Totalitarian Democracy

Friday, 18 March 2011 10:56 By Richard Lichtman, t r u t h o u t | News Analysis | name.

Totalitarian Democracy
Protesters rally in Madison, Wisconsin. (Photo: Mackenzie Holmes / Flickr)

What follows is clearly not a thoroughly articulated perspective, but a call to others to present their own understanding of the situation we face. 

Those of us who have wondered how fascism would come, if and when it came, did not sufficiently credit the possibility that it would arrive through the process of law and "freely chosen" representatives of the people. We were too much given to dramatic, filmic versions of the occasion, influenced perhaps by images of "body snatchers" from another galaxy, or aliens as they were depicted in "Independence Day." There is often the exogamous tendency to imagine that catastrophe must come from beyond our shores, whether defined geographically, culturally or psychologically. It is always "them," not "us," that is the source of our disaster. Even when the foreign intrusion took a mortal form, we were more likely to view our antagonists in ways that denied their actual humanity.

We have now come face-to-face with the fact that the agents of contemporary totalitarianism are people who, in many respects, are remarkably like ourselves and who - while they differ in their political perspectives - do, in the course of routine, daily life, rise up and lie down very much as we do, engaging the rounds of normalcy very much as we might ourselves. And yet, these are the same people who would, quite casually it seems, terminate democracy as we understand it, all the while insisting that they are actually fulfilling the requirement of a democratic system as it has been defined by law. In Wisconsin, for example, the Republican Party maintains that it was fairly elected by the citizenry and is now carrying out the mandate that has been imposed on to care for the general welfare as it understands that concept. And is this not a valid account of the events that have brought it to its place of power?

Everything depends on what we mean by the term "valid." In its pure form, much of what has been happening in America has followed the principles that the founders of the Constitution regarded as "valid," including the right of the legislature and the courts to interpret, and then reinterpret, the original meaning as they deemed it appropriate. The decisions rendered in the cases of Bush v. Gore or Citizens United were made by nine justices and determined by a vote of five. This process was mandated by the framers and duly executed. But in accepting the formal validity of these decisions, I do not intend for a moment to deny that these procedures were, by any understanding of the intended purpose of the Constitution and the arc of its historical additions, what we may rightfully refer to as a corruption of the "the spirit of democracy." As a sociopolitical development, the Constitution was the embodiment of what was most progressive in 18th-century understanding of the function of government. The original formation of constitutional law was never understood as a document meant to stand in utter isolation from the culture and society that gave it birth. It was not produced de novo, but arose from a general understanding of the larger purpose of social life and its obligations and virtues.

So it is that the Constitution is preceded by a preamble that sets out the purpose of the ensuing document and claims that its ultimate intention is to:

form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the General Welfare, and secure the Blessing of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.

I reiterate this aspect of the creation of the Constitution because it is has become a trick of the right-wing, libertarian, negative view of freedom to maintain that we are most free when we are left alone to do as we please. The preamble takes a completely opposed view and leads to the Constitution - certainly not a listing of what the government may not do, but instead, an elaboration of what must be done if the process of governing is to be regarded as valid. The Bill of Rights must be seen in the light of these considerations.

In reasserting the significance of the preamble, I have no intention of denying the profound failures its lofty language served to obfuscate. It is abundantly clear that the document derives from a class structure intended to maintain a position of wealth and prevailing power, nor does it intend to remove the structure of domination and exploitation upon which its own foundation rests. I only intend to note that the form of the Constitution was designed to achieve a purpose, and that purpose is what I am referring to as its substance, its spirit, its culture. And it should be noted that there are two ways this culture can be judged: whether its vision of the good life is admirable and whether this vision is extended to all its participants or is preserved for the benefit of the privileged few. My own view is that the original intention is clearly more successful in the first design than the second. In its time, it stood for a richer view of human fulfillment than was generally available, though its conception of equality is clearly class-contrived.

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The original system of class domination that was "legally" altered over the intervening years in regard to race and gender was never undone. So, when further changes were made in American life in accordance with a more just definition of equality, they were made within the confines of the prevailing system of class power that has endured from the beginning. The current structure is clearly different in its substance from the earliest formation of class power, as the economic system in which the classes are located has clearly undergone profound change. Since the time of the Civil War and the formation of the American colossus and its dual economy of corporate domination and social remainder, the course of capitalist domination has been set. Whatever further "progressive" change has been achieved has forfeited its full potentiality to the tendencies of an expanding corporate control. In this process, democracy has been more and more corrupted, as Sheldon Wolin notes in "Democracy Inc.: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism," a work that has been blatantly ignored.

The United States has become the showcase of how democracy can be managed without appearing to be suppressed. This has come about not through a Leader's imposing his will or the state's forcibly eliminating opposition, but through certain developments, notably the economy, that promoted integration, rationalization, concentrated wealth, and a faith that virtually any problem from health care to political crises, even faith itself - could be managed, that is, subject to control, predictability, and cost-effectiveness in the delivery of the product. Voters are made as predictable as consumers; a university is nearly as rationalized in its structure as a corporation; a corporate structure is as hierarchical in its chain of command as the military. The regime ideology is capitalism which is virtually as undisputed as Nazi doctrine was in 1930s Germany.

This aspect of Wolin's argument seems to me essential. What it lacks is a deeper psychological grasp of the impact of this system on the lives of ordinary men and women. What is it to be alienated, exploited, deceived, betrayed, eviscerated and generally pulverized by a dream that bears claws and shreds the lives of those to whom it simultaneously holds out a receding hope? Much will depend on the social location of the individuals involved, for their mechanisms of defense and attack will vary depending on the resources available to these different groups and the manner in which their comprehension has been influenced. We have done very poorly in coming to understand how various segments of our population are ideologically constituted, and so we lack the techniques by which we could participate in the process of raising these aggressive and defensive structures to the light of day.

What we witness in Wisconsin is obviously a vehement response to an insult carried too far, a denial of one's history and humanity. It is a wound crusted over that is still capable of feeling pain when it is assaulted. Whether it has the capacity to heal itself remains to be seen. The participants in this resistance are drawn from various aspects of the American working class and, as such, they have different and sometimes conflicting views of how the situation is to be remedied and this protofascist attack turned back. They are not yet a class and certainly not a "liberal class," to utilize Chris Hedges' confusing terminology. Liberalism is the idealized articulation of the perspective of the capitalist class, of that segment of the corporate structure that owns, controls and generally directs the process of capitalist development and its continual quest for accumulation. It is not completely unified, as various segments of this stratum will embody different and conflicting interests - as importers and exporters, financers and "captains" of heavy industry. But no matter what their differences, they agree on fundamentals: accumulation, the profit motive, private property, inequality of reward, entitlement, their superiority.

Those of us who oppose the most vicious aspect of this "ruling capitalist class" now directing retrograde politics in Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio and New Jersey must come to understand that unless the corporate ground of the political tendency is unearthed and comprehended for the deeply totalitarian corruption it is, it cannot be defanged. The current attack on labor is an aspect of a larger attempt to destroy collectivity wherever it presents itself. Behind its facade of "individualism," neoliberalism is the concerted effort to turn the commonly constituted public into a private enclave of corporate wealth and power. The fierce and wholly illogical decision of the Supreme Court to continue the idiotic farce that would deem the corporation a "person" is one manifestation of this process. The corporation as a "person" would have the right to accumulate wealth in the manner and to the extent that it saw fit.

Another facet of the same drive to accumulate wealth and power in the hands of the few is, of course, the destruction of unions. Any single individual is obviously incapable of withstanding the power of the corporation; only collectivities have any conceivable chance of being successful. The labor movement and the unions which are its representatives, given their long history, social location, and embodiment in American life, have the potential power to withstand the venal power of corporations. The Tea Party and other such calamitous confusions will eventually come to the sort of end that has destroyed all those who do not understand just who is the master and who the servant. But a great deal of suffering can be visited on the nation while this defeat is being enacted. Now is the time for all of us to engage in the intellectual activity of understanding what forces are in play and the practical task of forcing back and destroying the monstrous army of these protofascist directors and retainers.

Richard Lichtman

Richard Lichtman is a philosopher who specializes in the relationship between the social and psychological dimensions of human life. His approach is broadly interdisciplinary: he has taught in departments of philosophy (University of California, Berkeley), humanities (San Francisco State University), sociology (University of California, Santa Cruz) and psychology (The Wright Institute, California School of Professional Psychology, etc.) and has been a faculty member of the Council on Educational Development (CED) program at the University of California, Los Angeles. His books also indicate the range of his interests: Essays in Critical Social Theory covers a broad range of topics in economic, social, and political theory, while The Production of Desire is a detailed analysis of the works of Marx and Freud. 

Last modified on Friday, 18 March 2011 22:18