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Why Obama Is Necessarily Disappointing Us, and What We Can Do about It.

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Workings of the Corporate/State System.

As a political order, Wolin writes, the inverted totalitarianism of the corporate/state system "works at rationalizing domestic politics so that it serves the needs of both corporate and state interests while defending and projecting those same interests into an increasingly volatile and competitive global environment" [238-39].   The system also "works indirectly" not to destroy, but to neutralize, political opposition and so keep politics "constrained within limits."  

Strictly speaking, Wolin reserves the term "inverted totalitarianism" to define the system's inward projection of power; the outward projection he dubs "Superpower."   Wolin argues that both forms of power reached a zenith in the late Bush administration, whose foreign policy reflected a 2002 document on National Security Strategy that calls for bringing "the hope of democracy, development, free markets, and free trade to every corner of the world" [85].   Starting from this document, and invoking Weapons of Mass Destruction and the War on Terrorism as its nominal justifications, the administration undertook an unnecessary and ideologically-based war in Iraq and concomitantly sought to tighten its control at home with illegal incursions on constitutional rights.  

An additional salient term in Wolin's analysis of the American political order is "managed democracy."   By it, he means a form of democracy that, while it offers voting and other individual rights, is systematized, or controlled, to effectively suppress citizen participation through a weakening of "self-government, the rule of law, egalitarianism, and thoughtful public discussion."   Components of this systemization include "the political role of corporate power, the corruption of the political and representative processes by the lobbying industry, the expansion of executive power at the expense of constitutional limitations, and the degradation of political dialogue promoted by the media "." [287].   Wolin emphasizes that these influences constitute the basics of our managed democracy, "not just excrescences upon it."   They will remain in place, he suggests, regardless of which major political party runs the White House or holds a majority in Congress.

The challenges pursued by our political parties today, Wolin says, have nothing to do with building true democracy -- i.e. with finding ways to amplify the voice of the people in public affairs.   Instead, they are about ways to harness the following dynamics into a single interdependent system: "a military that wants ever more futuristic technology and more deadly weaponry; a corporate economy that is continually searching for new markets and outlets; churches that are on the prowl for converts; news and entertainment media [that are] as eager to expand their market share as they are to pay court to the political establishment; and an intelligentsia avid to secure a measure of status by cozying with executives, politicos, and generals "." [47].

A Cultural Dynamic in the Drive to Empire.

In harnessing military might to the corporate economy, Wolin argues, the state is empowered to continually seek new markets throughout the world, to secure those markets by the threat or use of armed force, to increase its share of existing international markets, and to ensure availability of needed natural resources.  

For Wolin, an important dynamic in America's drive to empire is the role of apocalyptic, evangelical religion.   Entering the third millennium, he observes, Americans were motivated mainly by the expectation of further economic progress and the "rewards due a society devoted to science, technology and capitalism."   Much changed, however, following the attacks of 9/11.   Very quickly, Wolin notes, the country seemed to add the inspiration of "another Great Awakening" to its belief in material progress.   This religious manifestation revealed itself principally as a fundamentalist evangelical faith in the inerrancy and unchanging truths of Scripture, particularly those in the Book of Revelation.    It is in this last book of the Christian bible where one finds, of course, a description of the Apocalypse of the Last Days, when the world as we know it will be destroyed, the forces of evil will be vanquished, and Christ will come down to earth again to reign for a thousand years.  

In assessing the impact of the evangelical movement, Wolin calls attention to the striking fact that the spirit of Revelation showed itself capable of exerting important influence at the highest levels of American politics.   The second President Bush, he reminds us, was a "born-again" believer "whose speeches [were] notable for their biblical allusions" and "who often struck prophetic poses and assumed the role of divine instrument for combating and overcoming evil" [116].   Wolin's point is that the President's belief that he was on God's side in combating evil strengthened his determination to use American military power for apocalyptic ends: to destroy the "evil-doers" in Afghanistan, and, in line with the 2002 National Security Strategy, to impose the blessings of "democracy, development, free markets, and free trade" on Iraq.

Wolin expands on the significance of the evangelical movement by citing it as "one element in a broader ideological matrix," which he calls "archaism."   As it applies to its practice in America, Wolin means by "archaism" a disposition to read the texts of both the Constitution and the Bible as literal, unchanging, and universal truths.   He notes, disapprovingly, that in taking this approach one raises the presumptive authority of archaic sources over the standard of reasoned inquiry based on present knowledge.   Moreover, the fundamentalist approach seems to conflict with the long-held belief that the nation's economic success is based primarily on a practical faith in science, technology, and free enterprise.  

Yet, Wolin says, the two dynamics of archaism and secular faith have an unexpected affinity.   When the archaist unites his reactionary political and religious views with the progressive movements of science and technology, he "enables an ever-receding past somehow to bring the revelation closer" [117].   What Wolin apparently has in mind is that, by their conjunction with technological progress, the archaic texts are kept from drifting further into the past, and, instead, gain currency for actual realization in the world.  

However, Wolin says, such fundamentalist power, wrought by either religious or Constitutional archaists, is potentially catastrophic for democracy.   If the religious archaist had his way, he would impose a civil religion and its regulative principles on the entire society.   And for his part, the Constitutional archaist would interpret American governance in such a way as to make a ruling elite, not the people themselves, responsible for governing.   Worst of all, since such rigid systems would eliminate democratic give and take, but not affect the pace of technological progress, people could no longer look to government for critical help in adapting to a changing life environment.   

Real Democracy.

Wolin makes clear that American democracy has never lent itself easily to influence by the popular will.   From the beginning, the country was conceived as a republic, not as a "democracy" in the classical sense.   The men of property and education who framed our Constitution feared mass movements of the people, viewing them as irrational and disruptive to the proper functions of government -- principally, economic expansion and national security.   The result was a Constitution designed to so filter political power as to make majoritarian rule extremely unlikely and thereby virtually ensure continuing rule by a privileged elite.   A reflection of this bias, according to Wolin, is the critical absence in the Constitution of any provisions for the political rights of women, the abolition of slavery, or even the right to vote for adult males.   As a kind of afterthought to its prescription for elite power, the Constitution was later amended to include a Bill of Rights that guarantees important personal freedoms to all citizens.   One of these, the freedom of speech, allows Americans to criticize their government with an abandon that is perhaps to this day unparalleled in the world.   As one might infer from Wolin's critique, however, what should count in a democracy is not simply the freedom to blow off steam, but the ability to effectively impact the decision-making of government.  

For Wolin, true democracy is plainly not a "managed democracy" reinforced by a restrictive political constitution.   It is instead a politics "that contribute[s] to individual development and, at the same time, promote[s] a greater measure of egalitarianism ".   It would expand the liberal conception [of politics] by assigning first priority to the role of citizens as participants, demoting their role as voters to a secondary priority" [186].   In addition, the structure and processes of the political parties "would be shaped to encourage the citizen-participant to be involved in the party's decision-making practices and to become acquainted with the ways of power.   Party policies and programs would become matters for common discussion and suggestion, not pep rallies for persuading the voter to endorse programs previously decided by the party elite" [186].  

To be fair, Wolin does note that, even in the absence of popular input into policy planning, elite rule in America has not focused exclusively on self-serving objectives of economic and political power.   In the 20th century especially, our national politics were also concerned with what might be called "the common good."   The creation of national parks for public use under Teddy Roosevelt, social security under Franklin Roosevelt, the G.I. Bill of Rights under Truman -- these were all popularly applauded advances in the communal life of the nation.   They were available broadly to all eligible people and readily supported by the entire body of taxpayers.  

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Bob Anschuetz is a retired college English teacher and industrial writer who remains actively committed to the progressive political values of economic fairness, social justice, and global community. In retirement, Bob has continued his work as a (more...)
 

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In all the often fatuous hoopla of the presidentia... by Robert Anschuetz on Sunday, Sep 25, 2011 at 10:11:56 AM
"How can the compassionate concern of ordinary pe... by Vernon Huffman on Sunday, Sep 25, 2011 at 4:31:52 PM
Its painfully obvious that Wolin is right (as #Occ... by Ed Lytwak on Sunday, Sep 25, 2011 at 5:42:57 PM
I am deeply grateful for your bringing this book t... by Ronnie Moehrke on Monday, Sep 26, 2011 at 11:37:20 AM
Thanks to Ronnie Moehrke for the kudos.  In r... by Robert Anschuetz on Monday, Sep 26, 2011 at 1:38:43 PM
An excellent summary of the Wolin thesis. Unlike a... by David Ruhlen on Monday, Sep 26, 2011 at 1:38:26 PM
One hopeful development is that today, unlike any ... by Derryl Hermanutz on Monday, Sep 26, 2011 at 8:29:32 PM
"even an idealistic, intelligent and charismatic o... by Fay Paxton on Thursday, Oct 6, 2011 at 3:41:58 PM