The Utopian Theory of Superpower: The Official Version

Promising “democracy, development, free markets, and free trade” to the world in the wake of 9/11, the U.S. administration unwittingly proved that market fundamentalism and democracy are polar opposites.

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.

There is no doubt that in the mind of its authors, The National Security Strategy of the United States of September 9, 2002 (hereafter NSS),1 conveyed a positive message. Little did they know, apparently, that seeing in the “free market” the ultimate answer to uproot terrorism bore the promise of a dystopian future where democracy would be gone also. Like with any utopia upholding one single solution to all of humanity’s ailments, the implication is that there is no need to debate anymore. This is why this document represented to Sheldon Wolin “the clearest formulation of the administration’s understanding of the mission of Superpower and of its totalizing reach”. What he wants the reader to reflect upon in this chapter is the interdependence between utopia and power specifically laid out in the NSS.

A common misconception of utopia is to consider it as some kind of wishful thinking purposely disconnected from human reality. Though some utopists will acknowledge that what they describe is indeed fantastical and only meant to serve as an inspiration, others consider their creation to be a genuine project. Its utopian nature eludes them because they do not see that there cannot be one single basic solution to our collective ills. On the other hand, this univocity of the solution is the precise reason why, in the utopians’ mind, no one could reasonably object to its realization. If we know “the” solution, why not applying it? Meant to be realized, this type of univocal project intrinsically deals with power.

Sheldon Wolin explains: “There have been three recurrent elements or prerequisites in many visions of utopia. One is that the founders of utopia possess some form of knowledge, some unquestionable truth, concerning what the right order of society should be, what should be the proper arrangement of its major institutions. The second element is that utopians must imagine it possible to possess the powers capable of establishing and realizing the utopian order. The third element is the opportunity of bringing utopia into existence and the skill in seizing and exploiting that moment. The NSS document embodies the first element, the blueprint, and suggests the second, the powers that seem to put utopia within reach. The third element, opportunity, was concocted in the preemptive war against Iraq.”

The Utopian Theory of Superpower: The Official Version

Concerning what the right order of society should be, the NSS states that “The great struggles of the twentieth century between liberty and totalitarianism ended with a decisive victory for the forces of freedom—and a single sustainable model for national success: freedom, democracy, and free enterprise.”2 Confident in this good omen from history, the United States “will actively work to bring the hope of democracy, development, free markets, and free trade to every corner of the world.”3 As the vision unfolds, however, it appears that “democracy, development, free markets, and free trade” will converge to further their opposites along with the ambition of Superpower. As the document’s inner logic will make clear, terrorism serves as a catalyst for market fundamentalism to become Superpower.

Indeed, according to the document “Poverty, weak institutions, and corruption can make weak states vulnerable to terrorist networks and drug cartels within their borders.”4 Instead of specifying how to foster democracy from within, however, the NSS states that “Free trade and free markets have proven their ability to lift whole societies out of poverty,”5 thus formally relying on some free trade fairy dust to make all the bad stuff go away. Moreover, as Sheldon Wolin points out, in the real world “Free trade and free markets in the hands of the already powerful are not symmetrical with free trade and markets in the hands of “weak” societies. Instead, the effect upon the poor nations of opting for them invariably turns simple weakness into dependence on those nations whose economies have made them dominant powers and who, accordingly, have the right to declare a state weak and call its performance to account.” As the document makes clear all along in what its authors undoubtedly think is a positive message, this is the point.

Following Sheldon Wolin’s remark, it must be noted that the NSS’s statement according to which “For freedom to thrive, accountability must be expected and required,”6 is based on the worn-out talking point that “market economies, not command-and-control economies with the heavy hand of government, are the best way to promote prosperity and reduce poverty.”7 The accountability the NSS refers to is not, therefore, that of political representatives toward their constituents but of all countries toward the United States—the “free trade” grand scheduler. “Thus freedom is granted conditionally, says Sheldon Wolin, and performance is accountable to the power that makes freedom possible. What began as the challenge posed by terrorism becomes conflated into “a great mission” that comprehends virtually all of the world’s ills and, in the process, inflates national power into global power.”

“Free trade” is the NSS utopia that sees in foreign terrorism its opportunity to bind together market fundamentalism and Superpower. Even though this last word is not used in the document, of course, its concept is definitely the operative one. As Sheldon Wolin explains, “Light-handed government in regard to economic policy—a conception that might be termed “antipolitical economy”—and heavy-handed state power to fight terrorism: the two represent a unique power combination. In the economies of contemporary capitalist societies relationships reek of unequal power, but dominant powers differ from those of the government or state.” This is the core of inverted totalitarianism; unchallenged military power coincides with increased economic and domestic powers, but this is never the power of the government—or the people for that matter. It is the unbound power of corporations. A superpower under the aegis of the United States.

The Utopian Theory of Superpower: The Official Version

Coming to the second element of the NSS “free trade” utopia, what are the conditions imagined to establish its superpower? It is no secret that in the course of its history, the United States has tried more times than all other countries combined to overthrow foreign governments.8 Since after WWII this has become its life pattern, so to speak. Except for Washington officials, it is neither a secret nor a surprise that “free trade” and “free markets,” have exposed “weaker, less economically developed societies to the highly advanced forms of economic power wielded by corporations and tacitly backed by American political and military power,” as Sheldon Wolin reminds us.

This political, economic, and military predominance could be seen in a different light if the U.S. were an ally among other allies in the global war against terrorism, but it only has vassals: “While the United States will constantly strive to enlist the support of the international community, we will not hesitate to act alone, if necessary, to exercise our right of self-defense by acting preemptively against such terrorists, to prevent them from doing harm against our people and our country. . . . The greater the threat, the greater is the risk of inaction—and the more compelling the case for taking anticipatory action to defend ourselves, even if uncertainty remains as to the time and place of the enemy’s attack. . . . We will be prepared to act apart (from friends and partners) when our interests and unique responsibilities require.”9 Not only what others think or say in a matter where their interests are at stake too is deemed irrelevant but, to make things clear, U.S. officials or agents “are not [to be] impaired by the potential for investigations, inquiry, or prosecution by the International Criminal Court whose jurisdiction does not extend to Americans and which we do not accept.”10 Being the truth holder allows no room for others to dissent.

Using raw power abroad under the guise of freedom and democracy, the NSS relies on the fact that terrorists’ targets are inside the country to increase domestic powers as well. “The war on terrorism, says Sheldon Wolin, 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, confident that in its domestic pursuit of terrorists the powers it claimed, like the powers it had projected abroad, would be measured, not by ordinary constitutional standards, but by the shadowy and ubiquitous character of terrorism as officially defined.”

It is nevertheless very important to understand that if the line between foreign and domestic powers is blurred, it is not just because of the fleeting nature of terrorist networks, but primarily because the distinction between economic and political power does not stand in “free trade” utopia. The economy supersedes the political and is designated in the NSS as the objective basis of national security: “Ultimately, the foundation of American strength is at home. It is in the skills of our people, the dynamism of our economy, and the resilience of our institutions. A diverse, modern society has inherent, ambitious, entrepreneurial energy. Our strength comes from what we do with that energy. That is where our national security begins.”11 The economy, in this perspective, is more than a system providing goods and services; “it is a system of power, says Sheldon Wolin, that deserves to be considered as much a part of the “foundation” of political society as the institutions prescribed by the Constitution.”

The Utopian Theory of Superpower: The Official Version

In the trinity of “freedom, democracy, and free enterprise,” the author continues, freedom and democracy are “clearly subservient to free enterprise, a relationship that, by providing “cover” for the political incorporation of the corporation, assumes great significance in light of the fact that the economic structures defining free enterprise are inherently autocratic, hierarchical, and primed for expansion.” All U.S. whistleblowers since G.W. Bush and then Barak Obama have endured in the harshest ways possible that moral dissent is now considered sedition. The days when the power of the government was conceived as an emanation of the political power of the citizens are long gone; today, its coercive powers find their entire legitimacy in protecting corporations’ bottom line.

The third element of the war on terror utopian new world order—its opportunity—was Iraq. And the lesson is clear: Superpower failed. “Instead of achieving conquest, says Sheldon Wolin, it provoked an insurgency that left Iraq virtually ungovernable and close to being uninhabitable; instead of dealing terrorism a damaging blow, it exacerbated the problem and multiplied the ranks of the enemy; instead of seeing the world cowering before its might, Superpower faced a world where many governments and their peoples found common ground in opposing the United States. In Iraq Superpower succeeded only in providing the answer to the plaintive question of 9/11, ‘Why do they hate us?'”

This failure proves that the neoconservative ideology at work in the crafting of the NSS is no more than an intellectual veneer, chiefly motivated by the age-old lust for power. The main lesson goes nevertheless even deeper: “The shabby and unverifiable arguments, especially those before the UN, were unconvincing precisely because everyone was aware that Superpower had long since made up its mind. (…) Superpower’s operatives no more needed the consent of the UN than they needed an accurate counting of ballots in the presidential election of 2000.” What Sheldon Wolin points to is that the U.S. administration’s new world order utopia is, in essence, a political coup: all of a sudden much becomes possible that was previously unthinkable. This is all there is to it.

This is not without reminding how Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, alias Lenin, conceived political power: the main thing is to seize it. To the communist leader, the real enemy of the revolution was not the crumbling reign of the Russian czar but the ideal of a social democracy that was looming behind it. He believed that this aspiration to democracy was a pipe dream emanating from what Karl Marx had called the “superstructure” of society, namely its culture in a given era. Most importantly, the aspiration to social justice through the establishment of democratic institutions contradicted Marx’s assumption of dialectic materialism driving the whole march of history, thus nullifying both ideas of a dictatorship of the proletariat and of its resulting society without social classes.

Lenin was an intellectual. GOP members are not. Yet, like Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, neocons believe that power obeys a law that has nothing to do with the will of the people; they only differ with him on the utopia itself. Once George W. Bush was crowned in 2000 after political and constitutional legitimacy were cynically discarded, Sheldon Wolin reminds us, “class-based tax cuts, the undermining of decades of environmental safeguards, the crude collusion with corporate power, the decimation of social programs benefiting the poor, the steady dismantling of the “wall” separating church and state, the nomination of highly ideological candidates for judicial appointment” could all run amock.

Bigotry and Wall Street moneyed interests have always tried to overcome the democratic principle of equality of rights regardless of personal wealth, religion, or skin color. During the 2000 presidential election, their objective alliance was strategically revived when power brokers in Florida found that, if sufficiently determined, they could overcome the inhibitions of democratic constitutionalism. This was not the antics of a few bad actors. It is how a totalitarian utopia, that of the fake “free market,” considers the rule of law and uses the cheer stupidity of the crowd to its own ends.

Book Club Discussion: In your view, can the 2002 National Security Strategy of the United States be characterized as a utopia? Why or why not?

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


  1. The document is accessible online at:
  2. NSS, Introduction, p.1.
  3. Ibid., p.2.
  4. Ibid., p. 3.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid., p. 4.
  7. Ibid, VI, p. 17.
  8. See William Blum, Killing Hope: Us Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II and Overthrowing other people’s governments: The Master List. For a quick reminder, see also the Washington Post article by Lindsey A. O’Rourke from December 23, 2016: The U.S. tried to change other countries’ governments 72 times during the Cold War.
  9. Ibid. p. 6
  10. Ibid., sec. 9, p. 23.
  11. Ibid., sec. 9, p. 24
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