Sheldon Wolin’s Democracy Incorporated

In the small corner of political philosophy I inhabit, Sheldon S. Wolin is a big name. His mammoth Politics and Vision is a breathtakingly systematic genealogy of political life, a Rosetta stone of political theory. His perpetual commitment to thinkers like Tocqueville and Montesquieu has kept interest in those figures alive during a period when most political thinkers were obsessed with John Rawls (and to a lesser extent Jurgen Habermas) and the study of old civic republican thinkers was considered conservative in the bad sense. So I was initially excited that he’s put out a new book, Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism.

The first chapter is available online. Unfortunately, it starts with a fairly traditional critique of the media representations of the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, turning the analytic techniques of the scholar on the mythologizing of that day. That work has already been done, and frankly, done better and with more care, in the months following that the attacks. However, the table of contents promises something more: an account of the subversion of democratic prospects and a form of market totalitarianism, a privatised, corporatised version of the pervasive bureaucratic power of totalitarian societies. It’s a story that’s easy to tell, mixing critiques of monopolistic corporate media and private pro-capitalist propaganda borrowed from Walter Lippmann and Noam Chomsky with a kind of post-9/11 Hart and Negri account of imperialism, terrorism, and the imagined might of a Superpower in a global economy. Maybe it’s good to have that all in one place, and so maybe Wolin is doing us a favor by offering his traditional systematic breadth for the contemporary world. Or, maybe my reading of the table of contents and the character of the reviews is off, and he’s doing something completely different.

Chalmers Johnson reviews it on truthdig, which suggests the audience is weighted more towards a general lefist audience (antiwar No Logo types) and less towards political theorists. I suppose that’s not inherently bad, but Wolin can be a little wifty when it comes to his policy/activism recommendations, and makes a better scholar than a political actor. Worse, he’s apparently trying to detail contemporary political options without the least understanding of the internet. I won’t run out and buy this one, but I look forward to a deluge of Wolin faddishness as it catches on, so I may end up looking at the rest of the chapters eventually. Meanwhile, I’ll spend some time with his Tocqueville book: Tocqueville Between Two Worlds. Some good stuff there!

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