"Dr Sheldon Wolin on Totalitarian America, in Willits CA, 2003"
Video of Speech delivered to Willits Methodist Church (May 29, 2003)
[5:05] Dr Sheldon Wolin: "The title of my talk is based in part on the article which some of you have read in The Nation magazine called "Inverted Totalitarianism" [and it was suggested that I] show how I got to that kind of notion and also to some of its implications for right now. Let me firt talk about the notion itself by suggesting what I'm sure some of you are familiar with, the general features of totalitarianism, that is, What are we looking for when we talk about totalitarianism? And let me schematize some of those features."
"First of all, and thinking basically about the example of Nazi Germany but it applies to other totalitarian regimes as well. There is a dichotomy at the outset between elite and mass. The elite are regarded as in some respecs specially endowed such that their talents and skills make them natural leaders. The mass, in turn, indistinguishable from each other, largely the same, responsive to leadership and willing to follow, and mostly put on this earth to follow."
"Secondly, totalitarianism is characterized by a one-party system in which one party dominates the political process and in the course of it eliminates or reduces to nullity the other parties."
"Thirdly, there is a strong ideology to totalitarian systems. That is, a belief system that is coherent, that is palatable to large numbers and that represents, sort of, the world view, the sort of political substitute for a religion in such a system."
"Next, regimes of this sort are characterized by control of mass communications. This is very closely related to the important role of propaganda within such regimes. That is, the attempt to in fact not only spread the party line but make the party line the most preeminent of party lines."
Next, there's the use of terror by such regimes. Now, it's important to remember as I tried to point out in the Nation piece, that the Nazis didn't set about torturing and killing everybody. The important point was to instill a certain amount of fear, generalized fear, in a population, but not so deep-rooted or deep-seated as to paralyze the population. In other words, it was to sort of be a vague presence, puncutated now and then by the fact that people would hear about cases in which people were tortured or which were put in concentration camps or were generally 'disappeared' as we say these days."
[8:50] "Next, totalitarian regimes, particularly of the Nazi type are expansionist. They tend not to remain contained within the boundaries of their system, but rather, there is a certain dynamism that takes them outwards. But that's accompanied by treaty violations and a general tendency, particularly marked in the case of Germany to launch wars on the flimsiest of pretexts. To invade a Poland claiming that Poland is going to attack Germany. Invading Czechoslovakia because you claim that a German population in Czechoslovakia is being badly treated. And on and on. The Dutch are a threat. The Danes are a threat. The Scandinavians are a threat. So that the pretext on which foreign wars are fought are ones in which the regime takes the initiative in which by most rational accounts there's very little basis for their claims about it."
[9:55] Now, this is closely related to another matter. And that totalitarian regimes are characterized by the subordination of domestic policy to foreign policy. Foreign policy and its demands financially, its demands in terms of manpower, its demands in terms of resources have the first precedence. And domestic policy tends to be put on the back burner, tends to be relegated to the point where it mostly takes the form of trying to prevent widespread discontent and rebellious or mutinous feelings among the populace."
"Finally, they are societies in which military virtues are exalted, in which heroism, manliness, willingness to die, willingness to sacrifice are not just virtues. They are preeminent virtues, exalted virtues."
"Turning from this sort of general sketch, let me now try briefly to say what I mean by inversion, inverted totalitarianism. What I mean by that it this: That a political system can approach or even imitate a totalitarian regime without not only seeming not to be a totalitarian regime but even professing to be the opposite of a totalitarian regime. That's not an easy point to make but it's going to be crucial, because if we take, for example, the question of elections, under the Nazis elections were mostly staged. That is, managed, controlled and in which the choices were very few, in fact non-existent. So that elections became plebiscites. That is, that they became 'yes' or 'no's with the 'no's not even counted. In other words, elections could be manipulated, were manipulated, and consequentially the regime nonetheless could claim that they had popular support."
[12:14] "Now, the question that makes this inverted, if we put the question this way, can we say that we might get the same result in a political system, that is, where you get elections which are controlled or staged, and not necessarily as in the Nazi plebiscites, 96or 98% voting in favor of the regime but a substantial portion of them, so that the outcome is one in which the system seems to be very difficult to alter, very difficult to change, even though there are apparently free elections."
[12:56] We can take that one step further. We can say that under the Nazis, propaganda was strictly under state control. There were no independent newspapers or radio stations at the time. But then, as we know, it's possible for the media to become increasingly more consolidated, increasinly more homogenous, increasingly more uniform, and the net result is that it becomes very difficult to enter counter-opinions or to encourage dissident points of view."
"To take another example, it brings us, I think, even a little bit closer. Most scholars agree that the Nazi war machine really had no other purpose except to wage war. That is the regime itself became increasinly empty in terms of any kind of goals or purposes or values other than war-making."
[14:05] "This introduces a really significant point, I think, in terms of the war on terrorism. Immediately after the September 11th disaster, the president said we could expect to have twenty or thirty years or more of a war on terrorism. In other words, it seemed to be endless. It seemed to be a kind of war at which -- unlike other wars where you enter into it thinking only of the point where you can have peace and return to normalcy and where the end of the war is something everybody is in favor of -- but with the idea of a war against terrorism and the nature of terrorism: a form of power which has no state, which has none of the ordinary accoutrements of government, which is shadowy and which appears never in the same place twice yet appears to be all over."
[15:14] "You have, of course, in a certain sense, a recipe for unending war, for war which goes on and on and becomes, by that fact, a conditioning factor of your society. It becomes as much a part of your environment, so for example, you take what used to be a simple thing like a ride on a plane, becomes now becomes tinged and edged by military paraphernalia around us by soldiers, by guards, by all kinds of equipment, all the other things we know. But what I'm trying to get at is simply the way in which war becomes an ingredient, a lasting ingredient of a culture. And in the process changes the culture."
"Another interesting aspect of this is that while the Nazis, for their part, mobilized the entire economy, put it on a wartime footing as we were saying and put the populaton on a wartime footing and thereby reduced unemployment, inverted totalitarianism more or less lets the economy go into freefall and, despite rising unemployment, refuses to take any really significant measures. In other words, there's a certain element in which an economy produces, in many ways, an element of fear continuously, the kind of fear that comes, for example, not only from depression but also from loss of jobs, downsizing, a rapidly changing market which makes old skills and former skills updated and anachronistic so that the society, again, becomes something in which you don't want to cure unemployment. You don't really want to have full prosperity because that takes away an edge from the society that's produced by the prevalence of fear. Even if it's unexpressed. Even if it's often sublimated and repressed."
[17:30] "If we ask ... when did I start thinking in this -- what might seem to some as an -- extreme way, well, I think my starting point was that I don't believe the things I am talking about as inverted totalitarianism began with a Bush administration. It didn't begin yesterday or the day before. That's by way of preface to something that occurred to me -- if you can take your memory back a bit -- when our society and the rest of the world entered the new millennium. You recall the large number of celebrations about the new millennium and how we're entering a new world and everything's going to be rather different. It struck me at the time that what was involved there was not simply looking forward, but forgetting. That was forgetting what had happened in the previous century, the 20th century."
[18:40] "Now the 20th century in many ways was a terrible century. It's the century not only of two world wars, a spate of dictatorships in Italy, in Germany, and a quasi-dictatorship in Spain and, of course, the Stalinist regime in the Soviet Union. But it was also the time of Holocaust and gulags. It was the time of Korea and the Korean War. A time of Vietnam and the killing fields of Cambodia. So that it's a century in which there is a lot of slaughter, a lot of destruction, and especially wreaked on civilian populatons, not just soldiers dying in battle. The main thing about modern wars is that civilian casualties far outweigh military casualties."
[19:40] "In fighting these wars the United States became, I think, began to become an immobilized society, because it had to defeat highly mobilized dictaborships, as in World War Two. So the system, I think, began to change. For example, during World War Two there was universal conscription, wage and price controls. There was rationing of food and fuel. There was direction of the labor force. And, of course, a great surge of patriotism, of nationalism, all in the name of national unity which, of course, led to the relocation of the Japanese Americans. Then, as soon as World War Two was over in 1945, without scarcely missing a beat, the United States proclaimed a cold war against the Soviet Union."
"At the same time, something was happening, though, that was different, that was proven in the Cold War and proven again in Korea and proven again in Vietnam. And that was that you could fight wars of a certain kind without really bothering the population. Neither the Korean War, nor the Vietnam War, nor the Gulf War, nor any of those Wars really imposed sacrifices on the population. Unlike the German example where the population suffered severely, where they were often short of food, short of fuel, short of housing. And so forth."
"In this period where this new development was taking place there was also some changing views, beginning in the Cold War era, views about civil liberties, views about loyalty, views about patriotism which found there way into loyalty tests and found their way into blacklists and in general produced something in American society which, except for the brief so-called "Red Scare" following World War One really had very little precedent."
[22:00] "While this was going on, that is, again contributing to the atmosphere of fear, even though it was often in the background rather than direct, was something that political and sociel scientists began to discover. They began to discover something about what they call the American voter. And they learned the American voter was, at best, a very anemic citizen, that they were uninterested in anywhere, he or she was uninterested in politics, that they were ignorant of politics, that they were unmotivated to vote. And sure enough, in the period following World War Two, the actual percentage of voters who an active part in elections began to slowly go down."
[22:45] At the same time that this mass of uninterested, apolitical voters began to take shape, political and social scientists discovered something else. They discovered public opinion polls. Now the juncture between those two things, that is from the apathetic citizenry and the discovery or invention of polling, meant that polls were being directed at an apathetic citizenry. And, of course, the polls, it was quickly learned, could be constructed. And along with that issue, could devise the questions you wanted, that you could get, in a certain sense, the answers you wanted, that you were creating thfrough the polls a method of manipulation.
It is important to remember that voting research and polling began as market research. It began at the University of Michigan where the Survey Research Center basically got into business, by business, that is, conducting marketing surveys so that the voter and the consumer became, again, almost interchangeable items. The result was I think the beginning of the development of a pseudo-democracy. That is, a democracy whose opinion was solicited, whose opinion was... it looked as though their opinions were really wanted by the politicians and the leadership."
[24:20] "But it was a democracy that, of course, existed within the confines of the polls. And the polls were usually of such a nature as to -- for one reason or another -- edge out discontents, except when they were so widespread that they couldn't be ignored, but to also be very indifferent to minority opinions and be very indifferent to emerging protest movements."
"Now, the Vietnam War is interesting because it seemed to bring these proceedings to a halt. Not only was there widespread opposition to the War but there was also, as we know, a stinging defeat for American power. But the war also, at the same time, reinforced this lesson that I mentioned a few moments ago: that you could have a very big war, lots of casualties, without really seeming to disturb people in their ordinary pursuits. The war was distant. It was remote. It was only brought to you by television. but your life wasn't really disrupted unless you had the misfortune to have a member of your family in the Draft."
[25:27] "This meant, this war, you could fight that war without really resorting very much to truly universal conscription. As we know, getting out of the Draft was a major occupation of young people, young men in this period. And we also know that the end result was a military composed, to a significant degree, out of proportion to their place in the population, of minorities: of racial minorities and cultural minorities. And also that it was a class Army in an important degree. That is, the number of college graduates, the number of college students, the number of representatives of the upper middle class and so on, were negligible. This was a war fought by the poor to a large degree and the minorities."
[26:31] "What all of this meant, I think, is that warfare as we know it was beginning to dissociate democracy from its place in the system, that the system became geared in such a way that democracy was reduced to a relatively insignificant part."
"This began to pick up pace as we move into our own century. There was an interesting comment which the New York Times carried when a New York Times reporter, asking people about their opinion of the Bush foreign policy -- Bush the Second -- and she explained her support for that policy by saying, 'After all, we are an empire.' Now, the fact that Empire and Superpower are becoming part of the common political vocabulary signifies, I think, that important changes are really taking place and have been taking place. We can see how somethng is amiss if we simply try to combine the word Superpower with Democracy. Who ever heard of a 'superpower democracy'? Who ever heard of an 'imperial democracy'? The combination sounds, as they say in philosophy, oxymoronic. That is, they don't fit together. They're opposed and they shouldn't be in the same tandem."
[28:07] "As I've said before, those words indicate, I think, again, an important systemic change. And changes have been taking place. Let me outline some of those changes with an eye towards trying to suggest how they fit into a more or less inverted totalitarianism."
"First, the presidency. Wars, and even these kinds of wars that I've been talking about expand presidential power. We know that from as recently as Vietnam where Congress did what it did with the war against Saddam Hussein. That is, they virtually gave the President a blank check. Now, it's well to recall the words of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln said at one point that no man should have the power, should hold the power, of taking the nation into war. No one man should hold the power of taking the nation into war and that's virtually, of course, what we have done.
"This has been accompanied, of course, by the weakening of the legislative branch, the branch which, traditionally, was supposed to be closest to the people. And what has happened here is that representative institutions have been short-circuited. They've been short-circuited by the new array of lobbyists, the new array of pressure groups, by the infusion of vast amounts of money. The result is that representatives, senators and members of the House, are more beholden to those people than they are to their constituents. So that in that contest between President and legislature it's sort of no contest. That the weakening of one is accompanied by the strengthening of the other."
[30:06] Equally important, if not more important is something that I think has been less publicized. And that is the transformation of the party system. We are supposed to have, according to the textbooks, a two-party system. And in a two-party system, the function of one party is to govern; the function of the other party is to serve as an opposition party. And serving as an opposition party means offering an alternative, an alternative that is more or less clear; that stands in significant opposition to the other party."
"What I am about to say, I don't mean to discourage any Republicans among you, but I do want to say, that the Republican Party, really since the Reagan administration, has transformed American politics. They've transformed it systematically. Significantly by organizing a strong and significant ideology; by systematically developing not only party organization but also developing support groups of various kinds. There are numerous young Republican groups, numerous groups named after the Federalists, or named after James Madison and so on. In other words, it's a new phenomenon in America because the Republicans, unlike the Democrats, can govern on the basis of a fairly coherent ideology that is systematic, but they also, unlike the Democrats, they are a "good" (in quotation marks) opposition party. When they are in opposition, they oppose."
Now, whatever you might think of that opposition, it at least preserves the idea of an alternative. But on the other hand, what has also happened, as we know, the Democrats have gravitated towards the center [Note: euphemism for 'further to the right'] and the so-called 'Left' of the Democratic Party is -- except at election time -- inconsequential.
[32:14] "That means, in effect, the Democrats have conceded that they're the one major important development in the last 40 years or so. And that is the Republican Party has won over the country to a basically conservative [Note: I would say 'reactionary'] ideology. I'm not trying to say that critically. I'm trying to state it as a fact. It is a more conservative society and we owe it, almost entirely, to the efforts of othe Republican Party and like-minded conservative groups, religious groups of a sort of similar kind."
"The result is that the Republicans being a gung-ho Party and the Democrats being feckless, is that you virtually have a one-party system. Even when the Democrats are in office. I mean, Bill Clinton was a 'centrist' and the 'centrists' said 'We are going to be fiscally responsible and conservative in financial matters.' There was little to separate the Democrats from the Republicans. As a result, there is no significant opposition party, which is as we pointed out before, related to the character of the totalitarian system."
[33:38] "And then there is that equally important phenomenon: the politicization of the Court System. Republicans, as we know, have systematically prepared judicial nominations. They have summer seminars for judges, including Supreme Court justices where the virtues of the 'free market' and conservative ideology are taught and expounded. They carefully groom and prepare candidates not only for positions on the the courts but also in the district attorney system. "
"That development is, of course, important, because our system, theoretically, depends on checks and balances. But the notion, I think, of an idependent court, ideologically independent, is clearly something of a mythology. But it's an important change."
"I could continue this, but let me just reel off very quickly because I'm beginning to run short of time and your patience, but media concentration is also another building block of this thing, and I don't have to belabor that point. We all know what it means. But it means once more the diminishing of alternatives. The suppression of alternatives without taking people to concentration camps [Note: how about for-profit privatized prisons?] or beating them up or even forcing them to do things they wouldn't want to do. The homogenization of opinion that follows from this I think begins to look more and more like what it means to live in a system where a dominant ideology is really dominant."
"It means, among other things, other developments which contribute to that, not the least of them is the changes in universities. This is a very important development which probably hasn't receive the attention it should have. But universities now are very, very deeply penetrated by corporations. In MIT for example, corporate types sit on the faculty as regular faculty members without really being faculty appointments. There similarly are cooperative research undertakings between corporations and universities."
[35:52] Now what is important about that is it's one more tendency to undermine intellectual independence. This is seen most clearly, and not only what's happening in the universities, but think about think tanks. Think about the fact that most of the think tanks in the country are bankrolled by corporations. The vast majority of them are conservative. The vast majority of them are Republican. And that means, again, that public discourse in this country is dominated, very often, by think tanks. Those of you who listen to NPR will hear the name Heritage Foundationl or Center for Strategic Studies. These are all conservative think tanks. Yet it's their voice that gets represented because of this crucial role they play as spokesmen of a Republican ideology and as a method or a place where policy proposals are first generated then passed on to the administration, so that they're integrated into the system. And the think tanks are no more independent than other branches of the party."
[37:09] "I haven't talked about the erosion of civil liberties but I think that what's happening is sort of familiar with you and I won't go over that ground.... I do want to stress that the inversion of totalitarianism, ass I've called it, is perhaps nowhere more strikingly displayes than in the fact, on the one hand, totalitarian regimes mobilze populations, regiment them, generally control them in some kind of goose-step. But what was interesting, you recall, that in the immediate aftermath of the September 11th incident, the President told the country -- and I'm quoting from him -- 'fly, consume, spend, and unite. Now if you're in a war, as the war on terrorism was supposed to be, what you want is sacrifice and [work] together. Let's all pitch in. But the President didn't ask anything of us. He told us to consume. The only thing he asked of us, chillingly, was to inform if we saw suspicious-looking people. But again, what I'm trying to get at, to put it very simply: Totalitarianism seeks to mobilize populations, Inverted Totalitarianism seeks to demobilze them, seeks to keep them in a demobilized condition which is exemplified not only by this example that I have given but also by the kind of apathy which afflicts the public and which there is no real effort on the part of political parties to generally attempt to effect."
[39:03] This situation, let me close now by saying, is it's not easy to say what is to be done. Because it's a system that's in position now, not simply something, one incident, or one development or one tendency that's occurring. It's a combination of elements. And I don't think it's exaggerating, an exaggeration to call it critical totalitarian. But then, what do we do?"
"Well, I think we have to begin by recognizing something which is sobering but which I have come to believe more firmly. And that is that I think we make a mistake if we think of our political system as a democrtic system. And that's not because the people in power are hypocrites. That's not it at all. It's rather that I don't think it's possible for democracy to be a political system under present conditions. That is to really overlay the whole thing: society, economy, government. Now, the reason for that is democracy, I don't think can, govern a huge, complex society such as ours. And I think the day is passed when it can."
[40:31] Now, there's also one other thing that contributes to that. And I'd like to quote a remark by Aristotle [who said] "Democracy is the form of government run by those who work. That's an important insight because it means that you don't have time. You don't have time to participate all the time. And you don't have what the rich have: the ability to buy proxies: proxy representatives, proxy people in charge of pressure groups, all the rest of it. Fundraising, etc., etc., etc. So Democracy begins from a disadvantage. It begins from the fact that ordinary people work. And that means that their political possibilities are, from the outset, severely constricted."
[41:24] What that means, I think, are two things. One, I think you have to think of Democracy, first of all, as basically an opposition movement. that is, getting into power -- really into power -- is going to be a rare occurrence the higher up you go in the hierarchy, higher up from local to county to state to federal. The higher up you go, the less the possibility of genuine Democracy. You may get representative government or touches of it but you won't really get democracy because you are, in a certain sense, undercutting the whole point. The whole point being that if democracy is based on those who work, those who work should also be in power."
[42:14] "It follows from that, I think, that the Democratic citizen has to be viewed as someone who does work, but who can find nonetheless opportunities to take part. And that means, I think, we get back, even though it may seem trite to say so, we get back to localism. The only thing which we can really comprehend in our energies and even in our intellects, are things that lie closer to us, that we know something about and that are not of sufficiently large scale to overcome all the disabilities of democracy. That's not a cheery prospect and I'm not cheerleading, because I think it's a relatively grim prospect we face. But I do think we can take heart because there is democracy, in the way I've defined it, all over the country. It's isolated. It's weak. It tends to be occasional. It tends to be episodic. But that doesn't mean either that I think it's impossible. But what is impossible is to take over a system. Because I don't think when push comes to shove that democracy wants to govern. And I don't think it ought to govern, in the simple sense of the people running the system. I think, instead, we have to think in different terms. Thank you."