The Tea Party, Debt-Ceiling, and the Suicide-Machine, Or, the Crisis of the American Empire
Did Bin Laden actually succeed in destroying the American Empire? This week watching the silly yet dangerous debate over the debt ceiling, I found myself wondering, when did America stop believing that government was a good thing?
The Suicide-Machine: Giving the Reins of Government to Those Who Want to Destroy
Watching Barack Obama, I find myself astounded to see him capitulate on point after point. And it makes me realize that the Tea Party has won the ideological war, they have converted the President himself, at least to the point at which he feels there is no other way but to play on their ball-field. The President seems to believe that there is no other way, that this is the new reality, we just live in it.
And of course, the President remains the ultimate enigma here, I even hear conservative commentators baffled as to why, from a strategic point of view, he seems to capitulate his own bargaining chips before he even uses them. I can’t seem to figure out if this is because he’s by nature such a peace-maker that he goes to the middle of whatever room he’s in (and the Republicans, having figured this out, just keep moving further to the right to keep moving what’s considered ‘center’ by Obama’s middle-finding algorithm), or if Obama himself has come to believe some of their rhetoric. My guess is its a bit of both.
And yet, the ‘new reality’ preached by the Tea Party, and potentially ascribed to, if mournfully, by President Obama, is paradoxical indeed, for the Tea Party line is a hatred and complete lack of faith in government as such. Following this logic to it’s end, the federal government itself will be gutted. And this seems to be precisely what the Tea Party wants.
How did we get here? Why this near suicidal desire to destroy the government, from within the government? Don’t get me wrong, Ronald Reagan was the one who really began the popularization of the idea that ‘government isn’t the soloution, it’s the problem.’ But Reagan still did things like raise taxes when he felt the parts of government he liked (generally, defense spending) needed more cash.
But as many leftist and even some moderate conservatives have argued lately, the Tea Party folks that are running this debate by manipulating even the mainstream Republican leadership seem to feel that government as such is the problem, not only thereby feeding the ‘Washington is broken’ meme, but actively creating this reality by breaking Washington itself. That is, those who feel that a debt default wouldn’t be the worst thing for this country, because it would create a quasi-apocalyptic reckoning that could destroy the last vestiges of the welfare state for a generation, are willing to destroy the very institution they nominally serve, namely, the government, in order to ‘save’ it. And let’s be honest, they don’t serve the government or the people, but an ideology. It’s what Deleuze and Guatarri have called a suicide machine. A manifestation of the Freudian ‘death drive’, a desire for dissolution.
Following through on this logic will lead us back to gated communities with their own private armies, destruction of the federal government in all but name (and who knows, maybe that too!), and a form of neo-feudalism. Why does this seem the goal of the Tea Party?
While the Tea Party is funded, astroturf fashion, by massive corporate wealth, what keeps it going is fear and anger. Anger that ‘they’ have taken from us, and fear that ‘they’ will take more. The result is a push to cut ranks, convert your money to gold, cut all links of trust, protect your own and none of this universalist hope in lifting all boats. When did this go from a fringe ideology to one that is so mainstream?
Roots of the Crisis: 9-11 and the Election of Barack Obama Scare the Hell Out of Mainstream America
It seems to me two major events happened. Firstly, 9-11 happened. And secondly, we elected our first black president. Let’s look at these one by one. Going back to the election of 2000, it seems like such a more naive time. Sure, Newt Gingrich had tried to pull lots of the same craziness we see today. Today it seems even a pattern, that when Democrats get into the White House, Republicans go hysterical and try to blow things up, figuratively (Gingrich) if not literally (McVeigh as manifestation of the general wave of hysteria). But in the end, Clintonist prosperity and good feelings won the day. People believed in America again.
And George W. Bush was an empty suit. His brand was ‘compassionate convervatism’, but Cheney saw him as an opportunity to fill that emptiness with content, his content. I remember when G.W.Bush was elected, I felt that it may not have been the worst thing in the world, because America only rarely gives any party 3 or 4 terms, and that if we had to get a Repubilcan for president, that perhaps this dim, anti-intellectual guy would be another one-term Bush, and then we could get back to Clintonism. Granted, in hindsight, the neo-liberalism of Clintonism, it’s dark side, is strongly apparent. But while clearly neo-liberal, it still viewed its neo-liberal policies as beneficial for both profits AND prosperity. While the former was first, the latter was also there. Clinton’s entire ‘third way’ was the belief that the first could give rise to the second, and while it’s warped priorities, it is certainly better than the Tea Party.
But once 9-11 happened, Cheney saw his opportunity. He and his buddy Rumsefeld preached a gospel to G.W. Bush, that he was the uniquely positioned one to save this country. And Bush’s version of apocalyptic born-again christianity primed him perfectly for this (it reminds me of Frank Herbert’s nefariously realpolitick notion of missionaria protectiva in his Dune Books – implant an ideology in others in case you ever need to manipulate it later!). I’m sure Cheney didn’t have to do much, and Bush starting singing to his script.
And after 8 years of fear mongering, the entire political discourse has shifted. The world is a scary place. Fear, fear, fear. Protect your own, everyone is out to get you, trust no-one.
And then Barack Obama gets elected. A return to Clintonism, or maybe F.D.R., or so it seemed to so many of us. And a moment for America to heal after nearly 8 years of proto-fascist Bushism (as portrayed with its true colors in the Wachowski Brother’s V for Vendetta), along with its crypto-racist demonizing of others of all sorts. The anti-Muslim hysteria of the Bush years (oddly the only are that Bush was different from his minions was that he wasn’t as anti-Islam as they) seemed ready to melt in an America that was about to finally wake up from a long, terrible nightmare in which it sleptwalked (like the murderous Cesare in Robert Wiene’s Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) so as to be able to do terrible things.
In a haze, America let its leaders manipulate it into the war in Iraq, because after 9-11, America felt a need to blow up something big to show it could, and Afghanistan had turned out to be too small to prove to the world it wasn’t impotent after 9-11. Sigfried Kracauer was right on when he saw the sleepwalker as the prediction of fascist violence avant-la-lettre, and after 9-11, America seems to have desired a fugue state so that it could do violences it would later disavow and blame on its manipulators, as so many in history had done before. While this wasn’t a rehash of World War II, the structural parallels are terrifying.
Despite the fact that George Lucas’ Star Wars prequels were terrible, its staging of the power grab by the evil Emperor was a smart commentary on the times, and one line from those terrible films stuck in my head: “this is how democracy dies – to thunderous applause.” No set of words seemed to describe the times more than than one.
But with the election of Barack Obama, it seemed that America had decided to wake up, to move from the violence of what psychoanalyst Melanie Klein had called the ‘paranoid-schizoid’ mental position to the ‘depressive’ one. That is, the country was getting ready to wake up, realize it had done terrible things, blame ‘a few bad apples who had deceived the country’, and get back to its bipolar jumping back and forth between Democratic and Republican worldviews, treating the rest of the world like a battered spouse.
I remember clearly the people pouring into the streets in NYC to celebrate liberation from Bush as much as the election of Obama. And we all hoped that as America was about to show it wanted to heal some of its racial wounds that went back to even before the founding of the country itself, that this one man would also heal the wounds of the past decade, in which Imperial America had flirted dangerously with proto-facism. For anyone who remembers the flag waving, the overt linkage of religion and state, the Patriot Act and the president’s ability to suspend habeus corpus indefinately for even US citizens, we’d never seen anything like this. We never figured that our first Black president, the former community organizer, would simply continue these processes.
The Rise of the Tea Party
This was before the Tea Party. But where did the Tea Party come from? It emerged during the health care debate, when Obama still dreamed of having a legislative impact. It was the backlash of the fear stoked by the Bush admin to the eclipse of its power. But now the Republican establishment even bows to this fear. They unleashed a monster that seems determined to put its masters out of business.
And this is why I think, in some perverse way, that bin Laden, now dead, may have won more than he realized. Of course, his primary goal had little to do with the US, it was about radicalizing and purifying the Arab world. And it seems that the rise of the Arab Spring shows that the Islamic world wants democracy more than radical Islam. But his secondary goal, namely, to destroy the American Empire that was exporting its secular culture and military and financial influence to support corrupt semi-secular dictators in the Arabic world, has perhaps been acheived more than he would have ever dreamed. Because now there is a suicidal, cancerous growth the is controlling the very debate in the US government.
By arguing that a debt default wouldn’t be catastrophic, and holding the economy of the country, and to some extent even the world economy hostage (for many predict a downgrading of the debt rating of the US could even create the start of a world-wide crash), the Tea Party shows that none of these things matter to it. All that matters is that no-one gets any more of their money, especially people with darker skin. Welfare, medicare, social security, these are their targets, anyone who wants something without ‘working’ for it. Work, namely, wage slavery for the capitalist masters, becomes glorified, and the angry middle classes, deprived of security by their corporate overlords, seem to demand more enslavement – so long as they get better terms than those with darker skin. And the corporate overlords simply finance this, selling an ideology that serves their needs.
I wish I could say this is exaggerating. But in talking with Republican relatives of mine, they even feel that Social Security is unnecessary. If people save properly, they argue, they don’t need to ‘steal’ from other hard-working folks to make ends meet later in life. Student loans? Work while you go to school, and if you don’t have money even after that, it’s your parents fault for not working and saving hard enough, but don’t ‘steal’ from us! Medicare? Get a job! Who cares if your health doesn’t allow it, don’t put it on our bill. And why shouldn’t I be able to pass down my hard earned money to my kids, so they don’t have to work as hard as I did? Don’t take what’s mine! And who cares if this let’s the rich get around paying their share. They’re ‘job creators.’ Even if really they just ship jobs overseas, we can at least hope that a few come back our way. And since they ‘earned’ their money the hard way, they deserve to run the show. We worked hard for our money, and maybe oneday that’ll give us some power too. But none for those who didn’t do it our way!
Now, my Republican family isn’t rich. They fear that the nameless hordes will steal what they currently have. And what they have is worth less and less over time, because corporate America is slowly eroding its worth by means of its manipulation of financial markets. There’s two ways one can respond to the erosion of one’s security. One is to band together, and find strength in numbers, and use that strength to push back the corporations that are doing the eroding. This is the Democratic option. And then there’s the Republican approach to the erosion of security, which is to cut all ties, and prepare for the collapse of everything. And the millenarian religious worldview of so much of born again christianity preps the middle class masses for putting forth a general ideology that literally feeds them to their corporate masters.
So rather than push back against corporate money-laundering through the health care system, they rage against ‘Obamacare,’ since for small increases in taxes on the wealthiest, they might (gasp!) get extra benefits. But since some of those benefits might also flow to those beyond their circle, the conservative middle class, influenced by Tea Party rage, wants to spite its nose to hurt its face. If any money goes to the poor, we’ll kill the program that would help us! The ideology over our own benefit!
Many have wondered why economic populism has failed to bring together the working classes in this country, and the response of those who analyse these sorts of things has often been that, since Richard Nixon’s ‘southern strategy’, the Republicans have used ‘dog whistle’ racism to split the working classes. The white working class fears losing what little it has to the working classes of color, and by exploiting this fear, the corporate overlords and their mainstream Republican allies are able to divide the working classes and get the angry, scared, white working classes. Those who fear an America in which whites are the minority in a sea of many other cultures, races, etc. And who symbolizes this shift better than Barack Obama?
So, even while he governs based on tax and spending cuts, his dark skin disturbs the unconscious of America, the latent fears it has. They know they ‘shouldn’t’ be racist, but they still want to be. So they cry taxes, rather than racism. They know overt racism is too ego-dystonic, it will destroy its self image. But taxes, bloated government programs, welfare queens, leeches draining them via taxes, this they can get on board with.
And now even Barack Obama, massive mystery that he is, seems to capitulate at every turn. And it seems to me that he was largely bought many of the arguments made by the right. They are setting the agenda, determining the playing field, he simply operates on it. And that’s where the left has lost.
And so it seems that the suicide machine of the Tea Party, devoted to essentially destroying the US Government, is taking over the US Government. If anything is going to destroy the American Empire, it is this suicide machine that desires the dissolution of the governent in all but name. All that allowed America to become so powerful, such as the G.I. Bill, the building of infrastructure after World War II (as Rachel Maddow has recently argued, the Hoover Dam would be impossible to construct today), the Tea Party is against any sort of public works, or public anything. While it is certain that America only became a superpower because Europe destroyed itself, and the American Empire has been as devious and destructive as empires generally are, the fact of the matter remains that this empire’s lead faction now seems set on destroying its own capacity to govern.
If bin Laden’s number one goal, in regard to the Islamic world, seems to have failed, his number two goal, namely, making America fall, seems to have deviously had a strangely yet sucessful run. How sad. It seemed like America was about to grow up, and maybe start trying to repair, not only the evils it had done under Bush, but perhaps in its longer term past. Heal the wounds of slavery. A new, Black F.D.R. to make America serve people again, and not merely just Americans.
I remember that dream. How sad to see it die.
Narrowcasting, Astroturfing, and Hope?
I wish I knew how to change things. Right now conservatives and progressives watch/read different media, and seem to live in different realities. Until we find a way to get through the bubble of our new media narrowcasting world, we won’t be able to change things.
When they write the history books on this period, will they say that American decline began when the country started to cannibalize itself out of fear? Europe seems hardly poised to take its place, and China, despite its growing power, has many factors that will keep it from becoming a new superpower (its very difficult to learn language which has both tones and nearly 5,000 written characters, its lack of a middle class, the changes which will happen when it develops one). It seems we are in an age in which the only remaining superpowers are the multinational corporations. The very entities which are shipping American jobs overseas, where they exploit those who have no labor laws to protect them.
Some critics have referred to this as the radical proletarianization of the world. Seems about right to me. But as we’ve seen before, capital always recalibrates before things get too bad, it never reaches a sort of Marxian crisis that could produce structural change out of crisis and ‘revolution’. That said, it also doesn’t allow the other possibility, namely, reform due to massive distribution of prosperity that allows people to think about things like fixing society’s ills via a L.B.J. style ‘Great Society.’ No, capitalism needs us careening from a crisis of proletarianization to one of fear of spreading the wealth to far, and back and forth, so that BOTH revolution and reform become impossible options, for both would ultimately curtail profits.
Figuring out how to beat the narrowcasting and astroturfing of American politics will be essential if we are to think of ways to get outside this vicious cycle. We need to find a way to help Americans to dream again, dream of trust, find a way to think of repair and reparation rather than fear and attack. But in a world in which progressives and conservatives watch/read different media, this seems impossible, unless we figure out something new.