Inverted Totalitarianism, 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 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.
Preface Summary

Classic forms of totalitarianism justify their intended domination of the world under the rules and principles of a specific ideology. To achieve the revolution they envision, they consequently need the mobilization of the masses, which is why communism or Nazism presented themselves primarily 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. Where classic forms of totalitarianism work on the political indoctrination of citizens, inverted totalitarianism just needs their political demobilization. Instead of openly opposing democratic institutions, in other words, it hollows out the concept itself of democracy, insidiously substituting to the necessity of an open, direct, and constant political debate the belief in some innate benevolence and wisdom of corporations.

The prime vehicle for such a substitution 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 Sheldon S. Wolin’s words, “experiencing the triumph of contemporaneity and of its accomplice, forgetting or collective amnesia.” While change for the sake of change might be the drive of technological innovations, it does not necessarily 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 benefit of scientific knowledge was seen as necessarily collective. The universality of science meant that society as a whole was concerned by its accelerating pace of discoveries. This is also why, crucially, the resulting changes were assumed as “a matter for political determination by those who could be held accountable for their decisions.” This vision of progress as being a collective matter was, unfortunately, “pretty much overwhelmed by the emergence of concentrations of economic power that took place during the latter half 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, i.e.”the mere object 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. It effectively appears that the American power has relentlessly been extended both internally (surveillance of citizens) and externally (900 military bases abroad), while social policies originally aimed at improving living conditions for the poorer and middle classes have been reversed. Opposing “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 can easily replace people at the helm of power.

For centuries, political writers have opposed democracy to tyranny, the latter presented as the imposition of order—whether or not it is driven by egoistical interests—against a form of government that can hardly rule itself. This opposition has been 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 maintains the legal appearances of democracy while the government itself is privatized. Beyond the classic political debate about who can legitimately exert power among citizens, inverted totalitarianism forces us to tackle the issue of a system of private governance imposed on the citizens by modern business corporations.

“I want to emphasize, says Sheldon Wolin, 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. For the moment Superpower is in retreat and inverted totalitarianism exists as a set of strong tendencies rather than as a fully realized actuality.” He immediately adds, nevertheless, that “The direction of these tendencies urges that we ask ourselves—and only democracy justifies using “we”—what inverted totalitarianism exacts from democracy and whether we want to exchange our birthrights for its mess of pottage.”

Quotes from Chris Hedges’ introduction to the 2017 edition

Inverted Totalitarianism, by Sheldon Wolin

“I met Wolin at his home in Salem, Oregon, in 2014 to film a nearly-three hour interview. 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.’”

“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.”

Inverted Totalitarianism, by Sheldon Wolin

“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.”

Inverted Totalitarianism, by Sheldon Wolin

“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.”

Book Club Discussion: Would you agree that the U.S. is not a democracy but a “corporatocracy”? To what extent does the concept of inverted totalitarianism seem relevant to you?

Share your thoughts and build on what others say in the comment section below.
Keep me updated on this discussion
Notify me of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments