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Inverted Totalitarism aka Managed Democracy

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Posted on June 8, 2013 by Biblioklept


The key ingredient of classical totalitarism is violence toward opponents.  Also in all classic totalitarian states such as Nazi Germany and the USSR, the citizenry were kept mobilized to support the state. Sometimes population was wipe up to the state of frenzy by ideological purity campaigns or purges. Opponents were sent to concentration camps or exiled. 

With inverted totalitarism the key idea different: a passive but thoroughly monitored and thoroughly brainwashed  populace is the goal that can be achieve with just surveillance and propaganda components of four key components of totalitarism:

  1. Ideology and ideological mobilization,
  2. Surveillance
  3. Propaganda
  4. Violence toward opponents.

Other ocmponents are present but in modified form. Direct physical violence toward opponents is replaced with financial suppression which proved to be no less effective.  Ideological propaganda paradoxically morphed in entertainment. Mobilization takes form of jingoism. 

Here is Wikipedia take on the term (please remember that such entries in Wikipedia are heavily redacted ;-): 

Inverted totalitarianism is a term coined by political philosopher Sheldon Wolin in 2003 to describe the emerging form of government of the United States. Wolin believes that the United States is increasingly turning into an illiberal democracy, and he uses the term "inverted totalitarianism" to illustrate the similarities and differences between the United States governmental system and totalitarian regimes such as Nazi Germany and the Stalinist Soviet Union.[1][2][3][4] In Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt by Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco, inverted totalitarianism is described as a system where corporations have corrupted and subverted democracy and where economics trumps politics.[5] In inverted totalitarianism, every natural resource and every living being is commodified and exploited to collapse and the citizenry are lulled and manipulated into surrendering their liberties and their participation in their government by excess consumerism and sensationalism.

It's pretty much self-evident that the United States historically has a controversial and at times acrimonious relationship to the idea of domestic democracy. For example existence of slavery, absence of voting rights for woman and voting restrictions existed in USA till 50th. So in a very deep sense of this word the USA was a pretty backward state.

To define a preconditions for democracy we will use Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” address to Congress, on January 6, 1941.By all accounts they form an important base for understanding liberal democracy. Here are FDR’s own words, quoted at length:

The current situation in the USA a clear denial of all four freedoms although each to different degree. Some are denied more (the third and the forth), some less (the first and the second are denied not directly but via corporate ownership of mainstream media and implicit support of Evangelicals by power elite, especially in the South; remember bible reading in Bush II White House). 

On August 17, 1975 (which is almost 40 years before Snowden) Senator Frank Church stated on NBC's Meet the Press without mentioning the name of the NSA about this agency (Wikipedia):

In the need to develop a capacity to know what potential enemies are doing, the United States government has perfected a technological capability that enables us to monitor the messages that go through the air. Now, that is necessary and important to the United States as we look abroad at enemies or potential enemies. We must know, at the same time, that capability at any time could be turned around on the American people, and no American would have any privacy left such is the capability to monitor everything — telephone conversations, telegrams, it doesn’t matter. There would be no place to hide.

If this government ever became a tyrant, if a dictator ever took charge in this country, the technological capacity that the intelligence community has given the government could enable it to impose total tyranny, and there would be no way to fight back because the most careful effort to combine together in resistance to the government, no matter how privately it was done, is within the reach of the government to know. Such is the capability of this technology.

I don’t want to see this country ever go across the bridge. I know the capacity that is there to make tyranny total in America, and we must see to it that this agency and all agencies that possess this technology operate within the law and under proper supervision so that we never cross over that abyss. That is the abyss from which there is no return.[9][10][11]

There are several other political term that are closed to the meaning of Inverted Totalitarism. The term "liberal fascism" is also used, but it has "politically incorrect". The term "managed democracy" is also used, but more rarely.  It sometimes applied to Putin's regime in Russia.

It goes without saying that inverted totalitarism is much better then classic variants as close acquaintance with Gestapo or KGB is harmful for one's health. And that's what opponents of those regimes faced.

In inverted totalitarism the key method of dealing with opponents with ignore then or discredit them if they got certain level of popularity or try to incorporate them into existing two parties duopoly. Cutting oxygen for them, in an indirect way also works wonders.  Voice of opponents of the regime is just drown in the sea of official propaganda; they are never (or rarely) invited to TV programs with significant popularity and influence on public opinion. As Orwell aptly noted "ignorance is strength" ;-).  The net result is very similar, but for dissidents in case of inverted totalitarism teeth remain in place.

At the same time foreign policy is exactly the same: financial and military-industrial interests have consistently used ideology and propaganda to create fake and exaggerate existing foreign threats and thus overcome popular opposition to war and opposition to the extension of the empire. The term "democracy" is employed constantly to imply that it actually exists, yet the two-party form of government allows only the choice between two pre-selected representative of the elite, the situation eerily similar to one party rule practiced in the USSR.  In other words, voice of the citizens is systematically ignored and suppressed and the election system ensure that the real power is concentrated in the hands of the elite ( aka top 1% ).

Financial support for the candidates is drawn primarily from large corporations, who operate the political levers of both parties to serve their own interests first. And they are extremely interested in  wars that open new markets. As aptly formulations two-time Medal of Honor winner USMC Maj. Gen. Smedley D. Butler in 1933, that "War is a racket. The few profit -- the many pay." Every war in the American past was a matter of choice, not, as national ideology proclaims, a necessity.

In case of Bush and Obama administration inverted totalitarism was replaced or evolved into National Security State which uses the same combination of ruthless military expansion and foreign wars with "democratic" smokescreen in home policy. Under Obama administration, the tendencies that come to the foreground during  Bush II administration, such as total surveillance actually became even more pronounced. He solidified started under Clinton the transition of the Democratic Party into a moderate wing of Republican party, serving mainly financial oligarchy. Due to his appetite for foreign wars, it is actually an open question whether Obama can be even classified as a moderate Republican such as Dwight D. Eisenhower.

As for foreign wars, the Obama White House, GOP, and Wall Street have always been on the same page, despite media assertions to the contrary. If you're still clinging to the foolish belief that the neoliberal, war-mongering Democratic Party is in any way better than the neoliberal, war-mongering Republican Party, I urge you to read Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion

The absence of permanent military and political mobilization along with merge of corporate interests of transnational and the state defines a new type of political system. Gone is racial component of totalitarism.  Here is one quote from Amazon review of Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism (New in Paper)

The author uses the terms "managed democracy" and "inverted totalitarianism" almost interchangeably to describe the marginalization of citizens to control the direction of the nation through the political process. He contrasts the inverted form with the totalitarianisms of Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia.

In those cases the citizenry were kept mobilized to support the state with no reluctance to suppress dissenters. In this new modern form, a passive populace is preferred. Barriers to participation like faulty management of elections are implemented, but more subtle and effective is the propaganda dispensed by schools and the media, not to mention the numbing component of entertainment, especially spectaculars.

Also disconcerting to the average person is constant technological change as well as an unsettled economy usually instigated by business entities. Moreover, the perpetual "war on terror" creates widespread apprehension. A fearful and distressed citizenry is less likely to have the energy to challenge the power of elites and governmental measures that supposedly provide protection, like the Patriot Act.  

Essentially inverted totalitarism is adaptation of principles of Bolshevik party by the modern financial elite (accomplished via turncoat Trotskyites like James Burnham who changed camps after the WWII, later forming neocon camp). In his article, “Democracy in America is a Useful Fiction”, Hedges defines “inverted totalitarianism”

“Inverted totalitarianism" represents “the political coming of age of corporate power and the political demobilization of the citizenry. Inverted totalitarianism differs from classical forms of totalitarianism, which revolve around a demagogue or charismatic leader, and finds its expression in the anonymity of the corporate state.

The corporate forces behind inverted totalitarianism do not, as classical totalitarian movements do, boast of replacing decaying structures with a new, revolutionary structure. They purport to honor electoral politics, freedom and the Constitution. But they so corrupt and manipulate the levers of power as to make democracy impossible.”

The manifesto of inverted totalitarism is widely considered to be so called Lewis Powell’s  memo, but its role as a crystallizing force for the movement is probably exaggerated. The initial phase was probably McCarthy witch hunt which had shown efficiency of witch hunts and media pressure in demobilization of opposition even without sending supporters of opposite views into concentration camps.  In 1970 this process of simply ostracizing political opponents was actually already twenty years old and in pretty developed stage. I suspect that it was mainly the creation of people like Richard Mellon Scaife, who inherited part of the vast Mellon fortune from his alcoholic mother and bunch of similar people who inherited vast fortunes. For example, Scaife money also helped fund television documentaries on the economics of Milton Friedman, the guru of the monetarist school of free-market economics. Those "anti-Titans of Industry" bankrolled not just the conservative legal movement, but the conservative movement in general.

It is very interesting how they managed to adopt and rectified the key parts of  Bolsheviks' Party strategy. The irony is that methods developed to protect and expand communist ideology proved to be no less effective in protecting and expanding "capitalist ideology". This might be a classic case of adoption of the principles of bitter enemy. Among them:

  1. Control the press. Journalists are just soldiers of the Party. Remunerate royally whose who "served with distinction". Silence those who are not: for journalist silencing is as close to physical death as one can get.
  2. Ideology needs to be supported be powerful research institutions (aka "think tanks") and adapted to modern realities by captured institutions and paid "intellectual agents" at key university departments.  The goal is total domination of the particular ideology in all mass media channels, books, universities, etc.  There is power in numbers of think tanks, university endowments, etc. Another angle of this PR campaign is to make the line between research and PR as fuzzy as possible, especially in economics, where key players can be cheaply bought, and those who can't be bought treated as dissenting journalist -- and that means silenced.
  3. Promise anything to be elected, adopting, if necessary, the most attractive to electorate parts of the opponents platform. After election behave as you please and do completely opposite as train already left that station.
  4. Control all major channels of media and indirectly censor opposing view. Avoid direct censure unless absolutely necessary, as it alienates people and fuel discontent. Just deprive then of the audience and kill with kindness: provide huge stimulus for those who voluntarily "follow the Party line".
  5. Ensure that textbooks presents historical and other events only through the prism of Party mythology and make part of the mythology sacred so that those who try to attack can be accused in undermining the foundations of civil society. Create and cultivate  a newspeak that makes expression of opposing ideas more difficult and more suspect.
  6. Demonize the opponent and project your worst inclinations and deeds on them.  It had long been a practice of more conservative politicians to refer to liberal reforms such as child labor laws and environment protection measures as "Communist" or "Red plots." Few people understand that for people of the USSR and Eastern Europe in media CIA played the same sinister role KGP used to play in the USA.
  7. Never admit that you are wrong. Explain all failures by enemy actions, natural disasters or due to some other third party.
  8. Subvert the law system to protect the Party members and never criminally charge the top brass no matter what are actual transgressions.   Like Mussolini used to say -- for friends everything, for enemies the law.
James Burnham in his book, The Machiavellians, argued and developed his theory that the emerging new élite would better serve its own interests if it retained some democratic trappings:

Here is an interesting review of Wolin book: Opinion Inverted Totalitarianism in the US

The US is a self-declared empire that scholars have labeled a “superpower” since it achieved military and cultural hegemony in a “unipolar moment” at the “end of history” while seeking “full-spectrum dominance” of land, sea, air, cyberspace and outer space, as stated in the Department of Defense’s Joint Vision 2020.

In order to impede the Soviet Union’s imperial projects, the US likewise slung itself astride the globe using multilateral institutions, spy networks and covert operations which produced a “Cold War” that eliminated the idea of peacetime and demanded permanent military mobilization bolstered by the military-industrial-congressional complex while placing citizens on high alert against nuclear threats and a domestic infestation of “reds” that excused the government’s surveillance of citizens.

The Constitution, which limits power, and a democracy, which requires local control and citizen empowerment, are both profaned by superpower, which defies limits in its quest for global supremacy, overshadowing localities and overpowering citizens while projecting power outward and inward simultaneously.

To describe this configuration, the political philosopher Sheldon Wolin coined the term “inverted totalitarianism.”

In old totalitarianism, the state dominated the economy while iconic demagogues who permanently held office mobilized citizens and openly flaunted the blanketing power of the new order they were imposing. With inverted totalitarianism, the economy dominates the state wherein temporary “representatives” serve a permanent corporate regime that demobilizes citizens while claiming to protect individual liberty by reducing state power, thus concealing the totalitarian character.

In terms of the two-party system, Republicans are avid, pitiless, intolerant, unbending, predatory, anti-democratic, iron-willed ideologues who’ve sold out to big business while courting big religion, and Democrats ape them, thus creating a one-party climate that fulfills the wishes of corporate “citizens” while systematically neglecting the needs of regular citizens, producing an apathetic electorate that’s lost hope in the political process.

State power is legitimated by media events called “elections” that elites have learned to control through finance, marketing and media ownership, while politicians accept bribes called “contributions” that are considered “speech” – as defined by the Supreme Court, effectively using “free speech” to silence the citizenry while replacing constituents with lobbyists.

Citizens fear job loss and benefit loss due to downsizing and outsourcing, which maximize “efficiency,” while the government shreds social safety nets for the sake of “efficiency,” leaving citizens vulnerable and yet unable to protect themselves when states outlaw collective bargaining, thus criminalizing worker self-defense.

Contrary to popular belief, slashing federal programs enhances state power by making government less unwieldy and easier to control since it dilutes public involvement, thus depleting public power and solidifying executive power.

The idea of democracy is emptied of substance and used as a slogan to justify military invasion, occupation and torture while the doctrine of “preemptive war” renders all acts of aggression as defensive and undertaken for the sake of insuring “stability.” For example, deference to US demands and the protection of corporate assets – in a war against terrorism that lacks a specific geographic location and thus requires the globe-girdling ability to strike anywhere anytime.

Instead of a politburo circulating state propaganda that touts one political ideology, the corporate media feigns democratic debate that features “both sides” who are portrayed as extreme opposites but actually reflect a slim range of political discourse, thus giving the appearance of freedom while relying on White House, State Department and Pentagon spokespeople to supply the “official” version of political affairs, which are broadcast into every home through television, thus manipulating the public rather than including them.

Democracy functions as a useful myth that obscures the totalitarian atmosphere in which citizens feel politically impotent and fearful as they are dwarfed by giant, rigid, top-heavy bureaucracies that respond to the protocols of a corporate state that collaborates with telecommunications companies to monitor the population and develop detailed digital profiles of citizens while local police forces cooperate with federal law enforcement agencies, augmenting the burgeoning prison industry as the state loosens laws that forbid army soldiers from patrolling US streets.

The corporate state defunds public programs and forces everything into the market, including health, education, social security, pensions, public broadcasting, prisons, water, soldiers, surveillance and national intelligence, while businesses commodify the environment and patent DNA.

In a way the US are now victim of their own success as the system created to fight they arch-enemy, the USSR is now destroying host country itself.

Among books on the subject I can recommend Democracy Incorporated Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism by Professor Shaldon Wolin. Here is a coupe of Amazon reviews:

R. L. Huff "An old reader" (Louisiana) - See all my reviews

The author is absolutely right -, October 10, 2012

- yet what's new?

When has Democracy in America not been managed? From robber baron "Lords of Creation" mouthing "the public be damned," to political bosses admonishing their machine electorate to vote early and often, irresponsible private elites and their bought "public servants" have always formed an entrenched nexus of privilege. Wolin is aware of these precedents, and alludes to them; but like Progressives of a century ago, he appeals to some lost Grecian golden age from which we've somehow allowed ourselves to fall. There was never such an era. What you see is what there always was. The exceptions have been just that.

Nor has modern media really altered this trajectory. The "soft totalitarianism" produced by 9/11 was no different from the managed hysteria over Pearl Harbor, nor Hearst's profit-driven newspaper crusade to remember the Maine, nor Lincoln's manipulation of Ft. Sumter. Perhaps the root problem is the very concept of American democracy as "consensus," so that we all "meet in the middle." But what if that consensus allows for white supremacy, Protestant ascendancy, or other inherently undemocratic cultural heritage? This dichotomy has been part of the American experience since the first colonies were founded as private proprietaries. "American values" then seem but a political grafting onto a granted social order where everyone "knows" his/her place and expectations.

Again, I don't dispute the author's "timely message for our age." It's just that an ancient fart like me knows this age differs from others only in style, not substance. As George Bernard Shaw wrote in "Major Barbara": "The government of your country! I am the government of your country: I and Lazarus. Do you suppose that you and a half a dozen amateurs like you, sitting in a row in that foolish gabble shop, can govern Undershaft and Lazarus? No, my friend: you will do what pays us. You will make war when it suits us, and keep peace when it doesn't. You will find out that trade requires certain measures when we have decided on those measures. When I want anything to keep my dividends up, you will discover that my want is a national need. When other people want something to keep my dividends down, you will call out the police and the military. And in return you will have the support and applause of my newspapers, and the delight of imagining you are a great statesman. Government of your country! Be off with you, my boy, and play with your caucasus and leading articles and historic parties and great leaders and burning questions and the rest of your toys. I am going back to my countinghouse to pay the piper and call the tune."

 L. Frederick Fenster, MD

 A brilliant formulation of the American dilemma June 18, 2008

Author makes a compelling case that the direction of our contemporary politics is toward a political system that is the very opposite of what our leadership, the mass media, opinion leaders, think tanks etc. claim it is--ie, the world's foremost exemplary of democracy. The consummated union of corporate power and governmental power has resulted in an American version of a total system, which he calls "inverted totalitarianism."

Unlike traditional totalitarianism (Nazi Germany, Stalin's USSR etc.) the American system of control is not to mobilize the populace, but to distract it, to encourage a sense of dependency (by cultivating fear, calling everything a "war,") and by actaully encouraging political disengagement (claiming that our government, which is supposed to be democracy's agent for helping promote the common good, is actually the "enemy.") The destiny of the USA is fast slipping from popular control, while our citizenry shows little interest or concern.
A very provocative book.
1 Comment |


Managed Democracy, Superpower, and alas, even, "Inverted Totalitarianism" June 17, 2008
This is a seminal work which "tells it like it is" concerning the current power arrangements in the American political system, as well as the political leadership's aspirations towards global empire. Prof. Wolin sets the tone of his work on page 1, with the juxtaposition of the imagery of Adolph Hitler landing in a small plane at the 1934 rally at Nuremberg, as shown in Leni Reifenstahl's "Triumph of the Will," and George Bush landing on the aircraft carrier "Abraham Lincoln" in 2003. Certainly one of the dominant themes of the book is comparing the operating power structure in the United States with various totalitarian regimes of the past: Stalinist Russia, Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. Prof Wolin emphasizes the differences between these totalitarian powers, and the softer concentration of power in the United States, which he dubs "inverted totalitarianism."

The book is rich with insights - the best way to savor Prof. Wolin's erudition is in small chunks. He shows the influence of the ancient Greeks, both Plato, as well as the Athenian political operative, Alcibiades, on the neo-cons "founding father," Leo Strauss. He examines in detail the efforts of some of America's own "founding fathers," particularly Madison and Hamilton, on how democracy should be contained and managed. He quotes at length an amazingly prescient passage from Tocqueville predicting one possible scenario for the future of the American democracy, which ends with "...and finally reduces each nation to nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals of which the government is the shepherd" (p79-80). He also discusses the profound impact of the "National Security Strategy of the United States" document of 2002 on the traditional vision of the values and rights expressed in the Constitution. ....

He seasons his learning with nuggets of wry wit: "such a verdict after Florida would be an expression of black (sic) humor. (p102); "... to endorse a candidate or a party for reasons that typically pay only lip service to the basic need of most citizens...It speciousness is the political counterpart to products that promise beauty, health, relief of pain, and an end to erectile dysfunction." (p231); and "No collective memory means no collective guilt; surely My Lai is the name of a rock star." (p275). He also has a knack for using the popular phrases for a given sentiment, for example: "get government off our backs."

As other observers have also noted, there is the sharpest of contrasts between FDR's maxim that "we have nothing to fear but fear itself" to the current constant promotion of holding the citizenry in a constant state of fear, admirably summarized on the domestic front by: "Downsizing, reorganization, bubbles bursting, unions busted, quickly outdated skills, and transfer of jobs abroad create not just fear but an economy of fear..." (p67)

For all the above, Prof. Wolin deserves 5 and ½ stars, but I did think his presentation was marred by poor organization, redundancy, and lapses into turgid prose. For example, on p. 190, long after the issue has been thoroughly discussed, he says "The administration seized on 9/11 to declare a `war on terrorism.'" Similarly, on p. 202 he says "Historically, the legislative branch was supposed to be the power closest to the citizenry..." Numerous other examples could be cited. Also, I tried - real hard- to come to terms with the term "inverted totalitarianism" but just never could - the intrinsic meaning simply is not there, like as in "managed democracy." Perhaps something like a "hyper-concentration of power" conveys the meaning better.

Overall though, the book is an essential read for anyone interested in the current state of the world.


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