Tea Party Metaphysics

Today, while examining the key word searches that have led people to this blog, I noticed this interesting query: “Are tea partiers psychotic?”  This Google search must have pulled up my post “Tea Parties and Monkey Gods,” in which I observed that Tea Partiers seem to be animated by a toxic combination of anger and fear, which ironically allies them with the religious right.  Libertarians and fundamentalists make for strange bed partners.

Since writing that post, I have — as usual — done my best to avoid the teeming, loud, and hysterical madness that passes for politics in the United States.  Despite these efforts, politics can be hard to avoid short of some truly drastic measures that involve hermetic isolation.  Listening to NPR this morning, it occurred to me that the United States is in a perpetual election cycle and the chattering, therefore, can never cease.  This is most unpleasant.

All this aside, one of the better sources for elevated discourse these days comes from The Stone, which provides a forum for contemporary philosophers to discuss whatever happens to be on their minds.  One such philosopher, J.M. Bernstein, recently discussed “The Very Angry Tea Party,” in which he persuasively diagnoses Tea Party sturm und drang as a metaphysical issue.  It seems that the problem for most Tea Partiers is that their imaginary identity as self-sufficient individualists has been rocked by recent events:

My hypothesis is that what all the events precipitating the Tea Party movement share is that they demonstrated, emphatically and unconditionally, the depths of the absolute dependence of us all on government action, and in so doing they undermined the deeply held fiction of individual autonomy and self-sufficiency that are intrinsic parts of Americans’ collective self-understanding.

The implicit bargain that many Americans struck with the state institutions supporting modern life is that they would be politically acceptable only to the degree to which they remained invisible, and that for all intents and purposes each citizen could continue to believe that she was sovereign over her life; she would, of course, pay taxes, use the roads and schools, receive Medicare and Social Security, but only so long as these could be perceived not as radical dependencies, but simply as the conditions for leading an autonomous and self-sufficient life. Recent events have left that bargain in tatters.

But even this way of expressing the issue of dependence is too weak, too merely political; after all, although recent events have revealed the breadth and depths of our dependencies on institutions and practices over which we have little or no control, not all of us have responded with such galvanizing anger and rage. 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.

While I find this portion of Bernstein’s Hegelian analysis persuasive (and think it would have benefited from some Pierre Bourdieu), I do not see this metaphysical stance as being an a priori cause leading tea partiers to their inchoate beliefs — it is a consequence of ignorance.  Anyone who nurses the fantasy of individual autonomy and self sufficiency in the epoch of industrialized and globalized nation-states is seriously out of touch not only with the dependent conditions of contemporary capitalism, but also with history.

This disconnect, in turn, manifests itself as metaphysic: it leads to a kind of faith that is impervious to fact or reason.  Because this is the very nature of metaphysical belief, we should not be surprised that the tea is steeping in religion.

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