Correctly Political: Tea and Sympathy for the Devil You Know

"Children's Tea Party," Morton H. B. Bly, 1919

“Children’s Tea Party,” Morton H. B. Bly, 1919

by jfxgillis


Wednesday, April 15th, Tax Day (reminder to self: file tax return or else), is also the day designated by grass-roots conservatives as a day of protest, the “Tea Party” movement. Intriguingly, the Tea Parties have inspired much discussion and debate–but almost none of which is related to the actual issues ostensibly the subject of the protests. That, I contend, is because the purported “issues” supposedly driving the protests are the least of the forces driving them.

Andrew Sullivan, for example, has spent a week collecting suggestions for what the Tea Party protests are supposed to be “about.” What policies do they want to implement or obstruct, he wonders? as he then dismisses them as fated to futility.

Some of the sharper-witted Tea Partisans like blogger Dan Riehl, however, understand the purpose at least one level deeper when he suggests that “The Left can’t quite figure out the script for the Tea Party movement because there isn’t one beyond what is being written as it grows.” Which means, of course, that the Right can’t figure out the script yet either because, as he says, it hasn’t been written yet. But on the other hand, other highly-engaged conservative polemicists like Charles Johnson at Little Green Footballs justifiably point out that that absence of policy focus represents something of a danger to the conservative movement, the danger that people will write their own scripts and that those scripts may be absurd or even insane.

The ironic resonance of Riehl’s contention that the script hasn’t been written yet is that it very much echoes one of the Right’s favorite–and truth to tell, most accurate–insights about the Obama campaign last year, that it was in many respects simply a vessel into which many Obamaniacs poured their own fears and desires.

Thus it is the Tea Party movement is a cultural, a sociological, a psychological, even on some level a spiritual phenomenon, possibly even metaphysical. Cluttering it up with mundane and ephemeral “winning the news cycle” notions of partisan-political conflict is not only not the point, it’s the opposite of the point.

Moreover, some of the Left’s objections to the movement, sometimes derisive rejection, centered on the corporate and corporatist sponsorship and institutional support, as the Washington Monthly, Jane Hamsher and Media Matters have documented, also misses the point by a mile. It doesn’t matter to the core meaning of the Tea Parties whether or not Fox News has determined that they can benefit by covering and encouraging the Tea Party movement. Fox News, the professional lobby firms and the engaged radio talk shows both local and national are not acting upon the Tea Parties, they are reacting to them. Institutional support may make some difference at the margins (fewer misspelled signs and better administration of the local events denying critics mockable moments) but it has nothing to do with and will have nothing to do with what is animating the protests. What those institutions are doing is astroturfing, but what they are responding to is genuinely grass roots.

As a matter of fact, I have no doubt whatsoever that the corporatist enablers of the Tea Party movement will find themselves (quietly) repulsed and revulsed by many of the attitudes expressed by the true grass-rootsers at the heart of the movement. Do those corporatists have any idea at all, for example, how deeply hostile to Free Trade many in the movement are?

So. What, you ask, is animating the Tea Parties? Answer: Alienation.

There are, I think, two sources for the spiritual unease fueling the Tea Party movement. First, those invested in the movement have come to terms (or are coming to terms) with the fact that the last election demonstrated that they are now in the social minority. After decades of gripping tightly to a self-conception founded on Richard Nixon’s idea of the “Silent Majority“–and to be fair, that self-concept was not without objective justification–the grass roots conservatives, after a period of cognitive dissonance in which they tried to convince themselves we were still a “center right nation,” is recognizing that the Silent Majority has become the Silent Minority.

And Silent Minorities don’t influence society if they remain silent. A Silent Majority can operate simply by living their lives and then consistently winning elections. That is, they can engage themselves only once every two or four years but nevertheless feel as if they control their own destinies. But a minority has to be noisy to have any hope at all of influencing the course of social development. So to claim, as some have and will, that the Tea Parties are “just noise” is to gloss over one of the most significant aspects of the movement. The fact that it’s “just noise” is the strongest indication yet that they now know that they have to make noise.

But the other source of Alienation is much more profound and, I believe, more troubling, more dangerous, more thrilling and, oddly enough, more progressive. Both the astroturfing corporations and the ordinary liberal/progressive types ridiculing the Tea Party movement need to consider the movement more carefully and take it more seriously. And. Perhaps. Maybe. Those encouraging the movement should ponder the sources of the forces they are unleashing.


Strange, I know, to cite the one of the Karl Marxiest of all the mid-20th century Marxist sociologists as one of the inspirations of the Tea Party movement, but if you ponder Herbert Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man not as a work of analysis but as a work of prophecy, can that conclusion be avoided? Marcuse developed or extended some of the most enduring and useful concepts in modern Marxist thinking, including, for example, the notion of “false consciousness,” the phenomena by which those on the bottom of the socio-economic scale adopt the ideology that favors exploitation of themselves in favor of the elites.

But false consciousness has and always has had embedded within it the seeds of its own destruction, namely, the fact that the ideology of the elites doesn’t serve the interests of the middle and lower classes. Although that paradox emerged oh, say, forty years after the New Left first identified it and expected it to erode the social order, it may well be that it is finally starting to bite. Those having their lives and economic security degraded or destroyed in the current crisis are far more anti-Capitalist than the elites (perhaps even imperiled working classes themselves) realize. And you can see some of the fog lifting in the difference between the phony astroturfed organizing for the Tea Parties and the authentically grass roots organizing.

Compare, for example, the web page of Americans for Prosperity, the artificial and inauthentic corporatist attempt to direct the Tea Party movement with the widely distributed and much-mocked video of a truly grass roots organizing meeting cited by Charles Johnson above. You won’t see me mocking that video. The people in that video are angry, frightened and betrayed–and they have every right and reason to feel angry, frightened and betrayed because the political economy has not served their interests. Or rather, I suppose, it has stopped doing so when the choice was reduced to serving the elites or serving the working and lower middle classes.

The Americans for Prosperity page features as its TOP ISSUE opposition to the Employee Free Choice Act, the proposed legislation that would make it easier for Unions to organize. But if you go to an authentically grass roots Tea Party page, you can see that the grass-rootsers don’t really care about EFCA one way or the other: As of this writing, not a single one of the hundreds and hundreds of user-submitted slogans refers to EFCA. And you’ll note that the AFP-organized Michigan Tea party (featuring Joe the Plumber, the poster-child for false consciousness) strangely doesn’t seem to reference the anti-Union rhetoric of the front page at all. Odd that. Not.

The astroturfed Tea Party sites don’t seem to have posted a single word about illegal immigration on any of their multiple and multifarious sites despite the fact that the briefest glance or eavesdrop at any of the grass roots commentary would indicate that this is driving issue for many Tea Partygoers.

But that is not the main Marcusian concept at work here. Although he comfortably described himself as a disciple of both Hegel and Marx, one critical area in which he departed from simple-minded Marxist lines is that Marcuse believed that human consciousness included a spiritual or metaphysical dimemsion. He was not strictly speaking a materialist and did not, in the end, believe in homo economus. He first drew fame with Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud, a synthesis of Freud and Marx. In fact, Marcuse’s idea of the One Dimensional Man referred to Marcuse’s belief that the purely material comforts of Western liberal democratic capitalism rendered the human spirit flat, superficial and ultimately oppressed.

And he ultimately argued Alienation in reverse, claiming, in effect, that the obvious and inarguable distinction in interests between the ruling and the ruled classes characteristic of, say, feudalism, allowed the lower classes to unmistakably alienate themselves from the elites. When a famine comes and the peasants starve while the Lord of the Manor eats, it’s pretty hard to convince the serfs that some of that food will eventually trickle down to them and everything will be okay in the end. Thus, in Chapter 1 of One Dimensional Man Marcuse says:

We are again confronted with one of the most vexing aspects of advanced industrial civilization: the rational character of its irrationality. Its productivity and efficiency, its capacity to increase and spread comforts, to turn waste into need, and destruction into construction, the extent to which this civilization transforms the object world into an extension of man’s mind and body makes the very notion of alienation questionable. The people recognize themselves in their commodities; they find their soul in their automobile, hi-fi set, split-level home, kitchen equipment.

Seems a little dated, but the point I think remains operative. Just swap out “iPod” for “hi-fi.” What has happened, I think, is this: For most of the last century of highly-developed Capitalism, the working classes were in a position to live lives of Orwellian doublethink, to hold within their souls the illusion of Two Dimensions. President Obama famously touched on the theme (it was HOT so he rarely mentioned it so explicitly again) with his infamous “bitter” comment about working class Pennsylvania’s “clinging to guns and religion.” But of course, while impolitic, he was correct. Until quite recently the working classes were well able to BOTH console themselves with the enduring spiritual security of traditional values AND comfort themselves with the secure material prosperity of developed Capitalism.

Driving Miss Crazy

The working classes consoled themselves with the devil they knew–old time religion, the English language–while devoted to the devil they couldn’t know, a political economy that, despite it’s staggeringly high living standards, unbeknownst to them carried very high risks and an uncertain future. You can see this no more so than in what is now Ground Zero for the crisis of contemporary political economy: Michigan. Here’s how Marcuse addressed that theme back in 1965:

I ride in a new automobile. I experience its beauty, shininess. power, convenience–but then I become aware of the fact that in a relatively short time it will deteriorate and need repair; that its beauty and surface are cheap. its power unnecessary, its size idiotic; and that I will not find a parking place. I come to think of my car as a product of one of the Big Three automobile corporations. The latter determine the appearance of my car and make its beauty as well as its cheapness, its power as well as its shakiness, its working as well as its obsolescence. In a way, I feel cheated. I believe that the car is not what it could be, that better cars could be made for less money. But the other guy has to live, too. Wages and taxes are too high; turnover is necessary; we have it much better than before. The tension between appearance and reality melts away and both merge in one rather pleasant feeling.


Dream Turns to Nightmare?

Doesn’t seem quite so dated, huh? And I think it’s fair to say that that “pleasant feeling” is gone now. And with it, the “very notion” of Alienation is not as questionable as it appeared to Marcuse back when. The system which allowed them to dream now threatens to transform into a nightmare–if it hasn’t already for many.

But then, this carries the current crisis away from the purely economic to the spiritual and psychological aspect of human consciousness. Thus, it is no rebuke of the Tea Party to suggest a direct connection between the Tea Parties and certain of the recent spree shootings. A sociological paradox sometimes plays out in individual minds as a psychological crisis. What drives most people to protest or rebellion drives others to madness. What makes one person rant semi-coherently about Evolution drives another to write a hit Country & Western single.

John Rich, I think, hasn’t really thought it through. Does he not understand that in the world of Capital there isn’t the slightest distinction between a corporate bond floated by an automobile manufacturer or a collateralized debt obligation floated by Citigroup? Return on Investment is all that matters up there. Jobs, commodities, durable goods, fun, community or taste just don’t matter–and it matters not to General Motors anymore than it matters to Goldman, Sachs.

And make no mistake: This is a paradox, which means there will be a slew of seemingly irrational and contradictory responses during this period ahead as the social order either struggles back to something like a previous equilibrium, is deeply reformed or, possibly but not probably, is overthrown.

(Cross-posted to Newsvine. Monetize me!)

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15 thoughts on “Correctly Political: Tea and Sympathy for the Devil You Know

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  3. “Do those corporatists have any idea at all, for example, how deeply hostile to Free Trade many in the movement are?”

    Probably they do; if not they need to fire their pollsters.
    However, it really doesn’t matter, as has been seen over the past thirty-odd years.


  4. My problem with these sorts of analysis is that they read like the following to me:

    “The position P that these people over here hold is held for the following reasons: A, B, and C. A has the root cause of this particular defect in character. B has a different root cause in a completely different character defect. C is an interesting reason, but can be dismissed as insincere and not truly held because of the character defects in the people.”

    This leads to discussions of A, B, and C and defenses of the character defects (“these are virtues!”) but there is no discussion of position P and its merits or problems. People get bogged down in the “how dare you think I think that!” and the discussions of the people involved. Position P becomes secondary to the joys of psychoanalysis.

    I suspect that this is done mostly by people who were harshly potty trained, but my research isn’t complete on that front.


  5. but isn’t this all the problem the modern conservative movement has. it is idealogicaly incoherent, its followers don’t often believe their own professeda ideas and doesn’t deliver what is says it will. FDR in a way fused the interests of the middle class and poor together which led to policies that created immense growth and prosperity. over the last 30 years conservative polices have actively worked at splitting the middle class away from the poor so they could benefit the rich. the tea party people are likely the victims of conservative policies. yes that is a generalization but the incoherent shouting of the tea bagged doesn’t exactly make it look like they know they ass from a hole in the ground.


  6. Fantastic! Please post again. (though maybe break into smaller posts – I normally skip the longest ones here.)

    Re: Marcuse. One of the most important things I take away from the Freudian-inflected Hegelian Marxists is the desire to turn the rational political agent on his or her head. In America especially, politics is centered on the model that a person has an economic interest, and has a social interest. So you can be a (9, -8), and be a libertarian, or a (3,9) and be an evangelical, etc.

    Now people who trouble that, say Thomas Frank or Reihan Salam, still use the framework but say that one is influencing the other. But they still assume that the agent is rational, and trying to maxmizing between the two numbers. But what if (a) there is only one impulse, and there is no disconnect? And more importantly, (b) what if the very notion of a political desire rationally mapped onto outcomes can’t cover the political feeling we have? What if alienation, subjection and trauma – the language of Freud – are the guiding forces in pushing us towards our political realm?

    I always try to at least include that trail of thought when I think something like “but your interests are in conflict!” Interests are what I’m presuming, though they are the very thing in contest.


  7. I like this a lot; it has influenced some of my thinkg in this matter. Wendy Brown:

    While Frank is clearly correct about the neocon leadership’s hand waving over such issues and its pursuit of policies at odds with the economic welfare of its working- and middle-class base, his analysis assumes rather than queries the “interests” he imputes to this base. Neoliberal de-democratization produces a subject who may have no such interests, who may be more desirous of its own subjection and complicit in its subordination than any democratic subject could be said to be.27 That is, even as Frank explains compellingly how the rich and powerful have exploited the disappointment and frustration of working- and middle-class America, this explanation hews to a model of objective interests on one side and ideological obfuscation and manipulation on the other. Thus it resurrects a certain political hopefulness through the worn figure of “false consciousness” and
    eschews the more troubling possibility of an abject, unemancipatory, and anti-egalitarian subjective orientation amongst a significant swathe of the American populace.

    To see this more clearly, let us revisit four aspects of neoliberal de-democratization, considering them now as the seedbed of the new political form that I’m suggesting is produced at the intersection of neoliberal and neoconservative rationalities: (1) the devaluation of political autonomy, (2) the transformation of political problems into individual problems with market solutions, (3) the production of the consumer-citizen as available to a heavy degree of governance and authority, and (4) the legitimation of statism.


  8. Rorty:

    Thank you! I do try to ease the reading strain with sub-heads and sections.

    The presumption of comprehensive rationality, I think, is far more a problem for the right than the left. Frank’s point isn’t that non-rational aspects of consciousness lead to irrational politics, but that within the confines of economic rationality the political choices are contradictory of interest. I.e., the guy who voted Republican to defy those suits on Wall Street. As a wage-earner, do I vote my own interests by supporting the party that supports collective bargaining or do I vote against those interests by voting for the party devoted to low wages? Those a mutually exclusive zero-sum interests.

    The right, however, is trying to meld two spheres, the economic and the cultural, that have competing but not mutually exclusive impulses. Do I vote for the party that opposes abortion because I’m Catholic or for the party that will maintain Social Security because I know I’ll need it? Those are value judgements.


  9. Very interesting essay. One quibble I have is that Marcusian false consciousness is more likely to be found on the other side in the culture wars. A lot of the underlying cultural conflict (eg, see the 2008 Presidential campaign) is the about the desire of the knowledge manipulating establishment to assert social superiority over blue collar types and Palin enthusiasts. Of course, in the big picture this doesn’t accomplish anything for them. And, it only works in an advanced, relatively stable economy, which some of them are doing their level best to bury. But their alienation is still sub-rosa because (as you pointed out) they perceive themselves to be the majority in contrast to the Tea Partiers who are the minority.

    And they may even be right on that score but it doesn’t matter. Ultimately the majority/minority business is about control over the political-cultural establishment. Unfortunately for the knowledge manipulating New Elite, their the satisfaction of their cultural aspirations require more power than the political-cultural establishment has, so control over it is sort of a booby prize. The knowledge manipulator types haven’t figured this out yet, but I think they will soon. In fact, I suspect the Tea Parties are going to be one of the first lessons in their education.


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  11. When I started the post, I didn’t suspect that a pseudo-intellectual apology for this bubbled-up-from-the-think-tanks phenomenon could end up surpassing the thing it treats in crazy. Boy, was I a naive simpleton.


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