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Tea Party Patriots against Neoliberalism?

Ideas spread in all sorts of directions. I’ve heard Christian right “intellectuals” haphazardly invoke Gramsci and counter-hegemony and I myself have spent more of my youth than I’m willing to admit reading back issues of National Review. It’s probably less of a stretch that some Tea Partiers have favorably nodded toward the ideas on their movement that our friend Walter Benn Michaels expresses in his interview in the inaugural Jacobin.

Here’s my summary of Michaels’s argument on the Tea Party and immigration, which brings up the question, a question that shouldn’t really be a question at all, about the left and open borders. (My thoughts on the over-hyped and over-exposed Tea Party can be found over at New Politics.)

Michaels identifies the Tea Party as a reaction against neoliberalism. He doesn’t view the challenge as a serious one, but also stresses that the movement, “is not simply a reaction against neoliberalism from the old racist right.” Michaels contests the American left’s desire to summarily reduce the Tea Party to racists: “They’re thrilled when some Nazis come out and say ‘Yeah, we support the Tea Party’ or some member of the Tea Party says something racist, which is frequently enough.” Michaels finds the subversive content of their political program in an opposition to illegal immigration. The Tea Party recognizes that “one of the primary sort of marks of the triumph of neoliberalism in the US is a very high tolerance of illegal immigration, and that illegal immigration is the kind of one plus ultra of the labor mobility that neoliberalism requires.” The rise of illegal immigration represents a new form of capitalism, as opposed to the old “meritorious” capitalism of the post-war period. When right-wing ideologues attack “communism,” the argument goes, they are actually conceptualizing neoliberalism.

Michaels concedes that the Tea Party is a disproportionately upper middle class movement, but argues that even segments of the top twenty percentile of Americans by income have been hit hard in recent decades. The top one percent have been the big winners of the neoliberal era, while the other 19 percent in that bracket anxiously see their position falter in comparison. Responding to those who place the roots of this angst in the growing diversification of the elite, Michaels says:

. . . people in the Tea Party movement have a problem that is realer than “White male status anxiety,” that the economic shifts that are taking place, the more and more extreme inequality, the more and more going to the top, no doubt some people may be unhappy because of loss of status, but many millions more are going to be unhappy because of the loss of actual money. So my point isn’t really to deny the phenomenon of status anxiety, it’s just to point out the extraordinary eagerness of American liberals to identify racism as the problem, so that anti-racism (rather than anti-capitalism) can be the solution.

Michaels’s conclusion is, in sum, that students of Friedrich Hayek and exalters of Ayn Rand are the most visible source of resistance to neoliberalism on the American scene. Such a view, I believe, is as contradictory as it appears. Furthermore, Michaels’s attack on the concept of “open borders,” which he believes is a neoliberal construct to be combated, is representative of a left-nationalist outlook that opportunistically plays to xenophobic tendencies in American politics. A truly radical political discourse would be one that confidently defends the right of people to free movement, while critiquing the economic pressures that cause social dislocation in the first instance.

Not to mention that immigration often has a positive impact on the wages of “native” workers. If that’s neoliberal, call me Comrade Galt. Of course, it isn’t. Beyond the realm of theory, the politicians that push neoliberal policies rely on parochial rhetoric, from Thatcher and Reagan on down. Some see it as the only viable future for the British Labour Party. We have other ideas about the future of working class politics.