Neoliberalism and the aggressive-passive Tea Party

originally posted at Global Comment

The Tea Party movement on the Right in the United States has gathered a lot of press over the past year or so, a populist protest against the Obama administration. Yet, at its core, it conceals its utter pointlessness, for it is a violent protest in favor of the economic status quo. To steal a phrase from web comic Mammoth and Mastodon & Friends, the Tea Party is aggressive-passive (as opposed to passive-aggressive): “the aggressive-passive person acts really angry and agitated to cover the fact that they don’t want anything to change.”

Numerous commentators have pointed out the historic parallels with other white American movements in response to black civil rights gains—from the Know Nothings to the Dixiecrats. Yet it is arguable that the movement is also a response to the traumatic stock market crash of October 2008 and the global financial crisis.

It is for this reason that the galvanizing issue, indeed the very name of the movement, is the apparent raising of taxes under the Obama administration. On one level this is counter-intuitive. CNN reported this year that American tax levels are comparatively low worldwide, and are at all time lows for middle and lower class people. Obama’s modest proposals effected only the wealthiest elite of this country. Why therefore would there be any kind of a popular working-class movement aimed at lowering taxes for this country’s obscenely wealthy?

My suggestion is: because neoliberalism itself is under threat. The Tea Party was necessary partly because institutionalized neoliberalism has so utterly failed, at a historical juncture when even dyed-in-the-wool neoliberals from Barack Obama to former Federal Reserve chair Alan Greenspan have come to recognize that some form of state regulation of the financial markets is necessary. Among many economists, there has been a surprising turn towards long-disdained Keynesian economics, where the social democratic state creates the stability necessary to absorb the volatility and unpredictability of the financial markets.

The near-theological faith in the self-corrective power of the market from economists like Greenspan through the 90s and the early part of this decade has been irrevocably shown to be a sham. In response to epoch-shaking decline of economic orthodoxy, the Tea Party is a hysterical denial of concrete reality, suggesting instead that the solution to crisis is its cause and that only scorched-earth post-government libertarianism will fix the very problems it created.

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