We should excuse our high school civics teachers for age-appropriate simplification, I guess. For telling us, just to throw out an example, that we live in a democracy guided by a Constitution that vests power in the People. It doesn’t do that, you know, not really, but saying it does goes so much better with baseball and hot dogs than “nominally democratic republic engineered by elitist, slave-owning legal wonks who bent over backward to create the illusion of a populist government while ensuring that true power remained safely out of reach of the rabble.”
According to political theorist Sheldon Wolin, the Founders actually feared the rabble – or “demos” – feared its irrationality, its untempered, uneducated, unpredictable passions. So Wolin says they designed a system whereby the demos “reigned but did not rule.” (p. 228)*
Pretty slick, eh?
From these duplicitous beginnings we’ve evolved what Wolin calls an “inverted totalitarian” state, one feature of which is the “managed democracy” that fills voters’ heads with false controversies, then offers them a choice between two essentially interchangeable candidates. I’m reminded of Dorothy Parker’s famous description of Katherine Hepburn’s acting ability: “[She] ran the whole gamut of emotions—from A to B.”
At the most basic level, says Wolin, a totalitarian regime seeks to control and coordinate (“totalise”) all aspects of a society – government, military, industry, education, press, entertainment – toward a certain end. Classical totalitarian regimes – those led by Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini – varied stylistically and philosophically, each a product of its own culture and its own time, but in every case the few totalised the many. Our version, inverted totalitarianism, looks like this:
- Government is corporatized. In classical totalitarianism, the state controls business/industry. Inverted totalitarianism subordinates politics to economics. It creates a revolving door between government and the corporate sector such that industry representatives make and enforce the policies that govern their own industries. Political campaigns live or die according to the generosity of corporate donors. Former legislators become lobbyists and consultants. Former executives become cabinet members, agency heads and vice presidents. Privatization of services (schools, prisons, etc.) formerly provided by the government shifts control of those services to for-profit entities not accountable to the voter.
- Apathy is encouraged. In classical totalitarianism, the population is aggressively engaged year-round. Rallies, marches, all hands on deck. Inverted totalitarianism disengages the population. Apathetic voters don’t vote, which reduces the size of the electorate, which makes the electorate easier to manipulate. It throws up barriers to participation like voter ID laws and drastic reductions in the number of polling places, even as elected representatives openly cater to monied interests and corporate media ignore or ghettoize popular movements. A 2014 Princeton University study found no statistical correlation between voter preferences and public policy.
- Incentive is “dematerialized.” Classical totalitarianism motivates by addressing practical material needs. Inverted totalitarianism motivates by inspiring nationalism, xenophobia and physical/financial insecurity. “… the ‘mobilization’ of society [actually was] the transformation [from] New Deal experiments in participatory democracy [to] loyal conformism, [exchanging] hope for fear.” (p. 39)*
- Propaganda is privatized. In classical totalitarianism, the government publishes propaganda. Inverted totalitarianism delegates this function to corporate media outlets which frequently hire former government and military officials to offer “expert commentary” on current events. “Access journalism” is more about promotion than reportage.
- Dogs eat dogs. Reducing “bloated bureaucracy” is the justification given for rolling back social programs. Competitive spirit and individualism are valued over community spirit and compassion. “The common good seems an abstraction, private interests the reality.” (p. 110)* “Exit the citizen, enter the corporate actor.” (p. 196)*
*Democracy Incorporated by Sheldon Wolin, 2008