Rediscovering Democracy in America

*This essay originally appeared in the December 2016 issue of TC Public Space, a student newspaper at Teachers College, Columbia University. The above image is a colorized print of Philip Dawe’s 1774 cartoon, “The Bostonians Paying the Excise-Man, or Tarring & Feathering.”

We must confront a perhaps unsettling fact: Donald Trump may be our opponent, but he is not our true enemy. Indeed, if we set our sights on Trump, we will surely fail. We will alienate his supporters — most of whom, as victims of our common foe, have legitimate, dire grievances and are not ideologically committed bigots — and, in the process, we will miss this historic opportunity for genuine social transformation. No, we simply cannot afford to reenact the contest of personalities that passed for politics in the 2016 presidential election. That contest did not create — and neither was it capable of resolving — the very real problems of racism, sexism, xenophobia, and prejudice that it nevertheless brought to the fore.

Instead, to identify our true enemy we must elevate the locus of our political analysis. Currently, we do most of our analyzing from a perspective situated within the system and focused on the functions and failures of parts of that system: Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Congress, the courts, the Republican and Democratic parties, the media, voters, lobbyists, corporations, Super PACs, etc.  This is good as far as it goes, but it simply does not go far enough. By limiting our attention to these parts and the relationships between them, this perspective misleads us into thinking that by tinkering with these parts we can solve the problems that plague the system. But, as Einstein once said, the problems facing us cannot be solved at the level of thinking that created them. This truth becomes abundantly clear for our politics when we adopt a perspective situated above the system rather than within it. From this higher vantage point we can perceive the integrated operation of the system as a whole, which is something more than just the sum of its parts. Once we see the entire system from this view, it becomes immediately apparent that the system, not any of its individual parts, is our true enemy. Thus, what we need is a change of system, not change within the system.

Political theorist Sheldon Wolin glimpsed this bird’s-eye view over a decade ago, and he developed a comprehensive theory to convey his vision to us. In his theory, Wolin named what he saw as the new overarching American political-economic system of social organization “inverted totalitarianism.” This regime, he thought, was essentially the culmination of neoliberal capitalism in America. Now, with the seeming collapse of global neoliberalism — the worldwide rise of right-wing nationalist movements heralds this — the demise of inverted totalitarianism threatens to take all of humanity down with it. This is not hyperbole; this is the soberingly plausible outcome of the decline and fall of empire in the age of drone strikes, nuclear weapons, and global warming.

Thus, for the sake not just of America but for the earth and all present and future life on it, we must take action. However, as Ida B. Wells wrote, we must know before we can act. In this case, we must fully understand inverted totalitarianism before we can determine how best to combat it. What, then, does this abstract term, inverted totalitarianism, mean? It means that the operation of our actually existing American political-economic system reaches, by opposite methods, the same ends as traditional totalitarian systems such as Hitler’s Third Reich or Mussolini’s Fascist Italy. So, as the adage goes, history may not repeat itself, but it does rhyme. To hear the echo of traditional totalitarianism in inverted totalitarianism, we must challenge ourselves to critically reflect as we consider the following (non-exhaustive) series of reversals.

  • Whereas under traditional totalitarianism the state dominates corporations, under inverted totalitarianism corporations dominate the state.
  • Whereas under traditional totalitarianism the populace is kept continuously mobilized and intimately connected by marches, rallies, and social organizations like the Hitler Youth, under inverted totalitarianism the populace is kept atomized, demobilized, and apathetic as the people disengage from a managed democracy wherein participation has been reduced to infrequently voting in elections that serve only to provide the appearance of popular legitimacy for a regime that has learned to control the entire electoral process.
  • Whereas under traditional totalitarianism democracy is explicitly derided and disdained in contrast with the exalted power of the strongman, under inverted totalitarianism democracy is exalted despite its defining characteristics — equality, deliberation, and concern for the common good — having been drained from the institutions of power by the hierarchical and instrumental organizational logic of managerial bureaucratic administration.
  • Whereas under traditional totalitarianism the populace is consciously led to believe certain ideas put forth by centralized propaganda agencies, under inverted totalitarianism the populace is unconsciously prevented from conceiving of certain ideas by an increasingly concentrated corporate owned and controlled media whose shared vested economic interests serve to narrow the spectrum of acceptable discourse and thereby exclude from the conversation any authentic freethinking or critique.
  • Whereas the traditional totalitarian regime enforces compliance by eliminating civil liberties, including freedom of speech, and physically imprisoning people who dissent, the inverted totalitarian regime retains civil liberties, including freedom of speech, but induces compliance by psychologically imprisoning the people within a panopticon of mass surveillance that prevents dissent from arising at all.
  • Whereas the traditional totalitarian regime creatively emerged from the deliberate actions of its founders and leaders and quickly replaced its preceding system, the inverted totalitarian regime parasitically emerges out of the incidental actions of its host system, retains that system’s husk, and quickly uses it to find a leader.

Now that we have a sense of what we are up against, by what means can we hope to challenge this system of inverted totalitarianism? We can look to history for some illumination. Let’s consider the example of war. For the traditional totalitarian regime, war fought for ideological reasons weakened the regime through the drastic losses it inflicted on the people the regime served. For our inverted totalitarian regime, war fought for profiteering reasons strengthens the regime through the drastic gains it supplies to the corporations the regime serves (via the military-industrial complex that President Eisenhower warned us about.) These contrasting positions on the value of war provide us with a precise example of how incentives differ between a traditional totalitarian regime that dominates corporations and an inverted totalitarian regime that is dominated by corporations. What had been lethal for traditional totalitarianism sustains inverted totalitarianism. Thus, American wars go on and on, and the military budget goes up and up. For war, as Major General Smedley Butler recognized long ago, is indeed a racket.

The lesson to be learned here is that — because inverted totalitarianism serves corporations, not people — no amount of harm done to people will weaken the inverted totalitarian regime. This rule is generalizable; think, for instance, of how this same perverse logic applies to environmental destruction, as seen most recently in the ongoing events at Standing Rock. To combat inverted totalitarianism, then, we must find a way to harm corporations. Now, because of the complexity of the system, corporations may seem impervious to the actions of individuals. But sometimes the remedy for complexity is simplicity. Because corporations, at their most fundamental level, arise from the coordinated actions of individuals, it is also from the coordinated actions of individuals that corporations can be weakened and even destroyed. In other words, because corporations depend for their existence on the performance of labor by people, the power to combat the corporations lies in the people’s capacity to refuse to perform labor.

Of course, the system acts to prevent the exercise of this latent power by making the conditions of individual survival — wages, benefits, healthcare, social esteem — contingent upon subservience to the corporations. That is, the corporations bind us to their rule through the chains of employment, and we as individuals must not only accept these chains but also delude ourselves into thinking that we are acting freely when we eagerly seek them out. If we work together, though, we can break our chains and wrest back control of our lives and our government. So, just as the corporations have taken direct collective action against us, we must take direct collective action against them. We must embark on a national general strike.

In other words, we ought to disrupt the operation of the inverted totalitarian machine by refusing — each and every one of us — to comply with the various orders the system has given to us. Defying our orders means that, for however long is necessary, all of us, in solidarity as Americans, refuse to work, attend school, shop, use transit, or otherwise contribute to an economy from which we have been ruthlessly excluded. Only by striking in this way can we hope to make an impact on the corporations that dominate us. For, as Mario Savio said during the 1964 student protests, striking allows us to indicate to those who own the machine that, unless we are free, the machine will be prevented from running at all.

And why shouldn’t we halt the operation of this hostile machinery? As it currently runs under inverted totalitarianism, the government fails to deliver the very freedom, security, and prosperity it was originally created to provide. Our so-called representatives plainly and openly serve the interests of capital, not the needs of people. Indeed, as President Rutherford B. Hayes recognized during the last Gilded Age, ours is “a government of corporations, by corporations, and for corporations.” Thus, like our ancestors, we today find ourselves bumfuzzled by paradoxes. We marvel at unprecedented technological progress, yet our quality of life declines. We witness increasing efficiency of production, yet our leisure time vanishes. We see on the horizon widespread automation and permanent mass joblessness, yet we view these as nightmares to be feared instead of dreams to be realized. And, all the while, we take on ever more debt as we watch our wages and savings dwindle, yet corporate profits ceaselessly rise and the wealth of the wealthiest skyrockets.

These intolerable contradictions clearly demonstrate why we must overthrow our existing system and the corporations that have seized control of it. John Dewey presciently explained why: “As long as politics is the shadow cast on society by big business, the attenuation of the shadow will not change the substance.” Today’s shady establishment politics — as both Trump and his antiestablishment counterpart from the left, Bernie Sanders, have pointed out — still are rigged against the people by corporations and financial institutions. We cannot hope to beat them at their own game. Instead, we must strike directly against them.

Therefore, that the power of the general strike comes from outside our formal political system ought not to deter but rather to encourage our exercise of it. For, as Henry David Thoreau wrote, we cannot rely on the ways which the state has provided to us for remedying evil: they “take too much time,” and our world will be gone. Simply put, no method condoned by the system will ever result in the overthrow of the system. No amount of shuffling of pieces within the system can undo the logic of corporate domination that animates the entire system. As we have seen time and time again, every agency we establish to regulate the corporations quickly becomes captured by them. No, we cannot obediently reform our way out of inverted totalitarianism. Indeed, the Sons of Liberty did not request a permit from the Royal Governor of Massachusetts before they held the Boston Tea Party. We, too, must work from the outside if we hope to stun the powerful and create an opening for real change to occur.

And what should we do if, by striking, we succeed in creating such an opening? We must dare to reconstitute our society and, in turn, reconstitute ourselves. This may sound fanciful, even impossible. But in the words of Max Weber: “What is possible would never have been achieved if, in this world, people had not repeatedly reached for the impossible.” Only a political reconstitution can transform our patterns of social interaction, our methods of economic distribution, and the very contours of our souls. And only through such holistic transformation can we hope to break the corporations that have dominated our government and, in turn, dominated us. For the alternative to self-transformation through reconstitution, unfortunately, is self-destruction through civil war.

In this light, reconstitution becomes pragmatic, not impossible. In fact, reconstitution is our sacred duty, Thomas Jefferson argued, because the earth always belongs in usufruct to the living. In other words, we living stewards are to manage and make use of the earth only insofar as we do not spoil or destroy it for those to whom it truly belongs, namely, our children and all the generations of children that will follow after them. So, then, when it becomes the case that our inherited political system begins to pose, rather than protect against, the threat of earthly destruction, we must act to eliminate that threat by the only peaceful means possible: reconstitution. Jefferson thought that this process ought to occur every 19 years; for us, it has been over 225 years. Thus, our outdated Constitution simply is not equipped to cope with our contemporary human needs.

Corporate power, in other words, has escaped the Constitution’s bounds. Our approach to combatting that power must, too. We must on principle subvert what Clara Barton called “the tyranny of precedent” when a changing world makes precedent subvert its own principles. Yet, despite its clear necessity, subversion in the form of the national general strike may still seem impractical, even anachronistic. As recently as September 2016, though, tens of millions in India successfully used the general strike to achieve their goal of securing higher wages. Through social media, we can organize and document a similar strike here, communicating spontaneously with one another in the same way that participants in the Arab Spring movements coordinated their actions in 2011. Our strike can begin at any time — hashtags for Inauguration Day, January 20th, 2017, have already emerged (#J20, #DisruptJ20) — and it can conclude once our demand to initiate a reconstitution of the government is met. No blood need be shed, and no just laws need be broken, for this demand to be granted.

And what, ultimately, do we demand? We demand to have a government, not be had by one. Eugene V. Debs captured this sentiment well: “We have been cursed with the reign of gold long enough.” The antidote to such domination is always democratization: corporate tyranny must be replaced with economic democracy. But we can only rediscover democracy in America if we keep our resistance focused on Donald Trump second and inverted totalitarianism first. In other words, our vision for resistance must be one not of personal revenge but of political reconstitution. To be clear, this does not mean that we should totally abandon all aspects of our current Constitution. Rather, we should retain many of its core principles. But we should retain those principles within a transformed structure of government that serves “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” not the increasing of profit margins. In this way, we can create a new world — one that is inclusive, not exclusive; cooperative, not competitive; sustainable, not disposable — and, in giving birth to this new world, we can ourselves be reborn. Indeed, power comes, as Paulo Freire said, from risking ourselves in creation.

But that this kind of empowering metamorphosis is possible is not to say that accomplishing it will be easy. In fact, reconstitution is the most difficult thing we can imagine doing, save for the alternative of living with having not done it. For if we refuse to answer the call of history, if we choose not to make this bold move, if we once again opt to wait for what Martin Luther King, Jr. called the myth of a “more convenient season,” we doom ourselves and condemn our descendants to fight a battle that was surrendered by us before they were even born.

Rory Varrato

Rory Varrato

PhD student in the Philosophy and Education program at Teachers College, Columbia University.
Rory Varrato

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