It’s Not Going to Be OK
January 26, 2009
The daily bleeding of thousands of jobs will soon turn our economic crisis
into a political crisis. The street protests, strikes and riots that have rattled
France, Turkey, Greece, Ukraine, Russia, Latvia, Lithuania, Bulgaria and
Iceland will descend on us. It is only a matter of time. And not much time.
When things start to go sour, when Barack Obama is exposed as a mortal
waving a sword at a tidal wave, the United States could plunge into a long
period of precarious social instability.
At no period in American history has our democracy been in such peril or
has the possibility of totalitarianism been as real. Our way of life is over.
Our profligate consumption is finished. Our children will never have the
standard of living we had. And poverty and despair will sweep across the
landscape like a plague. This is the bleak future. There is nothing President
Obama can do to stop it. It has been decades in the making. It cannot be
undone with a trillion or two trillion dollars in bailout money. Our empire is
dying. Our economy has collapsed.
How will we cope with our decline? Will we cling to the absurd dreams of
a superpower and a glorious tomorrow or will we responsibly face our stark
new limitations? Will we heed those who are sober and rational, those who
speak of a new simplicity and humility, or will we follow the demagogues
and charlatans who rise up out of the slime in moments of crisis to offer
fantastic visions? Will we radically transform our system to one that protects
the ordinary citizen and fosters the common good, that defies the corporate
state, or will we employ the brutality and technology of our internal security
and surveillance apparatus to crush all dissent? We won’t have to wait long
to find out.
There are a few isolated individuals who saw it coming. The political
philosophers Sheldon S. Wolin, John Ralston Saul and Andrew Bacevich, as
well as writers such as Noam Chomsky, Chalmers Johnson, David Korten and
Naomi Klein, along with activists such as Bill McKibben and Ralph Nader,
rang the alarm bells. They were largely ignored or ridiculed. Our corporate
media and corporate universities proved, when we needed them most,
intellectually and morally useless.
Wolin, who taught political philosophy at the University of California in
Berkeley and at Princeton, in his book Democracy Incorporated uses the phrase
“inverted totalitarianism” to describe our system of power. Inverted
totalitarianism, unlike classical totalitarianism, does not revolve around a
demagogue or charismatic leader. It finds its expression in the anonymity of
the corporate state. It purports to cherish democracy, patriotism and the
Constitution while cynically manipulating internal levers to subvert and
thwart democratic institutions. Political candidates are elected in popular
votes by citizens, but they must raise staggering amounts of corporate funds
to compete. They are beholden to armies of corporate lobbyists in Washington
or state capitals who write the legislation. A corporate media controls
nearly everything we read, watch or hear and imposes a bland uniformity of
opinion or diverts us with trivia and celebrity gossip. In classical totalitarian
regimes, such as Nazi fascism or Soviet communism, economics was
subordinate to politics. “Under inverted totalitarianism the reverse is true,”
Wolin writes. “Economics dominates politics—and with that domination
comes different forms of ruthlessness.”
I reached Wolin, 86, by phone at his home about 25 miles north of San
Francisco. He was a bombardier in the South Pacific during World War II and
went to Harvard after the war to get his doctorate. Wolin has written
classics such as Politics and Vision and Tocqueville Between Two Worlds. His
newest book is one of the most important and prescient critiques to date of
the American political system. He is also the author of a series of remarkable
essays on Augustine of Hippo, Richard Hooker, David Hume, Martin
Luther, John Calvin, Max Weber, Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Marx and John
Dewey. His voice, however, has faded from public awareness because, as he
told me, “it is harder and harder for people like me to get a public hearing.”
He said that publications, such as The New York Review of Books, which
often published his work a couple of decades ago, lost interest in his critiques
of American capitalism, his warnings about the subversion of democratic
institutions and the emergence of the corporate state. He does not hold out
much hope for Obama.
“The basic systems are going to stay in place; they are too powerful to be
challenged,” Wolin told me when I asked him about the new Obama
administration. “This is shown by the financial bailout. It does not bother
with the structure at all. I don’t think Obama can take on the kind of military
establishment we have developed. This is not to say that I do not admire
him. He is probably the most intelligent president we have had in decades.
I think he is well meaning, but he inherits a system of constraints that make it
very difficult to take on these major power configurations. I do not think
he has the appetite for it in any ideological sense. The corporate structure is
not going to be challenged. There has not been a word from him that would
suggest an attempt to rethink the American imperium.”
Wolin argues that a failure to dismantle our vast and overextended imperial
projects, coupled with the economic collapse, is likely to result in inverted
totalitarianism. He said that without “radical and drastic remedies” the
response to mounting discontent and social unrest will probably lead to
greater state control and repression. There will be, he warned, a huge
“expansion of government power.”
“Our political culture has remained unhelpful in fostering a democratic
consciousness,” he said. “The political system and its operatives will not be
constrained by popular discontent or uprisings.”
Wolin writes that in inverted totalitarianism consumer goods and a
comfortable standard of living, along with a vast entertainment industry that
provides spectacles and diversions, keep the citizenry politically passive.
I asked if the economic collapse and the steady decline in our standard
of living might not, in fact, trigger classical totalitarianism. Could widespread
frustration and poverty lead the working and middle classes to place their
faith in demagogues, especially those from the Christian right?
“I think that’s perfectly possible,” he answered. “That was the experience
of the 1930s. There wasn’t just FDR. There was Huey Long and Father
Coughlin. There were even more extreme movements including the Klan. The
extent to which those forces can be fed by the downturn and bleakness is a
very real danger. It could become classical totalitarianism.”
He said the widespread political passivity is dangerous. It is often exploited
by demagogues who pose as saviors and offer dreams of glory and salvation.
He warned that “the apoliticalness, even anti-politicalness, will be very
powerful elements in taking us towards a radically dictatorial direction. It
testifies to how thin the commitment to democracy is in the present
circumstances. Democracy is not ascendant. It is not dominant. It is
beleaguered. The extent to which young people have been drawn away from
public concerns and given this extraordinary range of diversions makes it
very likely they could then rally to a demagogue.”
Wolin lamented that the corporate state has successfully blocked any real
debate about alternative forms of power. Corporations determine who gets
heard and who does not, he said. And those who critique corporate power
are given no place in the national dialogue.
“In the 1930s there were all kinds of alternative understandings, from
socialism to more extensive governmental involvement,” he said. “There was
a range of different approaches. But what I am struck by now is the narrow
range within which palliatives are being modeled. We are supposed to work
with the financial system. So the people who helped create this system are
put in charge of the solution. There has to be some major effort to think
outside the box.”
“The puzzle to me is the lack of social unrest,” Wolin said when I asked why
we have not yet seen rioting or protests. He said he worried that popular
protests will be dismissed and ignored by the corporate media. This, he said,
is what happened when tens of thousands protested the war in Iraq. This
will permit the state to ruthlessly suppress local protests, as happened during
the Democratic and Republic conventions. Anti-war protests in the 1960s
gained momentum from their ability to spread across the country, he noted.
This, he said, may not happen this time. “The ways they can isolate protests
and prevent it from [becoming] a contagion are formidable,” he said.
“My greatest fear is that the Obama administration will achieve relatively
little in terms of structural change,” he added. “They may at best keep
the system going. But there is a growing pessimism. Every day we hear how
much longer the recession will continue. They are already talking about
beyond next year. The economic difficulties are more profound than we had
guessed and because of globalization more difficult to deal with. I wish the
political establishment, the parties and leadership, would become more aware
of the depths of the problem. They can’t keep throwing money at this. They
have to begin structural changes that involve a very different approach from
a market economy. I don’t think this will happen.”
“I keep asking why and how and when this country became so conservative,”
he went on. “This country once prided itself on its experimentation and
flexibility. It has become rigid. It is probably the most conservative of all the
The American left, he said, has crumbled. It sold out to a bankrupt
Democratic Party, abandoned the working class and has no ability to organize.
Unions are a spent force. The universities are mills for corporate employees.
The press churns out info-entertainment* or fatuous pundits. The left, he said,
no longer has the capacity to be a counterweight to the corporate state.
He said that if an extreme right gains momentum there will probably be very
little organized resistance.
“The left is amorphous,” he said. “I despair over the left. Left parties may
be small in number in Europe but they are a coherent organization that keeps
going. Here, except for Nader’s efforts, we don’t have that. We have a few
voices here, a magazine there, and that’s about it. It goes nowhere.”
Chris Hedges, who went to seminary at Harvard Divinity School, is currently
a senior fellow at The Nation Institute and a Lecturer in the Council of the
Humanities and the Anschutz Distinguished Fellow at Princeton University.
He is a former New York Times Mideast bureau chief and spent nearly two
decades as a foreign correspondent in Central America, the Middle East,
Africa and the Balkans and. He is the author of the best selling War Is a Force
That Gives Us Meaning, American Fascists, and most recently, I Don’t Believe
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