Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Tragedy of Wisconsin

To the extent that anyone even mentions Wisconsin at all anymore, it is mostly just to note how successful Scott Walker has been in his bid to crush public sector unions and impose a punishing regime of austerity on the state. Was this inevitable? Hardly. Wisconsin is a tragedy. And in order to be tragic, it has to be the case that things weren't destined to turn out the way that they did. Tragedy, at least as I understand the word, carries with it the idea there was great promise and possibility that was somehow squandered and lost through some contingent failure.

There was a moment when the struggle in Wisconsin was inspiring to almost everyone who paid attention. Hundreds of thousands of people, united in their opposition to austerity and union-busting, banded together to participate in the largest demonstrations and protests that the US has seen for a long time. Coupled with the euphoria still in the air as the result of the (still new) Egyptian revolution, Wisconsin seemed to be tracking an international spirit of revolt. I still think that it was. But, as we now know, this energy was eventually snuffed out and extinguished. How was that accomplished? And who extinguished it?

Well, if you'll recall, the message from the Democrats and union leaders was that demonstrations were basically a waste of time. What really changes things, they told crowds numbering in the hundreds of thousands, is participating in phone-banks and recall efforts. Of course, it was well-known that even a successful recall effort would take more than a year to win. And, if you know anything about social movements or mass revolt, you know that uprisings like Wisconsin don't happen every day. Such political energy is never likely to survive a year-long process of electioneering and demobilization. So, the best way to read the recommendations of the Democrats and their ilk is as follows: "Stop protesting, stop marching, stop doing all of the things that have garnered the attention of the world. Just try to help a few more Dems get elected to office through a slow and cumbersome process of recall. In the meantime, let Walker do what he likes."

I think it is fair enough to say that they more or less got there way. The protests have more or less stopped, the movement has dissipated, and the hundred-thousand strong marches are a thing of the recent past. Walker more or less got his way. Where does this leave us? What are the lessons of Wisconsin?

The temptation to see the Democrats and labor leaders as saviors has clearly been exposed as being what it always was: bullshit. The recall effort, conceived as a panacea, has backfired and hollowed out the movement. Walker now has the upper hand and has benefited greatly from the de-escalation of the movement opposing his program.

So what is the alternative? We have only to look at what sparked this movement to see what the alternative is. This movement got started when teachers went out on what was, in effect, an illegal wildcat strike. The so-called "sick-ins" jump-started the resistance. And what was the resistance? It was thousands of people all out on the street chanting "how to fix the deficit? tax, tax, tax the rich?" and singing "solidarity forever" in the capitol. So many of the pieces were in place: a wide sense of shared fate, strong feeling of community and solidarity, and a militant determination to oppose this onslaught from the Right. Mass mobilization was what made the movement visible to the world, and mass mobilization is what would have made it possible to win. But, as I suggested above, mass mobilization can't simply mean marches and protests. It has to also, at some point, mean job action. It has to mean strike action. There was no reason, in principle, why this couldn't have happened at the peak of the struggle in Wisconsin. There are, of course, concrete organizational things to say about why it didn't happen (lack of rank-and-file militancy, lack of left-wing organization, etc.). But we're talking about what the lessons are. And the most important one certainly has to be that "leaving it to the Democrats" means defeat, whereas an escalating, militant social movement means that victory is possible.

1 comment:

Richard said...

it is easy to blame union leadership and Democratic Party apparatchiks for what has happened in Wisconsin, and they deserve all the criticism that we can direct at them, but the sad fact is, we can anticipate more of the same as long as people continue defer to them, instead of taking action themselves, which, I guess, is a more blunt way of saying what you have said in this post

I have indirectly read a lot about South American labor unions, and the way that they have been used to implement a disempowering, clientelist form of politics in countries like Brazil, for example, but, at least a lot of people there have identified problem and created their own independent, inclusive social movements

by contrast, here in the US, we look to the people who are exploiting us to help us