Sheldon S. Wolin
Of the many books I’ve read or skimmed in the past seven years that attempted to get inside the social and political debacles of the present, none has had the chilling clarity and historical discernment of Sheldon S. Wolin’s Democracy Incorporated. Building on his fifty years as a political theorist and proponent of radical democracy, Wolin here extends his concern with the extinguishing of the political and its replacement by fraudulent simulations of democratic process. — Jonathan Crary, Artforum
4.0 out of 5 stars Managed Democracy, Superpower, and alas, even, “Inverted Totalitarianism”, June 17, 2008
This is a seminal work which “tells it like it is” concerning the current power arrangements in the American political system, as well as the political leadership’s aspirations towards global empire. Prof. Wolin sets the tone of his work on page 1, with the juxtaposition of the imagery of Adolph Hitler landing in a small plane at the 1934 rally at Nuremberg, as shown in Leni Reifenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will,” and George Bush landing on the aircraft carrier “Abraham Lincoln” in 2003. Certainly one of the dominant themes of the book is comparing the operating power structure in the United States with various totalitarian regimes of the past: Stalinist Russia, Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. Prof Wolin emphasizes the differences between these totalitarian powers, and the softer concentration of power in the United States, which he dubs “inverted totalitarianism.”
The book is rich with insights – the best way to savor Prof. Wolin’s erudition is in small chunks. He shows the influence of the ancient Greeks, both Plato, as well as the Athenian political operative, Alcibiades, on the neo-cons “founding father,” Leo Strauss. He examines in detail the efforts of some of America’s own “founding fathers,” particularly Madison and Hamilton, on how democracy should be contained and managed. He quotes at length an amazingly prescient passage from Tocqueville predicting one possible scenario for the future of the American democracy, which ends with “…and finally reduces each nation to nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals of which the government is the shepherd” (p79-80). He also discusses the profound impact of the “National Security Strategy of the United States” document of 2002 on the traditional vision of the values and rights expressed in the Constitution. He raises awkward questions – asking why there were massive public demonstrations in the Ukraine, in 2004, following an election deeply flawed by fraud, which ultimately lead to a new election; yet there were no popular demonstrations in the United States, a country with much stronger democratic traditions following the irregularities in the 2000 election.
He seasons his learning with nuggets of wry wit: “such a verdict after Florida would be an expression of black (sic) humor. (p102); “… to endorse a candidate or a party for reasons that typically pay only lip service to the basic need of most citizens…It speciousness is the political counterpart to products that promise beauty, health, relief of pain, and an end to erectile dysfunction.” (p231); and “No collective memory means no collective guilt; surely My Lai is the name of a rock star.” (p275). He also has a knack for using the popular phrases for a given sentiment, for example: “get government off our backs.”
As other observers have also noted, there is the sharpest of contrasts between FDR’s maxim that “we have nothing to fear but fear itself” to the current constant promotion of holding the citizenry in a constant state of fear, admirably summarized on the domestic front by: “Downsizing, reorganization, bubbles bursting, unions busted, quickly outdated skills, and transfer of jobs abroad create not just fear but an economy of fear…” (p67)
For all the above, Prof. Wolin deserves 5 and ½ stars, but I did think his presentation was marred by poor organization, redundancy, and lapses into turgid prose. For example, on p. 190, long after the issue has been thoroughly discussed, he says “The administration seized on 9/11 to declare a `war on terrorism.'” Similarly, on p. 202 he says “Historically, the legislative branch was supposed to be the power closest to the citizenry…” Numerous other examples could be cited. Also, I tried – real hard- to come to terms with the term “inverted totalitarianism” but just never could – the intrinsic meaning simply is not there, like as in “managed democracy.” Perhaps something like a “hyper-concentration of power” conveys the meaning better.
Overall though, the book is an essential read for anyone interested in the current state of the world.