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College Quarterly
Fall 2015 - Volume 18 Number 4
Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism
Sheldon S. Wolin

Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008

Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

There was a time, long, long ago, when textbooks used to be very different beasts. I suppose that, in the basic maths and sciences, the format has remained pretty much the same although, of course, the “production values” have been inflated and the endless links to online resources have projected the concept of the text into apparently infinite cyberspace.

As for the “content,” despite ongoing disputes and interminable controversies in the ethereal reaches of the larger disciplines, the basics that students/novitiates receive remain a welter of facts and theories that are to be learned without excessive questioning. Even in these exciting times of new discoveries in domains from particle physics to cosmology, something akin to Kuhn’s concept of “normal science” (Kuhn, 1962, pp. 23-44) still applies to classes in “Introductory Physics” or “Chemistry 101.” No matter what we think about string theory, water still boils at 212˚ (F) at sea level and, no matter what poetry may better describe the activities of neutrinos or black holes, there is a body of fairly conventional knowledge about the (slightly expanding) periodic table of elements and the increasing speed of falling objects that should be conveyed before the spooky intricacies of quantum mechanics and anti-matter can be usefully explored.

In the field of political philosophy, however, such certainty is not so easily or confidently assumed. Yes, there has been a “canon” with Plato and Aristotle at the top (or the foundational bottom, if you prefer) and a host of other luminaries from Augustine and Aquinas to Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Kant, Hegel, Marx and J. S. Mill whose musings on the civic virtues are deemed indispensable, but it was never enough to be able to recite their main arguments. Mastery of the subject was also a matter of interpretation and criticism.

So, to help us along, I and my fellow undergraduates of a half-century ago clung to such tomes as George H. Sabine’s A History of Political Philosophy (1937), which were reassuring in their faith that antique wisdom was worth preserving. We resisted the claims of “analytical philosophy” and “logical positivism” that “normative” statements which could not be “operationalized” and empirically tested in the allegedly “real” world were meaningless. We struggled to retain the belief that political philosophy was no mere matter of proffering emotive, unreflective preferences, but was actually about something; that is to say that it contained an important body of useful—nay, necessary—knowledge regardless of whether it could sensibly be measured in multiple-choice quizzes and short-answer tests.

So, a rather sharp distinction was drawn between “traditionalists” who worried about what the “good society” might be or what is meant by “justice” on the one hand, and various sorts of radical “empiricisms” (including the then-fashionable behaviouralism and systems analysis) that relied upon “facts” and predismissed normative inquiry as idle/idol speculation. In this context, young aspirant scholars and researchers were encouraged, if not coerced, into taking sides in academic battles to exhaustion, and sometimes to the death of their academic careers.


In 1960, however, some of that intransigence began to soften. Sheldon S. Wolin, a then-young (38-year-old) scholar at the University of California at Berkeley, published Politics and Vision: Continuity and Innovation in Western Political Thought. It connected the inherited vocabulary of ancient, medieval and early modern political thought to the historical contexts in which words such as authority, equity, freedom and responsibility could be understood in a far more historicized fashion than the disembodied tradition of the “great conversation” had previously preferred. Wolin was an extraordinary reader of texts but, through him, some of us learned that the text was only the beginning of what really mattered.

For a while, bridging the gap between a preoccupation with what passed for scientific objectivity and an inclination toward metaphysical speculation or, at least, tentative moral judgement seemed increasingly possible. The discreditable old saw, “that’s fine in theory, but it’ll never work in practice,” seemed ready to be discarded into the dumpster of dumb ideas. After all, some of us were heard to say, the test of good theory is precisely whether or not it will work in practice; and, if it doesn’t work in practice, it was bad theory; conversely, of course, anything that works in practice must, of necessity, be based on good theory. We therefore tried to find ways to test moral and explicitly political precepts within the established empirical tradition. It was, I continue to believe, a noble quest. Incidentally, thanks to the persuasive arguments of people such as John G. Gunnell, the facile and ultimately untenable equivalency of “philosophy” and “theory” soon became apparent (Gunnell, 1969; Gunnell, 1975; Gunnell, 1977; Gunnell, 1983; Gunnell, 1986, etc.), but that’s another story.)

My first reading of Politics and Vision was therefore revelatory. It successfully connected my youthful passions about liberty, equality and justice to a vital way of thinking about practical political engagement and not merely to the detritus of a catalogue of dead white males. As time passed, I kept connected to a good deal of Sheldon Wolin’s writing. His essay on “political theory as a vocation” (1969) and his treatment of politics and education through the lens of the 1964 Berkeley free speech movement (Wolin & Schaar, 1970) stood atop my list of then current favourites. Several “serious” works followed including fascinating treatments of Hobbes (Wolin, 1970), a seminal discussion of the decline of citizenship in an era of consumer politics (Wolin, 1990), and a magisterial study of Alexis de Tocqueville (Wolin, 2001) which has had a deep influence on the study of democracy in Europe and North America; so did an exemplary career as a consummate teacher and mentor.

Then, in 2003, Sheldon Wolin, who had already carved out a noteworthy place in the annals of American political thought, made a dramatic reappearance with an essay in The Nation that redefined (or at least refined) our understanding of politics in the United States and, by implication, throughout what we are pleased to call modern liberal democracies (Wolin, 2003). In “Inverted Totalitarianism,” he not only set out notes for a diagnosis of modern democratic theory and practice, but also went some way toward prescribing a therapy. Then in his 86th year, he expanded upon that provocative magazine article. With faultless logic and uncontestable evidence, he grew his main thesis into a book (Wolin, 2008) that has already altered or enlarged the minds of even the most already astute students of politics.

Those who would sacrifice a little liberty to gain a little security will lose both and deserve neither. – Attributed to Benjamin Franklin

Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism contains the elucidation of the original notion of inverted totalitarianism. It provides the attentive among us with a perspective and a vocabulary that makes sense of current power arrangements. It illuminates what is commonly called the “democratic deficit” that has discounted democratic life and left us politically poorer for it. In Democracy Incorporated, Sheldon Wolin helps us to understand better what is happening around us and to us. He shows how our pervasive sense of political malaise—periodically punctuated with episodes of mindless enthusiasm and followed, in turn, by spells of disappointment, anguish, remorse and resentment—can be alleviated and our political lives at least partially redeemed.

By “political,” of course, I mean our “natural” lives as what Aristotle called zoon politikon (political animals). We are, said the man whom medieval Christian scholars obliquely called “the philosopher,” a species not only social as are elephants, dolphins and wolves, but also self-consciously purposive and collaborative. We are able to contemplate ethical ideas, design institutions and construct relations of our own choosing. We can act in the interest of our communities and not just in the furtherance of our own avarice and power lust or, more often, in submission to those who exert power over us in a long succession of oligarchies and tyrannies. Sheldon S. Wolin was nothing if not an advocate and practitioner of democracy. He challenges us to be the same.

Wolin’s main theme is captured in the adjective “inverted.” He speaks mostly about the United States, though his message should not be lost on all putative democracies. He makes the case that power is increasingly concentrated in a corporate-sponsored and increasingly corrupt state which engages in the comprehensive surveillance of citizens, relies on a militarized law enforcement apparatus, and has built a vast system of courts and prisons to accommodate those not sufficiently integrated into the softer prison of conventional thinking and obedient (in)action. Power is specifically enabled by systematically weakened legislatures, a decaying public sector with a decomposing social welfare system, and a competition between stylized political parties (Bernie Sanders’ valiant efforts to the contrary not yet withstanding) that are equally deferential to a global technological empire.

Together with sycophantic mass media and ideologically blinkered educational systems, Wolin contends that political parties as interest aggregators and opinion shapers are parts of an enormous two-pronged propaganda machine. They effectively repress creative imagination and suppress critical consciousness. Dissent is thereby distorted and marginalized. It may be co-opted in pursuit of private gratification or silenced by myth-based fears and all too realistic personal insecurities. Meanwhile, the celebration of entrepreneurship, the monetization of innovation, the pixelization of political discourse, and the infiltration, corrosion and “virtual” erasure of the public sphere combine to establish the elastic but enduring, impenetrable boundaries of our increasingly ritualized political theatre.

If, as college educators, we choose to retain a minimal sense of self-respect, we must force ourselves to become ever more acutely aware of the crucial role of postsecondary education in compelling compliance with neoliberal precepts and practices through our exclusively utilitarian curriculum, our instrumental teaching “strategies,” and timorous modeling of the labour process our obsequiousness in the presence of corporate authority.

If an argument goes on long enough, sooner or later someone will call someone else a Nazi. – Mike Godwin

We must, however, be careful. If we take Democracy Incorporated to heart, we will be able to clarify our better thoughts. We will also better understand the angst we experience as a consequence of frustration with the past and as a reflection of our pervasive sense of futility about the future. Made aware of the clinical description of our symptoms, those of us who see through the opacity of our political and economic bubbles will feel the jolt as we recognize the parallel patterns established in previous totalitarian states. This shock may render us susceptible to careless analogies and thoughtless similes. The seemingly obvious connections, however, are too easy to make. If we are interested in more than slipshod self-indulgence, we ought not to be negligent. We must guard against the temptation to be loose with fearsome and fallaciously applied historical resemblances. We must be alert to Godwin’s Law.

Now given high memetic status with its recent inclusion in the Oxford Dictionary, Godwin’s Law was first put forward in 1990 by lawyer Mike Godwin. He advanced a fanciful notion, but with a serious intent. Also called “playing the Hitler card” or “reductio ad Hitlerium,” Godwin’s Law takes aim at sloppy political screeds and efforts to elicit exaggerated effects when comparing events, ideas and people to “Nazis.” In its original form, it states: “As a Usenet discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.” Or, in a later version: “If an argument goes on long enough, sooner or later someone will call someone else a ‘Nazi.’” At that point, says one corollary, the person making that claim will be deemed to have lost the argument (Chivers, 2009).

Sheldon Wolin does indeed invoke a connection among authoritarian attitudes, dictatorial practices and repressive ideologies in contemporary versions of what some call “late capitalism” (Jameson, 1991; Mandel, 1999); but, he does so thoughtfully—not for hyperbolic effect. “Inverted,” as applied to totalitarianism sets out stark contrasts with the 20th-century totalitarian tyrannies with which we are (or should be) familiar. Most obviously, the despotic regimes of Mussolini and Hitler stressed the diminution of the individual and the melding of the person with the state. According to Wolin, the current pattern of power does the opposite.

Whereas the Nazis sought to mobilize the population into active support through public rituals, the subsumption of individual personality and subsequent unification of the citizen and the glorified state, the current trend is toward controlled disengagement, engineered apathy and forced alienation of the self (not ein Reich, ein Volk, ein Führer and all that or, in somewhat less vulgar terms, the neo-Hegelian idealism in the form of a rejection of individualism and an ontological carnival of collectivism: cf. Gentile, 1928). Parades in the streets and mass rallies are replaced by loneliness and isolation, the near collapse of permanent employment, neither company loyalty nor worker solidarity, a communal life of disembodied social media interactions, and the deterioration of the self-consciousness in the banality of consumerism pursued against a narrative of suspicion, dread, powerlessness and submission.

So, we are reminded of President George W. Bush’s gutsy admonition to the American people as the dust was settling at the World Trade Center. He did not issue a call to arms, a plan for mass mobilization, retaliation and revenge; he urged people to go about their daily affairs, to defiantly fly to Disneyland, to show patriotic resilience in shopping. He also initiated The Patriot Act and the multi-layered, multi-faceted and multi-billion-dollar “Homeland Security” establishment which makes its business constant electronic (and other) surveillance on American citizens—at least a few of which are placed on the presidential “kill list” (see Hedges, 2013; Hedges, 2014).

Our problem is that, once we’ve called the police, the military, our elected politicians and the dominant financial, manufacturing and commercial corporations “Nazis” or “fascists,” we’ve not only misunderstood them and our historical relations with them, but we’ve thereby precluded redemptive action in the present day. The success of contemporary authoritarianism lies not in appeals to sturm und drang or blut und boden (Donald Trump’s bluster to the contrary not yet withstanding). There are no uniformed paramilitary “brownshirts” or threatening “jackboots” in the streets seeking to attack existing democratic institutions and rally the inchoately outraged.

On the contrary, democratic institutions are being hollowed out from within. So, if there are “gangs of thugs” in the streets, their uniforms are much more likely to be those of law enforcement officers operating with administrative approval outside the law coming, like Carl Sandberg’s fog, once again on “little cat feet”; but, no matter what justification there may be for excoriating the criminal justice system or the domestic-intelligence-associated-investigatory agencies, they remain the creatures of formally democratic political arrangements and not openly instruments of non-governmental extremists and insurrectionists.

When Wolin points to the distortions and reductions of vibrant democratic practice, the inversion of democracy, the management of information and the evisceration of citizenship, he takes care to show that authoritarian methods are generally much more subtle than any physical burning of the Reichstag. Current totalitarian impulses are directed toward disemboweling through vivisection rather than publically decapitating civic commitment. They lull us into silent (if not tranquil) acceptance. They are the final working out of the revisionist democratic doctrines of theorists such as Joseph A. Schumpeter (1942), who famously argued that the full exercise of citizenship was too great a burden for ordinary people to bear.

Being allowed to vote every few years for a prepackaged group of well-vetted rulers who would then be left alone to govern was, Schumpeter and his progeny believed, all the democracy we could manage. It is an insipid excuse for the kind of vital well-informed and civic-minded polity that democracy’s most vigorous and high-minded advocates had in mind. But it is not only a semantic, logical and empirical flaw; it is a potentially fatal tactical mistake to confuse a democratic deficit with an ideological commitment to fanaticism and impassioned, violent and ideological authoritarianism.

While the current system and its operatives share with Nazism the aspiration toward unlimited power and aggressive expansionism, their methods and actions seem upside down – Sheldon Wolin

Now, says Sheldon Wolin, we have “managed democracy.” We are comforted by the visible symbols and rituals of democratic governance—regular elections that are conducted (mainly) within the law, occasional intimate communications from the authorities, reminders of benign national sentiments, simulacra of civil engagement, and calculated (though perhaps disingenuous) avowals that we are being kept safe. We are not, in the alternative, often incarcerated for expressing contrarian views (unless we do so in unwieldy numbers). We are certainly at liberty to berate the ruling classes in the letters-to-the-editor sections of daily newspapers or, if the gate-keepers of the Fourth Estate find our often testy rebukes unpalatable, then we can “publish” in any number of “comments” sections of Internet sites of all conceivable ideological “brands.”

We are even permitted to join trade unions and to organize groups stating that “Black lives matter,” that aboriginal peoples will be “idle no more,” that LGBT communities are entitled to “pride,” and so on. The authorities may monitor our communications and even slip informants and agents provocateurs into our seditious cabals and unruly book clubs; but, again, more often than not, the rule of law applies. And as Edward Thompson, a self-described “historian in the Marxist tradition” very properly said (at some risk to his revolutionary credentials) “the rule of law is an unqualified human good” (Thompson, 1975, p. 266; Cole, 2001).

We nonetheless appear to be on the cusp of the fate foreshadowed in commentaries from Bertram Gross (1980) to Naomi Wolf (2007). Echoing Pastor Niemöeller’s post-World War homily—which was, itself, anticipated in the 1916 description of an incoming fog by Carl Sandburg (Poetry Foundation, 2015)—they predicted that, if fascism comes to America, it will come on kitten feet, incrementally, eroding freedom in small, seemingly reasonable steps in response to periodic and allegedly transitory crises, until people finally become sensible to what they have lost but, by then, it will be too late.

Even so, however, the result will not be authentic fascism which entails the glorification of the State and the loss of individuality within the “collective [more-or-less] consciousness.” It will be the corporate administration of public affairs, with individual citizens left alone to languish in their (literal) idiocy, which is to say, isolated in privacy, fixated on their “devices” and, for the fortunate, indulging in mindless consumerism.

Inverted totalitarianism will also be assisted by colleges and universities which succumb to a market model, become besotted with the dissemination of “employability skills” to the detriment of critically understanding work and the economy, and conceive of education as no more than hobby farming for screen-based distractions, job training, and preparation for life as compliant consumers, sporadically productive workers and submissive citizens content to “denature” themselves in a political process that has taken on the principal attributes show business.

What’s new? - American colloquialism

In our frenetic world of instant, semi-intellectual quasi-gratification, it is not fashionable to review books of “a certain age.” If only for pragmatic reasons, I try to accommodate the fondness for novelty and innovation in choosing books for review. I have made an exception in this case, however, for two reasons. One is to mark the passing of Sheldon S. Wolin (1922-2015) who, if we can aspire to some sort authorial equity in future years, will be remembered more broadly and fondly than he was noticed in his life. He was a public intellectual in a society that prefers Fox News and football to thoughtful life and living thought, and is much the poorer for it. The other is that his last book, written in defiance of the old adage that people grow more “conservative” with age, stands as a “radical” critique both of (post)modern politics and our way of knowing it.

The electoral victories of Barack Obama in the United States in 2008 and of Justin Trudeau in Canada in 2015 stand as models of the dominance of style over substance. In important ways, they confirm Wolin’s assessment of the degradation of political life now well into the 21st century. This is not to pass premature judgement on the careers of either man. After all, both will remain in office for some time to come and Obama, at least, will cast a shadow over the next US administration, whoever may be chosen to lead it. Nor is it to imply that the principal opponents of either man might have been preferable choices for voters.

Rather, it is to say that Wolin’s main arguments have been vindicated by long-past and recent experience. It is also to reaffirm that Sheldon Wolin was not an acute, a chronic, or even an intermittent pessimist promulgating tales that forecast yet another variation on the theme of the decline and fall of Western Civilization. Wolin had a formidable intellectual and practical critique, but he also had a redemptive heart and a strategy for resuscitating what is valuable in our heritage.

We can, he believed, do better—immensely better—and we must do better, for remaining culturally subordinate, economically subservient and politically supine is not a creditable option. Never was. Never will be.

Sheldon Wolin’s views can be seen and heard in an in-depth, almost three-hour-long interview with Chris Hedges—activist, author, insurrectionist and, most recently, ordained Presbyterian minister (Wolin & Hedges, 2014). Insightful though it is, it should be followed with a careful reading of the printed book.


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Howard A. Doughty, teaches Cultural Anthropology and Modern Political Thought at Seneca College in Toronto, Canada. He can be reached at