Sheldon Wolin, Politics and Vision (expanded edition) Reading Guide

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Chapter Fifteen: Liberal Justice and Political Democracy

1.        Wolin claims (at 525) that “liberalism practically disappeared as a publicly professed ideology….”  Here is the Guardian review of Krugman’s Conscience of a Liberal, and here is a critical review of the critical review of the same book in the NYT.  Does Wolin’s claim suggest an interpretation of these reviews? 

2.        What is “the liberal dilemma”?  (525-8)  Consider this possibility:  The needed liberal challenge mentioned at the top of p. 527 was delivered in a speech by Martin Luther King Jr., often referred to as his VietNam speech.  Does the speech address the ideas mentioned on 527?  If the challenge was there, does Wolin help us understand why it did not ‘take’?  (You might look ahead, to the last para. on p. 555.)

3.        How does John Rawls fit into liberal political theory, according to Wolin?  (529-31)  How is it a “new kind of public philosophy”?  (530)

4.        Wolin claims (533-4) that contemporary liberal theories’ incoherent accounts of power means they are not critical theories, but are instead legitimizing theories.  Specifically, how does he say Rawls commits this conceptual product?  (531-6) (And, linger over his short account of how to think about justice, bottom of 531) 

5.        In the chapter Wolin reviews two of Rawls’ books, A Theory of Justice and Political Liberalism.  Concerning the first, what experience is expunged from his account of justice?  (536-8)  On this score compare the argument to Nussbaum, Sex and Social Justice, at 38, 48, and 54.

6.        What does Rawls try to solve through his proposal to have reasonableness as the core feature of the political and the citizen?  (539)

7.        Why does it make a difference where Rawls marks the beginning of liberalism?  (540-2)  At that penultimate paragraph on 541, recall the claims about Calvin’s contributions to our modern ideas, at pp. 171-3.  And, note your response to that second paragraph on 542. 

8.        Wolin further develops the idea referred to in question 6, in section IX.  In particular, he claims (544) that under Rawls’ suggested constraints the Civil Rights movement could not have happened.  Why? 

9.        In section X, Wolin says that Rawls discovers power in a political culture.  He suggests this is, in his theory, tautological.  How so?  And note the joke at the end:  “Nietzsche would have smiled…”  Why?  (recall chapter thirteen) 

10. What is ‘public reason’?  (548)  Note the way the idea plays out on p. 549.  What are the “repressive elements in Rawls’ liberalism”?  Wolin further develops the point on 550. 

11. The last two sections of the chapter, pp. 551-6, spell out the features of what Wolin calls inverted totalitarianism.  What are those features?  What makes them totalitarian?  What makes them inverted?  (Recall what you came up with for chapter thirteen, questions 3 & 11, and chapter fourteen, question 12.)


Chapter Sixteen: Power and Forms

1.        The chapter begins with a reminder of the classic archetypes of constitutions, “signifying the predominance of the one, the few, or the many.”  Why, according to Wolin, is this no longer useful?  (557)

2.        The remainder of this first section introduces a new category to types of constitutions:  superpower.  What is it?  And why does this new category not fit into the traditional theory of forms (the “formless” claim)?  (558-9)  And, do linger over Wolin’s suggestion about the way we regard elites in our time, top of p. 558.

3.        How is superpower different from other sovereign states?  (559-60)

4.        On pp. 560-1 Wolin provides a list of five elements of the way superpower and terrorists feed off of each other (seven, if you count those last two points on the bottom of p. 561).  Within these elements, describe the role played by the “mythical past” claim. 

5.        In section III Wolin claims that in this postmodern era power has been transformed.  How? (562-3)  [Recall he introduced the idea of postmodern power back in chapter eleven.]

6.        Wolin says (p. 563) that “(a)n advanced economy is a profoundly anti-political site….”  What is the argument here?  Note this is about the core of “inverted totalitarianism” (see above, chapter fifteen question 11).  It builds on earlier chapters that described rationalism.  It also contains claims about the limited quality of democracy, citizenship, and civic culture. 

7.        In section V, Wolin offers a paradox of Marx’s predictions about capitalism.  What is paradoxical here?  (565-6)  You might recall the last section of the Wolin chapter on Marx, pp. 450-3. 

8.        In section VI, any doubts about Wolin’s view of self-styled postmodernists are put to rest.  He claims they “function as support rather than opposition.”  How so?  (566-7)  It is such a cascade of criticism that this older reader wishes one of you younger readers will be able to mix this section into a rap.  Seriously. 

9.        Wolin closes section VII  with the claim that “under the conditions of contemporary capitalist socieities there seemed to be no obvious vehicle of the political.” (568)  What possible vehicles were eliminated?  How? 

10. Sections VIII through X, pages 568 to 575, are aimed primarily at people interested in the discipline of political science.  Graduate students should read these, along with accounts of Wolin’s influence in the field (for example, John G. Gunnell’s The Descent of Political Theory, and the pieces by Wolin and Schaar in the New York Review of Books).  The sections contain claims that some people in the discipline will regard as jokes and insults.  People are trained in the work of William Riker, for example, are likely to be dismissive about section IX. (haha…. “so instrumental and morally empty a goal….”)  Enjoy.

11. What does Wolin mean by “the economy of opposition”?  (p. 575)  How is this supposed to have figured into the US’s abandonment of the welfare state?  (576)  What is anti-political about this? (577)  Readers may wish to compare this section with the one in the Machiavelli chapter that describes “the economy of violence,” pp. 197-200. 

12. The last two sections of the chapter, 578-80, describe a couple of more features of the emerging new form of constitution, a new form of totalism.  What are they?  Do you find these sections convincing?  Remember:  If he argument is right, this revision of concepts about constitutions should enable us to more clearly theorize power and politics. 


Chapter Seventeen, Postmodern Democracy: Virtual or Fugitive?

1.        This chapter opens with a focus on postmodernism.  Review pp. 562-3, and visit the commentary on postmodernism.  What does he add to that here?  (581-2)

2.        Section II (582-3) offers a variant of the inversion argument.  As to what is being inverted, recall p. 473, and pp. 489-92.  What does it mean to say that Nietzschean pessimism is now inverted?

3.        Years ago a Christian writer said the self is a poor locus for meaning in life.  Wolin presents a version of this claim on p. 584.  What is the individual’s place in this postmodern superpower?

4.        Section IV (585-6) contrasts our current esteem of democracy with the long-held skepticism about the concept among political philosophers.  Here Wolin develops the point by describing a “centrifugal” force that redefines citizenship.  How does this work?

5.        Wolin does not accept the claim that capitalism and democracy are natural companions (see bottom of p. 596).  What are the features of the contemporary addition of capitalism to democracy?  (587-90…. I count five distinct developments he describes.)

6.        If you have followed the argument so far (up to 590), what are the consequences for theory?  When he says the “traditional categories of citizen, democracy, state, and power desparately need reformulation,” does he say how?  (590-4)

7.        As part of that previous section, note the “most revealing inversion” (593) and his brief discussion of racism (591-2).  What is his account of the role of racism in superpower?  Is it robust—that is, does it help us to explain our politics? 

8.        Why is media concentration the “most ominous development” in inverted totalitarianism?  (594)

9.        In section IX (594-5) Wolin revisits the idea that inverted totalitarianism is a new constitutional form, and suggests we then need to ask the classic questions about constitutional forms.  What are they?  What are the answers to those questions?  (That is the subject until the end of the chapter.)

10. Much of the argument in the remaining pages has been suggested in Chapter Sixteen.  Among the things you might note:  How has citizenship changed?  597  What is the form of elitism today?  599  The connections between government and citizen have become attenuated—How?  599-600 

11. “A democratic theory should be able to describe or prescribe a conception of democracy that exposes the shallowness of Superpower’s claims.” (601)  OK, challenge accepted.  Does Wolin do that?  (601-606)  You might note his claims about the content of democratic governance (602-3—and note the similarity to the “Iron Law of Oligarchy” argument in Robert Michels’ Political Parties.) 

12. Note on p. 605 Wolin mentions that technological change is not neutral, and needs to be part of a theory of postmodern democracy.  A student of Wolin, Professor Larry D. Spence of Penn State U., developed this idea.  If you can find it, see his “An Introduction to a Theory of the Politics of Technology,” paper presented at the Instituto de Estudios Superiores de Administracion, Caracas, Venezuela, March 29, 1976.  I attempted to apply Spence’s ideas is in The Making of Telecommunications Policy (Boulder: Lynne Reinner, 1999), pp. 16-24.  See also Larry D. Spence, “Political Theory as a Vacation,” Polity Vol. 12, No. 4 (Summer, 1980), pp. 697-710.