|"Odi profanum vulgus et arceo."
Odes III, 1, 1 
|"J'ai pour les institutions
démocratiques un goût de tête, mais je suis aristocrate par instinct,
c'est à dire que je méprise et crains la foule. J'aime avec passion la
liberté, la légalité, le respect des droits, mais non la démocratie.
Voilà le fond de l'âme."
-- Alexis de Tocqueville
|Then said Jesus, Father, forgive them; for they know not
what they do.
-- Bible, Luke 23.34
Johnson on Our 'Managed Democracy' (1/3)
2. Chalmers Johnson on Our 'Managed Democracy' (2/3)
week ago I wrote about Sheldon Wolin's concept of inverted
totalitarianism; three days ago I
mentioned a review of his book "Democracy Incorporated" in which
that concept got explained; and the day
before yesterday I mentioned sadism as an explanation that is often
Today I return to all of that, since they are connected.
1. Chalmers Johnson on Our 'Managed Democracy' (1/3)
my references in my introduction, and the main one in those references
is the thee-part review by Chalmers Johnson I gave before and repeat
here - and the (1/3) refers to the fact that this is the first of three
Note that while the review is
from May 2008 it has not aged and is well worth reading in
toto. I will concentrate on the bits that relate to Wolin, and skip
or only briefly mention the rest.
The review - part 1/3, and this will be the style of references to the
sources of what I quote - starts with a good summary by Johnson of the
many things that are and have been going very wrong in the United
States, and then continues with
The problem is
that there are too many things going wrong at the same time for anyone
to have a broad understanding of the disaster that has overcome us and
what, if anything, can be done to return our country to constitutional
government and at least a degree of democracy (Op. cit. 1/3)
And a related problem is that
while " there are hundreds of
books on particular aspects of our situation" it also is the case that " few attempts at more complex analyses of how we arrived at
this sorry state". Not to leave my readers more in the dark than they need
be, I'll quote what Johnson cites as the exceptions (writing in 2005):
They include Naomi
Klein, “The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism,” on how
“private” economic power now is almost coequal with legitimate
political power; John W. Dean, “Broken Government: How Republican Rule
Destroyed the Legislative, Executive, and Judicial Branches,” on the
perversion of our main defenses against dictatorship and tyranny;
Arianna Huffington, “Right Is Wrong: How the Lunatic Fringe Hijacked
America, Shredded the Constitution, and Made Us All Less Safe,” on the
manipulation of fear in our political life and the primary role played
by the media; and Naomi Wolf, “The End of America: Letter of Warning to
a Young Patriot,” on “Ten Steps to Fascism” and where we currently
stand on this staircase. My own book, “Nemesis: The Last Days of the
American Republic,” on militarism as an inescapable accompaniment of
imperialism, also belongs to this genre. (Op. cit. 1/3)
I have read none of
these, but I quoted this because they may contribute to understanding
how the US got into the problems they were in 2005, and still are, at
least in part because Barack Obama simply continues the policies of his
predecessor, rather than terminate them, restrain them, or undo them
(as in "Change!" and "Yes, we can!").
Johnson continues this with the reason for his text:
His new book,
“Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted
Totalitarianism,” is a devastating critique of the contemporary
government of the United States—including what has happened to it in
recent years and what must be done if it is not to disappear into
history along with its classic totalitarian predecessors: Fascist
Italy, Nazi Germany and Bolshevik Russia. The hour is very late and the
possibility that the American people might pay attention to what is
wrong and take the difficult steps to avoid a national Götterdämmerung
are remote, but Wolin’s is the best analysis of why the presidential
election of 2008 probably will not do anything to mitigate our fate.
This book demonstrates why political science, properly practiced, is
the master social science. (Op. cit. 1/3)
Johnson also assures his
Wolin’s work is
fully accessible. Understanding his argument does not depend on
possessing any specialized knowledge (..)
I have not - as yet - read
Wolin's book, but am willing to believe Johnson, who a little bit later
(Op. cit. 1/3)
three new concepts to help analyze what we have lost as a nation. His
master idea is “inverted totalitarianism,” which is reinforced by two
subordinate notions that accompany and promote it—“managed democracy”
and “Superpower,” the latter always capitalized and used without a
direct article. Until the reader gets used to this particular literary
tic, the term Superpower can be confusing. The author uses it
as if it were an independent agent, comparable to Superman or Spiderman,
and one that is inherently incompatible with constitutional government
and democracy. (Op. cit. 1/3)
I will return to each of
these, but start with the remark that if Wolin does use the term as
Johnson says he does, which I think is very likely, then I regard that
as a mistake.
In fact, it bears the name of a well-known fallacy: "reification"
- making (concrete) things, linguistucally referred to by nouns or
names, out of entities that are not thing-like, but may be processes,
relations, structures, interdependencies or what not.
The excuses for doing this may be that it considerably simplifies the
exposition, and is shorter than what seems, for the most part, to be
intended, namely what president Eisenhower referred to as "the military-industrial
complex" that, although is longer than "Superpower" and also a
noun-phrase, seems to me to be the better term.
Johnson continues with part of Wolin's motive, and part of his reasons
to use the phrase "inverted totalitarianism":
Wolin writes, “Our
thesis ... is this: it is possible for a form of totalitarianism,
different from the classical one, to evolve from a putatively ‘strong
democracy’ instead of a ‘failed’ one.”
We'll get to that below, but
first there is something to clarify about Wolin's concept of democracy,
which Johnson does as follows:
(Op. cit. 1/3)
of democracy is classical but also populist, anti-elitist and only
slightly represented in the Constitution of the United States.
“Democracy,” he writes, “is about the conditions that make it possible
for ordinary people to better their lives by becoming political beings
and by making power responsive to their hopes and needs.” It depends on
the existence of a demos—“a politically engaged and empowered
citizenry, one that voted, deliberated, and occupied all branches of
public office.” Wolin argues that to the extent the United States on
occasion came close to genuine democracy, it was because its citizens
struggled against and momentarily defeated the elitism that was written
into the Constitution. (Op. cit. 1/3)
It is true that the
Constitution of the US is not at all democratic - in fact, it was
written in the name of equality by men who were slave holders, and it
took until Lincoln and a Civil War to get rid of slavery, and even then
there was no democracy instituted as that is understood in the modern
sense, which seems to be that all sane adults have the vote, or at
least have the right to vote, and that all votes count as one.
As it happens, I am like Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli,
Hobbes, Hume, De Tocqueville, John Stuart Mill and Nietzsche: I am no great believer in the idea of
democracy, from my experience of what it produced in Holland, both
as regards as what it produced as its power elite, and what it produced
in the Dutch universities, that were "democratized" between 1971 and
1995: The rule of the worst rather than in the best,
albeit in the name of the highest ideals, and on the pretext that these
democratically elected rulers would realize these ideals, which they
did not at all.
I merely register this disagreement and will not discuss this here and
now, and the link explains some of my reasons,
in Dutch, and is precisely 5 years old today and should also add a
little on Wolin's concepts of democracy and demos as
given in the above quotation, which are not quite as one finds these
concepts with others, such as Aristotle or
For Aristotle and Mosca 'democracy' means 'the rule of the people', and
on the whole they believed that a bad idea, not - perhaps - because
they had Horace's feelings about the rabble, but because they held that
(i) it is an illusion: it will not bring the people to
power, but those who set themselves up as their leaders, who will be
demagogues (both in the senses of 'speakers for the people' and of
'liars, deceivers') and (ii) the leaders who get to power by playing to
the feelings of the masses will almost always be the worst rather than
the best (as was shown, for example, with the rises to power of
Mussolini and Hitler), who (iii) will repress, exploit and abuse the
masses of the ordinary people,
after deceiving them into electing them as their leaders.
Furthermore, the concept of a 'demos' is like the concept of 'Superpower'
criticized above: There is a sense in which there is a people and a
will of the people as there is a sense in which there is a ruling elite
in each an any society,
but the sense is vague, often variegated, usually not clear, and easily
abused and made absolute and reified.
As Johnson explains by quotation, Wolin was well aware of these
problems, but I will not here and now discuss them, or quote more by
either Johnson or Wollin on the subject, and merely note that it is
quite probable that Wolin and I disagree on the topic of 'democracy',
both as regards its proper meaning and as regards its desirability (and
I refer the reader to the end of a note of
mine to Multatuli's idea 118, in which I quote text by Machiavelli's
friend Guiccardini in English on the topic of democracy ).
2. Chalmers Johnson on Our 'Managed Democracy'
I have arrived at part 2 of Johnson's review of Wolin's book, that you
find under this link
This starts with a discussion
of Wolin's concept of 'inverted totalitarianism', that is provided by
Johnson as follows:
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. (Op. cit. 2/3)
I will come to consider the
concept of 'Superpower" later (and made a critical logical remark about
it above, which does not attack its validity but its phrasing).
Wolin's concept of 'inverted totalitarianism' makes a lot of sense, but
also may go subtly wrong, and that in part because, like Marcuse's 'repressive
tolerance', to which it seems related, it is used to do too much
work, and is inherently contradictory in its phrasing.
For one thing, it is difficult to see how it can be "as totalistic as the classical version" of totalitarianism
if it is "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".
If what Wolin calls "inverted totalitarianism" is based on propaganda, public
relations, deception, artful lying,
misleading, and misinforming, it is not the same as the classic kind of
that was based mostly on force: Hitler and Stalin did a lot to
propagandize the populations they ruled, and the propaganda was artful,
false, and misleading, but in the end people obeyed not because they
were tricked, but because they were forced, by
interminable inspections, controls, surveillance and harsh punishments
for whoever disobeyed, doubted or dissented.
And indeed what Wolin has in mind when writing about 'inverted totalitarianism' is the sort
relations that was started on a large scale, and with the express
intent to fool the people, by Edward Bernays,
as described quite clearly and quite cynically in his 1928 book "Propaganda" (on my site under the last link).
Johnson explains Wolin's intent with 'inverted totalitarianism' as follows:
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.” (Op.
It may have "emerged imperceptibly", but certainly not, in Bernays'
presentation of it "unpremeditatedly". Bernays knew rather precisely what he
wanted, and wrote it out quite cynically in the first paragraph of "Propaganda":
THE conscious and
intelligent manipulation of the
wanted was to lead such "an
albeit in the service of the corporate masters who paid him very well
to do their professional lying for them, that originally was called "propaganda",
and later was restyled to "public
relations", after Bernays learned that Joseph Goebbels
had learned a lot of him, and that the term "propaganda"
had thereby gotten a more negative connotation than it had in 1928,
when Bernays published "Propaganda",
even though it was from the very beginning conceived of as professional
conmanship, deception, lying, misinforming and the very intentional
misleading and deceiving of the public
into believing lies that served the owners of corporations or the
leaders of governments or political parties.
organized habits and
opinions of the masses is an
important element in
democratic society. Those who
unseen mechanism of society consti-
tute an invisible
government which is the true ruling
power of our country.
(E. Bernays, "Propaganda")
In fact, as Johnson explains, using Wolin's text:
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.”
As I understand "inverted
totalitarianism", indeed through reading Bernays' "Propaganda"
and Adam Curtis's
four-part documentary "The
Century of the Self", fundamentally it consists of the manipulation
of publics by manipulating their self-images, desires, language, and
definitions of things through artful and incessant propaganda, that
often is made to look as if it were objective information from parties
with some public interest, when in fact it is propaganda designed to
deceive, obfuscate, mislead, or misinform, and by incessant
advertisements, that is designed to manufacture and manipulate desires
by linking human needs to brands of commodities, and presenting the
latter as the fulfillments of the former.
(Op. cit. 2/3)
As Johnson, still explaining Wolin, put it - indeed quite well, also:
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.
Quite so - and the main points
to understand is that all of this is based on artfully contrived,
carefully researched and tested, manipulation and deception of the democratic majorities of
the masses, and indeed also, from the 1970ies or 1980ies onwards,
helped by the co-optation and collaboration of large parts of the
universities and of intellectuals and journalists, who basically were
bought, as indeed the majority of elected politicians were bought by lobbyists. That is,
it was corruption joined to the desire to be corrupted (if the pay or
perk is attractive enough).
(Op. cit. 2/3)
As Wolin puts it, in Johnson's selection, and as is also true as
regards the intellectuals
and the universities in Holland, I can add, and as far as I know also
in Great Britain, as in the United States:
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.”
At this point, I have gone
through about half of Johnson's text, and to protect my eyes and not to
do things in great haste, you will have to wait till later, probably
tomorrow, to get the rest of my treatment.
(Op. cit. 2/3)
P.S. Apr 6, 2013: Corrected some typos and
straightened out a link and added one.
As my link also explains, the Latin means (in my translation) "I hate
people, and ward them off" - which seems to be a common if
not a universal sentiment of aristocrats, rulers, CEOs, and very rich
persons. It also occurs in the next quotation I provided from De
Tocqueville, albeit it a bit hidden, as I explain in my next note:
 If you have not read De Tocqueville's
"Democracy in America", and especially volume 2 of it, you
it is very perceptive, both of America (in the early 1830ies, but also
in a wider sense), and of democracy and democratic institutions.
The quotation may be translated as follows - and note that De
Tocqueville's own background was in the French aristocracy:
"I have a kind of
intellectual preference for democratic institutions, but by instinct I
am an aristocrat, which is to say that I detest and fear the rabble. I
passionately love liberry, equality, respect for the law, but not
democracy. Thus behold the foundation of my soul."
Horace's sentiments -
undoubtedly well known to De Tocqueville, as they were to John Stuart Mill,
and who admired De Tocqueville - are in and behind the words "I detest and fear the rabble".
 In case you do not know or do not
recall: This is Jesus briefly before his crucifixion, forgiving the
people who had three times cried out loud for his crucifixion. (See Luke 23.) It may also be
applied to the people, or the rabble, as referred to and feared by
Horace and De Tocqueville in the previous two notes, as deceived by the
propaganda of the public relations conmen hired by their corporate,
political or religioys rulers: "forgive them; for they know not what they do."
 Here it is, for your benefit, from the
year 1495, as quoted by Guiccardini, in
his Storia Italia (History of Italy) of 1540:
"Guidantonio Vespucci, a
famous lawyer and a man of remarkable intelligence and skill, spoke as
'If, most worthy citizens,
a government organized in the manner proposed (..) produced the desired
results as easily as they are described, it would certainly be perverse
of anyone to wish for any other form of government for our country. It
would be a wicked civilian who did not passionately love a form of
republic in which the virtues, merits and abilities of men were
organized above all else.
But I do not understand
how one can hope that a system placed entirely in the hands of the
people can be full of such benefits.
For I know that reason
teaches, experience shows and the authority of wise men confirms that
in so great a multitude there is not to be found such prudence, such
experience and such discipline as to lead us to expect that the wise
will be preferred to the ignorant, the good to the bad, and the
experienced to those who have never handled any affairs whatever.
For as one cannot hope for
sound judgement from an unlearned and unexperienced judge, so from a
people full of confusion and ignorance one cannot except - except by
chance - a prudent and reasonable election or decision.
Are we to believe that an
inexpert, untrained multitude made up of such a variety of minds,
conditions and customs, and entirely absorbed in their own personal
affairs, can distinguish and understand what in public government wise
men, thinking of nothing else, find difficult to understand?
Quite apart from the fact
that each person's self-conceit will lead them all to desire honors -
and it will not be enough for men to in the popular government to enjoy
the honest fruits of liberty - they will all aspire to the highest
posts and to take part in the decisions on the most diffciult and
In us less than in any
other city there rules the modesty of giving way to the man who knows
best or who has the most merit.
But if we persuade
ourselves that we must be by right all equal in all things, the proper
positions of virtue and ability will be confused when it rests with the
judgments of the multitude.
And this greed spreading
to the majority will ensure that the most powerful will be those who
know and deserve least; for as they are more numerous, they will have
more power in a state organized in such a way that opinions are merely
numbered and not weighed.'"
(that I prefer
to call M.E.: The "/CFS" is added to facilitate
search machines) which
is a disease I have since 1.1.1979: