So a few days ago there was a huge march in the USA by people who are opposed to something – it may be socialised healthcare, it may be the bailouts, it may be the democrats, it maybe ‘big government’, and it definitely seems to involve Obama.
It’s an intriguing phenomenon, and I thought I might devote a few words to it. After all, at least two things seem to suggest, at first glance, a kinship between me and them: some manner of ‘opposition to government per se’, and some manner of fondness for tea.
“I would say that the spine of this protest is not any well considered opposition to health care, but to taxes, and to the idea of government itself…one theme that seems to be emerging…is that there is no difference between Obama and George W. Bush…When they protest big government,” they are not Republicans, or even conservatives in the conventional sense of the word. They are defenders of personal liberty against a one party state linked to a secret global system, a state that floods a nation of good white working people with illegal immigrants and freeloading welfare cheats”
Now, of course this can be overstated – a commenter says, correctly, “These people aren’t anarchists” – before going on, bafflingly, to say “and we should be thankful for that. Then they’d be really dangerous.” ‘Really dangerous’ here presumably means something like ‘having a smaller history of violence against civilian persons than almost any other political grouping, and far less than most of the tendencies that were manifested at the march’.
But anyway. Anarchists are already bedevilled by the need to differentiate themselves from anarcho-capitalists, who also use the same term, ‘freedom’, in what amounts to a very different way. To understand how people who I would likely disagree with on pretty much all particular points of politics can raise what seem like formally similar cries requires, I think, unpacking what psychologically terms like ‘freedom’ mean to different people.
‘Freedom’ has of course the connotation of something which is currently held back and restrained – what is this thing? We might note that those who ‘oppress’ it here are not just those with access to the means of repression, but also people like the unemployed, illegal immigrants, petty criminals, single mothers, homosexuals, and certainly the various latte-drinking academics who spout cultural relativism and atheist indoctrination.
(Often, it needs to be admitted, these categories carry a big racial load – immigrants obviously, and what colour are the ‘criminals’ and ‘welfare cheats’? But they’re not purely racial categories, I think, and the ‘racism’ issue has got a lot of attention so I want to steer somewhat away from that.)
What does this rag-tag assembly actually threaten? The association with government (corrupt politicians! fascism!) allows this question to be somewhat blurred – the plausible image of the secret police kicking down the door in the night can be ‘superimposed’, in preference to the faintly comical idea of the homosexuals and single mothers kicking down the door in the middle of the night. But we can push this to one side – what is the threat from homosexuals and single-mothers themselves?
One of the threats is to devalue and disenfranchise hard work – the immigrants, the welfare queens, the academics, all are being paid but not working. Part of this might be simply a rational desire to not be taxed for other’s benefit, but the thing is that the real fiscal cost of, say, welfare cheats, is much less than the cost of tax-avoidance and/or evasion, the cost of the military, the cost of all manner of things. The selection of targets for this ‘thriftiness’ demands explanation.
What distinguishes the targets of this ire is not so much that they cost the right-wing protester money, but that they steal the prestige of work. If you survive without working (or if you don’t, but are perceived as doing so), you symbolically undermine the idea that work is respected and rewarded – and psychologically (with whatever basis in fact), the right-wing protester is a ‘hard-working’ person.
Another major theme of course is that many of the targets disrupt and devalue the status of the family, and its associated ‘regime of sex’. If children can be raised without a father, fatherhood is devalued; if men and women can both have sex with men and women, then manhood and womanhood mean less. If sex is more widespread, marriage is less important – especially is sex can be engaged in without resulting in pregnancy.
If people can enter the country illegally and survive, citizenship is devalued; indeed, ‘the nation’ becomes a less determinate notion. ‘We’ might even become a minority in ‘our own’ country!
Broadly speaking, then, we might sum it up like this: the motley crowd of those despised by the right-wing protesters are all threats to certain facts being true – by their very existence they destabilise the symbolic equations that structure the family, the nation, the community, the economy, the careers, the sex lives, of many people.
Sometimes this is expressed directly by saying that these people themselves are ‘a threat to civilisation’ and will ‘destroy society’ corrosively, like an acid or a rot. Very often, it is expressed through the language of that central figure among the undesirables: communists. COOOOMMMMUNISTS. They’re under your bed! Here all the themes merge: communists want to abolish private property in defense of the feckless and lazy; they want to disband the nuclear family in defense of genderqueers and sexual deviants; perhaps worst of all, they want to mingle the races, destroy ‘whiteness’ and ‘blackness’ as meaningful categories. As Lenin’s Tomb says: race mixing IS communism.
And of course communism adds political bite – it seeks the organised power to make things happen. Which brings us to the third form of expression: through transferring these symbolic anxieties onto the figure of a government which is perceived to be ‘on their side’, and thus becomes ‘tyrannical’ in a way that it would not be if it were ‘on our side’, ‘defending our freedoms’.
And there’s that word again, ‘freedom’. What does ‘freedom’ mean here? It means, I think, precisely that set of symbolic equations (hard work will earn me a reward, the family will give me a role and status, my group-membership will give me authority, etc.), presented as defining the natural individual.
That is, the ‘inner person’ who is ‘born free’, and ‘born equal’, is the person defined by this set of equations. In consequence, this person’s freedom is quite literally threatened by the mere existence of various groups of undesirables.
It is often suggested byleft and liberal commentators are ‘voting against their own interests’. But there’s a perfectly real sense in which someone here is voting for their most direct interests – indeed to save their lives. That ‘real inner person’, defined through those symbolic equations, acts entirely rationally in lashing out in self-defense. And arguably this is as ‘real’ an interest as many people’s interest in ‘having more money’, which is a focus of symbolic statuses as well as strictly material transactions.
Fortunately, that socially-defined-as-pre-social person isn’t strictly identical to the human individual. The latter, after all, has the capacity to dispense with the former and redefine themselves – because they are free.
So ‘freedom’ means two quite different things here. Indeed, two pretty diametrically opposed things.
On the one hand, for these tea-heaving protesters, it means the security and sense of strength that comes from the affirmation of a particular identity.
On the other hand, it can mean the creativity of being able to dispense with any given such identity, criticise identities, change your identity.
Anarchism, and other forms of socialism, are partisans of the latter ‘freedom’ and consequently rightly identified by tea-partiers as the most consistent enemies of ‘freedom’ in the other sense.
These aren’t so clearly political concepts as, say, ‘positive and negative freedom’. But it’s psychologically very important, and I think it motivates an awful lot of politics.
And on the second point, the kinship is fairly weak, since the tea in question, being based on that dropped into the sea in the late 18th century in North America, would certainly not have been my preferred Earl Grey, which seems to have been introduced to Europe around the 1830s, at the time of the premiership of Earl Charles Grey.