How the Bush Administration
the transformation to a fascist state
by Sheldon Wolin
The Nation magazine, May
The war on Iraq has so monopolized public
attention as to obscure the regime change taking place in the
Homeland. We may have invaded Iraq to bring in democracy and bring
down a totalitarian regime, but in the process our own system
may be moving closer to the latter and further weakening the former.
The change has been intimated by the sudden popularity of two
political terms rarely applied earlier to the American political
system. "Empire" and "superpower" both suggest
that a new system of power, concentrated and expansive, has come
into existence and supplanted the old terms. "Empire"
and "superpower" accurately symbolize the projection
of American power abroad, but for that reason they obscure the
internal consequences. Consider how odd it would sound if we were
to refer to "the Constitution of the American Empire"
or "superpower democracy." The reason they ring false
is that "constitution" signifies limitations on power,
while "democracy" commonly refers to the active involvement
of citizens with their government and the responsiveness of government
to its citizens. For their part, "empire" and "superpower"
stand for the surpassing of limits and the dwarfing of the citizenry.
The increasing power of the state and
the declining power of institutions intended to control it has
been in the making for some time. The party system is a notorious
example. The Republicans have emerged as a unique phenomenon in
American history of a fervently doctrinal party, zealous, ruthless,
antidemocratic and boasting a near majority. As Republicans have
become more ideologically intolerant, the Democrats have shrugged
off the liberal label and their critical reform-minded constituencies
to embrace centrism and footnote the end of ideology. In ceasing
to be a genuine opposition party the Democrats have smoothed the
road to power of a party more than eager to use it to promote
empire abroad and corporate power at home. Bear in mind that a
ruthless, ideologically driven party with a mass base was a crucial
element in all of the twentieth-century regimes seeking total
Representative institutions no longer
represent voters. Instead, they have been short-circuited, steadily
corrupted by an institutionalized system of bribery that renders
them responsive to powerful interest groups whose constituencies
are the major corporations and wealthiest Americans. The courts,
in turn, when they are not increasingly handmaidens of corporate
power, are consistently deferential to the claims of national
security. Elections have become heavily subsidized non-events
that typically attract at best merely half of an electorate whose
information about foreign and domestic politics is filtered through
corporate-dominated media. Citizens are manipulated into a nervous
state by the media's reports of rampant crime and terrorist networks,
by thinly veiled threats of the Attorney General and by their
own fears about unemployment. What is crucially important here
is not only the expansion of governmental power but the inevitable
discrediting of constitutional limitations and institutional processes
that discourages the citizenry and leaves them politically apathetic.
No doubt these remarks will be dismissed
by some as alarmist, but I want to go further and name the emergent
political system "inverted totalitarianism." By inverted
I mean that while the current system and its operatives share
with Nazism the aspiration toward unlimited power and aggressive
expansionism, their methods and actions seem upside down. For
example, in Weimar Germany, before the Nazis took power, the "streets"
were dominated by totalitarian-oriented gangs of toughs, and whatever
there was of democracy was confined to the government. In the
United States, however, it is the streets where democracy is most
alive-while the real danger lies with an increasingly unbridled
Or another example of the inversion: Under
Nazi rule there was never any doubt about "big business"
being subordinated to the political regime. In the United States,
however, it has been apparent for decades that corporate power
has become so predominant in the political establishment, particularly
in the Republican Party, and so dominant in its influence over
policy, as to suggest a role inversion the exact opposite of the
Nazis'. At the same time, it is corporate power, as the representative
of the dynamic of capitalism and of the ever-expanding power made
available by the integration of science and technology with the
structure of capitalism, that produces the totalizing drive that,
under the Nazis, was supplied by ideological notions such as Lebensraum.
In rebuttal it will be said that there
is no domestic equivalent to the Nazi regime of torture, concentration
camps or other instruments of terror. But we should remember that
for the most part, Nazi terror was not applied to the population
generally; rather, the aim was to promote a certain type of shadowy
fear-rumors of torture-that would aid in managing and manipulating
the populace. Stated positively, the Nazis wanted a mobilized
society eager to support endless warfare, expansion and sacrifice
for the nation.
While the Nazi totalitarianism strove
to give the masses a sense of collective power and strength, Kraft
durch Freude ("Strength through joy"), inverted totalitarianism
promotes a sense of weakness, of collective futility. While the
Nazis wanted a continuously mobilized society that would not only
support the regime without complaint and enthusiastically vote
"yes" at the periodic plebiscites, inverted totalitarianism
wants a politically demobilized society that hardly votes at all.
Recall the President's words immediately after the horrendous
events of September 11: "Unite, consume and fly," he
told the anxious citizenry. Having assimilated terrorism to a
"war," he avoided doing what democratic leaders customarily
do during wartime: mobilize the citizenry, warn it of impending
sacrifices and exhort all citizens to join the "war effort."
Instead, inverted totalitarianism has its own means of promoting
generalized fear; not only by sudden "alerts" and periodic
announcements about recently discovered terrorist cells or the
arrest of shadowy figures or the publicized heavy-handed treatment
of aliens and the Devil's Island that is Guantanamo Bay or the
sudden fascination with interrogation methods that employ or border
on torture, but by a pervasive atmosphere of fear abetted by a
corporate economy of ruthless downsizing, withdrawal or reduction
of pension and health benefits; a corporate political system that
relentlessly threatens to privatize Social Security and the modest
health benefits available, especially to the poor. With such instrumentalities
for promoting uncertainty and dependence, it is almost overkill
for inverted totalitarianism to employ a system of criminal justice
that is punitive in the extreme, relishes the death penalty and
is consistently biased against the powerless.
Thus the elements are in place: a weak
legislative body, a legal system that is both compliant and repressive,
a party system in which one party, whether in opposition or in
the majority, is bent upon reconstituting the existing system
so as to permanently favor a ruling class of the wealthy, the
well-connected and the corporate, while leaving the poorer citizens
with a sense of helplessness and political despair, and, at the
same time, keeping the middle classes dangling between fear of
unemployment and expectations of fantastic rewards once the new
economy recovers. That scheme is abetted by a sycophantic and
increasingly concentrated media; by the integration of universities
with their corporate benefactors; by a propaganda machine institutionalized
in well-funded think tanks and conservative foundations; by the
increasingly closer cooperation between local police and national
law enforcement agencies aimed at identifying terrorists, suspicious
aliens and domestic dissidents.
What is at stake, then, is nothing less
than the attempted transformation of a tolerably free society
into a variant of the extreme regimes of the past century. In
that context, the national elections of 2004 represent a crisis
in its original meaning, a turning point. The question for citizens
is: Which way?
Sheldon Wolin is the author, most recently,
of Alexis de Tocqueville: Man Between Two Worlds (Princeton).
A new edition of his book Politics and Vision is forthcoming.
He is professor emeritus of politics at Princeton University.