Archive for June 14th, 2010


Deal with the Devil

June 14, 2010

J M Bernstein’s analysis of the tea party in the New York Times, I think, is well worth reading. Unfortunately, it’s way too sophisticated for the sordid collection of nincompoops who could really benefit from it. Here’s a nice capsule:

What has gripped everyone’s attention is the exorbitant character of the anger Tea Party members express.  Where do such anger and such passionate attachment to wildly fantastic beliefs come from?

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.


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 agentowes nothing to other individuals or institutions.

Readers unaware of the reference here may be helped along by clicking to this article by John Rawls.

Bernstein, a professor of philosophy at the New School for Social Research, cleverly weaves this upside-down take on Rawls without so much as a mention of great political theorist. Make no mistake though, Rawls is hanging around in the background. It should also be clear, I think, that Rawls’s original piece was a response to those who criticized him on metaphysical grounds. So Rawls’s position was a more-or-less a pragmatic acknowledgment that the metaphysical argument would never fly. All he needed for his conception of justice as fairness was the political argument.

Which raises the part that gets considerably more complicated, and may turn off even even the more theoretically inclined reader. Bernstein somehow manages to integrate G.W.F. Hegel into his piece, which is some serious philosophical business. When was the last time you caught reference to Hegel in the New York Times?

Descartes famously argued that self or subject, the “I think,” was metaphysically basic, while Hegel argued that we only become self-determining agents throughbeing recognized as such by others who we recognize in turn. It is by recognizing one another as autonomous subjects through the institutions of family, civil society and the state that we become such subjects; those practices are how we recognize and so bestow on one another the title and powers of being free individuals.

All the heavy lifting in Hegel’s account turns on revealing how human subjectivity only emerges through intersubjective relations, and hence how practices of independence, of freedom and autonomy, are held in place and made possible by complementary structures of dependence.   At one point in his “Philosophy of Right,” Hegel suggests love or friendship as models of freedom through recognition.  In love I regard you as of such value and importance that I spontaneously set aside my egoistic desires and interests and align them with yours: your ends are my desires, I desire that you flourish, and when you flourish I do, too.  In love, I experience you not as a limit or restriction on my freedom, but as what makes it possible: I can only be truly free and so truly independent in being harmoniously joined with you; we each recognize the other as endowing our life with meaning and value, with living freedom. Hegel’s phrase for this felicitous state is “to be with oneself in the other.”

Hegel’s thesis is that all social life is structurally akin to the conditions of love and friendship; we are all bound to one another as firmly as lovers are, with the terrible reminder that the ways of love are harsh, unpredictable and changeable.  And here is the source of the great anger: because you are the source of my being, when our love goes bad I am suddenly, absolutely dependent on someone for whom I no longer count and who I no longer know how to count; I am exposed, vulnerable, needy, unanchored and without resource.  In fury, I lash out, I deny that you are my end and my satisfaction, in rage I claim that I can manage without you, that I can be a full person, free and self-moving, without you.  I am everything and you are nothing.

In principle, I don’t object to this interpretation of the Tea Party’s anger, but it does seem an unnecessarily psychologistic application of Hegel’s position. Seems to me that he could just identify the intense frustration of those who otherwise insist upon their independence by refusing to recognize that they are, in the end, inextricably dependent upon everyone else. In that case, it’s not that their psychological rankles are up, like legions of spurned lovers, but rather that they intensely hang on to the  illusion that they are masters of their own domain, that their mastery is of their own creation.

I actually have a fair bit more to say in this Rawlsian vein, sans Hegel, and I’ve been working on a silly little opinion piece for several years now,  at least since the Bush/Kerry presidential race, but I’ve just never found the time to finish my piece. I’d disclose more, but I’d prefer to finish it first.

Off to Portland in a few days to deliver a talk on moral hazards and geoengineering. More on that in the coming hours.