Chalmers Johnson on Our ‘Managed Democracy’
Posted on May 15, 2008
To reduce a complex argument to its bare bones, since the Depression, the twin forces of managed democracy and Superpower have opened the way for something new under the sun: “inverted totalitarianism,” a form every bit as totalistic as the classical version but one based on internalized co-optation, the appearance of freedom, political disengagement rather than mass mobilization, and relying more on “private media” than on public agencies to disseminate propaganda that reinforces the official version of events. It is inverted because it does not require the use of coercion, police power and a messianic ideology as in the Nazi, Fascist and Stalinist versions (although note that the United States has the highest percentage of its citizens in prison—751 per 100,000 people—of any nation on Earth). According to Wolin, inverted totalitarianism has “emerged imperceptibly, unpremeditatedly, and in seeming unbroken continuity with the nation’s political traditions.”
The genius of our inverted totalitarian system “lies in wielding total power without appearing to, without establishing concentration camps, or enforcing ideological uniformity, or forcibly suppressing dissident elements so long as they remain ineffectual. ... A demotion in the status and stature of the ‘sovereign people’ to patient subjects is symptomatic of systemic change, from democracy as a method of ‘popularizing’ power to democracy as a brand name for a product marketable at home and marketable abroad. ... The new system, inverted totalitarianism, is one that professes the opposite of what, in fact, it is. ... The United States has become the showcase of how democracy can be managed without appearing to be suppressed.”
Among the factors that have promoted inverted totalitarianism are the practice and psychology of advertising and the rule of “market forces” in many other contexts than markets, continuous technological advances that encourage elaborate fantasies (computer games, virtual avatars, space travel), the penetration of mass media communication and propaganda into every household in the country, and the total co-optation of the universities. Among the commonplace fables of our society are hero worship and tales of individual prowess, eternal youthfulness, beauty through surgery, action measured in nanoseconds, and a dream-laden culture of ever-expanding control and possibility, whose adepts are prone to fantasies because the vast majority have imagination but little scientific knowledge. Masters of this world are masters of images and their manipulation. Wolin reminds us that the image of Adolf Hitler flying to Nuremberg in 1934 that opens Leni Riefenstahl’s classic film “Triumph of the Will” was repeated on May 1, 2003, with President George Bush’s apparent landing of a Navy warplane on the flight deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln to proclaim “Mission Accomplished” in Iraq.
On inverted totalitarianism’s “self-pacifying” university campuses compared with the usual intellectual turmoil surrounding independent centers of learning, Wolin writes, “Through a combination of governmental contracts, corporate and foundation funds, joint projects involving university and corporate researchers, and wealthy individual donors, universities (especially so-called research 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 higher education top professors are made wealthy by the system, commanding salaries and perks that a budding CEO might envy.”
The main social sectors promoting and reinforcing this modern Shangri-La are corporate power, which is in charge of managed democracy, and the military-industrial complex, which is in charge of Superpower. The main objectives of managed democracy are to increase the profits of large corporations, dismantle the institutions of social democracy (Social Security, unions, welfare, public health services, public housing and so forth), and roll back the social and political ideals of the New Deal. Its primary tool is privatization. Managed democracy aims at the “selective abdication of governmental responsibility for the well-being of the citizenry” under cover of improving “efficiency” and cost-cutting.
Wolin argues, “The privatization of public services and functions manifests the steady evolution of corporate power into a political form, into an integral, even dominant partner with the state. It marks the transformation of American politics and its political culture from a system in which democratic practices and values were, if not defining, at least major contributing elements, to one where the remaining democratic elements of the state and its populist programs are being systematically dismantled.” This campaign has largely succeeded. “Democracy represented a challenge to the status quo, today it has become adjusted to the status quo.”
One other subordinate task of managed democracy is to keep the citizenry preoccupied with peripheral and/or private conditions of human life so that they fail to focus on the widespread corruption and betrayal of the public trust. In Wolin’s words, “The point about disputes on such topics as the value of sexual abstinence, the role of religious charities in state-funded activities, the question of gay marriage, and the like, is that they are not framed to be resolved. 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.” Prominent examples of the elite use of such incidents to divide and inflame the public are the Terri Schiavo case of 2005, in which a brain-dead woman was kept artificially alive, and the 2008 case of women and children living in a polygamous commune in Texas who were allegedly sexually mistreated.
Another elite tactic of managed democracy is to bore the electorate to such an extent that it gradually fails to pay any attention to politics. Wolin perceives, “One method of assuring control is to make electioneering continuous, year-round, saturated with party propaganda, punctuated with the wisdom of kept pundits, bringing a result boring rather than energizing, the kind of civic lassitude on which managed democracy thrives.” The classic example is certainly the nominating contests of the two main American political parties during 2007 and 2008, but the dynastic “competition” between the Bush and Clinton families from 1988 to 2008 is equally relevant. It should be noted that between a half and two-thirds of qualified voters have recently failed to vote, thus making the management of the active electorate far easier. Wolin comments, “Every apathetic citizen is a silent enlistee in the cause of inverted totalitarianism.” It remains to be seen whether an Obama candidacy can reawaken these apathetic voters, but I suspect that Wolin would predict a barrage of corporate media character assassination that would end this possibility.
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