"Politics and Vision:
Continuity and Innovation in Western Political Thought
Expanded Edition
Sheldon Wolin
(1960; Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2004)

Preface to the 2004 Expanded Edition

“...Marx should also be remembered as the modern theorist who, in constructing the proletariat, attempted to revive the dormant ideal of a politically active demos. Nietzsche, who can be said to have invented the theory of culture as politics, combined anticipations of two polar opposites, totalitarianism and postmodernism. Communist totalitarianism, whether of the Soviet or the Chinese type, originally followed the modern understanding of revolution as a movement that identified with the weak and exploited classes against the dominant ‘ruling classes.’ Nazi totalitarianism represented the precise inversion of the modern conception of revolution. Like Nietzsche it identified with the strong and aimed at the weak [emphasis added] – Jews, Gypsies, Slavs, homosexuals, social democrats, communists, trade unionists, the sick, deformed, and mentally ill.
    “Originally the historical task of combatting totalitarianism fell to liberalism. From the 1930s to the 1960s liberalism also served as the political conscience of capitalism, endeavoring to regulate its excesses and succor its casualties. [emphasis added] During the Cold War and the Crusade against Communism (1945-1988), the social democratic thrust of liberalism was gradually blunted. The beginning of the twenty-first century found liberal politics adrift on a sea of centrism [ever-further-toward-the-Right-but-never-toward-the-Left-ism], its politicians declaring themselves ‘fiscally conservative, socially liberal,’ its theorists spinning ever finer concepts of rights and expounding on how ‘democratic deliberation’ might emulate a graduate philosophy seminar. The current status of democracy has been prepared by a marked decline in the political fortunes of liberalism and by the tenuousness of its ties with democratic ideals.” pp. xxv-xxvi

“I do not mean to suggest by these remarks that the political philosopher has been at liberty to call 'political' whatever he chose, or that, like the poet of Lord Kames, he has been busy 'fabricating images without any foundation in reality.' Nor do I mean to imply that the phenomena we designate Political are, in a literal sense, 'created' by the theorist.” p. 6

Liberalism and the Politics of Rationalism

Liberal Justice and Political Democracy

“... A crucial difference was that Nazism depended upon the constant mobilization of the population, while advancing capitalism merely required the demobilzation of citizens into consumers, non-voters, and insecure workers” [emphasis added]. p. 520
    "... In technologically advancing societies surplus population and outdated skills have become a deliberate, if indiscriminate, consequence, a product of policy. Surplus populations are inherent in the logic of 'saving' labor and labor costs. 'Downsizing' could refer to a reduction in the size of the labor force needed by an employer, but it might also signify a reduction in the status of the employee. Inferiority thus naturalized, the result of 'irresistible forces of change.' Racial discrimination and generationally transmitted poverty do not appear as premeditated policies but as impersonal 'side effects' while the personal element is assigned to the victims, who are said to lack motivation – a failing that would be remedied through the enforcement of a time-limit on welfare benefits. Similarly, the huge expenditures allocated for prisons and law enforcement in the United States, as well as the increasingly harsh penalties for what were once considered minor crimes, are viewed as unrelated to economic policies and as having no resemblance to labor camps. Perhaps eventually, should the privatization of prisons continue, the circularity will be accepted and capital punishment will become a double entendre” [emphasis added]. p. 520

[Note* labor camps = convict labor]

XVI. Totalitarianism and the Reaction against Democracy

“... The important discovery was that the demos could be depoliticized without directly attacking the idea of democracy” [emphasis added]. p. 520

“Concurrently, elitism, which had been stigmatized earlier as a fundamental principle of fascism, was reinvented and presented as a respectable liberal ideal, legitimized by political theories and empirically demonstrated by social and political scientists. Elitist tendencies found their complement and justification in the social science construction of an apathetic, politically ignorant electorate whose existence virtually begged for manipulation. A 'neo-liberaliam' began to take shape, especially in the United States, in the post-war years. It built upon a narrow conception of the New Deal as social welfate programs rather than as a tentative democratizing thrust that empowered labor unions, encouraged coooperatives, and challenged concentrations of corporate power. The political tendency of the new liberalism stressed instead the need fo strong leadership and a technocratic version of elitism as expertise, and for acceptance of the Cold War ideology and its justification of a defense-based economy that permanently elevated 'nation' security to parity with, and often priority over, 'social' security programs.” p. 521
    The new liberalism continued to give allegiance to individual freedom and constitutional norms while seeming to be at ease with the incongruities between an emphasis upon constraining power ('constitutional democracy') and an eagerness for expanding it ('the national security state'). And by equating political action primarily with 'positive' presidential leadership and accommodating it to a huge, hierarchical, and centralized bureaucracy, neo-liberalism increasingly distanced its political identity from citizen-centered democratic principles. At the same time its expansive conception of state-power, both at home and abroad, depended upon the resources being generated by an anti-democratic type of economic organization – one driven by unequal rewards and administered according to hierarchical principles of authority supporting a cult of leadership that emphasized the mastery of power by larger-than-life CEOs. On every front liberal society as accepting accommodation with the inequalities generated by visions of excess: New Frontiers (Kennedy), Great Society (Johnson), and culminating in the empire of a Superpower (G. W. Bush).” pp. 521-522

Power and Forms

I. Old and New Political Forms

“For centuries, most political theorizing assumed that for political life to exist it had to inhabit a structure of governance, a “form” or constitution that embodied certain principles which determined its nature. Accordingly, every constitution was given a name that signified the collective identity embodied in its principles. The archetypal forms were named monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy, signifying the predominance of the one, the few, or the many.” p. 557

“...Oligarchy, which had come to connote rule by the wealthy few, was rarely invoked, even though it might seem an appropriate name for the politically organized power of capital.” [emphasis added] p 557

“.. inescapably, a built-in tension between rule in the interests of all and rule by a class: the one implied disinterestedness, the other class bias.” p. 558

Postmodern Democracy: Virtual or Fugitive

I. Postmodern Culture and Postmodern Power

II. Nietzschean Pessimism Transformed

"Marx had made a gift of theory to the workers, speaking to them, organizing and educating them, summoning them to power. … because theory as committed to righting wrong, and the worker was wrong incarnate.” p. 582

III. The Self as Microcosm

IV. Centrifugals and Centripetals

V. Centripetal Power

VI. The Political Evolution of the Corporation

“In its most powerful forms the corporation is no longer describable solely by economic criteria (such as market share, profitability). The meaning of economic has expanded to include objects of exploitation hitherto considered “outside” the pursuit of profits. Capitalism has transformed itself, from a system of activities analyzable through economic categories to one that has adopted political characteristics and the qualities of a new constitutional blend devoid of democratic substance. The new economics created by technologically advanced societies provide equivalents for democracy's values of participaton (mass consumption), inclusion (work force), and mass empowerment (“consumer sovereignty,” “shareholder democracy”). Those sublimations accord with a “virtual” way of being in a world transformed by the technological revolution in communications. Electronic technologies (computers, video, Internet) epitomize the combination of the illusion of individual freedom/power with the encapsulation of the individual in a cocoon from which escape seems an incoherent idea.” p. 588

The changes in capitalism have weakened the authority of the state as the supreme power in society. Gloabalization is the euphemism for continuous expansion abroad and the constriction of politics at home, narrowing the points of entry so that only the pressure of money can gain political access. As the privatization of public power continues and the authority of the state diminishes, its boundaries become porous to waves of cheap labor. Although the state continues to play a far from negligible role in an increasingly globalized economy, the power wielded by multinational corporations has made their cooperation and acquiescence indispensable. The cooperation of corporate power is now a vital element of domestic, foreign, and military policies. Competition and rivalry occur less between state and corporations and more between corporations vying for influence over the state or subsidies from it.”

“It is not only that the state and the corporation have become partners; in the process, each has begun to mimic functions historically identified with the other. … Corporations are extensively engaged in administering penal institutions and operating health-care systems, and they have assumed important roles at every level of public and private education.” p. 588

“In the course of these developments public services formerly undertaken for the benefit of recipients are objects of profit. At the same time the folkways of government emulate corporate ways. Conceptions of management and efficiency, even of profitability, are adopted. … Self-interest, competitiveness, acceptance of hierarchy, inequality, and complicity in imperialism become accepted elements in the idea of the virtuous citizen. p. 589

V. Centripetal Power

VI. The Political Evolution of the Corporation

VII. Empire and the Imperial Citizen

“All of these signs – the superimposition of empire upon democracy, the corruption of representative government, the declining status of the citizen, the hegemonic status of American power desperately need reformulation.” p. 590

“The crucial element that sets off inverted totalitarianism from Nazism is that while the latter imposed a regime of mobilization upon its citizenry, inverted totalitarianism works to depoliticize its citizenry, thus paying a left-handed compliment to the prior experience of democratization. Where the Nazis strove to give the masses a sense of collective power and confidence, the inverted regime promotes a sense of weakness, collective futility that culminates in the erosion of the democratic faith, in political apathy and the privatization of the self. … the elite of inverted totalitarianism wants a politically demobilized society that hardly votes at all.” p. 592

“... a nervous subject has replaced the citizen.” p. 593

“The most revealing inversion lies in the relationship of organized capitalism to the regime … In the United States … corporate power has become predominant in the political establishment, in the ideology that permeates its upper echelons, in the making of policy, and in the councils of the major political parties. … inverted totalitarianism is powered by the ever-expanding power made available by the integration of science and technology into the economy of capitalism.” p. 593

“Beginning with the Goldwater campaign of 1964 and gathering momentum with the Reagan presidency (1980-1988), the Republicans evolved into a unique phenomenon in American history, a major party that was fervently doctrinal, zealous, ruthless, opportunistically populist, pro-corporate, and successful in winning a popular majority, sometimes by dubious methods. As the Republican party grew more stridently and intolerantly ideological, the Democratic party conceded that the Republicans had succeeded in conservatizing the electorate, thereby setting the ideological parameters for the politics of the new millennium. The Democratic leadership all but abandoned its critical, reform-minded constituencies to embrace the ideology of the end of ideology. Its leaders, in the name of centrism, pursued an opportunistic politics of appealing first to the right, then to the left, but always to corporate donors. Unlike the Republican party, which, when in the minority, vigorously played the role of an opposition party – criticizing and offering a genuine alternative – the Democrats were ineffectual at both.” p. 593

VIII. Superpower and Inverted Totalitarianism

“Perhaps the most crucial element in the structure of inverted totalitarianism is its equivalent of the propaganda organization[*] of Nazism. … if democracy is to flourish, its citizens must not only be educated but enjoy access to a variety of sources of knowledge and opinion. … the most ominous development in the United States has been the virtual disappearance of dissident voices from the p0ress and the media generally. The concentration of ownership of newspapers and radio and television stations in relatively few hands has produced a near-homogeneity of culture and opinion that, when it is not trivial, is either bland or stridently conservative. The net effect of the concentration of media ownership is to enclose the civic mind within the equivalent of a hermetically sealed dome.” p. 594

[Note * Better understood as “Millieu Control” – see Robert Jay Lifton]

IX. The Limits of Superpower?

“What, then, is the “virtue” that, conceivably, could cause the ruling groups in the hybrid to overreach? … In its political economy form it is a furious drive for the innovations that promise greater rewards and expanded opportunities for exploitation.” p. 595

X. Land of Political Opportunity

“John Dewey once remarked that equality becomes dangerous when it is widely praised but empty in practice. Earlier Tocqueville had made a similar point about democracy: if democracy failed to cultivate participatory forms that engaged politically the energies of the ordinary citizen, political populism would be displaced by a cultural populism of sameness, resentment, and mindless patriotism, and by an anti-political form he labeled “democratic despotism.

XI. Capital and Democracy

“Clearly on the present terms, democracy might survive archaically but only for serving the needs of capital. The terms on which democracy would be suffered were distilled in two electioneering slogans that rapidly became articles of faith in the ideology underpinning Superpower: that government was the enemy (“get government off the backs of the people”) and that taxation, especially of the rich, was a declaration of “class warfare” and therefore ought to be minimal (“it's your money and you should keep it”) – which prevented its use for “populist” projects, such as health care, environmental protection, and public education. Thus in a “democracy” the people were to deny themselves the use of “their” government as an instrument of popular needs and grievances. A new political constitution had been tacitly ratified that established a uniquely/eunuchally “sovereign people,” one denied the means of potency.” p. 597

“At stake in this transformation was a crucial question: who is to define and control the course of change, and who is to bear the brunt of it. The fact that scientific and technological advances have made available the power of introducing continuous, unrelenting change as the organizing focus and distinctive mark of postmodern societies can also be seen as the principle by which elites establish their credentials to monopolize policy determinations and promote the culture that validates themselves. As several commentators have noted, the powers embodied in modern change do not enter the world without disrupting and eventually destroying established life-forms of work, play, personal and social relations, belief, and habitat. Those who define, direct, finance, and prosper from significant change rarely experience their own lives mangled or stupefied and the misshapen results passed on as an inheritance.” p. 597

XII. Democracy at Bay

“The evisceration of democracy matters because of what democracy signified over and beyond the equal rights of citizens and their participation in the practice and control of government. The stakes concern the meaning and substance of the political as well as the questions of who dominates politics and who has responsibility for the care of civic life. According to the classical and early modern account, democracy – in contrast to the admittedly biased and exclusionist regimes of aristocracy, oligarchy, and monarchy – represented the belief that the power, benefits, risks, and sacrifices inherent in the idea of a political society were to be shared equally. . . . for the individual the expected benefits of voting are small and hence “any cost at all may threaten the political system with collapse through lack of participation.” p. 598

“. . . instead of seeking to explain why citizens are not interested, concerned, and active, the task is to explain why a few citizens are.” p. 598

XIII. Postrepresentative Politics

“... The attempt to project power over distant reaches had the effect of disconnecting power from its source. That danger is not prevented by representative government; it is encouraged. Representative government, according to its advocates, favors the proliferation of interests precisely because it increases the difficulties of forming a majority, thus, in effect fragmenting the “sovereign people.”” p. 600

“Corruption might be defined as the power to achieve a desired result without being accountable to the system that is being influenced. It short-circuits the system of agency at the heart of representative government. The representative, instead of re-presenting and promoting the concerns of constituents, promotes and protects those of powerful interests while receiving in exchange campaign funds and other forms of bribery. So integral are lobbyists to the legislative process that they have been known to write legislative bills for congressmen and senators and enjoy the use of congressional office space. [Note: Liz Fowler of Wellpoint, Inc. who wrote the Affordable Care Act legislation for Senator Max Baucus's committee]. A motion to allow lobbyists to mingle freely on the floor of Congress was only barely headed off. The power of lobbyists; the organization of campaigns, elections, the formulation of policies (“think tanks,” private foundations); and the formation of public opinion (mass media conglomerates, polling organizations) are all dependent ultimately upon huge concentrations of money and resources that only corporations and some private individuals can command.” p. 600

XIV. Fugitive Democracy

“The fact that democracy continues to be invoked in American political rhetoric and the popular media may be a tribute, not to its vibrancy, but to its utility in supporting a myth that legitimates the very formations of power which have enfeebled it. The actual weakness of democracy can be managed and, when necessary, ignored.” p. 601

“... Majority rule, democracy's power-principle, is fictitious: majorities are artifacts manufactured by money, organization, and the media.” p. 601

“Democracy is an ephemeral phenomenon rather than a settled system. We might think of it as protean and amorphous, embracing a wide range of possible forms and mutations that are responsive to grievances on the part of those those who have no means of redress other than to risk collectivizing their small bits of power. [We might] call it ‘fugitive democracy” in order to emphasize its necessarily occasional character. The fugitive character of democracy is directly related to the fact about democracy that Aristotle emphasized: democracy’s politics is the creation of those who must work, who cannot hire proxies to promote their interests, and for whom participation, as distinguished from voting, is necessarily a sacrifice. Representative government was supposed to solve those problems, but, as we have seen, in place of an active demos it substituted professionalized representation of interests. By splintering the demos into disparate interests, it scotched the possibility of collective action. That was, however, a solution to a non-existent problem. It assumed that democracy was a form of government in which the people governed. That assumption was mistaken: in part because it presented the “people” as a pre-existent, continuous entity (Lincoln’s “government of the people, by the people, for the people”); and in part because it assumed that the authority and power to govern was what a people would aspire to.” p. 602

“Since, at best, only rarely has democracy “governed,” then perhaps political theorists from antiquity to modern times have made a category mistake by treating democracy as a possible constitutional form for an entire society. Perhaps democracy has not been about governing or ruling a political society primarily for the reason Aristotle indicated when he defined it as rule by the poorer classes, by the leisureless. The vast majority of mankind has always been preoccupied with economic survival; in premodern times the economic circumstances of aristocrats and later the wealthy bourgeoisie enable them to devote time to political and military affairs. In modern times the wealthy have purchased and nurtured political agents to govern for them. Democracy is perennially outspent and overmatched.” p. 602

“… the true question is not whether democracy can govern in the traditional sense, but why it would want to. Governing means manning and accommodating to bureaucratized institutions that, ipso facto, are hierarchical in structure and elitist; permanent rather than fugitive – in short, anti-democratic.” pp.602-603

“… Throughout Western history, under monarchies, aristocracies, and republics, the Many, as workers, peasants, soldiers, and taxpayers, have been exploited and excluded. The demotic way of being is so preoccupied with existence, with necessities, as to leave the Many with only scant political resources to contest their treatment.” p. 603