off your backs”  … renounces the means of its own efficacy in favor of a laissez-faire politics

(This statement of Wolin reminds me of one aspect of our local politics, “Back Off Government”, it is almost the same slogan that Wolin uses.  Those who believe in “back off government” probably do not realize that they are inadvertently discarding their hard won democratic rights. )

Wolin argues that the US founding fathers framed their constitution in such a way as to ensure that the Many would be prevented from prevailing over the Few.  The system of “checks and balances” that some see as the strength of the constitution is designed to make it extremely difficult to make any significant changes.  According to Wolin, the Constitution is formulated to act as a deterrent to democracy!

The American political system was not born a democracy, but born with a bias against democracy. It was constructed by those who were either skeptical about democracy or hostile to it.   Democratic advance proved to be slow, uphill, forever incomplete. The republic existed for three-quarters of a century before formal slavery was ended; another hundred years before black Americans were assured of their voting rights. Only in the twentieth century were women guaranteed the vote and trade unions the right to bargain collectively. In none of these instances has victory been complete: women still lack full equality, racism persists, and the destruction of the remnants of trade unions remains a goal of corporate strategies. Far from being innate, democracy in America has gone against the grain, against the very forms by which the political and economic power of the country had been and continues to be ordered.

The modern political system has evolved over the years to perfect inverted totalitarianism.  He describes how corruption is an integral part of the system which serves to advance the cause. “The entrenched system of bribery and corruption involves not physical violence, no brown-shirted storm troopers, no coercion of the political opposition.  While the tactics are not those of the Nazis, the end result is the inverted equivalent.  Opposition had not been liquidated but rendered feckless.”

A setback to inverted totalitarianism came with FDR’s New Deal. The New Deal stimulated images of hope and economic reforms within the capitalist system BUT this aroused panic among business and financial leaders. As soon as the crisis passed concerted efforts were made to reverse FDR’s policies.  The Cold War was used to reconsolidate the power of capital and to turn the tide against any thoughts of a welfare state.  All talk of participatory democracy was abandoned.

The following excerpts are some of Wolin’s key points:

Inverted totalitarianism encourages divisiveness instead of unanimity.  Instead of rule by a dominant master race it promotes rule by diverse powers with common interests, e.g., corporate capital, the very rich, large media organizations, evangelical Protestant leaders and the Catholic hierarchy.

Classical totalitarianism mobilized its subjects; inverted totalitarianism fragments them.

We have a controlled politics that tolerates dissent but is unresponsive to protests and proposals from below.

It might be recalled that the totalitarian regimes of Soviet Russia and Germany each instituted a strong network of social services; inverted totalitarianism seeks to dismantle or significantly reduce them.

Inverted totalitarianism had perfected the arts of molding the support of the citizens without allowing them to rule.

Superpower warfare is the real, if sardonic, version of class-warfare: the less well-off fight wars instigated by the well-off, well-educated and well-represented

Elections have replaced participation

Wolin claims that the US is a state that provides the illusion of democracy, it claims to uphold democracy but in fact is committed to making democracy inert.  It is a claim that he argues convincingly.