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(Sheldon S. Wolin, died on Oct 21, 2015 at the age of 93) Journalist Chris Hedges and political philosopher Sheldon Wolin discuss the concept of “inverted totalitarianism” and its relevance for understanding contemporary politics

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CHRIS HEDGES, PULITZER-PRIZE WINNING JOURNALIST: Welcome back to part four of our interview with Professor Sheldon Wolin, who taught politics for many years at Berkeley and later Princeton. He is the author of several seminal works on political philosophy, including Politics and Vision and Democracy Incorporated.

I wanted just to go through and I’ve taken notes from both of your books, Politics and Vision and Democracy Incorporated, of the characteristics of what you call inverted totalitarianism, which you use to describe the political system that we currently live under. You said it’s only in part a state-centered phenomenon. What do you mean by that?

SHELDON WOLIN, PROF. EMERITUS POLITICS, PRINCETON: Well, I mean by that that one of the striking characteristics of our age is the extent to which so-called private institutions, like the media, for example, are able to work towards the same end of control, pacification, that the government is interested in, that the idea of genuine opposition is usually viewed as subversion, and so that criticism now is a category that we should really look at and examine, and to see whether it really amounts to anything more than a kind of mild rebuke at best, and at worst a way of sort of confirming the present system by showing its open-mindedness about self-criticism.

HEDGES: And you said that there’s a kind of fusion now of–and you talk a lot about the internal dynamics of corporations themselves, the way they’re completely hierarchical, even the extent to which people within corporate structures are made to identify with a corporation on a kind of personal level. Even–I mean, I speak as a former reporter for The New York Times–even we would get memos about the New York Times family, which is, of course, absurd. And you talk about how that value system or that structure of power, coupled with that type of propaganda, has just been transferred to the state, that the state now functions in exactly the same way, the same hierarchical way, that it uses the same forms of propaganda to get people at once to surrender their political rights and yet to identify themselves through nationalism, patriotism, and the lust for superpower itself, which we see now across the political landscape.

WOLIN: Yeah. No, I think that’s a very strong element, in fact decisive element in our present situation. There’s been a kind of conjuncture between the way that social and educational institutions have shaped a certain kind of mentality among students, among faculty, and so on, and the media itself, that are in lockstep with the requirements of the kind of political economic order that we have now, and that the basic question, I think, has been that we have seen the kind of absorption of politics and the political order into so many nonpolitical categories–of economics, sociology, even religion–that we sort of lost the whole, it seems to me, unique character of political institutions, which is that they’re supposed to embody the kind of substantive hopes of ordinary people, in terms of the kind of present and future that they want. And that’s what democracy is supposed to be about.

But instead we have it subordinated now to the so-called demands of economic growth, the so-called demands of a kind of economic class that’s at home with the sort of scientific and technological advances that are being applied by industry, so that the kind of political element of the ruling groups now is being shaped and to a large extent, I think, incorporated into an ideology that is fundamentally unpolitical, or political in a sort of anti-political way. What I mean by that: it’s a combination of forces that really wants to exploit the political without seeking to either strengthen it or reform it in a meaningful way or to rejuvenate it. It sees the political structure as opportunity. And the more porous it is, the better, because the dominant groups have such instrumentalities at their control now in order to do that exploitation–radio, television, newsprint, what have you–that it’s the best possible world for them.

HEDGES: You actually cite Nietzsche, saying how prescient Nietzsche was. I think you may have said he was a better prophet than Marx, I think, if I remember correctly, in Politics and Vision, but how Nietzsche understood the disintegration of liberal democracy and the liberal class, and also understood the rise of fundamentalist religion in an age of secularism and how dangerous that was.

WOLIN: Yeah. I think that’s–obviously, I think that’s true of him, and I think it was very farseeing on his part. He, of course, was not a sympathizer with those development, but he wasn’t an ordinary sympathizer, either, with the sort of historical elites, or even current elites, that were either capitalist or nationalistic, as in the case of Germany.

Nietzsche was trying to really retrieve a notion of the value, intrinsic value, of political life. And he found it, however, only comprehensible to him in terms of some kind of dichotomy between elite and mass. And that, I think, was the failing of Nietzsche, because he saw so much in terms of tendencies in our society and culture that would ruin us to democracy and needed to be reformed, but reformed in a way that would promote democracy, but which Nietzsche would inevitably try to turn into vehicles for celebrating or encouraging elite formations. And he simply could not conceive of a society that would be worthwhile in which elites were not given the most prominent and leading role. He just couldn’t conceive it. He had the kind of 19th century sort of Hegelian notion that the masses were ignorant, they were intolerant, they were against progress, and all the rest of it. He simply, like so many very good writers in the 19th century, didn’t know what to do with the, quote, people.

HEDGES: Including Marx.

WOLIN: No, no. They didn’t. They tried to either neutralize them or tried to co-opt them, but they never really tried to understand them.

I think the best–the best political movement, I think, which did try to understand them in a significant way, strangely enough, was the American progressive movement, which was very much rooted in American history, in American institutions, but saw quite clearly the dangers that it was getting into and the need for really significant reform that required democratic means, not elitist means, for their solution, and above all required America to really think carefully about its role in international relations, because he saw that that was a trap and, as an aggressive, dominant role in economic relations, was a trap because of what it required, what it required of the population in terms of their outlook and education and culture, and what it required in the way of elites who could lead those kinds of formations. And I think for that reason he was literally a pessimist about what could happen and he had nowhere to go. He had no great trust in the people, and he had come to distrust the elite. I think in the end he took a kind of view that what elites should do is to hunker down and preserve culture, preserve it in its various manifestations–literature, philosophy, poetry, so on.

HEDGES: But he certainly understood what happened when the state divorced itself from religious authority,–

WOLIN: Oh, yeah.

HEDGES: –that you would see the rise of fundamentalist religious movements in fierce opposition to the secular state, number one; and number two, you would see a frantic effort on the part of the state to sacralize itself.

WOLIN: Yeah. Yeah, now, that’s true. It did try to do that. It did that rather–far less in the United States, but it certainly did it in Germany, and to some degree Italy, but not fully.

Yeah, I think to some extent the problem that Nietzsche gets into, I think, is an overstatement of a position that assumed a kind of sustained religiosity on the part of ordinary people that I simply don’t think was true. I don’t mean to say that they became skeptics or they became agnostics or anything of the sort, but I do think there was a slackening and a lessening of religious commitments and a kind of marginalization of ecstasy groups and–.

HEDGES: Are you talking about the end of monarchy?

WOLIN: No, the end of, really, the significant role of religion in the constitution of the modern state.

HEDGES: Which would have been the end of monarchy, wouldn’t it?

WOLIN: It would have been the end of monarchy, except in a kind of symbolic role. Yeah, it would have been the end of monarchy. I do think that monarchy probably would always require some kind of sacral element. Certainly, the remnants of it in countries for a while, like Spain and Greece, indicated that. But, no, it did undermine monarchy. There’s no question about it. Most modern tendencies have undermined it, and monarchs have mostly been showpieces and not much else.

HEDGES: You also talk about inverted totalitarianism as not only signaling the political demobilization of the citizenry, but how it’s never expressed conceptually as an ideology or objectified in public policy. What do you mean by that?

WOLIN: Well, I mean by that that it hasn’t been crystallized in just those terms, that it’s operational. Its operation is really a combination of elements whose interlocking and coherence together have never been either properly appreciated or publicly debated in any sustained way. And I think that there’s been a sort of creeping quality to it, that it becomes more and more significant as the requirements of a modern economy and a modern education system become more and more apparent, but it’s never provoked the kind of crisis that has led to fundamental reexamination. There have been critics, there have been complaints, and so on, but opposition has never really been focused in a way that presented a serious challenge.

HEDGES: Because it’s never named.

WOLIN: It’s never named.

HEDGES: It never names itself.

WOLIN: No. No, you cannot use that name. I mean, it’s that simple. You cannot use capitalism in a way that’s opprobrium.

HEDGES: You said that in inverted totalitarianism, it is furthered by power holders and citizens who often seem unaware of the deeper consequences of their actions or inactions. What I find interesting about that statement is you say even the power holders don’t understand their actions.

WOLIN: Yeah, I don’t think they do. I think that’s most–I think that’s apparent not only in so-called conservative political officeholders, but liberal ones as well. And I think the reason for it isn’t far to see. The demands of contemporary political decision-making, that is, actually having to decide things in legislation or executive action in a complex political society and economic society such as ours, in a complex political, economic society such as the world is, make reflection very difficult. They make it extremely difficult. And everybody’s caught up in the demands of the moment, and understandably so. It becomes again a kind of game of preservation, of keeping the ship of state afloat, but not really trying seriously to change its direction, except maybe rhetorically.

Now, I think the demands of the world are such now and so dangerous, with the kind of weaponry and resources available to every crank and nut in the world, makes it extremely difficult for governments to relax a moment and think about social order and the welfare of the citizens in some kind of way that’s divorced from the security potential of the society.

HEDGES: We’d spoke earlier about how because corporate forces have essentially taken over not only systems of media but systems of education, they’ve effectively destroyed the capacity within these institutions for critical thinking. And what they’ve done is educate generation–now probably a couple of generations of systems managers, people whose expertise, technical expertise, revolves around keeping the system, as it’s constructed, viable and afloat, so that when there’s a–in 2008, the global financial crisis, they immediately loot the U.S. Treasury to infuse a staggering $17 trillion worth of money back into the system. And what are the consequences? We’d spoken earlier about how even the power holders themselves don’t often understand where they’re headed. What are the consequences of now lacking the ability to critique the system or even understand it? What are the consequences environmentally, economically, in terms of democracy itself, of feeding and sustaining that system of corporate capitalism or inverted totalitarianism?

WOLIN: Well, I think the only question would be what kind of time span you’re talking about. I mean, I see the kind of erosion of those institutions that you mention as so continuous that it won’t take terribly long before the substance of them is completely hollowed out and that what you will get is institutions which do no longer play the role they were intended to, either role of lawmaking in an independent way or criticism or responsiveness to an electorate, so that I think the consequences are with us already. And of course the turnoff on the part of the voters is just one indication of it, but the level of public discourse is certainly another, so that I see it as a process which now is finding fewer and fewer dissident voices that have a genuine platform and mechanism for reaching people. I don’t mean that there aren’t people who disagree, but I’m talking about do they have ways of communicating, discussing what the disagreements are about and what can be said about the contemporary situation that needs to be addressed, so that the problem, I think, right now is the problem that the instruments of revitalization are just really in very bad disrepair. And I don’t see any immediate prospect of it, because–.

HEDGES: You mean coming from within the system itself.

WOLIN: Coming from within. You know, years ago, say, in the 19th century, it was no ordinary occurrence that a new political party would be formed and that it would make maybe not a dominant effect, but it would certainly influence–as the Progressive Party did–influence affairs. That’s no more possible now than the most outlandish scheme you can think of. Political parties are so expensive that I needn’t detail the difficulties that would be faced by anyone who tried to organize one.

I think the beautiful example we have today, I just think, fraught with implications, is the Koch brothers’ purchase of the Republican Party. They literally bought it. Literally. And they had a specific amount they paid, and now they’ve got it. There hasn’t been anything like that in American history. To be sure, powerful economic interests have influenced political parties, especially the Republicans, but this kind of gross takeover, in which the party is put in the pocket of two individuals, is without precedent. And that means something serious. It means that, among other things, you no longer have a viable opposition party. And while however much many of us may disagree with the Republicans, there is still an important place for disagreement. And now it seems to me that’s all gone. It’s now become a personal vehicle of two people. And God only knows what they’re going to do with it, but I wouldn’t hold my breath if you think constructive results are going to follow.

HEDGES: Well, didn’t Clinton just turn the Democratic Party into the Republican Party and force the Republican Party to come become insane?

WOLIN: Yeah, it’s true. Yeah, I mean, it’s true that beginning with the Clinton administration, the Democratic Party has kind of lost its way too.

But I still–maybe it’s a hope more than a fact, but I still have the hope that the Democratic Party is still sufficiently loose and sufficiently uncoordinated that it’s possible for dissidents to get their voices heard.

Now, it may not last very long, because in order to compete with the Republicans, there will be every temptation for the Democrats to emulate them. And that means less internal democracy, more reliance on corporate funding.

HEDGES: Wouldn’t it be fair to say that after the nomination of George McGovern, the Democratic Party created institutional mechanisms by which no popular candidate would ever be nominated again?

WOLIN: Oh, I think that’s true. The McGovern thing was a nightmare to the party, to the party officials. And I’m sure they vowed that there would never be anything like it again possible. And, of course, there never has been. And it also means that you lost with that the one thing that McGovern had done, which was to revitalize popular interest in government. And so the Democrats not only killed McGovern; they killed what he stood for, which was more important.

HEDGES: And you saw an echo of that in 2000 when Ralph Nader ran and engendered the same kind of grassroots enthusiasm.

WOLIN: Yeah, he did. He did.

HEDGES: And just as it was the Democratic establishment that virtually, during the presidential campaign, the Connolly Democrats conspired with the Republican Party to destroy, in essence, their own candidate, you saw it was the Democratic Party that destroyed the viability of Nader.

WOLIN: Yeah. Yeah, that’s true. That’s true. The Democrats–I mean, it’s not surprising, because as we’ve said many times, the Democrats are playing the same game as the Republicans and have a nuance and some historical baggage that compels them to be a little more to the left. But it seems to me that the conditions now in which political parties have to operate, conditions which involve large amounts of money, which involve huge stakes because of the character of the American economy now, which has to be very carefully dealt with, and very cautiously, and given the declining role of America in world affairs, I think that there’s every reason to believe that the cautionary attitude of the Democratic Party is emblematic of a new kind of politics where the room for maneuver and the room for staking out significant different positions is shrinking, shrinking very, very much.

Thank you very much. Stay tuned for part five coming up of our interview with Professor Sheldon Wolin.


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Chris Hedges is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist who was a foreign correspondent for 15 years for The New York Times, where he served as the Middle East bureau chief and Balkan bureau chief for the paper. He previously worked overseas for The Dallas Morning News, The Christian Science Monitor, and NPR. He is the host of show The Chris Hedges Report.