Democracy in America Is a Useful Fiction

Corporate forces, long before the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission,
carried out a coup d'etat in slow motion. The coup is over. We lost.
The ruling is one more judicial effort to streamline mechanisms for
corporate control. It exposes the myth of a functioning democracy and
the triumph of corporate power. But it does not significantly alter the
political landscape.

Corporate forces, long before the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission,
carried out a coup d'etat in slow motion. The coup is over. We lost.
The ruling is one more judicial effort to streamline mechanisms for
corporate control. It exposes the myth of a functioning democracy and
the triumph of corporate power. But it does not significantly alter the
political landscape. The corporate state is firmly cemented in place.

The fiction of democracy remains useful,
not only for corporations, but for our bankrupt liberal class. If the
fiction is seriously challenged, liberals will be forced to consider
actual resistance, which will be neither pleasant nor easy. As long as
a democratic facade exists, liberals can engage in an empty moral
posturing that requires little sacrifice or commitment. They can be the
self-appointed scolds of the Democratic Party, acting as if they are
part of the debate and feel vindicated by their cries of protest.

Much of the outrage expressed about the
court's ruling is the outrage of those who prefer this choreographed
charade. As long as the charade is played, they do not have to consider
how to combat what the political philosopher Sheldon Wolin calls our system of "inverted totalitarianism."

Inverted totalitarianism represents "the
political coming of age of corporate power and the political
demobilization of the citizenry," Wolin writes in "Democracy
Incorporated." 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.

Inverted totalitarianism is not
conceptualized as an ideology or objectified in public policy. It is
furthered by "power-holders and citizens who often seem unaware of the
deeper consequences of their actions or inactions," Wolin writes. But
it is as dangerous as classical forms of totalitarianism. In a system
of inverted totalitarianism, as this court ruling illustrates, it is
not necessary to rewrite the Constitution, as fascist and communist
regimes do. It is enough to exploit legitimate power by means of
judicial and legislative interpretation. This exploitation ensures that
huge corporate campaign contributions are protected speech under the
First Amendment. It ensures that heavily financed and organized
lobbying by large corporations is interpreted as an application of the
people's right to petition the government. The court again ratified the
concept that corporations are persons, except in those cases where the
"persons" agree to a "settlement." Those within corporations who commit
crimes can avoid going to prison by paying large sums of money to the
government while, according to this twisted judicial reasoning, not
"admitting any wrongdoing." There is a word for this. It is called

Corporations have 35,000 lobbyists
in Washington and thousands more in state capitals that dole out
corporate money to shape and write legislation. They use their
political action committees to solicit employees and shareholders for
donations to fund pliable candidates. The financial sector, for
example, spent more than $5 billion on political campaigns, influence
peddling and lobbying during the past decade, which resulted in
sweeping deregulation, the gouging of consumers, our global financial
meltdown and the subsequent looting of the U.S. Treasury. The
Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America spent $26 million
last year and drug companies such as Pfizer, Amgen and Eli Lilly kicked
in tens of millions more to buy off the two parties. These corporations
have made sure our so-called health reform bill will force us to buy
their predatory and defective products. The oil and gas industry, the
coal industry, defense contractors and telecommunications companies
have thwarted the drive for sustainable energy and orchestrated the
steady erosion of civil liberties. Politicians do corporate bidding and
stage hollow acts of political theater to keep the fiction of the
democratic state alive.

There is no national institution left that
can accurately be described as democratic. Citizens, rather than
participate in power, are allowed to have virtual opinions to
preordained questions, a kind of participatory fascism as meaningless
as voting on "American Idol." Mass emotions are directed toward the raging culture wars. This allows us to take emotional stands on issues that are inconsequential to the power elite.

Our transformation into an empire, as
happened in ancient Athens and Rome, has seen the tyranny we practice
abroad become the tyranny we practice at home. We, like all empires,
have been eviscerated by our own expansionism. We utilize weapons of
horrific destructive power, subsidize their development with billions
in taxpayer dollars, and are the world's largest arms dealer. And the
Constitution, as Wolin notes, is "conscripted to serve as power's
apprentice rather than its conscience."

"Inverted totalitarianism reverses
things," Wolin writes. "It is politics all of the time but a politics
largely untempered by the political. Party squabbles are occasionally
on public display, and there is a frantic and continuous politics among
factions of the party, interest groups, competing corporate powers, and
rival media concerns. And there is, of course, the culminating moment
of national elections when the attention of the nation is required to
make a choice of personalities rather than a choice between
alternatives. What is absent is the political, the commitment to
finding where the common good lies amidst the welter of well-financed,
highly organized, single-minded interests rabidly seeking governmental
favors and overwhelming the practices of representative government and
public administration by a sea of cash."

Hollywood, the news industry and
television, all corporate controlled, have become instruments of
inverted totalitarianism. They censor or ridicule those who critique or
challenge corporate structures and assumptions. They saturate the
airwaves with manufactured controversy, whether it is Tiger Woods or
the dispute between Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien. They manipulate images
to make us confuse how we are made to feel with knowledge, which is how
Barack Obama became president. And the draconian internal control
employed by the Department of Homeland Security, the military and the
police over any form of popular dissent,
coupled with the corporate media's censorship, does for inverted
totalitarianism what thugs and bonfires of books do in classical
totalitarian regimes.

"It seems a replay of historical
experience that the bias displayed by today's media should be aimed
consistently at the shredded remains of liberalism," Wolin writes.
"Recall that an element common to most 20th century totalitarianism,
whether Fascist or Stalinist, was hostility towards the left. In the
United States, the left is assumed to consist solely of liberals,
occasionally of 'the left wing of the Democratic Party,' never of

Liberals, socialists, trade unionists,
independent journalists and intellectuals, many of whom were once
important voices in our society, have been silenced or targeted for
elimination within corporate-controlled academia, the media and
government. Wolin, who taught at Berkeley and later at Princeton, is
arguably the country's foremost political philosopher. And yet his book
was virtually ignored. This is also why Ralph Nader, Dennis Kucinich
and Cynthia McKinney, along with intellectuals like Noam Chomsky, are
not given a part in our national discourse.

The uniformity of opinion is reinforced by the skillfully orchestrated
mass emotions of nationalism and patriotism, which paints all
dissidents as "soft" or "unpatriotic." The "patriotic" citizen, plagued
by fear of job losses and possible terrorist attacks, unfailingly
supports widespread surveillance and the militarized state. This means
no questioning of the $1 trillion in defense-related spending. It means
that the military and intelligence agencies are held above government,
as if somehow they are not part of government. The most powerful
instruments of state power and control are effectively removed from
public discussion. We, as imperial citizens, are taught to be
contemptuous of government bureaucracy, yet we stand like sheep before
Homeland Security agents in airports and are mute when Congress permits
our private correspondence and conversations to be monitored and archived. We endure more state control than at any time in American history.

The civic, patriotic and political
language we use to describe ourselves remains unchanged. We pay fealty
to the same national symbols and iconography. We find our collective
identity in the same national myths. We continue to deify the Founding
Fathers. But the America we celebrate is an illusion. It does not
exist. Our government and judiciary have no real sovereignty. Our press
provides diversion, not information. Our organs of security and power
keep us as domesticated and as fearful as most Iraqis. Capitalism, as
Karl Marx understood, when it emasculates government, becomes a
revolutionary force. And this revolutionary force, best described as
inverted totalitarianism, is plunging us into a state of neo-feudalism,
perpetual war and severe repression. The Supreme Court decision is part
of our transformation by the corporate state from citizens to prisoners.

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