The economic crisis could plunge the U.S. into a long period of social instability. Our democracy is in peril; the threat of totalitarianism is real.
February 3, 2009
The daily bleeding of thousands of jobs will soon turn our economic crisis into a political crisis. The street protests, strikes and riots that have rattled France, Turkey, Greece, Ukraine, Russia, Latvia, Lithuania, Bulgaria and Iceland will descend on us. It is only a matter of time. And not much time. When things start to go sour, when Barack Obama is exposed as a mortal waving a sword at a tidal wave, the United States could plunge into a long period of precarious social instability.
At no period in American history has our democracy been in such peril or has the possibility of totalitarianism been as real. Our way of life is over. Our profligate consumption is finished. Our children will never have the standard of living we had. And poverty and despair will sweep across the landscape like a plague. This is the bleak future. There is nothing President Obama can do to stop it. It has been decades in the making. It cannot be undone with a trillion or two trillion dollars in bailout money. Our empire is dying. Our economy has collapsed.
How will we cope with our decline? Will we cling to the absurd dreams of a superpower and a glorious tomorrow or will we responsibly face our stark new limitations? Will we heed those who are sober and rational, those who speak of a new simplicity and humility, or will we follow the demagogues and charlatans who rise up out of the slime in moments of crisis to offer fantastic visions? Will we radically transform our system to one that protects the ordinary citizen and fosters the common good, that defies the corporate state, or will we employ the brutality and technology of our internal security and surveillance apparatus to crush all dissent? We won’t have to wait long to find out.
There are a few isolated individuals who saw it coming. The political philosophers Sheldon S. Wolin, John Ralston Saul and Andrew Bacevich, as well as writers such as Noam Chomsky, Chalmers Johnson, David Korten and Naomi Klein, along with activists such as Bill McKibben and Ralph Nader, rang the alarm bells. They were largely ignored or ridiculed. Our corporate media and corporate universities proved, when we needed them most, intellectually and morally useless.
Wolin, who taught political philosophy at the University of California in Berkeley and at Princeton, in his book “Democracy Incorporated” uses the phrase inverted totalitarianism to describe our system of power. Inverted totalitarianism, unlike classical totalitarianism, does not revolve around a demagogue or charismatic leader. It finds its expression in the anonymity of the corporate state. It purports to cherish democracy, patriotism and the Constitution while cynically manipulating internal levers to subvert and thwart democratic institutions. Political candidates are elected in popular votes by citizens, but they must raise staggering amounts of corporate funds to compete. They are beholden to armies of corporate lobbyists in Washington or state capitals who write the legislation. A corporate media controls nearly everything we read, watch or hear and imposes a bland uniformity of opinion or diverts us with trivia and celebrity gossip. In classical totalitarian regimes, such as Nazi fascism or Soviet communism, economics was subordinate to politics. “Under inverted totalitarianism the reverse is true,” Wolin writes. “Economics dominates politics—and with that domination comes different forms of ruthlessness.”
I reached Wolin, 86, by phone at his home about 25 miles north of San Francisco. He was a bombardier in the South Pacific during World War II and went to Harvard after the war to get his doctorate. Wolin has written classics such as “Politics and Vision” and “Tocqueville Between Two Worlds.” His newest book is one of the most important and prescient critiques to date of the American political system. He is also the author of a series of remarkable essays on Augustine of Hippo, Richard Hooker, David Hume, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Max Weber, Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Marx and John Dewey. His voice, however, has faded from public awareness because, as he told me, “it is harder and harder for people like me to get a public hearing.” He said that publications, such as The New York Review of Books, which often published his work a couple of decades ago, lost interest in his critiques of American capitalism, his warnings about the subversion of democratic institutions and the emergence of the corporate state. He does not hold out much hope for Obama.
“The basic systems are going to stay in place; they are too powerful to be challenged,” Wolin told me when I asked him about the new Obama administration. “This is shown by the financial bailout. It does not bother with the structure at all. I don’t think Obama can take on the kind of military establishment we have developed. This is not to say that I do not admire him. He is probably the most intelligent president we have had in decades. I think he is well meaning, but he inherits a system of constraints that make it very difficult to take on these major power configurations. I do not think he has the appetite for it in any ideological sense. The corporate structure is not going to be challenged. There has not been a word from him that would suggest an attempt to rethink the American imperium.”
Wolin argues that a failure to dismantle our vast and overextended imperial projects, coupled with the economic collapse, is likely to result in inverted totalitarianism. He said that without “radical and drastic remedies” the response to mounting discontent and social unrest will probably lead to greater state control and repression. There will be, he warned, a huge “expansion of government power.”
“Our political culture has remained unhelpful in fostering a democratic consciousness,” he said. “The political system and its operatives will not be constrained by popular discontent or uprisings.”
Wolin writes that in inverted totalitarianism consumer goods and a comfortable standard of living, along with a vast entertainment industry that provides spectacles and diversions, keep the citizenry politically passive. I asked if the economic collapse and the steady decline in our standard of living might not, in fact, trigger classical totalitarianism. Could widespread frustration and poverty lead the working and middle classes to place their faith in demagogues, especially those from the Christian right?
“I think that’s perfectly possible,” he answered. “That was the experience of the 1930s. There wasn’t just FDR. There was Huey Long and Father Coughlin. There were even more extreme movements including the Klan. The extent to which those forces can be fed by the downturn and bleakness is a very real danger. It could become classical totalitarianism.”
He said the widespread political passivity is dangerous. It is often exploited by demagogues who pose as saviors and offer dreams of glory and salvation. He warned that “the apoliticalness, even anti-politicalness, will be very powerful elements in taking us towards a radically dictatorial direction. It testifies to how thin the commitment to democracy is in the present circumstances. Democracy is not ascendant. It is not dominant. It is beleaguered. The extent to which young people have been drawn away from public concerns and given this extraordinary range of diversions makes it very likely they could then rally to a demagogue.”
Wolin lamented that the corporate state has successfully blocked any real debate about alternative forms of power. Corporations determine who gets heard and who does not, he said. And those who critique corporate power are given no place in the national dialogue.
“In the 1930s there were all kinds of alternative understandings, from socialism to more extensive governmental involvement,” he said. “There was a range of different approaches. But what I am struck by now is the narrow range within which palliatives are being modeled. We are supposed to work with the financial system. So the people who helped create this system are put in charge of the solution. There has to be some major effort to think outside the box.”
“The puzzle to me is the lack of social unrest,” Wolin said when I asked why we have not yet seen rioting or protests. He said he worried that popular protests will be dismissed and ignored by the corporate media. This, he said, is what happened when tens of thousands protested the war in Iraq. This will permit the state to ruthlessly suppress local protests, as happened during the Democratic and Republic conventions. Anti-war protests in the 1960s gained momentum from their ability to spread across the country, he noted. This, he said, may not happen this time. “The ways they can isolate protests and prevent it from [becoming] a contagion are formidable,” he said.
“My greatest fear is that the Obama administration will achieve relatively little in terms of structural change,” he added. “They may at best keep the system going. But there is a growing pessimism. Every day we hear how much longer the recession will continue. They are already talking about beyond next year. The economic difficulties are more profound than we had guessed and because of globalization more difficult to deal with. I wish the political establishment, the parties and leadership, would become more aware of the depths of the problem. They can’t keep throwing money at this. They have to begin structural changes that involve a very different approach from a market economy. I don’t think this will happen.”
“I keep asking why and how and when this country became so conservative,” he went on. “This country once prided itself on its experimentation and flexibility. It has become rigid. It is probably the most conservative of all the advanced countries.”
The American left, he said, has crumbled. It sold out to a bankrupt Democratic Party, abandoned the working class and has no ability to organize. Unions are a spent force. The universities are mills for corporate employees. The press churns out info-entertainment or fatuous pundits. The left, he said, no longer has the capacity to be a counterweight to the corporate state. He said that if an extreme right gains momentum there will probably be very little organized resistance.
“The left is amorphous,” he said. “I despair over the left. Left parties may be small in number in Europe but they are a coherent organization that keeps going. Here, except for Nader’s efforts, we don’t have that. We have a few voices here, a magazine there, and that’s about it. It goes nowhere.”
Chris Hedges, a Pulitzer prize-winning reporter, is a Senior Fellow at the Nation Institute. His latest book is Collateral Damage: America’s War Against Iraqi Civilians.