Taxes, and Cuts, and Drones: Obama’s Imperialism of the Peasants

In my very first post as a blogger, I wrote the following:

One problem with liberals in the tax debate is that they don’t realize just how little Americans actually get from the government. When the government doesn’t provide you with universal health care, a decent pension, good schools, or accessible and affordable public transportation, why should you want to pay taxes? The answer, of course, is not for Americans to pay less but for government to spend more. As Thomas Geoghegan explains here, “people are willing to pay taxes that they spend on themselves.”

Ezra Klein is now reporting more details on what the impending fiscal cliff deal between Obama and the Republicans is going to look like: among other things, it includes cuts in Social Security benefits, and if this Dylan Matthews post from last week is correct, tax increases that would be slightly regressive in their effects (I’m not talking here, obviously, about the tax increases that would come from undoing some of the Bush tax cuts).

So that’s the deal: We raise taxes. And what do we get in return? Lower benefits. Genius!

As I wrote in the London Review of Books during the Summer 2011 debt ceiling negotiations:

If there’s a master text for this moment, it’s Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire. Not the over-cited first time as tragedy, second time as farce line, but his astonishingly prescient analysis of the reactionary behaviour of the French peasantry during the Bourbon and July monarchies. Though the 1789 Revolution and Napoleon had liberated the peasants from their landlords, the next generation of peasants was left to confront the agricultural market from small private holdings that could not sustain them. They no longer had to pay their feudal dues, but now they had to pay their mortgages and taxes to a state that seemed to do little for them. What the state did provide, under Napoleon III, was imperial spectacle. That wasn’t nothing, as Marx noted, for in and through the army the peasants were ‘transformed into heroes, defending their new possessions against the outer world, glorifying their recently won nationality, plundering and revolutionising the world. The uniform was their own state dress; war was their poetry.’ This Marx called ‘the imperialism of the peasant class’.

In Marx’s analysis we see the populist underbelly of the debt crisis, indeed of the last four decades of the right-wing tax revolt, from Howard Jarvis’s Proposition 13 of 1978, which destroyed California’s finances by putting strict limits on property tax increases, to the Tea Party. Liberals often have a difficult time making sense of these movements – don’t taxes support good things? – because they don’t see how little the American state directly provides to its citizens, relative to their economic circumstances. Since the early 1970s, with a few brief exceptions, workers’ wages have stagnated. What has the state offered in response? Public transport is virtually non-existent. Even with Obama’s reforms, the state does not provide healthcare or insurance to most people. Outside wealthy communities, state schools often fail to deliver a real education. In such circumstances, is it any wonder ordinary citizens want their taxes cut? That at least is change they can believe in.

And here Democrats like Obama and his defenders, who bemoan the stranglehold of the Tea Party on American politics, have only themselves to blame. For decades, Democrats have collaborated in stripping back the American state in the vain hope that the market would work its magic. For a time it did, though mostly through debt; workers could compensate for stagnating wages with easy credit and low-interest mortgages. Now the debt’s due to be repaid, and wages – if people are lucky enough to be working – aren’t enough to cover the bills. The only thing that’s left for them is cutting taxes. And the imperialism of the peasants.


  1. Glenn December 17, 2012 at 11:58 pm | #

    Frederick Douglas was disturbed by the spectacle of black slaves fighting each other over which of their masters was the most powerful.

    Imagine slaves fighting each other to be in the reflected glory of their owners and exploiters in this self-organized competition with other slaves.

    This had to be just as shocking then, to Frederick Douglas, as this same species of Black slave mentality should be today in the American “imperialism of the peasants” (as Cory so aptly put it).

    The ruling patriarchy treats the electorate, both men and women of all colors, as whores; they sweet talk them out of their votes for a few soon to be broken promises and some flattery, then hatefully abandon them, walking away with their money as would a pimp.

  2. wisedup December 18, 2012 at 1:27 am | #

    I believe that your description of the consequence of Napoleon should be rewritten to reflect that the ” imperialism” led to the deaths of so many peasants in wars.

  3. Donald Pruden, Jr, a/k/a The Enemy Combatant December 18, 2012 at 9:01 am | #

    I would pose the question: Which “peasants” are we talking about? In Thomas Frank’s “What’s The Matter With Kansas”, a similar thesis obtains as regards the peasantry’s response to reactionary policies and their problematic perception of their “stake” in such policies. I wrote a marginal note in my copy of his book, where early on Mr. Frank cites the American working class’s susceptibility to the blandishments of the anti-working class politics of policymaking elites, reactionary activists, and elected officials: “Except Black People.”

    It would be worth examining not only why it is that large swaths of the “peasantry” buy into policies that will impoverish them (I can give quite a few reasons, many of which are quite well known to professional historians and those of us who take the time to read their books) but also why it is that there is also a sizeable remainder of the “peasantry” to which such appeals cannot ever be made.

    Bluntly, why is it so easy to sell (a huge number of) Whites on this stuff, but so hard to sell (even a tiny percentage of) Blacks on it?

    Again, I ask: Which “peasants” are we talking about?

    • Erstwhile Anthropologist December 18, 2012 at 12:16 pm | #

      Yes, which peasants indeed. Great question and observation. Hope it’s addressed at some point.

    • wembley December 18, 2012 at 5:19 pm | #

      I was about to do the bad thing and leave a long-ass comment saying exactly this, and not nearly as well. This is why I should always read the comments first. (Except on news sites. Or Youtube.)

      But yeah, “which ‘peasants’,” exactly. Like, I think there’s a point to be made that low-income voters that hate taxes would hate them less if they were getting more for their money.

      But it could also be argued that it’s low-income people of color that would have the most to complain about here — they need benefits and social programs more, to deal with the double-whammy of poverty + racism. The state should be doing more to protect poc from poverty, from racism, and also from itself(!) (War On Drugs, Stop & Frisk, etc.). And yet, these aren’t the voters that are complaining, if “complaining” means “defecting from the party that won’t reliably cut taxes to the party that will.” I guess you could argue that voters of color do secretly hate taxes but they’re held hostage by the two-party system, but IIIII dunno about that. (Not that anybody really *loves* taxes, but there’s a difference between not loving them and … Grover Norquist.)

      Oh, look, I left a long-ass comment anyway.

    • wembley December 18, 2012 at 5:26 pm | #

      Oops, I left off the end of my comment which is: so, basically, to sum up, I don’t know if I’m persuaded by what you’re saying here, because even though it does make sense (and don’t get me wrong, I’d love some universal health care and more & better public transportation, etc.), honestly, I really think rational self-interest (“I’d hate taxes less if I got more for my money”) isn’t what’s going on here. I think it’s racism, plain and simple — white conservatives not wanting tax dollars to go to “them.”

    • Corey Robin December 18, 2012 at 10:07 pm | #

      I’m fairly critical of the Frank thesis, actually. But I also think the question you’re posing isn’t relevant to the post. I’m trying to answer why the people who support who don’t benefit from it in immediately obvious ways do so nonetheless. Now one answer I give is in The Reactionary Mind. But the other answer I give is here: the American welfare state is actually quite stingy. But this isn’t a universal theory of poor and working-class voters. It’s one part of an explanation for why some of those voters wind up supporting tax cuts.

      • Donald Pruden, Jr, a/k/a The Enemy Combatant December 19, 2012 at 9:36 am | #

        I respectfully suggest that my question is quite relevant to the post and for the very reason you gave: the stinginess of the welfare state. Indeed, I would further proffer that victims of the part of the state where its coercive projects obtain would have more than enough cause to jump on board the tax cut bandwagon (less taxes, translating into less money for prisons, say).

        But because the spending part of the state is quite generous to its coercive arm but very stingy to its social welfare arm, working class people of color (that’s us, y’all) simply want some of their (our) tax dollar not funneled back into their (our) pockets but simply shifted from the coercive to the assistive. The stinginess of the welfare state never invites from them (us) a call for a tax cut; they (we) want the stinginess mitigated and reversed. Excepting my lefty cohorts, I have never heard my White fellows complain of the welfare state’s stinginess so much as complain of its generosity, and to the wrong people. There is also Skocpol’s paper on the Tea Party’s surprising fondness of government largess – as long as it only goes to people like themselves and not to Blacks, the young, immigrants, or the unemployed – and this only underscores the point. They love themselves some tax cuts – but not because they don’t get any benefit, but only to make sure that (the other) “THEY” don’t.

        It would therefore seem that the most likely audience for the tax cut sales pitch are those that REALLY don’t benefit from a criminally stingy welfare state, but rather often find their own necks squeezed in the closed fist of the state. After all, who’d wanna pay taxes to a state that promises to toss you or your grandkids into prison? The anti-tax pitch is not made to them, and they don’t rally in support of it. They want their public schools and libraries and hospitals kept open, and they (we) are willing to pay. The Kochs, Freedomworks, Americans For Prosperity, Tea Party Nation and so on were not offering free bus rides to D.C. to them (us).

        Therefore, and in observation of your statement that your post is only part of an explanation as to why one part of the laboring classes would support tax cuts, I suggest that such an explanation would need to incorporate an investigation as to why the victims of the state (because of both its welfare stinginess and its tendency to coerciveness) would nonetheless not support a tax cut. My suspicion is that the latter would go a long way to explaining the former, because the link between the two is found in the question surrounding what the purpose(s) of the state is/are supposed to be in a nominal (if not substantive) democracy that sustains a large and very diverse population.

  4. Stephen Zielinski December 18, 2012 at 10:25 am | #

    The problem with Corey’s description of our current political spectacle is an obvious one: What could self-aware peasants — read: middle, working and under class voters — do to ameliorate their situation?

    Participating in either the Democratic or Republican parties entails their cooptation by the duopolistic party system. To avoid this dead end, they would need to organize movements and a party which would better represent their interests. Yet that task is easier stated than completed. And completing that task does not ensure political success. It does not because the American political system today has returned to one of its first organizing principles: The defense of wealth. One should not delude oneself by doubting the willingness of the political elite to use any means necessary to defend the current distribution of property and income. A Ralph Nader would have suffered the fate of a Salvador Allende had Americans erred by electing him.

    A Barack Obama has had no problem with interring and murdering American citizens, including teenagers. He has deepened and intensified the Bush assault on the rule of law, has defended security-surveillance apparatchiks who had committed crimes, has used legally dubious means to destroy independent journalism which threatens his administration, has defended oligarchs and the Wall Street elite, etc.

    The name and capacities of the enemy are obvious.

  5. Stephen Zielinski December 18, 2012 at 10:29 am | #

    Reblogged this on All Tied Up and Nowhere to Go and commented:
    Corey Robin takes up the perennial left-wing political problem: Why do the “lesser people” (Alan Simpson) support politicians and parties that harm their interests and undermine their standard of living?

  6. wembley December 18, 2012 at 5:23 pm | #

    Off-topic: Corey, I feel like I only comment when I disagree with something you’ve written, but just fyi, your blog is one of my favorite things I’ve discovered this year! Your writing is forceful, intelligent and empathetic. I’m usually too intimidated to comment here (or at CT, or LGM…) because even though I’m the Nerdy Political Junkie Velma in my Scooby Gang of friends, here I’m totally outclassed because I’ve never been to grad school and don’t know much about the history of political or economic thought beyond, “Marx! He wanted communism! Or socialism? One of those? John Stuart Mills! He was a guy! Liberalism! Hobbes! He… was another guy? Leviathan! Keynes good, Hayek bad, Friedman super-bad? Question mark?” But I always get a lot out of your writing.

    • Erstwhile Anthropologist December 19, 2012 at 4:56 pm | #

      I applaud your honesty in admitting intimidation, I think it is something which doesn’t happen often enough. It takes a lot of courage to admit feeling so out of place. And it says a lot about Corey and his site that you still feel welcome here. Because, yes, graduate school/the academy does inculcate certain elitist habits of exclusion and posturing. Or at least it often does.

      I too am happy to have found this site. It reminds me to prioritize being a small-i intellectual, and not to care so much what the big-I Intellectuals think. Coming from anthropology, which has been particularly bad about ‘public’ engagement and writing for a non-academic audience, this site is a reminder that one can be a first-rate scholar and yet still communicate one’s scholarship/ideas in a manner accessible to a wider audience, and do so with wit, humor, and enjoyable-to-read writing.

      Even when I don’t agree with what I may be reading, it is still a joy to read (and certainly makes me want to be a better writer).

      • Erstwhile Anthropologist December 19, 2012 at 4:59 pm | #

        I also really appreciate the videos and other pop-cultural references. They to indicate the same big-tent accessibility, and an ability not to take oneself too seriously. Bravo, Corey.

      • Donald Pruden, Jr, a/k/a The Enemy Combatant December 20, 2012 at 4:02 pm | #

        I did go to grad school – but I did not graduate. I borrowed ‘way too much and made my college loan hole too deep – and I’d do it again, if given a chance! During that time, the Post-Structuralist Critique was still all the rage. Now, at age 51, I work in insurance, but my active interest is in filmmaking and cinema studies (which is what put me in college loan debt) and politics.

        I will also admit to intimidation when I consider responding to some of the writings posted here – anyone notice how I don’t say nuttin’ when the discussion turns to Hayek, von Mises, Schumpeter, and Uncle Miltie F? What I learn about these guys I learn here from Corey and from the rest of you people (along with my old “Great Economists” tapes). I know when I am outclassed, and when I think it is safe for me to jump in. I promise I will start reading those guys in 2013. Can anybody offer an easy place to start? Maybe there is a collection of representative essays by them in one volume?

        Because I am happy this site exists, I, too, try to be on my toes when it comes to writing clearly (thankfully, Prof. Robin does not grade us here) arguing both coherently and reasonably, and being factually accurate. I truly enjoy coming here and reading the posts and seeing if I am up to the challenge of some of the Prof’s more provocative observations – as well as those of the respondents.

        Thanks goes to Corey for giving us a place to drop our two-cents. I, at least, FEEL smart when I come here.

  7. Bill December 19, 2012 at 12:46 am | #

    Mr. Robin, Have you read “The Submerged State” by Suzanne Mettler?

    • Corey Robin December 19, 2012 at 1:32 am | #

      I haven’t. Though I’ve read various articles she’s written that come out of that book.

  8. Mike J. December 19, 2012 at 4:36 pm | #

    Napoleon III’s experiment ended badly, as I recall: there was a war with Germany, defeat magnified by the peasants’ unwillingness to rally around the flag (this type of imperialism doesn’t built a strong sense of patriotism), the Paris Commune and a brief civil war, followed by the first steps in the creation of a French social democracy. Likewise this time, military diversions will only get you so far, and as soon as there is a major crisis the political elite’s lack of legitimacy will become painfully evident.

  9. Corey Robin December 19, 2012 at 9:30 pm | #

    Many thanks to you all for your kind and generous comments! I’m glad, thrilled, you feel the way you do about the blog.

  10. jonnybutter December 21, 2012 at 11:57 am | #

    I, at least, FEEL smart when I come here.

    I’d say you also sound smart, Donald. You contribute a lot.

  11. Chris Harlos December 23, 2012 at 11:36 am | #

    As the private economy continues to fail most of us, the State should increase spending that promotes the general welfare. Otherwise, inequality, immiseration, gun violence –the awful indicia of a grossly unjust society — rise. Good-bye, Miss American Pie.

    Russis emerged from the collapsed USSR. What will come from the defunct USA?

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