Inverted Totalitarianism: Antecedents and Precedents

The Republican Party in the U.S. has committed the double betrayal of democracy and the Constitution. Is the Founding Fathers’ defiance against democracy an antecedent to its subversion today?

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

As in any book club, you are kindly invited to let the rest of us know what you think!

Disclaimer: Being the result of personal work, this chapter summary cannot and does not pretend to offer a detailed and accurate transcription of all the author’s ideas.

Remember this? “In late November and early December 2004, a million citizens of Kiev and from other parts of Ukraine assembled in the public square of Kiev to protest the results of a national election, claiming that it had been deeply flawed by fraud and that the true winner was the candidate of the opposition party. Foreign observers largely agreed that the election had been marred by widespread irregularities. The protesters demanded a recount and held firm for several days until an agreement was reached that set a date for a new election. This in a society that had no strong tradition of democratic politics.”

This political turning point in Ukraine falls in sharp contrast to what had happened in the United States a few years prior. “Following the American presidential election of November 2000, there were numerous claims that proceedings in the crucial state of Florida had been marred by irregularities of various kinds, including fraud, voter intimidation, and racism. The issue was eventually settled by a process that was as flawed and partisan as the election itself. Yet no crowds took to the streets; no one sat down before the Supreme Court in protest; no one mounted a mass march on Washington. This in a society that boasted of being the world’s oldest—and presumably the most experienced—democracy.”

Inverted Totalitarianism: Antecedents and Precedents

The crisis is that there was no crisis. This is not about a particular event but about the conditions allowing anti-democratic elements of public life to become systemic, integral, and not aberrant. At that stage in the reading of Democracy Incorporated, we know that “An inverted totalitarian regime, precisely because of its inverted character, emerges, not as an abrupt regime change or dramatic rupture but as evolutionary.” What was inverted totalitarianism’s political route in the United States? Could it be that one of its main antecedents is the philosophy inspiring the structure of government put in place by the Founding Fathers?

***

A totalitarian regime, contrary to a mere dictatorship, is necessarily ideological. In the United States, corporatocracy’s inverted totalitarianism is backed by a “free market” dogma and by the ever-useful fearmongering about aliens. Substituting mental constructs to factual analysis is the most efficient way to reign in populist aspirations since altering people’s judgment is, so to speak, working from the inside. Still, “How does good old American pragmatism, supposedly the least ideological, most practical of public philosophies, become the unwitting agent of a regime with affinities to the most ideological systems?”

In the United States, numerous antecedents can be found of police brute force quelling populist political protests held by all kinds of disenfranchised people. These antecedents, nevertheless, have rarely been used as precedents to justify repression, if ever. Repression only became its own ideological justification with the advent of the “War on Terror.” A war led under a concept broad enough to include genuine acts of foreign terror as well as legitimate political dissent at home. A war without assignable end, which perpetual emergency facilitated the creation of a torture program and made it possible to indefinitely imprison real or supposed “enemy combatants” with no specific charges. A war that has enforced our present-day police-state, spying on its citizens while brutally cracking down on those who reveal its crimes (Black Lives Matter, Julian Assange…). Repression became ideological the minute the government decided to define its action in reference to “terror” as such, in the same abstract way that communists and fascists used to respectively refer to “party of the people” or “race.”

How the trick allowing for ideological repression is pulled on the population is no great mystery. All there is to do is to draw people into complicity. In any country, the crowd favors harsh sentences and opposes rehabilitation programs for prisoners at the taxpayers’ expense. This is how antecedents in repression can become precedents sanctioning expanded police powers and reduced legal and political safeguards. Officials just have to refer to opinion polls appearing “to favor methods which weaken legal safeguards and diminish the institutions whose traditional role is to oversee, check, and alert the public to dangerous tendencies in the system.” The crowd has always been the demagogue’s friend. “The remarkable thing about public opinion, says Sheldon Wolin, is that it is self-justifying, never accountable.”

Inverted Totalitarianism: Antecedents and Precedents

Establishing an authoritarian state is not that complicated. For instance, “the invasive Patriot Act, with its inroads into personal liberties and the reduced power of the courts to check overly zealous officials, is first accepted by the public as a practical response to terrorism, but then it is soon cemented as a permanent element in the system of law enforcement. What may have emerged without premeditation is quickly seized upon and exploited. (…) It then seems logical to coordinate all the relevant agencies—federal, state, and local, and all armed forces, from police and National Guard to the traditional armed services—and, voilà !, we have a system. The Nazis called it Gleichschaltung (coordination). We might call it “management” to indicate its place in an opportunity society.”

Authority is not a democratic value; it is a practical necessity in the exercise of power. As opposed to democracy, authoritarianism is the tendency to conflate power and authority. For authoritarians, the latter must be absolute because the principle of its legitimation is itself absolute, be it the race (white supremacists), the party (communists), the market (neoliberals), or whichever ideological fantasy one may fall for. It could then seem odd to label communists as right-wingers. Still, it is a factual truth that “a crucial feature of all totalitarian systems is that they were preceded by a pronounced shift in political dynamics from left to right.” Whether for Hitler, Lenin, or Mussolini, the lethal enemies of their ideological revolution were the reformists, i.e., those committed to genuine reforms toward social justice and people’s power. It makes sense, in a way. If the ideology is correct, then people’s judgment is secondary, and democracy has neither practical nor moral value.

This common drive against an open form of society where politics can fully play its role is the defining characteristic of all forms of totalitarianism. In the United States, the rise of inverted totalitarianism took shape through an unrelenting assault on “liberals” by an increasingly unhinged Republican party. One could make the case that the origins of the GOP’s ideological opposition to democracy can be traced back to the Cold War that began in the late 1940s and early 1950s. “Republicans and their supporters claimed that Soviet communism had launched a “conspiracy,” a “plot” for “world domination” whose operations were secret and hidden, dependent upon spies and traitors. (…) The new ideology can be fairly described as totalizing and unapologetic for its absolutism. Its targets were not confined to Democratic politicians but included a wide range of matters: education, morality, religion, and popular culture.”

This attempt to obliterate freedom of thought under the banner of anti-communism gave way in the 50s and 1960s to a new form of cultural dependency: Managerialism. The elevation of the cult figure of “the executive trained and certified in the dynamics and intricacies of organizing, administering, and exploiting power” began then to take place. For the GOP, managing a company became in time the one and only standard to evaluate the capacity to hold public office by. Assuming, of course, that leading a community for the common good of its people required the same set of skills and the same type of motivation as running a company for profits.

“Managerialism, by definition, was not only elitist in principle but, in an age dominated by large-scale forms of “organization,” a claim to rule. (…) Accountability figured mainly as profitability. In that sense organizational power, with its emphasis upon expansion, dynamic leadership, and risk taking, contrasted with constitutional authority, with its emphasis upon restraint, settled ways, checks and balances.” For the GOP, “The revelatory moment came when the neocons1 joined with the managerialists to proclaim the “New American Century” and lay plans for the expansion of American power.”

Inverted Totalitarianism: Antecedents and Precedents

By eventually adding to its base fundamentalists, creationists, originalists, moral absolutists, and classroom disciplinarians in the early 1980s, the Republican party has succeeded in “organizing and focusing powers that challenge limits, be they limits regarding church and state, presidential powers, environmental protections, the distinctions between public and private, the protections for civil liberties, the observance of treaties, or respect for local markets.” Tactically, the union of market fundamentalism with its religious counterpart is a marriage made in heaven. “Thus the party is able to have it both ways, encouraging and subsidizing the powers that undermine the status quo while publicizing prayer in the Oval Office and making abstinence in the third world a condition of foreign aid.”

***

The Republican party has provided since the second half of the twentieth century most of the ideological veneer needed to undermine democracy and establish inverted totalitarianism. Speaking of the then-current administration of Bush II, however, Sheldon Wolin says that “its actions and official justifications are in certain important respects compatible with some of the broad aims of some of the Founders of our constitution.” Not in the sense that the Founding Fathers would have willingly promoted a plutocratic form of government, obviously, but in the sense that what they hoped for and what they feared might not be in total adequation with democracy. “The main hope of the framers of the Constitution was to establish a strong central government, not one hobbled at every turn by an intrusive citizenry or challenged by the several “sovereign” states. (…) The new system, with its emphasis upon a strong executive, an indirectly elected Senate composed (it was hoped) of the educated and wealthy, and an appointed Supreme Court also represented the fears of the Founders.”

It was common wisdom, in their time, to consider that the vast majority of people would belong to the social class they were born in until they died. Those called to rule the country had consequently to belong to the upper class of society, which enjoyed the privilege of education. “In the course of its arguments for the ratification of the Constitution, The Federalist made much of a contrast between “reason” and “passion,” the one associated with the Few, the latter with the Many. Passions were attributed to uncontrolled self-interest: they were “immediate,” “private,” “selfish,” “strong,” “irregular.” Because “the people” symbolized the threat of irrational politics, the task of elites was to hold popular forces at bay by establishing and defending a “reasonable” politics.2 According to The Federalist the main purpose of the Constitution was to control “interests,” explicitly the interests of a majority. Interests were depicted as selfish, irrational, and potentially destructive.”

Inverted Totalitarianism: Antecedents and Precedents
Alexander Hamilton (1755 or 1757 – 1804)

The author continues: “For The Federalist interests were legitimate so long as they satisfied two conditions: they were nonideological and not organized politically into a national majority.3 For The Federalist, and for Hamilton in particular, the consolidation of national power and its extension required the promotion of certain interests, such as banking, finance, and commerce. These were “national interests,” even a “common interest” of which “the state” would be “guardian.” 4 In other words, some interests were expansive, the constituents of national power, while the interests of the butcher [an example S. Wolin gave earlier on] were parochial and unrelated to state power. That understanding continues today.”

The history of the revolution mostly taught to Americans emphasizes the role of selfless generals and patrician leaders. Historians now recognize that behind the national mythology lies the reality of extraordinary political activities on the part of working-class members, small farmers, women, slaves, and Indians during the period extending from roughly 1690 to the end of the following century, when the country was finding its political way. Almost without exceptions, these activities were motivated by the protection or the advancement of interests that the existing system ignored or exploited unfairly. “Democracy, in this early meaning, stood for a politics of redress, for common action to alleviate the sharp inequalities of wealth and power that enabled the more affluent and educated to monopolize governance.” 5 But as those who protested had neither the leisure time nor the resources to sustain their dynamic, democratic advance proved to be “slow, uphill, forever incomplete.”

The author goes on explaining “The dilemma of many of the Founders was that, while they feared “the people,” they recognized that the political culture of the largely self-governing communities that preceded the Constitution made it unrealistic to attempt a political system without the consent of the power they distrusted most, the people. So they fashioned a variety of devices intended to “filter” expressions of a popular will, hoping to rationalize the irrational. (…) The “great experiment” was aimed not at inventing self-government or individual freedom—these were already the prized achievements of the several states—but at managing democracy. As Hamilton wrote, “When occasions present themselves in which the interests of the people are at variance with their inclinations, it is the duty of the persons whom they have appointed to be the guardians of their interests, to withstand the temporary delusion, in order to give them time and opportunity for more cool and sedate reflection.” 6 Thus the people, like wayward minors, needed “guardians”—not executors of their will but interpreters of their true interests. Accordingly, the great purpose of the system of indirectly elected politicians and officials was to legitimate a guardian class, an elite with sufficient leisure to devote itself to governing and schooled in what Hamilton called the “science of politics.” 7

***

While the Founders were intent on checking the formation of demotic power by erecting complex constitutional barriers, “they also discovered that the large geographical expanse of the nation naturally encompassed a variety of differences of interest and belief, and thereby automatically rendered the organization of a democratic majority difficult. (…) ‘Extend the sphere,’ Madison wrote, ‘and you take in a greater variety of parties and interests; you make it less probable that a majority of the whole will have a common motive to invade the rights of other citizens; or if such a common motive exists, it will be more difficult for all who feel it to discover their own strength, and to act in unison with each other.'” 8

Inverted Totalitarianism: Antecedents and Precedents
James Madison (1751 – 1836)

This vision of a “disaggregated majority,” as Sheldon Wolin calls it, would later recur in different guises. The basic idea is to prevent the majority from finding its voice and expressing its needs in a coherent and unified way. A disaggregated majority is “at once manipulable (i.e., electoral), self-justifying (“moral majority”), and for the most part “silent.” Richard Nixon was being true to that original conception of the majority when he appealed to “the forgotten American, the non-shouters, the non-demonstrators.” 9 (…) The disaggregated majority is fabricated to endorse a candidate or a party for reasons that typically pay only lip service to the basic needs of most citizens (health, education, nontoxic environment, living wage), even less to the disparities in political power between ordinary citizens and well-financed interests.”

In the early years of the Republic, imperialist aspirations were common among political notables. “Hamilton was eager to annex Canada to the new Union, while President Jefferson justified the Louisiana Purchase by claiming that the huge expanse of southern and western land would “enlarg[e] the empire of liberty . . . and provide new sources of renovation.” 10 “What could prompt the vision, says Sheldon Wolin, that a nation hardly two decades old needed “renovation”—that is, renewal?” His interpretation is that “Expansion would mean substituting economic opportunity and independence for political involvements, and trading competitiveness for equality.”

In the crafting of the national mythology, “It then remained to claim that democracy was peculiarly the product of the frontier experience. For the historian Frederick Jackson Turner (1861–1932), the frontier, the conquest of new space, had been the crucible of democracy. The Western frontier experience, he declared, had been a main force in developing democratic virtues of independence, freedom, and individualism. It had supplied ‘what has been distinctive and valuable in America’s contributions to the history of the human spirit.'” The caveat is that “Although often mentioned in Turner’s account, Indians never appear as autonomous actors. “Our Indian policy,” he smoothly explained, ‘has been a series of experimentations on successive frontiers.'” 11

Inverted Totalitarianism: Antecedents and Precedents
Frederick Jackson Turner (1861 – 1932)

As for democracy itself, the concept is turned upside-down. “His main concern was with the crisis created by the vanishing of the frontier. For Turner the democracy in crisis was not participatory democracy in any collective sense. His crisis was the opposite, the disappearance of individualism. “The free lands are gone, the continent is crossed, and all this push and energy is turning into channels of agitation.” Discontent would lead to demands for government intervention; the nation would be “thrown back upon itself” and would face the dangers posed by the differences previously absorbed in “the task of filling up the vacant spaces of the continent.” A “new Americanism” was emerging, and “it might mean a drastic assertion of national government and imperial expansion under a popular hero.” 12

It consequently appears that “Superpower’s mission of spreading democracy throughout the world would seem to fit into the tradition of American expansionism, the resumption of the Wilsonian crusade to “make the world safe for democracy.” But the unstated assumption behind that genealogy is that democracy has first to be made safe for the world. Managed democracy is that achievement—and it has precedents and antecedents. (…) The task of elitism in the so-called age of democracy was not to resist democracy but to accept it nominally and then to set about persuading majorities to act politically against their own material interests and potential power.”

Originally, however, “Madison was so intent upon preventing rule by the demos that his system of institutional and geographical complexity seemed destined to end in deadlock.” The solution was “to craft an institution that had, like monarchy, a certain remotness, an element of popular legitimacy and yet sufficient independent power that it could furnish genuine governance, possess the requisite ‘energy’ to give direction to the nation. The institution was the executive, or President; its theoretician, Alexander Hamilton. (…) The fact that the chief executive was elected indirectly, and by an Electoral College that was intended to be a deliberative body, meant that he would have a significant degree of independence, not only from the legislative branch but from the citizenry as well.” 13

“It was not until the twenty-first century that the Hamiltonian version of the presidency was fully realized,” says Sheldon Wolin. “Under the present administration [of G.W. Bush] the president has claimed the authority to conduct secret wiretaps without the judicial approval required by law; to order the ‘secret rendition’ and detention of enemy combatants; to violate treaties despite the fact that the Constitution declares that treaties passed by Congress are ‘the supreme law of the land.’ These and other sweeping claims have been defended as exercises of authority belonging to the President as ‘commander in chief’ and as ‘chief executive.'” The rationale for these expansive claims of presidential authority to override congressional power was notably given by John Roberts and Samuel Alito before their nominations to the Supreme Court. Although these claims radically alter the system of checks and balances that guarantees limited government, they are not entirely inconsistent with Hamilton’s view of the executive. Most of all, “they are entirely consistent with the imperial presidency of a superpower.”

Book Club Discussion: If you met Alexander Hamilton and James Madison today, how would you answer them about the possibility and the necessity of a genuinely democratic state?

Share your thoughts and build on what others say in the comment section below.

Footnotes

  1. Historically speaking, the term neoconservative refers to those who made the ideological journey from the anti-Stalinist Left to the camp of American conservatism during the 1960s and 1970s. See Vaïsse, Justin (2010). Neoconservatism: The biography of a movement. Harvard University Press. pp. 6–11
  2. On the opposition between reason and passion, see The Federalist, No. 49, p. 343; No. 50, p. 346; No. 58, p. 396. On passion and interest, see No. 10, p. 61; on passion as strong, irregular, and selfish, see No. 6, p. 29; No. 20, p. 128; No. 41, pp. 264, 275; No. 42, p. 283; No. 63, pp. 423, 425.
  3. In The Federalist, No. 35, pp. 219–21, Hamilton dismissed as “visionary” the claim that “actual representation of all classes of the people by persons of each class” could be achieved.
  4. Ibid., No. 23, pp. 150–51; No. 46, p. 318.
  5. See the important work by Nash, The Unknown American Revolution.
  6. Ibid., No. 71, p. 482.
  7. Ibid., No. 9, p. 51; No. 31, p. 95.
  8. The Federalist, No. 10, p. 64.
  9. Cited in Gould, Grand Old Party, 379.
  10. Cited in Merrill D. Peterson, Thomas Jefferson and the New Nation: A Biography (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970), 773. There is a helpful discussion of Hamilton’s ideas on empire, as well as of the various emphases given to the term by earlier and contemporary writers, in Gerald Stourzh, Alexander Hamilton and the Idea of Republican Government (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1970), especially 189 ff.
  11. The Frontier in American History (New York: Holt, 1920, 1947), 10. Turner was suspicious of certain immigrant groups: “But even in the dull brains of great masses of these unfortunates from southern and eastern Europe the idea of America as the land of freedom and opportunity to rise, the land of pioneer democratic ideals, has found lodgment, and if it is given time and is not turned into revolutionary lines it will fructify” (278).
  12. Ibid., preface, ii; 219–21.
  13. Hamilton’s vision of the executive was more expansively developed at the Constitutional Convention at Philadelphia. There he argued for an executive who would serve for life and similarly for one branch of the legislature. See Max Farrand, et., The Records of the Federal Convention, 3 vols. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1911), 1:289, 292.
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