(Sheldon S. Wolin, died on Oct 21, 2015 at the age of 93) Journalist Chris Hedges and political philosopher Sheldon Wolin continue their discussion of the threats faced by democratic institutions
CHRIS HEDGES, PULITZER PRIZE-WINNING JOURNALIST: Welcome back to part three of our discussion with Professor Sheldon Wolin.
You talk in both of your books, Politics and Vision and Democracy Incorporated, about superpower, which you call the true face of inverted totalitarianism. What is superpower? How do you describe it?
SHELDON WOLIN, PROF. EMERITUS POLITICS, PRINCETON: Well, I think it’s important to grasp that superpower includes as one of its two main elements the modern economy. And the modern economy, with its foundations in not only economic activity but scientific research, is always a dynamic economy and always constantly seeking to expand, to get new markets, to be able to produce new goods, and so on. So the superpower’s dynamism becomes a kind of counterpart to the character of the modern economy, which has become so dominant that it defines the political forms.
I mean, the first person to really recognize this–which we always are embarrassed to say–was Karl Marx, who did understand that economic forms shape political forms, that economic forms are the way people make a living, they’re the way goods and services are produced, and they determine the nature of society, so that any kind of government which is responsive to society is going to reflect that kind of structure and in itself be undemocratic, be elitist in a fundamental sense, and have consumers as citizens.
HEDGES: And Marx would also argue that it also defines ideology.
WOLIN: It does. It does define ideology. Marx was really the first to see that ideology had become a kind of–although there are antecedents, had become a kind of preconceived package of ideas and centered around the notion of control, that it represented something new in the world because you now had the resources to disseminate it, to impose it, and to generally make certain that a society became, so to speak, educated in precisely the kind of ideas you wanted them to be educated in. And that became all the more important when societies entered the stage of relatively advanced capitalism, where the emphasis was upon work, getting a job, keeping your job, holding it in insecure times. And when you’ve got that kind of situation, everybody wants to put their political beliefs on hold. They don’t want to have to agonize over them while they’re agonizing over the search for work or worrying about the insecurity of their position. They’re understandably preoccupied with survival. And at that point, democracy becomes at best a luxury and at worst simply an afterthought, so that its future becomes very seriously compromised, I think.
HEDGES: And when the ruling ideology is determined by capitalism–corporate capitalism; you’re right–we have an upending of traditional democratic values, because capitalist values are about expansion, exploitation, profit, the cult of the self, and you stop even asking questions that can bring you into democratic or participatory democracy.
WOLIN: I think that’s true to an extent. But I would amend that to say that once the kind of supremacy of the capitalist regime becomes assured, and where it’s evident to everyone that it’s not got a real alternative in confronting it, that I think its genius is it sees that a certain relaxation is not only possible, but even desirable, because it gives the impression that the regime is being supported by public debate and supported by people who were arguing with other people, who were allowed to speak their minds, and so on. And I think it’s when you reach that stage–as I think we have–that the problematic relationship between capitalism and democracy become more and more acute.
HEDGES: And yet we don’t have anyone within the mainstream who questions either superpower or capitalism.
WOLIN: No, they don’t. And I don’t think it’s–it may be a question of weakness, but I think–the problem is really, I think, more sort of quixotic. That is, capitalism–unlike earlier forms of economic organization, capitalism thrives on change. It presents itself as the dynamic form of society, with new inventions, new discoveries, new forms of wealth, so that it doesn’t appear like the old regime–as sort of an encrusted old fogey type of society. And I think that makes a great deal of difference, because in a certain sense you almost get roles reversed. That is, in the old regime, the dominant powers, aristocracy and so on, want to keep the lid on, and the insurgent democracy, the liberalizing powers, wanted to take the lid off.
But now I think you get it–as I say, I think you get it kind of reversed, that democracy, it now wants–in its form of being sort of the public philosophy, now wants to keep the lid on and becomes, I think, increasingly less–more adverse to examining in a–through self-examination, and becomes increasingly, I would say, even intolerant of views which question its own assumptions, and above all question its consequences, because I think that’s where the real issues lie is not so much with the assumptions of democracy but with the consequences and trying to figure out how we’ve managed to get a political system that preaches equality and an economic system which thrives on inequality and produces inequality as a matter of course.
HEDGES: Well, in all totalitarian societies there’s a vast disconnect between rhetoric and reality, which, of course, would characterize inverted totalitarianism as a species of totalitarianism.
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WOLIN: Well, I guess that’s true. I think I’d probably qualify that, because I’d qualify it in the sense that when you look at Naziism and fascism, they were pretty upfront about a lot of things–leadership principle, racist principles–and they made no secret that they wanted to dominate the world, so that I think there was a certain kind of aggressive openness in those regimes that I think isn’t true of our contemporary situation.
HEDGES: And yet in the same time, in those regimes, I mean, you look at Stalin’s constitution as a document, it was very liberal,–
HEDGES: –it protected human rights and free speech. And so on the one hand–at least in terms of civil liberties. And we have, as superpower, exactly replicated in many ways this call for constant global domination and expansion that was part of what you would describe as classical totalitarianism. And that–you’re right, in that the notion of superpower is that it’s global and that that constant global expansion, which is twinned with the engine of corporate capitalism, is something that you say has diminished the reality of the nation-state itself–somehow the nation-state becomes insignificant in the great game of superpower global empire–and that that has consequences both economically and politically.
WOLIN: Well, I think it does. I think one has to treat the matter carefully, because a lot of the vestiges of the nation-states still are, obviously, in existence. But I think one of the important tendencies of our time–I would say not tendencies, but trends–is that sovereign governments based on so-called liberal democracy have discovered that the only way they can survive is by giving up a large dose of their sovereignty, by setting up European Unions, various trade pacts, and other sort of regional alliances that place constraints on their power, which they ordinarily would proclaim as natural to having any nation at all, and so that that kind of development, I think, is fraught with all kinds of implications, not the least of [them] being not only whether–what kind of actors we have now in the case of nation-states, but what the future of social reform is, when the vehicle of that reform has now been sort of transmuted into a system where it’s lost a degree of autonomy and, hence, its capacity to create the reforms or promote the reforms that people in social movements had wanted the nation-state to do.
HEDGES: And part of that surrender has been the impoverishment of the working class with the flight of manufacturing. And I think it’s in Politics and Vision you talk about how the war that is made by the inverted totalitarian system against the welfare state never publicly accepts the reality that it was the system that caused the impoverishment, that those who are impoverished are somehow to blame for their own predicament. And this, of course, is part of the skill of the public relations industry, the mask of corporate power, which you write is really dominated by personalities, political personalities that we pick. And that has had, I think (I don’t know if you would agree), a kind of–a very effective–it has been a very effective way by which the poor and the working class have internalized their own repression and in many ways become disempowered, because I think that that message is one that even at a street level many people have ingested.
WOLIN: Yeah. I think you’re right about that. The problem of how to get a foothold by Democratic forces in the kind of society we have is so problematic now that it’s very hard to envision it would take place. And the ubiquity of the present economic system is so profound (and it’s accompanied by this apparent denial of its own reality) that it becomes very hard to find a defender of it who doesn’t want to claim in the end that he’s really on your side.
Yeah, it’s a very paradoxical situation. And I don’t know. I mean, I think we all have to take a deep breath and try to start from scratch again in thinking about where we are, how we get there, and what kind of immediate steps we might take in order to alter the course that I think we’re on, which really creates societies which, when you spell out what’s happening, nobody really wants, or at least not ordinary people want. It’s a very strange situation where–and I think, you know, not least among them is, I think, the factor that you suggested, which is the kind of evaporation of leisure time and the opportunities to use that for political education, as well as kind of moral refreshment. But, yeah, it’s a really totally unprecedented situation where you’ve got affluence, opportunity, and so on, and you have these kinds of frustrations, injustices, and really very diminished life prospects.
HEDGES: You agree, I think, with Karl Marx that unfettered, unregulated corporate capitalism is a revolutionary force.
WOLIN: Oh, indeed. I think it’s been demonstrated even beyond his wildest dreams that it–yeah, you’re just–you just have to see what happens when a underdeveloped part of the world, as they’re called, becomes developed by capitalism–it just transforms everything, from social relations to not only economic relations, but prospects in society for various classes and so on. No, it’s a mighty, mighty force. And the problem it always creates is trying to get a handle on it, partly because it’s so omnipresent, it’s so much a part of what we’re used to, that we can’t recognize what we’re used to as a threat. And that’s part of the paradox.
HEDGES: You take issue with this or, you know, point out that in fact it is a revolutionary force. And yet it is somehow, as a political and economic position, the domain of people as self-identified conservatives.
WOLIN: Yeah, it is. I think they’re conservative on sort of one side of their face, as it were, because I think they’re always willing to radically change, let’s say, social legislation that’s in existence to defend people, ordinary people. I think they’re very selective about what they want to preserve and what they want to either undermine or completely eliminate.
That’s, of course, the kind of way that the political system presents itself in kind of an interesting way. That is, you get this combination of conservative and liberal in the party system. I mean, the Republicans stand for pretty much the preservation of the status quo, and the Democrats have as their historical function a kind of mild, modest, moderate reformism that’s going to deal with some of the excesses without challenging very often the basic system, so that it kind of strikes a wonderful balance between preservation and criticism. The criticism–because the preservation element is so strong, criticism becomes always constructive, in the sense that it presumes the continued operation of the present system and its main elements.
HEDGES: Of both corporate capitalism and superpower.
HEDGES: And yet you say that at this point, political debate has really devolved into what you call nonsubstantial issues, issues that don’t really mean anything if we talk about politics as centered around the common good.
WOLIN: Yeah, political debate has become either so rhetorically excessive as to be beside the point, or else to be so shy of taking on the basic problems. But again you’re back in the kind of chasing-the-tail problem. The mechanisms, i.e. political parties, that we have that are supposed to organize and express discontent are, of course, precisely the organs that require the money that only the dominant groups possess. I mean, long ago there were theories or proposals being floated to set up public financing. But public financing, even as it was conceived then, was so miniscule that you couldn’t possibly even support a kind of lively political debate in a modest way.
You know, politics has become such an expensive thing that I think really the only way to describe it realistically is to talk about it as a political economy or an economic kind of political economy. It’s got those–those two are inextricable elements now in the business of the national or state governments, too.
HEDGES: And yet I think you could argue that even the Democratic Party under Clinton and under Obama, while it continues to use the rhetoric of that kind of feel-your-pain language, which has been part of the Democratic establishment, has only furthered the agenda of superpower, of corporate capitalism, and, of course, the rise of the security and surveillance state by which all of us are kept in check.
WOLIN: Yeah, I think that’s true, because the reformers have simply hesitated–really, really hesitated–to undertake any kind of a focus upon political reform.
HEDGES: Haven’t the reformers been bought off, in essence?
WOLIN: I think it’s the no-no subject. I don’t think it even has to be bought off anymore. I think that it is such a kind of third rail that nobody wants to touch it, because I think there is a real in-built fear that if you mess with those kind of so-called fundamental structures, you’re going to bring down the house. And that includes messing with them even by constitutional, legal means, that it’s so fragile, so delicate, so this that and the other thing that inhibit all kinds of efforts at reforming it. As the phrase used to go, it’s a machine that goes of itself–so they think.
HEDGES: Thank you.
Stay tuned for part four, coming up, of our interview with Professor Sheldon Wolin.
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