12 September 2011

Returning to the politics at hand

Response to “Apprehensions of the social”, part 3 of 4
By Chris Wright

First and foremost, one result of the fragmentation of the production process and the rise of suburbanism is the collapse of working class identity politics. The worker was, along the way into becoming a home owner, integrated into a society of mass consumption. Debord, Adorno, Marcuse, Sam Moss, and more recently others like Hans-Dieter Bahr, all commented on this at length and with great perspicacity.

Secondly, the end of class identity went hand-in-hand with the formation of a consumer-citizen identity among those who benefited from these post-WWII changes most, that is to say, a large portion of the white population which also became the predominant suburban population, a suburban population which as of 2000 became an absolute majority of Americans.

Thirdly, changes to benefits went further in the 1970s and ’80s, as personal credit instruments were vastly expanded (credit cards), household debt and double incomes increased to compensate for declining relative wages, social welfare programs were drastically cut while the drug trade and sex trades expanded enormously, allowing both for the pacification and criminalization of the inner cities. It also meant extremely violent conditions in the cities, polarizing city-suburb relations even further.

Fourthly, the decline of US economic power meant the decline of industrial tax revenue in the suburbs, which had been attractive because they were cheap, and now were suddenly threatened not only by civil rights legislation, the Fair Housing Act, and a declining economy, but rising taxes which led to the tax revolt of the 1970s. This newly minted suburban base fueled the rise of Senator McCarthy, the John Birch Society (in California, where the tax revolt would erupt only 20 years later), Barry Goldwater, the Christian Coalition, and now the Tea Party. The Tea Party is a continuation under more aggrieved conditions of the politics of ressentiment that flowered with its suburban base under McCarthy and then Barry Goldwater, what Richard Hofstadter referred to as “The Paranoid Style in American Politics”.

This is why if you want to understand the Tea Party, you need a longer perspective than the last couple of years, but you also can’t just claim this is the same thing as the Know Nothings. The particularities of this rightward drift, its “American features”, have to be grasped in suburbanization, but it is also tied to the long-term global shifts in capital’s organization of the labor process (which has many additional aspects I have not touched on).

Part and parcel of this global shift is the production of permanently redundant populations on a massive scale. Part of the current antagonism in the US is driven by the fear of being reduced to this state, of being dependent on money but redundant as variable capital (wage labor). It partially takes the form of the revolt of the credit-worthy against the not credit-worthy, of those who believe they have earned their money through their hard work.

Thus, not only is the Tea Party not going away, it has grown as an objective tendency, as the collective or communitarian. It sees two distinct enemies, as well. The aggregators, that is, the expert-specialist-bureaucratic power of society’s administrators on one side, and those forces outside of power on the other. To the collectivists, whoever is not a part of their community is aligned with the bureaucrats, that is, the powerless are seen as clients of the administrative-specialist. The law is only as right as it expresses the inner law (the law of the heart in Hegel’s terms) of the collective (in the US, that is a white, Christian, straight, patriarchal collectivity; in Hungary it is non-Jewish, non-Roma, patriarchal; in France it is European French, Catholic, non-Muslim; in Germany it is… etc, etc, etc.)

The administrative-specialist does not see it this way. All they see are rational and irrational forces. Either you do it their way, as ‘expertise’ dictates, or you are outside civil behavior and outside the law. Both the mass outside the law and the collectivist are irrational and must be managed. One is sociopathic, the other is neurotic. Both have to be pacified, but only the collectivists have to be dealt with as a power.

In both cases, an increasingly large part of the world is not a part of a universalizing tendency. This is where lumping the workers’ movement, the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, etc. in with the collectivists is simply dead wrong. Those movements were universalizing and democratic (in Rancière’s specific sense), that is, they sought to make a world where no one had any special right to rule, where politics is not a privilege and the private domain of either the communitarians or the specialists, but open to anyone and no one. Each of those movements sought to unite citizen and bourgeois, to overcome their separation. They also in their own ways furthered the development of capitalist society.

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