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171 of 175 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A brilliant formulation of the American dilemma
Author makes a compelling case that the direction of our contemporary politics is toward a political system that is the very opposite of what our leadership, the mass media, opinion leaders, think tanks etc. claim it is--ie, the world's foremost exemplary of democracy. The consummated union of corporate power and governmental power has resulted in an American version of...
Published on June 18, 2008 by L. Frederick Fenster, MD

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20 of 20 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The author is absolutely right -
- yet what's new? When has Democracy in America not been managed? From robber baron "Lords of Creation" mouthing "the public be damned," to political bosses admonishing their machine electorate to vote early and often, irresponsible private elites and their bought "public servants" have always formed an entrenched nexus of privilege. Wolin is aware of these precedents,...
Published on October 10, 2012 by R. L. Huff


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171 of 175 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A brilliant formulation of the American dilemma, June 18, 2008
Author makes a compelling case that the direction of our contemporary politics is toward a political system that is the very opposite of what our leadership, the mass media, opinion leaders, think tanks etc. claim it is--ie, the world's foremost exemplary of democracy. The consummated union of corporate power and governmental power has resulted in an American version of a total system, which he calls "inverted totalitarianism." Unlike traditional totalitarianism (Nazi Germany, Stalin's USSR etc.) the American system of control is not to mobilize the populace, but to distract it, to encourage a sense of dependency (by cultivating fear, calling everything a "war,") and by actully encouraging political disengagement (claiming that our government, which is supposed to be democracy's agent for helping promote the common good, is actually the "enemy.") The destiny of the USA is fast slipping from popular control, while our citizenry shows little interest or concern.
A very provocative book.
LFFenster
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101 of 107 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Managed Democracy, Superpower, and alas, even, "Inverted Totalitarianism", June 17, 2008
This is a seminal work which "tells it like it is" concerning the current power arrangements in the American political system, as well as the political leadership's aspirations towards global empire. Prof. Wolin sets the tone of his work on page 1, with the juxtaposition of the imagery of Adolph Hitler landing in a small plane at the 1934 rally at Nuremberg, as shown in Leni Reifenstahl's "Triumph of the Will," and George Bush landing on the aircraft carrier "Abraham Lincoln" in 2003. Certainly one of the dominant themes of the book is comparing the operating power structure in the United States with various totalitarian regimes of the past: Stalinist Russia, Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. Prof Wolin emphasizes the differences between these totalitarian powers, and the softer concentration of power in the United States, which he dubs "inverted totalitarianism."

The book is rich with insights - the best way to savor Prof. Wolin's erudition is in small chunks. He shows the influence of the ancient Greeks, both Plato, as well as the Athenian political operative, Alcibiades, on the neo-cons "founding father," Leo Strauss. He examines in detail the efforts of some of America's own "founding fathers," particularly Madison and Hamilton, on how democracy should be contained and managed. He quotes at length an amazingly prescient passage from Tocqueville predicting one possible scenario for the future of the American democracy, which ends with "...and finally reduces each nation to nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals of which the government is the shepherd" (p79-80). He also discusses the profound impact of the "National Security Strategy of the United States" document of 2002 on the traditional vision of the values and rights expressed in the Constitution. He raises awkward questions - asking why there were massive public demonstrations in the Ukraine, in 2004, following an election deeply flawed by fraud, which ultimately lead to a new election; yet there were no popular demonstrations in the United States, a country with much stronger democratic traditions following the irregularities in the 2000 election.

He seasons his learning with nuggets of wry wit: "such a verdict after Florida would be an expression of black (sic) humor. (p102); "... to endorse a candidate or a party for reasons that typically pay only lip service to the basic need of most citizens...It speciousness is the political counterpart to products that promise beauty, health, relief of pain, and an end to erectile dysfunction." (p231); and "No collective memory means no collective guilt; surely My Lai is the name of a rock star." (p275). He also has a knack for using the popular phrases for a given sentiment, for example: "get government off our backs."

As other observers have also noted, there is the sharpest of contrasts between FDR's maxim that "we have nothing to fear but fear itself" to the current constant promotion of holding the citizenry in a constant state of fear, admirably summarized on the domestic front by: "Downsizing, reorganization, bubbles bursting, unions busted, quickly outdated skills, and transfer of jobs abroad create not just fear but an economy of fear..." (p67)

For all the above, Prof. Wolin deserves 5 and ˝ stars, but I did think his presentation was marred by poor organization, redundancy, and lapses into turgid prose. For example, on p. 190, long after the issue has been thoroughly discussed, he says "The administration seized on 9/11 to declare a `war on terrorism.'" Similarly, on p. 202 he says "Historically, the legislative branch was supposed to be the power closest to the citizenry..." Numerous other examples could be cited. Also, I tried - real hard- to come to terms with the term "inverted totalitarianism" but just never could - the intrinsic meaning simply is not there, like as in "managed democracy." Perhaps something like a "hyper-concentration of power" conveys the meaning better.

Overall though, the book is an essential read for anyone interested in the current state of the world.
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63 of 66 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Managed democracy, June 19, 2008
By 
Robert Hagman (Enderby, B.C., Canada) - See all my reviews
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A great book; well argued. The influence of 'corporate America' on the body politic is, in my view, well beyond repeal and thus any semblence or vestiges of democracy salvageable. Although differing in form from the totalitarian regimes of Nazi Germany and fascist Italy and Spain, many of the substantive elements in governance common to these regimes can be found in present day America. Unlike the history and evolution or transition of these regimes in to totalitarian governments, the transition to an 'inverted' American totalitarianism has been qualitatively different - but nonetheless effective. All under the veneer and guise of a democracy.
This book should be required reading for all Americans.
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35 of 36 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Putting It All Together, June 2, 2011
By 
John Baesler (Bloomington, IN) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism (Paperback)
At the end of a long, distinguished career as one of America's foremost political philosophers, Sheldon Wolin takes a hard look at the current political system in America and arrives at the profoundly uncomfortable conclusion that America has become a "managed democracy," where the will of the American people is effectively removed from political, social and economic decision-making. He sees the country firmly set on its way toward becoming a system of "inverted totalitarianism" where democratic institutions are only empty shells and "democracy' has become a myth which in practice is completely controlled by transnational corporate elites and their willing executioners. You think it can't happen here? According to Wolin, it already happened, if you carefully define what "it" is.

The term "Inverted Totalitarianism" addresses the obvious rejoinder many people might make: Isn't America still a democracy? Where was the Machtergreifung--the coup or takeover of power? Wolin asserts that it does not require brown shirts marching in the streets for a totalitarian takeover to take place. In Inverted Totalitarianism, the Fuehrer is the product of the system (George W. Bush), not the architect; it does not celebrate the state but uses an informal network of corporate and political power. Inverted Totalitarianism does not mobilize its populations (the way communism and the Nazis mobilized theirs) with endless parades and speeches, but it keeps them quiet with Reality TV and consumer culture; it does not require unanimity among the people, but fosters a splintering of public opinion, etc. Still, the end result is a de-fanged democracy, laying prostrate before a mighty corporate elite in love with its own power.

In fact, the author avers that there was no intention of abolishing democracy in America. "Inverted totalitarianism" is the result, the grand total, of an infinite number of small actions that have accumulated in American history in recent decades. He also delivers one of the best accounts I have read so far of the counter-intuitive alliance between the Christian Right and American corporate elites, who seem so different from each other on first look. Yet what these two groups share, according to Wolin, is a deep veneration for sacred texts and objects (the bible, the constitution, the market) and a dynamic vision to change current society for an idealized past/apocalyptic future that needs to be realized by radical means.

If the reader already felt an inkling that something like this is going on, Wolin's book provides helpful categories of analysis to put it all together. According to Wolin, elitist republicanism and democracy always led an uncomfortable coexistence in American history. What tilted the country toward elite rule was "Superpower"--the vision of unlimited American military might abroad, which was created during World War II and fostered by the Cold War. "Superpower" demands unlimited freedom to act in secrecy by a small elite and can justify its actions with reason of state. 9/11 was the moment "Superpower" took over decisively.

In the introduction to the paperback edition, Wolin states that Barack Obama sees himself as providing change in the sense of a corrective, not as a radical change of direction, which many of his supporters, and Wolin himself, would have liked. Therefore the 2008 elections did not signal a significant departure from managed democracy. Writing in the summer of 2011, it's hard for me to disagree with this assessment.

On the other hand, this book will probably not change many people's minds. While Wolin relies on close reading of a few documents--such as the Federalist Papers--and makes excellent use of scholarly secondary literature in political science and history, his case is broad and assertive, rather than deep and persuasive. In order to fill in details the reader will have to consult other sources. For that reason, readers who already believe Wolin will readily agree with him, but others will demand more evidence and a more detailed account of how all of this came about. My tip: Look at the footnotes and keep reading.

Wolin does not offer much in terms of how to change all of this. Writers such as Chris Hedges use him to argue that essentially all is lost and what is left is peaceful, physical resistance. Wolin does notice that Superpower has been waning lately and that more and more Americans simply don't want to sacrifice more at home for ludicrous adventures abroad. As 1989 showed, a whole political system can collapse at a moment's notice. First cracks in the coalition between "Tea Party" and corporate conservatives can also be observed. So maybe we should not despair yet and instead work at mobilizing a counter-public sphere and alternative centers of power. On the other hand, watching the daily news emanating from Washington, it's hard not to become deeply pessimistic.

The book is a bit rambling and should have been cut by about 1/3, but like a doctor who diagnoses a disease, Wolin gives a name to phenomena many Americans have noted but could not quite put into context. For that reason the book provides a useful service and should be read widely.
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26 of 26 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Poltical Erudition At Its Best, September 30, 2009
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Sheldon Wolin's "Democracy Incorporated" is the most insightful book on the state of American politics that I've read over the last several years. I read at least three or four books related to political people or issues every year, and I believe Wolin's book has the most precise and accurate insight into the morphing of our democracy into what he calls inverted totalitarianism that I've read thus far. Since reading this book, I'm beginning to hear other political chroniclers refer to the kinds of political decisions and conditions that Wolin so succinctly points out in this book. The current hearings and discussions relating to health-care reform in the U.S. is a perfect example of how our politicians ignore the wishes of the people in order to carry out the agendas of the corporations. For those who believe our country is lost to us, this book is the one to read to get a crystal clear discussion of how that has evolved and how it plays out without our real understanding of what is going on. But this is not an easy read--this book is for those who are able and willing to read a highly intelligent, sophisticated, and erudite discussion of the transformation of a democracy into something that we should indeed be concerned about.
MFClifford
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20 of 20 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The author is absolutely right -, October 10, 2012
This review is from: Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism (Paperback)
- yet what's new? When has Democracy in America not been managed? From robber baron "Lords of Creation" mouthing "the public be damned," to political bosses admonishing their machine electorate to vote early and often, irresponsible private elites and their bought "public servants" have always formed an entrenched nexus of privilege. Wolin is aware of these precedents, and alludes to them; but like Progressives of a century ago, he appeals to some lost Grecian golden age from which we've somehow allowed ourselves to fall. There was never such an era. What you see is what there always was. The exceptions have been just that.

Nor has modern media really altered this trajectory. The "soft totalitarianism" produced by 9/11 was no different from the managed hysteria over Pearl Harbor, nor Hearst's profit-driven newspaper crusade to remember the Maine, nor Lincoln's manipulation of Ft. Sumter. Perhaps the root problem is the very concept of American democracy as "consensus," so that we all "meet in the middle." But what if that consensus allows for white supremacy, Protestant ascendancy, or other inherently undemocratic cultural heritage? This dichotomy has been part of the American experience since the first colonies were founded as private proprietaries. "American values" then seem but a political grafting onto a granted social order where everyone "knows" his/her place and expectations.

Again, I don't dispute the author's "timely message for our age." It's just that an ancient fart like me knows this age differs from others only in style, not substance. As George Bernard Shaw wrote in "Major Barbara": "The government of your country! I am the government of your country: I and Lazarus. Do you suppose that you and a half a dozen amateurs like you, sitting in a row in that foolish gabble shop, can govern Undershaft and Lazarus? No, my friend: you will do what pays us. You will make war when it suits us, and keep peace when it doesn't. You will find out that trade requires certain measures when we have decided on those measures. When I want anything to keep my dividends up, you will discover that my want is a national need. When other people want something to keep my dividends down, you will call out the police and the military. And in return you will have the support and applause of my newspapers, and the delight of imagining you are a great statesman. Government of your country! Be off with you, my boy, and play with your caucasus and leading articles and historic parties and great leaders and burning questions and the rest of your toys. I am going back to my countinghouse to pay the piper and call the tune."
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15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Must Reading But A Poor Production, November 3, 2010
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This review is from: Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism (Paperback)
This is an immensely important book that all Americans should read. But they won't. They're too busy just trying to survive, lulled by a variety of diverting issues, and also sleep walking through their lives consuming things they don't need and watching meaningless TV shows. So the corporations and politicians that rule America will continue their get rich at the expense of everyone else agendas and nothing will be done and eventually this country will implode due to its own fatuousness.What this author says is all true however the book is poorly edited and organized. Its as if what the author has to say is so important, and it is, that he has to say it over and over again. The scholarship is extensive, that's good, but the arguments get tedious because too much in depth history is explored, some would be enough, and then he repeats it all in other parts of the book. Also some of his arguments are not convincing and the book gets hysterical at times. I can see the author tearing his hair out because what he has to say is really so important, it is, but he gets rabid about it. He thanks his editors for their help but they didn't help him enough maybe they got tired of reading all of this just like I did, although I perserverd to the last chapter, arguably the worst in the book, and ended with the opinion that the book could have easily been a couple of hundred pages shorter and better organized, and it would have been more effective, one really has to persevere to get through the whole thing as it is.
So this will never be a widely read book even by those who care to know how this country has been taken over by the rich and that Democracy in this country is probably dead for good.
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74 of 88 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Democracy in trouble (3.5 *s), May 12, 2008
By 
J. Grattan (Lawrenceville, GA USA) - See all my reviews
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For the author, the invasion of Iraq in 2003 is the culmination to this point of the rise of the U.S. as global Superpower, done outside the dictates and principles of the U.S. Constitution. It is the shared interests of transnational corporations and the state that is driving this pursuit of global dominance, which basically overwhelms the power of the citizenry to check it.

The author uses the terms "managed democracy" and "inverted totalitarianism" almost interchangeably to describe the marginalization of citizens to control the direction of the nation through the political process. He contrasts the inverted form with the totalitarianisms of Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia. In those cases the citizenry were kept mobilized to support the state with no reluctance to suppress dissenters. In this new modern form, a passive populace is preferred. Barriers to participation like faulty management of elections are implemented, but more subtle and effective is the propaganda dispensed by schools and the media, not to mention the numbing component of entertainment, especially spectaculars. Also disconcerting to the average person is constant technological change as well as an unsettled economy usually instigated by business entities. Moreover, the perpetual "war on terror" creates widespread apprehension. A fearful and distressed citizenry is less likely to have the energy to challenge the power of elites and governmental measures that supposedly provide protection, like the Patriot Act.

The book is not particularly well organized, is repetitious, and is fairly tedious to read. As the author points out, democracy has struggled in this country with only a few periods where citizen activism, or "fugitive" democracy, has had much of an impact. The typical reader of this book is certain to be well aware of the dysfunctionality of the U.S. political process. It may well be, as the author is suggesting, that the ascendance of the Republicans in the last thirty years is more menacing to our fragile democracy than anything yet seen.
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12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Cultural Logic of the Power Imaginary, January 18, 2012
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This review is from: Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism (Paperback)
Sheldon Wolin begins his book by looking at the effects that September 11, 2001 had on the public, and especially how those effects were refracted though the media. He suggests that the reaction was practically singular and unanimous: popular opinion was consolidated through media apparatus, dissident voices were marginalized or silenced, and fear of a distant, unknown enemy (the ubiquitous "Islamic terrorist") was encouraged. After 9/11, the miasma of terror created the perfect foil for the construction of a permanent state of fear, which the government used for a reason to use military tribunals, and indefinitely suspend prisoners. All the while the military and its surrogates became increasing privatized by corporate hegemons in the name of "protecting the free market." Suddenly we had a "global foe, without contours or boundaries, shrouded in secrecy" (p. 40). How did this happen?

Wolin suggests that, at the heart of American governance, are two countervailing forces. The "constitutional imaginary" (embodied by popular elections, legal authorization, etc.) - so named because it is the predominant logic of the Constitution - "prescribes the means by which power is legitimated, accountable, and constrained. It emphasizes stability and limits" (p. 19). The power imaginary, however, "seeks constantly to expand present capabilities." Wolin suggests that the power imaginary began with Roosevelt's New Deal policies, but expanded disproportionately with the inception of the Cold War. The constitutional and power imaginaries may seem mutually exclusive, but they co-exist uneasily within our ersatz American democracy.

Wolin uses these concepts to build an idea that he looks throughout the entire book - that of "inverted totalitarianism," which is what he claims America is. To understand what he is doing here, it is important to look at how classical totalitarianism (that of Stalin, Hitler, and Mussolini) functioned. These worked through

- the subversion and eventual destruction of legislative, governmental, and bureaucratic avenues
- single-party control of the state through the presence of a charismatic leader
- boasts of its totalitarian character and attempts to actively rally the people behind state propaganda
- excites the populace into a frisson over something (racial superiority, anti-Semitism)

If you turn these on their head, you get what Wolin calls inverted totalitarianism. He defines this as "a new type of political system, seemingly one riven by abstract totalizing powers, not by person rule, one that succeeds by encouraging political disengagement rather than mass mobilization that relies more on private media than on public agencies to disseminate propaganda reinforcing the official version of events." (p. 44) It has, among others, the following properties:

- instead of subverting traditional democratic channels, it utilizes them to achieve its predetermined ends
- denies its totalitarian nature
- pacifies, stunts, and retards popular mobility
- operates via the impression of a multi-party state (Democratic/Republican) with the illusion of at least two different sets of political ideals with a conspicuous lack of the aforementioned charismatic leader

These are just the barest of bones of Wolin's argument. He includes a through intellectual genealogy of how he thinks we have placed more and more of an emphasis on the power imaginary, with insightful examinations of Hobbes, Machiavelli, Leo Strauss, and Plato. He also spends a lot of time looking at how the deliberate consolidation of media and corporate power within the United States has made this coup much easier.

I found the idiom of inverted totalitarianism an interesting one for looking at contemporary American democracy, even though it has its weaknesses. It is one of the few books on the subject that I have read that is just as considerate of twenty-first century American history as it is of classical political theory, and it strikes a beautiful balance. This is the best kind of critical theory in that it puts into lucid language what many people have suspected. Sometimes it just takes someone from Princeton to articulate it this well.
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Learned Acquiescence, April 7, 2011
This is the most insightful book yet on the decay of modern America. Extraordinarily well written, reasoned and structured, Democracy Inc. is rare in its brutal, penetrating critique of the corporate/government alliance that is slowly destroying the middle class. It describes in great detail what I call institutional plutocracy.

This book makes me want to move to Canada as my disgust for what America has become is almost overwhelming.
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Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism
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