Brave New America: On Corporate Totalitarianism, Electoralist Passivity, and Inauthentic Opposition

In a truly participatory democracy elections would constitute but one element in a process of popular discussion, consultation, and involvement.  Today, elections have replaced participation…Elections enact a kind of primal myth in which “the people” designate who is to rule them…an election, at one and the same time, empowers a Few and causes the Many to submit, to consent to be obedient.


- Sheldon Wolin, Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008), 147-148.



This news overdose on the elections has bred a kind of passivity among millions, as they wait in front of TV screens and computers, like deer caught in headlights.


- Mumia Abu Jamal, ZNet (August 10, 2008)



My forthcoming book “Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics” (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, August 2008) exposes Barack Obama as a conservative, corporate, militarist Democrat posing as a democratic progressive. It provides a detailed empirical case for this judgment and an analysis of how true progressives (those who advocate actual left, radical, social-democratic policies in the United States) can most effectively respond to the Obama phenomenon – and to the broader corporate-controlled political system and culture it reflects – whether Obama wins or loses. Key to any such response is answering a number of questions: To what extent are U.S. government and political culture meaningfully democratic in the 21st century? What if Obama’s deeply deceptive promise of “change” is part of an effort by dominant U.S. political and economic elites to preserve and expand the American System’s antidemocratic characteristics and nature? How should (true) progressives think about the meaning of Obamaism as they struggle for democratic transformation in the U.S.?


Domesticated Democracy


In seeking to answer the first question, we can turn to an important new book from someone who has long operated in the intellectual heart of the beast. According to Princeton emeritus political scientist Sheldon Wolin’s chilling new volume Democracy, Inc: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism (2008), the United States is becoming a totalitarian state posing as a democracy. Under the rules of what Wolin calls “inverted totalitarianism,” corporate and state power have become deeply “co-joined” and practically “unbridled.”  The popular majority of the citizenry – the People – in whose name U.S. “democracy” purports to function is politically uninterested, infantilized, obedient, distracted, and divided. An increasingly spectator-ized and subordinate public is shepherded by the professional political class across a painfully narrow business- and Empire-friendly field of political, policy, and ideological “choices.”  Those harshly limited options are presented in periodic superficial, candidate-centered and corporate-crafted elections that function as anti-democratic exercises in capitalist marketing and managerial control.  These spectacular rolling extravaganzas privilege candidate image and other trivial matters over substantive questions of policy and ideology, with campaign consultants and advertisers selling candidates like they sell candy or cars.  They help keep the interrelated issues of the ever-growing rich-poor gap, corporate power, and imperial militarism (the last two topics are taboo in “mainstream” U.S. political life) “off the table” of acceptable debate and public scrutiny even though they are of primary interest to most American citizens. By Wolin’s account: 


“The citizenry, supposedly the source of governmental power and authority as well as participant, has been replaced by the ‘electorate,’ that is, by voters who acquire a political life at election time.  During the intervals between elections the political existence of the citizenry is relegated to a shadow-citizenship of virtual participation. Instead of participating in power, the virtual citizen is invited to have ‘opinions’: measurable responses to questions predesigned to elicit them” (p. 59).


“…In elections parties set out to mobilize the citizen-as-voter, to define political obligation as fulfilled by the casting of a vote.  Afterwards, post-election politics of lobbying, repaying donors, and promoting corporate interests – the real players – takes over.  The effect is to demobilize the citizenry, to teach them not to be involved or to ponder matters that are either settled or beyond their efficacy” (p. 205).”


Once votes have been counted (or not) in America’s totalitarian system, the people” fade back into the woodwork.  Politicians from both sides of the nation’s corporate-sponsored “one-and-a-half party system” – the more explicitly authoritarian Republicans or the “inauthentic opposition” advanced by neoliberal corporate Democrats (whose 2004 presidential candidate made a point of stating his opposition to the redistribution of wealth) – proceed to do precisely what the American ex-citizenry wishes them not to do.  They advance empire, inequality, and repression, concentrating riches and power ever further upward in what has long been the industrialized world’s most unequal and wealth-top-heavy society.


American “democracy” has been “domesticated” by modern managerial business technique. Its wild democratic risk has been removed for and by the Few. It has been quietly subsumed by corporation, whose mission is to guarantee returns on capital by minimizing chance and maintaining a “stable” environment (including a safely supine domestic population) for investors.  Democracy has been incorporated.


In this pseudo-democratic Brave New America, corporate power no longer answers to political controls.  The needs of the popular majority are relentlessly subordinated to the “quest for ‘economic growth’” and to the foreign policy elite’s imperial perceptions of “Superpower’s” needs and the so-called “national interest.” “Economic growth” and “national interest” are code words for whatever capital wants and cloak the regular state-capitalist practice of funneling wealth and power from the Many to the Few.  The demoted “people” are kept in perpetual fear and prodded to cower under the umbrella of the National Insecurity State by an endless so-called “War on Terror,” heir to the imperial Cold War. The Few steal elections are pocketed, shred civil liberties, and launch illegal, immoral, and aggressive wars and occupation without serious fear of popular resistance.  Young black males – formerly a leading source of protest – are dragooned into the burgeoning mass incarceration state.  The use of state power to alleviate poverty and ameliorate inequality is shamed as dangerous public overreach but the use of that power to shamelessly advance corporate interests and pay off big money election investors is celebrated in the ironic name of the “free market.” Working peoples’ living standards are savagely rolled back and working-class sons and daughters are shipped off to kill and die in bloody campaigns of colonial conquest – war

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