Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Tea parties, old and new.

The 'Tea Party' has its origins in a particular ideology of American capitalism which comes from the South. We hear about the 'southern strategy', in which the Republican right has used race and 'culture wars' to build support in the formerly Democratic South, and used the Christian Right to mobilise a mass base from the South behind policies that favoured elites. But in fact, it would be more accurate to think of this process not as a cooptation by a traditionally Northern Republican Party, but rather as the successful bid for national political hegemony by the southern right. The cognitive habit of identifying Reaganite neoliberalism with East Coast elites, and with Wall Street in particular, has impeded understanding of this. By seeing neoliberalism as something springing from the economics departments of mid-Western universties or from the New York financial district, we miss how the Southern right was strongly behind the doctrines known as neoliberalism long before the rest of the United States did. The emergence of neoliberalism as the dominant solution to capital's accumulation problems in the 1970s was bound up with the emergence of an increasingly powerful Southern capitalism and a nationally dominant Southern political leadership.

This is hard to square with the image of thwarted segregationists, a South politically defeated and forced to accomodate to national norms. But that image rests on reducing the South to the most violent and uncompromising expressions of 'massive resistance'. It's true that for some Southern whites, having to sit next to a black person in a restaurant or on a bus was something to fight to the death over. But Joseph Crespino, Anders Walker and others have shown that this didn't characterise the more sophisticated ('moderate') southern political leaders who fashioned a more 'Northern-friendly' approach to defending the basic contours of segregation without express supremacist dogmas attached, and would go on to become powerful in federal courts and legislatures. They used the reforms initiated by Brown vs the Board of Education to restructure Southern society in ways that often had little to do with the direct constitutional issues involved. They centralised the state apparatus, modernised family law, changed their welfare system, and at the same time worked to preserve the essence of segregation through district lining and other means. They were using the crisis of Jim Crow to modernise the southern state structure the better to facilitate effective capital accumulation, in an era in which the old rural economy was shrinking rapidly and being replaced by advanced services and financial sectors. And while they would have preserved the formal structures of segregation if they could have, they understood that those old technologies of rule were not adequate for the post-war American empire. By adjusting their discursive strategies they were able to help the Southern Right rebound in time for the global crisis of capitalism, building a mass campaign behind Christian schools and traditional moral issues, the materials of which would form the basis of the 'culture wars' for years to come.

The neoliberal factions that emerged in both dominant parties in this period were based strongly in southern capital and politics. There, the conservative elite had long been about much more than white supremacy. They perceived themselves to be a bulwark against the disintegrative impact of egalitarianism, trade unionism, and welfare liberalism. They had long enjoyed a comparative advantage against employers in the North, because their anti-union policies and racialised class system meant that they kept wages below national levels. Their emergence as the most powerful national political faction enabled them to work through Congress and supreme courts to eviscerate the New Deal and protect the gender and racial politics that were the basis of their power. As Nancy MacLean has argued, the progress from Goldwater, defeated, to Reagan, victorious, tells of the emergence of a southern-western coalition in US politics, which united with pro-business politicians in the North to overturn the old 'New Deal' consensus.

The emergence of a neoliberal-reactionary hegemonic bloc, one of whose current, morbid expressions is the Tea Party, is thus not novelty or an alliance of convenience between potentially antagonistic and separate political layers, but the logical result of the ascendance of a particular geographical, sectoral and political bloc based on southern capital.