Musil and Beck on Pseudo-Politics

“Every investiture of the ideal feels itself as a false ‘we.’ It is a ‘we’ that does not correspond to reality. ‘We Germans’ is the fiction of a commonality among manual laborers and professors, gangsters and idealists, poets and film directors, a commonality that does not exist. The true ‘we’ is: We are nothing to each other. We are capitalists, proletarians, intellectuals, Catholics…and in truth far more — and beyond all measure — caught up in our own special interests than we are concerned with each other. The German peasant stands closer to the French peasant than to the German city dweller, when it comes down to what really moves their souls. We — each nation for itself alone — understand one another very little, and fight or betray one another when we can. We can, to be sure, all be brought together under one hat when we plan to squash it on the head of another nation; then we are enraptured and have a shared mystical experience, but one may assume that the mystical in this experience resides in its being so rarely a reality for us. Once again: this is just as true for the others as it is for us Germans. But in our crises we Germans have the inestimable advantage that we can recognize the real connections more clearly than they, and we should construct our feeling for the fatherland on this truth, and not on the conceit that we are the people of Goethe and Schiller, or of Voltaire and Napoleon.

There is always and in all ages a feeling of insufficient congruence between public life and real life. But can anything at all in public events be the true expression of real life? Am I then, as an individual, that which I do, or am I a compromise between unarticulated energies in me and transforming external forms ready to be realized? In relationship to the whole, this little difference gains a thousandfold in significance. Aside from passive persistence, an unnatural alliance of interests can be held together only through a common interest in using force against others; it does not necessarily need to be the force of war. But if one says that mass hypnosis is at work in times when wars break out, this is only to be understood as an ordered system exploding because of its inadvertently neglected tensions. This explosive stimulus, with which the human being liberated himself and, flying through the air, found himself together with his own kind, was the renunciation of middle-class life, the will for disorder rather than the old order, the leap into adventure, no matter what moral names it might be given. War is the flight from peace.”

— Robert Musil, “‘Nation’ as Ideal and as Reality” (1921)

If anyone epitomizes the strengths and weaknesses of what Marxists (almost always hypocritically) call ‘bourgeois consciousness,’ it’s Robert Musil. Brilliant in every conceivable sense, disrespectful of any special distinction (or lack) attributed to the humanities or the sciences, arrogant, and committed to nothing but observation. His class’s highest ideal, the intellectual synthesis of social contradiction, is well enough torn to shreds in the first volume of Mann Ohne Eigenschaften, but it remained the horizon of his thought. And this impossible holding out is what is so attractive about him, for me anyway: his relentless negativity, his unwillingness to propagandize for anything or anyone, even when contributing some measure of practical support. A sympathetic stance but an intolerable one for any writer who intends for their ‘passion’ to serve worldly ends.

A political writer does battle on the field of propaganda. Perhaps all writers are political; English professors today are fond of saying that all culture is political, suggesting (as no one else but David Horowitz does) that even their own writing is potentially significant. So what is a successful propagandist today? Let’s take Glenn Beck. The apparent contradiction between his visibility and lack of political importance is suppressed by pointing to his ‘cultural influence,’ which democratic ideology implies is more important than political or economic power. Beck’s ‘we’ is the same as ours: it tries to communicate the feeling of political engagement to a mass of spectators who have been steadily dispossessed of any active role in the democratic process, but who have unprecedented access to ‘culture.’

Now Musil seems to argue that while the “special interests” we are concerned with are “beyond all measure,” if one must give an estimate, material interests are where one should start. And this is the basis for community that nationalism denies. To awkwardly import a critique of commodity culture: its atomizing effects take place not solely through creating feelings of loneliness and alienation, but through simulating community. According to Musil, this is the necessary function of all political rhetoric. He assumes the traditional liberal tie between politics and the state, but his simultaneous and sympathetic awareness of socialism creates some interesting ambiguities. That he characterizes nationalism and war as dangerous forms of escapism is not new, nor the idea that heroic ideologies such as these reject as inauthentic some version of “middle-class life”; more perplexing is his suggestion that the “leap into adventure” and the promise of conflict is necessary to motivate any large-scale collective project. Are all so-called common interests experienced by default as “unnatural,” even in the midst of conflicts that — given proper materialist analysis — could have been predicted as the “natural” product of “neglected tensions” in a social system? If this is true, then organization based on imaginary interests is indistinguishable from organization based on material ones. All politics become pseudo-politics.

The phenomenon of the Tea Party, like other episodes of partisan hysteria, highlights a possible practical difference between America’s liberals and its vestigial left. Realizing that Beck is a tool of the Koch brothers and Rupert Murdoch is necessary for any effective response, but informing Tea Baggers of their real material interests doesn’t take place within a vacuum. For the liberal democrats, who are prohibited from acting on any knowledge gleaned from examining things more closely than their opposition, the key strategic controversy is whether to attack the Tea Party or ignore them (at the moment, the progressives do battle while the Democratic establishment concentrates on selling them out). For the left, the ideal thing to do would be to try to hijack their organization — not the die-hard ideologues or financial backers themselves, but the popular base. This would undoubtedly require difficult ideological compromise, but unlike liberals, leftists are not structurally incapable of it, though they may be incapable of actually accomplishing the task (probably impossible if left to underfunded petty bourgeois media workers).

Admitting that Tea Baggers have ‘real grievances’ is an honorable gesture, but without some attempt to establish solidarity the point is academic. What liberals find terrifying and the right finds exhilarating is not so much the content of the ideas (warmed-over libertarianism spiced up with a few paranoid fantasies and tolerance for bigotry), though these are easy for both sides to pontificate about, but the manner in which they are posed: anti-intellectual, contradictory, belligerent, self-pitying, enthusiastic, shameless. As a complete performance, it’s the antithesis of every dubious perk that goes along with liberal or progressive self-identification. What if democracy’s ‘worst excesses,’ and not enlightened reason or a good protestant work ethic, were the true revolutionary values, for ‘them’ as well as ‘us’? Revolution is not a dinner party, nor is it a lecture hall, and politics is not limited to designing entrance exams for imaginary utopias.

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20 Responses to “Musil and Beck on Pseudo-Politics”

  1. This would all be well and good, if we hadn’t been down this road before. Historically, almost every attempt by the left to undermine right-wing politics by participating with the right ends in the legitimation of the right and the destruction/dissolution of the left. Collective suicide is not revolution.

  2. That’s not to dismiss the project of actually talking to Tea Partiers. But it’s not the cure for what ails us.

  3. Traxus: Excellent post. I don’t have much more to contribute than that, other than to say I hope to see more soon!

    abushri: That’s an inductive fallacy if I’ve ever seen one. Virtually every major leftist political effort has either failed, been co-opted, or succeeded only to eventually be overturned by restoration. Is this reason to abandon such efforts in the future?

    The same applies to more narrow cases, like attempting to convert an already mobilized rightist populist movement. Maybe you’re right in claiming that all such attempts have failed (although I’m skeptical that the historical record will reflect such uniformity). Even if thats the case, previous attempts have always taken place under very different circumstances (political, economic, cultural), meaning that inferences drawn therefrom have very concretely limited applicability to our situation. Moreover, such attempts would have relied on very specific organizational and strategic forms, and failure would in each case speak to the efficacy of those forms in relation to their circumstances. Extrapolating to a level of abstraction as broad and contextually/historically dislocated as the general problem of how to deal with right-wing populism is logically unsound.

    While your skepticism should be appreciated, the lesson to be learned is not to avoid the possibility of infiltrating/co-opting such populism, but that if we are to do so, we must understand the errors that have plagued past attempts, and how they might (or might not) speak to the highly divergent circumstances of our present predicament.

  4. That comment was logged before I saw your second one. Nonetheless, I think your qualification is too weak. We need to do more than talk to them, we need to win them over. And you’re right that this isn’t the ‘cure’, but it is almost certainly a necessary step toward it.

  5. Yeah, I overstated the case. But I do think that if we want to deal with Tea Party populism, we need to know:
    1) who we’re dealing with. The Tea Party rank and file are a completely different group of people from those who attend the U.S. Social Forum; they’re older, for one thing, which means transforming their ideas is much more difficult. There are also youth contingents on the rise, which is more worrisome than anything else – libertarian youth recruiters on campuses, etc.
    2) what kind of resources the Tea Party has at its disposal. To put it simply, it’s a lot more than the organizers of the US Social Forum have at their disposal. They have a network (the second most popular cable TV network); they have multiple think tanks and intellectuals; they have a degree of access to the mainstream “moderate” media that the left does not; they have two national “faces” (Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck); they have a coherent (if sometimes ridiculous) ideological framework

    More later

  6. Absolutely agree with you here

  7. hi + thanks everyone —

    it’s really hard to find a trustworthy/thorough breakdown of tea party membership. a few samples: there’s this one from the ny times/cbs, and there are numerous fact-based counterarguments to tea party claims that they’re acting in their economic interest.

    based on what i’ve seen it’s similar classwise to the italian fascists – militant base in lower-middle class, rich businessmen and republicans as financial and political backers, and broad popular support of the disengaged, tacit variety. it is mostly part of a petty bourgeois that is in the process of being hollowed out, just like the progressive movement. the age thing i don’t take as seriously as you (abushri) do — it has just as many pros as cons (their vulnerability to changes in social security policy, for example).

    in the marxist literature, this is the relevant article:

    Of course, in France, as in certain other European countries (England, Belgium, Holland, Switzerland, the Scandinavian countries), there still exist parliaments, elections, democratic liberties, or their remnants. But in all these countries, the same historic laws operate, the laws of capitalist decline. If the means of production remain in the hands of a small number of capitalists, there is no way out for society. It is condemned to go from crisis to crisis, from need to misery, from bad to worse. In the various countries, the decrepitude and disintegration of capitalism are expressed in diverse forms and at unequal rhythms. But the basic features of the process are the same everywhere. The bourgeoisie is leading its society to complete bankruptcy. It is capable of assuring the people neither bread nor peace. This is precisely why it cannot any longer tolerate the democratic order. It is forced to smash the workers and peasants by the use of physical violence. The discontent of the workers and peasants, however, cannot be brought to an end by the police alone. Moreover, if it often impossible to make the army march against the people. It begins by disintegrating and ends with the passage of a large section of the soldiers over to the people’s side. That is why finance capital is obliged to create special armed bands, trained to fight the workers just as certain breeds of dog are trained to hunt game. The historic function of fascism is to smash the working class, destroy its organizations, and stifle political liberties when the capitalists find themselves unable to govern and dominate with the help of democratic machinery.

    The fascists find their human material mainly in the petty bourgeoisie. The latter has been entirely ruined by big capital. There is no way out for it in the present social order, but it knows of no other. Its dissatisfaction, indignation, and despair are diverted by the fascists away from big capital and against the workers. It may be said that fascism is the act of placing the petty bourgeoisie at the disposal of its most bitter enemies. In this way, big capital ruins the middle classes and then, with the help of hired fascist demagogues, incites the despairing petty bourgeoisie against the worker. The bourgeois regime can be preserved only by such murderous means as these. For how long? Until it is overthrown by proletarian revolution.

    Both theoretical analysis as well as the rich historical experience of the last quarter of a century have demonstrated with equal force that fascism is each time the final link of a specific political cycle composed of the following: the gravest crisis of capitalist society; the growth of the radicalization of the working class; the growth of sympathy toward the working class, and a yearning for change on the part of the rural and urban petty bourgeoisie; the extreme confusion of the big bourgeoisie; its cowardly and treacherous maneuvers aimed at avoiding the revolutionary climax; the exhaustion of the proletariat; growing confusion and indifference; the aggravation of the social crisis; the despair of the petty bourgeoisie, its yearning for change; the collective neurosis of the petty bourgeoisie, its readiness to believe in miracles, its readiness for violent measures; the growth of hostility towards the proletariat, which has deceived its expectations. These are the premises for a swift formation of a fascist party and its victory.

    if we take trotsky as a rough guide, we’re in a pretty decisive moment right now. the tea party hasn’t reached the level of becoming a genuinely fascist political organization, but it has the makings of one. the american left, insofar as it exists, is in an ‘ultra-left’ moment of wild-eyed idealism and strategic naivete. under these circumstances, accepting a partisan divide as drawn by the democratic party, old-school bolsheviks, or the new left seems like a huge mistake to me. i just edited the post to include the disclaimer: “not the die-hard ideologues or financial backers themselves, but the popular base.” in a sense this is no different from the standard marxist line that the petty bourgeoisie have to be won over to the side of the working class, i.e. new party divisions have to be drawn along class lines against competing ideologies. and this means the left has to prove both its independence from the prejudices and electoral concerns of the liberal establishment and its capacity to lead society as a whole. it’s true that, given where we are relative to those standards, this whole post is an exercise in fantasy. but i don’t see the criticism of tea party positions or tea party ‘culture’ in the abstract as a very good way of moving forward, and i think it usually manifests as an easy indulgence in real or illusory privilege.

  8. I think the arguments about the Tea Party acting contrary to economic interests don’t matter all that much. With the exception of Medicare, you’re not going to make a lot of headway arguing there. Their enemy is big government – all other issues are secondary. They fear government debt (although they couldn’t give a shit about corporate debt), and they want a gold standard.

    Do Tea Partiers belong to unions? If so, why aren’t the unions doing some of the cultural work, here? And if the unions are doing cultural work here, then it would appear that they’re simply being beaten by Fox News, which would suggest that there’s something else going on, and perhaps Freud is going to be of more help than Trotsky in understanding it (I can’t believe I’m saying this).

    Age does matter: it means that Tea Party types are not going to pay much attention to young activists who want to change their minds about the world. Perhaps if MSNBC hired some older, less “elite” commentators, people who have shot game or worked in a factory at least once in their lives (maybe they should hire Stanley Aronowitz)… There’s a whole cultural issue, and the rank and file (and the “leadership”) of the left is not going to integrate itself very well with the rank and file of the right, no matter how many “moral” concessions they make. We mostly think of effete college boys not wanting to hobnob with the working class, but it goes both ways. People in Dubuque, Iowa, want to talk about hunting, farm equipment, and perhaps about who’s children were in the latest fatal car accident (there are a lot of them in Dubuque, because of the bluffs). You’re not going to make waves by showing up and talking about “real economic interests,” especially since most of them have a pretty good idea of what their economic interests are – job stability, a pension, and decent working hours.
    If you really wanted to change that attitude, it would involve more than “ideological infiltration.” One would have to repeat the seventies, with college students going into the factories, moving to the suburbs and to rural parts of the U.S., in short, getting involved in the everyday lives of the older generations. One would also have to demonstrate that the Reagan era wasn’t a better period in American history, that it was, rather, a big ponzi scheme. That seems like a very tall order – it’s easy enough to show with graphs and charts, but how do you convince people that when household purchasing power among whites was increasing, it was all a mirage, that real wealth was being siphoned directly into the hands of the richest, and all prosperity was being bought with personal debt?

    “not the die-hard ideologues or financial backers themselves, but the popular base”: isn’t the entire Tea Party – or a large chunk of it – made up of die-hard ideologues? They come preset with talking points and books that you “have” to read. You see it in the video posted above.

    Oh, I share your skepticism about the NY Times Tea Party membership poll. Four months is a long time, and in April, the Tea Party was still something small and formless. The people being polled at the time were probably the core activists.

  9. Oops. Logged in under the course blog.

  10. […] Stranger returns with a brilliant take on the ideological basis and political significance of right-wing populism in the US (the […]

  11. I just realized what it was that rubbed me the wrong way in the first place, and why I penned my hasty objection to an otherwise excellent piece:

    “What if democracy’s ‘worst excesses,’ and not enlightened reason or a good protestant work ethic, were the true revolutionary values, for ‘them’ as well as ‘us’? Revolution is not a dinner party, nor is it a lecture hall, and politics is not limited to designing entrance exams for imaginary utopias.”

    There are a couple of things worth mentioning about this. First, the good protestant work ethic is a major platform of the Tea Party. Unlike the left, their major enemies are a crony government and “social parasites.” So one would not be gaining any friends in the Tea Party base by throwing out the work ethic. Second, I read, by “democracy’s ‘worst excesses'” precisely the kind of Tea Party anti-intellectualism you mentioned above. There doesn’t seem to me to be any reason to embrace this anti-intellectualism; it seems to be something along the lines of, “Enlightenment hasn’t worked; let’s try anti-enlightenment” but without any rationale other than “It’s new; it’s different.” But it’s neither new nor different. It’s been a major cross-current in politics since the French Revolution. And when the anti-intellectuals take power, the only salient difference between them and the liberals seems to be that they throw dissenters in prison or shoot them. Revolution is not a tea party, and we can’t plan until the judgment day, but if we don’t believe that revolution is going to make a better, more just world, why even have it? Because we’re angry? Because capitalism doesn’t work? We can’t continually iron out the kinks in our utopias until the end of time, but the opposite is also not going to work, a kind of Bataillian embrace of destruction for its own sake. I’d rather take the path of those who want to build something workable in their own communities (e.g., Grace Lee Boggs), no matter how short lived, than simply junk intellect and pretend that revolution is an end in and of itself. It’s hard for me to look at the Soviet Union under Stalin or China under Mao, without thinking of the continued salience of the Johnson-Forest Tendency critique: these programs amount to state capitalism – the workers are still exploited, the bosses just have different titles. Mao, who believed that intellectuals were just cronies for the capitalists, instituted his own plans based on his own “scientific” socialism, and what happened was universal famine (because he thought everyone should go into iron production).

    In short, I don’t see any point in embracing “the worst excesses of democracy” as some kind of antidote to bourgeois capitalism.

  12. Nice to see you back. Excellent post.

    But the proposal is worrisome.

    I have the sense the instinct is to somehow “buy” the Tea Party, their being now the hot item. Like the iPhone. Maybe they’re horrible but one feels somehow one has to have, to acquire…It’s not rational. They’re what’s happening. They’re what’s on.

    Consider the video – this is not unmediated reality either, anymore than Yes We Can. And where has the Obama movement gone? That was four times the size of this at least? Is it so quickly written off as a mere media illusion? Was never there? Not that great force who might again uncloak? A blackberry never again to be state of the art? And it seems in our telescoped perspective not only fifty years ago but that it was what’s on for a day or two at most? Just a flash in the pan?

    But the lesson is not learned – if it was merely spectacle – if its power and influence was merely spectacle – mustn’t we now assume the Tea Party’s too? No more and no less than Obamania?

    No less spectacle and no more. The concrete base of “Obamania” was and is as real as the “popular base” of the Tea Party and much bigger and already down with the left’s programme. You can still “see” them in social media though they’re not on prime time tv anymore. So why abandon them for an interest in the Tea Party? Just because the mass media is advertising the Tea Party as the hot new thing, the new hit show.

  13. I have to disagree. The Tea Baggers are pursuing their material interests, as usual. It is not some eccentric fact that the red states commonly receive more federal money than the blue states. It is part of the combination of two things: an economics of freeriding and a strategy much like Richard Nixon’s madman strategy. Both are needed to keep going the two things that the teabaggerrs want: increased government largesse and lower taxes. This is the very definition of material interest: getting more, paying less for it.
    The sound strategy goes like this: one assumes that the Dems will have enough power to keep middle class entitlements going. Now, the question is: how to engross as many of those entitlements as possible, at the lowest possible cost.

    The best way to achieve this is: Mau-Mauing anyone who threatens the current structure of soft constraints, whilst relying on the politicos one elects to bring home the gravy. There was a story in the NYT some time ago about a farmer in Kansas who had painted his barn, along some highway, with a slogan about the terrible Dems and their policy of handouts and socialism. A local dem researcher went through and found out that this farmer, over the past twenty years, had received more than a million dollars in price supports from the government. Confronted with this fact, the farmer was unpeturbed – as well he should be. Freeloading is a perfectly honorable thing.

    I’m always amazed that the liberal left thinks it is so much smarter than the tea baggers – that they know more about their “material intersts”. Really? I see no evidence for it.

    Of course, it is probably true that we are at the end of the road as far as this strategy is concerned. The middle class is fucked, even as it is engaging in its favorite sport, lynching some random other – Moslems, this time. It will be nice to see the doggies eat their dog food, actually. Fuck em.

  14. thanks everyone, sorry i’m late –

    “We can’t continually iron out the kinks in our utopias until the end of time, but the opposite is also not going to work, a kind of Bataillian embrace of destruction for its own sake.”

    i think the way out of this too-stark opposition has to do with making this: “those who want to build something workable in their own communities…no matter how short lived” compatible with insurrection, because if it’s just that, it’s just ironing out the kinks. i’m not a vanguardist, but i’m convinced a ‘utopian’ praxis of building a new society from the grassroots can’t succeed as just that, or that + issue activism. Nate has a good talk here on this topic from an anarchist perspective.

    “the instinct is to somehow “buy” the Tea Party”

    yeah, touché —

    “The concrete base of “Obamania” was and is as real as the “popular base” of the Tea Party and much bigger and already down with the left’s programme. You can still “see” them in social media though they’re not on prime time tv anymore. So why abandon them for an interest in the Tea Party?”

    though like everyone i wasn’t really as ‘down’ with it as the others, i include myself in the ‘obamamania’ category, the progressives, and don’t think i’m saying anything other progressives have not already said on the big blogs. that is, i think the only people who would be ‘abandoned’ by an attempt to attract their membership, a refusal to fixate on them as enemies, etc., would be democratic loyalists. i’m not saying progressive candidates shouldn’t be supported anymore, but not everyone with left-ish thoughts has to tie themselves to that (important) job. to me, the expression of populist reaction to the recession just seems too valuable to give it a principled pass.

    that part of obamamania and tea party’s power and influence which is ‘merely’ spectacle is not negligible. we who are not in charge of big media can’t decide when we ‘arrive’ — but we have an opportunity to take advantage of it when we do. obamamania’s moment has passed. what liberals and progressives are doing in the main is trying to use the tea party’s moment in the sun to point out how ridiculous and scary they are. this i think has proved to be a terrible idea for everyone except republicans.

  15. roger –

    the problem is, in the game of our freeloading vs. theirs, we’re also at the end of the road for your Dem strategy. and on tea partyers material interests, that’s not strictly true is it? what about the other federal ‘handouts’ of medicare and social security? and here’s ezra klein comparing tax cuts. are these charts inaccurate?

    and in terms of the image war, i’m much more interested in the opinions of the audience than those of the performers. and the tea party has an audience that’s a few steps below anyone’s definition of middle class. is it only the racism and bigotry that attracts people not in their tax bracket?

  16. “that part of obamamania and tea party’s power and influence which is ‘merely’ spectacle is not negligible. we who are not in charge of big media can’t decide when we ‘arrive’ — but we have an opportunity to take advantage of it when we do. obamamania’s moment has passed.”

    but how can one take advanage of anything like this if the networks decides when to cancel the show? i think basically what’s what has to be clarified. one can say well we are going to try to use this spectacle of the tea party in such a way as to positively influence people who idnetifiy with it, but to really seriously consider such a project one would need to get clear on the difference between the spectacle to be manipulated somehow and the people who identify with it to be allied with or won over or communicated with or whatever.

  17. “and in terms of the image war, i’m much more interested in the opinions of the audience than those of the performers. and the tea party has an audience that’s a few steps below anyone’s definition of middle class. is it only the racism and bigotry that attracts people not in their tax bracket?”

    but this is now a reality tv model, right? the relation of the audience to the performers is complicated. remember the tea party was declared by rick santelli, to people who identify with him and would remind you of him. now a lot of those people are, in the imageverse, the figure of the people who are scared of and contemptuous of the tea party. but actually tea party or no tea party those guys hate that the biggest fish get to cheat and push them around and hate paying taxes.

  18. “is it only the racism and bigotry that attracts people not in their tax bracket?”

    yes. racialisation of the welfare state and redistributive taxation alone accomplished the shift of a big part of the working class against social decmoracy.

    very good on this:

    tim wise
    http://www.timwise.org/

    and michelle alexander
    http://www.newjimcrow.com/

  19. i’m not a vanguardist, but i’m convinced a ‘utopian’ praxis of building a new society from the grassroots can’t succeed as just that, or that + issue activism.

    Yeah, well we need a movement first. You compare this moment to the rise of Fascists in the 20’s. A key difference: there was a Communist Party then. (There still is, but it’s smaller than many of the social movements; Chicano leaders in Los Angeles can mobilize more people). The idea that we could recruit Tea Partyers when we can’t even get a progressive left into some unitary force seems like a bit of a pipe dream.

    And I have to agree with Molly. Racial, anti-state populism seems a lot more effective than economic populism at “rallying the troops.”

  20. Mr. T. – I’m sure that the audience as imaged in the media is working class – all Joe the Plumbers. But this should be treated with maximum scepticism, as this is the kind of stereotype the elite liberals love, and the elite conservatives also love. It is a double love – one, the love of having contempt for the working class, the other, the love of masking plutocratic interests with the musk of masculine steelworker sweat.

    But nothing bears this out from election stats. It seems to be the case that, pretty consistently, the working class, or at least those with incomes below the median family income, vote for the party you’d expect – the Dems – until such time as the Dems mismanage the economy. Well, the Dems, for the past two yearss, have spectacularly mismanaged the economy. It has simply ignored the interests of its core voters and rushed to help the richest Americans with what was in effect a two trillion dollar bailout. Despite the Tea Party fixation of the press, the polls show two things – voters like the view of the issues associated with the “Dems”, and they plan too vote GOP. Well, this is no mystery.

    It was pretty obvious, right affter the election, when Obama’s economic advisors proved to be a horror show, that there was going to be trouble. I wrote about that here: http://limitedinc.blogspot.com/2008/11/in-cage-obamas-team-of-losers.html. However, I did have my moment of hope that Obama wasn’t, well, serious. I was wrong!

    Myself, I am always suspicious when people speek of ‘material interest’ and dismiss cultural values – I think that is a perfect example of a theme Polanyi speaks about, disembedding the economic from the social and then trying to reverse the relationship. I think this premise is simply wrong – cultural values are material values, economics is always subordinate to culture because it can’t help but be. Material is a nice confusing word, which on the one hand could just mean – “gets more stuff”. This is what I’d call the infantile version of materialism, quite popular with mainstream economists, and in huge disconnect with the real economy of human life, which is a quite complex nexus of getting stuff, giving stuff away, using stuff up, etc. Myself, I take matter in the Marxist sense to refer to that nexus of routines that make up normal life. And in terms of those routines, racism is, of course, a material value. It isn’t the “idealism” of the less educated people, poor souls, by which they are mislead by the plutocrats.

    I am doubly suspicious when the lament is that a class hasn’t followed its “material’ interests without, in fact, strategizing what those material interests are. Social security and medicare, perennially threatened by the GOP, still are going strong. Why? Because there is a difference between a threat and an action. This is, of course, the fundamental root of strategy. Those who vote for the GOP are not necessarily voting for the abolition of s.s. and medicare – they are voting for more for themselves and less for others, notably others who are black. But you can throw in other others if you want. This is, indeed, a material interest.

    A good illustration of this was the fight about ‘socialized’ medicine. The tea bag argument was that s.m. will lead to quotas and longer waits. Well, they are right. There is a limited supply of medical personnel – if you increase the access, or demand, for their services, you will get a quota. What is underneath this premise is the quite accurate perception that a certain situation advantageous to those with good insurance through their employer would be changed to their disadvantage. Why should they be for this?

    The genius of the public option was that it presented a way, a la medicare, to create other advantages for this group – which is why it was popular. It wasn’t some propoganda blitz by the right that changed this, but the correct perception that the new health care system was built to preserve profits for the insurance companies and the medical industry while endangering the advantage purchased by those with insurance. That advantage rests, in effect, on artificially limiting demand. On, exploitation, in other words.

    There’s nothing too puzzling about this. What puzzles me is that anybody thinks that the Tea Baggers are poor souls who can’t figure out their money situation, unlike clever liberal arts grads who are getting rich rich rich from understanding their material interests. Which is where you get the what is the matter with Kansas line of reasoning – something that simply ignores the lifestyles of those who are supposedly supporting their own oppression. I myself think that so far, they have been able to afford their ‘cultural values’, imported government money into their communities, and lowered their taxes. It was a short term strategy within the neo-liberal framework. It no longer works – just as the short term strategies of the bankers no longer worked in 2008 – but unlike the bankers, the people ‘out there’ have received no care and feeding by the gov. No nationalized bank is offering them what are in effect zero percent loans, like we are kindly doing for Wall Street.

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