On October 21, the political theorist Sheldon Wolin died at the age of 93. Professor and mentor to countless Nation readers and contributors (including Stephen Cohen, Richard Falk, Joel Rogers, Tom Ferguson, and Corey Robin), Wolin helped revitalize political philosophy as a living discipline with much to say about contemporary politics and society, not to mention the growing gap between the wealthy few and increasingly destitute many. In numerous books, from his classic Politics and Visions: Continuity and Innovation in Western Political Thought (1960) to Democracy Incorporation: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism (2008), Wolin noted the growing tendency of the republic toward consolidation, oligarchy, and totalitarianism, and urged leftists to look to “a more decentralized and local politics, scattered and diffuse,” as “the first best hope.”
Over the years, Wolin published three important essays (and one shorter comment piece) in the pages of The Nation, each at what seem now to be pivotal moments in the life of American democracy at the turn of the 21st century. They are self-evidently worth reading again today.
In “Beyond Marxism and Monetarism” (March 19, 1990), Wolin predicted that after the events of 1989, “‘democracy’ will be reshaped into a mere rhetorical function serving to legitimize politics of austerity.” He suggested that the American establishment would falsely interpret the political convulsions of the previous year as the dying spasms of history, which had reached its ultimate end, and argued that it would be up to democrats to prove such a reading wrong. It has taken a few decades, but these days, all across the world, millions seem finally to be answering Wolin’s call.
The media presentation has been as politically charged as the events themselves, and is as much influenced by American domestic political themes as by the recent history of those countries. In the past decade the perceptions and sensibilities of many Americans have been Reaganized, shaped by counterrevolutionary concerns regarding welfare, race relations, health care, ecology, government regulation of business practices, the rights of minorities and women, and education. Equally, Reaganism inverted the relation of public to private values, extolling private concerns over public ones while corrupting public office for private profit. Revolution, then, is being portrayed to a society that is in the process of sloughing off the values and practices of its own liberal, quasi-democratic past….
Revolutionary change in Europe is thus perceived by a United States that has itself changed profoundly since the Prague Spring of 1968. Twenty-five years ago the United States was quintessentially liberal, expansionist and interventionist in its formal institutional policies and foreign policy (the Great Society of Lyndon Johnson and the Vietnam War), and democratic and antiexpansionist in its spontaneous politics (the civil rights movement, antiwar protests, campus revolts and ecological activism). Now the society is essentially conservative, apolitical and corrupted into cheering what the Times vulgarly described as presidential “initiation rites” in Grenada and Panama. The politics of democratic change flourishes at the local level, but what prevails nationally is not democracy but traditional, mostly white, middle- and upper-middle-class liberal politics: the defense of rights (E.R.A., abortion, sexual preference) and the domestication of potentially radical concerns, such as environmentalism, so that they become the livelihood of technocrats on one side or the other.