Karl Polanyi and the Tea Party: a modern American fascism?

I recently finished reading The Great Transformation by Karl Polanyi. While I did have to read a chapter as part of my Political Economy major many years ago, I only just got around to reading it in its entirety.

One thing that really stood out for me was Polanyi’s analysis that the rise of fascism was a reaction to the failings of liberal capitalism. I found his description of the causes of fascism and his description of it strangely familiar regarding the populist far right today, especially the rise of the Tea Party in the United States.

I started wondering whether Polanyi’s description of fascism is applicable to the Tea Party?

There have been other articles on the issue of fascism in the United States today, most notably by Sara Robinson which has focused on the broader movement towards fascism since the Bush Administration rather than the rise of a specific movement.

So how would you identify whether the Tea Party is a fascist incarnation? Well, I’d use Polanyi’s descriptions of fascism in The Great Transformation as a starting point.

Polanyi states that:

important signs were the spread of irrationalistic philosophies, racialist aesthetics, anticapitalistic demagogy, heterodox currency views, criticism of the party system, widespread disparagement of the “regime” or whatever was the name given to the existing democratic set up.

He also notes the lack of a relationship between its size and its political effectiveness. Its strength is not determined by the number of supporters but by the influence of the elite and their support of it. Recent articles raising doubts about the actual size of the Tea Party ‘movement’ and noting the significant financial support from the Koch brothers to self-declared parts of the Tea Party seem to indicate the political effectiveness of the Tea Party ‘movement’ is not linked at all to its size but its supporters.

It is fairly clear that the Tea Party is a reaction to both the Democrats but also seeks to challenge the traditional Republican establishment. Polanyi states that the revolutionary tendencies of fascism were directed against traditional conservatives as much as against socialists. However, that didn’t stop them from working with the conservatives against the socialists. While critical of Republicans, it is clear that the main opponent for the Tea Party is the Democrats and Obama and they will work with them to this purpose.

Polanyi does discuss clashes and alliances between conservatives and fascists about the share fascists should take in the counter-revolution and conservatives in many regimes using fascists where needed before relegating them. It’s quite likely that after the mid-terms Republicans will attempt to sideline the Tea Party or attempt to further co-opt it.

He continues, explaining that fascism’s success was due to national factors. Both in Germany and Italy, fascism was able to seize power because of unresolved national issues. A number exist in the United States that could be said to have an influence such as states’ rights, the legacy of 9/11 and the issue of race in America creating fertile ground.

However, the most important factor that determined the role of fascism was the condition of the market. Polanyi outlines that when the economy was going well, fascism was not. The strength of the Tea Party comes from the current economy climate in the US. Exit polling has listed the economy as the key issue that influenced the 2010 midterms and it appears unlikely that the US economy will improve anytime soon.

There can be arguments against the Tea Party being an incarnation of American fascism such as its strict constitutionalism and support for the Bill of Rights. However, that is based on the assumption that fascism would take the form of German or Italian fascism, an authoritarian one-party state.

The form that an American incarnation of fascism takes would be influenced by national factors, for example, cloaking itself in national symbols and romanticism about an idealised national past and playing on issues such as federalism.

It is difficult to declare that the Tea Party IS a fascist movement based on such a limited examination and merely using Polanyi as a guide. Still, all progressives should be concerned about the fascistic signs associated with the Tea Party in the US and also have a look around at home.


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