Remembering and Celebrating Sheldon Wolin (1922–2015)
The late scholar and Nation contributor brought left-leaning political philosophy to the fore.
On October 21, the political theorist Sheldon Wolin died at the age of 93. Professor and mentor to countless Nation readers and contributors (including Stephen Cohen, Richard Falk, Joel Rogers, Tom Ferguson, and Corey Robin), Wolin helped revitalize political philosophy as a living discipline with much to say about contemporary politics and society, not to mention the growing gap between the wealthy few and increasingly destitute many. In numerous books, from his classic Politics and Visions: Continuity and Innovation in Western Political Thought (1960) to Democracy Incorporation: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism (2008), Wolin noted the growing tendency of the republic toward consolidation, oligarchy, and totalitarianism, and urged leftists to look to “a more decentralized and local politics, scattered and diffuse,” as “the first best hope.”
Over the years, Wolin published three important essays (and one shorter comment piece) in the pages of The Nation, each at what seem now to be pivotal moments in the life of American democracy at the turn of the 21st century. They are self-evidently worth reading again today.
In “Beyond Marxism and Monetarism” (March 19, 1990), Wolin predicted that after the events of 1989, “‘democracy’ will be reshaped into a mere rhetorical function serving to legitimize politics of austerity.” He suggested that the American establishment would falsely interpret the political convulsions of the previous year as the dying spasms of history, which had reached its ultimate end, and argued that it would be up to democrats to prove such a reading wrong. It has taken a few decades, but these days, all across the world, millions seem finally to be answering Wolin’s call.
The media presentation has been as politically charged as the events themselves, and is as much influenced by American domestic political themes as by the recent history of those countries. In the past decade the perceptions and sensibilities of many Americans have been Reaganized, shaped by counterrevolutionary concerns regarding welfare, race relations, health care, ecology, government regulation of business practices, the rights of minorities and women, and education. Equally, Reaganism inverted the relation of public to private values, extolling private concerns over public ones while corrupting public office for private profit. Revolution, then, is being portrayed to a society that is in the process of sloughing off the values and practices of its own liberal, quasi-democratic past….
Revolutionary change in Europe is thus perceived by a United States that has itself changed profoundly since the Prague Spring of 1968. Twenty-five years ago the United States was quintessentially liberal, expansionist and interventionist in its formal institutional policies and foreign policy (the Great Society of Lyndon Johnson and the Vietnam War), and democratic and antiexpansionist in its spontaneous politics (the civil rights movement, antiwar protests, campus revolts and ecological activism). Now the society is essentially conservative, apolitical and corrupted into cheering what the Times vulgarly described as presidential “initiation rites” in Grenada and Panama. The politics of democratic change flourishes at the local level, but what prevails nationally is not democracy but traditional, mostly white, middle- and upper-middle-class liberal politics: the defense of rights (E.R.A., abortion, sexual preference) and the domestication of potentially radical concerns, such as environmentalism, so that they become the livelihood of technocrats on one side or the other.
What is at stake, there as well as here, is whether political revolution of self-organized initiatives can be made permanent and truly constitutive of political life or whether revolution will take the postmodern apolitical form of consumerism and privatism.
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The following year, Wolin contributed to a special issue The Nation published on patriotism, featuring the meditations of dozens of influential scholars, writers and activists on what the word meant to them.
Wolin defined patriotism as “a reasoned but critical allegiance to certain shared values that define the kind of collective identity to which we would want to think of ourselves as loyal.” He observed, “The left has trouble with patriotism not because it is the party of humanity but because it is, nationally and internationally, the party of losers: not to mention, outsiders. So what would a leftist patriotism look like? Wolin concluded his remarks:
Is there an ideal of collectivity that cherishes differences and commonality, that takes pride in some of our history while accepting the dark chapters? I would propose democracy: It is far less exclusionary, in principle and practice, than nationalism, patriotism or the ideology of capitalism. And because everyone is “in,” each is historically responsible for what the collectivity may do to others in our name. Democracy owes a historic debt to America for the freedom that has enabled democracy to survive, even if mainly as an endangered species. Democracy can be patriotic, but only on condition that the first loyalty is to it.
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Wolin next wrote for The Nation six years later, when, a few months after Newt Gingrich and his fellow House Republicans shut down the federal government, it seemed that basic components of the American constitutional framework were being undermined by a minority of the powerful and the well-to-do unwilling to play by the ordinary rules. In “Democracy & Counter-revolution” (April 22, 1996), Wolin described the government shutdown as what it really was: a coup d’etat.
Last winter’s government shutdown, contrary to media reports, was not about innocent bystanders—government workers, recipients of benefits or tourists—however genuine their hardships. It was about the broad scheme of power in the nation. Under what was dismissed as posturing, serious political changes were being tested. If we ask, “What kind of authority could justify disrupting and holding an allegedly democratic system hostage in the name of ‘a balanced budget in seven years’ and then attempt to dictate the precise kind and amount of government services that are to be permitted to resume?” the answer is not: “The authority of officials elected to run the government.” Deliberately paralyzing an elected government is far different from the ordinary partisanship that attends appropriations.
The shutdown was, instead, a direct challenge to the principle that in a democracy the government belongs to the people. It is theirs either to reconstitute by prescribed means, such as the amending process, or to halt by resistance or disobedience if it governs tyrannically. For the President or Congress to undertake to stop or reconstitute government in order to extract sweeping policy concessions amounts to an attempted coup d’état by what The Federalist (normally the political bible of Gingrich and other self-styled conservatives) would have condemned as a “temporary majority.”
The overall spectacle, Wolin observed,
testifies to the truly terrifying pace at which depoliticization is being promoted and the depths of the alienation separating citizens from their government. Each national election serves to deepen the contempt of voters for a system that they know is corrupt, and they doubt it can be remedied by requiring lobbyists to register. Despair is rooted in powerlessness, and powerlessness is not an unintended but a calculated consequence of the system.
It has been a very long two decades since Wolin wrote that sentence.
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Wolin’s most lasting contribution to The Nation came in May 2003, with his essay, “Inverted Totalitarianism,” which described what Wolin saw as the beginnings of the United States’ transition to an illiberal democracy. For Wolin, the term “inverted totalitarianism,” since taken up by others, referred to a social and political system in which powerful corporations use sensationalism and mass-consumerization to lull citizens into willfully surrendering their rights and liberties. Wolin’s account of this transition is a profoundly useful tool for trying to understand the otherwise entirely illegible American political scene of 2015.
The elements are in place [for a quasi-fascist takeover]: a weak legislative body, a legal system that is both compliant and repressive, a party system in which one party, whether in opposition or in the majority, is bent upon reconstituting the existing system so as to permanently favor a ruling class of the wealthy, the well-connected and the corporate, while leaving the poorer citizens with a sense of helplessness and political despair, and, at the same time, keeping the middle classes dangling between fear of unemployment and expectations of fantastic rewards once the new economy recovers. That scheme is abetted by a sycophantic and increasingly concentrated media; by the integration of universities with their corporate benefactors; by a propaganda machine institutionalized in well-funded think tanks and conservative foundations; by the increasingly closer cooperation between local police and national law enforcement agencies aimed at identifying terrorists, suspicious aliens and domestic dissidents.
That was now twelve years ago. What more is there to say?