Metaphysical Anger of the Tea Party


J.M. Bernstein’s column in New York Times: The Very Angry Tea Party.

Tea Party anger is, at bottom, metaphysical, not political: what has been undone by the economic crisis is the belief that each individual is metaphysically self-sufficient, that one’s very standing and being as a rational agent owes nothing to other individuals or institutions. The opposing metaphysical claim, the one I take to be true, is that the very idea of the autonomous subject is an institution, an artifact created by the practices of modern life: the intimate family, the market economy, the liberal state. Each of these social arrangements articulate and express the value and the authority of the individual; they give to the individual a standing she would not have without them.

Comments are, of course, the most entertaining part of this piece.

20 thoughts on “Metaphysical Anger of the Tea Party

  1. I only read to Comment 25 then saw that there were 12 such pages of 25 comments. Life is too short. But what I read suggested that Bernstein’s charge of a fallacy of independence on the part of the Tea Partiers seemed a revelation to some. But hasn’t libertarianism (and its communitarian critique) been around a long time in the US? Nozick’s work is almost 40 years old now; Walzer’s and Taylor’s critique of libertarianism almost as old. And isn’t it the case that some of these theories fed through into some of the policies of the two parties, from Reagan and Carter onwards? So my question is (as a real outsider to the present debate), what is new in Tea Partyism and the debate around it?

    • A quick version – nothing, really… If you think of it as consisting of ideas gather together under a new name. I like Bernstein’s notion of “metaphysical anger” – I think we should use the word “metaphysical” more (as well as my personal favorite of late – “grotesque”).

      Digging through comments in the search of funny is a thankless job. I just glanced through some of the longer ones (usually those are good rants, anyway feeling the obligation to type a long comment is my type of a dedicated commenter), there’s some awesomely off-mark ones there.

  2. Disagree with Bernstein. The conflict cannot be simply reduced to the old fashioned alternative between individualism/collectivism, given that conservative collectivism expressed by the triad of family, religion and nation state, which is often being engaged with a quite hysterical expression of love, doesn’t even become a subject of Bernsteins discussion.

    I’d rather argue that people both on the Left as well as on the Right oppose to a complex, functionally differentiated society, driven by functionaries, technocrats and domain experts in a moment where its service ( or some of its services ) to the people become doubtful if not overtly harmful.

    Not sure if Tea Partyism is actually a new phenomenon? It is just that we associate grass root movements and the struggle against “the system” with the political Left. The suspect of nihilism comes up because no one can articulate a coherent alternative, something which has been recognized by the Left for much longer.

  3. Kay, That’s very interesting. I see the Unemployed Negativity blog is making a criticism that is sort of related. But might it be possible for Bernstein to defend his argument on the basis that these 3 phenomena you mention – family, religion and nation-state – are nevertheless construed individualistically in TP rhetoric/thinking, which still involves a self-denial that they are parasitic on deeper societal connections and interdependences.

    Insofar as I understand right-wing US attitudes (which may be well off the mark as a lot of it is rather alien to us here in Yurp – even our conservatives, christian democratic parties and liberals pretty much accept social democratic assumptions) these 3 are almost seen as bulwarks against society, havens in a heartless world. What exactly is that heartless world, though? That would be the question. Though you’re correct these are institutions or collectives of a sort the way they are appealed to by right-wingers seems to me to be often in terms of values which are pretty clearly distinguished from negative values which are themselves associated with modernity.

    To take the example of the family it seems there are various enemies at the gate, whether it’s liberated women controlling their own bodies, cosmopolitan homosexuals, etc. etc.. But arguably the persistence of the cosy nuclear family where Mom happily stays at home and makes babies is not guaranteed by the actions of the family alone but relies on wider processes of socialisation.

    Nation-state is often defended against globalisation and global threats to one’s ‘independence’ (and the nation-state is itself a contradictory phenomena – the TPs might want the state rolled back but seem quite happy for the military element of the state to be larger than any other nation’s and for the US to get involved in foreign wars which tie American security into global events).

    The particular forms of religion of the right-wingers (more likely to be Protestant than Catholic if I’m not mistaken) have their own individualistic implications.

    My point being that even though the 3 things you mention are collectives of a sort the way they are appealed to seems to be over against a wider (inter)dependence that is a hallmark of modern societies.

    Unemployed Negativity namechecks Hegel’s focus on civil society and the ‘system of needs’ which is another name for this interdependence modern economies create. Might it be the ‘system of needs’ that TPers are oblivious to and want violently to deny? I don’t know what you think. In any case it makes me want to go re-read that stuff.

  4. Rick Perlstein, among others at this nytimes story, makes a number of acute observations about anger at liberalism. In short, it’s nothing new; just the usual anger that crops up every time a progressive agenda makes some strides. Here’s the link:

    http://roomfordebate.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/04/15/what-tea-party-backers-want/

    Perlstein’s book Before the Storm is quite good (though I’m a philosopher by training and not a historian, but my historian friends tell me it’s good too [need that interdisciplinary pat on the back!])

  5. I certainly concur that the anger is not new, but is it really metaphysical? What is this notion of “metaphysical anger”? I know it’s fashionable to bring up metaphysical concerns, but is it just a short-hand (in Bernstein) for something like “existential anxiety” or “deep-seated anger”?

    Despite the objections, I found the column to be quite stimulating – you would think that after Brian Leiter called for a kind of boycott of this column, it would sink into obscuity and infamy, but it seems to be doing just fine…

    • I think you are right that it is short-hand for something like “existential anxiety” of the Heideggerian sort. But he may be on to something. I have tended to think of much of the anger among tea partiers along the same lines Arendt accounts for the anger and hatred of the jews – and living here in south Louisiana I have plenty of opportunity to hear this anger expressed [even more so now with the BP fiasco]. As Arendt argues in Origins of Totalitarianism, we don’t mind power, and the exercise of power, when we feel it is being put to good use, but the minute it loses its usefulness we despise and hate those who continue to have power. The jews, Arendt argues, lost their traditional base of power with the rise of the industrial nation state. Similarly, much of the tea party anger I hear is directed at what is perceived to be the uselessness of government, or its inability to deal with a hurricane, oil spill, etc. They take our money in taxes, have all this power as a result, and can’t do anything useful with it – hence the Arendt anger. Bernstein’s argument is different. For him we become angry when we realize we are not what we thought we were, autonomous agents, but are instead dependent on government, or that we are tied to institutions that are integral to our very self understanding. This may be true (in fact I agree with Bernstein here to a point) but I’m not sure it’s accurate with respect to the tea partiers. I doubt many if any of the tea partiers believe we needed the bailouts to avoid another depression. In line with the Austrian school of economics, especially Schumpeter’s notion of creative destruction, the government ought to have done nothing. They ought to have let the banks fail; again, the government was meddling uselessly into market affairs. With the tea party movement I think Arendt’s approach offers a better understanding of their anger; but if ever there is an anger that results from a legitimate and pervasive doubting of the neoliberal bedrock of the self-regulating market, then it may become a metaphysical anger. Bernstein’s column might thus be an example of wishful thinking.

      • I think it is indeed a bit of a wishful thinking, i.e., it would be nice if the TP anger was some sort of metaphysical anger of those suddenly exposed to the real conditions of their dependence on the apparatus they have imagined existed solely because they chose to pay their taxes. But this would make TP movement into a) movement and b) some sort of new and unique expression of the political “will of the people” and I don’t think it is either.

        I do think Bernstein has some interesting points though, maybe they can fit with analysis of some other political situation or group.

  6. Jeffrey, interesting points about an overlap with the analysis of anti-semitism. I don’t know if you’ve read the introduction to Gillian Rose’s Judaism and Modernity (1993) but there’s a similar analysis to Bernstein’s (one that is well worth reading). The reason for the similarity is that Bernstein and Rose were good friends.

  7. Why is Leiter such a hater? How does NYT column really affect his life as a philosopher? I mean he thinks Critchley is a schmuck, but why does he have to be so hateful and judgmental about it? Again, it’s his right to express his views, but he comes across as such a douche doing it – are there any nicer ways of expressing your views about our philosophers? I just don’t get all the hatred.

    • I would love to see Leiter wrestling with the giants of OOO.

      However, I guess they need prior canonization before someone who lives in the high time of philosophy scholarship will even touch them. But then each philosophy schmuck has to expect big punches when he misrepresents Levi’s onticology and its relation to politics or makes remarks from his armchair about withdrawn objects.

  8. I think his point is that Critchley’s “light weight” makes philosophy as a discipline look bad. But then again his whiny posts about the situation surely do not help the discipline either. I’m sure philosophers squabbling over who he has a bigger academic dick is not going to help our field.

    • I wonder if this is endemic to intellectual life. I am speculating, of course, but perhaps Habermas and Adorno were pissed off that the “light weight” Marcuse was much more widely read than they were; after all, everyone knows he’s not a real philosopher!

      • Luckily for Habermas/Adorno, they did not run a popular blog and therefore appeared petty only in the privacy of conversations and occasional letters on the matter…

  9. Mark, I don’t really know, but let me tell you something – I’m sick and tired of people disrespecting armchairs! First Levi Bryant was all mean to them, claiming that too many philosophers spend too much time in them and that they need to get out there and get with the objects (when someone inquired if he was quitting his job as a philosopher, he was respectfully silent); now Joshua Cohen is hating on armchairs – unacceptable! What have they ever done to you, Joshua? They try and be there for you (literally), all cosy and soft right next to the table so you can put your goddamn coffee to it and be close enough, and what do they get in return? Hatred and disrespect! I say I’ve had enough of this anti-armchair discrimination – sure, it starts all innocently with “this is armchair science” and “that is armchair politics” and ends with all armchairs up in the big pile about to be burned! For shame!

    Armchairs for the people!

  10. It’s interesting how existential/metaphysical anger can be (must be?) mediated if it’s to have a “target” – e.g. the Tea Party is mad at the gov’t not at its corporate owners because it’s those same corporate owners who have literally taken that anger and focused it via tv, radio, web etc. To use a word I got from Hegel, that anger is now determinate.

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