The Tea Party and Libertarianism: Is Negative Liberty Free?

The Tea

Defining the Tea Party Movement is no easy task. It is a heterogeneous movement formed by a variety of different people with very different backgrounds. It is, however, increasingly consolidating,narrowing down its scope and creating a stable identity for itself. It is undeniably a grassroots movement, born as a reaction to the financial crisis and an unaccountable caste of political representatives, and thriving today thanks to a well coordinated web of blogs, on-line petitions and town hall meetings. It is, above all, a conservative movement. Its main tenets are “Fiscal Responsibility, Limited Government and Free Markets” ( It is a movement disgusted with the way politics is conducted on both sides of the aisle in Washington, angry at government bailouts and bank bonuses, and horrified at the gargantuan size of government. It resents crippling unemployment, it fears immigration and, most importantly, it loathes taxes (Brooks, Von Drehle, 2010).

The Crisis of Liberalism

The Tea Party is not merely a “knee-jerk” reaction to specific problems such as unemployment or an unsustainable federal debt; it is, rather, part of a greater global reaction to the crisis of neo-liberalism. This crisis, I believe, can be divided into three main components: the crisis of financial capitalism, the crisis of representative democracy and a crisis of national identity. These are structural problems unleashed by the forces of liberalization and globalization which traditional centre-left and centre-right governments are simply unable to cope with. The grand liberal narrative of a globalized world nourished by a rational, dynamic and efficient free market cannot come to terms with today’s problems of financial meltdowns, mass immigration, international terrorism and political apathy.

In terms of the crisis of capitalism, there has been no strong response on behalf of 1st world governments. Apart from populist cries for more regulation and a tax increase for the ultra-wealthy, Western governments actually saved the very form of capitalism which created the crisis, giving no sign of change from the Wall Street “business as usual” paradigm. Regarding the crisis of representative democracy, here too no one has come to terms with the alienation of the citizenry from the democratic process. Citizen’s are treated as citizens solely before election dates; and elected representatives, after garnering initial consensus through multi-billion dollar electoral campaigns, become increasingly unaccountable and far removed from the people. Finally, considering the crisis of identity, it is clear that an increasingly globalized world has seriously tested an understanding of the nation based on the homogeneity of cultural, ethnic and religious shared values. Immigration on the one hand and cultural relativism on the other have thus created a feeling of rupture with traditional forms of identitification.

Tea as a Response to Crisis

This (Marxist) analysis of the crisis of liberalism is broadly shared by the Tea Party as well. The Tea Party Movement resents government bailouts, it demands more transparency and accountability on behalf of Capitol Hill (Von Drehle, 2010) and accuses the establishment of having abandoned the sacred principles and values (and thus the very identity) set out by the Founding Fathers and the Founding Documents (Liptak, 2010).

What is the Tea Party Movement’s response to this unprecedented crisis? “Fiscal Responsibility, Limited Government and Free Markets”. In addition to these precepts the Tea Party demands that the political and economic spheres act with honesty, dignity and above all abide by the rules of the Constitution and of the free market.

For the Tea Party, capitalism is in crisis because it has not respected the sacred tenets of the free market. It has also failed because it has behaved immorally by breaking the principle of competition and by seeking government subsidies (Barstow, 2010). The response is thus not more regulation but more economic freedom: free markets failed because they were not free enough.

To the crisis of political representation the Tea Party again invokes a strict adherence to the Constitution and to the Bill of Rights. They demand transparency, a smaller, less intrusive bureaucratic apparatus, accountability, and above all they demand fiscal responsibility on behalf of their representatives (Liptak, 2010). The Tea Party Patriot initiative “Contract From America” (, for example, aims to force representatives closer to their constituents rather than the other way around.

Finally, the Tea Party seeks to identify itself (and this is obvious in the name they chose for themselves) with the tradition of the Founding Fathers. They equate Obama’s government with Great Britain’s Tyranny and attempt to embody the golden days of “Spirit of ’76”. Glen Becks “9-12 Project” urges Americans to read the Federalist Papers, the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence as the only means to restore honour and transparency in politics (

“The answer, therefore, is a smaller government on a very short constitutional leash, with less spending and balanced budgets.” (Von Drehle, 2010)

Behind Common Sense

Presented in this way, the Tea Party seems to merely propose common sense (exactly in Thomas Pain’s sense). Yet there is more than meets the eye in this issue. The tenets of “Fiscal Responsibility, Limited Government and Free Markets” as a response to crisis are exactly the issues which caused the crisis in the first place. Is the present crisis not the consequence of the neo-liberal policies enacted by Reagan and fulfilled by Clinton? Is it not limited government which led to the crisis because of its insistence on de-regulation? Is it not a blind faith in the rationality of the free market that allowed our “irrational exuberance” to grow un-checked?

The drive towards the financialisation of the economy was started by the president who in 1981 stated that “government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem”. The financial meltdown was caused by de-regulation, the repeal of the Glass-Steagle act and similar policies which derive from Reagonomics and which flourished under Clinton. If there is one lesson we have learnt from the recent crisis is that the freer the markets are the more the incentives towards monopoly and fiscal irresponsibility grow. Moreover, Obama’s (and Bush’s) big government, is the consequent response to the failures of capitalism: when the private sector is in crisis the only other possible actor that can restore economic balance is the State -hence the bailouts. The largest instance of government expansion occurred under F.D.R. with the New Deal which was a response to the 1930s Great Depression.

As for the crisis of political representation, I am convinced that a renewed adherence to the precepts of the Constitution is not enough to solve the present democratic deficit. This is not a issue of how to articulate representation, nor is it a question of the measure of accountability or honesty of representatives. Western democracy is in crisis because the representative model is outdated and needs to be reinvigorated through increased citizen participation. A conservative or “originalist” interpretation of the Constitution (Liptak, 2010) cannot account for 21st century issues such as mass immigration or a boom and bust economy, and, above all, it is unfit to mediate amongst a growing plurality of conflicting interests.

This brings us to the question of identity. The crisis of identity is not an issue, as the Tea Party would have it, of abandoning the principles set for us by the Founders. The crisis of identity arises exactly because the Founding principles are being challenged today by new historical contingencies. The “pursuit of happiness” and the binomial “democracy-capitalism” which had historically led to liberty and prosperity are being put to the test today by the rise of new models of governance which defy the American Dream (see the rise of the BRICs). Moreover, what is becoming increasingly clear (especially in the Bush II administrations) is that the U.S. manages to find a sense of identity and community solely in times of war. It seems as if America (and increasingly Europe) can articulate its identity solely through a continuous contrast with the “other”. It is not a coincidence that Glenn Beck’s 9-12 project seeks to recreate the feeling of American unity which emerged the day after 9-11: a confused emotional amalgam of sorrow and yearnings for revenge.

Negative Liberty

However, there is something lurking deeper within the subtext of Tea Party rhetoric. Underlying the Tea Party discourse is one of the U.S. strongest political undercurrents: libertarianism. The belief of the supremacy of the individual over the collective is so strong within the American political unconscious that it must be reckoned with whenever analyzing its social, political and economic spheres. For libertarians government should not decide what is best for the individual, nor should it attempt to coercively redistribute the fruit of the individual’s labour. Libertarian thought is based on the principles of self-ownership and non aggression, and interprets the notion of liberty negatively.

According to Isiah Berlin, in the essay “Two Concepts of Liberty”, negative liberty entails the individual’s right of being “free from” any external form of coercion; as opposed to positive liberty which entails the right of being “free to” participate in the collective sphere. Historically, Berlin argues, positive liberty has embodied the principles of equality and redistribution, and as a consequence has generally led to totalitarian regimes. Negative liberty, on the other hand, makes no claim to social justice; rather, it recognizes that the dangers of redistribution and coercive imposition of equality are far too great, and thus a functioning political order must be strictly limited to the protection of the individual’s inalienable rights of life, liberty, property and the pursuit of happiness.

Therefore, for libertarians, liberty is conceived ex negativo: understood as the absence of interference in an individual’s action. The only legitimate sphere in which consensual relationships between individuals can occur is the free market. There is no need for government (except to maintain order, although authors such as Rothbard contest this as well) nor is there any particular need for democracy, for the mediation of interests occurs entirely within the realm of the free market. In this way, the barrier between the free market and social relations is blurred, as the market embodies not merely the domain of the economic but the very field of the social. Friedrich von Hayek goes as far as asserting that the free market and economic liberty are indispensable preconditions for any kind of civil or political liberty. Economic liberty reduces the risk of tyranny because it does not allow the government to take over crucial dimensions of private life such as health, education or employment (Vernaglione, 2003).


Murray N. Rothbard, the intellectual who created the notion of Anarcho-Capitalism, grounds the principle of self-ownership in a specific understanding of man’s state of nature. This is constituted by single individuals, isolated, non-associated, whom act following instinct, passion and above all personal interest. The human is not a “social animal”; rather, it is a being which makes choices based on the competition for scarce resources. Society and communities arise spontaneously following the association of different interests within the free market. Therefore, for Rothbard no service should be public, attempts at redistribution equate to theft and any form of government is illegitimate and therefore criminal. In this way, self-ownership implies a conception of society completely based on the individual, where the private pursuit of happiness will spontaneously lead to social harmony (Vernaglione, 2003).

There are many benefits accruing from individualism. For libertarians, individual autonomy is the necessary precondition for the possibility of creativity, as it is solely liberty which permits the unconstrained manifestation of individuality and originality. This, in turn, is what allows the individual to bring innovative products to the market and thus increase his/her competitive advantage. Self-ownership ultimately secures the right over private property, and the right to decide what to do with the fruit of one’s labor. The power deriving from private property is absolute, as property creates a sphere of sovereignty which protects the individual from external interferences (Vernaglione, 2003).

Therefore, the individual is free in the most absolute sense, it is effectively liberated from any externality. He/she is more flexible, dynamic, efficient and competitive as the duties of social responsibility and taxation are inexistent. The “free self” becomes the very tool with which to conquer the highest peaks of the economy, ultimately becoming the entrepreneur of him/herself. All hail the advent of the Homo Oeconomicus, risen to restore the invisible hand of the free market from the ailing iron fist of the interventionist welfare state.


In his last lectures at the College De France, Foucault elaborated the notion of governmentality. This marked a shift from his past understanding of the effects power on the subject, in which the subject is conceived merely as a “docile body” on which power inscribes itself. Contrarily, governmentality recognizes the power that the “self” exerts on the subject. In the last years of his life, Foucault attempts to come to terms with the autonomization of the individual proposed by neo-liberalism and libertarianism. He effectively problematizes the notion of a liberated homo oeconomicus, inquiring if the free self is actually free from any form of government (Lemke, 2004).

Foucault states that the advent of neo-liberalism, with its stress on de-regulation, privatization and individual freedom, does not in fact represent the “retreat of the state”, but is simply a re-articulation of a mode of governance. In Neo-Liberalism power is not exerted directly over the individual; rather power is exerted over the rules of behaviour of the individual. In fact, Governmentality refers to the “conduct of conduct”: governing the forms of self-government (Lemke, 2001).

“Governmentality is not a way to force people to do what the governor wants; it is always a versatile equilibrium, with complementarity and conflicts between techniques which ensure coercion and processes through which the self is construed or modified by himself” (Foucault, in Lemke, 2004)

The self is thus rendered autonomous and responsible for himself. Security, health, education, employment and social risks which were previously under public domain are now the responsibility of the individual. For Foucault, the shift of responsibility is actually an instance of control: the individual is not free, but is subordinate to the conditions of capital (Lemke, 2001, 2004). Rose and Miller suggest that “personal autonomy is not the antithesis of political power, but a key term in its exercise, the more so because most individuals are not merely the subjects of power but play a part in its operations” (Miller & Rose, 1991).

How Free is Negative Liberty?
Foucault forces us to ask the questions: are we effectively liberated by neo-liberalism? Is negative liberty actually free? Governmentality attacks the libertarian notion of self-ownership and self-government by demonstrating that what the liberated individual believes to be freedom of choice is in fact constraining him to the logics of the free market. For Foucault, the intervention of the State into the individual sphere is replaced by the intervention of the Free Market into the very construction of the subjectivity. Free market logic has a set of norms, behaviours and presuppositions that are effectively imposed on the individual (Rose, 1999). These are presented to us as objective and empiric truths by the likes of Ayn Rand and the philosophy of Objectivism, and include the understanding of man as an homo oeconomicus, the supremacy of the individual over the collective and the criminalization of wealth redistribution (Vernaglione, 2003).

As individuals are rendered responsible for themselves Foucault suggests that a number of “technologies of the self” intervene to regulate personal behaviour. These include self-esteem, normalization and healthism (Rose, 1999). Barbara Cruikshank points out that the self-esteem movement in the U.S. attempted to shift problems such as crime, urban degradation, alcoholism and prostitution from the sphere of the social to that of the individual: crime is not a problem caused by socio-economic or racial issues; rather, it is a problem of self-government. If individuals conduct themselves correctly there is no need to resort to crime, as crime is ultimately the individual’s fault. Therefore he should exert control over himself: self-control or self-government (Lemke, 2001).

In addition, when the individual becomes “the entrepreneur of him/herself” the Marxian dynamics of worker-employer (and thus of class struggle itself) are rendered obsolete. The worker is no longer dependent on the employer for a wage, for now he/she is a free and autonomous entrepreneur with complete freedom in the economic domain, acquiring the capability to actively engage in the free market with a sense of agency. This entails that all social, economic and political structural preconditions, such as health, inequality, and access to any kind of benefit, are now the complete responsibility of the worker. In this way “Self-determination becomes a key economic resource and a factor of production” (Lemke, 2004).

What is crucial to understand is that for Foucault the worker is not in so much constrained by the inherent contradictions of capital; his is not a full-fledged Marxist critique. For Foucault the “negatively liberated” individual is not free because his world-view is in fact not objective: it is merely another form of power exerted over subjectivity. Nikolas Rose (1999) suggests that in order to create “free individual” and institute the “free market” there is the need to implement a series of intrusive devices (or what Foucault calls technologies of government and of the self) such as censuses, opinion polls, and analysis by a range of experts in law, marketing, finance or education. These are imposed on the individual in any kind of society be it State centred or individualist.

Freedom is not Free

I wish to make it clear that I am not deconstructing libertarianism in order to re-propose the social democratic project or the viability of the welfare state. The point here is to identify and tackle the deepest roots of American Individualism in order to better analyze social movements such as the Tea Party. Widespread discontent for health care reform cannot be explained through realist perspective, for the Tea Party does not have much to lose in the adoption of socialized health care. The Tea Party Movement is against redistribution because of its fierce attachment to libertarian tenets: thus the struggle here is sublimely ideological.

Adopting negative liberty as a world-view is dangerous because it precludes the possibility of difference. If the only legitimate rights are those of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness then the field of possibilities is restricted and thus is not free. Self-determination, self-ownership and the expression of individual creativity are not unrestrained; rather, they are chained to the logics and contradictions of capital. Libertarianism and negative liberty attempt to fence liberty into a confined discursive field which eventually allows the structural conditions of inequality and wealth polarization to be justified. Moreover, the crucial point is that libertarianism forces inequality to be the necessary precondition for freedom. By means of re-structuring society based on the individual, negative liberty is able to equate the condition of subordination to the exercise of freedom.


This is the paramount aspect and contradiction at the heart of the myth of individualism. However, it does not equate to what Marx called the “false consciousness” of the masses: it is not a mere brainwash. The great lesson Foucault teaches us is that power is blind and is not necessarily led by a group of elite. Individualism and autonomy are not devices created by libertarians and conservatives aimed at tricking society into a false sense of freedom. Quite the contrary: individualism and autonomy are values which have also been championed by progressives and lefties throughout history from the American Revolution to the Civil Rights Movement; and this is exactly why the term liberty is so ambiguous and not “objectivist” as Rand, Nozick or Rothbard presuppose.

For this reason it is necessary to reclaim the term “liberty” ridding it of its essentialist and false-objectiveness. A worthy example is proposed by Etienne Balibar, with his notion of “equaliberty”, in which true “autonomy” can be achieved firstly by recognizing the inviolability of natural rights (as libertarianism proposes) and secondly by recognizing the “Reciprocity Clause”: the universal right to politics (and thus to some form of government). For Balibar, autonomy can be achieved solely when subjects are the source and ultimate reference of emancipation for each other, and where emancipation is not confined solely to natural rights (Balibar, 2002).

Conceptualizing liberty, as Isiah Berlin does, as constituted by the dichotomy of the positive and negative obfuscates the fact that liberty is infinitely more ambiguous. Berlin’s brilliant essay nonetheless allows for a restructuring of society completely based on the individual, which accepts poverty, famine and disease as the necessary price for freedom. Moreover, it does not allow us (for fear of totalitarianism) to wean ourselves away from the individualist paradigm, inhibiting the possibility of alternatives. The meaning of liberty, along with the meanings of equality and democracy must never be set in stone. Rather, our responsibility is to ceaselessly dissect and analyse them, forever condemning the legitimization of injustice and exclusion. As Derrida teaches us, deconstruction is justice.


Balibar, E., “Politics and the Other Scene”, Verso, London, 2002

Barstow, D., “The Tea Party Lights Fuse for Rebellion on Right”, 16/02/2010, The New York Times

Berlin, I. (1958) “Two Concepts of Liberty.” In Isaiah Berlin (1969) Four Essays on Liberty, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Brooks, D., “The Wal-Mart Hippies”, 05/03/2010, The New York Times

Goldberg, J., “Reading the Tea Party Leaves” 18/03/2010, The Chicago Tribune

Liptak, A., “Tea-ing Up the Constitution”, 12/03/2010, The New York Times

Lemke, T., “Foucault, Governmentality and Critique”, in: Rethinking Marxism, 14. Jg., No. 3, 2002, S. 49-64.

Lemke, T., “The Birth of Bio-Politics: Michel Foucault’s Lecture at the Collège de France on Neo-Liberal Governmentality”, in: Economy & Society, Vol. 30, No. 2, 2001, pp. 190- 207.

Miller, P. & Rose, N., “Political Power Beyond the State: problematics of government”, in: British Journal of Sociology, 1992, 43, 2, 172-205

Rose, N., “Powers of Freedom: refraiming political thought”, 1999, Cambridge University Press

Vernaglione,P., “Il Libertarismo: la teoria, gli autori, le politiche”, Rubbettino Editore Srl, Soveria Mannelli, Italy, 2003

Von Drehle, D., “Why the Tea Party Movement Matters”, 18/02/2010, Time Magazine

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Filed under Libertarianism, Liberty, Neo-liberalism, Tea Party

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