The Anatomy of Teabagging

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At first glance this afternoon I quite correctly thought that this pig was sodomizing Uncle Sam

Professor Chomsky is afraid.  And he’s not the only one.  My television, stuck on MSNBC until it’s late enough for Cinemax to get libidinous, is blaring about Timothy McVeigh and right-wing militias.  My email inbox is bombarded with calls from liberal groups and publications like The Nation who invoke the specter of “Jim Crow terrorism” and refer to the Tea Party “resistance.”  If these trite liberal types are getting all worked up maybe I should be plotting my escape.  Niemöller did say that “They came first for the Communists.”

Brave enough to see the threat first hand, I decided to parley with the Tea Partiers when they came marching through my Foggy Bottom neighborhood to commemorate Tax Day on the National Mall this afternoon.   Expecting a scene straight out Triumph of the Will, I was disappointed to say the least.  A couple thousand people ruining what was otherwise a beautiful, peaceful day in the capital with their banners, effigies and semi-literate slogans.  It was like an A.N.S.W.E.R. protest without all the Ba’athist flags.  I couldn’t help thinking back to a bold (no really, the emphasis is theirs) call-to-arms I got last week from The Nation’s editors:

Dear Friend:

Bitter opponents charge our first black president with totalitarianism and offer states-rights arguments in an effort to repeal sweeping health care reform. Nation columnist Melissa Harris-Lacewell framed in no uncertain terms the challenge we face from the Tea Party resistance:

“There are historic lessons to be learned. But they are the lessons of the 19th century not the 20th. We must now guard against the descent of a vicious new Jim Crow terrorism.”

It’s a warning we take very seriously at The Nation.

I’m glad we’re still friends, but after this month’s catharsis I’m guessing readers have reached their righteous outrage quota for a while.  At any rate, springtime weather is keeping me jovial and thoroughly un-polemical. That e-mail and today’s conversations with a bunch of aging white people and their confused grandchildren, did get me thinking about the nature of the Tea Party Movement and what follows are thoughts still in formation on this topic, so feel to free to contribute to their development or otherwise malign them.

Tea’d Off

The first line of The Nation’s message speaks of a “sweeping health care reform,” and implicitly calls to mind images of a victorious progressive force dealing with a classically reactionary response to their triumphs.  You’d think that a health care bill that more than a little resembles a Heritage Foundation proposal first acted upon by a Republican governor was the second coming of the Petrograd Soviet.  But it is true that the mere perception of change during the Obama presidency has helped to spawn a right-wing opposition movement, an opposition whose real roots lie in the continued fragmentation of capitalist society in the neoliberal age. Discontent has only now been accentuated due to the election of an African-American president who has come symbolize the metamorphosis of the last quarter century for a not-so-insignificant quadrant of the petit-bourgeoisie and their allies.

Regression, to use Freud’s lexicon, is a defense mechanism that leads us to return to childish or primitive modes of behavior when faced with hardship.  A person who suffers a mental breakdown and assumes the fetal position. A laid off man who becomes childishly dependent on his wife. A writer who can’t break the habit of summoning dead Europeans to lend weight to his arguments. Or a political movement that, responding to complex social and political realities, resurrects the symbols and hollow rhetoric of the antistatist populism of a bygone-era.  To surrender to caprice:

The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living. And just when they seem engaged in revolutionizing themselves and things, in creating something that has never yet existed, precisely in such periods of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service and borrow from them names, battle cries and costumes in order to present the new scene of world history in this time-honored disguise and this borrowed language.

To say that the Tea Party Movement is rooted, like all reactionary movements, in real contradictions and grievances is not to yield too much ground.  To speak sweepingly: Tea Partiers have an idyllic dream of a society in which wealth is available to all who strive to earn—as opposed to receive or “make”it and the overburdened petit-bourgeoisie aren’t outmuscled by big business lobbyists or the natural tendency of capital to monopolize.  For them their identity as “Americans” is a source of pride and prestige that globalization and the decline of the United States’ hegemony threaten.  They are white, mostly male and “middle class,” and misdirect well-justified anger towards those groups whom they perceive to be beneficiaries of the declining social status of the white male; feminists, people of color, “welfare cheats,” and immigrants, all undeserving of status as “real Americans.”  Many Tea Partiers were “Reagan Democrats” who helped to  undermine their own economic position by allowing themselves to be used as weapons in the neoliberal offensive of the 1980s.  It was not so much the bureaucratic grey of the welfare state that aggrieved these voters, but its use as an instrument of civil rights and social integration for a diverse group of Americans in the 1960s and 1970s.  Today, distilled to its most coherent elements, their political program calls for a “purer” capitalism that is fair, meritorious and free of government.  Since this fantasy cannot be realized, these utopians of the right will continue to alternately amuse, infuriate and worry us with their trademark “anti-establishment rhetoric to serve the establishment” ironies.  Yet even the most noxious of petit-bourgeois utopians, in the form of domestic Tea Partiers or Islamists abroad, should never been the prime target of composed progressives.

The anti-“Teabagger” rhetoric on what passes for the left seems to be transfixed on marginalizing the movement by bandying around words like “treason,” “fascist,” “extremist” or “Jim Crow terrorist.”  There’s no reason to insult The Activist’s (growing) audience by spelling out why the left shouldn’t be using the lexicon of nationalism, but the natures of fascism and anti-fascism are worth exploration.

Fascism: What It Is Not and How Not To Fight It

As long as one remembers the historical context under which he was writing, Leon Trotsky’s is the definitive guide to understanding fascism.  Fascism has never risen to power through purely electoral efforts. Instead, fascists have been handed power by ruling classes in times of profound crisis brought about by a militant workers’ movement.  Trotsky sees fascism in opposition as petit-bourgeois in class composition, like our Tea Party “comrades”:

The fascist movement in Italy was a spontaneous movement of large masses, with new leaders from the rank and file. It is a plebian movement in origin, directed and financed by big capitalist powers. It issued forth from the petty bourgeoisie, the slum proletariat, and even to a certain extent from the proletarian masses; Mussolini, a former socialist, is a “self-made” man arising from this movement.

German and Italian fascists disrupted strikes and physically attacked left-wing meetings.  This historically specific brand of reaction implies that there was a vibrant workers’ movement challenging capitalist class rule, forcing elements of them to attempt to gamble on empowering the fascists in order to ultimately preserve the existing class structure.  The reason why Trotsky worked so fervently against fascism, even when it wasn’t in power, was not because he thought social democrats needed left-wing allies, but rather because fascists were preventing efforts to undermine capitalist class rule:

There are seven keys in the musical scale. The question as to which of these keys is “better” – do, re, or sol – is a nonsensical question. But the musician must know when to strike and what keys to strike. The abstract question of who is the lesser evil – Brüning or Hitler – is just as nonsensical. It is necessary to know which of these keys to strike. Is that clear? For the feeble-minded let us cite another example. When one of my enemies sets before me small daily portions of poison and the second, on the other hand, is about to shoot straight at me, then I will first knock the revolver out of the hand of my second enemy, for this gives me an opportunity to get rid of my first enemy. But that does not at all mean that the poison is a “lesser evil” in comparison with the revolver.

Applying this perspective to our present, one has to ask why the ruling class would hand over their reigns of power?  Where is the contemporary anti-capitalist movement?  And, assuming you can find it somewhere, where is it under attack by fascist goons?  Let’s be frank: the bourgeois-democratic state is perfectly secure; it has a cohesive ruling class, complete ideological hegemony and a bunch of fucking guns. Big ones.  There is no left opposition challenging them and there is no violent right-wing movement terrorizing the land and preventing its formation.

What we have instead are a bunch of shrill cretins who are organized and vocal enough to make their case to the American people.  There is no left-wing alternative doing the same and it shows in the nation’s political discourse.  Creating a counter-hegemonic project that rebels against the inherited “common sense” of many Americans is a tad bit more difficult task than what the Tea Partiers are doing and I doubt we’ll get any help from Dick Armey.  But since we don’t have a left that seems to understand that its raison d’être is in the building of a progressive workers’ movement and not some kneejerk “anti-fascism,” creating this movement might be even more difficult than it sounds.

Self-described radicals should not have to be told that the real enemy is the intelligent, affable black man in the White House and the society in his charge, not their Ayn Rand quoting, libertarian cousin or some idiot doing combat drills in the woods in West Bumblefuck Nowhere.  It’s a bit more daunting a challenge to confront the former, but if you’re a reading a socialist in the year 2010, you might just have the fortitude to help lay the foundation for a new current in American politics.  And if the hate merchants and hysterics of the liberal-left insist that the Blackshirts are coming, it might be worth breathing out the pure serene: “After Bachmann, our turn.”


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