The main defect of actually-existing democracy in America is that it does not actually exist. Or, rather, it exists in a stage-managed way: economic, military, and policy elites jockey for power, bypassing the citizenry, through the ubiquity of money and the subtle and not-so-subtle influence of the mainstream media, which for the sake of ratings and hence profits fosters cynicism, unthinking resentment, and passivity. The late political theorist Sheldon Wolin called this system “Inverted Totalitarianism.” Unlike the older totalitarianisms of right and left, which mobilized the socio-political order into a totality, in service to an unquestionable end, inverted totalitarianism fosters a demobilization of the citizenry. It re-forms the demos into a mass of docile bodies, obedient workers who, as George Carlin once put it, are just bright enough to run the machines and balance the books, but who are not motivated by critical thinking to dissent or rebel. Powerless to resist their being dominated, disciplined, and dismissed by the oligarchy that really runs things, the public is de-politicized. The system of Inverted Totalitarianism thus rules by stealth, distraction, and soft tyranny.
As Marx put it in his own second thesis, “the question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question. Man must prove the truth, i.e., the reality and power, the this-sidedness of his thinking, in practice.” There is a time to think, and a time to act on one’s thoughts. This is a time to act. Merely pontificating on the transformation of democratic citizens into inverted totalitarian subjects not only gets nothing done, but clouds our thinking by putting it at one remove from an effective public life. Grousing about how awful things have become, how far the United States has fallen, serves the purpose of making you feel better, purging yourself of well-justified despair. But that is all it does. And it is not enough.
Wolin, more than Marx, had America’s current problem pegged. It is rooted not only in a lack of democratic participation and citizenship, but a lack of opportunities and motivations for participation and citizenship. If a democracy is as stage-managed as ours is, it is a democracy in name only. Wolin’s former student Wendy Brown has classified Wolin’s account of contemporary American politics as “neo-Weberian”: an iron cage of bureaucracy directed by and toward the interests of corporations, plutocrats, and the “military-industrial complex” generally. In such circumstances the possibilities for democratic change and the entrenchment of a democratic culture are significantly narrowed. The best that can be hoped for is “fugitive democracy”, evanescent and transitory moments of resistance to corporate and state domination. Like Foucault, Wolin advocates this small-scale politics of resistance to the dispersed modes of power, and the cultivation of micro-practices that challenge and undermine, piecemeal, the regime of inverted totalitarianism. But if inverted totalitarianism is, as Wolin implies, Weberianism on steroids, it is hard to see that this constitutes a form of active resistance at all. It echoes the conclusion of another brilliant post-Marxist, Alasdair MacIntyre, who, in his masterwork After Virtue argued that modern political orders are so completely beyond redemption that it would be best that we withdraw into micro-communities that pursue, apart from the general society, their own vision of the good life: “We are waiting not for a Godot but for another – doubtless very different – St. Benedict.” But this is cold comfort for aspiring democratic citizens, a shaky foundation for social and political hope. Benedict’s monasticism is a thing of the distant past, and other intentional communities have shown a tendency to be short-lived. There is little reason to think that a new Benedict, like Godot, will actually come.
It is tempting to think that the bizarre 2016 election is a sign of terminal stress for managed democracy and inverted totalitarianism. The “insurgent” campaigns of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have been portrayed by the mainstream media as parallel “rejections of the establishment,” as an apocalyptic moment for the neoliberal and neoconservative political orders. Certainly neither Trump nor Sanders can be comfortably placed in these categories. Both portend political revolutions. But this view is only half-right. Revolutions come in many flavors, and not all of them are palatable.
Trump’s proposed revolution, a volatile mix of nationalism, racism, and ressentiment, is not the revolution that it is taken to be by its ground troops. It seeks to turn “inverted totalitarianism” right-side-up again, to replace it with good old fashioned totalitarianism. It offers sympathetic Americans scapegoats to persecute (Muslims, Chinese, Mexicans), a cult of power, intimidation, and physical force (military unilateralism unencumbered by nuclear restraint, admiration of political “strong men” like Putin and Kim, a transformation of alliances into an imperial protection racket), a contempt for constitutional rights to freedom of speech and the press (“opening up libel laws”) as well as disrespect for reasoned judgment and a refusal to acknowledge stable facts (such as climate change, vaccines, Barack Obama’s long-form birth certificate). Trump uses democratic means toward un- and indeed anti-democratic ends, and his clever talent at self-promotion has brought his message to ears eager to hear its authoritarian tones. Leo Strauss noted that the argumentum ad Hitlerum is a very tempting fallacy, which Godwin’s law formalizes into the modus ponens of political question-begging. But then again, the parallels with 1933 are striking. Cleveland in July could turn out to be our own burning of the Reichstag.
One discrepancy between Trump and the fascists of yore is that one could be confident the latter actually believed what they said they believed, however horrifying. But Trump has a well-deserved reputation as a grifter and con artist. The Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt, in his book On Bullshit, distinguishes the bullshitter from the mere liar. The liar recognizes the distinction between truth and falsity, and deliberately chooses the latter to advance his or her own ends. The bullshitter does not recognize the distinction itself, so rather than exploiting it to his advantage, he or she simply ignores it. For Frankfurt, the bullshitter is far worse than the liar: bullshitting is as much a psychopathology as it is a vice. And the dimensions of Trump’s vast bullshitting go far beyond his antics with Trump University or masquerading as his own publicist “John Miller.” Take a closer look at Trump’s announced tax policy, which amounts to a give-away to the .01% that makes the Bush 2 tax cuts look positively Lilliputian. Consider his promises to further deregulate an already anarchic financial sector. Consider his plan to improve American competitiveness by cutting wages which are presumably “too high.” These show that he in engaged in a sting against the very supporters who practically worship him. (That they continue to worship him is as disturbing as it is saddening.) Trump may have told the truth by suggesting that the “Republican establishment” does not care about the working and middle class white people that form its base, or that the Bush administration’s bellicose involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan was a disaster. But if he told the truth, I think it’s clear that was by accident and not by intention. A stopped clock is right twice a day.
Sanders’ proposed revolution could not be more different. It is a strong democratic socialist/social democratic challenge to the crumbling neoliberal doctrines of the present-day Democratic Party. It expresses the yearning of many for effective political participation, as opposed to the best government money can buy. It challenges the plutocracy in the name of both freedom and equality. But most importantly – and Sanders has been very clear about this – it is a movement that does not begin and end with electoral politics, and even less with the prospects of a Sanders presidency. I am hard pressed to think of two Democratic presidential aspirants more different than Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton – the scrappy outsider v. the consummate insider – in recent memory. You would have to go back to Southern Democrats’ challenge to Truman in 1948 to find an intra-party disagreement more pronounced. But it is the accomplishments of the movement that really matters. The Sanders movement has posed an unexpected and welcome challenged to the ideology of “pragmatic, incremental change” of both Clintons, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, and the neoliberal dynasty of the DLC; and even in what seems at this point to be a Clinton/Trump general election has achieved much, for the Democratic Party, the Left, and democracy generally. But it is important to keep in mind Sanders’ insistence that it is not all about him, or for that matter this election or future ones. It is about the active involvement of citizens in politics. Electoral politics is not all there is to politics: without the public space to organize, debate, and act as participants, democracy is just kabuki theatre, a play of shadows and phantoms without substance.
Unfortunately, many Sanders supporters, seeing clearly the stark differences between his democratic socialism and Clinton’s hawkish neoliberalism, have taken up the position that choosing the latter over Trumps plutocratic-populism is like choosing between arsenic and hemlock. Some have even hinted that a Trump victory in November might be preferable to solidly entrenching neoliberalism under Clinton: let’s “heighten the contradictions” – if it sparks revolution, worse is better. This view is, I think, naïve at best and culpably foolish at worst. Some of us, living as we do in “solid dark blue” states like New York and California, have the option of voting for Jill Stein (I myself am leaning that way). But if you live in Florida, Pennsylvania, or Ohio, think carefully: refusing to vote for “the lesser evil” might be a luxury you cannot afford. True, “lesser evil-ism” is itself a great evil, and one that radical democrats need to address by pushing hard for the reform of primary elections (e.g., elimination of super-delegates, a single calendar date for all primaries, etc.), as well as general elections (public financing, equal media time for 3rd parties like the Libertarians and the Greens, “instant runoff” elections and so on). But this election is not simply a matter of either picking one’s poison, or refusing to take it. While both Trump and Clinton would, in different ways, damage the already battered body of the public sphere, Trump is an existential threat to it. I could imagine the Left struggling mightily with Clinton and the neoliberal establishment, having success in forcing their hands away from war-mongering and plutocracy, maybe even eventually dominating the government from 2020 and beyond. I cannot envision the same scenario under a President Trump. What I can envision is: armed goon squads, the suppression of all dissent and the evisceration of the first amendment, and perhaps most importantly a Supreme Court squarely on the side of the authoritarian rule of despotic nationalism. For two historical analogies to a refusal to examine the actual consequences, consider the party line of German Communists in 1932, who refused to work with the Social Democrats to thwart the rise of Hitler and the National Socialists (“Social Fascists’, they contemptuously called the SPD). Compare with the willingness of French Socialists in 2002, who, after the defeat of Lionel Jospin in the first round of the election, helped defeat Jean-Marie LePen by voting for the neoliberal/conservative Jacques Chirac (sometimes literally with a clothespin affixed to their nose), who then won a massive 82% of the vote. While France is plagued with serious problems due to that year’s defeat of the Left and the far Right, not the least of which is an ugly resurgence of ethnic nationalism, it is hard to argue that France is better off today for having chosen the “lesser of two evils.” As for the German Communists, it did not work out as well, for them and their cause and their country, did it?
Clintonistas however have little reason to gloat, or think that long-term “party unity” is likely to emerge from a unified popular front against Trump’s not-so-crypto fascism. They, like many of their “Bernie or bust” counterparts, ignore the important distinction between strategy and tactics. Military theorists distinguish the two kinds of agon this way: “tactics” is the science and art of using combatants to win battles, while “strategy” is that of using battles to win wars. The strategy of the movement that Sanders has started is to establish a form of democracy where social, political, racial, religious, and economic domination is effectively opposed and overcome. But tactics can and should vary with the context: sometimes you retreat from a battle for the sake of winning in the longer run, or you wage a different battle on different turf. Sanders himself sees this clearly. He has taken some flack, as has Elizabeth Warren, for doing what they can to help Clinton defeat Trump. This criticism – especially that directed at Warren, whose political views remain sharply to the left of Clinton – is misguided. Alliances can be temporary. In this case, I think this is clear. Otherwise, why would Sanders exhort his followers to consider running for down-ticket elective offices – an exhortation that succeeded brilliantly. It is a clear message to the neoliberal establishment: we may have your back for now, but when the smoke clears, we will be on your back.
Unlike Occupy, the movement initiated by the Sanders candidacy has legs and staying power – or so I believe and hope. That said, it must evangelize as fervently as it should organize, and apply ample pressure on what will probably be a neoliberal Democratic regime which, while significantly different from that of the Republicans (whether Trump’s “rogues” or the party establishment), is not significantly different enough. It should not seek permanent or even temporary alliances with Right-wing anti-establishment populism, but instead aim for conversions, which, given the flimsiness of Right-populist convictions and the fakery of its spokespeople, should be possible if not exactly easy. What should be avoided at all costs is assuming that being “anti-establishment” is a natural kind rather than a loose “family resemblance.” Ralph Nader was, I think, unfairly maligned for being the sole cause of the George W. Bush election in 2000 – becoming the Bill Buckner of Left politics. I think the Supreme Court should clearly bear the brunt of opprobrium for that fiasco. But Nader bears some responsibility for being all about strategy and not at all about tactics. That he has learned little from the 2000 election is evident by his last book, “Unstoppable: The Emerging Left-Right Alliance to Dismantle the Corporate State”, the title of which pretty much sums things up. It is a comforting, seductive, wishful thought, but also a dangerously credulous one. Ideology is poisonous, whether Right or Left wing, but more deadly is the willful ignorant denial of the fact that one’s convictions can clash with others on more than just one front. The nationalism of the populist Right deserves rejection just as vehemently as does the “Corporate State” and, in fact, its rejection is at present far more urgent. After which the Left can gear up for a long hard slog that will nevertheless be well worth the effort.
And, yes: the point of politics is not (just) to interpret the world, but to change it. Still, it pays to remember that the process of “change” is messy and indeterminate, requiring not only steadfast devotion to a noble cause and an effective strategy, but intelligence about tactics as well. Compromising your strategy is indeed cowardly. But indifference to tactics is reckless — a recklessness that we can ill afford at present.