Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism

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Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism by Sheldon S. Wolin. (2008). Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford, ISBN 13579108642, US$29.95.

Sheldon Wolin is the author of perhaps the best work on the history of political thought in the last half century. His magisterial work, Politics and Vision, published more than forty years ago, showed the influence of political imagination on political organisations and ideals. In this very recent work on the problems of modern politics, particularly in the USA, his liberal and democratic voice is still offering us unique insights. Wolin is likely to be scorned by those who merely skim the book title, and on this basis think that he is merely saying that America today, with its aggressive and illiberal internal and external policies, has some resemblance to the totalitarian states of the last century. The mainstream media, if it does not ignore the book entirely, is likely to see it as an attack on George Bush the Second from a supporter of the Democratic Party. Such reflexes miss the point: they are not what Wolin is saying at all. His much more profound message is set in the context of political thought about the struggle between elites and the demos since the time of ancient Athens, with references to the emergence of republicanism and capitalism in the last half millennium, and the emergence of elitist anti-democratic tendencies in the American Constitution.

For Wolin, the democratic success of American politics reached a high water mark at the time of the New Deal following the Great Depression. Since then, and particularly under the presidency of George Bush the Second, the power of elites have grown, and inequalities have endangered the realm of the public, the activity of the political, and the space for a democratic way of life. Wolin's language needs to be unpacked carefully. Superpower describes the mythical, almost comic book-like, American assault on the international obstacles to its perceived realisation of power. An empire of domination requires bases, markets, and consumers, but not necessarily direct rule. Superpower has used extraordinary methods, mostly unknown to US citizens, in confrontations that are simplified for media bites as struggles between good and evil, or as pre-emptive bids to save our freedom against those who hate us for having our freedom. Internally America has become a base for global corporate interests, winding back social benefits to the demos and favouring the private interests of the few. …