Sheldon Wolin is a name to conjure with – in the early 1960s his book “Politics and Vision” was the core text for my course on political philosophy. He was born in 1922 and taught at Princeton University.
I thought he was long dead….but was delighted to discover yesterday that not only is he still going strong but that he has become almost a revolutionary in his old age….
In one very recent video series he deals with the question of whether Capitalism and democracy can Co-exist – allowing me to stumble on his explosive 2008 book Democracy Incorporated which can be read in its entirety here; reviewed here and summarised here
If this analysis of a ‘democracy without citizens’ – in which popular sovereignty is reduced to ‘consumer sovereignty’ – sounds too Cassandra-like, Wolin backs it up with detailed history. (This history is, admittedly, heavily US-centric, but since the US is perhaps the limiting case of a managed democracy, this focus is instructive.)
Wolin rides roughshod over the standard American self-image of being the world’s most robust democracy. In chapters 11-12, he traces the evolution of American democracy back to the Putney debates of the 1650s, in which Ireton upheld the interests of ‘independent’ property-owners against Rainsborough, who championed the rights of the non-landed, and therefore non-voting classes .
It was Ireton’s anti-egalitarian position which, Wolin maintains, effectively triumphed in post-revolutionary America. Hamilton and Madison (unlike Jefferson) were deeply sceptical of democracy, precisely because it threatened the extant distribution of property and wealth: portraying the popular will as infected by ‘passion’, they confined ‘reason’ to a class of ‘guardians’, which was purportedly blessed with the insights of ‘cool and sedate reflection’ . They hence went about constructing a political system in which elaborate checks and balances stymied the wishes of the democratic majority, thereby ensuring a politics of ‘deadlock’ , which could be resolved only by the intervention of the powerful.
According to Wolin, then, though the ‘political coming-of-age of corporate power’ (xxi) took centuries, the conditions for managed democracy were instituted early on. The one real exception on this road to inverted totalitarianism was Roosevelt’s New Deal ‘experiment’ of the 1930s, which Wolin discusses in chapter 2. This ‘counterimaginary of a state-regulated capitalism’ was a valiant attempt to control corporate activity for the common good, but it did not survive World War II.
This ‘constitutional imaginary’ succumbed, steadily, to a Cold War ‘power imaginary’ which was prepared by the US’s wartime taste of global power. This power imaginary replaced a preoccupation with welfare, participation and equality, with what Wolin terms a ‘dematerialised’ ideology of patriotism, anticommunism and fear
This new, Manichean ideology, although not explicitly in the service of corporate wealth and inequality, certainly had these as its corollaries. And this because,
- first, the Soviet Union was (nominally) committed to anti-capitalism and a thorough-going egalitarianism, thereby lending capitalist individualism a patriotic aura, and impugning its detractors.
- Secondly, the Cold War generated a massive increase in defence spending, which in turn made the American economy highly dependent on the corporate defence industries.
- And thirdly, since all enmity was now directed at Communism, any suggestion that there might be economic enemies at home became seen as artificially and invidiously divisive, or even (as in McCarthyism) tantamount to Communism itself.
There is also an interview with both Wolin and another iconoclast – J Ralston Saul – at an interesting website called Common Dreams
The emphasis on age and experience reminded me of a charming blog which carries the (sexist) title Britain is no country for Old men which celebrates the lives and achievements of various characters. It gives a good sense of the Britain that was…..My posts sometimes feature older, inspiring activists such as Stephane Hessel (95) and Grace Lee Boggs (99)
With all the emphasis these days on innovation, it's good , however occasionally, to have the perspective of experience ........