TORONTO—I met with Sheldon S. Wolin in Salem, Ore., and John Ralston Saul in Toronto and asked the two political philosophers the same question. If, as Saul has written, we have undergone a corporate coup d’état and now live under a species of corporate dictatorship that Wolin calls “inverted totalitarianism,” if the internal mechanisms that once made piecemeal and incremental reform possible remain ineffective, if corporate power retains its chokehold on our economy and governance, including our legislative bodies, judiciary and systems of information, and if these corporate forces are able to use the security and surveillance apparatus and militarized police forces to criminalize dissent, how will change occur and what will it look like?
Wolin, who wrote the books “Politics and Vision” and “Democracy Incorporated,” and Saul, who wrote “Voltaire’s Bastards” and “The Unconscious Civilization,” see democratic rituals and institutions, especially in the United States, as largely a facade for unchecked global corporate power. Wolin and Saul excoriate academics, intellectuals and journalists, charging they have abrogated their calling to expose abuses of power and give voice to social criticism; they instead function as echo chambers for elites, courtiers and corporate systems managers. Neither believes the current economic system is sustainable. And each calls for mass movements willing to carry out repeated acts of civil disobedience to disrupt and delegitimize corporate power.
“If you continue to go down the wrong road, at a certain point something happens,” Saul said during our meeting Wednesday in Toronto, where he lives. “At a certain point when the financial system is wrong it falls apart. And it did. And it will fall apart again.”
“The collapse started in 1973,” Saul continued. “There were a series of sequential collapses afterwards. The fascinating thing is that between 1850 and 1970 we put in place all sorts of mechanisms to stop collapses which we can call liberalism, social democracy or Red Toryism. It was an understanding that we can’t have boom-and-bust cycles. We can’t have poverty-stricken people. We can’t have starvation. The reason today’s collapses are not leading to what happened in the 18th century and the 19th century is because all these safety nets, although under attack, are still in place. But each time we have a collapse we come out of it stripping more of the protection away. At a certain point we will find ourselves back in the pre-protection period. At that point we will get a collapse that will be incredibly dramatic. I have no idea what it will look like. A revolution from the left? A revolution from the right? Is it violence followed by state violence? Is it the collapse of the last meaningful edges of democracy? Is it a sudden decision by a critical mass of people that they are not going to take it anymore?”
This devolution of the economic system has been accompanied by corporations’ seizure of nearly all forms of political and social power. The corporate elite, through a puppet political class and compliant intellectuals, pundits and press, still employs the language of a capitalist democracy. But what has arisen is a new kind of control, inverted totalitarianism, which Wolin brilliantly dissects in his book “Democracy Incorporated.”
Inverted totalitarianism does not replicate past totalitarian structures, such as fascism and communism. It is therefore harder to immediately identify and understand. There is no blustering demagogue. There is no triumphant revolutionary party. There are no ideologically drenched and emotional mass political rallies. The old symbols, the old iconography and the old language of democracy are held up as virtuous. The old systems of governance—electoral politics, an independent judiciary, a free press and the Constitution—appear to be venerated. But, similar to what happened during the late Roman Empire, all the institutions that make democracy possible have been hollowed out and rendered impotent and ineffectual.
The corporate state, Wolin told me at his Oregon home, is “legitimated by elections it controls.” It exploits laws that once protected democracy to extinguish democracy; one example is allowing unlimited corporate campaign contributions in the name of our First Amendment right to free speech and our right to petition the government as citizens. “It perpetuates politics all the time,” Wolin said, “but a politics that is not political.” The endless election cycles, he said, are an example of politics without politics, driven not by substantive issues but manufactured political personalities and opinion polls. There is no national institution in the United States “that can be described as democratic,” he said.
The mechanisms that once allowed the citizen to be a participant in power—from participating in elections to enjoying the rights of dissent and privacy—have been nullified. Money has replaced the vote, Wolin said, and corporations have garnered total power without using the cruder forms of traditional totalitarian control: concentration camps, enforced ideological conformity and the physical suppression of dissent. They will avoid such measures “as long as that dissent remains ineffectual,” he said. “The government does not need to stamp out dissent. The uniformity of imposed public opinion through the corporate media does a very effective job.”
The state has obliterated privacy through mass surveillance, a fundamental precondition for totalitarian rule, and in ways that are patently unconstitutional has stripped citizens of the rights to a living wage, benefits and job security. And it has destroyed institutions, such as labor unions, that once protected workers from corporate abuse.
Inverted totalitarianism, Wolin has written, is “only in part a state-centered phenomenon.” It also represents “the political coming of age of corporate power and the political demobilization of the citizenry.”
Corporate power works in secret. It is unseen by the public and largely anonymous. Politicians and citizens alike often seem blissfully unaware of the consequences of inverted totalitarianism, Wolin said in the interview. And because it is a new form of totalitarianism we do not recognize the radical change that has gradually taken place. Our failure to grasp the new configuration of power has permitted the corporate state to rob us through judicial fiat, a process that culminates in a disempowered population and omnipotent corporate rulers. Inverted totalitarianism, Wolin said, “projects power upwards.” It is “the antithesis of constitutional power.”
“Democracy has been turned upside down,” Wolin said. “It is supposed to be a government for the people, by the people. But it has become an organized form of government dominated by groups that are only vaguely, if at all, responsible or responsive to popular needs and popular demands. At the same time, it retains a patina of democracy. We still have elections. They are relatively free. We have a relatively free media. But what is missing is a crucial, continuous opposition that has a coherent position, that is not just saying no, no, no, that has an alternative and ongoing critique of what is wrong and what needs to be remedied.”
Wolin and Saul, echoing Karl Marx, view unfettered and unregulated capitalism as a revolutionary force that has within it the seeds of its own self-annihilation. It is and always has been deeply antagonistic to participatory democracy, they said. Democratic states must heavily regulate and control capitalism, for once capitalism is freed from outside restraint it seeks to snuff out democratic institutions and abolish democratic rights that are seen—often correctly—as an impediment to maximizing profit. The more ruthless and pronounced global corporate capitalism becomes, the greater the loss of democratic space.
“Capitalism is destructive because it has to eliminate customs, mores, political values, even institutions that present any kind of credible threat to the autonomy of the economy,” Wolin said. “That is where the battle lies. Capitalism wants an autonomous economy. It wants a political order subservient to the needs of the economy. The [capitalist’s] notion of an economy, while broadly based in the sense of a relatively free entrance and property that is relatively widely dispersed, is as elitist as any aristocratic system.”
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Wolin and Saul said they expect the state, especially in an age of terminal economic decline, to employ more violent and draconian forms of control to keep restive populations in check. This coercion, they said, will fuel discontent and unrest, which will further increase state repression.
“People with power use the tools they have,” Saul said. “As the West has gradually lost its economic tool it has turned to what remains, which are military tools and violence. The West still has the most weaponry. Even if they are doing very badly economically in a global sense, they can use the weaponry to replace the economics or replace competition.”
“They decided that capitalism and the market was about the right to have the cheapest possible goods,” Saul said. “That is what competition meant. This is a lie. No capitalist philosopher ever said that. As you bring the prices down below the capacity to produce them in a middle-class country you commit suicide. As you commit suicide you have to ask, ‘How do we run this place?’ And you have to run it using these other methods—bread and circuses, armies, police and prisons.”
The liberal class—which has shriveled under the corporate onslaught and a Cold War ideology that held up national security as the highest good—once found a home in the Democratic Party, the press, labor unions and universities. It made reform possible. Now, because it is merely decorative, it compounds the political and economic crisis. There is no effective organized opposition to the rise of a neofeudalism dominated a tiny corporate oligarchy that exploits workers and the poor.
“The reform class, those who believe that reform is possible, those who believe in humanism, justice and inclusion, has become incredibly lazy over the last 30 or 40 years,” Saul said. “The last hurrah was really in the 1970s. Since then they think that getting a tenured position at Harvard and waiting to get a job in Washington is actually an action, as opposed to passivity.”
“One of the things we have seen over the last 30 or 40 years is a gradual silencing of people who are doctors or scientists,” Saul said. “They are silenced by the managerial methodology of contracts. You sign an employment contract that says everything you know belongs to the people who hired you. You are not allowed to speak out. Take that [right] away and you have a gigantic educated group who has a great deal to say and do, but they are tied up. They don’t know how to untie themselves. They come out with their Ph.D. They are deeply in debt. The only way they can get a job is to give up their intellectual freedom. They are prisoners.”
Resistance, Wolin and Saul agreed, will begin locally, with communities organizing to form autonomous groups that practice direct democracy outside the formal power structures, including the two main political parties. These groups will have to address issues such as food security, education, local governance, economic cooperation and consumption. And they will have to sever themselves, as much as possible, from the corporate economy.
“Richard Rorty talked about how you take power,” Saul said. “You go out and win the school board elections. You hold the school board. You reform the schools. Then you win the towns. And you stay there. And you hold it for 30 to 40 years. And gradually you bring in reforms that improve things. It isn’t about three years in Washington on a contract. There has to be a critical mass of leaders willing to ruin their lives as part of a large group that figures out how to get power and hold power at all of these levels, gradually putting reforms in place.”
I asked them if a professional revolutionary class, revolutionists dedicated solely to overthrowing the corporate state, was a prerequisite. Would we have to model any credible opposition after Vladimir Lenin’s disciplined and rigidly controlled Bolsheviks or Machiavelli’s republican conspirators? Wolin and Saul, while deeply critical of Lenin’s ideology of state capitalism and state terror, agreed that creating a class devoted full time to radical change was essential to fomenting change. There must be people, they said, willing to dedicate their lives to confronting the corporate state outside traditional institutions and parties. Revolt, for a few, must become a vocation. The alliance between mass movements and a professional revolutionary class, they said, offers the best chance for an overthrow of corporate power.
“It is extremely important that people are willing to go into the streets,” Saul said. “Democracy has always been about the willingness of people to go into the streets. When the Occupy movement started I was pessimistic. I felt it could only go a certain distance. But the fact that a critical mass of people was willing to go into the streets and stay there, without being organized by a political party or a union, was a real statement. If you look at that, at what is happening in Canada, at the movements in Europe, the hundreds of thousands of people in Spain in the streets, you are seeing for the first time since the 19th century or early 20th century people coming into the streets in large numbers without a real political structure. These movements aren’t going to take power. But they are a sign that power and the respect for power is falling apart. What happens next? It could be dribbled away. But I think there is the possibility of a new generation coming in and saying we won’t accept this. That is how you get change. A new generation comes along and says no, no, no. They build their lives on the basis of that no.”
But none of these mass mobilizations, Saul and Wolin emphasized, will work unless there is a core of professional organizers.
“Anarchy is a beautiful idea, but someone has to run the stuff,” Saul said. “It has to be run over a long period of time. Look at the rise and fall of the Chinese empires. For thousands of years it has been about the rise and fall of the water systems. Somebody has to run the water system. Somebody [in modern times] has to keep the electricity going. Somebody has to make the hospitals work.”
“You need a professional or elite class devoted to profound change,” Saul said. “If you want to get power you have to be able to hold it. And you have to be able to hold it long enough to change the direction. The neoconservatives understood this. They have always been Bolsheviks. They are the Bolsheviks of the right. Their methodology is the methodology of the Bolsheviks. They took over political parties by internal coups d’état. They worked out, scientifically, what things they needed to do and in what order to change the structures of power. They have done it stage by stage. And we are living the result of that. The liberals sat around writing incomprehensible laws and boring policy papers. They were unwilling to engage in the real fight that was won by a minute group of extremists.”
“You have to understand power to reform things,” Saul said. “If you don’t understand power you get blown away by the guy who does. We are missing people who believe in justice and at the same time understand how tough power and politics are, how to make real choices. And these choices are often quite ugly.”