Tea-Party Protesters: What is Freedom?

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.

On the first point, consider an account of the march here (found via Sociological Images): what is particularly of note is this:

“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.

9 Responses to “Tea-Party Protesters: What is Freedom?”

  1. Gabriel Says:

    “the real fiscal cost of, say, welfare cheats, is much less than the cost of tax-avoidance and/or evasion”

    Hilarious, really. Analogously, the real cost of my expenditure on biscuits is dwarfed by what I lose by not mugging people, so I should quit logging my food purchases in a book and just rob your house or something. However, you’re sort of right, or at least vaguely reminiscent of something right. Far too much attention is paid to those on welfare and not nearly enough to the real parasites: government employees. Laying off millions upon millions of these people would add to the welfare rolls, but would be a massive benefit, fiscal and otherwise.

  2. Gabriel Says:

    Ok serious comment now. I think you’ve probably hit on something reasonably important. However, there are other ways of looking at such matters and you might be interested to read an account of these two freedoms by someone who, if he did live in the U.S., would probably attend tea parties; that is if he could stomach the insufferable demotic quality and inexplicable optimism that is endemic to American conservatism. Or perhaps you wouldn’t, but I’m going to do it anyway. Given that we’re both pretty partial observers the truth perhaps lies somewhere in the middle, though I suspect closer to mine. In any case, your current account leaves the mentality of your opponents quite inexplicable except through psychiatry (perhaps you’re intention, you’d hardly be the first to pathologize conservatism, nor the last.)

    Anyway, I’d start about by labelling one “freedom” and the other “individualism”. The first, in its essence, consists of not being a slave and has as its moral axiom that, all things being equal, one man should not dominate another; it is thus an extension of justice. (You may note in passing that slave may, and many have been, indulged by his master with all sorts of pleasures, especially the baser sort.) It is unjust, for example, that a coalition of electrical companies and eco-groups can lobby for, simultaneously, a ban on incandescent light-bulbs whilst placing a 2/3rd tariff on eco-bulbs from China, meaning we all have to pay more for inferior products. It is unjust that coalitions of health groups and prigs can lobby for a ban on smoking in pubs thus prohibiting an activity which millions of decent and peaceable people have enjoyed for centuries, as well as driving thousands of like families out of business and into penury. It is unjust that urban sentimentalists with literally zero appreciation of rural life can ban fox-hunting. Blah, blah, blah, you get the point.

    Individualism, on the other hand, is an ethical doctrine which, in Mill’s formulation, recommends that men and women make “experiments in living”; that posits the existence of a private sphere in which a man should be allowed (or encouraged) to develop to the full his unique personality without outside interference and which feels each man should pursue his own conception of a summum bonum, a concept itself individualized. Those of us sceptical about the merits of individualism might point out that one of its most important premises is absurd: for men are naturally born not only savages, but profoundly boring savages and everything interesting about an individual is traceable back to something he has learned. We may also judge the doctrine by its fruits and observe that individualist existence for most contemporary people actually consists of conveyor-belt consumerism, regular self-stupefaction (drugs, clubbing etc.) and pop-culture slurry; the best way to spin this is that individualism is an impossible ideal for most people and this is what failure to achieve it looks like. (We might further note that it doesn’t seem to make people all that happy). At the more extreme end of things individualism manifests itself in the sort of high-end solipsism where the terminally self-indulgent decide they are lesbians trapped in a man’s body, or whatever, and then set about getting other people to pay to fix them. We might go further and ask why, despite the modern world being markedly more populous than any other age, it cannot produce artists and thinkers fit to lick the bots of those who came before. What value individualism, if it cannot produce individuals with the nobility, dignity and virtue (in all sense of the term) weaned by the great cultural traditions, be they western-Christian, Chinese, Jewish, Muslim or whatever? Finally, we may ask whether is is really a plausible way of answering the question, as the Hellenes put it, “what is the good for man and the city?” and whether we lose something by refusing to answer that question. Or, to look back to our other cultural wellspring, we may ask whether that man is best who does that which he right in his own eyes, or whether happy is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked… but has his delight in the law of the LORD.

    Anyway, I won’t answer the question just yet, but I will note that these two concept haves precious little logical connection to each other. The are those that believe fervently in both (e.g. Reason magazine type libertarians), those that believe in the first but the second not at all (e.g. Christian Reconstructionists), those that take precisely the opposite tack (e.g. you, I suppose, but also, in their way, New Labour – what a fun political compass this would make) and finally those that believe in neither (fascists, Stalinists, Plato according to some interpretations).

    For my own part I think that, in my usual moderate fashion, a bit of both is necessary. I have some experience of ultra-orthodox Jewish communities that are strikingly libertarian, even anarchistic, in their attitude to state and other co-ercive form of power, but (or and) construct their social arrangements to abolish individualism outright. They are in many ways admirable, much more so than run of the mill Britons and far better at, say, looking after the indigent than us, but I wouldn’t want their life for myself or for others. However, by the same token, the contemporary West privileges individualism far too highly and freedom far too little, but, even worse, confuses the two consistently and, in so doing, thinks it can have its cake and eat it.

    This confusion runs up and down the political spectrum and extends across the intellectual sphere. For example, those who follow Isaiah Berlin are convinced that negative liberty is a relatively recent concept, when all that is recent is its being yoked to individualism. While I’m digressing, it seems that positions on these two issues are very weakly tied, if at all, to the other big ethical-political equations. For example, it is often those who most decry consumerism and individualism when it comes to matters pertaining to the production and distribution of goods who advocate (and live) the most crass form of consumerism when it comes to matters spiritual, cultural and moral.

    I’ll leave off with a concrete example of how these issues clash and are confused in modern discourse and practice. There were some incidents in the last few years where owners of B&Bs or small hotels refused to allow the use of the same room or bed to couples they (along with, though inconsistently, the bulk of the western cultural tradition) considered deviant. Eventually, New Labour made this practice illegal and so the hotel owners were given the choice of mending their ways or hanging themselves for life insurance money (like a lot of farmers or small business owners when VAT was introduced). From the perspective of the individualists this was great advance as now people were more free to develop their own personality and conception of the good life without obstacle; the Gay Rights movement, in particular, was over the moon, though all fornicators triumphed somewhat. However, those who valued freedom, as above defined, could only see an organized minority and its sympathizers using the machinery of the state to bully (though threat of violence) into doing that which they did not wish to do. (As I said, I think the licitness of the sex-acts in question are strictly irrelevant to the freedom question, though in your account, they wouldn’t).

    Anyway, that’s how matters seem to me. You will, of course, have your disagreements, but at least you won’t be arguing against a chimera.

    For related though different points, specifically on whether individualism is actually the best way to develop the individual and the roll of culture and civilization I’d advise reading the M. Arnold’s “Culture and Anarchy” where he deals with established churches vs. the confessional model. (This being one reason, by the way, why even those at the tea parties are very imperfect opponents of individualism. It’s practically impossible to find a Yank who rejects the ideology of religious choice – a very different thing, you will note, from the view that people should not be legally or forcibly prohibited from changing or choosing their religion)

  3. David Gendron Says:

    Where were those ass-clown crypto-fascists when Bush administration begins their Iraqi genocide?

  4. David Gendron Says:

    Where were those ass-clown crypto-fascists when Bush administration begins the bailouts?

  5. David Gendron Says:

    “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”

    Ron Paulite’s bullshit again!

  6. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    “your current account leaves the mentality of your opponents quite inexplicable except through psychiatry”
    I’d have thought it entirely explicable; people make sense of the world through an apparatus of symbols and values and assumptions; when that apparatus is undermined by facts, people either respond defensively against those facts, seeking to change or deny them, or they adjust their worldview, even though it means giving up part of ‘themselves’. The latter is rational, but also difficult, and failing to do so may be pathological but it’s a universal pathology.

    On matters more substantive, I disagree with your characterisations both of ‘freedom’ and of ‘individualism’ as analogues to the two sorts of freedom I distinguished (which I’ll call, perhaps unhelpfully, teabag-freedom and pervert-freedom), though for different reasons.

    Your ‘freedom’ sounds broader than any of the other notions at play – given that people’s judgements of ‘domination’ are in such disagreement in practice (and ‘enslave’ sounds rather like ‘deprive of freedom’), it really seems to be the general terrain over which the contest is played.

    Within that terrain I’d put my ‘pervert-freedom’ as one component of such freedom (undeniably there are important forms of freedom outside it), while ‘teabag-freedom’ the bleeding remainder that’s left when that component is cut away. What you call ‘freedom’ is, by definition, a broad concept ‘uniting’ me and tea partiers, but the way you apply it, namely denying any connection between it and (your analogue of) pervert-freedom, shifts it clearly towards teabag-freedom in content – which I think was largely your intention.

    In reading your account of ‘individualism’ I had the familiar feeling of seeing a very bad formulation that defenders of X unfortunately use to express X, being taken straightforwardly and denied by opponents of X – a straw man, but one built by those being straw-manned with it. Of course individuals depend on society for their development; of course isolation is more likely to stultify than to inspire; of course the question of how best to live should continue to be posed and considered.

    But locking up homosexuals and punishing fornicators isn’t a way to share insights and contribute to each other’s uplift. For people to come together, discuss the purposes of life, etc., ground rules are necessary, like in any debate: that each participant be entitled to a certain level of respect, that substantive answers not generally be presumed from the start, that both actual violence, and the sort of high-volume harassment and humiliation that can coerce just as well be in general ruled out, and so forth.

    Similarly, the idea of an ‘experiment’ is very distorting on its own, and in a very insulting way. It makes it sound as though all the people who have been suppressed and marginalised in the micropolitics of our culture for centuries, were just freely deciding to ‘experiment’. Like they sat down and said ‘you know what I’d like, I’d like a lifetime of stigma, little chance of being able to satisfy many of my deepest desires, less chance of being able to share such satisfaction publically, and a greatly increased chance of being violently killed or injured’.

    Most of all in describing transsexuals as “the terminally self-indulgent”, which is a quite amazing level of pathetic rudeness. Fuck you.

    Anyway. Once the element of ‘experimentation’ is put in its place (which is – to be willing to experiment with what you find in yourself and what society gives you, things which you certainly don’t choose), it becomes clearly false that ‘individualism’ or ‘pervert-freedom’ has “precious little logical connection to” freedom in general.

    If it is not socially acceptable to be, for instance, a socially-presenting man with physiological traits of a woman, then those people who find that such a thing comes naturally to them are enslaved. If it is not socially acceptable to be a person born in a Philippine slum but to live in Canada, then people from such a background who find travelling to Canada to be the best way to improve their lives and the lives of those around them, are enslaved.

    If, to take your example, homosexual couples (or whatever deviants and fornicators) are unlikely to be able to find accomodaton while travelling, then homosexuals who want to travel with their partners are enslaved.

    And in general, the loss of hard-F, conventional definition, ‘freedom’ experienced by such people tends to be substantially more severe than that imposed on others by the requirement to ‘tolerate’ them.

    Indeed, in preferring to sympathise with the enslavement of hotel-owners who lose the right to deny people the right to use their publically-offered services, rather than with the enslavement of people who must ask, for each activity they undertake, whether some unexpected problem will appear and ruin it because of their sexuality, you sound more relativistic to me than the much-denounced ‘individualists’: because the former’s personal preference is accorded equal weight to the desire simply to travel and sleep on the same terms as others.

  7. Gabriel Says:

    I wrote rather a long reply that got lost fro some reason so I’ll cut to the chase:

    “you sound more relativistic to me than the much-denounced ‘individualists’”

    That’s fine, whatever my problems with individualism, it’s not that it is a relativistic doctrine (I’m not even that sure it is). Accordingly, I’m perfectly willing to admit that my categories are artificial, conform only imperfectly to reality and are patently designed to privilege one pointof view over another. So are yours. That’s fine, this is a blog after all.

    Neverthless, I have reason to believe that, while my categories are not necessarily truer or more philosophically coherent than yours, they conform better to the actual political (and structural) forces ranged against each other at this point in time. We are moving into a socio-economic system characterised by Keynesian economics, general licentious and mass rootless ignorance (perhaps the “Goldman Sachs-Playboy-Jerry Springer state”) and I supsect that the only objective role played by your sort of theorising is to muddle the issues of the day in a way conducive to the interests of those constructing it.

  8. Lindsay Says:

    Hey, I’m glad to see you’re turning your philosophical gaze to events in my country!

    I have to admit I have a much simpler view of the issue (yes, I do think it’s just one) at stake in these protests. I think all their anger, all their sense of disenfranchisement, arises from a very strong belief in private property.

    (I guess you might consider it an analog of the philosophical position that a fetus is a person from the moment of conception: a dollar of value is yours at the moment it’s created. Rather harder to ascertain that dollar’s paternity, though…)


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