On Inverted Totalitarianism


A system of state power is totalitarian when it is exercised centrally through a unitarian political movement that commands public and private life as a whole.

By Eleutério FS Prado*


This article is based on an article by the American journalist Chris Hedges, published on the portal truthdig[I], to present – ​​and to critically take advantage of – a very interesting thesis by the also American political scientist, Sheldon Wolin. in your book Embodied Democracy: Administered Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism[ii], the latter author maintains that the US political system is completely dominated by the power of large corporations and that, therefore, it is not in fact democratic – but, on the contrary, totalitarian.

Wolin, a former professor at the University of California, Berkeley, is presented in the aforementioned article as a radical democrat who developed an original understanding of the American political system. His way of apprehending it intentionally departed both from that provided by conventional liberalism and from that presented by traditional Marxism, which figure as dominant in left-wing thinking in the academic milieu of that country.

Now, in the face of this position only enunciated so far in its general outlines, a question immediately arises: why call this system inverted totalitarian? Here is the answer presented by Hedges with the intention of going directly to the point: “In classic totalitarian regimes, such as those of Nazi fascism or Soviet communism, the economy was subordinated to politics. But “under inverted totalitarianism” – writes Wolin – “the reverse is true: economics dominates politics – and under this domination different forms of evil arise”. Thus, he continues, "the United States has become the showcase for how democracy is managed by business interests without appearing to have been suppressed."

Here we intend to examine the thesis that “the economy was subordinated to politics” in the totalitarian regimes recognized as such (Stalinism, Fascism, Nazism). It is intended to show that this perception is only apparently true. And that this author takes it as immediately valid because it is judged here that he has an inadequate understanding of the relationship between the economic sphere of modern society and the sphere of politics.

However, the thesis that one can speak of “totalitarianism” to refer to the political regime in the United States is accepted as correct. Behold, this notion – it is considered – contributes to well characterize what happens in that country, but not only in it; behold, it also applies to other countries that gravitate in its orbit of influence. Here, however, this existence will be taken as something in potentiality – a potentiality that is always in the process of becoming an act – and not as an immediate reality, always present.

There is, indeed, a strong denial of democracy in these countries, even if this is not perceived as such by the common people who are enmeshed – and alienated – in the prevailing political forms. What, then, is hidden under the democratic appearance of the political regime in force there? What would justify the use of the noun “totalitarian” to name it? Is the use of the adjective “inverted” to characterize it justified? Behold, in order to answer these questions, it is necessary to give some body to the central thesis of this political scientist, which, even to an inattentive observer, should seem quite significant.

Sheldon Wolin's thesis

According to Hedges, we are facing a different form of totalitarianism, which differs from what he calls classic: “This form does not show itself through a charismatic and demagogue leader, but through the faceless anonymity of the corporate state. Inverted totalitarianism keeps external allegiance to the electoral politics of banner, to the Constitution, to the civil liberties, to the freedom of the press, to the independence of the judiciary, as well as to the iconography, traditions and language of the American patriotism, however, effectively, it already took all the mechanisms of power that aim to make the citizen powerless”.

To illustrate his synthetic summary of Sheldon Wolin's fundamental thesis, Chris Hedges reproduces in his article the following excerpt from Wolin's book: “Unlike the Nazis who made life difficult for the rich and privileged, at the same time that provided social programs for the working class and the poor, inverted totalitarianism exploits the poor, reducing or weakening health programs and social services, fostering mass education for an insecure workforce, constantly threatened by the importation of low wage workers. (…) Employment in a high-tech, volatile, globalized economy is usually just as precarious as it is during an old-fashioned depression. The result is that citizenship, or what remains of it, is practiced amidst a state of continual concern. Hobbes was right: when citizens are insecure and at the same time driven by competitive aspirations, they crave political stability rather than civic engagement, they want protection rather than political involvement.”

In this perception, what actually exists in these so-called democratic countries is a disguised “dictatorship” or a “made-to-measure dictatorship”. Behold, “the system of inverted totalitarianism will always avoid harsh and violent measures of control (…) as long as the dissidents remain impotent. The government doesn't need to do away with them. The uniformity imposed on public opinion through the corporate media does this job – in a disguised way and, therefore, much more efficiently”. “Instead of participating in power” – says Wolin – “the virtual citizen is invited to have 'opinions', to give measurable answers to questions previously assigned to them”.

There are periodic elections in these countries, but what do they mean in terms of constituting a true democracy? Here is Wolin's response: “Since the main purpose of elections is to choose flexible legislators in the service of lobbyists, such a system deserves to be called “warped or clientelistic government. (…) It is a powerful thing that acts to depoliticize citizenship and that, at the same time, can rightly be characterized as an anti-democratic system”.

Here is also how the critical journalist cited here explains, in a complementary way, this critique by Wolin, which is basically quite devastating: “Political campaigns rarely discuss substantive issues. They are focused on promoting manufactured political personalities, empty rhetoric, sophisticated public relations, misleading advertising, propaganda and the constant use of focus groups and opinion polls in order to trick voters by repeating what they want to hear. Money effectively replaces voting.”

All current presidential candidates, including Bernie Sanders, – understand, to use Wolin's words, that “the substance of empire is taboo in election debates”. The citizen is irrelevant. He and she are nothing more than spectators, allowed to vote, but then forgotten when the electoral carnival is over and corporations and their lobbyists can get back to the business of surreptitiously governing.

Reassessing Wolin's thesis

The presentation made here was very summary, but it is now necessary to summarize it a little more. According to Wolin, there are two types of totalitarianism. One of them existed in the so-called socialist countries and in the fascist countries, because there strong political interests subjected and directed the economic system and, to do so, dominated society as a whole.

The other originated in the course of the XNUMXth century, when interests originating in markets came to discreetly but completely govern politics and social life as a whole in apparently democratic capitalist national states. The domination of politics by economic interests, according to him, justifies the adjective “inverted” attached to the noun “totalitarianism”.

Now, this thesis – modified by what will still be presented ahead – seems true and, therefore, deserves to be appropriated in part by critical thinking. In any case – it is judged here – it is necessary to strongly embrace the thesis of the radicalization of democracy and democratic socialism to oppose this state of affairs.

Totalitarianism is usually understood as a system in which State power is exercised centrally because it has already been taken over by a unitary political movement; having grasped power, this movement, without recognizing limits, then seeks to command public and private life as a whole. Wolin goes further by stating that this last characteristic is also present in the system in which economic power secretly, but completely, dominates over the appearance of a democratic system. In both cases, the political will and, thus, the capacity for autonomous deliberation of social persons, has been hijacked and somehow annulled.

However, it needs to be critically noted that there are counter-currents to totalitarian rule in apparently democratic countries, which stem from the conflictual anarchy that is inherent in capitalism. And that assert themselves there through certain political traditions, the social struggles they engender, as well as constant cultural criticism. They prevent the prevailing power there from becoming truly total. Therefore, one cannot fail to consider that there are important differences between these two modalities of exercising power in modern society and that these differences need to be considered and evaluated in a more refined analysis.

In any case, the characterization of totalitarian seems to apply to “socialisms” in the process of degeneration: certain political leaders who presented themselves there as “progressives” governed with an extremely strong hand and imposed, yes, immense sacrifices on the populations, falsely in the name of realizing of the ideals of equality, economic justice, emancipation of man by man, etc.

This same characterization also seems to be valid for the Nazi and Fascist regimes; however, as the last two were mainly characterized by explicit inhumanity, by fomenting hatred as a way of life, as well as by justified genocide against certain fractions of the population, they cannot be confused with the previous ones.

In the comparison that follows, the Nazi and Fascist regimes, which grew in the 1930s, will not be explicitly considered. It is certain, however, that they were forged, then, with certain political characteristics that seem to be re-emerging, albeit under new guises, in the current structural crisis of contemporary capitalism. Behold, what is implicit in the political regimes of the so-called “democratic” capitalist nations can become more and more explicit.

Now, it is necessary to fulfill the promise made in the fourth paragraph of this article. It is necessary to question, to some extent, the way in which Wolin presents the problem of totalitarianism in modern society. In order to do so – we believe here – it is first necessary to recover the meaning of the term socialism in Karl Marx's texts. Consequently, it is necessary to examine, with reference to The capital, the heart of the critique of capitalism made by this author and how one can derive from this critique both the idea of ​​its possible overcoming and a better understanding of totalitarian degenerations.

On socialism in Marx

Marx presents the contours of what he understands by socialism in the section on commodity fetishism, right in the first chapter of The capital. As he himself explains, the product of labor gains an “enigmatic character” in the capitalist mode of production because it assumes the commodity form there: “the fetishistic character of the world of commodities comes (...) from the peculiar social character of the work that produces commodities”. And this “peculiar social character” is provided by the form of the social relationship of merchandise, that is, because this social relationship is not established directly between men, but is configured as an indirect social relationship, that is, as a “social relationship between things ”.

The commodity form, moreover, only becomes a general social form and, therefore, the foundation of all sociability, in this mode of production; this is what characterizes from beginning to end the social totality that is usually called by the term “capitalism”. Now, the socialism proposed by Marx turns out to be precisely a new mode of production that is no longer based on the commodity form and, therefore, on its inherent fetishism. “The religious reflection of the real world can only disappear when everyday circumstances, of practical life, represent for men transparent and rational relationships with each other and with nature. The figure of the social process of life, that is, of the process of material production, will only shed its mystical hazy veil when, as the product of freely socialized men, it comes under their conscious and planned control. To do so, however, requires a material basis for society or a series of material conditions of existence, which, in turn, are the natural product of a long and painful historical evolution.

Therefore, socialism for Marx aims to overcome alienation, estrangement, lack of real freedom and not just the exploitation of man by man. And, as much as this is ignored by Marxists and anti-Marxists, it characterizes socialism as a communitarian and radically democratic way of life, since it is constituted by direct social relations – without the supervision of a State –, waged and managed by human beings themselves according to his own will: “Let us finally imagine, for a change, an association of free men, who work with communal means of production, and consciously expend their numerous individual labor forces as a single social labor force.

From the characterization of socialism made by Marx, it is clear that it has not yet existed on the face of the Earth. And that the so-called “real socialisms” were not or are true socialisms, but historical experiments that had or still have the task of “painfully” creating the “material base of society”, a necessary base for them to come into existence.

They were generally born from revolutions that aimed to create a new society, struggled – or still struggle – to overcome the underdevelopment of the productive forces, but deviated (some more and others less) from the path of socialism and ended up returning to capitalism. The high hopes then raised died; all that's left is a deep sigh and a melancholy that never seems to end. However, as the story is not over, other movements, under new foundations, may survive, giving rise to hope.

The centralized accumulation system

But, in the meantime, a question arises: if those historical experiments that failed did not really become socialism, what were they then? If capitalism is, in short, a decentralized system of accumulation, they objected to it, but only up to a point. They were constituted as centralized systems of accumulation that largely suppressed private ownership of the means of production and, thus, the competition of private capital, therefore, capitalism as such, but they did not suppress either the commodity form with its own fetish or the cumulative fetishism of the capital relation.

In particular – and this is very important – labor power has not ceased to assume the form of a commodity in centralized systems. In capitalism proper, labor power is available on the market and is sold by individual workers directly to private capitalists, in such a way that they formally and really subordinate themselves to capital.

In the centralized system, labor power is available to the state and is sold as a commodity by individual workers to state-owned enterprises, which still have the primary task of accumulating capital, in such a way that they are also subordinated, formally and really, to the capital. Behold, the capital relation existed before and can exist beyond capitalism. And it continued to exist in these countries; as a result, even the allegedly abolished exploitation continued to exist there and under very harsh political conditions.

In both cases, therefore, the social relations implicit in the sale/purchase of labor power as a commodity are, yes, indirect – that is, they are carried by things that thus become agent-things. In one case, the mediation of the transaction is carried out by the market (without direct intervention by the State), in the other it is carried out mainly by the State.

This, incidentally, not only was not suppressed as such in the centralized system, as demanded by Marx's critique of political economy, but tended to become absolute. That is why the centralized system of accumulation has always been configured as authoritarian and even, at the limit, as totalitarian. This is where the real appearance arises that the economy, in this system, is dominated by politics – politics that is always conducted there by the bureaucratic class that dominates the state apparatus.

The State, in both cases, as a category and a real way of being, has to be thought of from the contradiction between the appearance and the essence of the mode of production. In capitalism, social relations appear as relations between individuals, mercantile owners, configured before the nation as equally citizens, but they are essentially and structurally differentiated between capitalists, the owners of the means of production, and exploited workers, those who own almost only its own workforce. The State, an entity that is found in and above society and that exercises the power of a sovereign, then poses the tense unity of this contradiction. [iii]

In centralized systems of accumulation, social relations appear as relations between “comrades”, co-owners of socialized capital, conformed as members of a so-called Soviet state (falsely, of course), but which, in fact, are also structurally differentiated between workers and leaders/bureaucrats; the latter, in general, are members of the supposedly communist party.

As in both cases there is a contradictory unity between dominators and dominated, exploiters and exploited, such appearances are ideological; they hide the real meanings and, thus, prevent the apprehension of the social relations that are perpetuated in the accumulation systems considered here, be they centralized or decentralized.

totalitarianism in potency

Now it is necessary to understand why the political regimes that generally prevail in these two types of accumulation systems differ so much. Why is one of them capable of harboring – at the limit – totalitarianism and the other being able to embrace – as a tendency that may emerge – inverted totalitarianism?

The answer to this last question – so judges the one who writes here – requires the resumption of a classic thesis of historical materialism: the superstructure of society – and it includes the political system – is conditioned (but not determined) by the base, that is , by the structure of social relations inherent to the mode of production. Now, the modes of production considered here are above all modes of accumulating value in the form of capital – and not especially modes of producing effective wealth, that is, use values.

In the first case, the accumulation system is centralized, that is, it is planned, commanded and regulated by the State. In this way, the imperatives and even the mere interests that come from accumulation become effective actions through a rigidly hierarchical bureaucratic body. The society thus shaped becomes – as has been said by others – a great industry. Now, this body not only makes economic policy decisions in a centralized way – as it also decides on social issues in general –, but also constitutes itself as the main beneficiary of the results of the economic process.

It is, therefore, evident that the form of “liberal democracy” that predominates as a political regime in capitalism is inadequate and even incompatible with this system of capital accumulation. This system requires the political regime formed by the party-State in which the people even vote, but their vote is irrelevant, because the bureaucracy at the service of state capital decides.

In the authentic form of “liberal democracy”, the system of accumulation is decentralized. The interests of private capital, which operate under the regime of competition, under the support of a myriad of capitalists, are usually expressed through a plural political representation gathered in assembly, parliament, but also in a somewhat diversified executive body. That is why representative democracy (preferably restricted to property owners) is presented as the ideal form of the political regime that governs when the economic base of society is properly configured as capitalist.

As the political legitimation of social and economic domination demanded throughout the XNUMXth century that representatives be chosen through electoral processes with universal suffrage, space was opened up and even required the development of an often cynical system in which “the people elect , but who governs is capital”. This system, of course, can acquire characteristics that make it constitute itself as implicitly totalitarian, apparently inverted, as correctly observed by Sheldon Wolin.

According to Chris Hedges, this author predicted what would happen in capitalism governed by neoliberalism. Well, masked totalitarianism is now taking off its dark mask. That is why, nowadays, many neoliberals, who intend to appear as just liberals, are also scared...  

*Eleutério Prado is a retired full professor at the Faculty of Economics and Administration at USP


[I] Hedges, Chris- Sheldon Wolin and inverted totalitarianism. Truthdig: 2/11/2015.

[ii] Translation of the original title of the book that still does not have a Portuguese version: Democracy incorporated – managed democracy and the specter of inverted totalitarianism.

[iii] Thus, the totalitarian State is a limit in which it encompasses the market and companies. Marilena Chaui therefore seems to be right when she says in the article published on this site, entitled Neoliberalism: new form of totalitarianism (https://aterraeredonda.com.br/neoliberalismo-a-nova-forma-do-totalitarismo/), that “instead of the form of the State absorbing society, as it used to happen (…), we see the opposite occur, that is, the form of society [markets and companies] absorbs the State.

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