In the most recent installment of the New York Times’ new philosophy forum, The Stone, J.M. Bernstein [New School for Social Research] offers a Hegelian analysis of the Tea Party movement. His analysis has met with predictable derision from certain quarters within the community of professional philosophers and, of course, from the libertarians whose ideology he critiques — but more on that later. Before we get around to Bernstein’s critics, let’s first take a look at what he’s actually written.
Bernstein notes that the actual policy proposals coming from among the ranks of the Tea Partiers are a mixed bag; they don’t entirely cohere. If it’s not agreement on policy, Bernstein wonders, what then is the common thread that ties this movement together? Bernstein focuses on the anger emanating from the Tea Partiers and seeks to find a grounding for their group cohesion by identifying the the source (or target) of their anger. That source, on Bernstein’s view, is the fact that “what has been undone by the economic crisis is the belief that each individual is metaphysically self-sufficient, that one’s very standing and being as a rational agent owes nothing to other individuals or institutions.” Bernstein argues that the economic events of the past few years have “undermined the deeply held fiction of individual autonomy and self-sufficiency that are intrinsic parts of Americans’ collective self-understanding.” And some Americans are threatened, fearful and angry that this story they’ve told themselves about themselves for their entire lives has been undermined and revealed to be, in Bernstein’s words, a fiction.
So far, so good. The Tea Partiers are responding to a situation that has all of the hallmarks of what Habermas calls a legitimation crisis. Still, there’s a huge elephant in the room that Bernstein conspicuously and intentionally avoids when he opts to “leave aside the election of a — “foreign-born” — African-American to the presidency” as a contributing factor to the anger that binds the Tea Party movement together. More specifically, Bernstein simply underestimates the degree to which individualist ideological narratives and whites’ racially motivated antipathy toward minorities (especially blacks) go hand in hand. Bernstein is an expert reader of Hegel, and his Hegelian analysis is spot on. Nevertheless, he’d do well to add some Tim Wise to his summer reading list (see especially the final section of Wise’s essay, “Beyond Practicalities: The Moral Bankruptcy of Libertarian Thought on Race”).
So, what exactly does racial animosity have to do with the metaphysical issues that Bernstein discusses? Only just about everything. The myth of individual achievement has been a mainstay of the ideological grounding for systemic racism. The myth of individualism offers a narrative on which people simply get what they deserve. Thus, those who are successful can attribute their success to their own hard work, ingenuity and intelligence. Those who are unsuccessful, on the other hand, have only their own laziness and ignorance to blame. So when confronted with the fact that whites, on the whole, fare (in material terms) much better in our society, the individualists can sidestep the difficult questions that arise about why that is the case. They can simply assert instead that there are no systemic answers to those questions, so just move along. Nothing questionable or interesting to see here. The individualist ideological narrative lets its adherents off the hook for having to give too much thought to structural injustices that play a large role in determining who society’s winners and losers are. In other words, it overlooks institutionalized privilege.
Bernstein is correct that the current economic crisis has gone a long way toward putting the lie to the individualist narrative. It’s not as thoroughly discredited as Bernstein seems to think; it’ll hang around for a long time. Still, it’s probably safe to say that it’s on thinner ice now than it was before the current economic crisis, and that its shortcomings have been brought further into the light than they had previously been. He’s also correct in his explanation of (and, just as important, his agreement with) Hegel’s alternative narrative of interdependence. We are dependent on social structures–so dependent, in fact, that it doesn’t even make sense to think of “the individual” as primary or as preceding the social. But that (inter)dependence isn’t the only thing that individualist narratives overlook. They also overlook the extent to which we, as a society, have failed to live up to the ethical demands that our mutual interdependence places on us.
It’s worth asking, why did it take an economic crisis of historic proportions to expose the shortcomings of the individualist narrative? The Tea Partiers are angry now, only because the implicit deal under which they’d been operating has ceased to work for them. They fully bought into the notion that success (or the lack thereof) owes only to the individual’s work ethic, intellect, willingness to “play by the rules,” etc. Then, as Bernstein keenly notes, the economic crisis showed them that even those who do work hard and play by the rules are not exempt from larger societal forces. It showed them, in other words, that we really are interdependent after all. But the individualist narrative hadn’t been working for many other people–i.e., the structurally marginalized–for a long time. What’s happening to the Tea Partiers now–and what’s getting them so angry–is only what’s been happening to too many of the rest of us for a very long time. It’s just that the Tea Partiers never got angry about individualist ideology giving anyone a raw deal until the Tea Partiers themselves were the raw deal recipients.
The true shame of the situation, as far as I’m concerned, though, is not that the Tea Partiers have lashed out in anger over the implosion of their cherished metaphysical narrative. The real shame is instead that it took this long for it to happen. Millions of other Americans–those without the benefits of privilege that the Tea Partiers enjoy–have been working hard and playing by the rules for generations and not receiving their due. The true crisis is not that the truly interdependent, intersubjective nature of our society has been revealed from behind the curtain of individualist ideology. The true crisis, rather, is the revelation of our society’s collective failure to live up to what it means to be interdependent and intersubjective.
The inconsistencies in policy proposals emanating from various sectors of the Tea Party movement become easily explainable once we’ve noticed that they’ve failed to connect the dots between the struggles they’re currently enduring and those that others who are unlike them have been enduring for generations. Why? Because that failure to connect the dots reveals that they still really don’t understand the societal forces at work–e.g., not only our society’s mutual interdependence, but also the institutionalized privilege that results from our failure to live up to the ethical demands of that interdependence. If they don’t truly understand how these forces work (or fail to work when neglected, as is happening now), then of course their proposals to fix these problems that are symptomatic of systemic crisis cannot help but be a mixed bag of ideas. Those ideas may nibble at the edges and address this or that symptom of systemic crisis, but if the Tea Partiers lack an understanding of the true systemic nature of the problem, then of course their proposed solutions will not be systemic (or consistent) either.
So, there is much to be admired in Bernstein’s analysis, but much to be desired as well. Not everybody has found anything of value at all in his analysis, though. Joshua Cohen, who specializes in philosophy of law at Stanford, sums up his thoughts on Bernstein’s blog entry in a five-word tweet that dismisses Bernstein’s piece as “armchair bullshit, masquerading as philosophy.” (At the very least, his superficial quip demonstrates that Twitter is definitely not the wave of the future for those who wish to engage in actual intellectual discourse.) In what should come as a shock to precisely no one, Brian Leiter piles on by casting aspersions on Bernstein on account of his association with Simon Critchley, openly doubting whether any well-read or intelligent philosopher could possibly offer an analysis like Bernstein’s in any seriousness, and concluding that “armchair bullshit” is a generous description of Bernstein’s piece.
Given their complete lack of any substantive engagement with what Bernstein has written, it’s impossible to say exactly what Cohen and Leiter’s issue with Bernstein is. Is Bernstein’s particular reading of Hegel what consigns his work to the realm of “armchair bullshit,” or is the “bullshit” to be found rather in the fact that Bernstein believes that Hegel has anything relevant to say about current political events at all? Why should we be confounded by the fact that Bernstein, having read Freud, Marx and Lukács, still takes Hegel seriously? Cohen and Leiter don’t say; they simply deride in substance-free quips and rants. They’re smart guys, no doubt, and one would have hoped that they would do better than simply hurling insults. Criticize Bernstein’s views (and Hegelianism in general) all you want, but at least live up to some sort of professional responsibility as philosophers to engage the substance of those ideas if you’re going to mention them at all. Cohen and Leiter, in this case, apparently couldn’t be bothered to do so. Their “analysis” seems downright enlightened, though, in comparison with the anti-intellectual ramblings coming from libertarians on the right.
It’s not just inexplicably vitriolic analytic philosophers and libertarian idiots who take issue with Bernstein’s analysis, though. Kevin Drum at Mother Jones weighs in, and unfortunately starts out with both a misleading title and a gross misunderstanding of Bernstein’s central thesis. In response to Bernstein’s claim that the current economic crisis has revealed the truly interdependent nature of society, Drum rattles off the usual statistics regarding the wealth, education and class of the “average” Tea Partier, and concludes that “if anything, tea partiers might be a little less dependent on the federal government than the rest of the country.” He misses the point that, as Bernstein puts it, “this way of expressing the issue of dependence is too weak, too merely political.” Bernstein is making a metaphysical claim, not a psychoanalytic one. I, for one, am confident that Bernstein himself is quite clear on the difference between the two. I am equally confident that Bernstein is well aware of both the political and the historical context of the Tea Party movement, and the role of mass media in promoting it. If anything, his Hegelian framing of the issue offers him the conceptual apparatus to offer an even more robust and nuanced historical analysis than Drum himself seems capable of.