The Power Structure Expands

Naomi Wolf is yet another critic who believes the American political system has deteriorated to the point that it is now just a distant replica of democracy. The second Bush administration, she argues in The End of America, set in motion forces threatening to destroy hallowed principles bequeathed by Founders of the Republic. Wolf even suggests that fascist dictatorship is imminent unless these antidemocratic forces are soon reversed—a difficult prospect given the shrewd methods that devious authoritarian leaders employ to advance their own bloated power needs. Such methods could eventually “close down democracy” and lay the groundwork for a menacing “fascist shift”15 characterized by growing state power, government violence, suspension of civil liberties, enhanced surveillance, incarceration of prisoners without “due cause,” and attacks on the “free press.”16 Wolf was particularly alarmed by such moves as Bush’s establishment of military tribunals to prosecute terrorist suspects at Guantanamo and elsewhere. The Bush White House, as is well known, resorted to shameful propaganda built on cynical lies and myths to facilitate a bogus war on terrorism and justify the war against Iraq. The rule of law, honored as mere formality, has been routinely and flagrantly subverted both in the United States and abroad through warrantless surveillance, coercive interrogations, and other schemes. Wolf’s short book, widely praised when published in 2006, was advertised as a “warning” to American citizens understood as being naively unaware of the coming political catastrophe. In the course of her polemic, Wolf draws facile parallels between the Nazi conquest of power in Germany and practices adopted by the Bush administration. The fascist specter she puts forth runs counter to every ideal held by the Founding Fathers, whose worst fears are said to have revolved around the menace of tyranny. Wolf depicts the Founders as exemplars of freedom, democracy, and limited government, of a system designed to empower ordinary people and create “radical equality.” Hoping to escape the authoritarian rule and political violence that pervaded the European experience, the Founders set out to impose restraints on centralized executive rule, leading to a democratic system that flourished across many generations until, within a few short years, Bush and his neocon cronies—motivated by little beyond power and greed—managed to overturn just about everything the Founders represented. Wolf ends her treatise by imploring Americans to revisit their venerable national traditions grounded in a “stewardship of the Founders’ vision,” before it is too late.

Wolf’s view that American politics has entered a new phase of authoritarian decline—much of it thanks to Bush and his crowd— seems uncontroversial today even in the aftermath of Obama’s remarkable campaign. The problem, common to liberals, lies in an overly mechanistic analysis focusing on leadership machinations while confining the “big picture” of potential catastrophe to events spanning less than a decade. Does it make sense to lay the major trends at Bush’s doorstep, tempting as that might be? Are only Republicans to blame? Could a “fascist shift” (along Nazi lines, no less) gain momentum within an established liberal-democratic system in the span of a few years? Are the forces at work in American society so momentary and episodic as to belie any deeper historical origins? Modest reflection suggests the probability that such epic transformations could occur virtually overnight is the stuff of nothing but nightmares, though Wolf is surely anxious to have others share her nightmare. What makes this apocalyptic imagery even more bizarre is the realization that most of the supposed Nazi- like “methods” identified by Wolf have long been part of American politics, often in more extreme forms. Growth of an imperial presidency? Widespread use of state violence? Government surveillance run amok? Propaganda in support of military ventures? Abrogation of civil liberties? These and other “warning signs” laid out by Wolf have characterized U.S. history for so long their origins have been forgotten and the practices taken for granted. Zinn’s Peoples’ History of the United States is replete with such examples. And Mills, as we have seen, charted the historic merger of corporate, government, and military power already in the 1950s. In fact the Bush presidency, ruinous as it was, introduced nothing especially novel; its “methods” were mostly taken from the past. To select one example, the outrageous stratagem of “preemptive war” in 2003 had plenty of precursors: Polk in Mexico, McKinley in the Philippines, Wilson in Mexico and Central America, the Truman Doctrine, Kennedy in Cuba, Nixon in Indochina, Bush- I in Panama, and Clinton in the Balkans to identify the most noteworthy. None of these presidents cared much about Constitutional restraints nor about the sovereignty of other nations. Military tribunals were created by FDR during World War II. Intelligence and surveillance functions were broadened during the Truman and Eisenhower years, continuing into the present. As for state violence, the United States has been involved in warfare and various modes of domestic violence from the earliest years of the republic, with no sign it is about to end. Bush and the neocons simply inherited (while at times also embellishing) practices that, in any event, are best understood as integral to historical processes rather than a congeries of “methods” designed by manipulative leaders. Further, if something akin to a “fascist shift” is actually at work in the United States, both experience and logic dictate that it we are dealing with far more than a handful of bad leaders and bad decisions.

Strangely, Wolf never pursues her thesis in directions that could strengthen her case. Left out of her “big picture” is the steady growth of U.S. imperialism and militarism across the postwar years—a phenomenon, with its strong antidemocratic consequences, that should be difficult to overlook. What of the permanent war economy and national-security state? Repeated and costly military interventions? Development of a satellite-based intelligence and surveillance network geared to maintaining U.S. global supremacy? Corporate- driven globalization that the United States strives to manage for its own imperial ambitions? An oligopolistic media system that serves as a daily conduit of government and corporate propaganda? On these questions Wolf is oddly silent, her attention diverted to questionable White House agendas like military tribunals and the USA Patriot Act. Her silence, however, is hardly surprising, for The End of America if glaringly devoid of historical analysis needed to explain and contextualize any possible “fascist” or “Nazi” shift. Mechanistic from start to finish, her book has little to say about deep-seated social and political forces at work over many decades. One example: her section laying out “attacks on the press” focuses entirely on Bush’s ambitious manipulation of news and information to support domestic and global agendas. But White House shenanigans of this sort have been recurrent throughout history—one need go back no further than scandalous episodes that rocked the Nixon, Reagan, and Clinton presidencies. Media manipulation is endemic to the American political terrain. Wolf’s major flaw lies in her failure to see the larger panorama: a much larger threat to democracy, ignored in the book, is the rampant growth of transnational corporate media empires and their stranglehold over American political and cultural life abetted by grossly undemocratic maneuvers like the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

If an American fascism is actually on the horizon, analysis of conditions favorable to its success would seem in order, but Wolf offers nothing of the sort. The extreme Nazi model is useless for the task, but there is a deeper problem: can fascism, then or now, plausibly be conceived as a mere set of leadership “techniques” used to steal power and hoodwink the masses? Could Bush, Cheney, and the neocons—or their heirs—hope to engineer a fascist takeover by emulating the path of Hitler and Goebbels? The question contains its own answer—any “fascist shift” in a highly industrialized society like the United States (or indeed any society) is unthinkable apart from a rather lengthy process of historical transformation. This was emphatically true for classical fascism, which mostly defied the “revolutionary upsurge” scenario preferred by so many scholars. In such diverse settings as Germany, Italy, Japan, and Spain, fascism came to power through a coalition of social forces, typically including big business and the military, allied with traditional interests such as landholders, the church, and monarchy, winning popular support through sophisticated multiclass appeals to patriotism and preindustrial values. The social forces, political alliances, and historical conditions crucial to the ascendancy of such regimes never appeared suddenly or unexpectedly—the very narrative Wolf appears to have in mind for the United States. References to vaguely universal political realities like state violence, propaganda, and elite maneuvering scarcely help matters.

Wolf is outraged that Bush and his lieutenants have broken with principles of the Founders and the Constitution. In her overly generous view, the American colonists were dedicated apostles of freedom, democracy, limited government, rights, and equality. Yet, as we have seen, a closer reading of early U.S. history reveals something quite different: the small nucleus of white European men who drew up the constitution embraced such ideals, if at all, in only the most partial and limited form. Possessers of enormous wealth and property, most owned slaves, wanted a strong federal government, and viewed suffrage as restricted to white male property owners—their central ambition being to maintain the wealth and power they accumulated once independence from Britain had been won. As mentioned in chapter 1, the colonial settlers looked to centralized power to maintain social order, destroy Indian resistance, maintain slavery, wage military combat, and (eventually) facilitate conquest of the frontier. In this setting the merger of government, large commercial interests, and military power (though limited) had in fact already come to fruition by the early nineteenth century, those cherished Founding

“principles” invoked by Wolf falling into the category of another grand illusion.

In Democracy, Inc., which similarly points toward a harsh authoritarian turn in American politics, Sheldon Wolin harbors no such illusions about the Founders or about U.S. history: the constitution, (lower case?) he argues, laid the groundwork for centralized government and elite rule, a document that evoked contempt for the democratic capacities of ordinary people—the artifact of a predemocratic era in which all forms of domination, later contested, were thoroughly taken for granted. Nor does he entertain any comparable myths about later American development. Taking his investigation of power relations well beyond that of Frank, Wolf, and other critics preoccupied with the Bush presidency, Wolin relies on deeper historical and theoretical accounts to demolish myths supportive of a political system that from the outset barely concealed its darker legacy under the cloak of God-ordained national destiny. He questions whether democracy—even the minimalist kind—has much future in an era of expanding corporate, state, and bureaucratic power enlarged by the drive toward globalization and empire. The political outlook hardly merits optimism. Wolin reluctantly concludes that “One cannot point to any national institutions that [today] can be accurately described as democratic . . . ”17 Congress, the presidency, court system, parties, bureaucracies, corporate workplaces, schools and universities—all these arenas of public life are hierarchical, lacking much in the way of citizen participation. Power has become so concentrated across the landscape that few commentators nowadays even pause to take notice.

A key historical turning point for Wolin was an expanded “power imaginary” that took hold after World War II. War mobilization, a superpower agenda, the security state, and growth of a war economy all served to extend the boundaries of power, make a shambles of Constitutional restraints, and fuel statist and corporate authoritarianism. The classical liberalism of free markets, small government, and local autonomy had with the start of the Cold War lost whatever efficacy it possessed, even as opinion leaders continued to celebrate its virtues. The new “power imaginary” meant the rise of large-scale management, global expansion, ideological consensus, and cohesive elite culture. As Wolin notes, however, the truly novel aspect of this shift was its scope, for the United States had from its founding been a colonial, interventionist nation driven by the ethos of Manifest Destiny. Thus “Virtually from the beginning of the nation the making of the American citizen was influenced, even shaped by, the making of an American imperium.”18 An enlarged “power imaginary” built on this legacy from the late 1940s onward. As mentioned, this was also the focus of Mills’ seminal work, but in Democracy, Inc. Wolin fixes his attention on a behemoth far more awesome and frightening than anything envisioned by Mills.

Wolin’s critical dissection of the power structure is most illuminating when he explores the dialectic between superpower politics and domestic authoritarianism. He sees a “managed democracy” in which popular governance has steadily shrunk in the face of corporate, military, and bureaucratic power—a shrinkage more visible in the post- 9/11 milieu where the war on terrorism further legitimates the war economy and security state. In this setting, “terror is both a response to empire and the provocation that allows for empire to cease to be ashamed of its identity.”19 Constraints on power easily vanish in such a spatially and temporally limitless struggle. A global assault on terrorism enables the imperial state to cloak its power in the wounded innocence of avenging victim—a claim, however, that could fade for Bush’s successors in the absence of new attacks. The specter of a vengeful superpower facing off against barbaric enemies on a world scale once again suggests a Hobbesian universe in which the threat of anarchy is countered by an order-giving Leviathan. After all, the very logic of imperial power dictates continuous military interventions, political subterfuge, global surveillance, elite flexibility, and “bipartisan” consensus—all signposts of an authoritarian state, where the scope of democratic citizenship increasingly narrows.

Wolin describes a political culture congruent with this Hobbesian dialectic. As defining elements of the liberal state atrophy, the system gradually and almost imperceptibly acquires a new identity in the form of “inverted totalitarianism,” a system requiring no fundamental break with the past, no revolutionary upsurge, but just a continuation of existing trends. Yet, as the expanded “power imaginary” engulfs the political landscape, the familiar grand illusions take on greater urgency at the very moment references to democracy, free market, limited government, and humanitarian foreign intervention more frequent such illusions grow more disconnected from reality. Organized on a foundation of corporate interests and priorities, the new system requires elite agreement on the “big issues” (economy, foreign policy); dissent is marginalized, ruled off limits, or channeled into debates over peripheral concerns of the sort discussed by Frank. Thus: “The fact that government rarely challenges corporate power allows capital to define the political terrain to fit its own needs.”20

Fixation on a narrowing of political discourse echoes Herbert Marcuse’s thesis of “one-dimensionality,” though the problem for Marcuse was located mainly in the workings of technological rationality.21 Advanced industrial society, in Marcuse’s view, had become totally administered behind a liberal-democratic fagade, where the power structure replicates itself through one-dimensional ideology that subverts critical thought and oppositional politics. Thus: “By virtue of the way it has organized its technological base, contemporary industrial society tends to be totalitarian. For ‘totalitarian’ is not only a terroristic political coordination of society, but also a nonterroristic economic-technical coordination which operates through the manipulation of needs by vested interests. It thus precludes the emergence of an effective opposition against the whole.”22 Here “one-dimensional thought is systematically promoted by the makers of politics and their purveyors of mass information. Their universe of discourse is populated by self-validating hypotheses which, incessantly and monopolistically repeated, become hypnotic definitions of freedom.”23 At this point Marcuse’s near-Orwellian interpretation of American society would seem to pose the question of fascist politics, though Marcuse himself never explicitly takes up the issue. Elsewhere, however, Marcuse argued that fascism could evolve out of a “highly- organized capitalism” (state-capitalism) as it lays the structural and ideological conditions of a rationalized new order, presumably akin to the “totalitarianism” of one-dimensional society. He suggested that “the idea of dictatorship and of authoritarian direction of the state is not at all foreign to liberalism.”24 In the case of historical fascism, despite its overt hostility to liberalism, we know that everywhere the regimes built on the capitalist economic order.

In Wolin’s understanding, to the degree formal attributes of liberal democracy remain—elections, party competition, legislatures, interest groups, etc.—they have diminished relevance in an ideological milieu where “opposition has not been liquidated but rendered feckless,” where “extreme views” (outside the mainstream) are ritually filtered out and neutralized.25 Alternatives to “inverted totalitarianism” are nullified more by well-managed ideological consensus than by state coercion or heavy-handed propaganda. In this system, Rupert Murdoch is far more potent than Josef Goebbels could ever hope to be. Debates circumvent larger issues tied to distribution of power, wealth, and resources, especially in the main corridors of government. Thus, with the war economy a durable and unquestioned feature of American life, real debates over Pentagon spending are rendered taboo, in both the political system and media. Wolin observes that “ . . . military spending is nearly four times greater than the expenditures on social programs; yet neither party would dream of proposing an amendment specifically limiting or controlling military spending—only one prohibiting same-s ex marriage.”26 Given the vast scale of the war economy, those state intrusions so justifiably feared by Wolf—press controls, military tribunals, abrogation of rights, etc.—are better viewed as subordinate to the general modus operandi of an imperial juggernaut that pursues world domination and in the process undermines democracy at home and abroad. Here Wolin sees “managed democracy” as a form of “controlled politics that tolerates dissent but is unresponsive to protests and proposals from below.”27

A system of “inverted totalitarianism” derives its totalizing impulses mostly from the corporate sector rather than government; economics comes to dominate politics. Wolin distinguishes this phenomenon from earlier totalitarian models said to have sought a full break with the past. Earlier fascist and Communist regimes looked to centralized state power sustained by mass mobilization and harsh party/government controls including random violence, political jail- ings, banning of opposition, and Orwellian propaganda. As mentioned, the architects of classical fascism despised liberalism as weak and useless, even as they embraced capitalism. For “inverted totalitarianism,” on the other hand, the older crude mechanisms of domination wind up superfluous since the system retains outer features of liberalism, preserves continuity, and favors mass political disengagement rather than mobilization. “Private” media carries out the functions, ever more efficiently, of propaganda, giving elites greater room to maneuver within an officially “free” and pluralistic communications system. In classic totalitarianism, the general population is excluded from governance at the very instant it is mobilized, whereas the genius of the American new order is that it effectively depoliticizes and demobilizes citizens while simultaneously celebrating images of participation, diversity, and change.

Democracy, Inc. extends and reinvigorates the great legacy of Mills at a time when the imperial system, even when hobbled by economic crisis, shows no signs of democratizing or shrinking. Like Mills, Wolin theorizes the complex integration of state, corporate, and military power, and like Mills he explores how mass political inertia is thoroughly interwoven with superpower politics and postwar U.S. global ambitions. As we have seen, however, Wolin goes beyond Mills in his emphasis on ideological factors within the legitimation process, naturally more vital at times of sharpening crisis when the received wisdom loses much of it hold. Wolin expertly dismantles political myths—including a few grand illusions—that have become more detached from the social reality they officially define with each passing year. A question remains, however, as to whether Wolin’s categories of “managed democracy” and “inverted totalitarianism” furnish enough conceptual lucidity to do justice to his overall richly textured critique of the power structure.

 
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