25 January 2010

Book: Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism

Did last week's US Supreme Court decision to lift restrictions on campaign contributions by business corporations (and labour unions and other special interests) really change anything? Those who do not realize just how closely linked democracy and capitalism are – and always have been –, may call it "the end of democracy" (as evidenced by so many blog posts).

The others may be reminded of any number of books and articles on the subject. For example, Sheldon S. Wolin's "Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism", published in 2008 by Princeton University Press:


Publisher's description: "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."

Of particular interest may be the chapter titled "Intellectual Elites against Democracy". Excerpt: "[H]istorically, the idea of elite rule conceived democracy as its antithesis and natural enemy. [...] Today, when the appeal of democracy is being touted by ruling elites and exploited as an instrument of American power, elite contempt is prudently camouflaged, or perhaps sublimated, as managed democracy."

Reviews: "[A] rare, chilling analysis of intellectual critics of democracy. If democracy means more than occasional elections and protection of those rights that are compatible with economic and political elites' interests, Wolin's analysis of our democratic predicament is shocking, solid, and fundamentally correct." (C.P. Waligorski, "Choice")

"Building on his fifty years as a political theorist and proponent of radical democracy, Wolin here extends his concern with the extinguishing of the political and its replacement by fraudulent simulations of democratic process." (Jonathan Crary, "Artforum")

"Wolin demonstrates that the threats to our democratic traditions and institutions are not always from outside, but may come from within." (Rakesh Khurana, Harvard Business School)

"[H]e contends that the institutions and practices that Americans regarded as their defense against totalitarianism – and other forms of authoritarian domination – have failed them." (Anne Norton, University of Pennsylvania)

"Wolin argues that the unquestioned faith in the virtues of free market capitalism has dramatically narrowed the range of policy options that are on the table when debate turns to resolving the US's ills." (Alex Waddan, "International Affairs")

"[A] comprehensive diagnosis of our failings as a democratic polity [...] including [...] what must be done if it is not to disappear into history along with its classic totalitarian predecessors." (Chalmers Johnson, "Truthdig")

While I believe that Wolin's solution, radical democracy, is an illusion, his criticism of current democracy stands.

The book is fully searchable on Google Book Search (including full table of contents):


A new edition of this book in paperback is announced for February/March 2010.

Sheldon S. Wolin is Professor of Politcs Emeritus at Princeton.

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