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Democracy - not more than the brand name
by Irmtraud Gutschke
The USA, a hegemonic power threatened with decline, is struggling to maintain and expand a monopolistic world order. This is supposed to be justified by surrounding itself with an aura of freedom and democracy. In this respect, the title of Wolin's book is a provocation: "Inverted Totalitarianism."
Democracy - not more than a brand name
by Irmtraud Gutschke
[This article published on 4/12/2022 is translated from the German on the Internet, Demokratie – nicht mehr als ein Markenname.]

Which productions we are exposed to and how we can see through them: U.S. political scientist Sheldon C. Wolin offers a perceptive analysis of neoliberal rule in his volume "Inverted Totalitarianism." By Irmtraud Gutschke.

Democratic countries versus totalitarian regimes - this basic canon of Western value politics can be used to justify everything from diplomatic and economic influence to more robust forms of political containment - economic sanctions, arms deliveries, regime changes, military intervention. The old West-East and North-South antagonism even reveals itself in an intensified form in the new Cold War. The USA, a hegemonic power threatened with decline, is struggling to maintain and expand a monopolistic world order. This is supposed to be justified by surrounding itself with an aura of freedom and democracy. In this respect, the very title of Sheldon S. Wolin's book is a provocation: "Reverse Totalitarianism," as if there were a hidden similarity between power relations that are supposed to be diametrically opposed to each other.

The U.S. author even intensifies his provocation by establishing a connection right at the beginning between "Triumph of the Will," Leni Riefenstahl's propaganda tribute to Hitler in 1934, and a U.S. propaganda film from 2003. "If the Reichstag fire of 1933 was the symbolic event heralding the destruction of parliamentary government by dictatorship in Germany, the destruction of the World Trade Center and the attack on the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, were revelatory events in the history of American political life." What followed may have been "the greatest staging in the history of modern media" to which television made itself available. Also of its own making, the author surmises, yet poses a question that is equally pertinent to contemporary conditions:

"How is it that a society that idolizes the principle of freedom of choice could produce a level of unity that is abysmally reminiscent of a semi-open coercive system?"

That must have been when he was hit with a warning glance from his publisher, Princeton University Press, in 2008, which is why, in the preface, he hastily contradicted, "to avoid misunderstanding," the thesis "that the current U.S. political system is inspired by Nazi Germany." After all, we would never have understood it in such shorthand terms. But the near-exculpation shows us how even Sheldon A. Wolin had to be aware of the existence of an opinion corridor in which one can hit a wall or put one's foot in one of the many "blunders" at any time.

Today, in a macabre way, I have to be downright grateful that there was a department for agitation and propaganda in the GDR Central Committee, even though I directly felt its media censorship exercised in all openness. Because I know the ideological kitchen, I have its smell in my nose. Because I naturally assume that the state is the instrument of power of the ruling class, the author of the present book walks through an open door, so to speak, with me when he claims this for the USA as well.

But he not only asserts it, he proves it in detail, profoundly and powerfully arguing in language. Vividly concrete, as he takes us into his country's past as well as into the history of ideas about power and democracy. Engaging to read, the book is full of interesting details while aiming at larger contexts. In a revealing way, the author analyzes a system of rule that is different than it pretends to be. At the same time, the very existence of the volume confirms that neoliberal rule, as long as it is not threatened, can also show a certain tolerance. After all, the voluminous work could be published in the USA. And the German translation is in good company with other ideology-critical publications at Westend Verlag. To name just a few: "Why are the Lambs Silent" and "Fear and Power" by Rainer Mausfeld, "Power. Wie die Meinung der Herrschenden zur herrschenden Meinung wird" by Almut Bruder-Bezzel and Klaus-Jürgen Bruder, "Propaganda. How public opinion is created and shaped" by Jacques Ellul and last but not least "Believe little. Question everything. Think for yourself" by Albrecht Müller, who gives readers a practical handout on "how to see through manipulation."

The dialectic of maintaining power

The availability of such books, however, cannot hide the difficulty they have in public discourse. Journalists not infrequently react according to the motto "hit dog bark," or find it all a pack of lies, a downright insult, as if they were merely addicts who did not openly speak their minds. What appears to be a personal repression mechanism for rejecting books critical of the system that would plunge one into discord oneself is at the same time an ideological bulwark against any suspicion of manipulation and synchronization in the population, which is then quickly branded as a conspiracy theory. For the already growing resentment in the face of political impotence and unfulfilled promises of prosperity, the accusation of media manipulation is a kind of accelerant. When trust in the state and its institutions dwindles en masse, the state will resort to other methods of power.

In this context, Wolin also characterizes the effects of the attacks of September 11, 2001, to the effect that the media at the time produced not only an "iconography of terror," "but also a frightened public that was susceptible to being led." That's when U.S. citizens "were hurled into the realm of mythology, into a new and different, other-worldly dimension of existence in which occult forces are bent on destroying that world that had been created for the children of light ... The myth tells a story ... of how the armies of light will rise from the ruins to fight the forces of darkness ... It doesn't make the world intelligible, it dramatizes it."

Involuntarily, while reading, a reference to the present is established. The reality of the Ukraine war is, after all, enveloped in a manipulative imagination: David is fighting Goliath, as it were, and needs the help of all good people to do so. Enraptured by their own emotions and the public compulsion to take sides, the very question of the background to this great power conflict seems inappropriate to many, as "whataboutism," a shying away from the enemy.

Threat from outside, pressure from within

The threat of authoritarian change is always looming. Sheldon S. Wolin quotes constitutional lawyer Edward Corwin, who in 1947 speculated on how the system of the rule of law might be streamlined into a "functional totality" in the face of the possibilities of nuclear war:

"To a politically decreed participation of all forces in the war effort: individual and social forces, scientific, machine, commercial, economic moral, literary and artistic, and psychological forces."

Totalitarian concentration of power, justified by real or apparent threats from outside, indeed makes possible many things that would not be enforceable by democratic consensus - the drastic increase of prices and of military expenditures, for example - and provides, what one should have no illusions about, an apparatus of repression if necessary. Here, Sheldon S. Wolin demonstrates in detail what effects the Cold War had on the internal constitution of the USA. He goes into detail about the official report of the National Security Council to President Truman in 1950. The confrontational worldview proclaimed therein in the confrontation with the Soviet Union is equally valid today against Russia. Virtue in the struggle against a boundless evil - as politically naïve as this dualism may seem, it is a "favorite child of many myths." Sheldon S. Wolin died in 2015, but he astutely foresaw the beginnings of "a permanent global war."

"A great deal of sacrifice and discipline will be demanded of the American people," it was said as early as 1950. "Americans will find themselves called upon to give up some of the comforts they associate with their liberties." It brings to mind how the Corona and Ukraine crises have impacted us from different directions. "We can also sometimes freeze for freedom," said Joachim Gauck, who certainly won't freeze, but of "freedom" he is known to have a celestial opinion.

Democracy and capitalism contradict each other

It is the normality in which we live that political decision-making structures are "largely disconnected" from the social base "and have insulated themselves from democratic control and accountability," as Rainer Mausfeld notes in his introduction. "Executive apparatuses, parties, parliamentary factions, media, and economic interest groups have merged into an organizational form of power" that we have already come to terms with. Many are already oblivious to the difference between ideal and reality.

Sheldon S. Wolin, however, carries it painfully in his heart. He clings to the ideal and polemicizes because he considers particular, "ephemeral democracy" in narrowly defined spaces to be insufficient. He wants much more participation than is allowed by representative democracy, which he calls a "spectator democracy." An "electoral oligarchy." Whereas it is actually in the nature of things that real democracy, based on the principle of equality, does not suit capitalism.

Exposing in this context the words of CDU politician Norbert Blüm in 2006, quoted by Rainer Mausfeld:

"We are dealing with an economy that is preparing to become totalitarian because it seeks to force everything under the command of an economic ratio. Market economy, that is a segment, is to become market society. This is the new imperialism. It no longer conquers new territories, but sets out to capture people's brains and hearts. Its regime of occupation renounces physical violence and occupies centers of man's inner control."

A beautiful pretense is unmasked

Wolin's analysis is of a system "that pretends to be the opposite of what it really is." A beautiful pretense is unmasked, which admittedly allows for a reasonably comfortable life as long as it is maintained. "To exercise total power - without appearing to do so - without setting up concentration camps, without enforcing ideological uniformity or forcibly suppressing dissenters, as long as they remain ineffective," Wolin even sees in this a "genius" of the system.

This also brings to mind Noam Chomsky's diagnosis, also quoted in the introduction:

"The intelligent way to keep people passive and docile is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinions, but to allow very lively debate within that spectrum - and even to encourage more critical and even dissenting views. This gives people the sense that free thought is taking place, while the presuppositions of the system are perpetually solidified by the limits of the permissible range of debate."

System-stabilizing internally and combative externally, the term "democracy" is a "brand name for a product that can be controlled at home and marketed abroad," as Wolin notes. It may even be that Joe Biden himself believes from the bottom of his heart what he expresses in his politics: that the U.S. is the navel of the world, a divinely sent power, so to speak, legitimized to intervene everywhere, wherever, when its own interests are at stake. Whereby other peoples and states are denied such interests.

US hegemony as a priority

In a strangely self-evident way - in a variation, so to speak, of the notorious quote by Emanuel Geibel (1815-1884): "The world shall be healed by the German spirit" - a nationalism is celebrated here that must be alarming, especially against the background of Germany's past. We should be familiar with how missionary aspirations were combined with military ambitions.

The so-called Bush Doctrine of 2002, which is discussed in detail in the book, established the expansion of U.S. hegemony as the top priority, including the right to wage preventive wars and to use force against states that seek to resist domination. Russia and China, in particular, were to be "contained." That emerging, ambitious powers are now equally insistent on their interests and unwilling to submit to the hegemon, this emergence of a multipolar world order, will create turbulence beyond the Ukraine conflict, bringing Europe to a dangerous crossroads.

Sheldon A. Wolin's thick book is so heavy in content that it cannot all be reviewed in detail here. The most important benefit of reading it: To step out of the vault of ideologically shaped ideas and to take an external standpoint, i.e. to exercise rational distance in the face of widespread affect communication. Analytical approach in the enlightenment sense as a means against the powerlessness to look like a fool in front of a confusing reality.

Sheldon A. Wolin: Inverted Totalitarianism. Factual power relations and their destructive effects on our democracy. With an introduction by Rainer Mausfeld. Westend Verlag, 462 p., hardcover, 36 €.

"We need an autonomous peace politics from below"

There is no going back to the old internationalism based on nation states and parties, says Isabella Consolati of the Transnational Social Strike platform. But what instead?
Interview: Jan Ole Arps
[This interview published on 4/12/2022 is translated from the German on the Internet, »Wir brauchen eine autonome Friedens­politik von unten«]

Instead of siding with Putin or NATO, the left needs to organize transnationally, says Isabella Consolati. But how?
The Russian attack on Ukraine has exposed frightening political deficits on the left.

Between geostrategic considerations of the war as a confrontation of imperialist blocs and practical aid initiatives for people fleeing Ukraine, there is largely a political void. The Transnational Social Strike (TSS) platform has been trying for several years to revive joint organizing across borders using the idea of the strike. Since late March, it has created a forum for political discussion between leftists from Western and Eastern Europe with the "Permanent Assembly Against War." Isabella Consolati reports on the discussions and explains how a transnational peace politics could emerge from below. She lives in Bologna.

Internationalism and international solidarity is the oldest idea of the left and the workers* movement - today it is extremely weak, although the world is globalized as never before.

Isabella Consolati: Yes, globalization has weakened internationalism.

How so?

The internationalism of the workers' movement was born from the idea that capitalist relations transcend national borders, that they can only be revolutionized through the international organization of workers, also because war and nationalism primarily affect the working class. It was based on political relations between national organizations that were based on relatively homogeneous living and working conditions regulated by nation-states. Globalization has changed these conditions. Capital has created transnational logistics for production and distribution and exploits differences in wages and labor rights to increase its profits. People also move across borders as never before; even the reproduction of life is now closely linked to labor mobility. Consider the hundreds of thousands of migrant women who provide domestic and care services on the basis of work-based residence permits.

Moreover, the traditional internationalism of the workers* movement was based on the existence of communist or socialist parties organized at the national level. Today, this organizational model is no longer viable. Nor is there any going back to it. So the real question is how to create stable, productive links between collectives, networks and grassroots unions that are unlikely to accept joining together in a party. That's why it's important to go beyond internationalism and embrace the transnational perspective as a fundamental problem of organizing.

Even within Europe there are only few common points of reference - especially between comrades in Eastern and Western Europe. Yet Berlin, the capital of the most powerful country in the European Union, is only a few kilometers from the Polish border.

In recent years, social movements have become more concerned with the central role that the EU plays in our living and working conditions. There were first experiences with transnational mobilizations, for example in the Blockupy protests against the European Central Bank and European austerity policies. The limit of this perspective was that it saw the EU as an institution with a kind of command center. The fact that the ECB is based in Frankfurt am Main reinforced this perspective, given the leading role Germany plays in the EU. In recent years, however, the EU has reorganized itself amid constant tension between attempts at centralization and resistance from member states.

What exactly do you mean?

In 2015, during the EU political crisis triggered by migration from Syria, there were attempts to centralize migration policy and the management of migration flows. This was strongly opposed by some member states. The dispute between the EU and Eastern countries over basic democratic rights - women's rights, LGBTQI+ rights, etc. - also exemplifies this tension. Europe cannot be reduced to its "command centers" or its institutional framework. Thinking transnationally means shifting perspectives: rather than viewing Eastern Europe as a periphery, it would need to be understood as the place where experiments with labor relations that do not provide access to social rights and with the combination of neoliberalism and conservatism have taken place. This also means recognizing that the struggles that have taken place in Central and Eastern Europe in recent years are relevant to living and working conditions in the West. This is the reason why the first meeting of the Transnational Social Strike platform took place in Poznan, Poland in 2015.

Who is active in the Transnational Social Strike, and what is the unifying factor in your work?

Our platform consists of activists, workers and trade unionists from different countries, each active in their own initiatives, but who want to work on a common political strategy. This includes showing the transnational connections that are contained in our respective local struggles and finding common demands. For example, the demand for a European residence permit, regardless of income, employment contract or family. As TSS, we support this demand because it offers a way to confront both the deadly European border regime and the institutional racism that ties residence permits to work and employers. Another issue in recent years has been how we can fight against wage inequality within Europe and demand a truly equal wage for all who work in Europe. Both of these demands are about strengthening unity across different national conditions and responding to the hierarchies that permeate the European space.

How does transnational organizing work, in practical terms?

TSS works with a combination of transnational meetings - so far in Poznan, Berlin, London, Paris, Ljubljana, Stockholm, Tbilisi; the next one will be in Sofia, September 8-11 - regular online meetings, a mailing list, and a website. Of course, the pandemic has made it harder to build transnational connections. After two years of enforced distance, the Sofia meeting is an important step in deepening contact. We are also participating in joint organizing of workers*, women, LGBTQI+ and migrants across Europe and beyond.

For example?

For example, in the Amazon Workers International process, an initiative of Amazon workers from company sites in Europe and the US. It has organized strikes and campaigns around the common demands of ending temporary contracts and equal pay. This has involved workers* from Amazon warehouses in different countries. More recently, we have worked to found the Transnational Migrants Coordination, a network of migrant collectives that has organized actions against institutional racism, pushbacks, and the exploitation of migrants in factories, camps, agriculture, and homes. We also supported the creation of the E.A.S.T. network - Essential autonomous struggles transnational - which organizes feminists mainly from Central and Eastern Europe, but also beyond. The network focuses on the indispensable, essential work as it emerged during the pandemic. It fights to bring together all women, especially migrants from Eastern European or non-EU countries, whose essential and devalued work keeps care work going in countries in the West. E.A.S.T. has participated in the feminist strike movement, fighting against the harsh patriarchal counterattacks of recent years. On March 8, E.A.S.T. called for a "strike against war" as the most intolerable manifestation of patriarchal violence.

The left is being pulverized by the supposed alternative that the war is imposing on it: to side either with Putin or with NATO.

How does the war in Ukraine affect your work?

I think it will have massive long-term consequences for the possibilities of autonomous organizing. In the short term, it exacerbates the relations of oppression and exploitation that we are fighting. It kills thousands of people and destroys their livelihoods, it violently enforces patriarchal hierarchies and role models: Men are expected to fight bravely as soldiers, women are treated as powerless victims. The nationalist vocabulary of war makes it seemingly impossible to cross fronts and overcome the very divisions that weaken our common struggles. Countries such as Georgia, Poland, Moldova, and Romania are affected by the sanctions and massive refugee movements because of their proximity to Ukraine and their direct economic ties with both Ukraine and Russia. Most of the refugees from Ukraine are women. This raises not only the question of how they will be accommodated now, but also how their labor will be accessed. Ethnic segmentation of the care labor market or increased competition between migrant groups from different countries must be prevented at all costs. The war in Ukraine is also changing the migration policies of European countries, which are setting admission criteria for people from Ukraine that do not apply to non-European refugees and migrants.

At the end of March, you organized an international online meeting against the war. Who participated, and how do you discuss a left position in times of war?

More than a hundred people took part in the meeting, from Ukraine, Russia, Bulgaria, Poland, Georgia, Romania, Moldova, the Czech Republic, Greece, but also from Italy, Great Britain, Germany and the USA. We support the Ukrainian people who are under attack by supporting grassroots solidarity initiatives, for example against the racist administration of refugees and the racist hierarchies it produces among migrants*. We try to make visible all forms of resistance against the war, including the Russian movements, which hardly appear in the media. Of course, there are many initiatives that did not participate in the meeting that are doing similar things. But we think that at the moment it is especially important to create a transnational space for political communication. That's basically the goal of our activities: to bring local or national initiatives into discussion with each other about how we make resistance to the war a common political project. That's the reason why the Assembly continues now as the "Permanent Assembly Against the War", next time on April 9.

You call for a transnational peace policy. What does that mean in concrete terms?

The discussions of the Permanent Assembly against War have yet to reveal that. As TSS we have proposed some pillars. For us, "peace" does not mean "social peace." We recognize that we need peace to lead the struggles against patriarchy, capitalism and racism. War makes it impossible for people to decide about their lives. A transnational peace politics means that we, as women, workers* and migrants, work to make our voices heard against the brutality of war and its consequences. In concrete terms, this means, among other things, not getting involved in the geopolitical game that we neither can nor want to determine. It is not the time to identify with the politics of states or nations. We can discuss the reasons for the war, but the political problem we face is to side with those who are suffering from the war, in Ukraine, but not only there. It's about overcoming the fronts of the war and finding a common political language against the war and, by extension, its effects outside the battlefields.

How do you perceive the Western left in relation to the war in Ukraine? Is there a big difference between left positions from Western and Eastern Europe?

It's hard to say. My impression is that the "Western left," if it exists, is more fragmented than ever. In general, perhaps one can say that the "left" is being pulverized by the supposed alternative that the war is imposing on it: to side either with Putin or with NATO. Sections of the left and social movements in the West insist on the need to break with Atlanticism - to the point of delusion of seeing Putin as an ally because Nato's main adversary. In doing so, they overlook the fact that it is not NATO that is bombing Ukraine, but Putin. Others call for a strong, autonomous Europe as a democratic alternative to two oppressive regimes, without considering how Europe has constituted itself through its border policies, including by reducing Ukraine to a reservoir of migrant workers toiling in factories or private homes under extremely exploitative conditions.

The question is not so much whether we side with the decisions of our respective states, but how we support the people resisting in Ukraine in the way we can.

Contributions like those of the Georgian comrades in the Permanent Assembly Against the War are crucial in my view because, based on their own experience, they force a change of perspective: They know Russia as the aggressor, and at the same time the country lives from economic exchange with Russia, from remittances from there. The sanctions imposed on Russia are already having a devastating impact on Georgian workers, and are also fueling anti-Russian nationalism. They cannot rely on NATO or on a Europe that has legitimized the worst neoliberal policies with its promise of integration.

The challenge is precisely to escape these imposed alternatives and to take a different perspective from the impact of this war both on the people of Ukraine and on all those workers*, migrants*, women and LGBTQI+ who are not willing to pay the price for this war. So we are not only on the side of the people in Ukraine who are now forced to flee, but also on the side of those who are affected by the sanctions in Russia and are already struggling to make a living, or who are dependent on remittances from relatives in Russia in Georgia.

Much of what sounds good on an abstract level becomes difficult as soon as it becomes more concrete. The left in Germany has not yet found answers to the political questions arising from the war: Sanctions yes or no? Arms deliveries yes or no? Etc. We are against the rearmament of the Bundeswehr, against German arms companies that earn money from arms exports. But our comrades in Ukraine emphasize that they need weapons now. How do you deal with such questions in your platform?

Yes, these are the contradictions that leftists in many countries are thinking about right now. One cannot deny that the Ukrainian resistance is legitimate and that it must be armed resistance at the moment. This is true even if we are against further militarization and the business of war. The contradiction cannot be resolved. We can support the people who are resisting in Ukraine, but we cannot provide them with the weapons they need. The European countries and the United States will send weapons to Ukraine, completely regardless of our position on this. The same is true for sanctions.

So it's not so much a question of whether or not we side with the decisions of our respective states, but how we support the people who are resisting in Ukraine in the way that we can. In other words, it is about a realistic determination of what we can and cannot do. Discussing whether we should send weapons to Ukraine when no one will ask for our permission to do so is a waste of time. Likewise, it would be ridiculous to try to determine how Ukrainians should resist. But there is another level of discussion that is obscured by these kinds of questions, and that concerns our collective ability to take an autonomous political stance in war. That is what the Permanent Assembly Against War is trying to achieve.

Jan Ole Arps
is an editor at ak.
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