How to fight inverted totalitarianism?

January 28, 2011

We live in a world that is difficult for many of us to understand from a socio-economic and political standpoint. The messages that we receive, or are bombarded by, daily are contradictory much more than they are reassuring. Yes there is global warming. No there isn’t global warming. Being too far left is similar to Nazism. Being too far right is similar to Nazism. The problem is the religious right. The problem is the socialist left. The problem is religion. The problem is government. Too little regulation caused the financial meltdown. Housing regulation caused the financial meltdown. It’s Wall Street’s fault. It’s government’s fault. The Tea Party is the answer. The Tea Party is the problem.

Some of us who would never have dreamed of being so crass as to actually post political sentiments on Facebook have, yes, relegated ourselves to doing so, deleting posts right after we post them, re-posting them with inflammatory language removed, deleting that and posting it again a few minutes later with even more inflammatory language, and so on. Felt bad about it. Felt good about it. Vowed to not post anything political again that would risk alienating or marginalizing our poor innocent friends on Facebook that did nothing more than simply make or accept a friend request. Got in heated discussions with friends’ friends whom we’ve never met and know nothing about. These are weird times; weirder and more divisive and more polarized than any most of us have lived in, particularly those of us who didn’t live through McCarthyism. So rather than just continue to spout emotional rhetoric – add to the emotional rhetoric – on Facebook, after the Tucson shooting I set out to try to educate myself more so I could make some reasoned judgments instead of acting or speaking out of passion or anger alone.


Thus ends my belief in Barack Obama, and what little was left of my belief in either the Democratic or the Republican parties. It has gone much further than I thought. The damage is done, and to think that action at a voting booth is of consequence at this point is simple foolishness.

Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Chris Hedges quotes the noted political philosopher Sheldon Wolin frequently in talking about the state of the U.S. political situation. It is a complex, counter-intuitive situation where nothing is what it appears, I find as I read and listen more. People talk of plutocracy. People talk of corporate fascism. People talk of socialism. People talk of oligarchy, the shift of wealth from the rich to the poor. People talk of the government being too big, and blame the Democrats. People talk of the financial meltdown, and blame Obama or blame Bush and Clinton. People talk of fundamentalism and extremism and violence. All of this talk contains grains of truth but none of it hits the mark. Until I heard Hedges interviewed on NPR by Steve Inskeep this week, talking critically of the State of the Union address, then did some online digging and heard a talk by Hedges addressing the Media Sanctuary on his new book, The Death of the Liberal Class last October, did I find a phrase and a thesis for what is going on that made sense and that I could start to wrap my mind around. It’s called “inverted totalitarianism.”

In his talk to Media Sanctuary, Hedges said that frightened working class people who want to think of themselves as middle class have been fooled into thinking the right, the republican party, the tea party, are their saviors, with their emotional message of religion (which they actually care nothing about) and nationalism (which they actually care nothing about), and have gathered their support on behalf of the corporate ruling class. Their rage and anger when challenged, and their fondness for apocalyptic violence, are the terror of someone horrified of being pushed back into the reality that almost killed them. The way the anger has been averted from Wall St and directed at government is a brilliant media campaign that has millions and millions fooled. Hedges goes on to say,

“Apocalyptic violence, a belief in magic, an embrace of historical and personal destiny, a culture that communicates through image and spectacle, is a totalitarian culture. We have created, in the words of the great political philosopher Sheldon Wolin, a system of inverted totalitarianism. Inverted totalitarianism is different, he writes, from classical totalitarianism; it doesn’t find its expression in a demagogue or a charismatic leader, but in the anonymity of the corporate state. In inverted totalitarianism, you have corporate systems that purport to pay loyalty and fealty to the constitution and electoral politics, and the language and iconography of American patriotism and nationalism, but have so corrupted the levers of power as to render the citizens impotent. What we have undergone is a coup d’état in slow motion, and we have lost, and they have won. In inverted totalitarianism, economics trumps politics, which is different from classical totalitarianism where politics trumps economics. With that inversion comes a different form of ruthlessness. The commodification of American culture, the commodification of human beings whose worth is determined by the market, as well as the commodification of the natural world whose worth is determined by the market, means each will be exploited by corporate power until exhaustion or collapse. Which is why the environmental crisis is intimately linked to the economic crisis. Societies that cannot regulate capitalist forces cannibalize themselves until they die. And that’s what we’re undergoing.”

Hedges told Inskeep on January 27 that corporate capitalism has hollowed out the country, created a sort of neo-feudalism that has no loyalty to the U.S. but serves the interests of trans-national corporation – very different from penny capitalism or regional capitalism. “Corporate capitalism is supra-national, it has no loyalty to the nation-state. It’s hollowed our country out from the inside. It’s a kind of global neo-feudalism. And it’s corporate capitalism that frightens me,” Hedges said.

In the next blog I’ll talk about some thinking out there about how to act locally to fight this inverted totalitarianism.

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