Inverted totalitarianism is a term coined by political philosopher Sheldon Wolin in 2003 to describe the emerging form of government of the United States. Wolin believed that the United States is increasingly turning into an illiberal democracy, and uses the term "inverted totalitarianism" to illustrate similarities and differences between the United States governmental system and totalitarian regimes such as Nazi Germany and the Stalinist Soviet Union. In Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt by Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco, inverted totalitarianism is described as a system where corporations have corrupted and subverted democracy and where economics trumps politics. In inverted totalitarianism, every natural resource and every living being is commodified and exploited to collapse as the citizenry is lulled and manipulated into surrendering their liberties and their participation in government through excess consumerism and sensationalism.
Inverted totalitarianism and managed democracy
Wolin holds that the United States has increasingly adopted totalitarian tendencies as a result of transformations undergone during the military mobilization required to fight the Axis powers in the 1940s, and the subsequent campaign to contain the Soviet Union during the Cold War. In the quotation below, Wolin refers to the United States as "Superpower", to emphasize its current position as the only global superpower.
While the versions of totalitarianism represented by Nazism and Fascism consolidated power by suppressing liberal political practices that had sunk only shallow cultural roots, Superpower represents a drive towards totality that draws from the setting where liberalism and democracy have been established for more than two centuries. It is Nazism turned upside-down, “inverted totalitarianism.” While it is a system that aspires to totality, it is driven by an ideology of the cost-effective rather than of a “master race” (Herrenvolk), by the material rather than the “ideal.”
According to Wolin, there are three main ways in which inverted totalitarianism is the inverted form of classical totalitarianism.
- Whereas in Nazi Germany the state dominated economic actors, in inverted totalitarianism, corporations through political contributions and lobbying, dominate the United States, with the government acting as the servant of large corporations. This is considered "normal" rather than corrupt.
- While the Nazi regime aimed at the constant political mobilization of the populace, with its Nuremberg rallies, Hitler Youth, and so on, inverted totalitarianism aims for the mass of the populace to be in a persistent state of political apathy. The only type of political activity expected or desired from the citizenry is voting. Low electoral turnouts are favorably received as an indication that the bulk of the populace has given up hope that the government will ever help them.
- While the Nazis openly mocked democracy, the United States maintains the conceit that it is the model of democracy for the whole world. Wolin writes:
Inverted totalitarianism reverses things. It is all 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.
Wolin believes the democracy of the United States is sanitized of political participation, and describes it as managed democracy: "a political form in which governments are legitimated by elections that they have learned to control". Under managed democracy, the electorate is prevented from having a significant impact on policies adopted by the state through the continuous employment of public relations techniques.
Wolin believes the United States resembles Nazi Germany in one major way without an inversion: the essential role propaganda plays in the system. According to Wolin, whereas the production of propaganda was crudely centralized in Nazi Germany, in the United States it is left to highly concentrated media corporations, thus maintaining the illusion of a "free press". According to this model, dissent is allowed, though the corporate media serve as a filter, allowing most people, with limited time available to keep themselves apprised of current events, to hear only points of view that the corporate media deem "serious".
According to Wolin, the United States has two main totalizing dynamics:
- The first, directed outward, finds its expression in the Global War on Terror and in the Bush Doctrine that the United States has the right to launch preemptive wars. This amounts to the United States seeing as illegitimate the attempt by any state to resist its domination.
- The second dynamic, directed inward, involves the subjection of the mass of the populace to economic "rationalization", with continual "downsizing" and "outsourcing" of jobs abroad and dismantling of what remains of the welfare state created by U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal and President Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society. Thus neoliberalism is an integral component of inverted totalitarianism. The state of insecurity in which this places the public serves the useful function of making people feel helpless, thus making it less likely they will become politically active, and thus helping maintain the first dynamic.
Sheldon Wolin's book Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism received a Lannan Literary Award for an Especially Notable Book in 2008.
Political scientist and author Chalmers Johnson, in a review of Wolin's Democracy Incorporated in Truthdig, wrote that the book is a "devastating critique" of the contemporary government of the United States — including the way it has changed in recent years and the actions that "must" be undertaken "if it is not to disappear into history along with its classic totalitarian predecessors: Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany and Bolshevik Russia." In Johnson's view, Wolin’s is one of the best analyses of why presidential elections are unlikely to be effective in mitigating the detrimental effects of inverted totalitarianism. Johnson writes that Wolin’s work is "fully accessible" and that understanding Wolin's argument "does not depend on possessing any specialized knowledge." Johnson believes Wolin's analysis is more of an explanation of the problems of the United States than a description of how to solve these problems, "particularly since Wolin believes that the U.S. political system is corrupt and heavily influenced by financial contributions primarily from wealthy and corporate donors, but that nonetheless Wolin’s analysis is still one of the best discourses on where the U.S. went wrong."
We are living in a time of Inverted Totalitarianism, in which the tools used to maintain the status quo are much more subtle and technologically advanced ... These include propaganda and major media outlets that hide the real news about conditions at home and our activities around the world behind distractions ... Another tool is to create insecurity in the population so that people are unwilling to speak out and take risks for fear of losing their jobs ... Changes in college education also silence dissent ... Adjunct professors ... are less willing to teach topics that are viewed as controversial. This, combined with massive student debt, are tools to silence the student population, once the center of transformative action.
- Oligarchy § United States
- Voter suppression in the United States
- Class conflict
- Totalitarian democracy
- Americanism (ideology)
- Prison–industrial complex, a phrase that is sometimes used to describe the United States criminal justice system
- Wolin 2008.
- Hedges, Chris, Death of the Liberal Class, pp. 14, 23–24, 25–26, 196, 200–1.
- Hedges, Chris (April 2011), The World As It Is, Nation Books, pp. 3–7, ISBN 978-1-56858-640-3.
- Hedges, Chris (2010-01-24), Democracy in America Is a Useful Fiction, Truth Dig.
- Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco (2012). Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt. Nation Books. ISBN 1568586434 p. 238
- Johnson, Chalmers, "Chalmers Johnson on Our 'Managed Democracy'", Truthdig
- Margaret Flowers, and Kevin Zeese (February 2013), "Lifting the Veil of Mirage Democracy in the United States", Truthout (article)
- Wolin 2004, p. 591.
- Wolin 2008, pp. 51,140.
- Wolin 2008, p. 64.
- Wolin 2008, p. 52.
- Wolin 2008, p. 66.
- Wolin 2008, p. 47.
- Wolin 2008, p. 60.
- Taking the Risk Out of Democracy: Corporate Propaganda versus Freedom and Liberty.
- Wolin 2004, p. 594.
- Hedges, Chris (2012-10-03), US Elections: Pick Your Poison (interview), The Real News Network.
- Wolin 2008, pp. 82–88.
- Wolin 2008, pp. 27, 64–65.
- Wolin 2008, p. 195.
- Sheldon Wolin - 2008 Lannan Literary Award for An Especially Notable Book. "This Lannan Notable Book Award recognizes Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism by Sheldon Wolin." From the official website of the Lannan Foundation.
- Wolin, Sheldon S. (2004). Politics and Vision: Continuity and Innovation in Western Political Thought (expanded ed.). Princeton: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-12627-5.
- ——— (2008). Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism. Princeton: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-13566-5.
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- Wolin, Sheldon (October 2014), "Hedges & Wolin: Can Capitalism and Democracy Coexist?", The Real News (8-part video interview). Wolin and Chris Hedges discuss inverted totalitarianism.
- Wolin, Sheldon, "Inverted Totalitarianism", The Nation (article)