One of the things I’ve been meaning to write about ever since the explosion onto the national political scene of the “tea parties” (Dawn of the Teabaggers, I sometimes refer to it) is the nature of the actual, original Boston Tea Party. As you might expect, the teabaggers of today have the spirit of the the original nearly completely wrong, just like they’ve mistaken the spirit or intent of just about everything from fascism to some of their own founding/funding groups.
A lot has been written about the tea parties’ actual roots in corporate-funded, fake grassroots lobbying firms like Dick Armey’s Freedom Works and the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity, and about their ideological and tactical kinship with earlier right-wing groups like the John Birch Society (which helped sponsor the teaparty-heavy CPAC conference this year). But until now, not much has been written about their professed origins or intentional kinship with their namesake, the people/movement to which they believe themselves to be most akin, the Boston Tea Party.
Or at least, so I thought. Anyone who’s studied the history of the Boston Tea Party understands that the intent of the colonists who dressed up as “Mohawks” and dumped some 90,000 pounds of British East India Company tea into Boston harbor weren’t merely doing so, as is often portrayed in thumbnail histories of the event (such as the famous one in Schoolhouse Rock) as a rebellion against the English government’s taxation without representation. That played a part in the event, to be sure, but it was a much smaller part than is often thought to be the case. And the other, much-larger motive changes the whole character of not only the event itself, but the people – many of them our founders themselves – who took part in it. It also stands on its ear the entire raison d’etre of today’s teabaggers, for reasons I’ll explain in a moment.
The biggest problem with the “taxation without representation” view of the Boston Tea Party is that it ignores the why behind the actions of the crown. Standard readings of history lead one to the belief that George III was just a stiff-necked, money-hungry traditionalist who considered it his right to rule all he saw. Without delving into George III’s personal psychology too much, that’s an overly simplistic reading of the course of events that led up to the Boston Tea Party. The reason the event focused on tea (instead of any of a number of other textiles or crops) was because the colonists had a fondness for tea inherited from their country of origin – England. In England, since the beginning of the 17th century, the British East India Company had risen from its initial charter by Queen Elizabeth in December of 1600 to be the most powerful corporation in existence at the time. It was created to take advantage of the wealth-creation opportunities that forward-looking rulers and merchants saw in the new world. The main rival (both in business and in terms of national power) was the Dutch East India Company.
Ever since Queen Elizabeth had reaped uncounted profits from her funding of Sir Francis Drake’s wealth-seeking venture to the new world aboard The Golden Hind, the crown had been looking for ways to formalize and make permanent such arrangements. In 1600, the crown allowed a group of London-based merchants to incorporate into what became the British East India Company, and from there, the modern corporation was born. Since the charter of the British East India Company’s founding with money from the crown itself, an alliance had been formed between wealthy merchants and the even-wealthier nobility and political class who funded them.
By the late 18th century, the BEIC had grown both enormous in size and power, and also very intertwined with the English government. Most wealthy landowners and nobility were also large shareholders in this new type of business venture – the corporation – and thus, the interests of the government were often difficult if not impossible to distinguish from the interests of the BEIC. And the BEIC, following (in fact, founding and developing) a model that corporations use to this day, used its influence within government to lobby for favorable terms for itself, including monopolistic and quasi-monopolistic control of various industries and markets, and a host of tax terms and other statutes which allowed it an unfair advantage against competition from smaller, less-powerful (but more agile) independent businesses. The modern “vampire squid” was born.
By that time (the late 18th century) in the colonies, the thirst for tea had grown with the population, and the demand for tea now represented a substantial business opportunity, one that did not go unnoticed by the British East India Company. Unfortunately, with the colonies being so far away from mother England, it was more difficult to control the commerce that flowed directly through colonies. As Thom Hartmann says in his excellent (no, really – go read the whole thing) essay The Real Boston Tea Party Was Against The Wal-Mart of the 1770s,
Between 1681 and 1773, a series of laws were passed granting the Company monopoly on tea sold in the American colonies and exempting it from tea taxes. Thus, the Company was able to lower its tea prices to undercut the prices of the local importers and the small tea houses in every town in America.
Thom also observes wryly that, just like the businesses of today who are squeezed out when a Wal-Mart comes to town, “the colonists were unappreciative of their colonies being used as a profit center for the multinational corporation.” Prior to these laws, the thriving tea business in the colonies was diverse, locally-based and competitive. Everyone profited a little from it, and the money was both spent and earned (and kept) locally. But the new laws which the BEIC’s influence had allowed them to pass through the English parliament would so undercut the price of tea in the colonies that the entire industry would be decimated and in effect, re-structured as nothing more than a money-making venture designed to extract wealth from the colonies through the hostile take-over of a profitable industry.
So, when the first large shipment of duty-free tea arrived on BEIC-owned ships in Boston harbor in 1773, the colonists knew their moment had come. The “taxation without representation” meme which has come to define the Boston Tea Party in popular understanding stemmed from the fact that the crown levied taxes (like virtually all governments do) on goods. And the “without representation” part was always problematic. But the real reason for the revolt was not the much more abstract notion that existing taxes were too high in general versus the level of representation, but that any tax on local economy was too high when compared to abusing the power of the crown to allow what was then the largest corporation in the world to use anticompetitive practices and special tax exemptions to create a monopoly in an industry, crushing the local economy in that industry. So they donned their fake “Mohawk” garb and stormed the harbor, and the rest is….history. Sort of.
The modern-day teabaggers mostly have little or no idea of this history. Today, you’re as likely to see a caricature of Obama as a communist leader (Mao, Lenin, etc.) at a teabagger rally as you are a criticism of Obama as a witch doctor or a Nazi. More likely, in fact, because although the racist and Nazi-baiting stuff works viscerally for some, it also has high negatives among the general public. The “anti-business, communist” stuff has a long and storied history of success as a propaganda tool in America, though, and its continued use by the teabaggers points to its resilience in the minds of many Americans. We consider ourselves a fiercely capitalistic nation, and oppose anyone who’s perceived to be getting in the way of our “inalienable rights” as citizens to make a ton of money through our own efforts. If there was one word George W. Bush said more than “terror” (or “nukular,” LOL) during his Presidency, it might have been “entrepreneur.” The American right-wing mythology LOVES them some entrepreneurship. And, in truth, small businesses are indeed the engines of employment and of creation of a sturdy, prosperous middle-class in America.
But today’s teabaggers have been co-opted by the BEICs of their time – the large corporations and their well-financed allies in government and politics. They’ve been indoctrinated, since at least Reagan, to believe that supporting entrepreneurship means opposing New Deal-era banking and commerce regulations which served to prevent some of the very same monopolistic practices that so angered the original tea party patriots in 1773. Though there’s a general sense of “the little guy’s getting screwed” anger in the tea parties, virtually all of it is directed at “big government” with its “burdensome regulations” on businesses – usually BIG businesses like Wal-Mart, big banks, etc.
It’s quite depressing, in one sense, to see so many newly-motivated activists with such energy who have so little understanding of either the history of what they’re talking about, or of the forces shaping today’s world. Government is a big, obvious, mostly-transparent force. For all the clamoring about government secrecy (much of it justified), government is at bottom an instrument of the people. For a group of activists who so-often reference “the American people,” it’s almost amazing how little this essential truth seems to penetrate their consciousness. Yes, government can be subverted from within and from without, but it’s frankly simply axiomatic that a government structured such as ours is will literally always be more transparent and directly controllable, even at its worst, than a privately-held, for-profit corporation will be. And an enormous, privately-held (or even publicly held) multionational corporation which has been granted immortality and special rights (and can lobby for more) will also always be a greater potential threat to not only governments such as ours, but also the real-world citizens of any actual country. I can’t, for the life of me, figure out why the teabaggers can’t see this.