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Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy…

Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted…

by Sheldon S. Wolin

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I could have written this ( except for the off-kilter chapter nine ) A lot of typographical / punctuationaly errors ( using voice dication software ? ) Overall however, ' inverted totalitarianism ' is what I was calling ' Fascism lite ' , ' Nerf Fascism ', or ' I Can't Beleive It's Not Fascism ! '. ( )
  Baku-X | Jan 10, 2017 |
The author provides an acerbic and critical analysis of modern American politics and the Republican party in particular. He discusses the interlocking of American government with big business. This includes campaign finance and fraud, personnel exchange between the public and private sectors, economic segregation at universities and the renunciation of social welfare in favor of military spending. It all amounts to a depressing portrait of a plutocracy run by greedy billionaires for the benefit of a small elite. The author draws at some length on the history of democracy and the history of political thought to build his case.

Although there are flashes of brilliance in this book, there are also bad ideas and a lot of unclear writing. A particularly bad idea is the comparison of American politics to Nazi and Soviet totalitarian regimes, a comparison which just doesn't make any sense. The author fortunately lets go of this forced parallel towards the end of the book. He also has an idiosyncratic writing style which is quite undisciplined. He exaggerates and overextends some parts of his argument so strongly that it's hard to know how seriously one should take the other parts. The discussion is often confusing and seems overly pessimistic.

I can therefore not recommend this book unreservedly. The underlying idea might be both valid and critically important for the fate of democracy in the 21st century, but the author doesn't possess enough intellectual ability to carry his ambitious critical project to a convincing completion. Fukuyama's recent book "Political Order and Political Decay" is a stronger work on a similar subject with a broad international scope.
1 vote thcson | Nov 2, 2015 |
I could have written this ( except for the off-kilter chapter nine ) A lot of typographical / punctuationaly errors ( using voice dication software ? ) Overall however, ' inverted totalitarianism ' is what I was calling ' Fascism lite ' , ' Nerf Fascism ', or ' I Can't Beleive It's Not Fascism ! '. ( )
  BakuDreamer | Sep 7, 2013 |
Sheldon Wolin begins his book by looking at the effects that September 11, 2001 had on the public, and especially how those effects were refracted though the media. He suggests that the reaction was practically singular and unanimous: popular opinion was consolidated through media apparatus, dissident voices were marginalized or silenced, and fear of a distant, unknown enemy (the ubiquitous “Islamic terrorist”) was encouraged. After 9/11, the miasma of terror created the perfect foil for the construction of a permanent state of fear, which the government used for a reason to use military tribunals, and indefinitely suspend prisoners. All the while the military and its surrogates became increasing privatized by corporate hegemons in the name of “protecting the free market.” Suddenly we had a “global foe, without contours or boundaries, shrouded in secrecy” (p. 40). How did this happen?

Wolin suggests that, at the heart of American governance, are two countervailing forces. The “constitutional imaginary” (embodied by popular elections, legal authorization, etc.) – so named because it is the predominant logic of the Constitution – “prescribes the means by which power is legitimated, accountable, and constrained. It emphasizes stability and limits” (p. 19). The power imaginary, however, “seeks constantly to expand present capabilities.” Wolin suggests that the power imaginary began with Roosevelt’s New Deal policies, but expanded disproportionately with the inception of the Cold War. The constitutional and power imaginaries may seem mutually exclusive, but they co-exist uneasily within our ersatz American democracy.

Wolin uses these concepts to build an idea that he looks throughout the entire book – that of “inverted totalitarianism,” which is what he claims America is. To understand what he is doing here, it is important to look at how classical totalitarianism (that of Stalin, Hitler, and Mussolini) functioned. These worked through

- the subversion and eventual destruction of legislative, governmental, and bureaucratic avenues
- single-party control of the state through the presence of a charismatic leader
- boasts of its totalitarian character and attempts to actively rally the people behind state propaganda
- excites the populace into a frisson over something (racial superiority, anti-Semitism)

If you turn these on their head, you get what Wolin calls inverted totalitarianism. He defines this as “a new type of political system, seemingly one riven by abstract totalizing powers, not by person rule, one that succeeds by encouraging political disengagement rather than mass mobilization that relies more on private media than on public agencies to disseminate propaganda reinforcing the official version of events.” (p. 44) It has, among others, the following properties:

- instead of subverting traditional democratic channels, it utilizes them to achieve its predetermined ends
- denies its totalitarian nature
- pacifies, stunts, and retards popular mobility
- operates via the impression of a multi-party state (Democratic/Republican) with the illusion of at least two different sets of political ideals with a conspicuous lack of the aforementioned charismatic leader

These are just the barest of bones of Wolin’s argument. He includes a through intellectual genealogy of how he thinks we have placed more and more of an emphasis on the power imaginary, with insightful examinations of Hobbes, Machiavelli, Leo Strauss, and Plato. He also spends a lot of time looking at how the deliberate consolidation of media and corporate power within the United States has made this coup much easier.

I found the idiom of inverted totalitarianism an interesting one for looking at contemporary American democracy, even though it has its weaknesses. It is one of the few books on the subject that I have read that is just as considerate of twenty-first century American history as it is of classical political theory, and it strikes a beautiful balance. This is the best kind of critical theory in that it puts into lucid language what many people have suspected. Sometimes it just takes someone from Princeton to articulate it this well. ( )
2 vote kant1066 | Jan 18, 2012 |
A nuanced volume that bears rereading during the Obama administration: Wolin's views illuminate the failure of the new president to bring the change the American people imagined they were endorsing. For a good critique and appreciation, see Paul Street's review on the web site Dissident Voice. ( )
  jensenmk82 | Aug 21, 2009 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0691135665, Hardcover)

Democracy is struggling in America--by now this statement is almost cliché. But what if the country is no longer a democracy at all? In Democracy Incorporated, Sheldon Wolin considers the unthinkable: has America unwittingly morphed into a new and strange kind of political hybrid, one where economic and state powers are conjoined and virtually unbridled? Can the nation check its descent into what the author terms "inverted totalitarianism"?

Wolin portrays a country where citizens are politically uninterested and submissive--and where elites are eager to keep them that way. At best the nation has become a "managed democracy" where the public is shepherded, not sovereign. At worst it is a place where corporate power no longer answers to state controls. Wolin makes clear that today's America is in no way morally or politically comparable to totalitarian states like Nazi Germany, yet he warns that unchecked economic power risks verging on total power and has its own unnerving pathologies. Wolin examines the myths and mythmaking that justify today's politics, the quest for an ever-expanding economy, and the perverse attractions of an endless war on terror. He argues passionately that democracy's best hope lies in citizens themselves learning anew to exercise power at the local level.

Democracy Incorporated is one of the most worrying diagnoses of America's political ills to emerge in decades. It is sure to be a lightning rod for political debate for years to come.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:23:18 -0400)

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