(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 to part six of my 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.
We were talking about superpower, the way it had corrupted academia, especially in the wake of World War II, the increasing integration of academics into the power system itself. And I wanted to talk a little bit about the nature of superpower, which you describe as essentially the face of inverted totalitarianism. You say that with superpower, power is always projected outwards, which is a fundamental characteristic that Hannah Arendt ascribes to fascism of totalitarianism fascism and that the inability–and she juxtaposes Nazi Germany with countries like Hungary, so that the nature of fascism in a country like Hungary is diluted because they don’t have that ability to keep pushing power outwards. We, of course, in our system of inverted totalitarianism, have been constantly expanding–hundreds of bases around the world; we virtually at this point occupy most of the Middle East. And I spent seven years in the Middle East, and to come back to America and have Americans wonder why we are detested is absolutely mystifying, because the facts on the ground, the direct occupation of two countries, the proxy wars that are carried out–Somalia, Pakistan, Yemen–have engendered ISIS and resurrected al-Qaeda and other jihadist movements in a way that is completely understandable and rational from their perspective. So I wondered if you could talk about what that quality of constantly projecting power outward does to the nation and to democracy itself.
SHELDON WOLIN, PROF. EMERITUS POLITICS, PRINCETON: Well, I think in some respects it’s pretty apparent what it does in terms of governing institutions. That is, it obviously enhances their power and it increases their scope, and at the same time renders them less and less responsible, even though we’ve kept the outward framework of elections and criticism and all the free press, etc. But the power is there, and it is–thanks particularly to contemporary technology, it is power that’s kind of endlessly expandable.
And it’s very different from the sort of imperialism of the 18th or 19th centuries, where resources always had a limit and that territorial and other expansion was severely restricted by it. But now expansionism is accompanied by an ability to impose cultural norms, as well as political norms, on populations that did not have them. And that has made a tremendous difference in the effect of the imperial reach, because it means that it’s becoming easier to have it rationalized not only at home, but also abroad. And the differences, I think, are just very, very profound between the kind of expansionism of the contemporary state, like America, and those in the 18th and 19th centuries.
HEDGES: What are the consequences? You talk in Politics and Vision about–you mentioned Thucydides and Thucydides raising up the figure of Pericles, who warned the Athenian demos that expansion, constant expansion, would ultimately destroy Athenian democracy by in essence bringing back the mechanisms for control, the harsh, violence mechanisms of control of empire, back into Athens itself. And that, of course, is what we have done, from the use of drones to militarizing police forces, to the security and surveillance state. What are the consequences, the physical consequences of superpower?
WOLIN: You mean particularly upon the population?
HEDGES: Right. Upon us.
WOLIN: Yeah. Well, I think what it does is create an enormous chasm between the sort of pictures we have of or are given of what our system is in high school, grammar school, even college, and the reality of where we are. I think it’s that disjunction that seems to me so kind of perilous, because it means that much of our education is not about the world, our world that we actually live in, but about a world that we idealize and idealize our place in it. That makes it very difficult, I think, for Americans to take a true measure of what their leaders are doing, because it’s always cast in a kind of mode that seems so reassuring and seems so self-confirming of the value of American values for the whole world.
And I think that that problem is such that you don’t really have a critical attitude in the best sense of the word. I don’t mean that the public is never disgruntled or the public is never out of sorts; I’m talking about a critical attitude which really is dealing with things as they are and not with a simple negativism, but is trying to make sense out of where we are and how we’ve gotten to be where we are. But it requires, I think, a level of political education that we simply haven’t begun to explore.
And I think it’s become more difficult to kind of get it across to the public, because there’s no longer what Dewey and others called the public. The public is now so fragmented and so almost comatose in so many ways that it becomes very difficult to reach them. And there are so many intermediaries of entertainment and diversion and so on that the political message, even when it’s presented, which it is, rarely, as some kind of public-spirited set of ideals, just gets lost.
It’s a very, very perilous period, I think, because I think the net effect of it is to render the political powers more independent even while they proclaim their democratic basis.
HEDGES: And, of course, superpower creates a bureaucracy which operates in secret, virtually. And I think that is something that we have seen transferred back, that you’re no longer allowed to peer into the internal mechanisms of power. And the Obama administration has been quite harsh in terms of going after those few whistleblowers, people within the systems of power who have reached out through the press–Edward Snowden would be an example–to allow the public to see the workings of power, misusing the Espionage Act, which was really the equivalent, I think, of our foreign secrets act, to shut down this kind of lens into how power works. And that is, I think, the disease of superpower itself that has now been brought back, would you say?
WOLIN: Yeah, I think that’s substantially correct. The difficulty is really so enormous now in trying to educate a public to awareness of what is happening when there are so many countervailing methods of conditioning and informing that public that are quite concerned to prevent exactly that. And I think it’s very much a question of whether the whole idea of a public isn’t in such jeopardy that it isn’t really faced with a certain kind of antiquarian significance, and nothing more, because the public has, I think, ceased to be a kind of entity that’s self-conscious about itself–I mean when everybody may vote and we say the public has expressed itself. And that in one sense, in a quantitative sense, is true. But the real question is: did they, when they asserted themselves or voted in a certain way, were they thinking of themselves as a public, as performing a public act, a political act of a citizen? Or were they expressing resentments or hopes or frustrations more or less of a private character? And I think that it’s that kind of a quandary we’re in today. And, again, it makes it very difficult to see where the democracy is heading with that kind of level of public knowledge and public political sophistication.
HEDGES: Well, the public is encouraged through the ethos of capitalism to express their interests. And I think it’s in Politics and Vision that you speak about how that fragmentation of the public is by design, that people are broken down according to their (quote-unquote) interests, not as a citizen within a democracy, but as a particular group that seeks to acquire certain rights, power, economic advantages. And that fragmentation, which is assiduously cultivated–opinion polls become a way to do that, although, of course, modern public relations do it and campaigns do it, that rather than speak to a public in a presidential campaign, you target quite consciously–these public relations mechanisms within the campaigns will target these fragments to keep them fragmented.
WOLIN: Yeah, I think that’s true, and I think that’s a very significant development, where they–I mean, the notion of a public had always assumed a kind of cohesive character and some kind of a set of commonalities that justified describing it as a public. But I think that that day has long since gone, because of precisely what you describe, and that is the fragmentation of it, deliberate fragmentation of it, and the skill with which you can slice and dice the public into smaller fragments that can be appealed to, while holding that fragment in relative isolation from what’s happening to the other fragments or to the society as a whole. Yeah, you can target now in a way that you couldn’t before. Before, you had a blunt instrument called public opinion, and you assumed it, yet you shaped it as you shape some kind of amorphous mass into a whole. But that’s not it anymore. It’s far more sophisticated, far much more aware of lines of distinction that set one public against another, and that you had to be careful not to ruin your own case by antagonizing one public that you needed for your cause, so that it’s become a highly, highly sophisticated operation that has no counterpart, I don’t think, in our previous political history.
HEDGES: It makes Walter Lippman look benign.
WOLIN: Yeah, it certainly does. Yeah. I mean, his public is still a coherent whole, even if it’s a little crazy.
HEDGES: And I think what’s frightening is the way not only the public has been fragmented, but the way that these fragments are manipulated to be turned one against the other. So, for instance, corporate capitalism strips workers of benefits and job protection, pensions, medical plans, and then very skillfully uses that diminished fragment to turn against public sector workers, such as teachers, who still have those benefits. So the question doesn’t become, why doesn’t everyone have those benefits; the question becomes, to that fragment which is being manipulated by forces of propaganda and public relations, you don’t have it, and therefore they shouldn’t have it.
WOLIN: They shouldn’t have it. Yeah.
HEDGES: And I think that’s example of what you are speaking about.
WOLIN: Yeah, I think that’s accurate. The ability of the fragmentation strategy is really quite astounding, and it’s that we’ve got such sophisticated means now of targeting and of fashioning messages for specific audiences and insulating those messages from other audiences that it’s a new chapter. It’s clearly a new chapter. And I think that it’s fraught with all kinds of dangerous possibilities for any kind of theory of democracy which requires, I think, some kind of notion of a public sufficiently united to express a will and a preference of what it needs and what it wants. But if you’re constantly being divided and subdivided, that’s an illusion now, that there is a public.
And the amazing thing, it seems to me, is that the ruling groups can now operate on the assumption that they don’t need the traditional notion of something called a public in the broad sense of a coherent whole, that they now have the tools to deal with the very disparities and differences that they have themselves helped to create, so that it’s a game in which you manage to undermine the cohesiveness which publics require if they are to be politically effective, and you undermined that. And at the same time, you create these different distinct groups that inevitably find themselves in tension or at odds or in competition with other groups, so that it becomes more of a melee than it does become a way of fashioning majorities.
HEDGES: And this was quite conscious, the destruction of the public.
WOLIN: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. I mean, again it’s that theme we’ve talked about. They’re capable of doing it now, that is, of dealing with fragmented publics who aren’t aware of their ties to those fragments but are–everybody feels sort of part of a group that has no particular alliance with another group.
HEDGES: And the cultivation by the dominant forces of that sense of victimhood of your group.
HEDGES: And that victimhood is caused by another fragment.
HEDGES: I mean, that, of course, characterizes the right wing.
WOLIN: Yeah. Yeah.
HEDGES: The reason for our economic decline and our social decline is because of undocumented workers, or because of liberals, or because of homosexuals or whatever.
WOLIN: Yeah. No, that’s a time-honored strategy of really not only divide and conquer; subdivide and subdivide and conquer.
HEDGES: They were good students of Hobbes, I guess.
WOLIN: Yeah. Yeah, better than they know.
HEDGES: Thank you very much.
Stay tuned for part seven of my interview with Professor Sheldon Wolin.
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