The need for critical theory in everyday life: Why the tea parties have popular support

by Peter Marcuse

Critical theory and actions needs to address the everyday discontent of those on the reactionary right

Tea Party protestors

Tea Party memebers demonstrating in the US

This summer, my wife and I attended two town forums called by our Congressman, a liberal Obama supporter, on health care reform. We were shocked. The opposition to reform was out in force. Organized by an informal network of tea party supporters, they carried signs supporting a mix of slogans:

“NO MORE BIG GOVERNMENT”

“GET THE GOVERNMENT’S HANDS OUT OF OUR POCKETS”

“REGULATE CONGRESS, NOT OUR HEALTH CARE”

“JUST SAY NO TO SOCIALISM”

“THE ONLY FAIR TAX IS NO TAX” and “YOU CAN’T HELP THE POOR BY DESTROYING THE RICH”

The meetings were held in a downtown park in Waterbury, Connecticut, an old industrial town with a high unemployment rate, shuttered stores, empty factories, high mortgage foreclosure rates, and schools in trouble. The people carrying the signs and heckling the Congressman were ordinary people, the kind we met every day on the streets or at the supermarket or the mall, some of whom we knew. Particularly surprising was a school teacher my wife had known when they were organizing a teacher’s union; he had been a strong supporter. He was among those who heckled the Congressman, interrupted supporters when they tried to talk, constantly waved his sign in front of the reporters’ cameras.

At the next town forum, called later that week, the supporters of health care reform also mobilized. They carried signs and used slogans such as:

“HEALTH CARE FOR PEOPLE, NOT FOR PROFIT”

“HEALTH CARE IS A HUMAN RIGHT”

“UNIVERSAL HEALTH CARE IS A FAMILY VALUE”

“BIG PHARMA MAKES BILLIONS; WE’RE THE ONES PAYING”

“WE WANT THE SAME HEALTH CARE CONGRESS HAS”

“BAIL OUT THE PEOPLE, NOT THE BANKS”

No, that last slogan wasn’t actually there, but it easily could have been, for both groups.(1) And, looking around, you couldn’t tell the tea party folks from the reform supporters, ordinary people, slightly more women than men in both, a good number of older people. It was a little scary; these people should all have been together, on the same side.

Forty years ago, in our imagination, when Waterbury was a strong union town, they would have been. Why weren’t they now? One might expect, in a period of economic crisis, high unemployment, widespread insecurity, fear of terrorism at home and war abroad, that there might be a mighty groundswell of opposition from below, of system-challenging resistance to a system that seems largely dysfunctional. What we see is almost the opposite: the strength of neo-liberal policies and leadership, largely supported even by many one might expect to be in sharp opposition. Why?

I believe the answer can be found by pursuing the critique of everyday life, as it has been elaborated in and near critical theory by such thinkers as Henri Lefebvre, Guy Debord, Herbert Marcuse, Jürgen Habermas, Jürgen Kuczynsky (2), and perceptive radical sociologists, economists, political scientists and historians.(3)

I mean by everyday life what Henri Lefebvre is summarized as having meant:

‘The subtraction from the totality of human experience those abstractions that seek transcendence (religion, philosophy, art), [leaving behind] a kind of shapeless, enormous, ill-defined mass.’(4)

Those tea party supporters, as well as the reform supporters, have emerged from that ill-defined mass of everyday life through the interplay of processes of exploitation and oppression, producing discontent and resistance, in turn repressed by an ongoing manipulation of everyday life-inducing acquiescence rather than revolt. Given the facts of economic crisis and the failures of liberal welfare state remedies, that manipulation takes the form of extreme displacement, turning resistance against itself in the form of tea-party-like right-wing reaction, legitimated ideologically by all the forces of neo-liberalism. But perhaps that manipulation can be countered and bi-polar expressions of resistance be brought together to active basic changes both branches fundamentally need and desire. That would be putting critical theory, via the critique of everyday life, into practice.

Tea party placard against immigration

Tea party placard opposing immigration

The critique of everyday life is far from academic today. I write from the USA in the spring of 2010, when the rather mild progressivism of the Obama administration has run up against not only the entrenched and unyielding conservatism of a conservative Republican Party but also the militant opposition of a radical right, symbolized, and partially represented, by the tea party movement.

One might think that, given the present economic crisis and its harshly disproportionate effect on working people and the poor, that is to say, the large majority of the world’s population, the call to create a “Right to the City” might be the most popular slogan in town. What we see instead is a very sizable part of those in whose interests such moving in that direction would seem to lie vociferously opposing its coming into being, the tea party groupings being their most visible manifestation. But, in a way, it has always been so, a right using populist slogans to fight the left. The situation today may be more complicated, but the underlying puzzle remains: why do so many people, whose everyday experience could lead them to a thorough-going disenchantment with the way things are, instead end up as virulent supporters of the status quo?

Below I attempt to understand that phenomenon, seen as the latest manifestation of a continual resistance to radical change in a progressive direction throughout (at least) modern history, but visible in an extreme form today.

Everyday life: hardship, uncertainty and fear

Everyday life includes the direct experiential lives of human beings. It is based in the mode of production, but is only in mediated fashion produced by it. As an outcome it is better captured by cultural rather than economic analysis, although the relationship between the two should constantly be kept in mind. The everyday life produced by capitalism is an unhappy one for most, although unhappiness repressed, sublimated, unrecognized and certainly overwhelmingly unanalyzed and uncritiqued. Various terms have been used for this historical unhappiness: the invasion of the Life World by the System World, false consciousness, surplus repression, alienation, existential insecurity, escape from freedom. The unhappiness rests on material exploitation and oppression, but its manifestations go deeply into the very fabric of society today.

Homeless in the US

Poverty and homelessness are widespread and on the rise in the US.

The problems widely faced are of two types: immediately material problems and sometimes inchoate perceptions of material problems in the future. Crudely, we may speak of the first as the result of immediate exploitation, of the second as apprehension of further or future exploitation.(5)  The immediately material problems are obvious, and we may speak of them as the direct results of economic processes: direct homelessness, unemployment, loss of savings, uncared-for illness, disasters, victimization by crime, discrimination, lack of protection from the elements, overcrowding, hunger, cold.

Beyond these immediate material problems lie the problems of material perception, of material problems to come, productive of a deep discontent. They range from fear of terrorism, insecurity in employment, fear of old age, the perception of limited opportunities and frustrated creativity, the sense that the world is out of control, that we have lost certainties that we used to have and that used to provide a stable, dependable basis for everyday life. It is an uncertainty, a fear that is directly publicized, propagated, by the establishment: the fear of terrorism is pushed with ubiquitous surveillance, warnings, signs: “If You See Something, Say Something.” What it is you should see, be afraid of, is deliberately vague: something, anything, may be dangerous, in your everyday life, the place you go every day, the means you use to get there.

The economic crisis and the bankruptcy of liberalism

Capitalism isn't working

The banner reads: 'Capitalism isn't working: another world is possible'. G20, Meltdown Protest, City of London, Bank of England, 1 April 2009. Credit: Tony Hall.

The fundamental pattern – exploitation and oppression and discontent, provoking resistance, in turn met with repression—is not something new, but, it seems to me, the balance between hard and soft repression in everyday life has taken a significant turn since perhaps 2007.(6). For two reasons: the economic crisis and the exhaustion of traditional liberalism in the face of neo-liberalism.

The economic crisis puts in doubt one of the keystones of the soft repression that sustains the system against the critics. That soft repression of criticism, of opposition “reflects the belief that the real is rational, and that the established system, in spite of everything, delivers the goods” (H. Marcuse, 1964, p. 79 (7)). But the system isn’t “delivering the goods” to a large number of people. When people picket Wall Street with signs saying “Capitalism isn’t working” (see image left) a significant underpinning of faith in the system is being challenged. The door is opened to widespread and more strategic critical resistance.

The traditional reaction to the dangers posed to the established powers by the loss of confidence in the system’s ability to deliver the goods has been the liberal welfare state. The New Deal, for instance, avoided the dangers of more radical change to which the Great Depression might have opened the doors by adopting a variety of major welfare measures, unemployment benefits, job creation, old age security, etc. But the neo-liberal policies that are strong on the political scene almost everywhere block that possibility, and the traditional forces of resistance are economically weak and poorly positioned for ideological confrontation. The implicit hope for welfare state measures that played such a large role in sweeping Obama into office have been deeply disappointed in the administration’s efforts to adopt such measures, leaving a void in policy alternatives within the system that has not been filled effectively as yet. The liberal welfare state seems on the way to bankruptcy for many.

So while the door is open such alternatives that are based on a recognition of major failures of the system, the strength of the forces of neo-liberalism have effectively prevented such alternatives appearing viable from either the liberal or the more radical left side of the political spectrum. The shutting out of radical criticism is widely effective, and relies on some relatively new forms of repression.

The displacement of resistance: the tea parties

The new form that the repression of opposition takes in everyday life includes something beyond the passive forms of acceptance, ignoring of reality and refusal to insist on independence of thought and action, that have long been a staple of support for the system. What is new is rather a form of everyday aggressiveness, active grass-roots political opposition to progressive change, right radicalism, militant neo-conservatism, anti-abortion violence, anti-immigrant actions, a new surfacing of racism and sexism, religious fundamentalism. It is, on the surface, repression from below, not from above.

Tea party placard: "obama fascism"

Tea party placard: "obama fascism"

The tea party movement in the USA is one of the clearest manifestations of this trend towards aggressive repression at the everyday level of support for radical change. The tea party helps to shape a pre-emptive conformity, excluding new ideas, suppressing alternatives. It should not be understood as a political movement, because it is empty of any real political content: low taxes, no government, racism, intolerance of dissent, are not politically grounded, ideological positions; they are molds imposed on everyday life geared to displace, pre-empt, and move first to resistance and ultimately to critical practice. It is neo-liberalism at the ground level, in everyday life, stripped of its ideological mantle and pretensions. Its goal is the domination of everyday life, from intellectual questioning to sexual behavior to public behavior and definitions of orderly conduct.

But the tea party and its kin have significant success also because of the void in alternative explanations, alternative courses of action, created by the absence of any critical and appealing alternative in sight. This absence is not simply the result of repression from above, but also of their co-optation of potential resistance by liberal forces and leadership. To be more specific, the hope that brought Obama to the presidency in the USA has been disappointed. The election has not brought the change, or the clarity of understanding and direction, that had been intuitively expected. The tea party enters a void created both by those who opposed reform to begin with and by those who promised reform but did not produce it or fight for it. When neo-conservatives and liberals alike support big bank bail-outs, the everyday protest has nowhere effective to go, and is displaced to opposition to big government, where at least strong forces are available to lead the way. The ideological right radicalism of the tea party is the result.

Right radicalism is then justified by an elaborate ideological paraphernalia, purporting to address the underlying unhappiness by blaming it on government, on the very measures that might in fact address its causes. That is the essence of the ideology of neo-liberalism, and it has largely succeeded in pre-empting the possibilities of a solution through a return to the welfare state.(8) Logic then would suggest the need for action from below in the direction of radical change supported by those most directly affected materially and those whose security is threatened, the most discontented and alienated (Andrea Gibbons, 2010, provides evidence for a similar argument). That includes the individuals that make up the tea party’s support.

The concept of “displacement” – from Freudian psychoanalysis and also used in critical theory, is key here: (9):

Displacement: Defence mechanism that shifts sexual or aggressive impulses to a more acceptable or less threatening target; redirecting emotion to a safer outlet; separation of emotion from its real object and redirection of the intense emotion toward someone or something that is less offensive or threatening in order to avoid dealing directly with what is frightening or threatening. For example, a mother may yell at her child because she is angry with her husband.’

At a pathological level other mechanisms include: “Delusional Projection” – grossly frank delusions about external reality, usually of a persecutory nature; Denial – refusal to accept external reality because it is too threatening; arguing against an anxiety-provoking stimulus by stating it doesn’t exist; resolution of emotional conflict and reduction of anxiety by refusing to perceive or consciously acknowledge the more unpleasant aspects of external reality;  Distortion – a gross reshaping of external reality to meet internal needs; Splitting – a primitive defense, negative and positive impulses are split off and unintegrated.

The external reality as to which tea party actions are a defense is in fact the structures and relationships of economic and political life, whose nature is being denied/displaced. The mechanisms seem literally applicable. In the displacement, capitalism is the husband, government is the child?

The painful discontent, which is grounded in reality, were it mediated through critical theory, would be progressive, radical, but instead is systematically rechanneled into right-wing militancy. The rationality of the tea party folk is easy to dismiss:

‘The Tea Party crazies, the Limbaugh lunatics and the Glenn Beck bigots provide cover for the corporate influence-peddlers. Their outrageous arguments divert our attention away from the ways that banks and other big corporations are undermining the economy and our democracy. This (citing their attack on Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward (10) is lunacy, but they actually believe it, as you can see nightly when Glenn Beck goes to his blackboard and draws lines between Woodrow Wilson, George Soros, Cloward and Piven, and Obama!’ (11)

Irrational, yes; but lunacy? Never mind the fact that it is backed by some non-lunatic individuals and groups very rationally pursuing their own self-interest through funding and media support. The everyday worry and deep discontent that the present crisis has brought to the fore finds its outlet in this form of right-wing activism, by those already suffering from or perceiving an imminent danger of being subjected to the unemployment, loss of health care, foreclosure of home or eviction from rental, and loss of even those gains their parents made before them in everyday life. At the ideological level alternatives are discounted, blocked, evicted from serious consideration. The intellectual possibility of visualizing fundamental change vanishes.(12) The repression is often quite unconscious, internally repressed, so that the individual is simply not aware even of the possibility of alternatives.

In a well-regarded recent poll, only 52% of US respondents had a positive reaction to the word “capitalism”, so 48% did not, but only 29% had a positive reaction to “socialism”. Clearly, some ideological concerns about the alternatives need to be addressed. Less so among the youngest reported: among 18-29-year-olds, only 43% had a positive view of capitalism, and 43% had a positive view of socialism. But material circumstances also mattered: only 19% with family incomes over $75,000 had a positive view of socialism, but 44% of those under $30,000 did. Crude, but suggestive.(13)

The implications for critical practice

Unaddressed, the tea party movement can be a major obstacle for the success of strategic resistance to neo-liberal domination today. But, the argument here is, it can be addressed from the bottom up, and needs to be addressed from the bottom up. It needs to combine two approaches: one addressing the ideological legitimation from above, the other addressing insecurity and discontent that underlies the displaced resistance from below.

At the ideological level, critical theory can be a comprehensive tool to refute the neo-liberal analysis. It needs to be explicit and concrete in combining a materialist analysis of the dominant socio-political-economic order with the cultural criticism of everyday life. Critical theory can play a decisive role, because it constantly places center stage the possibility of alternatives.

At the everyday level, critical theory needs to expose the underlying profound dissatisfactions of everyday life and expose the manifold ways in which those dissatisfactions are suppressed – to clarify their roots and thus their targets. That involves dealing with the individuals who have been caught up in the appeal of attacking the tea party’s displaced targets, addressing them directly, recognizing and exposing the source of the insecurity and discontent in material exploitation and oppression. It is precisely wrong to treat the tea party supporters as lunatics, or to assume they are the hopeless tools of reaction – the enemy. Of course, in one way, they are; the positions they are led to assume cannot be conceded. But it is their confused ideas that are the enemy, not the individuals who hold them. The origins of their unrest need to be recognized as valid.

The underlying problem here is an old and well-recognized one: in order seriously to change society, you need individuals seriously committed to real change; but to get individuals seriously committed to a real alternative you need the social experience of alternatives.21 The two need to be approached together; make the road by walking. Individual consciousness must be changed, but consciousness is a social product. The response to feeling the ills of the world in everyday life, to an existential insecurity, is either group/class consciousness or group/class denial. The tea party is class denial.

Critical theory, coupling political clarity on societal causes and alternatives (with recognition of the mechanisms leading to individual actions in everyday life), is needed now more than ever.

See full article here.
Peter Marcuse is Professor of Urban Planning at Columbia University in New York.

Notes

  1. “… those screaming right-wingers interrupting the health-care reformers in the United States … They are certainly erupting in a seemingly infinite rage against the capitalist state’s attempt to impose a new form of biopower on their world”, David Harvey writes, with some intentional hyperbole. Forty years ago the rage would have been similar but differently directed. Michael Hardt, Antonio Negri and David Harvey, ‘Commonwealth: An Exchange’, Artforum 48 (3), November 2009, p. 210. Available at: http://www.korotonomedya.net/kor/index.php?id=3,317,0,0,1,0
  2. Kuczynsky, J. (2000) Geschichte des Alltags des deutschen Volkes Papyrossa Verlagsges , Koumlln
  3. I have named above only those with whose writings I am at all familiar and who have attempted to embed their critique of everyday life into a more comprehensive critique of the prevailing order, along lines paralleling traditional Critical Theory.
  4. Derek Schilling, ‘Everyday Life and the Challenge to History in Postwar France: Braudel, Lefebvre, Certeau’, Diacritics 33(1), Spring 2003, p. 31.
  5. I have elsewhere argued that critical opposition to prevailing conditions has two roots: deprivation and discontent. The opposition springing from conditions of everyday life includes that derived from deprivation and the more material bases of discontent. See: Marcuse, 2009. From critical urban theory to the right to the city. City 13: (2/3) , pp. 185-197.
  6. See the full article for the complete discussion on this >>
  7. Marcuse, H. (1964) One-dimensional Man. Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society, p. 79. Beacon Press, 1991 , Boston
  8. There is good reason to believe that such a return was not only politically not desired but economically impossible; the literature on the left making this argument is extensive.
  9. The formulations given here are from a useful summary posted on Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Defence_mechanism
  10. “A good example is the Right’s growing attack on sociologist Frances Fox Piven and her late partner, Richard Cloward. The paranoid right-wing echo chamber views these two academic activists as Marxist Machiavellis whose ideas—especially a 1966 article in The Nation about building an anti-poverty movement—have not only spawned an interlocking radical movement dedicated to destroying modern-day capitalism but also, in their minds at least, almost succeeded, as evidenced by what they consider Obama’s “socialist” agenda.”
  11. Email, ‘Lessons from the Health Care and Soda Tax Wars; The Right’s Conspiracy Theory’, LA talks by Bob Kuttner, 20 October 2010.
  12. Tom Slater (2006) has provided an elegant case study of the process in academia in his aptly entitled (2006) The eviction of critical perspectives from gentrification research. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 30: (4) , pp. 737-757.
  13. http://pewresearch.org/pubs/1583/political-rhetoric-capitalism-socialism-militia-family-values-states-rights

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