Sheldon Wolin’s the reason I began drinking coffee

Sheldon Wolin‘s the reason I began drinking coffee.

I was a freshman at Princeton. It was the fall of 1985. I signed up to take a course called “Modern Political Theory.” It was scheduled for Mondays and Wednesdays at 9 am. I had no idea what I was doing. I stumbled into class, and there was a man with white hair and a trim white beard, lecturing on Machiavelli. I was transfixed.

There was just one problem: I was—still am—most definitely not a morning person. Even though the lectures were riveting, I had to fight my tendency to fall asleep. Even worse, I had to fight my tendency to sleep in.

So I started drinking coffee. I’d show up for class fully caffeinated. And proceeded to work my way through the canon—Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, along with some texts you don’t often get in intro theory courses (the Putney Debates, Montesquieu’s Persian Letters, and for a last hurrah: Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations)—under the guidance of one of the great readers of the twentieth century.

More than anything else, that’s what Sheldon Wolin was: a reader of texts. He approached The Prince as if it were a novel, identifying its narrative voice, analyzing the literary construction of the characters who populated the text (new prince, customary prince, centaur, the people), examining the structural tensions in the narrative (How does a Machiavellian adviser advise a non-Machiavellian prince?), and so on. It was exhilarating.

And then after class I’d head straight for Firestone Library; read whatever we were reading that week in class; follow along, chapter by chapter, with Wolin’s Politics and Vision, which remains to this day the single best book on Western political theory that I know of (even though lots of the texts we were talking about in class don’t appear there, or appear there with very different interpretations from the ones Wolin was offering in class: the man never stood still, intellectually); and get my second cup of coffee.

This is all a long wind-up to the fact that this morning, my friend Antonio Vazquez-Arroyo, sent me a two-part interview that Chris Hedges conducted with Wolin, who’s living out in Salem, Oregon now. From his Wikipedia page, I gather that Wolin’s 92. He looks exactly the same as he did in 1985. And sounds the same. Though it seems from the video as if he may now be losing his sight. Which is devastating when I think about the opening passages of Politics and Vision, about how vision is so critical to the political theorist and the practice of theoria.

Anyway, here he is, talking to Hedges about his thesis of “inverted totalitarianism”:

In classic totalitarianism, thinking here now about the Nazis and the fascists, and also even about the communists, the economy is viewed as a tool which the powers that be manipulate and utilize in accordance with what they conceive to be the political requirements of ruling. And they will take whatever steps are needed in the economy in order to ensure the long-run sustainability of the political order. In other words, the sort of arrows of political power flow from top to bottom. Now, in inverted totalitarianism, the imagery is that of a populace which is enshrined as the leadership group but which in fact doesn’t rule, but which is turned upside down in the sense that the people are enshrined at the top but don’t rule. And minority rule is usually treated as something to be abhorred but is in fact what we have. And it’s the problem has to do, I think, with the historical relationship between political orders and economic orders. And democracy, I think, from the beginning never quite managed to make the kind of case for an economic order that would sustain and help to develop democracy rather than being a kind of constant threat to the egalitarianism and popular rule that democracy stands for.

Capitalism is destructive because it has to eliminate the kind of custom, mores, political values, even institutions that present any kind of credible threat to the autonomy of the economy. And it’s that–that’s where the battle lies. Capitalism wants an autonomous economy. They want a political order subservient to the needs of the economy. And their notion of an economy, while it’s broadly based in the sense of a capitalism in which there can be relatively free entrance and property is relatively widely dispersed it’s also a capitalism which, in the last analysis, is [as] elitist as any aristocratic system ever was.

Have a listen and a watch. Part 1 and then Part 2.


  1. BillR October 23, 2014 at 7:58 pm | #

    At a somewhat more abstract level than what it usually stands for, the term Public-Private Partnership, could also be used to denote Wolin’s idea. It’s kind of a good cop-bad cop pass the buck strategy in which authority can pass back and forth as well. For example, in large part the “American century” was founded on oil and the driving force behind this was decidedly not captains of industry, but high government strategic thinkers, who in many cases had moonlighted at oil companies in the past also just to further muddy the picture.

  2. Stephen Zielinski October 24, 2014 at 4:35 am | #

    Democracy, Inc. is a great book. I cringe whenever I read someone claim the United States is or will become a fascist dictatorship. It is not. But it is an inverted totalitarian system, which is more than bad enough.

  3. BillR October 24, 2014 at 8:06 am | #

    btw, Putin–routinely compared to autocrats of past–is a big fan of a variation on this model (“managed democracy”):

    Putin doesn’t believe that there is real competition between the political parties in the West. He thinks of it as a game, like a round of golf in a private club: one player is slightly stronger, another is slightly weaker, but in fact there is no real competition. He imagines it as it was in the Federal Republic of Germany after the war, under the leadership of Konrad Adenauer. There are two parties, one of which has power, and the second waits, perhaps for a long time. The Social Democrats waited, I think, from 1945 to 1970. It’s a sort of one-and-a-half party system. Putin always said that at some point in the future the opposition will gain power, and we must be ready for that moment. By being ready, he meant that we must be both here and there, that is, controlling both parties.

  4. 21st Century Poet October 25, 2014 at 12:52 am | #

    Reblogged this on 21st Century Theater.

  5. Yoram Gat October 29, 2014 at 2:55 pm | #

    This description of the Western system (what is usually called “Western democracies”) is not satisfactory. For one thing this misses a very important point – the way economic power is translated to political power. The mechanism for doing that is the electoral system, which is the cornerstone of the Western system.

    The electoral system is inherently elitist and it allows the translation of various advantages into formal ruling power. Thus, the statement “democracy never quite managed to make the kind of case for an economic order that would sustain and help to develop democracy” starts from the false premise that the Western system is democratic and proceeds to assuming that its problem is the economic structure.

    In fact, democracy – as practiced by the ancient Athenians – managed to flourish in conjunction with a capitalist economy and despite the attendant economic inequality. The crucial factor was that political delegation relied on sortition rather than elections. This decouples economic advantage from political advantage.

  6. gstally November 1, 2014 at 1:58 pm | #

    Holy crap, this guy is freakn’ awesome!

  7. joshuaclover October 22, 2015 at 11:43 am | #

    Though it is a different beloved professor, my story is exactly the same: my favorite teacher offered a course on the Lyric during my senior year at 8:00 in the morning, and until then I had never had coffee, but I started just so that I could take part despite going to bed around 2:00 each night. This was in 1986. My first 30-40 coffees, thus, were from Burger King. What did I know? And now I am an English Professor, so.

Leave a Reply