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It’s Not Going to Be OK
Posted on Feb 2, 2009
Wolin argues that a failure to dismantle our vast and overextended imperial projects, coupled with the economic collapse, is likely to result in inverted totalitarianism. He said that without “radical and drastic remedies” the response to mounting discontent and social unrest will probably lead to greater state control and repression. There will be, he warned, a huge “expansion of government power.”
“Our political culture has remained unhelpful in fostering a democratic consciousness,” he said. “The political system and its operatives will not be constrained by popular discontent or uprisings.”
Wolin writes that in inverted totalitarianism consumer goods and a comfortable standard of living, along with a vast entertainment industry that provides spectacles and diversions, keep the citizenry politically passive. I asked if the economic collapse and the steady decline in our standard of living might not, in fact, trigger classical totalitarianism. Could widespread frustration and poverty lead the working and middle classes to place their faith in demagogues, especially those from the Christian right?
“I think that’s perfectly possible,” he answered. “That was the experience of the 1930s. There wasn’t just FDR. There was Huey Long and Father Coughlin. There were even more extreme movements including the Klan. The extent to which those forces can be fed by the downturn and bleakness is a very real danger. It could become classical totalitarianism.”
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Wolin lamented that the corporate state has successfully blocked any real debate about alternative forms of power. Corporations determine who gets heard and who does not, he said. And those who critique corporate power are given no place in the national dialogue.
“In the 1930s there were all kinds of alternative understandings, from socialism to more extensive governmental involvement,” he said. “There was a range of different approaches. But what I am struck by now is the narrow range within which palliatives are being modeled. We are supposed to work with the financial system. So the people who helped create this system are put in charge of the solution. There has to be some major effort to think outside the box.”
“The puzzle to me is the lack of social unrest,” Wolin said when I asked why we have not yet seen rioting or protests. He said he worried that popular protests will be dismissed and ignored by the corporate media. This, he said, is what happened when tens of thousands protested the war in Iraq. This will permit the state to ruthlessly suppress local protests, as happened during the Democratic and Republic conventions. Anti-war protests in the 1960s gained momentum from their ability to spread across the country, he noted. This, he said, may not happen this time. “The ways they can isolate protests and prevent it from [becoming] a contagion are formidable,” he said.
“My greatest fear is that the Obama administration will achieve relatively little in terms of structural change,” he added. “They may at best keep the system going. But there is a growing pessimism. Every day we hear how much longer the recession will continue. They are already talking about beyond next year. The economic difficulties are more profound than we had guessed and because of globalization more difficult to deal with. I wish the political establishment, the parties and leadership, would become more aware of the depths of the problem. They can’t keep throwing money at this. They have to begin structural changes that involve a very different approach from a market economy. I don’t think this will happen.”
“I keep asking why and how and when this country became so conservative,” he went on. “This country once prided itself on its experimentation and flexibility. It has become rigid. It is probably the most conservative of all the advanced countries.”
The American left, he said, has crumbled. It sold out to a bankrupt Democratic Party, abandoned the working class and has no ability to organize. Unions are a spent force. The universities are mills for corporate employees. The press churns out info-entertainment or fatuous pundits. The left, he said, no longer has the capacity to be a counterweight to the corporate state. He said that if an extreme right gains momentum there will probably be very little organized resistance.
“The left is amorphous,” he said. “I despair over the left. Left parties may be small in number in Europe but they are a coherent organization that keeps going. Here, except for Nader’s efforts, we don’t have that. We have a few voices here, a magazine there, and that’s about it. It goes nowhere.”
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