Monday, September 12, 2011

Mr. Wolin

This morning I finished Sheldon Wolin's book Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy And The Specter Of Inverted Totalitarianism. A very interesting book. The core claim is that since World War II American democracy has transformed into a system in which the people are not directly in control, but are rather shepherded or managed by a class of elites that draw on a network of corporate, media, and religious ideas to keep the population fragmented and depoliticized. That the American state achieves many of the same goals that totalitarian states aimed for, but accomplishes them through different means.

Totalitarian states sought the depoliticization of the population through the creation of national myth, the control of information and resources, all with the intention of pursuing imperial goals. The United States, too, seeks the depoliticization of the people with the intent of pursuing imperial goals. The control of the population, however, is not achieved through a centralized state apparatus. On the contrary, it is achieved through a diverse network of loosely connected institutions: "Instead of purusing unanimity, [inverted totalitarianism] promotes predomination–that is, rule by diverse powers which have found it in their interests to combine while retaining their separate identities. The key components are corporate capital, the very rich, small business associations, large media organization, evangelical Protestant leaders, and the Catholic hierarchy" (185). A fascinating claim that is loaded with implications.

In particular, I find Wolin's work to have implications for my understand of Foucault, Arendt, Collingwood, Benjamin, Harvey, and probably others. I think that the diverse array of subtly coercive institutions that Wolin describes is similar to Foucault's notion of an apparatus. In Discipline & Punish Foucault explains how France achieved control over its population through a diverse set of institutions that functioned primarily through the control of knowledge and normalizing practices. This seems to be exactly what Wolin is describing in America as managed democracy through inverted totalitarianism.

And with Arendt I see a connection between it and her essay on 'Lying In Politics'. Both of them pursue the issue of how and why politicians deliberately lie, crafting a public image to fool the population. Arendt and Wolin both believe that the one purpose of lying in politics is to keep the population depoliticized, thus minimizing their role in international wars. If the population is kept docile through lies, then they won't interfere with imperial ambitions.

The issue of lying and truth in politics then connects easily to the issue of aesthetics, craft, and politics. Collingwood is quite clear that the aesthetic process is about expressing a certain truth by using consciousness to show down a difficult emotion or thought. Which prompts questions for me about the relationship between aesthetics and politics. People like Benjamin and Harvey, however, use the term 'the aestheticization of politics' in a pejorative way. With that phrase they signify a political shift towards lying, deliberate deception, and the crafting of a public persona. It is similar to how Arendt describes lying in Vietnam. But, for Collingwood, that process of lying to create a public image would not deserve the title 'aesthetic'. It would fall under the definition of 'craft': it is a process of converting a raw material into a finished product with a preconceived plan in mind. If aesthetic expression and truth are inseparably linked, as Collingwood insists they are, then a true 'aestheticization of politics' would be one in which political leaders were consciously expressing the truth about their judgements, about the situation they are dealing with.

I have had this conviction for the last six months, ever since reading Collingwood, Harvey, and Benjamin: a true aestheticization of politics would be a good thing. And defining the issue of lying in politics as an aestheticization of politics is operating under an erroneous definition of the aesthetic process.

So anyways, I have a lot of implications to draw from Wolin's work. And fortunately I'm working on AZI again and he fits right in.

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