1. Hedges: Hi. I’m Chris Hedges. And we are here in Salem, Oregon, interviewing Dr. Sheldon Wolin, who taught Politics for many years at Berkeley and, later, Princeton. He is the author of several seminal Works on Political Philosophy, including Politics and Vision and Democracy Inc.. And we are going to be asking him today about the State of American Democracy, political Participation, and what he calls inverted Totalitarianism. So let’s begin with this concept of inverted Totalitarianism, which has antecedents. And in your great Work Politics and Vision, you reach back all the way to the Greeks, up through the Present age, to talk about the evolution of political Philosophy. What do you mean by it?
2. Wolin: Well, I mean by it that in the inverted Idea, it’s the Idea that Democracy has been, in effect, turned upside down. It’s supposed to be a Government by the People and for the People and all the rest of the sort of Rhetoric we’re used to, but it’s become now so patently an organised form of Government dominated by Groups which are only vaguely, if at all, responsible or even responsive to popular Needs and popular Demands. But at the same Time, it retains a kind of pattern of Democracy, because we still have Elections, they’re still relatively free in any conventional sense. We have a relatively free Media. But what’s missing from it is a kind of crucial continuous opposition which has a coherent position, and is not just saying, no, no, no but has got an alternative, and above all has got an ongoing critique of what’s Wrong and what Needs to be remedied.
3. Hedges: You juxtapose inverted Totalitarianism to Classical Totalitarianism - Fascism, Communism - and you say that there are very kind of distinct differences between these two types of Totalitarianism. What are those differences?
4. Wolin: Well, certainly one is the--in Classic Totalitarianism the fundamental Principle is the leadership Principle and the notion that the masses exist not as Citizenry but as a means of support which can be rallied and mustered almost at will by the dominant Powers. That’s the Classical one. And the contemporary one is one in which the rule by the People is enshrined as a sort of popular message about what we are, but which in Fact is not really true to the facts of political Life in this day and age.
5. Hedges: Well, you talk about how in Classical totalitarian Regimes, Politics trumps Economics, but in inverted Totalitarianism it’s the reverse.
6. Wolin: That’s Right. Yeah. In Classic Totalitarianism, thinking here now about the Nazis and the fascists, and also even about the communists, the Economy is viewed as a tool which the Powers that be manipulate and utilise in accordance with what they conceive to be the political requirements of Ruling. And they will take whatever steps are needed in the Economy in order to ensure the long-run sustainability of the political Order. In other words, the sort of arrows of political Power flow from top to bottom.
Now, in inverted Totalitarianism, the imagery is that of a populace which is enshrined as the leadership Group but which in Fact doesn’t rule, but which is turned upside down in the sense that the People are enshrined at the top but don’t rule. And minority rule is usually treated as something to be abhorred but is in Fact what we have.
And it’s the problem has to do, I think, with the historical Relationship between political Orders and economic Orders. And Democracy, I think, from the beginning never quite managed to make the kind of case for an economic Order that would sustain and help to develop Democracy rather than being a kind of constant Threat to the egalitarianism and popular rule that Democracy stands for.
7. Hedges: In your book Politics and Vision, you quote figures like Max Weber who talk about Capitalism as in Fact being a destructive Force to Democracy.
8. Wolin: Well, I think Weber’s critique of Capitalism is even broader. I think he views it as quintessentially destructive not only of Democracy, but also, of course, of the sort of feudal aristocratic system which had preceded it. Capitalism is destructive because it has to eliminate the kind of Custom, mœurs, political Values, even Institutions that Present any kind of credible Threat to the autonomy of the Economy. And it’s that--that’s where the Battle lies. Capitalism wants an autonomous Economy. They want a political Order subservient to the Needs of the Economy. And their notion of an Economy, while it’s broadly based in the sense of a Capitalism in which there can be relatively free entrance and Property is relatively widely dispersed it’s also a Capitalism which, in the last analysis, is [as] elitist as any aristocratic system ever was.
9. Hedges: You talk in the book about about how it was essentially the engine of the Cold War, juxtaposing a supposedly socialist Soviet Union, although like many writers, including Chomsky, I think you would argue that Leninism was not a socialist Movement. Adam Ulam talks about it as a Counterrevolution, Chomsky as a Right-wing deviation. But nevertheless, that juxtaposition of the Cold War essentially freed corporate Capitalism in the name of the Struggle against Communism to deform American Democracy.
And also I just want to make it clear that you are very aware, especially in Politics and Vision, of the hesitancy on the part of our Founding Fathers to actually permit direct Democracy. So we’re not in this moment idealising the system that was put in place. But maybe you could talk a little bit about that.
10. Wolin: Well, I think that’s true. I think the system that was consciously and deliberately constructed by the Founders who framed the Constitution--that Democracy was the Enemy. And that was rooted in historical Realities. Many of the colonial Governments had a very strong popular element that became increasingly prominent as the Colonies moved towards Rebellion. And Rebellion meant not only resisting British rule, but also involved the Growth of popular Institutions and their Hegemony in the Colonies, as well as in the Nation as a whole, so that the original impulses to the Constitution came in large measure from this democratising Movement. But the framers of the Constitution understood very well that this would mean, would at least, would jeopardise the Ruling Groups that they thought were absolutely necessary to any kind of a civilised Order. And by “Ruling Groups”, they meant not only those who were better educated, but those who were propertied, because they regarded Property as a sign of Talent and of Ability, so that it wasn’t just Wealth as such, but rather a constellation of Virtues as well as Wealth that entitled Capitalists to rule. And they felt that this was in the best Interests of the Country.
And you must remember at this Time that the People, so-called, were not well-educated and in many ways were feeling their way towards defining their own role in the political system. And above all, they were preoccupied, as People always have been, with making a Living, with Surviving. And those were difficult Times, as most Times are, so that Politics for them could only be an occasional Activity, and so that there would always be an uneasy Relationship between a Democracy that was often quiescent and a form of rule which was constantly trying to reduce, as far as possible, democratic influence in order to permit those who were qualified to govern the Country in the best Interests of the Country.
11. Hedges: And, of course, when we talk about Property, we must include slaveholders.
12. Wolin: Indeed. Indeed. Although of course, there was in the beginning a tension between the northern Colonies and the southern Colonies.
13. Hedges: This Fear of direct Democracy is kind of epitomised by Thomas Paine,--
14. Wolin: Yeah. Yeah.
15. Hedges: --who was very useful in fomenting revolutionary Consciousness, but essentially turned into a pariah once the Revolution was over and the native Aristocracy sought to limit the Power of participatory Democracy.
16. Wolin: Yeah, I think that’s true. I think it’s too Bad Paine didn’t have at his disposal Lenin’s phrase “permanent Revolution”, because I think that’s what he felt, not in the sense of Violence, Violence, Violence, but in the sense of a kind of conscious participatory element that was very strong, that would have to be continuous, and that it couldn’t just be episodic, so that there was always a tension between what he thought to be democratic vitality and the sort of ordered, structured, Election-related, Term-related kind of political system that the framers had in Mind.
17. Hedges: So let’s look at the Cold War, because in Politics and Vision, as in Democracy Inc., you talk about the framing of what Dwight Macdonald will call the psychosis of permanent War, this constant Battle against Communism, as giving Capital the tools by which they could destroy those democratic Institutions, Traditions, and Values that were in place. How did that happen? What was the process?
18. Wolin: Well, I think it happened because of the way that the Cold War was framed, that is, it was framed as not only a War between Communism and Capitalism, but also a War of which the subtext was that Communism was, after all, an Ideology that favoured ordinary People. Now, it got perverted, there’s no Question about that, by Lenin and by Stalin and into something very, very different.
But in the Cold War, I think what was lost in the Struggle was the Ability to see that there was some kind of justification and historical Reality for the appearance of Communism, that it wasn’t just a freak and it wasn’t just a kind of mindless Dictatorship, but that the plight of ordinary People under the forms of economic Organisation that had become prominent, the plight of the common People had become desperate. There was no Social Security. There were no Wage Guarantees. There was no Union Organisation.
19. Hedges: So it’s just like today.
20. Wolin: Yeah. They were powerless. And the Ruling Groups, the Capitalist Groups, were very conscious of what they had and what was needed to keep it going. And that’s why figures like Alexander Hamilton are so important, because they understood this, they understood it from the beginning, that what Capitalism required in the way not only of so-called Free Enterprise--but remember, Hamilton believed very, very strongly in the kind of camaraderie between Capitalism and strong central Government, that strong central Government was not the Enemy of Capitalism, but rather its tool, and that what had to be constantly kind of revitalised was that kind of Relationship, because it was always being threatened by populist Democracy, which wanted to break that link and cause Government to be returned to some kind of responsive Relationship to the People.
21. Hedges: And the Cold War. So the Cold War arises. And this becomes the kind of moment by which Capital, and especially corporate Capital, can dismantle the New Deal and free itself from any kind of regulation and constraint to deform and destroy American Democracy. Can you talk about that process, what happened during that Period?
22. Wolin: Well, I think the first Thing to be said about it is the success with which the governing Groups manage to create a Cold War that was really so total in its spread that it was hard to mount a critical opposition or to take a more detached view of our Relationship to the Soviet Union and just what kind of problem it created. And it also had the effect, of course, of skewing the way we looked at domestic Discontents, domestic Inequalities, and so on, because it was always easy to tar them with the brush of Communism, so that the Communism was just more than a Regime. It was also a kind of total depiction of what was the Threat to--and complete opposite to our own form of Society, our old form of Economy and Government.
23. Hedges: And in Politics and Vision, you talk about because of that ideological clash, therefore any restriction of Capitalism which was defined in opposition to Communism as a kind of democratic Good, if you want to use that word, was lifted in the name of the battle against Communism, that it became Capitalism that was juxtaposed to Communism rather than Democracy, and therefore this empowered Capital, in a very pernicious way, to dismantle democratic Institutions in the name of the War on Communism.
24. Wolin: Oh, I think there’s no Question about that, the notion that you first had to, so to speak, unleash the great potential Capitalism had for improving everybody’s economical lot and the kind of constraints that had been developed not only by the New Deal, but by progressive Movements throughout the 19th Century and early 20th Century in the United States, where it had been increasingly understood that while American economic Institutions were a Good Thing, so to speak, and needed to be nurtured and developed, they also posed a Threat. They posed a Threat because they tended to result in concentrations of Power, concentrations of economic Power that quickly translated themselves into political influence because of the inevitably porous nature of democratic Representation and Elections and Rule, so that the difficulty’s been there for a long Time, been recognised for a long Time, but we go through these Periods of sleepwalking where we have to relearn lessons that have been known almost since the Birth of the Republic, or at least since the Birth of Jeffersonian Democracy, that Capitalism has its Virtues, but it has to be carefully, carefully watched, observed, and often controlled.
Hedges: Thank you. Please join us for part
two later on with our interview with Professor Sheldon Wolin.
Professor Wolin, we were talking about the freeing of corporate Capital, because of the Cold War, from internal democratic restraints. And that freeing saw corporate Capital really make War against participatory Democracy, democratic Institutions. Can you describe a little bit what the process was, how they began to hollow out those Institutions and weaken them?
26. Wolin: Well, I think you really have to start with the political Parties themselves.
The Republicans, of course, have never had much of an appetite for popular Participation. The Democrats have had a checkered History of it. Sometimes very sympathetic, and other Times indifferent. But during the ‘60s, and really even during the ‘50s as well, Movement toward Democracy began to take shape with the realisation of the kind of voter restrictions, the most elementary kind of restrictions on Democracy, prevalent especially, of course, in the South, and especially involving the disfranchisement of African-American voters, so that that kind of Development--and, of course, the attempt on the part of Freedom Riders and others to go into the South and try to help African-Americans organise politically and to defend their Rights--created a kind of political context, I think, probably which had never existed before, in which there were fundamental Arguments about Franchise, Election, Disenfranchisement, Race, and a range of related Issues that simply called for a kind of Debate that, as I say, had scarcely been raised for decades. And it meant that a certain Generation, or a couple of Generations, had had a political exposure that was truly unprecedented in recent American History, not only the Freedom Riders who went down, but practically every Campus in the Country was affected by it, and not only because various Faculty and Students went to Alabama and elsewhere, but because it became a standard Topic of Conversation, to learn how the Movement was doing, what kind of obstacles were being met, and what we could do, and there were marches and marches and marches, so that it was a political Experience that was, I think, as I’ve said, unprecedented in terms of its intensity and in terms of the huge number of Citizens being involved of a younger age.
27. Hedges: And yet, when we look back at the nine 1930s, what I think marked the so-called New Left was that it was not coupled with Labour.
28. Wolin: No, it wasn’t. No, it wasn’t. The ‘30s were kind of a peculiar Thing. I mean, it shouldn’t be simply dismissed, because it did have lasting influence, because it showed, to some Degree at least, that it was possible to get a progressive Administration, that Roosevelt, whatever his failings and shortcomings, had shown that with sufficient popular support, you could manage to make some kind of dent in the kind of political Priviledges that existed in the Country and help to benefit the economic plight of most People. And he did make serious attempts. It of course ran into all kinds of problems, but that’s the nature of Politics. But I don’t think it can be underestimated, the extent to which the New Deal influence spread throughout the Society. I think it had an extraordinary effect, long-run effect in terms of igniting Ideas about popular Participation and its Possibilities.
29. Hedges: And yet it was really a response to the breakdown of Capitalism.
30. Wolin: It certainly was. I mean, it had its limitations.
But I think there’s a very real Question about how far the Country was prepared to go at that Time. It’s important to remember that the early ‘30s--meaning by that from 1932, say, on--was not only a Period of New Deal ferment; it was also a Period of reactionary ferment, and that one mustn’t forget such Things as the Liberty League, and also, and above all, Father Coughlin, who was an extraordinary figure, someone who began as a defender of the New Deal and ended up as a bitter anti-Semite and had to be disowned--or at least throttled--by his own Church, he had become so extreme.
But there were a lot of Things percolating in those years, and on both sides, because, I’ve said, the New Deal and the liberal resurgence also would cause the reaction that I think led to a kind of permanent--I want to say permanent conservative realisation that it had to develop a kind of standing set of its own Institutions and Foundations and fund-raising Activities all the year round, not just to wait for Elections, but to become a kind of permanent Force, conscious conservative Force in American Politics from the ground up.
31. Hedges: And that started when, would you say?
32. Wolin: I would say it started with the reaction to the New Deal, which would mean in about 1934.
33. Hedges: And so, essentially they’re building antidemocratic Institutions to burrow themselves into what we would consider the fundamental Institutions of an open Society--Universities, the Press, political Parties. Would that be correct?
34. Wolin: Yeah, that would be largely correct, yes. They did realise that those Institutions were porous and that they lent themselves to an influence of Money and the influence of the kind of People who had big Money. And so they waged a counter-Campaign. And the result was, I think, a sort of permanent change, especially in the Republican Party, because remember, the Republican Party was not a reactionary Party in the early ‘30s, and even as late as the 1936 Election with Alf Landon, who was very much a moderate--and he only won Maine and Vermont, but still he was significant--and that Wendell Wilkie was a Power in the Party until at least 1940, had a very important liberal wing. So it took a while for the evolution of the Republican Party to becoming the kind of staunch and continuous opponent of New Deal Legislation with Leaders who by and large were committed to rolling it back and to introducing conservative Reforms in Education and economic structure and Social Security systems and so on.
35. Hedges: We’d spoken earlier about what you term inverted Totalitarianism. When did that process begin? Would we signal the beginning of that process with those reactionary Forces in the 1930s? Is that when it started?
36. Wolin: I think in the broad view it would start back then. I think it didn’t gain full steam until you had those parallel developments that involved such sophisticated Public Relations Powers and political Party Organisations that were round-the-year operations, that with a conscious ideological slant and an appeal to donors who wanted to support that kind of slant, so that Politics--while all of those elements had been Present, to be sure, for a long Time, they achieved a certain Organisational strength and longevity that I think was unique to that Period.
And one has to remember that the ‘30s was a very troubled political Period, because not only of the New Deal and the Controversies it raised, and not only because of the reactionary elements at home, but Europe was clearly heading toward some uncertain Future with Hitler and Mussolini, and then the Spectre of Stalin, so that it was a very, very worrisome, nervous Period that had a lot to be nervous about.
37. Hedges: Do you have a Theory as to why Europe went one way and America went another?
38. Wolin: Well, I’m sure there are lots of reasons. One that I would emphasise is the failure of Governments in that Country to be able to capture and mobilise and sustain popular support while introducing structural, economic, and social Changes that would meet the kinds of growing Needs of a large urban and industrialised Population. I think that was the failure.
39. Hedges: You talk in--I think it’s in Politics and Vision--about how Fascism arose out of Weimar, which was essentially a weak Democracy. And yet you argue, inverted Totalitarianism, certainly a species of Totalitarianism, can often be the product of a strong Democracy.
40. Wolin: It can, in the sense that that strong Democracy can do what its name implies. In the pursuit of popular Ends, it develops inevitably powerful Institutions to promote those Ends. And very often they lend themselves to being taken over and utilised, that--for example, that popular means of Communication and News Information and so on can become very easily Propaganda means for corporate Capitalism, which understands that if you gain Control of Newspapers, Radio, Television, that you’re in a position to really shape the political Atmosphere.
41. Hedges: You write in Democracy Incorporated that you don’t believe we have any authentic democratic Institutions left.
42. Wolin: I don’t. That may be a bit of an overstatement, but I think--in terms of effective democratic Institutions, I don’t think we do. I think there’s potential. I think there’s potential in Movements towards Self-Government, Movements towards economic Independence, and Movements towards Educational Reform, and so on, that have the seeds for change. But I think that it’s very difficult now, given the way the Media is controlled and the way political Parties are organised and controlled, it’s very difficult to get a foothold in Politics in such a way that you can translate it into electoral Reforms, electoral victories, and Legislation, and so on. It’s a very, very complex, difficult, demanding process. And as I’ve said before, Democracy’s great trouble is it’s episodic.
43. Hedges: Right.
44. Wolin: And that just makes it easier for those who can hire other People to keep a sustained pressure on Government to go the other way. [David Brock. John Podesta & his wife.]
45. Hedges: You talk about how democratic Institutions which have essentially surrendered themselves to corporate Power have pushed Politics, if we define Politics as that which is concerned with the Common Good and with accepting the Risks, the Benefits, and the Sacrifices evenly across the Society, that essentially that has pushed political Life, to some extent, underground, outside of the Traditional political Institutions.
46. Wolin: I certainly think that there’s something to be said for that, because I think if you look strictly at our political Parties and the national political processes, you get a picture of a Society which seems to be moribund in terms of popular Democracy. But if you look at what happens locally and even in statewide situations, there’s still a lot of vitality out there, and People still feel that they have a Right to Complain, to Agitate, to Promote Causes that Would Benefit Them. And this still remains, I think, a strong element in it.
But I do think we’re facing a Period in which economic Uncertainty is such that, particularly for younger People, in the sense that we don’t really know anymore, with any Degree of high Certainty, how to prepare young People for a constantly changing Economy, so that young People, in a certain sense, who are the sort of stuff of later political Movements and political support systems, that young People are in a very real way puzzled and, I think, confused, and sort of don’t know where to go, and are being propelled in certain directions that don’t really add up to their long-run Benefit. And it starts with, I think, the secondary Education, and it continues in College. The plight of Liberal Arts Education is just extraordinary today. It’s so much on the defensive and so much on the ropes that it’s hard to see what, if any, place it’ll have in the Future.
47. Hedges: It’s hard to see you in most Politics departments at American universities today. It was probably a lonely position even when you--.
48. Wolin: Oh, yeah, because most American - most Political Science Departments have become in effect Social Science Departments and much more addicted to seeking out quantitative projects that lend themselves to apparent scientific Certainty and are less attuned - in Fact, I think, even, I would say, apprehensive - about appearing to be supportive of popular Causes. It’s just not in the grain anymore. And the more that academic positions become precarious, as they have become, with Tenure becoming more and more a rarity--.
49. Hedges: Thirty-five percent now of positions are actually tenured.
50. Wolin: Yeah, I would believe it. I would believe it. I mean, and that becomes a problem in terms of finding People willing to take a certain Risk, with the Understanding that while they’re taking a Risk, it won’t be so fatal to their Life chances. But I’m afraid it is now. And it doesn’t bode well, because it seems to me, in a left-handed sort of way, it encourages the kind of professionalisation of Politics that results in the kind of political Parties and political system that we’ve been warned about from the year one.
51. Hedges: And a political passivity, which you say--you talk about Classical totalitarian Regimes mobilise the masses, whereas in inverted Totalitarianism, the goal is to render the masses politically passive. And you use Hobbes to describe that. Can you speak a little bit about that?
52. Wolin: Well, Hobbes is interesting because he writes in the so-called Social Contract Tradition, and that had been a Tradition which grew up in the late 16th and 17th Century. The Social Contract position had furthered the notion that a political Society and its Governance should be the result of an Agreement, of an Agreement by the People as to what sort of Government they wanted and what sort of Role they wanted to play for themselves in such a Government. And the Social Contract was an Agreement they made with each other that they would create such a system and that they would support it, but they would reserve the Right to oppose it, even rebel against it, if it proceeded to work contrary to the designs of the original Contract, so that that became the sort of medium by which democratic Ideas were carried through the 17th Century and into much of the 18th Century, including the American Colonies and the Arguments over the American Constitution as well--and especially, I should add, in the Arguments about State Constitutions and Government.
53. Hedges: And that fostering of political passivity, you have said in your Work, is caused by what you were speaking about earlier, the economic Insecurity, the precariousness of the position, which I think you go back to Hobbes as citing as one of the kind of fundamental controlling elements to shut down any real political Activity.
54. Wolin: Yes, I believe that very strongly. I think if you go back way to the Athenian Democracy, one of the Things you notice about it is that it paid Citizens to participate. In other words, they would be relieved from a certain amount of economic Insecurity in order to engage actively in Politics. Well, when we get to our Times and modern Times, that kind of guarantee doesn’t exist in any form whatsoever. We barely can manage to have an Election day that isn’t where we suspend Work and other Obligations to give Citizens an Opportunity to vote. They have to cram a vote into a busy, normal day, so that the Relationship between economic structures and Institutions and political Institutions of Democracy are just really in tension now, in which the requirements of the one are being undercut by the operations of the other. And I don’t see any easy Solution to it, because the Forces that Control the Economy Control to a large extent Public opinion, modes of Publication, and so on, and make it very difficult to mount counter-views.
55. Hedges: Well, in Fact, to engage in real participatory Democracy or political Activity is to put yourself in a more precarious position vis-à-vis your Work, your Status within the Society.
56. Wolin: There’s no Question about it. And that’s true of, I think, virtually every Activity. It’s now certainly frowned upon in academic Work, and certainly in public Education it’s frowned on. And there’s no effort made to really make it a bit easier for People to participate. And the intensity that economic Survival requires today leaves most People exhausted. There’s--and understandably. They don’t have much, if any, Time for Politics. So we’re in a really difficult situation, where the requirements of Democracy are such that they’re being undermined by the Realities of a kind of Economy and Society that we’ve developed.
57. Hedges: Which you point out Hobbes foresaw.
58. Wolin: He did. He did indeed.
59. Hedges: And his Solution was you surrender your political Rights.
60. Wolin: Yeah.
Thank you. Stay tuned for part three
with our discussion with Professor Sheldon Wolin.
You talk in both of your books, Politics and Vision and Democracy Incorporated, about Superpower, which you call the true face of inverted Totalitarianism. What is Superpower? How do you describe it?
62. Wolin: Well, I think it’s important to grasp that Superpower includes as one of its two main elements the modern Economy. And the modern Economy, with its foundations in not only economic Activity but scientific Research, is always a dynamic Economy and always constantly seeking to expand, to get new Markets, to be able to produce new Goods, and so on. So the Superpower’s dynamism becomes a kind of counterpart to the character of the modern Economy, which has become so dominant that it defines the political forms.
I mean, the first Person to really recognize this - which we always are embarrassed to say - was Karl Marx, who did understand that economic forms shape political forms, that economic forms are the way People make a Living, they’re the way Goods and Services are produced, and they determine the nature of Society, so that any kind of Government which is responsive to Society is going to reflect that kind of structure and in itself be undemocratic, be elitist in a fundamental sense, and have consumers as Citizens.
63. Hedges: And Marx would also argue that it also defines Ideology.
64. Wolin: It does. It does define Ideology. Marx was really the first to see that Ideology had become a kind of--although there are antecedents, had become a kind of preconceived package of Ideas and centered around the notion of Control, that it represented something new in the World because you now had the resources to disseminate it, to impose it, and to generally make certain that a Society became, so to speak, educated in precisely the kind of Ideas you wanted them to be educated in. And that became all the more important when Societies entered the stage of relatively advanced Capitalism, where the emphasis was upon Work, getting a Job, keeping your Job, holding it in insecure Times. And when you’ve got that kind of situation, everybody wants to put their political Beliefs on hold. They don’t want to have to agonise over them while they’re agonising over the search for Work or worrying about the insecurity of their position. They’re understandably preoccupied with Survival. And at that point, Democracy becomes at best a Luxury and at worst simply an afterthought, so that its Future becomes very seriously compromised, I think.
65. Hedges: And when the Ruling Ideology is determined by Capitalism--corporate Capitalism; you’re Right--we have an upending of Traditional democratic Values, because Capitalist Values are about Expansion, Exploitation, Profit, the Cult of the Self, and you stop even asking questions that can bring you into democratic or participatory Democracy.
66. Wolin: I think that’s true to an extent. But I would amend that to say that once the kind of supremacy of the Capitalist Regime becomes assured, and where it’s evident to everyone that it’s not got a real alternative in confronting it, that I think its Genius is it sees that a certain relaxation is not only possible, but even desirable, because it gives the impression that the Regime is being supported by Public Debate and supported by People who were arguing with other People, who were allowed to speak their Minds, and so on. And I think it’s when you reach that stage--as I think we have--that the problematic Relationship between Capitalism and Democracy become more and more acute.
67. Hedges: And yet we don’t have anyone within the mainstream who questions either Superpower or Capitalism.
68. Wolin: No, they don’t. And I don’t think it’s--it may be a Question of weakness, but I think--the problem is really, I think, more sort of quixotic. That is, Capitalism--unlike earlier forms of economic Organisation, Capitalism thrives on Change. It presents itself as the dynamic form of Society, with new Inventions, new Discoveries, new forms of Wealth, so that it doesn’t appear like the old Regime--as sort of an encrusted old fogey type of Society. [Kate Welch. Joyce Carol Oates. Steven Soderbergh.] And I think that makes a great deal of difference, because in a certain sense you almost get roles reversed. That is, in the old Regime, the dominant Powers, Aristocracy and so on, want to keep the lid on, and the insurgent Democracy, the liberalising Powers, wanted to take the lid off.
But now I think you get it--as I say, I think you get it kind of reversed, that Democracy, it now wants--in its form of being sort of the Public Philosophy, now wants to keep the lid on and becomes, I think, increasingly less--more adverse to examining in a--through Self-examination, and becomes increasingly, I would say, even intolerant of views which Question its own Assumptions, and above all Question its Consequences, because I think that’s where the real issues lie is not so much with the Assumptions of Democracy but with the Consequences and trying to figure out how we’ve managed to get a political system that preaches Equality and an economic system which thrives on Inequality and produces Inequality as a matter of course.
69. Hedges: Well, in all totalitarian Societies there’s a vast disconnect between Rhetoric and Reality, which, of course, would characterise inverted Totalitarianism as a Species of Totalitarianism.
70. Wolin: Well, I guess that’s true. I think I’d probably qualify that, because I’d qualify it in the sense that when you look at Nazism and Fascism, they were pretty upfront about a lot of Things - leadership Principle, racist Principles - and they made no secret that they wanted to dominate the World, so that I think there was a certain kind of aggressive openness in those Regimes that I think isn’t true of our contemporary situation.
71. Hedges: And yet in the same Time, in those Regimes, I mean, you look at Stalin’s constitution as a document, it was very liberal,--
72. Wolin: Sure.
73. Hedges: --it protected Human Rights and Free Speech. And so on the one hand--at least in terms of Civil Liberties. And we have, as Superpower, exactly replicated in many ways this call for constant global Domination and Expansion that was part of what you would describe as Classical Totalitarianism. And that--you’re Right, in that the notion of Superpower is that it’s global and that that constant global Expansion, which is twinned with the engine of corporate Capitalism, is something that you say has diminished the Reality of the Nation-State itself--somehow the Nation-State becomes insignificant in the great Game of Superpower global Empire--and that that has Consequences both economically and politically.
74. Wolin: Well, I think it does. I think one has to treat the matter carefully, because a lot of the vestiges of the Nation-States still are, obviously, in existence. But I think one of the important tendencies of our Time--I would say not tendencies, but trends--is that sovereign Governments based on so-called liberal Democracy have discovered that the only way they can survive is by giving up a large dose of their Sovereignty, by setting up European Unions, various Trade Pacts, and other sort of regional Alliances that place constraints on their Power, which they ordinarily would proclaim as natural to having any Nation at all, and so that that kind of Development, I think, is fraught with all kinds of implications, not the least of [them] being not only whether--what kind of actors we have now in the case of Nation-States, but what the Future of social Reform is, when the vehicle of that Reform has now been sort of transmuted into a system where it’s lost a Degree of Autonomy and, hence, its capacity to create the Reforms or promote the Reforms that People in social Movements had wanted the Nation-State to do.
75. Hedges: And part of that surrender has been the impoverishment of the Working Class with the flight of Manufacturing. And I think it’s in Politics and Vision you talk about how the War that is made by the inverted totalitarian system against the Welfare State never publicly accepts the Reality that it was the system that caused the impoverishment, that those who are impoverished are somehow to blame for their own predicament. And this, of course, is part of the skill of the Public Relations Industry, the mask of corporate Power, which you write is really dominated by Personalities, political Personalities that we pick. And that has had, I think (I don’t know if you would agree), a kind of - a very effective - it has been a very effective way by which the Poor and the Working Class have internalised their own repression and in many ways become disempowered, because I think that that message is one that even at a street level many People have ingested.
76. Wolin: Yeah. I think you’re Right about that. The problem of how to get a foothold by Democratic Forces in the kind of Society we have is so problematic now that it’s very hard to envision it would take place. And the ubiquity of the Present economic system is so profound (and it’s accompanied by this apparent denial of its own Reality) that it becomes very hard to find a defender of it who doesn’t want to claim in the end that he’s really on your side.
Yeah, it’s a very paradoxical situation. And I don’t know. I mean, I think we all have to take a deep breath and try to start from scratch again in thinking about where we are, how we get there, and what kind of immediate steps we might take in order to alter the course that I think we’re on, which really creates Societies which, when you spell out what’s happening, nobody really wants, or at least not ordinary People want. It’s a very strange situation where--and I think, you know, not least among them is, I think, the factor that you suggested, which is the kind of evaporation of leisure Time and the Opportunities to use that for political Education, as well as kind of Moral Refreshment. But, yeah, it’s a really totally unprecedented situation where you’ve got Affluence, Opportunity, and so on, and you have these kinds of Frustrations, Injustices, and really very diminished Life prospects.
77. Hedges: You agree, I think, with Karl Marx that unfettered, unregulated corporate Capitalism is a revolutionary Force.
78. Wolin: Oh, indeed. I think it’s been demonstrated even beyond his wildest dreams that it - yeah, you’re just - you just have to see what happens when an underdeveloped part of the World, as they’re called, becomes developed by Capitalism. It just transforms everything, from social Relations to not only economic Relations, but prospects in Society for various Classes and so on. No, it’s a mighty, mighty Force. And the problem it always creates is trying to get a handle on it, partly because it’s so omnipresent, it’s so much a part of what we’re used to, that we can’t recognise what we’re used to as a Threat. And that’s part of the paradox.
79. Hedges: You take issue with this or, you know, point out that in Fact it is a revolutionary Force. And yet it is somehow, as a political and economic position, the domain of People as self-identified Conservatives.
80. Wolin: Yeah, it is. I think they’re conservative on sort of one side of their face, as it were, because I think they’re always willing to radically change, let’s say, social Legislation that’s in existence to defend People, ordinary People. I think they’re very selective about what they want to preserve and what they want to either undermine or completely eliminate.
That’s, of course, the kind of way that the political system presents itself in kind of an interesting way. That is, you get this combination of conservative and liberal in the Party system. I mean, the Republicans stand for pretty much the preservation of the status quo, and the Democrats have as their historical function a kind of mild, modest, moderate Reformism that’s going to deal with some of the excesses without challenging very often the basic system, so that it kind of strikes a wonderful balance between preservation and criticism. The criticism--because the preservation element is so strong, criticism becomes always constructive, in the sense that it presumes the continued Operation of the Present system and its main elements.
81. Hedges: Of both corporate Capitalism and Superpower.
82. Wolin: Absolutely.
83. Hedges: And yet you say that at this point, political Debate has really devolved into what you call nonsubstantial issues, issues that don’t really mean anything if we talk about Politics as centered around the Common Good.
84. Wolin: Yeah, political Debate has become either so rhetorically excessive as to be beside the point, or else to be so shy of taking on the basic problems. But again you’re back in the kind of chasing-the-tail problem. The Mechanisms, i.e. political Parties, that we have that are supposed to organise and express Discontent are, of course, precisely the organs that require the Money that only the dominant Groups possess. I mean, long ago there were Theories or proposals being floated to set up public Financing. But public Financing, even as it was conceived then, was so miniscule that you couldn’t possibly even support a kind of lively political Debate in a modest way.
You know, Politics has become such an expensive Thing that I think really the only way to describe it realistically is to talk about it as a political Economy or an economic kind of political Economy. It’s got those--those two are inextricable elements now in the business of the national or State Governments, too.
85. Hedges: And yet I think you could argue that even the Democratic Party under Clinton and under Obama, while it continues to use the Rhetoric of that kind of feel-your-pain Language, which has been part of the Democratic Establishment, has only furthered the agenda of Superpower, of corporate Capitalism, and, of course, the rise of the security and surveillance state by which all of us are kept in check.
86. Wolin: Yeah, I think that’s true, because the reformers have simply hesitated--really, really hesitated--to undertake any kind of a focus upon political Reform.
87. Hedges: Haven’t the reformers been bought off, in essence?
88. Wolin: I think it’s the no-no subject. I don’t think it even has to be bought off anymore. I think that it is such a kind of third rail that nobody wants to touch it, because I think there is a real in-built Fear that if you mess with those kind of so-called fundamental structures, you’re going to bring down the house. And that includes messing with them even by constitutional, legal means, that it’s so fragile, so delicate, so this, that and the other Thing that inhibit all kinds of efforts at reforming it. As the phrase used to go, it’s a machine that goes of itself--so they think.
Hedges: Thank you. Stay tuned for part four,
coming up, of our interview with Professor Sheldon Wolin.
Welcome back to part four of our interview with
Professor Sheldon Wolin, who taught Politics for many years at Berkeley and
later Princeton. He is the author of several seminal Works on political Philosophy,
including Politics and Vision and Democracy Incorporated.
I wanted just to go through and I’ve taken notes from both of your books, Politics and Vision and Democracy Incorporated, of the characteristics of what you call inverted Totalitarianism, which you use to describe the political system that we currently live under. You said it’s only in part a State-centered phenomenon. What do you mean by that?
90. Wolin: Well, I mean by that that one of the striking characteristics of our age is the extent to which so-called private Institutions, like the Media, for example, are able to work towards the same End of Control, Pacification, that the Government is interested in, that the Idea of genuine opposition is usually viewed as Subversion, and so that criticism now is a category that we should really look at and examine, and to see whether it really amounts to anything more than a kind of mild rebuke at best, and at worst a way of sort of confirming the Present system by showing its open-mindedness about Self-criticism.
91. Hedges: And you said that there’s a kind of fusion now of--and you talk a lot about the internal dynamics of Corporations themselves, the way they’re completely hierarchical, even the extent to which People within corporate structures are made to identify with a Corporation on a kind of personal level. Even - I mean, I speak as a former reporter for The New York Times - even we would get memos about the New York Times Family, which is, of course, absurd. And you talk about how that Value system or that structure of Power, coupled with that type of Propaganda, has just been transferred to the State, that the State now functions in exactly the same way, the same hierarchical way, that it uses the same forms of Propaganda to get People at once to surrender their political Rights and yet to identify themselves through Nationalism, Patriotism, and the Lust for Superpower itself, which we see now across the political landscape.
92. Wolin: Yeah. No, I think that’s a very strong element, in Fact decisive element in our present situation. There’s been a kind of conjuncture between the way that social and educational Institutions have shaped a certain kind of mentality among Students, among Faculty, and so on, and the Media itself, that are in lockstep with the requirements of the kind of political economic Order that we have now, and that the basic Question, I think, has been that we have seen the kind of absorption of Politics and the political Order into so many nonpolitical Categories - of Economics, Sociology, even Religion - that we sort of lost the whole, it seems to me, unique character of political Institutions, which is that they’re supposed to embody the kind of substantive Hopes of ordinary People, in terms of the kind of Present and Future that they want, and that’s what Democracy is supposed to be about.
But instead we have it subordinated now to the so-called demands of economic Growth, the so-called demands of a kind of economic Class that’s at home with the sort of scientific and technological Advances that are being applied by Industry, so that the kind of political element of the Ruling Groups now is being shaped and to a large extent, I think, incorporated into an Ideology that is fundamentally unpolitical, or political in a sort of anti-political way. What I mean by that: it’s a combination of Forces that really wants to exploit the political without seeking to either strengthen it or reform it in a meaningful way or to rejuvenate it. It sees the political structure as Opportunity. And the more porous it is, the better, because the dominant Groups have such instrumentalities at their Control now in order to do that exploitation - Radio, Television, Newsprint, what have you - that it’s the best possible World for them. [Kate Welch sucking off Jeff Bezos. Gwyneth Paltrow sucking off Eric Schmidt. Jimmy Fallon sucking off Bill Gates.]
93. Hedges: You actually cite Nietzsche, saying how prescient Nietzsche was. I think you may have said he was a better prophet than Marx, I think, if I remember correctly, in Politics and Vision, but how Nietzsche understood the disintegration of liberal Democracy and the liberal Class, and also understood the rise of fundamentalist Religion in an age of Secularism and how dangerous that was.
94. Wolin: Yeah. I think that’s--obviously, I think that’s true of him, and I think it was very farseeing on his part. He, of course, was not a sympathiser with those Development, but he wasn’t an ordinary sympathiser, either, with the sort of historical Elites, or even current Elites, that were either Capitalist or Nationalistic, as in the case of Germany.
Nietzsche was trying to really retrieve a notion of the Value, intrinsic Value, of political Life. And he found it, however, only comprehensible to him in terms of some kind of dichotomy between Elite and Mass. And that, I think, was the failing of Nietzsche, because he saw so much in terms of tendencies in our Society and Culture that would ruin us to Democracy and needed to be reformed, but reformed in a way that would promote Democracy, but which Nietzsche would inevitably try to turn into vehicles for celebrating or encouraging Elite formations. And he simply could not conceive of a Society that would be worthwhile in which Elites were not given the most prominent and leading role. He just couldn’t conceive it. He had the kind of 19th Century sort of Hegelian notion that the Masses were ignorant, they were intolerant, they were against Progress, and all the rest of it. He simply, like so many very Good writers in the 19th Century, didn’t know what to do with the, quote, People.
95. Hedges: Including Marx.
96. Wolin: No, no. They didn’t. They tried to either neutralise them or tried to co-opt them, but they never really tried to understand them.
I think the best--the best political Movement, I think, which did try to understand them in a significant way, strangely enough, was the American Progressive Movement, which was very much rooted in American History, in American Institutions, but saw quite clearly the dangers that it was getting into and the Need for really significant Reform that required democratic Means, not elitist Means, for their Solution, and above all required America to really think carefully about its role in International Relations, because he saw that that was a trap and, as an aggressive, dominant role in economic relations, was a trap because of what it required, what it required of the Population in terms of their outlook and Education and Culture, and what it required in the way of Elites who could lead those kinds of formations. And I think for that reason he was literally a pessimist about what could happen and he had nowhere to go. He had no great Trust in the People, and he had come to distrust the Elite. I think in the end he took a kind of view that what Elites should do is to hunker down and preserve Culture, preserve it in its various manifestations--Literature, Philosophy, Poetry, so on.
97. Hedges: But he certainly understood what happened when the State divorced itself from religious Authority,--
98. Wolin: Oh, yeah.
99. Hedges: --that you would see the rise of fundamentalist religious Movements in fierce opposition to the secular State, number one; and number two, you would see a frantic effort on the part of the State to sacralise itself.
100. Wolin: Yeah. Yeah, now, that’s true. It did try to do that. It did that rather--far less in the United States, but it certainly did it in Germany, and to some Degree Italy, but not fully.
Yeah, I think to some extent the problem that Nietzsche gets into, I think, is an overstatement of a position that assumed a kind of sustained religiosity on the part of ordinary People that I simply don’t think was true. I don’t mean to say that they became skeptics or they became agnostics or anything of the sort, but I do think there was a slackening and a lessening of religious commitments and a kind of marginalisation of ecstasy Groups and--.
101. Hedges: Are you talking about the end of Monarchy?
102. Wolin: No, the end of, really, the significant role of Religion in the Constitution of the modern State.
103. Hedges: Which would have been the end of Monarchy, wouldn’t it?
104. Wolin: It would have been the end of Monarchy, except in a kind of symbolic role. Yeah, it would have been the end of Monarchy. I do think that Monarchy probably would always require some kind of sacral element. Certainly, the remnants of it in countries for a while, like Spain and Greece, indicated that. But, no, it did undermine Monarchy. There’s no Question about it. Most modern tendencies have undermined it, and Monarchs have mostly been showpieces and not much else.
105. Hedges: You also talk about inverted Totalitarianism as not only signaling the political demobilisation of the Citizenry, but how it’s never expressed conceptually as an Ideology or objectified in Public policy. What do you mean by that?
106. Wolin: Well, I mean by that that it hasn’t been crystallised in just those terms, that it’s operational. Its Operation is really a combination of elements whose interlocking and coherence together have never been either properly appreciated or publicly debated in any sustained way. And I think that there’s been a sort of creeping quality to it, that it becomes more and more significant as the requirements of a modern Economy and a modern Education system become more and more apparent, but it’s never provoked the kind of crisis that has led to fundamental re-examination. There have been critics, there have been complaints, and so on, but opposition has never really been focused in a way that presented a serious challenge.
107. Hedges: Because it’s never named.
108. Wolin: It’s never named.
109. Hedges: It never names itself.
110. Wolin: No. No, you cannot use that name. I mean, it’s that simple. You cannot use Capitalism in a way that’s opprobrium.
111. Hedges: You said that in inverted Totalitarianism, it is furthered by Power holders and Citizens who often seem unaware of the deeper Consequences of their Actions or Inactions. What I find interesting about that statement is you say even the Power holders don’t understand their Actions.
112. Wolin: Yeah, I don’t think they do. I think that’s most--I think that’s apparent not only in so-called conservative political officeholders, but liberal ones as well. And I think the reason for it isn’t far to see. The demands of contemporary political decision-making, that is, actually having to decide Things in Legislation or executive action in a complex political Society and economic Society such as ours, in a complex political, economic Society such as the World is, make reflection very difficult. They make it extremely difficult. And everybody’s caught up in the demands of the moment, and understandably so. It becomes again a kind of Game of Preservation, of keeping the ship of State afloat, but not really trying seriously to change its direction, except maybe rhetorically.
Now, I think the demands of the World are such now and so dangerous, with the kind of Weaponry and Resources available to every crank and nut in the World, makes it extremely difficult for Governments to relax a moment and think about social Order and the Welfare of the Citizens in some kind of way that’s divorced from the Security potential of the Society.
113. Hedges: We’d spoke earlier about how because corporate Forces have essentially taken over not only systems of Media but systems of Education, they’ve effectively destroyed the capacity within these Institutions for critical thinking. And what they’ve done is educate Generation--now probably a couple of Generations of systems managers, People whose Expertise, technical Expertise, revolves around keeping the system, as it’s constructed, viable and afloat, so that when there’s a--in 2008, the global financial crisis, they immediately loot the U.S. Treasury to infuse a staggering $17 trillion worth of Money back into the system. And what are the Consequences? We’d spoken earlier about how even the Power holders themselves don’t often understand where they’re headed. What are the Consequences of now lacking the ability to critique the system or even understand it? What are the Consequences environmentally, economically, in terms of Democracy itself, of feeding and sustaining that system of corporate Capitalism or inverted Totalitarianism?
114. Wolin: Well, I think the only Question would be what kind of Time span you’re talking about. I mean, I see the kind of erosion of those Institutions that you mention as so continuous that it won’t take terribly long before the substance of them is completely hollowed out and that what you will get is Institutions which do no longer play the role they were intended to, either role of Lawmaking in an independent way or criticism or responsiveness to an Electorate, so that I think the Consequences are with us already. And of course the turnoff on the part of the voters is just one indication of it, but the level of Public discourse is certainly another, so that I see it as a process which now is finding fewer and fewer dissident voices that have a genuine platform and Mechanism for reaching People. I don’t mean that there aren’t People who disagree, but I’m talking about do they have ways of communicating, discussing what the Disagreements are about and what can be said about the contemporary situation that Needs to be addressed, so that the problem, I think, Right now is the problem that the instruments of revitalisation are just really in very Bad disrepair. And I don’t see any immediate prospect of it, because--.
115. Hedges: You mean coming from within the system itself.
116. Wolin: Coming from within. You know, years ago, say, in the 19th Century, it was no ordinary occurrence that a new political Party would be formed and that it would make maybe not a dominant effect, but it would certainly influence - as the Progressive Party did - influence affairs. That’s no more possible now than the most outlandish scheme you can think of. Political Parties are so expensive that I needn’t detail the difficulties that would be faced by anyone who tried to organise one.
I think the beautiful example we have today, I just think, fraught with implications, is the Koch Brothers’ Purchase of the Republican Party. They literally bought it. Literally. And they had a specific amount they paid, and now they’ve got it. There hasn’t been anything like that in American History. To be sure, powerful economic Interests have influenced political Parties, especially the Republicans, but this kind of gross takeover, in which the Party is put in the pocket of two Individuals, is without precedent. And that means something serious. It means that, among other Things, you no longer have a viable opposition Party. And while however much many of us may disagree with the Republicans, there is still an important place for Disagreement. And now it seems to me that’s all gone. It’s now become a personal vehicle of two [Homo Sapiens]. And God only knows what they’re going to do with it, but I wouldn’t hold my breath if you think constructive results are going to follow.
117. Hedges: Well, didn’t Clinton just turn the Democratic Party into the Republican Party and Force the Republican Party to come become insane?
118. Wolin: Yeah, it’s true. Yeah, I mean, it’s true that beginning with the Clinton Administration, the Democratic Party has kind of lost its way too.
But I still--maybe it’s a Hope more than a Fact, but I still have the Hope that the Democratic Party is still sufficiently loose and sufficiently uncoordinated that it’s possible for dissidents to get their voices heard.
Now, it may not last very long, because in order to compete with the Republicans, there will be every temptation for the Democrats to emulate them. And that means less internal Democracy, more reliance on corporate Funding.
119. Hedges: Wouldn’t it be fair to say that after the nomination of George McGovern, the Democratic Party created institutional Mechanisms by which no popular candidate would ever be nominated again?
120. Wolin: Oh, I think that’s true. The McGovern Thing was a Nightmare to the Party, to the Party officials. And I’m sure they vowed that there would never be anything like it again possible. And of course, there never has been. And it also means that you lost with that the one Thing that McGovern had done, which was to revitalise popular interest in Government. And so the Democrats not only killed McGovern; they killed what he stood for, which was more important.
121. Hedges: And you saw an echo of that in 2000 when Ralph Nader ran and engendered the same kind of grassroots enthusiasm.
122. Wolin: Yeah, he did. He did.
123. Hedges: And just as it was the Democratic Establishment that virtually, during the presidential Campaign, the Connolly Democrats conspired with the Republican Party to destroy, in essence, their own candidate, you saw it was the Democratic Party that destroyed the viability of Nader.
124. Wolin: Yeah. Yeah, that’s true. That’s true. The Democrats--I mean, it’s not surprising, because as we’ve said many times, the Democrats are playing the same Game as the Republicans and have a nuance and some historical baggage that compels them to be a little more to the left. But it seems to me that the conditions now in which political Parties have to operate, conditions which involve large amounts of Money, which involve huge stakes because of the character of the American Economy now, which has to be very carefully dealt with, and very cautiously, and given the declining role of America in World affairs, I think that there’s every reason to believe that the cautionary attitude of the Democratic Party is emblematic of a new kind of Politics where the room for manœuver and the room for staking out significant different positions is shrinking, shrinking very, very much.
Thank you very much. Stay tuned for part five coming up of our interview with Professor Sheldon Wolin.
125. Hedges: Welcome back to part five of our interview with Professor Sheldon Wolin, who taught Politics for many years at Berkeley and later Princeton. He is the author of several seminal Works on political Philosophy, including Politics and Vision and Democracy Incorporated.
I wanted to ask about the nature of Superpower, and particularly the role of the Military in Superpower. And I thought I’d begin by asking, because the Military is something you have personal Experience with, your own--you were a pilot of a B-24. Were these flying fortresses? Was that--? That’s what they were.
126. Wolin: [crosstalk] bombardier and a navigator was what I was.
127. Hedges: A bombardier and a navigator. And in the South Pacific?
128. Wolin: Yes.
129. Hedges: And you flew how many Combat--?
130. Wolin: Fifty-one.
131. Hedges: Fifty-one missions. And what was--from when to when, and what were you targeting?
132. Wolin: Well, our Group started from Guadalcanal when the Americans took it over, finally. And what we were, essentially, was the Air Force to support MacArthur. And MacArthur’s Strategy was to proceed Island by Island, taking them back from the Japanese and getting closer and closer to Japan proper. And we were the support Group for that, which meant softening up the Japanese Island holdings prior to Invasion. And then the other unfortunate Mission we had was to chase the Japanese Navy, which proved disastrous, because--.
133. Hedges: Isn’t that a novel use of--
134. Wolin: Oh, it was a terrible--.
135. Hedges: --aren’t those, like, about as manœuverable as a Tank in the air?
136. Wolin: It was terrible. And we received awful losses from that, because these big lumbering Aircraft, particularly flying low trying to hit the Japanese Navy--and we lost countless People in it, countless. So we spent that. And we were going from Island to Island, making our way eventually to the Philippines itself. And then I left at that point. I had finished my missions. And the Air Force was at that point preparing for the Invasion of Japan, which, of course, didn’t actually take place.
137. Hedges: Where were you when the Bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki?
138. Wolin: I was on a road to Miami Beach to visit--I had my wife, and we were going to visit my mother.
139. Hedges: Did you at the Time recognise the significance of that?
140. Wolin: I didn’t, I don’t think. We quickly learned something about it, because there were some People I was associated with who knew some of the men involved in the Development of it, and they used to tell me Things about Oppenheimer and the others that--especially, of course, you became aware of this when Oppenheimer ran into his own Trouble with the Un-American Activities People.
141. Hedges: Well, and this is because he turned on the Nuclear programme after--
142. Wolin: Right, yes, he did.
143. Hedges: --producing the Weaponry.
144. Wolin: Yes, he did. Yeah.
145. Hedges: What, from your own Experience, because you write about the Military and you write about Superpower--but your own Experience in the Military, what did you learn from that? What did--it wasn’t theoretical for you. You were in War. You were in the giant Bureaucracy of the Military itself.
146. Wolin: Well, you must remember the cardinal Fact, which is we were all so young. I was 19. And the other members of our crew, there was only one who was about 23 or 24. So we were all extremely inexperienced and impressionable, and we were flying these giant Bombers and going into Combat not knowing anything about what it meant except, you know, in sort of formal lectures, which we might have had. So the Experience was always quite traumatic in a lot of ways. Some of it didn’t register until much later, but for some of them, some of the People I knew, it registered very soon, and we had quite a few psychological casualties of men, boys, who just couldn’t take it anymore, just couldn’t stand the strain of getting up at five in the morning and proceeding to get into these aircraft and go and getting shot at for a while and coming back to rest for another day.
It was a difficult Time. It was very difficult Time. And I think the Fact that saved us was that we were so young, we didn’t know what was going on, basically. And I think there was a lot of coming to grips with it later in the Lives of most of us, that we began to appreciate and realise what we had been through. And that didn’t help terribly much, but it did allow you in some sense to come to grips with what it had meant, especially the kind of suppressed Memories you had of Bad incidents that happened.
147. Hedges: How did it affect you? Did you walk way differently both emotionally and intellectually, do you think, from the War?
148. Wolin: Yeah, I think--as I look back, I think I went through a Period of being very inward-looking. And the other Thing to be remembered is the pace of Things from the moment you got out. In my case, I had to go back to undergraduate School to finish my Degree, so I was back for a year. Then you jump Right into graduate training. And graduate Education was at that point so overwhelmed by numbers that everything was kind of compressed and brief, and not terribly much Time to digest Things, and then you were scouting for a Job, so that one had the impression that the pressure that had been building up in the War and in the War Service just kept on going, and that you never really had a chance to relax, because now you were faced with Tenure and the problems of Tenure and the problems of Publication and teaching, so that it exacted a toll. There’s no Question about it. We never really managed to relax, because we - I suppose we did relax a bit when we finally got Tenure, but even then it was very competitive, because the password was Publication. And so you were constantly pressured to write and write and write.
149. Hedges: And you did.
150. Wolin: Yeah, you did. But I think I was fortunate enough to enjoy it, actually, enjoy the writing. But for a lot of my colleagues, they would manage it, but it exacted a price. It’s hard to explain to People how difficult it is to write when one simply has to write when it simply has to be forced in a lot of ways.
151. Hedges: Well, see, the difference is you are a writer. I mean, you’re quite a Good writer, which is not common among academics.
152. Wolin: Yeah, I had always enjoyed writing, from the Time I was grammar School to the Time I went to College. I enjoyed it very much. But some of my colleagues, who loved the subject matter and were Good teachers, just couldn’t write. And it was tragic, because they had a lot to give, and they couldn’t get Tenure because they hadn’t passed this particular bar.
153. Hedges: Well, and you also had--so you were at Harvard in the 1950s, and this was when the academy was being purged,--
154. Wolin: Oh, yeah.
155. Hedges: --Staughton Lynd, you may know, driven out of Yale, you know Chandler Davis, I mean, a long list of great, great scholars and academics who were targeted from outside and within the academy and pushed out. And this was something that coincided with the development of your own formation as an intellectual and as a writer. And I wondered how that Experience also affected you, because you held fast to a very kind of radical critique of--.
156. Wolin: Well, I mean, I had a very peculiar Experience when I get hired at Berkeley, because I didn’t realise when I went there that the position I was taking was one occupied by a man who refused to take the Loyalty Oath. And I didn’t know that at the Time. And so when I did learn it, of course, I felt kind of guilty about the whole Thing. Yeah, he lost the Job. He quit.
And it was--in one sense, you know, you sort of said to yourself, well, I don’t have to worry about the Loyalty Oath, ‘cause I’ve taken it in the Military many, many Times, so that it’s nothing new to me. But later on you began to think about it more and realise that maybe there was a larger issue there than you thought, because it meant that you were accepting a certain Orthodoxy from the outset and that you weren’t quite as free as notions of Academic Freedom suggested you were. And it was a kind of rude awakening for a lot of us, I think, because we also were carrying the Wartime Propaganda about we represent the Forces of Freedom and Open Society and all the rest of it. And then to find ourselves really kind of cramped for expression in that very tense kind of postwar Cold War War Period, it was not a Pleasant Time. I didn’t enjoy those years of teaching. It settled down later, but didn’t settle down for much, because we then had the fracas of the ‘60s, too, which was very disturbing and upsetting to all the academic routines.
157. Hedges: How much damage do you think those purges, triggered by the McCarthy era in the early ‘50s, did to the Academy?
158. Wolin: I think it did a lot to People, but often in ways they weren’t quite aware of. It had a definite chastening and deadening effect on academic Inquiry and political Expression. And what happened was, I think, the worst part of it, was that once that got into the air, it became normal. You accepted those Things really unconsciously.
159. Hedges: When you say “those Things”, what are you talking about?
160. Wolin: You’re talking about how far you question Government policies, how far you question dominant Values, what you said about the Economy, and Things of that sort. And the problem was that you faced the Students with a far less critical attitude than you should have had, and it took a long while, I think, to kind of disentangle yourself from that kind of coverage which the Loyalty of the Period gave to People. And since academic Jobs then were scarce, you always kind of swallowed whatever you had to swallow to get a Job. So you may have been a radical in graduate School or undergraduate School, but you knew that you couldn’t carry that torch as a prospective Faculty member.
161. Hedges: I talked to Larry Hamm, who at Princeton organised the anti-apartheid Movement. This would have been in the ‘70s. And he said of roughly 500 Princeton Faculty, there were only three or four, yourself included, who joined those demonstrations.
162. Wolin: Yeah, that’s true. It was--. Yeah, we paid a price. I think the most humiliating episode for me was when some of the undergraduates were protesting Princeton investment in South Africa and they wanted to present their case to the Alumni. And the Alumni had a meeting, and the kids were supposed to present it. And at the last minute, the kid that was leading the Group got a little cold feet, and he said, would you come in with me? And I should have said no, but I didn’t. So I went in with him. And I’ve never been jeered quite so roundly by the Alumni sitting there waiting to be talked to by the Students about investment in South Africa. Some of them called me 50-year-old sophomores and that kind of Thing. It was a difficult Experience. But the Students did well. They held their own.
163. Hedges: It was one of the largest--at Princeton, surprisingly, one of the largest student--well, largely ‘cause of Larry, who’s a remarkable organiser and very charismatic and deep Integrity and--
164. Wolin: Yes, he was.
165. Hedges: --and still doing it in Newark today. I wondered whether that Experience says something about the University, about its Cowardice and, I guess, let’s say, the Faculty in particular.
166. Wolin: Oh, I think it did. I think all those events of the ‘60s on, on through the ‘70s, did. It’s hard to realise at the outset of the [incompr.] particularly I’m speaking from my Experience at Berkeley. It’s really hard to recognise the moment when the Faculty suddenly realised that they were a kind of corporate body that could stand up against the Regents and take a stand when they thought there was interference with Academic Freedom, as there tended to be with the Regents. They did kind of mess around with Curriculum and tried to influence Faculty Hiring and so on. It was a very, very grim chapter. But the effect of it was to make you very, very much on guard against the rule of the graduated Students and their influence in the University, because at Princeton you had, like at very few other places, lots of concentrated Money, and the university were dependent on that to a large extent, so that the Alumni had a kind of position that I didn’t experience anywhere else in terms of their prominence and, I think, the informal influence that they exercise over a lot of matters that they had no Business dealing with. It was an Education in Alumni Relations, the like of which I never had anyplace else.
167. Hedges: When you came back from the War, you went to Oberlin, and then you went to Harvard.
168. Wolin: Yeah.
169. Hedges: Many of the Academics at these Institutions during the War had served in positions of some Authority in Washington, had certainly integrated themselves into the War Effort. And I wondered if you thought this was a kind of turning point in terms of Academia fusing itself, the way business had, with the Military, you know, intellectually, in terms of serving the Ends of Superpower?
170. Wolin: Well, I think it certainly had some influence, in the sense that I guess one of the Things that struck me at Harvard, in terms of going to Seminars where the professor had been active in Washington during the War, was the--I mean, they were always interesting because of inside stories, but they were also really quite uncritical of anything that they either were doing or the Government was doing during this Period. In other words, there was no detachment, because they were so, in a certain sense, carried away by their own Experience and their kind of Self-Assumption about their importance and so on that it--I found some of the early years at Harvard, Experience with Faculty, to be very unnerving in a lot of ways.
Now, it isn’t true of all of them. Some of them, like--I don’t know whether you knew Merle Fainsod or not, but Merle was chairman of the Department. But he was a wonderful Person, and he had been in Washington during the War with one of the agencies controlling Prices and Wages. But he was--he never threw his weight around or tried to rely on Washington Experience as the answer to all lectures. He was a very Good man and a very, very serious academic.
But others, like Bill Elliott, as I say, were just so infatuated with their own Self-importance that I learned absolutely nothing from them in Class, and I don’t think any of the other Students did. They never came prepared. They always would kind of talk off the top of their head. And more often than not, it would be autobiographical. And it just was a very disheartening kind of Experience.
I remember when I first came to Harvard, at graduate School, there was a man who taught the History of political Theory named Charles McIlwain. And McIlwain was of the old School. He was a very careful, very erudite scholar with very few if any axes to grind. And I, unfortunately, didn’t come to Harvard till his very last year there, but I did manage to sit in on some of his lectures.
Well, he was succeeded by another man, Carl Friedrich, who was so infatuated with himself and his Self-importance and his role in the postwar Constitutions that were written for the German States, the Provinces, that he could hardly bother teaching you the subject matter and was much more concerned that you shared his Experiences and the kind of Role he had played in the postwar World. And I have never seen such a parade of academic Egos in my Life as that moment, when so many of them were clearly so marked by the Washington Experience.
171. Hedges: I’m wondering if that isn’t an important rupture for Academia, going back to Julien Benda’s Treason of the Intellectuals, where he writes about how it is not the role of the intellectual to formulate policy, to adjust the system, but to stand back with a kind of Integrity and critique it. But you had that combination of the fusion of Academia with Washington, carried forward in the ‘60s under Kennedy and others, coupled with the Anticommunism. And I wondered whether you thought that that was a kind of radical break or a destructive Force within Academia when set against the prewar--.
172. Wolin: Well, yes, it certainly cast a kind of set of constraints, many of which you didn’t really recognise till later, about what you could teach and how you would teach and what you wouldn’t teach. And its influence was really simply very great, because People--it’s not so much what they said as what they didn’t inquire into.
173. Hedges: Well, and also it’s who’s let into the club.
174. Wolin: Yeah. Oh, yes. Yes, indeed. Yes, indeed.
175. Hedges: I mean, [Staughton Lynd], one of our great historians, pushed out of Yale for going on a Peace delegation to Hanoi during the War, blacklisted, gets a law Degree--he’s still working on behalf of, at this point, prisoners and Workers in Youngstown, Ohio.
Please join me for part six of my interview with Professor Sheldon Wolin (thank you) later on.
176. Hedges: Welcome to part six of my interview with Professor Sheldon Wolin, who taught Politics for many years at Berkeley and later Princeton. He is the author of several seminal Works on political Philosophy, including Politics and Vision and Democracy Incorporated.
We were talking about Superpower, the way it had corrupted Academia, especially in the wake of World War II, the increasing integration of Academics into the Power System itself. And I wanted to talk a little bit about the nature of Superpower, which you describe as essentially the face of inverted Totalitarianism. You say that with Superpower, Power is always projected outwards, which is a fundamental characteristic that Hannah Arendt ascribes to Fascism of Totalitarianism Fascism and that the inability--and she juxtaposes Nazi Germany with Countries like Hungary, so that the nature of Fascism in a Country like Hungary is diluted because they don’t have that Ability to keep pushing Power outwards. We, of course, in our system of inverted Totalitarianism, have been constantly expanding--hundreds of bases around the World; we virtually at this point occupy most of the Middle East. And I spent seven years in the Middle East, and to come back to America and have Americans wonder why we are detested is absolutely mystifying, because the facts on the ground, the direct occupation of two countries, the proxy Wars that are carried out--Somalia, Pakistan, Yemen--have engendered ISIS and resurrected al-Qaeda and other jihadist Movements in a way that is completely understandable and rational from their perspective. So I wondered if you could talk about what that quality of constantly projecting Power outward does to the Nation and to Democracy itself.
177. Wolin: Well, I think in some respects it’s pretty apparent what it does in terms of governing Institutions. That is, it obviously enhances their Power and it increases their scope, and at the same Time renders them less and less responsible, even though we’ve kept the outward framework of Elections and criticism and all the Free Press, etc. But the Power is there, and it is--thanks particularly to contemporary Technology, it is Power that’s kind of endlessly expandable.
And it’s very different from the sort of Imperialism of the 18th or 19th centuries, where Resources always had a limit and that territorial and other Expansion was severely restricted by it. But now Expansionism is accompanied by an ability to impose Cultural norms, as well as political norms, on Populations that did not have them. And that has made a tremendous difference in the effect of the imperial reach, because it means that it’s becoming easier to have it rationalised not only at home, but also abroad. And the differences, I think, are just very, very profound between the kind of Expansionism of the contemporary State, like America, and those in the 18th and 19th centuries.
178. Hedges: What are the Consequences? You talk in Politics and Vision about--you mentioned Thucydides and Thucydides raising up the figure of Pericles, who warned the Athenian demos that Expansion, constant Expansion, would ultimately destroy Athenian Democracy by in essence bringing back the Mechanisms for Control, the harsh, Violence Mechanisms of Control of Empitre, back into Athens itself. And that, of course, is what we have done, from the use of Drones to militarising police Forces, to the Security and Surveillance State. What are the Consequences, the physical Consequences of Superpower?
179. Wolin: You mean particularly upon the Population?
180. Hedges: Right. Upon us.
181. Wolin: Yeah. Well, I think what it does is create an enormous chasm between the sort of pictures we have of or are given of what our system is in high School, grammar School, even College, and the Reality of where we are. I think it’s that disjunction that seems to me so kind of perilous, because it means that much of our Education is not about the World, our World that we actually live in, but about a World that we idealise and idealise our place in it. That makes it very difficult, I think, for Americans to take a true measure of what their Leaders are doing, because it’s always cast in a kind of mode that seems so reassuring and seems so Self-confirming of the Value of American Values for the whole World.
And I think that that problem is such that you don’t really have a critical attitude in the best sense of the word. I don’t mean that the Public is never disgruntled or the Public is never out of sorts; I’m talking about a critical attitude which really is dealing with Things as they are and not with a simple negativism, but is trying to make sense out of where we are and how we’ve gotten to be where we are. But it requires, I think, a level of political Education that we simply haven’t begun to explore.
And I think it’s become more difficult to kind of get it across to the Public, because there’s no longer what Dewey and others called the Public. The Public is now so fragmented and so almost comatose in so many ways that it becomes very difficult to reach them. And there are so many intermediaries of Entertainment and Diversion and so on that the political message, even when it’s presented, which it is, rarely, as some kind of Public-spirited set of Ideals, just gets lost.
It’s a very, very perilous Period, I think, because I think the net effect of it is to render the political Powers more independent even while they proclaim their democratic basis.
182. Hedges: And, of course, Superpower creates a Bureaucracy which operates in secret, virtually. And I think that is something that we have seen transferred back, that you’re no longer allowed to peer into the internal Mechanisms of Power. And the Obama Administration has been quite harsh in terms of going after those few whistleblowers, People within the systems of Power who have reached out through the press--Edward Snowden would be an example--to allow the Public to see the Workings of Power, misusing the Espionage Act, which was really the equivalent, I think, of our foreign secrets act, to shut down this kind of lens into how Power Works. And that is, I think, the disease of Superpower itself that has now been brought back, would you say?
183. Wolin: Yeah, I think that’s substantially correct. The difficulty is really so enormous now in trying to educate a Public to awareness of what is happening when there are so many countervailing Methods of conditioning and informing that Public that are quite concerned to prevent exactly that. And I think it’s very much a Question of whether the whole Idea of a Public isn’t in such jeopardy that it isn’t really faced with a certain kind of antiquarian significance, and nothing more, because the Public has, I think, ceased to be a kind of entity that’s Self-conscious about itself--I mean when everybody may vote and we say the Public has expressed itself. And that in one sense, in a quantitative sense, is true. But the real Question is: did they, when they asserted themselves or voted in a certain way, were they thinking of themselves as a Public, as performing a Public act, a political act of a Citizen? Or were they expressing resentments or Hopes or Frustrations more or less of a private character? And I think that it’s that kind of a quandary we’re in today. And, again, it makes it very difficult to see where the Democracy is heading with that kind of level of Public Knowledge and public political sophistication.
184. Hedges: Well, the Public is encouraged through the ethos of Capitalism to express their Interests. And I think it’s in Politics and Vision that you speak about how that fragmentation of the Public is by design, that People are broken down according to their (quote-unquote) Interests, not as a Citizen within a Democracy, but as a particular Group that seeks to acquire certain Rights, Power, economic Advantages. And that fragmentation, which is assiduously cultivated - opinion polls become a way to do that, although, of course, modern Public Relations do it and Campaigns do it, that rather than speak to a Public in a presidential Campaign, you target quite consciously - these Public Relations Mechanisms within the Campaigns will target these fragments to keep them fragmented.
185. Wolin: Yeah, I think that’s true, and I think that’s a very significant Development, where they--I mean, the notion of a Public had always assumed a kind of cohesive character and some kind of a set of commonalities that justified describing it as a Public. But I think that that day has long since gone, because of precisely what you describe, and that is the fragmentation of it, deliberate fragmentation of it, and the Skill with which you can slice and dice the Public into smaller fragments that can be appealed to, while holding that fragment in relative isolation from what’s happening to the other fragments or to the Society as a whole. Yeah, you can target now in a way that you couldn’t before. Before, you had a blunt instrument called Public Opinion, and you assumed it, yet you shaped it as you shape some kind of amorphous mass into a whole. But that’s not it anymore. It’s far more sophisticated, far much more aware of lines of distinction that set one Public against another, and that you had to be careful not to ruin your own case by antagonising one Public that you needed for your cause, so that it’s become a highly, highly sophisticated Operation that has no counterpart, I don’t think, in our previous political History.
186. Hedges: It makes Walter Lippman look benign.
187. Wolin: Yeah, it certainly does. Yeah. I mean, his Public is still a coherent whole, even if it’s a little crazy.
188. Hedges: And I think what’s frightening is the way not only the Public has been fragmented, but the way that these fragments are manipulated to be turned one against the other. So, for instance, corporate Capitalism strips Workers of benefits and Job Protection, Pensions, Medical Plans, and then very skillfully uses that diminished fragment to turn against Public sector Workers, such as teachers, who still have those benefits. So the Question doesn’t become, why doesn’t everyone have those benefits; the Question becomes, to that fragment which is being manipulated by Forces of Propaganda and Public relations, you don’t have it, and therefore they shouldn’t have it.
189. Wolin: They shouldn’t have it. Yeah.
190. Hedges: And I think that’s example of what you are speaking about.
191. Wolin: Yeah, I think that’s accurate. The Ability of the fragmentation Strategy is really quite astounding, and it’s that we’ve got such sophisticated means now of targeting and of fashioning messages for specific audiences and insulating those messages from other audiences that it’s a new chapter. It’s clearly a new chapter. And I think that it’s fraught with all kinds of dangerous Possibilities for any kind of Theory of Democracy which requires, I think, some kind of notion of a Public sufficiently united to express a Will and a preference of what it needs and what it wants. But if you’re constantly being divided and subdivided, that’s an illusion now, that there is a Public.
And the amazing Thing, it seems to me, is that the Ruling Groups can now operate on the Assumption that they don’t need the traditional notion of something called a Public in the broad sense of a coherent Whole, that they now have the tools to deal with the very disparities and differences that they have themselves helped to create, so that it’s a Game in which you manage to undermine the cohesiveness which Publics require if they are to be politically effective, and you undermined that. And at the same Time, you create these different distinct Groups that inevitably find themselves in Tension or at Odds or in Competition with other Groups, so that it becomes more of a melee than it does become a way of fashioning majorities.
192. Hedges: And this was quite conscious, the Destruction of the Public.
193. Wolin: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. I mean, again it’s that theme we’ve talked about. They’re capable of doing it now, that is, of dealing with fragmented Publics who aren’t aware of their ties to those fragments but are--everybody feels sort of part of a Group that has no particular Alliance with another Group.
194. Hedges: And the Cultivation by the dominant Forces of that sense of Victimhood of your Group.
195. Wolin: Yeah.
196. Hedges: And that Victimhood is caused by another fragment.
197. Wolin: Yeah.
198. Hedges: I mean, that, of course, characterises the right wing.
199. Wolin: Yeah. Yeah.
200. Hedges: The reason for our economic decline and our social decline is because of undocumented Workers, or because of liberals, or because of homosexuals or whatever.
201. Wolin: Yeah. No, that’s a Time-honored strategy of really not only divide and conquer; subdivide and subdivide and conquer.
202. Hedges: They were Good Students of Hobbes, I guess.
203. Wolin: Yeah. Yeah, better than they know.
204. Hedges: Thank you very much.
Welcome to part seven of my interview with Dr. Sheldon Wolin, who taught Politics for many years at Berkeley and later Princeton. He is the author of several seminal Works on political Philosophy, including Politics and Vision, Democracy Incorporated, and a book on Tocqueville.
And it’s Tocqueville who I think expresses this notion of participatory Democracy that you embrace. And I wondered if you could explain what that means and set it against what you call, I think, manufactured Democracy.
205. Wolin: Well, Tocqueville discovered--I mean, he didn’t invent the notion, but he discovered this significance of viable local Self-Government. And he insisted that a Democracy, if it were to avoid the pitfall of becoming a mass Democracy, would have to zealously protect and nurture these smaller Groupings, whether they be Municipalities, religious Groupings, or economic Groupings of one kind or another, but that these were the major Forces for offsetting the drive of modern Power towards Concentration and Control, so that that was the basic Struggle for him was between these two Forces. And he saw in the New England Town Meetings and in the New England local Self-Government schemes the answer to how you kept Democracy alive--you kept it alive locally--and that the effect of keeping it alive locally was to dilute the significance of majority rule at the national level.
Tocqueville feared Majority Rule because he thought it meant uniformity of Belief imposed by the Power of the Majority. I think he in a certain sense may have overstated that and paid insufficient attention to the Rule of Elites. I think that in some of his later writings, especially when they were concerned with France, in the 1840s--.
206. Hedges: This is Ancien Régime.
207. Wolin: Yeah. I think he became aware that there was a problem with that and that the old Regime’s system of corporate bodies had to be carefully thought through because they could easily become simply vested Interests, and so that there was a lot of unfinished business in Tocqueville, and I think it’s very important in understanding him that you recognize it.
208. Hedges: But I think that his definition of what participatory Democracy is is one that you embrace.
209. Wolin: Yes, it is. And I think that the common thread I think we both share (if I can put it that way pretentiously): that we share the notion that the problem is centralised Power. And that centralised Power has assumed, because of scientific and technological Developments, has assumed a quality of Menace that it simply didn’t have before. Before, it was simply the Power of a central Government in its Army and in its Bureaucracy to sort of enforce its will. But now it’s much more than that. It’s the ability to shape and direct Society in a fashion that’s much more of a lockstep Thing than was ever conceived by Tocqueville.
210. Hedges: And this was Lenin’s Genius, in that as a revolutionary, he understood that.
211. Wolin: Yes, he did. Yes, he did. And it is at the same Time the Tragedy of Marx, because he both understood the Lenin point of view, but he also understood the point of view of more participatory kind of Institutions. And I think he never managed to overcome that, because he thought that Revolution required mass Movements, mass Organisation, and that once you got there, you didn’t know what to do with it after the Revolution, except sustain it in certain Institutions, and that the problems of Participation and the kind of Experience Marx wanted People to get in running Government and running economic Institutions was becoming increasingly more difficult.
212. Hedges: And what Lenin grasped is that the goal was to seize those centers of Power, destroy the Soviets, destroy autonomous Power, and in essence harness that system which you talk about, that complex system, to his own Ends.
213. Wolin: Yeah, and to simplify it in doing it, I mean, not just take it over, but refashion it in a way that was harmonious with this kind of central Regime he wanted. In other words, you didn’t just take over local Institutions and local Parties and so on and so forth, which had their own histories and ideologies and practices, but you reshape them, and you reshape them in accordance with a centralised Power system that Lenin, I think, very unfortunately led towards uniformity, because I think he saw or thought he saw that uniformity was also a key to exercising Power in a way that could change a whole Society, a way that you could not do it if you kept recognising Differences, tolerating them, even encouraging them.
214. Hedges: Well, he didn’t tolerate any differences at all, starting with Bakunin.
215. Wolin: No, he didn’t. He certainly didn’t.
216. Hedges: Adam Ulam, in his great book on Lenin, Bolsheviks, said that the only People that Lenin finally admired deeply were quite successful Capitalists, because they had accomplished in the Capitalist World what he was seeking to accomplish in that uniformity and that complete hierarchical, repressive, and unforgiving system that in many ways just became a form of State Capitalism.
217. Wolin: Right. Yeah. True enough.
218. Hedges: You had published--I think it was for five years--this journal,--
219. Wolin: Oh yes.
220. Hedges: --Democracy. I see you have--the great historian Arno Mayer contributed to this.
221. Wolin: Yes. He was on the editorial [crosstalk]
222. Hedges: Oh, he was on--in 1982, which must have boosted your Esteem and Popularity at the Politics Department at Princeton.
223. Wolin: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. I remember once when I was up editing that journal, I left a copy of it on the table in the Faculty room, and hoping that somebody would read it and comment. I never heard a word. And during all the Time I was there and doing Democracy, I never had one colleague come up to me and either say something positive or even negative about it. Just absolute silence.
224. Hedges: It was five years that you did it?
225. Wolin: Yeah.
226. Hedges: And why?
227. Wolin: Pardon?
228. Hedges: Why? Why did you see the Need for this Journal?
229. Wolin: Well, I saw a Need for it because I thought a couple of Things. I thought political Theory had to justify itself not just as an historical discipline that dealt with the critical examination of Idea systems, but also that political Theory had a role to play in helping to fashion public policies and governmental directions, and above all civic Education, in a way that would further what I thought to be the goals of a more democratic, more egalitarian, more educated Society.
230. Hedges: And I assume that’s because you saw within the intellectual landscape that that was not being addressed.
231. Wolin: I didn’t think it was. I mean, I had respect for the People, especially at The Nation magazine, which I thought was trying very hard. My problem with The Nation, I thought, was that it was - I hate to appear this way - but I didn’t think its intellectual level was very high. [Betsy Reed & The Transgender? Adam Johnson & Michael Tracey.] And that mattered because its Archenemy, The New Republic, whatever you may think about its Politics, managed to attract Intellects of a pretty high Order. And that meant that the liberal radical case was not being presented at its best and that it was mostly a kind of responsive set of Reactions to what the Government was doing or what Capitalists were doing, but had no coherent Idea of what they really wanted to get to in terms of a just and more equal Society.
232. Hedges: Were you seeking to do what Dwight Macdonald did with Politics?
233. Wolin: A bit. I admired his Work. I thought he was a real groundbreaker. And I certainly did learn from him about trying to do something like this. I think he’s underappreciated,--
234. Hedges: Yeah. No Question.
235. Wolin: --very much underappreciated.
236. Hedges: You know the great story about him and Trotsky? He was not orthodox in any of his Beliefs, but for a while he was a member of the Trotskyite Party. But of course, he kept writing Things that Trotsky didn’t approve of, until a letter came from Mexico from Trotsky, said that everybody has the Right to the Stupidity of their own Beliefs, but Comrade Macdonald overabuses the Priviledge, and he was expelled.
237. Wolin: He was a little quixotic, but he was.
238. Hedges: But he did very much what you did, and he attracted the kind of intellectual radical thinkers--I mean, everyone from Orwell to Hannah Arendt to Bettelheim--who were not being published. And I know you had written for a while for The New York Review of Books and, with the rise of that neoliberal embrace of what became corporate Capitalism, were essentially dropped from [it], if we want to call The New York Review of Books the mainstream.
239. Wolin: Yeah, it did. It was too Bad. I enjoyed that Relationship. And it was a long-standing Relationship, where I was a contributor almost from the first edition of the The New York Review of Books.
The--kind of interesting about my rupture with The New York Review of Books: it came about - although it was probably festering, because I was moving more towards the left, they were moving more towards the center - the rupture came when one of the editors’ friends in the New York circle of intellectuals wrote a book on Education. And Bob Silver gave it to me to review for The New York Review of Books. And I thought it was not a very Good book, and I thought that it was not even a liberal view of Educational Reform, and I said so. And he refused to publish it. Well, what’s so interesting is that the author of that book, about a decade later, publicly disowned the book because she too regarded it as not really sufficiently advanced or liberal in its viewpoint. But that was ten years later; it didn’t do me any Good.
But the Relationship was Good while it lasted. And I certainly owe Silvers a great Debt in giving me a chance very early to write for a large audience.
240. Hedges: When you talk about participatory Democracy in an age of Superpower, in an age of inverted Totalitarianism, how is that going to now express itself within that superstructure?
241. Wolin: Well, I think it will express itself--I guess the answer I would give is that precisely it doesn’t express itself. I think it’s shaped and it’s allowed only the outlets that are conceived to be consonant with the purposes of those in Power, so that it’s not autonomous anymore in any significant sense. I mean, we have to keep realising how difficult it is to get Ideas into the public arena now for any significant audience. It’s becoming more and more a matter of a few outlets. And if you should for one reason or another become persona non grata with any of those outlets, then your goose is cooked, there’s no other way to go, so that there’s a kind of, I think, hidden sort of Force. I don’t want to call it Censorship. That’s too strong. But there’s a kind of hidden Force that kind of makes you think twice about how far you want to go in pushing a particular point that is at odds with either the existing notions of the Powers that be or the existing notions of the opposition.
242. Hedges: Which is called Careerism. [Charlie Rose. Élisabeth Quinn.]
243. Wolin: It is.
244. Hedges: And it’s a powerful Force.
245. Wolin: It is indeed.
246. Hedges: Both within the Media, within Academia. And coming from the New York Times Culture, you learn not so much how to lie; you learn what not to say, what not to address, what Questions not to ask.
247. Wolin: Yeah, I’m sure that’s true. I’m sure it’s true. I used to get a taste of it at Democracy, even, when I was editing it, that there were certain taboo matters.
248. Hedges: Did you look at the Occupy Movement as a form of participatory Democracy?
249. Wolin: I did to an extent, yeah. I think it had certain healthy significance. I think it was kind of under--I hate to sound this way, but I thought it was under-intellectualised in the sense that it didn’t express, seemed quite unable to express its own fundamental Beliefs in a kind of coherent way that could really grab the Country’s attention. I think it was very strong on tactics and actions of that kind, and kind of weak in terms of its ability, as I say, to formulate in some kind of broad-based way its own system of Beliefs.
250. Hedges: But it was at least a place, a physical place in which--.
251. Wolin: Oh, no Question about it. I think it’s been grossly underestimated in terms of its importance. And the trouble is, when it doesn’t get recognised for its importance, it gradually loses that importance, because People forget about it. And it’s too Bad. I mean, Memories are so short these days anyway. But the way it sort of disappears and seems to leave no noticeable mark is a really tragic aspect of our Politics today, because People sacrificed, they were thinking, and they were trying to achieve a laudable end. And they were ridiculed and abused and so on, and above all, forgotten.
252. Hedges: And the State physically eradicated their Encampments.
253. Wolin: Yeah, it did. Now, it’s a Bad chapter, and I hope someday somebody writes it as a cautionary tale.
254. Hedges: Has true participatory Democracy become, in the age of inverted Totalitarianism, subversion in the eyes of the State?
255. Wolin: I’m not sure it’s quite reached that point, because I think the Powers that be view it as harmless, and they’re smart enough to know that if something’s harmless, there’s no point in sort of making a pariah out of it, so that I think they’re Capitalising on the sort of short attention span that People, especially People Working, have for Politics, and that it would soon go away and run its course, and that if they could contain it, they wouldn’t have to really repress it, that it would gradually sort of shrivel up and disappear, so that I think it’s been a deliberate tactic not to continuously engage the Democracy Movement intellectually, because that’s a way of perpetuating its importance. Instead, you surround it with silence, and hoping (and, in the modern age, with Good reason) that Memories will be short.
256. Hedges: And you use clichés in the mass Media to demonise it and belittle it.
257. Wolin: Indeed. Indeed.
258. Hedges: Thank you very much. Stay tuned for our final segment with Prof. Wolin, on Revolution, coming up. Thanks.
Welcome to our interview with Professor Sheldon Wolin, our final segment, where we are going to talk about Revolution.
When you have a system of Totalitarianism, in this case inverted Totalitarianism, when you have effectively fragmented and destroyed the notion of the Public, when you have Institutions that define themselves as democratic and yet have abandoned Civic Virtue and the common Good and in Fact harnessed their Authority and their Power to the Interests of Corporations, which is about creating a neo-feudalism, a security and surveillance state, enriching a small, global oligarchic Elite, perpetuating demilitarisation of the Society and Superpower itself, which defines itself through military prowess, is that a point at which we should begin to discuss Revolution?
259. Wolin: I think it is, but I think the proper emphasis should be on discussing it carefully, that is to say, I mean by carefully not timidly, but carefully in the sense that we would really have to be breaking new ground. And I think it’s because of the nature of the Forces we’ve been talking about that constitute a challenge, I think, the like of which hasn’t happened before, and that we’ve got to be very sure, because of the interlocked character of modern Society, that we don’t act prematurely and don’t do more damage than are really justifiable, so that I think Revolution is one of those words that I’m not so sure we shouldn’t find a synonym that would capture its Idea of significant, even radical change, but which somehow manages, I think, to discard the physical notions of overthrow and Violence that inevitably it evokes in the modern Consciousness. And I don’t have a solution to that, but I think that that’s required. I think the Idea of Revolution simply carries too much baggage, and the result of that is you’re Forced to fight all sorts of rearguard actions to say what you didn’t mean because of the overtones and implications that Revolution seems to have to the modern ear. So I think we do have to start striving for a new kind of vocabulary that would help us express what we mean by radical change without simply seeming to tie ourselves to the kind of previous notions of Revolution.
I think the contemporary condition--as I’m sure Marx would have been the first to acknowledge--is quite without precedent in terms of the concentration of Capitalist Power and of the Relationship between Capitalism and the State. It’s always been there. But now we’re talking about aggregates of Power the like of which the World has never seen, and a World that we have now come to see is in the throes of being integrated by those Powers.
So I think we really have to know when we’re being trapped by our own Language and Need to at crucial points hold up that Language for scrutiny and say, maybe it Needs to be rethought in a different direction or Needs to be modified in a serious way, so that we’re really making contact with what the World actually is.
260. Hedges: And yet, in the archaic sense of the word, it’s about a cycle. Revolution is about coming back--
261. Wolin: Yeah.
262. Hedges: --in this sense, coming back to participatory Democracy that we’ve lost.
263. Wolin: Yeah.
264. Hedges: And the popular notion of Revolution, which you correctly point out does not bear much resemblance to the historical Reality of Revolutions, in the sense that most Revolutions, although Violence are certainly part of it, most Revolutions are finally nonviolent, in the sense that you have the armed Forces, in the case of the Cossacks going to Petrograd, in the case of in the Paris commune, where the national army refuses to--turns in their arms and creates the commune in 1871 in Paris, even in contemporary situations, such as the downfall of the Shah in Iran in 1979 and the army refuses to fight, it is about converting intellectually, morally, ethically, those within the Power structure who realise its decay, its corruption, its repression and no longer are willing to sacrifice for it.
265. Wolin: Well, I guess I’m not quite certain. I’m not quite certain in the sense that I think your formulation would rely more than I would on trying to persuade the Powers that be and the structure to change course or modify their behavior and modify their Beliefs, and I don’t think that’s possible. Or if it’s possible, it’s not possible on a large scale. There might be deviants and rebels who would. But I really think it’s--I mean, to have the form that I think would really justify calling it Revolution, I think it has to be generated and shaped outside the Power structure, and I think because what you’re trying to do is to enlist and educate Groups and Individuals who have not had a political Education or Experience of much of any kind, and so that your task is compounded. For those who think the basic problem is just seize Power, you’re still confronted by that in that formula with a Population that’s basically unchanged, and that you then face the kind of cruel choices of forcing them to change so that they can support your structure, so that the real, I think, really difficult challenge is to accompany the attempt to gain Power with an equally strong emphasis on Public Education that makes it, so to speak, a potentially responsible repository of that Power.
266. Hedges: Now, I would totally agree that it has to be formed outside of Power, but I’m wondering whether once you can create a revolutionary Ideology and a Force that contests Power--one of the secrets to revolutionary successes is that that message, which is what Václav Havel would call “living in truth”, that message, once it penetrates the lower levels of Power--and I’m thinking of, like, the Police or the case--those foot soldiers that are tasked with protecting an Elite that they may very well view is venal--whether that can create or in revolutionary Society creates enough paralysis within the structures of Power that you can bring it down. And I covered the fall of East Germany, where in the fall of 1989, Eric Honecker, who had been in Power for 19 years as the Dictator, sent down an Elite paratroop division to Leipzig, because at that point they had 70,000 People massing in the streets. And when that paratroop division refused to fire on the crowd, the whole apparatus of the Stasi State crumbled almost at such a dizzying speed, none of us could keep track of it, and Honecker was out of Power within a week. So I’m asking whether that--I think you’re Right, of course, that all of those revolutionary Forces have to be formed outside of the structures of Power, but whether finally in some sense appealing, if you want to call it, to the Conscience of those at the low level, though People who are like the Cossacks, who come in and are told to quell the bread riots, and instead fraternize with the crowds, whether that is, in your eyes, a kind of fundamental moment by which a Power Elite can be removed.
267. Wolin: I think there’s something very much to be said for that. And, of course, one wants to avoid apocalyptic notions. But I think what we’re dealing with is the ability of democrats (small d) to sustain the kind of political Education in such a way that you concentrate upon those lower echelons of Power and get them to think differently about their role. It’s a very touchy subject, because it leaves you open to accusations of promoting Disloyalty among the Police, say, or among the Army or what have you. And in a sense that’s true. But I think that nonetheless, without trying to, so to speak, baldly subvert the role of those Powers in Society, it is possible to reach them and to create a climate where they themselves have to come to grips with it. And I think that’s a task that’s arduous, and it’s difficult, and it’s even a little dangerous in our present age.
268. Hedges: Would you--if you look at those revolutionary philosophers--and we could perhaps even include Plato--they always talk about the creation of an Elite, what Lenin would call a revolutionary vanguard, Machiavelli would call his republican conspirators, Calvin would call his saints. Do you see that as a fundamental component of Revolution?
269. Wolin: To some extent I do. I would want to, of course, naturally, avoid words like Elite, but I do think, given the way that ordinary People become exhausted by the simple task of living, working, and trying to sustain Families and Neighbourhoods in a way that just takes all of their Energy, I do think it calls for some kind of Group, or Class, you could even call them, who would undertake the kind of continuous political Work of educating, criticising, trying to bring Pressure to bear, and working towards a revamping of political Institutions. And I don’t mean to imply that there should be a disconnect between that Group and ordinary People. I do think it requires that you recognise that such a Group is necessary, in that the second task is to make sure that there are open lines of Communication, of Contact, of Meetings between Leaders and the People, such that there’s never a sense of estrangement or alienation, such that leading Groups feel they’re free to pursue the Good as they see it and for the Good of the masses who do not.
270. Hedges: Do you worry about Bakunin’s critique of the Bolsheviks, that Power is the problem, and that once these People, who may be very well intentioned--Trotsky would be an example: pre-revolutionary Trotsky, post-revolutionary Trotsky, at least in his writings, was very democratic; once in Power, he was Lenin’s iron fist. And I wonder whether Bakunin’s not Right that Power’s the problem, in that sense, and creating an Elite is a very dangerous move, or a vanguard or whatever.
271. Wolin: Yeah, I think it is. And I think that our situation’s somewhat different from what Trotsky and the others faced, in the sense that there are openings in our system of Governance and of public Discourse that do provide an Opportunity, if you’re willing to work hard enough, to get dissident voices out into the public realm, so that the Need for Force, Violence, and so on, it seems to me, is simply unnecessary, that as long as we have constitutional guarantees that still mean something and that we have free forms of Communication that still mean something, I think that we’re obligated to play by those rules, because they do allow us to disseminate the kind of message we want to disseminate, and that the Need to sort of circumvent them or in some sense subvert them, it seems to me, is self-defeating.
272. Hedges: And yet Climate Change has created a narrowing window of Opportunity if we are going to survive as a Species. An unfettered, unregulated corporate Capitalism, which commodifies everything, from Human Beings to the Natural World - and this comes out of Marx - without any kind of constraints, and it has no self-imposed limits, it will exploit those Forces until exhaustion or collapse. And we are now seeing the Ecosystem itself teetering on collapse.
273. Wolin: Yeah. No, it’s true. But I don’t really see any other solution than to really put your chips where an enlightened Public would take a stand. And I think the problem, to some extent, is that there are enlightened Publics in this Country, but there’s no concerted general Movement which can profess to represent a large body of opinion that’s opposed to these kind of developments you’ve just described.
And I think it’s the--there’s a certain lack of Organisation, not in the sense of following previous prescriptions of Organisation, but of trying to find Methods whereby Power, ordinary People and their Power, can be brought to bear in ways that will deter and dissuade those who are in a position to influence these decisions, because Time, as we all know, is running out, and that if we continue along the same course, I’m afraid the result is not simply going to be environmental disaster; it’s also going to, I think, feed the--in an unhealthy way, it will feed an outcry for really Forceful Government, and not in a necessarily democratic way.
274. Hedges: And yet, if we don’t respond, it is in essence collective suicide.
275. Wolin: It is. It is indeed.
276. Hedges: Now, Weber has a very bleak view in the Age of Bureaucracy. And he actually talks about the banishment of Mystery. And as a former theologian, that is really the banishment of the sacred: nothing has an intrinsic Value; everything only has a monetary Value. Weber, like Rawls, is scathing about allowing a Capitalist Class to even ever assume Power. And Weber writes in Politics as a Vocation, which you cite in Politics and Vision, that the very figure that he holds up as a political hero, who resembles the Classical hero, is some way--and holds on to Civic Virtue, can never overcome what the Greeks would call fourtoúna, and that finally you live in a World where you have the necessary Passion of those who would carry the Common Good within them thrown up against this massive Monolith, this impersonal Monolith of Bureaucracy. And I wonder if--and because that is the Reality, a Reality that in many ways Weber discovered--and he, like--I think if you go back to Classical writers like Augustine, would argue - and you know Weber better than I - but would argue that in some sense or at least my reading of it is that in some sense he’s calling for those of us who care about the Common Good and Civic Virtue to stand up in the face of a very bleak Reality. And, again, Augustine would do this while saying that in the end you can never create the Kingdom of God, the City of Man, City of God, and yet it finally becomes just a Moral imperative. Whether you can actually succeed or not succeed (I don’t know if that’s a fair characterisation of Weber) is not really the Question. The Question is: how do you retain your own Moral Integrity in the face of these horrifically destructive Forces? And in some ways the Question is not: can we succeed? And reading Weber, I think in some ways he would say you probably can’t, but that you must resist anyway.
277. Wolin: I think that’s a fair reading of him. I think that for Weber, the truly important Civic Virtues were just exactly the ones that would assert themselves at a Time when basic institutional Values were at stake and Human Values were at stake, and that you don’t win, or you win rarely, and if you win, it’s often for a very short Time, and that that’s why Politics is a Vocation [Wissenschaft] for Weber. It’s not an occasional undertaking that we assume every two years or every four years when there’s an Election [Kate Welch - Nika Harper - Sarah Wilson. Jennifer Campbell & Lauren Whitehead. The Blowjob Pamela & Jake Tapper. Joyce Carol Oates & Kurt Eichenwald. Émy Guerrini & Dyke Vegan.]; it’s a constant Occupation and Preoccupation. And the problem, as Weber saw it, was to understand it not as a partisan kind of Education in the politicians or political Party sense, but as in the broad Understanding of what political Life should be and what is required to make it sustainable, and so that he’s calling for a certain kind of Understanding that’s very different from what we think about when we associate political Understanding with how do you vote or what Party do you support or what Cause do you support. [Joyce Carol Oates & Paul Krugman. Laci Green & Émy Guerrini. Bill Maher. Brennan Summer. Kurt Eichenwald. Alan Dershowitz. Ted Lieu & Elisabeth Holtzmann.] Weber’s asking us to step back and say what kind of political Order and the Values associated with it that it promotes are we willing to really give a lot for, including Sacrifice. And I think that it’s that distinction between the temporary and the transient and what’s truly of more enduring significance that sets Weber off against the Group he hated, the Relativists.
278. Hedges: He’s calling us to a Life of Meaning.
279. Wolin: Yeah. Yeah.
280. Hedges: Which you have exemplified.
281. Wolin: Yeah.
282. Hedges: Well, thank you very much, Professor Wolin.
283. Wolin: My Pleasure.
284. Hedges: It’s been a tremendous Honour. You’re--have had a tremendous influence on myself and many other--Cornel West and many, many others, [Wendy Brown] and not only because of the Power of your Intellect, but the Power of your Integrity.
285. Wolin: Well, thank you. I’ve enjoyed it very much.
286. Hedges: Thank you very much.
287. Wolin: I thank you for the Opportunity to talk.
288. Hedges: Thanks.