Last week’s motley collection of protests against taxation, centralization and the Government are now old news, but their spirit remains perennially relevant. Invoked in the name of the original “Boston Tea Party,” the patchwork of local Tea Parties sought to revive the spirit of protest against a distant and arbitrary government. While a number of commentators have rightly noted that this most recent set of “tea parties” did not share a central feature of the original Boston tea party – namely, a protest against “taxation without representation” – in a deeper sense, there is a profound continuity between these two protests, even if the circumstances and the particular governments in question are radically different. While in our current age we are citizens of an representative democracy in which all of us (except for DC citizens) can claim the right and privilege representation, in fact we are individually less represented than ever, more subject to titanic forces over which we exercise little if any control, and frustrated at the sense of impotence and irrelevance that the impersonality and massness of modern political and economic life thrusts inescapably upon us. The tea parties were wildly incapable of articulating the true sources of this frustration, but the frustration is real and our “leaders” are well advised not to ignore those frustrations. Indeed, it presents a moment of enormous danger as well as possibility: from this frustration might arise a populist demagogue who could foment destructive revolutionary impulses that are ill-directed and aimed solely at denunciations of “elites,” the wealthy, and liberals. However, an able spokesman might possibly be able to give articulate voice to these frustrations, one that transcends contemporary Left/Right distinctions and above all – like the original Boston Tea Party – rests on demands for a true and significant form of self-government.
Ironically, the protests are directed against Government precisely because government is the one potentially responsive large-scale agent in the modern world. “The people” theoretically can exercise some degree of control over large private entities such as corporations – particularly in the form of boycotts or “market”demands – but such institutions are largely insulated from direct popular pressure unless such pressure can be sustained in ways that are difficult in modern mass society. A far more promising avenue is anger directed at “Guvment,” at once born of frustration at its disdain toward and neglect of the concerns of ordinary citizens, and the understanding that the most responsive modern institution toward such anger is likely to be government.
At the same time, the national government is a massive and largely impersonal organization. Like most modern organizations, it is composed of innumerable faceless functionaries whose job is largely to render all problems and concerns subject to administrative logic and “rationalization.” Government is largely something we perceive to be “out there”: even those of us who regularly vote know that our vote is a tiny fraction of actual sovereignty, and that even changes in representatives will result in small actual changes to the daily grind of the administrative State. While we are theoretically citizens, we regard Government as something alien and separate from us, an entity hardly comprehensible and barely under control. Programming ranging from the X-Files to “24” capture our fears that the government is actually run by shadowy figures who aim to harm us – and, at the same time, that the only source of our potential salvation are other government functionaries who, for some inexplicable and old-fashioned noble reason – have the interest of ordinary people at heart. Agents Mulder and
Scully, and Jack Bauer spend as much time fighting against their own government as they do against external agents who mean us harm. Government is thus the source of our fear and our ire, and the only institution with some modicum of public spirited heroism that might combat those internally destructive forces.
We should understand that “the system” was designed to render us relatively politically insignificant and inert (or, “tractable”) while, it was hoped, any potential frustrations from that public irrelevance would be obviated by great potentials for private success, particularly economic opportunities and prosperity. The modern liberal project of mass legitimating “democracy” was a wager designed to purchase our acquiescence to political insignificance in favor of private satisfactions. It was the literal reversal of the ancient and Christian counsels that private satisfactions needed forms of restraint whose sources derived from publically defined conceptions of common weal, and at their most expansive demanded a strong degree of publically shaped and determined self-government.
This wager has proven itself to be enormously successful: liberated of age-old prohibitions against self-aggrandizement, pride, lust, and self-seeking, and told instead that what had formerly been regarded as slavish, hubristic or sinful behavior was now the very basis of what constituted the public “virtue” (in Mandeville’s articulation, “private vices” led to “publick virtues,” a summary that lie at the heart of John Locke’s political formulation and Adam Smith’s economic theories in The Wealth of Nations), the modern wager sought to achieve a high degree of public irrelevancy by means of private satiations. One must marvel at how well this wager has borne out.
However, as I have argued elsewhere, this wager rested at the deepest level upon the premise of eternal economic growth and expansion of “opportunity.” The rising inequality of the citizenry, combined with their public irrelevance, required a backdrop in which one’s relative position was always subject to radical improvement (or, potentially, shattering failure). Private material satiation was not sufficient, since such satiation was always relative: a few would be demonstrably more “satiated” than the many, and absent the prospect that increased opportunities for satiation would be potentially available to those in a comparatively less “satiated” condition, modern liberalism realized that discontent with our actual insignificance and lack of public and political dignity could quickly take the upper hand. For this reason, every contemporary political leader – regardless of party or ideology – regards it as the primary and uncontested aim of contemporary policy to maintain growth. Absent such growth, not only is any politician’s term of office likely to be brief, but the actual legitimacy of the entire political and economic system is likely to be put under enormous stress and threat.
The recent Tea Parties were generally born of poorly articulated frustration, but at base that frustration derives from the felt sense of public indignity and irrelevance. To maintain a system of endless growth, modern structures – whether public or private – have necessarily undergone accelerated consolidation. The demands for market efficiencies and economies of scale have provided the logical impetus at ever-greater massification and centralization, and the evisceration of significant local forms of governance or economic arrangements. At every turn the modern citizen – theoretically the source of all political legitimacy and the director of modern policy – is in fact everywhere deprived of the actual capacity to exercise any meaningful control over their own fates or the basic decisions that would guide their lives. We are implicitly told that this is a good bargain – we are relieved of the burdens of self-government while being told that smart and clever people distant and unknown to us are working hard to ensure that our futures will be better and brighter. Amid profound cognitive dissonance, we attack government for depriving us of any significant voice in our own future, unaware that what we actually crave is a truer form of self-government. This frustration is understood by the distant powers to be a call for further rationalization, further consolidation and renewed efforts to ensure a future of economic growth and opportunities for material satiation. For many of us shaped by these deep set of modern presuppositions, we somewhat accept that our happiness lies in these increases of private satiation – and thus, many of the Tea Partiers demanded less government intervention in the private realm – even as they pointed often to a deep dissatisfaction to the apparent discounting of our contemporary selfish actions against the prospects of future generations. I can’t help but hear in the frustration of many who gathered in these Tea Parties an echo of the original participants of the Boston Tea Party, namely a call for the opportunity to govern ourselves. What was striking was that this call was not directed against a dictatorial and unelected King, but a government elected by the populace. Still, its distance was just real as that which once separated us from the British Crown, as was the felt sense that decisions being made by those distant leaders were being taken without any real regard for the lives and destinies of ordinary citizens far flung and diversely placed. More to the point, the decisions of the distant government appear to be made for the advantage of the well-placed, those favored by the Government because of their positions of prominence. Government seems to willfully demonstrate our irrelevance and impotence.
In today’s New York Times Tom Brokaw calls for greater efficiencies in the governing of the local places of America. He notes with disappointment the resistance of local politicians to recent proposals to consolidate “inefficient” local governments in the State of New York – citing “parochialism” and what must be antiquated resistance to “evolution” – and calls for the elimination of many of the local institutions of higher education in declining parts of the country like the Dakotas, proposing instead their consolidation into “The Dakota Territory College System.” He decries the inefficiencies of so many local governments and institutions, holdovers, he asserts, from “the early 20th-century when travel was more difficult and farm families wanted their children close to home during harvest season.”
Brokaw – that chronicler of “The Greatest Generation” that did so much to dismantle the localities of our nation in the oil and auto rush of the 1950’s – sees only inefficiencies and antiquated resistance to “progress” or “evolution.” Quite remarkably, his short memory overlooks our recent experience with $140/barrel oil, and the sudden “new” experience of travel not being quite so easy as we’d grown accustomed to in roughly 30-40 years – a very short time in human history, and one that hardly justifies dismantling those local communities that pre-existed the age of oil and will be desperately needed when we depart that short-lived era. But perhaps more importantly, these institutions are the starved remnants of a period of far greater self-government and the places where a sense of common weal and public good could be articulated by actual citizens. While largely eviscerated by the logic of our age, our impulse should not be to further dismantle them, but to strengthen those local places that still exist while thinking inventively and experimentally to create new places where a felt-sense of self-government can be fostered and cultivated. We should reject calls for “efficiency” and instead install in its place calls for “citizenship.”
Indeed, if anything should be learned from our current crisis, it is that the very apparent “efficiencies” of larger and more consolidated entities actually decrease our capacity to govern ourselves. The current frustrations of our many “Tea Parties” is surely derived from the palpable sense that things have spun wholly out of control and ordinary citizens are being asked to bankroll a system that is almost wholly ungovernable. Consider this (remarkable!) concluding line from Brokaw’s op-ed: “If this is a reset, it’s time to reorganize our state and local government structures for today’s realities rather than cling to the sensibilities of the 20th-century. If we demand this from General Motors, we should ask no less than ourselves.” What is truly remarkable – and willfully self-blinding – about this statement is the idea that a further consolidation of our remaining local institutions would be akin to efforts of the central government to shore up or bail out that massive and “too big to fail” organization, General Motors. If anything, the example of General Motors – not to mention AIG and Fannie Mae and Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers – should instruct us not to put all of our eggs into baskets much larger than that which a small set of humans can reasonably be expected to eat. If anything, this “reset” should consist of the obvious instruction that we should be downsizing and decentralizing, retaining and encouraging actual diversities based in local circumstance rather than encouraging the creation of monolithic and homogeneous organizations of such massiveness that they are barely governable and hardly function. Above all, we should avoid further centralization in the name of efficiency that simultaneously leaves the citizenry with a sense of insignificance, powerlessness, irrelevance and indignity. If a deepening of this condition represents the outcome of “evolved” 21st-century progress, then I say we should rather embrace that 18th-century sentiment that inspired the original Tea Parties, and again demand nothing short of real liberty.