The political theorist Sheldon Wolin passed away on October 21 at the age of 93. Wolin was a significant figure in the Humanities and Social Sciences, for three key reasons: a challenge, a book, and a thesis.
The challenge: the consensus, at the start of Wolin’s career in the 1950s, was that “political philosophy is dead”; that with the defeat of Fascism and the weakness of communism liberal democracy had established itself as not just undefeatable but as, essentially, a technique, a flawless technique; and that “the end of ideology” was blissfully upon us all. Wolin’s life work was a challenge to this end-of-ideology ideology, the idea that politics had given way to technological tweaking, that everybody was in happy agreement about the essentials and that there were not too many devils in the details. Wolin’s views have, I think, been amply vindicated over the intervening years. When John Rawls was praised for having “singlehandedly revived political theory” with his 1971 book A Theory of Justice, the ground cleared by authors like Wolin is overlooked. (To be fair, political theory was “dead” only to analytic philosophers who took verificationism a la the early A.J. Ayer for granted, and thus ignored not only Wolin but Arendt, Strauss, Voegelin, Marcuse, and a host of others.) What constitutes “the good life” and “the common good” are not so much eternal truths as they are persistent issues: not timeless, but timely questions. Because of this recurrent timeliness it pays to be reminded that even as we repress these questions in favor of the pronouncements of policy wonks, the questions keep popping up in a political version of the return of the repressed. Wolin kept reminding us of this, to his credit.
The book: Politics and Vision, a classic whirlwind tour of political theory from Plato to the present, written in 1960, revised in 2004 to include Marx, Nietzsche, and Rawls among others. Unlike many – most – academic authors, Wolin was a storyteller. Jargon averse, Wolin not only helped his readers understand the sweep of western political theory, he showed how it mattered by showing how it lives. Like William James, Oliver Sacks, and Richard Rorty, he showed that style could be substantial – that through expressive skill one could break through the fourth wall of the academic lecture hall and let the words flow out as the light flows in.
The thesis: in Democracy Inc., Wolin concluded that the United States was on the cusp of introducing a new form of totalitarianism into the world. Prior forms of totalitarianism consolidated power by mobilizing the citizenry toward the aims of the state, and by extirpating all forms of liberal, democratic, or republican practices and institutions. The sort of totalitarianism the United States was hurtling toward, however, did none of this. It controlled not by mobilizing but by demobilizing the citizenry, rendering it passive. It did not so much repress liberal/democratic/republican realities as render them pointless and boring. As in both fascist and communist totalitarianisms the economic and/or corporate sectors were fused with the state, but not for grandiose projects like nationalist lebensraum or global proletarian revolution. Rather, economic expansion was the end not the means – politics was entirely co-opted by economics. Corporate domination requires global reach: hence Eisenhower’s military-industrial complex morphs into “superpower”; and a docile citizenry needs to be relentlessly fed propaganda in the form of hyper-religiosity used as a justification for rapacious, unfettered capitalism. This is indeed totalitarianism, but classical totalitarianism (think Hannah Arendt) turned upside-down. The colorful, spot-on term Wolin coined for this thesis was “Inverted totalitarianism.” Democracy Inc. was written in 2008 and revised in 2010 with a new preface by Wolin on the early days of the Obama administration (he admired Obama’s rhetoric, but doubted that much of substance would come of it that would reverse the inverted totalitarian tides). It is hard to dispute that most of what the book argued for (rather controversially at the time) has come to pass. This is Wolin’s glory. It is the world’s misery.
Requiescat in Pace.