Inverted Envy and Populist Anti-egalitarianism

An interesting discussion spun off a Crooked Timber comments thread for John Quiggin’s post on Corey Robin’s book ‘The Reactionary Mind’. The topic was the old What’s the Matter with Kansas? puzzler: why do so many Americans seem (at least as far as progressives can ascertain) to vote against their own economic interests for a party which has trashed their prospects for prosperity? One element of the answer is an elite-based explanation. Neither the Republicans nor, crucially, the Democrats have offered a programme that promotes the economic interests of the vast majority of Americans. The Democrats occupy the space for a genuinely progressive or social democratic party within a two party system, but -with notable exceptions such as Elizabeth Warren –  don’t deign to actually fight for progressive policies.  Hence people ‘vote their values’ by supporting the platform of socially conservative Republicans whom they feel they have a cultural affinity with. It’s in the interest of the Republicans to keep such divisive issues open as it obviates the intensification of a class-based socio-economic cleavage, whilst the Democrats are pushed towards a defence of progressive causes which unfortunately makes them appear as culturally distant from the ‘heartlands’.

That’s the familiar part of the explanation. But how is it that plutocrats such as the Koch brothers seem to have tapped into fairly widespread popular support for totally regressive economic policies? People haven’t just been deflected from their interests, they’ve lined up to form a ‘King and Church’ mob in defence of the rich.

One explanation is that the Tea Party troopers have been systematically misinformed, in line with the ‘propaganda model’ of the media – hard to discount given the ‘Get the Government out of Medicare’ absurdities and the flagrant lies of Fox News. Another related explanation is the good old standby ‘false consciousness’, the idea developed by Marxists but borrowed by feminists, anti-racists, post-colonialists and others that the oppressed can internalise the ideology of their oppressors such that they see social arrangements as natural or even positively desirable.

The problem with this, aside from potentially authoritarian and elitist implications, is that it is analytically dissatisfying to go around assuming that people are clueless about their own interests. It’s probably more compelling to suggest that there are multiple ways which people could conceive of their own interests and that ideology plays a role in determining which interests they prioritise and the means they see as appropriate for achieving them. I’m with Richard Puchalsky some of the way when he suggests on the thread that many in middle America are genuinely socially conservative, but I don’t think that can be a complete explanation for the formation of a rent-a-mob on behalf of the 1%.

So the Tea Party then, what gives? Well on the thread some commentators point towards the very compelling suggestion that for the populist right in theUSabsolute welfare is less important than their relative position. Going only by what I’ve read, the base for the Tea Party seems to be older, white, surburban, middle-manager types. Perhaps these groups are used to what political scientists have called the ‘symbolic wage’, the psychic dividend to less rich whites that comes from the greater respect they are accorded than ethnic minorities. The idea of a black man in the White House does seem to upset them on a visceral level (hence the lunacy of the birther nonsense and the outright denial of the possibility that an African-American could legitimate hold that office), almost as if something vitally important has been stolen from them – which according to the symbollic wage theory it has. It’s hardly controversial to suggest that it’s impossible to disentangle the issues of race and welfare in US politics. Plenty of political scientists have suggested that ethno-racial heterogeneity reduces welfare-state transfers, people are only comfortable with their taxes going to people ‘like themselves’, and in the US the issue seems particularly virulent.

Being badly off isn’t so much of a problem so long as those worse off than them stay that way and suffer even more than they do, especially if the badly off are from an out group perceived as being inferior. Hob put this quite nicely in the comments:

The fact that the reactionary movement promises to roll back many social benefits they now enjoy is offset by the promise of making them kings of their own territory, securely placed above their wives, or their employees, or a racial other. The leaders of the Confederacy saw it that way, or at least wanted to encourage their followers to see it that way: every white man can be an aristocrat regardless of wealth, as long as he can have slaves… The progressive/democratic alternative, in which you just don’t have so many one-sided power relationships, can’t offer that vision of security— of being one of the winners.

Or if you prefer Eastern European folktales, Marcel on the thread gives us the following

A peasant found a lamp with a genie that promised him one wish, with the proviso that whatever the peasant received, his neighbor would receive double. After a moment’s thought, the peasant said, “Take away one of my eyes.”

There really does appear to be a nasty dog-in-the-manger/misery loves company aspect to the Tea Partiers. Indeed, it strikes me that this is all a sort of politics of envy. Lazy right-wingers who have never cracked the spine of a book on political theory like to hurl this insult at those who favour redistribution, ignoring that in the absence of implausible Laffer-curve assumptions about dead-weight losses the beneficiaries of redistributive policies will be straightforwardly better off. Envy is a form of spite, and there’s nothing spiteful about plain old self-interest.

But there is something spiteful about wanting those less-well off than you to stay that way and resenting it when their position improves. Indeed, inverted envy seems to sum up such a nasty bundle of spiteful feelings quite well: envy of what little those less fortunate have and a desire to see them with even less. Hence all the drivel and mock outrage about the fact that many of the poor own refrigerators.

The resentment of the popular right doesn’t just look downwards but sideways towards the unionised public sector and upwards towards liberals in the professional classes, paid up members of the ‘elite’. This can be witnessed in theUKas well in those tedious insults about bruschetta-eating Islington Guardianistas by those who otherwise claim to celebrate and admire success. But its only the rich, job creators don’t you know, who are spared resentment. Perhaps some of the popular right are deluded enough to believe that they are likely to join their number, that as surveys have suggested they believe themselves down on their luck millionaires rather than propertyless proletarians  (a good overview of this and other proposed mechanisms in The Economist).

But I would guess that many conceive of their interests in terms of preserving the petty hierarchies that enable them to see themselves as ‘winners’ and identify with the rich and powerful, snickering as others are pauperised alongside them.

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Posted on January 6, 2012, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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