Democracy is Messy: On Wolin's "Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism
(I've taken some excerpts from a piece I did in July 2008 on Sheldon Wolin's "Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism. Wolin was a professor of politics at Princeton U. He was also Chalmers Johnson's professor. This book is especially important now that the Occupy movement is here and we can see the similarities and differences between now and the sixties.)
How did we get to this state of what Wolin calls inverted totalitarianism with its Superpowerness? Wolin says it corresponds to the consolidation of the media into a handful of corporations.
"The relationship between democratic decline and the media ownership is illustrated in the contrast between the attention paid by Washington and the national media to the sixties' protest movements against the Vietnam War and, four decades later, the virtual blackout of the protests against the invasion of Iraq. In the sixties, thanks to the antiwar movements and the publicity given to them by national and local television and radio, the nation agonized over that preemptive war and tried to work through it. The true significance of the continuing conservative resentment against the sixties, the real 'Vietnam syndrome,' appears in the growing intolerance toward opposition and especially toward the disorderliness that has always been the hallmark of a vibrant democracy."
Wolin makes the argument that the sixties and early seventies were one of the finest examples of democracy in our nation's history. Spontaneous protests were everywhere. Teach ins, sit ins, marches, demonstrations, all were part of a populist uprising while the Congress finally got off its butt and started challenging President Nixon's illegal war in Cambodia. They cut off funds and finally were able to override a Presidential veto. So with the informal debates all across the country by the people and the formal protest by their representatives, America witnessed
"the union of two powers, one populist and uninstitutionalized, the other representative and institutional: constitutional democracy."
Wolin goes on to say:
Small wonder that ever since those days conservatives and hawks have waged their own relentless "culture war" against the sixties. The effort to overcome "the Vietnam Syndrome" involved more than a wish to exorcise the shame of a military defeat; it aimed to discredit the democratic and constitutional impulses of that era as well, an aim consistent with totalitarianism, inverted or not. As the legatee of that campaign George II remarked, "Sometimes I listen to the American people and sometimes I don't." A democracy evoked at the whim of its highest elected official cannot count for much.
Everything ends up being about power. But Democracy is "first and foremost about equality". And Wolin says that democracy proposed a "radically different conception of power. It is about "equality of power and equality of sharing in the benefits and values made possible by social cooperation."
But in a frightening inversion of this principle, taxes for the wealthy have been cut over the last 30 years while the burden of taxes has fallen on working Americans while their benefits get cut and health care and energy costs rise. This makes a public "uncertain and demoralized". They lose any sense of who they are or what the meaning of their lives are.
To fill them up and make them find some sort of identity, Superpower's solution is "a mix of patriotism, and nationalism, and unthinking loyalty to the troops." They are lulled into accepting corporate power by the use of "fear and misguided patriotism".
But democracy is not compatible with empire and so we must make a choice between them. Bu it is the elites' job along with their media lackeys to make sure that nobody ever makes this point in public discourse. And so we slide into another election keeping our mouths shut.
Update: Sound familiar? David Graeber talks about this in his essays "Revolutions in Reverse". Most people need meaning in their lives; to do some good. In managed democracy, patriotism and loyalty to the empire gives a sense of purpose.
Something else both Graeber and Wolin discuss in how the elites keep discontent down
in other ways besides bread and circuses and appeals to patriotism. The word "empire" was replaced with the more friendly sounding word "frontier". Wolin said that
The historian Frederick Jackson Turner worried that with the end of the frontier, individualism would disappear. Discontent would appear because the free lands were gone. But Kennedy reinvigorated this idea. Get us going again “get America moving again”. Then what happened? “Outer space was soon overshadowed by cyber space.” The endless space of the whole universe and now endless innovation of computers and the internet. P233
So the internet was hailed ‘as the perfect expression of democracy; that everyone could enter the Web and voice whatever happened to be on his or her mind= democracy.”
HA! This is exactly how Superpower gained control, says Wolin. With all this “Compressed time, instant communication, rapid response: the tyranny of efficiency and the subversion of democracy’s requirement that time be defined by the requirements for deliberation, discussion, reconciliation of opposing viewpoints, all of which suddenly seem ‘time-consuming’.
So here we are in 2011 with the Occupy movement which is taking Wolin's warnings to heart. They have stopped to take the time to deliberate, discuss and reconcile opposing viewpoints. They are resisting the managers of democracy and their demands for demands. They are taking their time and creating "festivals of resistance."
Elite authoritarians do not like disorderliness. They are guardians of order. Empire demands it. But democracy is messy.