Friday, October 17, 2008


I’ve read Sheldon Wolin’s latest, “Democracy Incorporated”. It’s good, but it might have been much more.

He does an incisive and acute job, explaining how the corporate mentality and the now-monster-sized corporate network have synergized with the ancient foe of wealth-seeking-political-power-and-control, and all to the detriment of democracy. In this regard Chalmers Johnson’s thoughts about the great and ultimate value of the book (see my immediately previous Post) are absolutely correct. So far as they go.

Because Wolin has not told the whole truth here. To hear him tell it, the Republicans are responsible for the whole thing (echoing Mussolini’s final defense in front of the now gimlet-eyed Fascist Grand Council at that last meeting: ‘I tedeschi sono responsabili di tutto’ – The Germans are responsible for the whole thing). As another World War 2 icon would say: Yah.

Although he ranges back to the Greeks and Machiavelli and up through the 17th century English political thinkers to the Founders themselves, he then jumps more or less straight to his chosen point of departure, 1980. With the exception of some hardly irrelevant port calls at the New Deal and the Cold War he moves pretty much straight to a year well-known for the election of Ronald Reagan and the inception of the Republican Ascendancy.

Yes, it’s his book and he gets to choose where to start it, but he was writing the book to help explain how We are in the very serious and real mess We are in, so that noble and urgent purpose ought to kind of … have an influence on him. Not quite.

He discusses the dangerous corrupting effect of concentrated money, especially when it’s made available to politicians and legislators. But he doesn’t discuss PACs themselves. There isn’t even an entry for them in his index. Of course, the PACs were a Democratic invention (a treacherously reverse image of ‘only Nixon could go to China’), invented and pressed upon the initially unwilling corporate bosses by Tip O’Neill (about whom, also, there is no mention in text or index).

He discusses the “inauthentic opposition” of “the Democrats’ politics” without once discussing Tip O’Neill who – as carefully limned by Walter Karp in his masterful book on Carter’s and Reagan’s Presidencies – purposely sought to gut Carter’s administration from the get-go. Nor is there any reference to Karp in the text or the index. Wolin doesn’t really go into this huge issue any further; yet if you have said that the democratic politics of the United States has been insidiously and treacherously undermined by – you say – the Republican party over the course of a quarter of a century, then you should feel yourself obligated to have some thoughts as to Where the frak the soi-disant ‘opposition’ Party was during the whole period. And – face it – in addition to becoming a banana republic (sans bananas) this country has reached its present state via the same route that France did in 1940: all of its Parties contributed their bit. That’s why even after the war went south, on top of 9-11 and all the dreck that flowed from that, it’s almost impossible to get serious light shone on things: NOBODY inside the Beltway wants any light beaming around anywhere – because no matter where the beam lands inside the Beltway, there’s gonna be ‘guilty parties’, Democrats as well as Republicans – nor am I just talking about the likes of Joe Lieberman and Zell Miller and Phil Gramm. And investigations of this economic catastrophe will wind up the same way.

He discusses the tremendously corrosive effects of a concentrated and corporatized media, controlled by the corporations (who are – in Wolin’s schema –allied with the Republicans, of course) and yet he has nothing whatever to say about the Telecommunications Act of 1996 (also not in his index), signed by Bill Clinton, that officially opened the floodgates for corporate plundering of ‘the press’. Or rather: treacherously opened the gates of the fort from the inside to let the hordes in – which was, back in the day, a hanging offense.

He makes reference to the hugely damaging practice of “splintering the citizenry into distinct categories” without once mentioning the huge wounds to the body politic and the American social compact wrought by Identity Politics and all its pomps and all its works. Nor is there any index entry for it, or for ‘deconstuctionism’ or ‘post-modernism’ or any of the ‘theory’ that has provided the cloak of intelligent rationality to the vast and hostile changes made in – and against – American society and American identity since the late 1960s.

He spends a great deal of energy dissecting the National Security State’s conscienceless use of “fear” to both motivate and control the citizenry, demonstrating at length how Cold War strategies for control merged political and corporate elites in a common task of reducing the American citizenry to a fearful and anxious rubber-stamp, to be taken out and dusted off only for the ceremony of ‘elections’. But there is nothing about the insidious replay of McCarthyite hysteria, and far more pervasive and ‘successful’ than McCarthy – that sodden, histrionic, mendacious wretch – could ever hope to have been: the victim-cloaked sex-offense mania that got started in 1996 under Clinton and that weird obverse of Hoover, Janet Reno, and still burns like a Southern California super-fire, having reduced much constitutional protection and jurisprudential praxis to desiccated cinders.

And yet he will from time to time make the most remarkably candid statements, only to abandon them on the launch pad. In the matter of the so-called “cultural wars” he says that “The point about disputes on such topics as the value of sexual abstinence, the question of gay marriage, and the like, is that they are not framed to be resolved [italics mine]. Their political function is to divide the citizenry while obscuring class differences and diverting the voters’ attention from the social and economic concerns of the general populace”.

Now yes and no. There is and always has been a strong flavor of ‘planned insolubility’ to many of the demands and agendas of the Identities. But the way Wolin frames it, the distracting elements were, you would have to infer, planned by the corporations. And that’s a stretch bordering on the absurd: the corporations ‘planned’ the Revolutions of the Identities back in the late-60s simply as an exercise to divert the citizenry from hugely relevant issues of class and economy? Phooey. The ‘distracting’ elements – including abortion (curiously not mentioned) and the ever-fuzzy ‘full equality’ of this or that Identity – were there all along, generated by the Identities and their advocacies themselves from the get-go. And embraced by the vote-hungry and vote-desperate and thoroughly terrified Democrats.

Yes, the Republicans (the repentant-on-his-deathbed Lee Atwater, of whom Rove is but the spawn, being the most notorious) took advantage of the situation that the Identities created. And that included making efficient political use of huge numbers of citizens who were doubtful, hesitant, skeptical, or resistant in the matter of yielding to those demands. But it’s beyond fantastical to imagine that the whole thing was a corporate-elitist plot to begin with.

And the “planned insolubility” is and always has been something of a guarantee that the vanguards and advocates of the assorted Revolutions would never be out of a job. A neat and hardly unforeseeable consequence of huge and fuzzy and vaguely-justified demands.

And ‘dividing’ the citizenry was pretty much guaranteed by the method of imposing these monster changes from the top down, and stifling general public discussion through the media-assisted muffling called “Political Correctness”.

And as far as ‘black power’ went, and as far as feminism of the Second Wave went, well –dividing was the game plan: the former wanted to separate from ‘honky’ and the latter were pretty much going after ‘men’. And the multiculturalists were after the both of them – white males, dead or alive.

He continues: “Cultural wars might seem an indication of strong political involvement. Actually they are a substitute.” I not only agree, I don’t think he goes far enough here. The gravamen of the Revolutions of the Identities was not only a substitute for a democratic politics, it was a revolutionary anti-politics. But I’m guessing that’s exactly not where Wolin wants to go. I think he’s echoing obliquely a current Democratic thought: if it hadn’t been for the Republicans’ naming and framing the ‘culture wars’ in the 1990s, then there wouldn’t have been any. And that’s just baloney. The Republicans may have named the thing, but the thing itself was going on from the get-go. Why else did all those sturdy blue-collar, New Deal Democratic voters suddenly become Reagan Republicans in 1980?

He points out that a “discouraged democracy” becomes a “demobilized democracy”. Yup, and that would play right into the hands of an elite seeking to turn the citizenry into an obedient, corporate peasantry. And it’s very baad news for this country. But – looking back to those Reagan Democrats again – the discouragement started before the Republicans and the corporations could even dream of it; the herd was stampeded onto their spread by Democratic cowhands a’whoopin’ and a’shootin’ to celebrate the myriad celebrations of the Identities. Only later were the stampedees thoroughly betrayed, once safely penned – as Wolin rightly describes – in the dual grasp of the National Security State and the National Nanny State. And that monster’s limbs fused by the blast of 9-11, fortified by a corporatized media.

And, as Wolin nicely observes, where the Nazis trumpeted a hard and hardened citizenry, the corporatized “inverted totalitarianism” of Our time and place finds it quite congenial to root in the less rocky, more mushy ground of a soft, self-indulgent culture, much given to fantasy and amusing distractions. And, I would add, absent any remarkable chemistry, the infusion of large amounts of ‘feelings’ and ‘sensitivity’ and youthful difficulty in distinguishing fantasy from reality will only make things go so much the better. And even ‘outrage’, usefully dissipated on insoluble problems not having to do with wealth or the actual wielding of political power, can be added into the brew. Better ruling through chemistry.

But to do all this, Wolin has had to take some mighty circuitous routes to connect the dots believably without stepping on any land mines. Thus, his schematic is that the Founders were really elitists, and their whole plan was to ensure that ‘democracy’ would never gain a foothold in American government; thus the Constitution (which in 1787 replaced the more ‘democratic’ state governments loosely connected under the Articles of Confederation) was actually an elitist power grab, both to prevent the ‘mob’ from running the states and to harness the huge potential of the new country to a centralized government. And in the present, the Republican elites and the corporate elites have joined forces and made their Pact of Steel (Paper, actually, but let’s not complicate things too much).

He asserts that the 1930s – FDR’s first two administrations – were the closest the country has ever come to ‘democracy’, the rule of the ‘demos’, rather than an oligarchic rule by wealthy elites. Not much objection to that.

But then he poses the entire decade of the 1960s as a re-birth of ‘democracy’ that was evilly subverted by the forces of counterrevolution. He only says this once, and doesn’t go down the land-mined road as to what it really means to call the 1960s a ‘revolution’, with all that such a term might imply.

Thus then the ‘democracy’ was crushed in 1980 by the Republicans, who were now a solidly fused corporate-political machine. And with that, as they say at Santa Anita, ‘they’re off!’. We are now free to set Our democratic jaws against the infamy and – in a curious temporal coincidence – head into the elections.

I don’t’ think it works. The ‘1960s’ were two distinct decades, the first ending in the first week of July, 1965, and the second having its high-noon in 1968, and a democratic rebirth the latter most certainly was not. This is not to imply that all of the initiatives of ‘1968’ and of the Identities were or are ‘bad’, nor to imply that there was prior to 1968 ever a golden-age in this country – or anywhere else. But to the extent that there was a moment when Titanic’s hull was intact, and then another moment not long afterwards when its hull was not intact, then I’d say that said 'moment' was somewhere between '66 and '68, and after that moment - well, it's all been mostly ungood. And it also appears that 'intactness’ – as was once said of potential wives – should be a kind of a national priority at the moment. No offense intended.

Finally, an observation prompted by Wolin’s remarkable Freudian slip that “the academy had become self-pacifying:”. He is referring, rather safely, to all of those academics who failed to speak out against the Iraq war. But from what I can make of this book of his, he has pretty much done the same thing. Except on behalf of the Democratic Party. And possibly – a much longer stretch – for ‘democracy’.

We are in the mess We are in at this point because a whole lot of folks upon whom We might have counted for the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, gave Us much less – and increasingly – something else altogether. But Us no buts that it was ‘well intentioned’, or ‘in a good cause’, or that ‘the end justifies the means’, or that it was done ‘for the children’ or for ‘national security’ or ‘to spread democracy’ or ‘because the devil made me do it’. Well, OK, maybe that last one. ‘Greed’ and ‘Lying’ and ‘War’ have always been associated with the devil. Although War … well, that could go either way. And it takes a whole lotta Peopling to buck up a Congress to make sure that the Main Battle Tank of national military might only goes over bridges that can support its awefull weight.

Professor Wolin has not given Us what We might have a right to expect from someone of his experience and knowledge. He has given Us a lot, but not enough to completely grasp what is necessary for Us to undertake in order to save Ourselves. To read him is to imagine that if only the Democrats get elected, then the Republican pols and their corporate paymasters can be brought to heel.

And that just ain’t so.

Why he did this is a matter for speculation. Incompetence is out of the question. A desire to stay in the good graces of his colleagues? The Democratic Party? The probable winners of the election? A compromise with publishers?

Who can say?

But in the words of a former manager of the Baltimore Orioles, addressed to a disappointing umpire: Do you get any better or is this it?

Labels: , , , , , , , , ,


Blogger David said...

If it hasn't become apparent during the campaign, it will be clear after the election that an Obama victory will do little to advance the cause of democracy. Nowhere does he propose to roll back the illegally accumulated power of the 'unified executive'.

The military industrial complex was in place by the end of WWII. The Titanic was already listing starboard due to corporate wars on the unions and the living wage. Corporate sponsored feminism lured women into the workplace at a 35% discount and enlisted them as upscale Cosmopolitan consumers with trickle-down fantasies broad enough to drug all classes.

Every democratic impulse was reduced to consumerism and toothless dissent by cooptation: the lethal combination of buy-out and sell-out that commodified every attempt to subvert the corporate agenda whether it was rock and roll or the civil rights movement that, in the hands of the corporate academy, mutated from a church-based effort to establish MLK's 'beloved community' locally into the impotent left-wing gnosis of a worldwide 'revolutionary' African Diaspora.

In the cultural superstructure, it's always a seller's market

5:50 AM  

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home