I’ve been looking for some book length works of political analysis, to add to what my consulting experience and reading of other sources tells me is going on beneath today’s headlines. I’m particularly interested in Sheldon Wolin’s Democracy, Incorporated and Chris Hedge’s Death of the Liberal Class. Of the two, Wolin’s book is the more provocative and scholarly, with pages of sources and footnotes for each chapter, while Hedges, who takes much of his argument from Wolin, adds interesting insights of his own, but writes in a breezier, more journalistic style. Both are eminently readable; however, and highly recommended.
Wolin’s theme is the evolution of American government from an elitist republican system, as formulated by the Constitution, to the liberal democratic system that grew out of The Great Depression, and its devolution, since then, into what Wolin defines as Inverted Totalitarianism. As Wolin suggests, there has been a constant tension between republicanism and democracy throughout our nation’s history, and periods during which one or the other was the dominant political paradigm. What is different today is that we are witnessing a period of retrenchment in which the will of the people, as expressed through their votes, is being frustrated beyond all precedent.
What does he mean by Inverted Totalitarianism? It’s an anti-democratic system of political management reliant neither on party nor personality. There is no Hitler or Stalin in charge, no one dominant political party, no heavily politicized mob to legitimize its existence, no demands for sacrifice for the advancement of the state, no prisons full of dissidents nor concentration camps for vilified minorities. The systems of control are much more subtle and insidious. It relies on the corruption of both parties, the co-optation of dissidents, the scapegoating and ridicule of its potent opposition and, especially, by the depoliticization of large numbers of citizens.
The cooperation of both parties is purchased by wealthy business interests hell bent on accomplishing their own agenda, which basically consists of eliminating every liberal reform measure enacted in the 20th century to benefit the hard working masses, the enactment of free-trade agreements enabling the off-shoring of jobs, and the privatization and monetization of most government functions, including prisons, education and defense.
Look closely, for example, at what happened to the Tea Party. What started as a group of outraged citizens, (GOP agents provocateurs?) quickly grew into a mass movement many of whose members were without jobs, facing foreclosure on their homes, and demands that they pay for health insurance, as if their lack of coverage were for anything other than economic reasons. The groups were swiftly co-opted by plutarchic interests offering political training as well as campaign financing. Suddenly, these groups have become beholden of the very hard right interests who have been frustrating their demands for a voice in the nations affairs all along.
As Hedges makes quite clear, however, none of this would have been possible if it weren’t for the people’s disillusionment with those identified as Liberals. His book is largely an update of Julien Benda’s famous work, The Treason of the Intellectuals. He demonstrates how Liberals led the country to war five times in the twentieth century, supported by a propaganda machine that kept fear alive in times of peace. The war against the Kaiser morphed into a Red Scare, then turned against the Nazis, back against the Reds, and finally into the antiterrorist crusade we are involved in today. Each time the government’s security apparatus was heavily augmented and never disbursed.
The Liberalism of the 1960s lost all all credibility with those who protested the draft and the war, as did the labor movement which would not support the bourgeois draft dodgers. Once the war was over, its members it soon became more concerned with sex, drugs, and rock’n roll, drifted into elite jobs and mostly lost interest in politics. The strength of old left labor was that it made the political personal. The weakness of the new left is that it makes the personal political. As questions of sexual identity and political correctness became the main concerns of the Democratic Party, it opened an opportunity for the Right to initiate cultural and economic warfare, enathematize organized labor, and even to capture the labor vote by demonizing the liberal elite.
I wonder how many readers have noticed, from watching the Sunday talk shows, that the best way to shut up a Democrat is to mention class warfare. They are far too easily intimidated because they know what will happen to their corporate funding. Getting the corporate money out is not going to happen now that all of Congress is captive to the corporate PACs, and the media that would ridicule anyone who took a principled stand. The only thing that will solve the problem is to make the political personal again, to break the clout in the primary races of the hard right Republicans, and the wishy washy DINOs. Get your indie mugwump off the fence and do what Obama did. Commit to one of the parties, out-organize the other factions, stack the party meetings, take control of the agenda and prepare yourself for a good floor fight. Then, vote in the primaries and the general election. It isn’t a genteel process, and it isn’t for the meek, but that is how it is done. You want to do something about Washington? That’s the way to do it.