Tea Party Metaphysics and Other Terrifying Spectres


You may have heard the news that House Democrats are skipping the whole actually-listen-to-your-consitutents-in-person thing this summer. You may have even blamed them for being gutless. If so, that's probably because you haven't been reading enough Hegel. Here's J.M. Bernstein, setting you straight in The New York Times:

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 agent owes nothing to other individuals or institutions. The opposing metaphysical claim, the one I take to be true, is that the very idea of the autonomous subject is an institution, an artifact created by the practices of modern life: the intimate family, the market economy, the liberal state. Each of these social arrangements articulate and express the value and the authority of the individual; they give to the individual a standing she would not have without them. […]

The issue here is a central one in modern philosophy: is individual autonomy an irreducible metaphysical given or a social creation? Descartes famously argued that self or subject, the "I think," was metaphysically basic, while Hegel argued that we only become self-determining agents through being 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.

Yeah, or maybe the economy still sucks, the fiscal future looks horrifying, and this president has turned out to be as divisive as the last?

Bernstein closes with some metaphysical terror of his own:

In truth, there is nothing that the Tea Party movement wants; terrifyingly, it wants nothing. Lilla calls the Tea Party "Jacobins"; I would urge that they are nihilists. To date, the Tea Party has committed only the minor, almost atmospheric violences of propagating falsehoods, calumny and the disruption of the occasions for political speech — the last already to great and distorting effect. But if their nihilistic rage is deprived of interrupting political meetings as an outlet, where might it now go? With such rage driving the Tea Party, might we anticipate this atmospheric violence becoming actual violence, becoming what Hegel called, referring to the original Jacobins' fantasy of total freedom, "a fury of destruction"? There is indeed something not just disturbing, but frightening, in the anger of the Tea Party.

A quick note: If "propagating falsehoods" and "calumny" are the new "atmospheric violence," then we need focus our anticipatory dread no further than the Oval Office. Also, the notion that Tea Partiers inflicted widespread violence at townhall meetings last summer is a media myth, one anticipated by Managing Editor Jesse Walker's classic piece, "The Paranoid Center."

Link via the Twitter feed of Stanford Philosophy Professor Joshua Cohen, who calls the Bernstein essay "Armchair bullshit, masquerading as philosophy."