Inverted totalitarianism is a term coined by political philosopher Sheldon Wolin to describe the emerging form of government of the United States. Wolin believes that the United States is increasingly turning into an illiberal democracy, and he uses the term “inverted totalitarianism” to illustrate the similarities and differences between the United States governmental system and totalitarian regimes such as Nazi Germany and the Stalinist Soviet Union.[
Inverted totalitarianism and managed democracy
Wolin believes that the United States (which he refers to using the proper noun “Superpower”, to emphasize the current position of the United States as the only superpower) has been increasingly taking on totalitarian tendencies as a result of the transformations that it underwent during the military mobilization required to fight the Axis powers, and during the subsequent campaign to contain the Soviet Union during the Cold War
While the versions of totalitarianism represented by Nazism and Fascism consolidated power by suppressing liberal political practices that had sunk only shallow cultural roots, Superpower represents a drive towards totality that draws from the setting where liberalism and democracy have been established for more than two centuries. It is Nazism turned upside-down, “inverted totalitarianism.” While it is a system that aspires to totality, it is driven by an ideology of the cost-effective rather than of a “master race” (Herrenvolk), by the material rather than the “ideal.”
According to Wolin, there are three main ways in which inverted totalitarianism is the inverted form of classical totalitarianism.
- Whereas in Nazi Germany the state dominated economic actors, in inverted totalitarianism, corporations through political contributions and lobbying, dominate the United States, with the government acting as the servant of large corporations. This is considered “normal” rather than corrupt.
- While the Nazi regime aimed at the constant political mobilization of the population, with its Nuremberg rallies, Hitler Youth, and so on, inverted totalitarianism aims for the mass of the population to be in a persistent state of political apathy. The only type of political activity expected or desired from the citizenry is voting. Low electoral turnouts are favorably received as an indication that the bulk of the population has given up hope that the government will ever help them.
- While the Nazis openly mocked democracy, the United States maintains the conceit that it is the model of democracy for the whole world. Wolin writes:
Inverted totalitarianism reverses things. It is all politics all of the time but a politics largely untempered by the political. Party squabbles are occasionally on public display, and there is a frantic and continuous politics among factions of the party, interest groups, competing corporate powers, and rival media concerns. And there is, of course, the culminating moment of national elections when the attention of the nation is required to make a choice of personalities rather than a choice between alternatives. What is absent is the political, the commitment to finding where the common good lies amidst the welter of well-financed, highly organized, single-minded interests rabidly seeking governmental favors and overwhelming the practices of representative government and public administration by a sea of cash.
Wolin believes that the democracy of the United States is sanitized of political participation and refers to it as managed democracy. He defines managed democracy as “a political form in which governments are legitimated by elections that they have learned to control”.Under managed democracy, the electorate is prevented from having a significant impact on policies adopted by the state through the continuous employment of public relations techniques.
Wolin believes that the United States resembles Nazi Germany in one major way without an inversion: the essential role that propaganda plays in the system. According to Wolin, whereas the production of propaganda was crudely centralized in Nazi Germany, in the United States it is left to highly concentrated media corporations, thus maintaining the illusion of a “free press“. Dissent is allowed, although the corporate media serves as a filter, allowing most people, with limited time available to keep themselves apprised of current events, only to hear points of view which the corporate media deems to be “serious”.
According to Wolin, the United States has two main totalizing dynamics:
- The first, directed outward, finds its expression in the Global War on Terror and in the Bush Doctrine that the United States has the right to launch preemptive wars. This amounts to the United States seeing as illegitimate the attempt by any state to resist its domination.
- The second dynamic, directed inward, involves the subjection of the mass of the population to economic “rationalization“, with continual “downsizing” and “outsourcing” of jobs abroad and dismantling of what remains of the welfare state created by U.S. Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt‘s New Deal and Lyndon B. Johnson‘s Great Society. Thus, neoliberalism is an integral component of inverted totalitarianism. The state of insecurity in which this places the public serves the useful function of making people feel helpless, thus making it less likely that they will become politically active, and thus helping to maintain the first dynamic