(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 seven of my interview with Dr. 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, Democracy Incorporated, and a book on Tocqueville.
And it’s Tocqueville who I think expresses this notion of participatory democracy that you embrace. And I wondered if you could explain what that means and set it against what you call, I think, manufactured democracy.
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SHELDON WOLIN, PROF. EMERITUS POLITICS, PRINCETON: Well, Tocqueville discovered–I mean, he didn’t invent the notion, but he discovered this significance of viable local self-government. And he insisted that a democracy, if it were to avoid the pitfall of becoming a mass democracy, would have to zealously protect and nurture these smaller groupings, whether they be municipalities, religious groupings, or economic groupings of one kind or another, but that these were the major forces for offsetting the drive of modern power towards concentration and control, so that that was the basic struggle for him was between these two forces. And he saw in the New England town meetings and in the New England local self-government schemes the answer to how you kept democracy alive–you kept it alive locally–and that the effect of keeping it alive locally was to dilute the significance of majority rule at the national level.
Tocqueville feared majority rule because he thought it meant uniformity of belief imposed by the power of the majority. I think he in a certain sense may have overstated that and paid insufficient attention to the rule of elites. I think that in some of his later writings, especially when they were concerned with France, in the 1840s–.
HEDGES: This is Ancien Régime.
WOLIN: Yeah. I think he became aware that there was a problem with that and that the old regime’s system of corporate bodies had to be carefully thought through because they could easily become simply vested interests, and so that there was a lot of unfinished business in Tocqueville, and I think it’s very important in understanding him that you recognize it.
HEDGES: But I think that his definition of what participatory democracy is is one that you embrace.
WOLIN: Yes, it is. And I think that the common thread I think we both share (if I can put it that way pretentiously): that we share the notion that the problem is centralized power. And that centralized power has assumed, because of scientific and technological developments, has assumed a quality of menace that it simply didn’t have before. Before, it was simply the power of a central government in its army and in its bureaucracy to sort of enforce its will. But now it’s much more than that. It’s the ability to shape and direct society in a fashion that’s much more of a lockstep thing than was ever conceived by Tocqueville.
HEDGES: And this was Lenin’s genius, in that as a revolutionary, he understood that.
WOLIN: Yes, he did. Yes, he did. And it is at the same time the tragedy of Marx, because he both understood the Lenin point of view, but he also understood the point of view of more participatory kind of institutions. And I think he never managed to overcome that, because he thought that revolution required mass movements, mass organization, and that once you got there, you didn’t know what to do with it after the revolution, except sustain it in certain institutions, and that the problems of participation and the kind of experience Marx wanted people to get in running government and running economic institutions was becoming increasingly more difficult.
HEDGES: And what Lenin grasped is that the goal was to seize those centers of power, destroy the Soviets, destroy autonomous power, and in essence harness that system which you talk about, that complex system, to his own ends.
WOLIN: Yeah, and to simplify it in doing it, I mean, not just take it over, but refashion it in a way that was harmonious with this kind of central regime he wanted. In other words, you didn’t just take over local institutions and local parties and so on and so forth, which had their own histories and ideologies and practices, but you reshape them, and you reshape them in accordance with a centralized power system that Lenin, I think, very unfortunately led towards uniformity, because I think he saw or thought he saw that uniformity was also a key to exercising power in a way that could change a whole society, a way that you could not do it if you kept recognizing differences, tolerating them, even encouraging them.
HEDGES: Well, he didn’t tolerate any differences at all, starting with Bakunin.
WOLIN: No, he didn’t. He certainly didn’t.
HEDGES: Adam Ulam, in his great book on Lenin, Bolsheviks, said that the only people that Lenin finally admired deeply were quite successful capitalists, because they had accomplished in the capitalist world what he was seeking to accomplish in that uniformity and that complete hierarchical, repressive, and unforgiving system that in many ways just became a form of state capitalism.
WOLIN: Right. Yeah. True enough.
HEDGES: You had published–I think it was for five years–this journal,–
WOLIN: Oh yes.
HEDGES: —Democracy. I see you have–the great historian Arno Mayer contributed to this.
WOLIN: Yes. He was on the editorial [crosstalk]
HEDGES: Oh, he was on–in 1982, which must have boosted your esteem and popularity at the Politics Department at Princeton.
WOLIN: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. I remember once when I was up editing that journal, I left a copy of it on the table in the faculty room, and hoping that somebody would read it and comment. I never heard a word. And during all the time I was there and doing Democracy, I never had one colleague come up to me and either say something positive or even negative about it. Just absolute silence.
HEDGES: It was five years that you did it?
HEDGES: And why?
HEDGES: Why? Why did you see the need for this journal?
WOLIN: Well, I saw a need for it because I thought a couple of things. I thought political theory had to justify itself not just as an historical discipline that dealt with the critical examination of idea systems, but also that political theory had a role to play in helping to fashion public policies and governmental directions, and above all civic education, in a way that would further what I thought to be the goals of a more democratic, more egalitarian, more educated society.
HEDGES: And I assume that’s because you saw within the intellectual landscape that that was not being addressed.
WOLIN: I didn’t think it was. I mean, I had respect for the people, especially at The Nation magazine, which I thought was trying very hard. My problem with The Nation, I thought, was that it was–I hate to appear this way, but I didn’t think its intellectual level was very high. And that mattered because its arch enemy, The New Republic, whatever you may think about its politics, managed to attract intellects of a pretty high order. And that meant that the liberal radical case was not being presented at its best and that it was mostly a kind of responsive set of reactions to what the government was doing or what capitalists were doing, but had no coherent idea of what they really wanted to get to in terms of a just and more equal society.
HEDGES: Were you seeking to do what Dwight Macdonald did with politics?
WOLIN: A bit. I admired his work. I thought he was a real groundbreaker. And I certainly did learn from him about trying to do something like this. I think he’s underappreciated,–
HEDGES: Yeah. No question.
WOLIN: –very much underappreciated. He was a little quixotic, but he was–.
HEDGES: You know the great story about him and Trotsky? He was not orthodox in any of his beliefs, but for a while he was a member of the Trotskyite party. But, of course, he kept writing things that Trotsky didn’t approve of, until a letter came from Mexico from Trotsky, said that everybody has the right to the stupidity of their own beliefs, but Comrade Macdonald overabuses the privilege, and he was expelled.
But he did very much what you did, and he attracted the kind of intellectual radical thinkers–I mean, everyone from Orwell to Hannah Arendt to Bettelheim–who were not being published. And I know you had written for a while for The New York Review of Books and, with the rise of that neoliberal embrace of what became corporate capitalism, were essentially dropped from [it], if we want to call The New York Review of Books the mainstream.
WOLIN: Yeah, it did. It was too bad. I enjoyed that relationship. And it was a long-standing relationship, where I was a contributor almost from the first edition of the The New York Review of Books.
The–kind of interesting about my rupture with The New York Review of Books: it came about–although it was probably festering, because I was moving more towards the left, they were moving more towards the center–the rupture came when one of the editors’ friends in the New York circle of intellectuals wrote a book on education. And Bob Silver gave it to me to review for The New York Review of Books. And I thought it was not a very good book, and I thought that it was not even a liberal view of educational reform, and I said so. And he refused to publish it. Well, what’s so interesting is that the author of that book, about a decade later, publicly disowned the book because she too regarded it as not really sufficiently advanced or liberal in its viewpoint. But that was ten years later; it didn’t do me any good.
But the relationship was good while it lasted. And I certainly owe Silvers a great debt in giving me a chance very early to write for a large audience.
HEDGES: When you talk about participatory democracy in an age of superpower, in an age of inverted totalitarianism, how is that going to now express itself within that superstructure?
WOLIN: Well, I think it will express itself–I guess the answer I would give is that precisely it doesn’t express itself. I think it’s shaped and it’s allowed only the outlets that are conceived to be consonant with the purposes of those in power, so that it’s not autonomous anymore in any significant sense. I mean, we have to keep realizing how difficult it is to get ideas into the public arena now for any significant audience. It’s becoming more and more a matter of a few outlets. And if you should for one reason or another become persona non grata with any of those outlets, then your goose is cooked, there’s no other way to go, so that there’s a kind of, I think, hidden sort of force. I don’t want to call it censorship. That’s too strong. But there’s a kind of hidden force that kind of makes you think twice about how far you want to go in pushing a particular point that is at odds with either the existing notions of the powers that be or the existing notions of the opposition.
HEDGES: Which is called careerism.
WOLIN: It is.
HEDGES: And it’s a powerful force.
WOLIN: It is indeed.
HEDGES: Both within the media, within academia. And coming from the New York Times culture, you learn not so much how to lie; you learn what not to say, what not to address, what questions not to ask.
WOLIN: Yeah, I’m sure that’s true. I’m sure it’s true. I used to get a taste of it at Democracy, even, when I was editing it, that there were certain taboo matters.
HEDGES: Did you look at the Occupy movement as a form of participatory democracy?
WOLIN: I did to an extent, yeah. I think it had certain healthy significance. I think it was kind of under–I hate to sound this way, but I thought it was under-intellectualized in the sense that it didn’t express, seemed quite unable to express its own fundamental beliefs in a kind of coherent way that could really grab the country’s attention. I think it was very strong on tactics and actions of that kind, and kind of weak in terms of its ability, as I say, to formulate in some kind of broad-based way its own system of beliefs.
HEDGES: But it was at least a place, a physical place in which–.
WOLIN: Oh, no question about it. I think it’s been grossly underestimated in terms of its importance. And the trouble is, when it doesn’t get recognized for its importance, it gradually loses that importance, because people forget about it. And it’s too bad. I mean, memories are so short these days anyway. But the way it sort of disappears and seems to leave no noticeable mark is a really tragic aspect of our politics today, because people sacrificed, they were thinking, and they were trying to achieve a laudable end. And they were ridiculed and abused and so on, and above all, forgotten.
HEDGES: And the state physically eradicated their encampments.
WOLIN: Yeah, it did. Now, it’s a bad chapter, and I hope someday somebody writes it as a cautionary tale.
HEDGES: Has true participatory democracy become, in the age of inverted totalitarianism, subversion in the eyes of the state?
WOLIN: I’m not sure it’s quite reached that point, because I think the powers that be view it as harmless, and they’re smart enough to know that if something’s harmless, there’s no point in sort of making a pariah out of it, so that I think they’re capitalizing on the sort of short attention span that people, especially people working, have for politics, and that it would soon go away and run its course, and that if they could contain it, they wouldn’t have to really repress it, that it would gradually sort of shrivel up and disappear, so that I think it’s been a deliberate tactic not to continuously engage the democracy movement intellectually, because that’s a way of perpetuating its importance. Instead, you surround it with silence, and hoping (and, in the modern age, with good reason) that memories will be short.
HEDGES: And you use cliches in the mass media to demonize it and belittle it.
WOLIN: Indeed. Indeed.
HEDGES: Thank you very much.
Stay tuned for our final segment with Prof. Wolin, on revolution, coming up. Thanks.
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