By Dr George Venturini*
This manipulation of the population is the ultimate result of what Sheldon S. Wolin, distinguished Emeritus Professor at Princeton, formulated as ‘inverted totalitarianism’, which brings about a form of ‘managed democracy’. Both concepts, but particularly the first, require an explanation, and it will be offered in the words of the illustrious writer. His last and most important work is titled Democracy incorporated: managed democracy and the spectre of inverted totalitarianism (Princeton 2010).
Resisting the monopolies on left theory by Marxism and on democratic theory by liberalism, Wolin developed a distinctive – and not exclusively American – analysis of the political present and of radical democratic possibilities. He was especially prescient on theorising the heavy statism responsible for forging what is now called Neo-Liberalism, and in revealing a new fusions of economic with political power that he took to be poisoning democracy at its root.
‘Inverted totalitarianism’ projects powers inwards. It is not derivative from ‘class totalitarianism’ of the types represented in Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, or Stalinist Russia. Those regimes were powered by revolutionary movements the aim of which was to capture, reconstitute, and monopolise the power of the state. The state was conceived as the main centre of power, providing the leverage necessary for the mobilisation and reconstruction of society. Churches, universities, business organisations, news and opinion media, and cultural institutions were taken over by the government or neutralised or oppressed. (Wolin, at xxi).
Inverted totalitarianism is a system, seemingly more driven by abstract totalising powers, not by personal rule, and one which succeeds by encouraging political disengagement rather than mass mobilisation, and which relies more on ‘private’ media than on public agencies to disseminate propaganda reinforcing the official version of events. (Id. at 44). The new system professes to be the opposite of what, in fact, it is. It disclaims its real identity, trusting that its deviation will become normalised as ‘change’. (Id. at 46) [Emphasis added].
“Unlike the Bolsheviks, Nazis, and Italian Fascists, inverted totalitarianism does not require as the condition of its success the overthrow of the established system. It has no overt plan to suppress all opposition, impose ideological uniformity or racial purity, or seek the traditional form of empire. It allows free speech, venerates the Constitution, and operates within a two-party system that, theoretically, secures a role for an opposition party. Rather than revolting against an existing system, it claims to be defending it. This suggest that a different kind of dynamic is at work, one that for the most part does depend upon resentments against the prevailing form of government or social system.” (Id. at 56) [Emphasis added].
Inverted totalitarianism thrives on a politically demobilised society, that is, a society in which the citizens, far from being whipped into a continuous frenzy by the regime’s operatives, are politically lethargic, reminiscent of Tocqueville’s privatised citizenry. Every apathetic citizen is a silent enlistee in the cause of inverted totalitarianism. Yet apathy is not simply the result of a television ‘culture’. It is, in its own way, a political response.
“Democracy, according to this line of analysis, signifie[s] not an active citizenry but a political disenchanted and alienated ‘mass’ whose support [is] useful for conferring legitimacy … An artificial combination of propaganda flatter[s] the mass, exploit[s] its antipolitical sentiments, warn[s it of dangerous enemies foreign and domestic, and applie[s] forms of intimidation to create a climate of fear and an insecure populace, one receptive to being led.” (Id. at 53) [Emphasis added].
Where classic totalitarianism – whether of the Italian, German or Soviet type – aimed at fashioning followers rather than citizens, inverted totalitarianism can achieve the same end by furnishing substitutes such as ‘consumer sovereignty’ and ‘shareholder democracy’ which give a ‘sense of participation’ without demands or responsibilities. An inverted regime prefers a citizenry which is uncritically complicit rather than involved. (Id. at 65).
“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 organised, simple-minded interests rabidly seeking governmental favors and overwhelming the practices of representative government and public administration by a sea of cash.” (Id. at 66) [Emphasis added].
Downsizing, reorganisation, bubble bursting, union busting, quickly outdated skills, and transfer of jobs abroad create not just fear but an economy of fear, a system of control the power of which feeds on uncertainty, yet a system which, according to its analysts, is eminently rational.
“Inverted totalitarianism, although at times capable of harassing or discrediting critics, has instead cultivated a loyal intelligentsia of its own. Through a combination of governmental contracts, corporate and foundation funds, joint projects involving university and corporate researchers, and wealthy individual donors, universities … intellectuals, scholars, and researchers have been seamlessly integrated into the system. No books burned, no refugee Einsteins. For the first time in the history of American [and one could easily say, Australian] higher education top professors are made wealthy by the system, commanding salaries and perks that a budding CEO might envy.” (Id. at 68) [Emphasis added].
Inverted totalitarianism idealises individualism and adulates celebrities. And yet both constructs of the ‘outstanding’, of those who ‘stand out’, serve to paper over the fact that instead of a sovereign citizen-body there is only a ‘lonely crowd’. The challenge is to give the lonely crowd a sense of belonging, of selfless anonymity, of solidarity with noble cause. (Id. at 115). The resulting system has “perfected the arts of molding the support of the citizens without allowing them to rule. Having domesticated democracy at home, the administration knew the specification in advance; hence a proven product could be exported, along with expert managers boasting honed skills, tested nostrums, and impressive résumés.” (Id. at 142) [Emphasis added].
“The key components are corporate capital, the very rich, small business associations, large media organizations, … and the Catholic hierarchy. Models of organization tend to be corporate as well as military. The aim is to control politics by settling the terms of competition [with the complicity of useless agencies – the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission comes to mind] and with basic, meaningless slogans: ‘the competitor is our friend, and the customer is our enemy’: substitute ‘the other party’ for ‘competitor’ and ‘active citizen’ for ‘customer’ to get the inverted version of totalitarian politics.” (Id. at 185).
Inverted totalitarianism marks a political moment when corporate power finally sheds its identification as a purely economic phenomenon, confined primarily to a domestic domain of ‘private enterprise’, and evolves into a globalising co-partnership with the state: a double transmutation, of corporation and state. The former becomes more political, the latter more market oriented. The new political amalgam works at rationalising domestic politics so that it serves the needs of both corporate and state interests while defending and protecting those same interests into a creative volatile and competitive global environment. (Id. at 238).
Wolin goes on: “I am convinced that certain tendencies in our society point in a direction away from self-government, the rule of law, egalitarianism, and thoughtful public discussion, and toward what I have called ‘managed democracy’, the smiley face of inverted totalitarianism.” (Id. at xxiv).
The Abbott Government arrived to office with no seriously declared programme for the benefit of the general citizenry. After years of acrimonious opposition, characterised even by profoundly offensive personal abuse of the prime minister, and particularly when it was Ms. Julia Gillard, Abbott’s ‘popular’ agenda was simple and largely negative: to promote government deregulation, dismantle environmental safeguards, pass tax legislation in favour of the wealthier classes, and reduce social programmes. Its positive agenda took advantage of the politics of gridlock and the role of corporate power to promote the economic-wellbeing of corporate sponsors such as in energy, media, oil, and pharmaceutical drugs.
“The United States has become the showcase of how democracy can be managed without appearing to be suppressed” observed Wolin. This applies to Australia, too. This has come about, not through a Leader’s imposing his will or the state’s forcibly eliminating opposition, but through certain developments, notably in the economy, that promoted integration, rationalization, concentrated wealth, and a faith that virtual any problem – from health care to political crises, even faith itself – could be managed, that is, subjected 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.” (Id. at 47) [Emphasis added].
For some forty years, the Australian people, supposedly the source of governmental power and authority as well as a participant, has been replaced by the ‘electorate’, that is, by voters who acquire a political life at election time. “During the intervals between elections the political existence of the citizenry is relegated to a shadow-citizenship of virtual participation. Instead of participating in power, the virtual citizen is invited to have ‘opinions’: measureable responses to questions predesigned to elicit them.” (Id. at 59) [Emphasis added].
Inverted totalitarianism and ‘managed democracy’ are the tools for the setting up of a ‘Superpower’. This is the union of state and corporation in an age of waning democracy and political illiteracy. Inquiries are still possible, but not recommended, into some of the political changes which are making the Superpower [obviously and foremost the United States] and inverted totalitarianism possible and demoting democracy from a formative principle to a largely rhetorical function within an increasing corrupt political system. The crux of these changes is that the corporate power and its culture are no longer external forces which occasional influence policies and legislation. As these have become integral, so the citizenry has become marginal and democracy more manageable. (Id. at 131).
The Superpower’s constitution depends upon a symbiotic relation between two elements, one political, the other economic. It has only ‘customers’ and ‘clients’ – countries included. The fundamental element is the globalising corporation. It brings to foreign countries economic good and services as well as the softening power of cultural influences and products. (Id. at 132).
Perhaps the most striking embodiment of the aggrandising ‘culture’ of the corporation is the large shopping mall, the consumer’s low-cost paradise and the perfect economic complement to Superpower. In its own way it is an invasive, totalising power, continuously establishing footholds in local communities, destroying small business which are unable to compete, forcing low wages, harsh working conditions, poor health care on its employees, and discouraging unionisation. It is inverted totalitarianism in a corporate, imperial mode. (Id. at 139)
Professor Wolin’s profound observations apply to Australia, but in the case of the Abbott Government’s experience the personality of the Prime Minister is of further significance, heavily as it is politically rooted in the Australian Fascist Catholicism of Bartholomew Augustine Santamaria, the well-known Australian Roman Catholic anti-Communist political activist and journalist.
Tomorrow: Corporatocracy? (continued)
* In memory of my friends, Professor Bertram Gross and Justice Lionel Murphy.
Dr. Venturino Giorgio Venturini devoted some sixty years to study, practice, teach, write and administer law at different places in four continents. In 1975 he left a law chair in Chicago to join the Trade Practices Commission in Canberra. He may be reached at George.Venturini@bigpond.com.au.