This article by J.M. Bernstein on the Tea Party in the New York Times is really excellent.
I think he is exactly right to identify a nihilistic reaction against dependency, in particular on government, as a driving force behind the Tea Party. And I think Hegel is an excellent foil for explaining what is wrong with that vision of politics: in short, Hegel makes the point the independence is a myth, that we are always already interdependent.
Bernstein explains more clearly and in more detail the kind of existential anger that I was also trying to capture in this post. But I think it’s worth emphasizing two points which Bernstein doesn’t dwell on.
First, I think that the nihilistic, anti-political, anti-dependency sentiment is not limited to the Tea Party, or the Right generally. I think Occupy shows elements of it, as do most ‘radical’ leftist programs. I mean, that’s a pretty good definition of the word “radical” – if you believe in incremental change to the existing order, you aren’t radical. Tear-it-all-downism certainly finds expression in some feminist, post-colonial, and anti-capitalist circles.
And if the reaction against dependency is wider than Bernstein suggests, that’s because the phenomenon that is being rejected is also broader. The Tea Party, and therefore Bernstein, limit their definition of dependency to dependency on government. But the creep of governmental bureaucracy into basic aspects of our lives is only one part of a broad shift. We live today in mass societies, and no one more so than Americans. This means that we rely upon large, distant institutions for the material and cultural goods that form the fabric of our day-to-day life. Hollywood dominates our cultural horizon. A handful of huge companies like Procter and Gamble define how we now conceptualize a ‘household’. Food is engineered and delivered to the local supermarket in forms that stretch the meaning of the term. In one of the most shocking and recent developments, self-identity itself is increasingly mediated through large institutions; aesthetic changes to Facebook Walls have important implications for the personhood of people who (like me) experience and maintain a significant portion of their intimate social relationships online.
In a certain sense, no human being has ever lived outside of a “structure” – a set of institutions which, even if only implicitly, determine the possible courses their lives can pursue. But the sheer scale of modern communication infrastucture and the scope of neo-liberal capitalism have made this fact more obvious and more acute. Under the conditions of “advanced western capitalism” or whatever you want to call it, it is difficult to avoid the realization that who I am is intensely shaped by my relationships – not only to other people, as Hegel describes in his famous master-slave dialectic – but to large institutions. The shows I watch, the music I listen to, the city I live in, the stores I shop at and the political parties I support – these are signifier that we grab on to to help us “get to know a person”. But there’s no escaping the fact that what we are talking about is really how I relate to a massive cultural edifice over which I have very little control.
I agree with Bernstein that what is both fascinating and difficult to explain about the Tea Party is its anger “or, the flip-side of that anger, the ease with which it succumbs to the most egregious of fear-mongering falsehoods”. And I agree with him that a knee-jerk rejection of dependency is at the core of this anger. But I think that reframing the issue as I have, as a broader response to some of the fundamental conditions of modernity, both helps one understand the emotional attractiveness of the movement, and provides the basis for a critique of that movement. So long as you identify dependence as dependence on government, and independence as freedom from it, the myth of freedom remains deeply plausible. But if you open your eyes to the way that we depend on alienating, massive institutions not only for our welfare cheques but also for our potato chips, it becomes much less clear that the solution is to undermine and retreat from the institutions of democratic government, while leaving the rest of our mass society intact.