Saturday, November 13, 2010

My Conference Paper: The Tea Party and the Government of Affect

This paper will be presented Tue Nov 16 in San Francisco at the National Communication Association.

Majia Holmer Nadesan
Mobilizing Affect: The Tea Party and the Failure of the Left

“The top 20 percent of U.S. households in 2007
controlled 85 percent of the nation’s wealth” (Rosen, 2010)

“The Tea Party is a popular movement engaged in (mostly) nonviolent class warfare. It is the voice of the vulnerable Christian white lower- and middle-classes. Their world is in crisis, collapsing around them. Their once-enviable race-based social privileges no longer provide protection against the vicissitudes of corporate capitalism. In response, they have retreated into the secure fortress of rage and aligned with the ideological and moral absolutism promoted by factions of the super-rich, the very sector responsible for their immiseration.” (David Rosen Counterpunch

The Tea Party’s mobilization fascinates and frightens those of us within the academic left. Its latent racism and vulgar flag adoration disgust us. Its simplified and nostalgic aim to re-instate an America that never truly existed elicit our scorn. Its capture by established Republican strategists and fund raisers reaffirms our belief in the movement’s naïveté. Yet, some of us in the academic left also experience consternation, even envy, because we are incapable of orchestrating, or even speaking to, a popular resistance movement.

I had intended to write about the Tea Party’s mobilization of affect. I planned to describe the affect of impoverishment of economy and opportunity caused by the neoliberal financialization of the U.S. economy. I planned to discuss how resistant rage is being channeled strategically against the social-welfare aspects of the state, as opposed to its militaristic and repressive apparatuses. However, the strategic manipulation and deception of the population by inciting race and class conflict, and by promoting an obsessive fascination with the deficits produced by fiat currencies are so obvious that they hardly need elaboration.

Moreover, others, far more eloquent than I, have described these developments. Will Bunch’s, The Backlash: Right-Wing Radicals, High-Def Hucksters, and Paranoid Politics in the Age of Obama attributes the rise of rightwing backlash to anger by right wing conservatives, right-wing media, and pro-business interests who sought to steer the movement in order to promote their economic agendas. The Communist League’s “The Tea Party Nativists and the Working Class” offers an even more compelling class-based analysis of the rise of the Tea Party movement:

Block quote"The alienation and disaffection felt by layers of the bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie toward the “fairness” of the corporatist arbiter-state had fueled the rise of rightwing libertarian and populist movements, including the anti-Federal Reserve movement around Texas Congressman Ron Paul and the various Tea Party Nativist groups. The rise and growth of these movements signals the beginning of the end of the interregnum between the Second American Republic and what is to come…. The central premise of the Tea Party Nativists is that the selection of Barack Obama as the chief arbiter of American corporatism has placed the country on the road to “socialism.” By “socialism,” it means “spreading the wealth” and some emergency nationalizations, not anything that we as communists would actually recognize as a supportable “socialism.”… . Among the ranks of the Tea Party Nativists, however, the charge of “socialism” is sincerely believed and sincerely accepted. It is not only associated with Obama and the Democratic Party, but also organizing in poor and working-class communities (e.g., the ACORN group), social service and welfare programs (including health care reform), immigration and the rise of a “majority-minority” America. The battle cry of “take back America!” has become a standard. The Coming Battle
End block quote

According to these analyses, the Tea Party group represents the resentiment, political disenfranchisement, and growing economic impoverishment of working and middle class Americans. Their affect, that is, their rage, is being harness and channeled in ways that further legitimize and solidify precisely those forces that are responsible for their marginalization. I don’t think I can add productively to what these and other excellent analyses of the movements have to offer.

What I can reflect upon, however, is Walter Benjamin’s observation, recently revisited by Slavoj Zizek, that “Behind every fascism, there is a failed revolution.” We, as leftist academics specifically, and as academics more generally, are complicit in this failed revolution and mark my words we will soon see the rise of fascism because the problems confronting humanity are so great, overshadowed in scope only by the egos and greed of our global “leaders.” Zizek argues that academics have failed because they have agreed to serve as “experts to those in power who define the problems.” He suggests that “We should redefine and the question the problems themselves.” What Zizek is getting at is the subordination of academic inquiry and knowledge to technical expertise, which is called upon, and even steered by, corporatist public and private officials. I agree with Zizek, but think there is more left to be said about the failure of the academic left.

Stuart Jeanne Bramhall uses Wilhelm Reich to explain the failure of the academic left to mobilize resistance. Reich’s emphasis on emotional governance suggests that authoritarian, repressive social institutions create apathetic populations, more responsive to libidinal appeals than to intellectual critiques of their political economy. Bramhall explains:

Block quote by Bramhall: In the US only half of eligible adults register and a little over fifty percent of registered voters actually vote. Reich argues that it's typical in highly authoritarian "democracies" for the passive, non-voting population to constitute the majority. He also stresses, with examples from Germany, Japan, Italy and other totalitarian states that it's is precisely this passive, non-voting majority that fascists and ultra-conservatives reach out to. He is very critical of the left for attempting to engage this demographic by addressing their appalling economic conditions a strategy he insists is doomed to failure. In his view, what the left needs to grasp and never does is that owing to the social conditions they grow up in, this politically inactive majority are too caught up in their own internal struggles to think in terms of their economic needs. To put it crudely, status-related needs, such as getting laid, and driving a fast car and watching the Superbowl on a flat screen TV will always be a much higher priority than wages or working conditions.
End block quote

Bramhall, following Reich, argues that the vast majority of the population is psychologically captured by the psychological trauma of authoritarian social institutions that channel and repress desire. In this view, the failure of the academic left is their inability to recognize and extricate populations from their psychic imprisonment, or at least, the left fails to address them in ways that resonate within their imprisonment.

Any faculty member who has tried to elicit student interest in pursuits more esoteric than interpersonal relations, Facebook, and celebrity culture is inclined to nod their head in agreement to this account of the left’s failure. The vast majority of students, especially communication studies students, seems dis-interested in politics, particularly international politics. Students typically assume glazed expressions when persistent professors struggle to explain the basics of the financial crisis. They whisper to one another, “this isn’t in the textbook.” Utter apathy on the behalf of students is incredibly discouraging for leftist academics appalled by the utter pilfering of uber-capitalists gone mad. Bramhall’s reading of Reich at least explains the dynamic.

Or does it? I’m not disagreeing with Bramhall or Reich. I just think there is still more to the story of the failure of the academic left to speak to a population that is being raped and pillaged by uber-capitalists gone mad with greed. The excess I am referring to concerns the affective economy of liberal academics. I contend that liberal and left-leaning economists have been co-opted, captured, and mesmerized by their technocratic aspirations and privileged control over sacred academic languages.

Desiring the recognition of the Other, of the physical sciences, academics in the humanities and social sciences have deliberately blanched their publications of social concern. Even socially relevant constructs such as bullying are reduced to physiological indicators such as blood pressure and cortical levels, stripping research of the social conditions of possibility for interpersonal violence among youths in a highly stratified and competitive society. Further, desiring the status of high priests of sacred knowledge, academics have adopted highly abstract and difficult-to-penetrate vocabularies and writing styles that prevent all but the initiated from reading.

These problems are endemic throughout the social sciences and are not specific to communication studies. The problem is that leftist academics have succumbed, and indeed promote, these strategies of de-politicization in their research. I admit to being guilty of using obtuse language, but have moved in my teaching and scholarship towards more accessibility and have always found my data in the particularities of everyday life and the social realities projected in media and statistical profiles of the population. So, it is with some consternation that I have watched my promising undergraduates transformed by graduate education as they have been seduced by abstract theory away from studying the world around them. They proudly use abstract technical vocabularies articulated by Heidegger, Derrida or Agamben, but they have stopped studying the broader politics, economics, and cultural dynamics that prompted their interest in pursuing graduate education. They have become irrelevant apostles of a largely irrelevant academic discourse adopted for and by its limited group of practitioners. I mourn their loss.

Passion and anger have no place within this rarified academic discourse. Academics who dare to adopt privileged vocabularies for applied critiques, such as Henry Giroux, risk the disdain of their more correct colleagues for “simplifying” complex conceptual vocabularies. There are few rewards for academics who stray from the path, who reject the ideals of strict emotional self-government required for the production of abstract and technocratic accounts of interpersonal, group, or organizational dynamics.

No topic is more sanctioned in our discipline of communication studies than political economy, particularly in organizational communication studies. I am not referring to the abstract political economy found in those research studies that use words such as “micro-politics,” “discipline,” “surveillance,” and “ideology.” These words are considered fine in the academic journals so long as their explanatory range is limited to accounting for interpersonal dynamics, particularly within bounded social or relational spaces. The words I am referring to that are unspoken, self-censored, vulgar even, are words and phrases such as “class conflict,” “working class,” “exploitation,” and “corporatism.” Likewise, the actors that must remain unspoken are those freely criticized by the populist right including “wall street financiers,” “federal reserve bank,” and “monopoly capitalists.” The journalist left is willing to, and apt at, engaging with these terms, but other than a few “dinosaurs” such as Noam Chomsky, the academic left mostly refuse to become engaged in a class analysis of the political economy that is enabling the raping and pillaging of the majority of the world’s populations. Those Marxist and critical scholars who persisted in macro-class related analyses risked marginalization within their own disciplines unless capitalism was re-coded as “neoliberalism” or “The Washington Consensus.”

No arena has demonstrated this disdain for critical applied analysis of the collaboration of corporate and government power than the recent “spill” in the Gulf of Mexico. I followed this environmental catastrophe closely and was authentically astonished by the brute censorship, outright lies, and calculating treatment of life exhibited by BP, federal officials, and state authorities in their “government” of this event. When EPA whistle-blower Hugh Kaufman raised alarm about corexit at Democracy Now, I was shocked by mainstream media’s censorship of his efforts to bring sustained public attention to the matter. Also silenced was Dr. Robert Bea, from U.C. Berkeley’s BP crisis response group, who admitted in an interview posted with Washington’s Blog that there were originally two BP wells and both might be leaking. Finally, when autopsy reports conflicted in the cause of death for the suddenly departed, whistle-blowing Matt Simmons, I began to suspect that the most outrageous conspiracy theorists of the right might contain elements of truth.

My efforts to discuss what I knew to be true, and suspected might be, at a break during a faculty retreat in August were met with contempt. Faculty moved away from me as if I had involuntarily vomited, pretending to ignore my indiscretion. One colleague reported to another that he was “worried about” me.

Academics are not supposed to emote. They are not supposed to speculate on matters outside their theoretically circumscribed program of study. Most of all, they are implicitly forbidden from discussing anything that remotely suggests that a small group of elites might exercise power and control over larger populations. Academics who lower themselves by engaging in “conspiracy” talk risk losing their academic reputations and even their jobs.

Less stigmatized, but equally vulgar, is the topic of blue-collar labor. Typically, the only academics willing to engage with the lives and challenges of LABOR as labor are those few who somehow made it through the ceiling that typically keeps working class kids from becoming professors. Those that do make it through are often implicitly encouraged to hide their base origins by pursuing more esoteric or technical programs of study. Labor is contaminating. So is the Gulf.

The Gulf crisis continues on today unabated. The ban by mainstream U.S. media has led journalists such as Dahr Jamail to seek alternative venues such as Al Jazeera to publish accounts of contaminated seafood, severely polluted water, and mortally sickened Gulf populations because similar accounts in alternative press sites such as Global Research and Florida Oil Spill News are too easily disregarded and dismissed as conspiratorial (see Academics, mostly marine biologists and toxicologists, who have bravely leaked their research to local media willing to report evidence of vast amounts of oil, both newly deposited and buried, risk losing future grant money and harming the academic reputation of their universities. Faculty from the University of Georgia and South Florida are to be applauded for their courage in the face of this potential backlash.

Perhaps this censorship is tolerated because the populations most directly impacted by the disaster are working class people whose livelihoods are tied to the oil and fishing industries. These people speak with strong southern accents, wear rough tee-shirts, and are “red.” Their rage against BP and the government has been spurred by an overwhelming assault against their livelihoods and their health. Although some left leaning journalists and environmental activists have engaged with them in their struggle to have the scope and ongoing dimensions of the disaster recognized, addressed, discussed, the academic left has been largely silent and stories about the ongoing catastrophe are slowly disappearing from progressive news sites such as Alternet, Truthout, and OpEdnews. I include a long excerpt from one of the few stories published recently on the ongoing disaster to demonstrate my point:

block quote: BP's stock has already bounced back. The media has mostly moved on. But the long-term health impacts on Gulf Coast residents from the catastrophic oil spill are only beginning…
Originally collected on four separate dates throughout August, all the blood samples -- from three females, age 44, 46 and 51, and five males, age 30, 46, 48, 51 and 59 -- contained dangerously high levels of volatile organic chemicals found in BP crude oil, including Ethylbenzene, m,p-Xylene and Hexane, Subra explained during a wide-ranging interview with Alternet.
She clarified that the subjects whose blood was analyzed had been exposed to the oil for at least three full months before samples were collected on August 2, 3, 12 and 18.
Testing for the same chemical markers, Subra hunted down BP's crude fingerprints out in the field all along the coast, in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida's panhandle.
"I've found there's still huge amounts of BP crude oil on the sediment soils, in the wetlands, on the vegetation, and in the tissue in the oysters, crabs and mussels."
The acute health impacts of these chemicals include severe headaches, nausea, respiratory problems, burning eyes and throat, earache and chest pains.
Subra, who is also a microbiologist and the recipient of a 1999 MacArthur Fellows "genius grant" for her environmental work, pointed out that coastal residents have already entered an early phase of long-term exposure, where they're experiencing chronic effects such as liver, kidney and central nervous system damage, decreased lung function and heart disease. (Jacobson, 2010, end block quote

Subra is a brave soul for her willingness to document and attest to the ongoing environmental and health impacts of this “spill” will probably mean she will never receive another prestigious academic award.

Who speaks to these people who are alienated and marginalized, yet also white? There are few unions to represent them. Many see themselves as independent contractors or entrepreneurs and reject the union mantle. Their congressional representatives are indebted to oil interests and apparently care little for the welfare of their constituents. The mainstream media won’t report their stories and the broader public has lost interest. “Thank God,” they say as they turn to the solace of Prison Planet, Blacklisted News, the Intel Hub and a host of other conspiracy inclined “right” web-sites.

I’ve studied these websites and I see that they resonate with populations because they address their concerns and they offer compelling narratives of the individuals and corporations that are perceived as harming the population’s economic and physical health. What is interesting is that most of the concerns raised on these types of sites are also the same ones raised by the journalistic left on sites such as Alternet and OpEdnews. The difference is that the journalistic left sees government regulation as the solution whereas the populist right so distrusts government that it wishes to dispense with it altogether, even its social-welfare institutions.

Why is that? Part of the answer lies in the clinical government of affect typically found on left-leaning sites, designed to promote the sense of detached objectivity. Another part of the answer may reside in liberal left’s psychic blinders. So many of American liberals are so complacent in their technocratic and often government-sponsored lifestyles that it doesn’t occur to them that government has done little to assist the struggling middle-class and impoverished working class populations over the last thirty years. Rather than recognizing a mammoth failure to engage with, or for, the vast unwashed majority, they [i.e., “we”] as Joe Bageant (2010) explains:

block quote Bageant: Immediately they conclude that it is the American people's fault through their backwardness, incomprehension and misdirected anger, and that maybe it serves them right for not rallying behind the flying progressive standard. . . Not that the progressive flag was actually flying; American liberals threw down their standard 40 years ago in the rush for comfortable technical, teaching and administrative jobs in government, universities and non-profits. "Ah yes," they wailed, the people have let us down. They are absolutely disgusting!" liberals agreed. And they still agree. Read the comments on Huffington Post or Daily Kos. (
end block quote

Joe goes on to observe that too many of us within the petite bourgeoisie are actually bound to the elite powers that we occasionally purport to critique:

block quote Bageant: "The ruling elite stays in power through the patronage both parties offer their supporters. They hang onto or follow their party's leaders much the same as remoras cling to big sharks, and pilot fish accompany sharks, happy to get the leftovers. Both parties provide their activists and followers with livelihoods, through programs or legislation that just happen to make the rich richer..."
end block quote

I think Joe is correct and, sadly, the “ruling elite” have infinite capacity to co-opt through funding and seduction.

I did it! I said “ruling elite” and I believe it exists. I believe that the middle-class is collapsing and working class people have been impoverished by this group through their poverty industries, their sub-prime and alt-a mortgages, their outsourcing and globalization, their privatized health apparatuses, their promotion of monopoly capitalism, and their newly unfolding structural austerity. I’m really tired of governing my affect. I’m tired of writing in a coolly detached fashion where I use words like “neoliberal governmental logic” to replace words like neoliberal exploitation and extortion. I hope to learn how to channel my affect to speak to people who are not just like me. I am practicing through blogging. I have a lot to learn.


Bageant, Joe (2010, August 16). Understanding America's Class System.

Bramhall, S. J. (200 ).The Mass Psychology of Fascism: Not a New Problem. Oped news.

The Communist League. (2010, February 23). The Coming Battle: The Tea Party Nativists and the working class. The Communist League

Jacobson, B. (2010, November). BP Stock Rebounds, Media Moves on, But Gulf Residents Are Bracing for a Mammoth Health Crisis from the Spill. Alternet.
Jamail, D. (2010, November 5). Is the gulf of mexico safe ?

Kaufman, H. (2010). EPA Whistleblower Accuses Agency of Covering Up Effects of Dispersant in BP Oil Spill Cleanup. Democracy Now.

Rosen, D. (2010, October 29-31). Class war in America: The war that dares not speak its name. Counterpunch

Washington’s Blog. (2010, August 19). Top Expert: Geology is "Fractured", Relief Wells May Fail ... BP is Using a "Cloak of Silence", Refusing to Share Even Basic Data with the Government.
Zizek, S. (2010, October 27). Why far right and xenophobic politicians are on the rise in Europe. Democracy Today.

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