Democracy Incorporated, by Sheldon Wolin

An unprecedented combination of corporate and state power has progressively shaped itself up in the U.S. after WWII, characterized by Sheldon S. Wolin as “Inverted Totalitarianism.” What is behind this concept?

This post belongs to a reading series of Democracy Incorporated by Sheldon S. Wolin. For quick access to all chapters, please click here.

Disclaimer: This chapter summary is personal work and an invitation to read the book itself for a detailed view of all the author’s ideas.


Totalitarianism is, in a sense, the opposite of dictatorship. Contrary to the rule of a dictator which is based only on the power lust of an insecure ego, totalitarianism is the expression of a formal ideology embracing all aspects of reality. Historically, Nazism and communism were indeed dictatorial, but beyond Hitler and Stalin’s personalities, each respectively served a doctrine alleged to be scientific truth. In practical terms, the exercise of power could then only be total, ruling the entirety of individual lives and seeking world domination. To achieve the revolution they envisioned, these ideologies consequently needed to indoctrinate and mobilize the masses, which is why communism or Nazism surfaced in the first instance as political fights.

Inverted totalitarianism, on the contrary, does not proceed from a theoretical fantasy but from the very practical aim of amalgamating state and corporate power. Its totalitarian nature does not derive from an intellectual view pretending to unveil the meaning of everything; it derives from the assumption of some innate benevolence and wisdom of corporations. It is nevertheless a totalitarian form of government, in the eyes of Sheldon Wolin. Similarly to the Nazi and communist ideologies of the past, it transforms the political space into the appendix of a greater cause than the exercise of democracy. As nature or history then, the “law of the market” is now—specifically in the United States—supposed to ultimately drive human destiny.


The difference between then and now is that making the political space irrelevant and unnecessary has operated in two very different ways. Where overtly ideological forms of totalitarianism thrived on political indoctrination, inverted totalitarianism does on political demobilization. Instead of openly opposing democratic institutions, it hollows out the concept and the reality of democracy.

Its psychological vehicle, according to Sheldon Wolin, has been the cultural sacralization of change. Change has always been valued in American society, and today change is more rapid, encompassing, and welcomed than ever before. We are, in the author’s words, “experiencing the triumph of contemporaneity and of its accomplice, forgetting or collective amnesia.” Unsurprisingly, while change for the sake of change might be the drive of technological innovations, such a mantra does not equate with the betterment of the human condition: “Consider, for example, that more than a century after the Civil War the consequences of slavery still linger; that close to a century after women won the vote, their equality remains contested; or that after nearly two centuries during which public schools became a reality, education is now being increasingly privatized.”

Change was associated with Progress at the dawn of the modern era because the universality of scientific knowledge meant that it would benefit the whole of humanity. Science was seen as a common good, in that sense, and its applications in the public sphere as “a matter for political determination by those who could be held accountable for their decisions.” This vision of progress as a collective matter was, unfortunately, “pretty much overwhelmed by the emergence of concentrations of economic power that took place during the latter half of the nineteenth century.” Instead of having its roots in the common good, change began to be dealt with by and for corporations. Quite logically, progress itself became the dubious justification of exploitation and opportunism, “the mere object, says Sheldon Wolin, of premeditated strategies for maximizing profits.”

Since corporate grip on political power has only tightened in time, one can only wonder about genuine social, economic, and political progress in recent decades. Americans now live under a surveillance state while social policies aimed at improving living conditions for the poorer and middle classes have been steadily reversed. In total contradiction with “the ideal of a constitution as a relatively unchanging structure for defining the uses and limits of public power and the accountability of officeholders,” money is at the helm of power and officeholders do its bidding.

Democratic institutions are hardly an issue for inverted totalitarianism. The very opposition between democracy and tyranny was rendered obsolete by the emergence of trusts, monopolies, holding companies, and cartels able to set prices, wages, and supplies of materials as well as entry into the market itself. Unconnected to a citizen body, this concentration of corporate power has introduced a new political alternative that formally maintains democratic institutions but effectively privatizes them. In consequence, by opposition with the manifest act of will from a tyrant or the well-defined totalitarian ideologies of the twentieth century, inverted totalitarianism can only be acknowledged through a set of tendencies: “I want to emphasize that I view my main construction, ‘inverted totalitarianism,’ as tentative, hypothetical, although I am convinced that certain tendencies in our society point in a direction away from self-government, the rule of law, egalitarianism, and thoughtful public discussion, and toward what I have called ‘managed democracy,’ the smiley face of inverted totalitarianism.”

Introduction to Democracy Incorporated, by Chris Hedges.

Democracy Incorporated: picture of Chris Hedges, who interviewed author Sheldon Wolin.

“I met Wolin at his home in Salem, Oregon, in 2014 to film a nearly-three hour interview.1 It was the last major interview he would give. He said then that ‘inverted totalitarianism’ constantly ‘projects power upwards.’ It is ‘the antithesis of constitutional power.’ It is designed to create instability to keep a citizenry off balance and passive. ‘Downsizing, reorganization, bubbles bursting, unions busted, quickly outdated skills, and transfer of jobs abroad create not just fear but an economy of fear, a system of control whose power feeds on uncertainty, yet a system that, according to its analysts, is eminently rational,’ he wrote.”

“Inverted totalitarianism also ‘perpetuates politics all the time,’ Wolin said when we spoke, ‘but a politics that is not political.’ The endless and extravagant election cycles, he said, are an example of politics without politics. ‘Instead of participating in power,’ he wrote, ‘the virtual citizen is invited to have ‘opinions’: measurable responses to questions predesigned to elicit them.’ Political campaigns rarely discuss substantive issues. They center on manufactured political personalities, empty rhetoric, sophisticated public relations, slick advertising, propaganda, and the constant use of focus groups and opinion polls to loop back to voters what they want to hear.”

“Money has effectively replaced the vote. Every presidential candidate—including Bernie Sanders—understands, to use Wolin’s words, that ‘the subject of empire is taboo in electoral debates.’ The citizen is irrelevant. He or she is nothing more than a spectator, allowed to vote and then forgotten once the carnival of elections ends and corporations and their lobbyists get back to the business of ruling. ‘If the main purpose of elections is to serve up pliant legislators for lobbyists to shape, such a system deserves to be called ‘misrepresentative or clientry government,’ Wolin wrote. ‘It is, at one and the same time, a powerful contributing factor to the depoliticization of the citizenry, as well as reason for characterizing the system as one of antidemocracy.'”

Domestic politics in the era of superpower and empire: In effect, lobbyists' power in Washington "declares that in a democracy the demos is to be denied the use of state power." (Sheldon Wolin)

“The result is that the public is ‘denied the use of state power.’ Wolin deplored the trivialization of political discourse, a tactic used to leave the public fragmented, antagonistic, and emotionally charged while leaving corporate power and empire unchallenged. . . . He continued: ‘The United States has become the showcase of how democracy can be managed without appearing to be suppressed.’ The corporate state, Wolin told me, is ‘legitimated by elections it controls.’ To extinguish democracy, it rewrites and distorts laws and legislation that once protected democracy. Basic rights are, in essence, revoked by judicial and legislative fiat. Courts and legislative bodies, in the service of corporate power, reinterpret laws to strip them of their original meaning in order to strengthen corporate control and abolish corporate oversight. He wrote: ‘Why negate a constitution, as the Nazis did, if it is possible simultaneously to exploit porosity and legitimate power by means of judicial interpretations that declare huge campaign contributions to be protected speech under the First Amendment, or that treat heavily financed and organized lobbying by large corporations as a simple application of the people’s right to petition their government?'”

“Our system of inverted totalitarianism will avoid harsh and violent measures of control ‘as long as dissent remains ineffectual,’ he told me. ‘The government does not need to stamp out dissent. The uniformity of imposed public opinion through the corporate media does a very effective job.’ But, he warned, should the population—steadily stripped of its most basic rights, including the right to privacy, and increasingly impoverished and bereft of hope—become restive, inverted totalitarianism will become as brutal and violent as past totalitarian states. The war on terrorism, with its accompanying emphasis upon ‘homeland security,’ presumes that state power, now inflated by doctrines of preemptive war and released from treaty obligations and the potential constraints of international judicial bodies, can turn inwards,’ he wrote, ‘confident that in its domestic pursuit of terrorists the powers it claimed, like the powers projected abroad, would be measured, not by ordinary constitutional standards, but by the shadowy and ubiquitous character of terrorism as officially defined.’

“The indiscriminate police violence in poor communities of color is an example of the ability of the corporate state to ‘legally’ harass and kill citizens with impunity. The cruder forms of control—from militarized police to wholesale surveillance, as well as police serving as judge, jury, and executioner, now a reality for the underclass—will become a reality for all of us should we begin to resist the continued funneling of power and wealth upward. We are tolerated as citizens, Wolin warned, only as long as we participate in the illusion of a participatory democracy. The moment we rebel and refuse to take part in the illusion, the face of inverted totalitarianism will look like the face of past systems of totalitarianism.”

Democracy Incorporated: Picture showing on top Lindon Johnson's stern face during a meeting with his main aides, and at the bottom a Vietnamese woman holding her baby and crying in grief next to the body of her murdered husband.

“Wolin saw the militarists and the corporatists, who formed an unholy coalition to orchestrate the rise of a global American empire after the war [World War II], as the forces that extinguished American democracy. He called inverted totalitarianism ‘the true face of Superpower.'”

“Wolin wrote: ‘National defense was declared inseparable from a strong economy. The fixation upon mobilization and rearmament inspired the gradual disappearance from the national political agenda of the regulation and control of corporations. The defender of the free world needed the power of the globalizing, expanding corporation, not an economy hampered by ‘trust busting.’ Moreover, since the enemy was rabidly anticapitalist, every measure that strengthened capitalism was a blow against the enemy. Once the battle lines between communism and the ‘free society’ were drawn, the economy became untouchable for purposes other than ‘strengthening’ capitalism. The ultimate merger would be between capitalism and democracy. Once the identity and security of democracy were successfully identified with the Cold War and with the methods for waging it, the stage was set for the intimidation of most politics left or right.”

“The result is a nation dedicated almost exclusively to waging war. ‘When a constitutionally limited government utilizes weapons of horrendous destructive power, subsidizes their development, and becomes the world’s largest arms dealer,’ Wolin wrote, ‘the Constitution is conscripted to serve as power’s apprentice rather than its conscience.'”

“He went on: ‘That the patriotic citizen unswervingly supports the military and its huge budget means that conservatives have succeeded in persuading the public that the military is distinct from government. Thus the most substantial element of state power is removed from public debate. Similarly in his/her new status as imperial citizen the believer remains contemptuous of bureaucracy yet does not hesitate to obey the directives issued by the Department of Homeland Security, the largest and most intrusive governmental department in the history of the nation. Identification with militarism and patriotism, along with the images of American might projected by the media, serves to make the individual citizen feel stronger, thereby compensating for the feelings of weakness visited by the economy upon an overworked, exhausted, and insecure labor force. For its antipolitics inverted totalitarianism requires believers, patriots, and nonunion ‘guest workers.'”

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  1. This interview can be watched on Youtube.
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