The Barren Marriage Between Labor and the Democracy: On the Recall Elections in Wisconsin

They ain’t called the ‘graveyard of social movements’ for nothing. A year and a half after the largest, most spontaneous, and most energetic mobilization of U.S. organized labor in decades, the Democrats and their hapless allies in the union leadership managed to fully divert all that energy and all that dynamism into a resounding and demoralizing defeat. Contrary to ridiculously inaccurate early estimates, the electoral contest between current governor and knight of reaction, Scott Walker, and his insipid Democratic challenger, Tom Barrett, was not even close, with most putting Walker at %53 of the final vote, and Barrett at %46. The flip side of this coin, of course, is that it will inevitably be spun as a major symbolic victory for the Right, who will indeed probably see Walker’s victory as an open invitation to freely pursue their union-busting agenda: having won in Wisconsin, where can’t they win?

For anyone who had the fortune to experience the solidarity and the palpable radicalism in the air in Madison last winter, the election, as a coda to that amazing moment, can only be taken as a bitter disappointment. For many, I suspect, the results of the recall will have only confirmed what had long seemed probable: namely that the inhabitants of the rural Wisconsin hinterlands, unemployed, indebted, yet conservative, will vote for the same guy they voted for in 2010, which will tip the scales in Walker’s favor despite the extraordinary amounts of human time and energy poured into the recall campaign over the past year. What reason have such people to vote against the person they originally voted for, especially given the fact that his opponent, Barrett, did not even attempt to progressively re-frame the austerity/budget debate in a way that might substantially influence public opinion? If the Democrats are just as willing as Republicans to denounce the trade unions as just another “special interest,” in order to then lose important elections by a huge margin, then what the hell is organized labor doing funnelling their already-scarce monetary and human resources into their campaign coffers? Is electing this mope, who can’t even bring himself to mount a principled defense of labor, what hundreds of thousands of progressive supporters rallied for last winter and spring?

It’s an old story on the American left: the Democratic party kills collective power and systematically betrays the unions, or what’s left of them, anyway. Scores of talented and dedicated organizers who worked tirelessly over the last 1.5 years will doubtless be struck with a feeling of futility, and then, of a certain exhaustion. This is understandable after something like this, but is all the more distressing given the inevitable response from the forces of reaction, which assuredly will come swiftly. They may wait until after November, but you can be certain that the neoliberals are taking this as a blank check for savage union-busting, having successfully seized the beachhead in Wisconsin. Once again, “democratic institutions” collude with organized power in the quashing of economic justice, deluded centrist liberals will continue to delude themselves, and the lesson for the U.S. left remains the same: independent organization, divorced from the Democrats, is the only credible path for any meaningful social change today.

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The Mass Spectacle and the Specter of the Left: NATO in Chicago

So if you were walking around in the center of Chicago a week or so ago, you might have been stopped by police, or had your progress impeded by them. This is because there happened to be, in Chicago at that time, the leadership of a certain international, unaccountable arm of the military-industrial complex with global reach and vast war-making resources meeting to discuss what vulnerable group of poor people will  be serviced next with the Predator drone prix-fixe, to wit: you happen to live in a territory with some of those pesky Muslim malcontents, so you are, in principle, entitled to a Hellfire missile in the face. While these shining benefactors of humanity were meeting, Mayor Emanuel and the City of Chicago spent millions of dollars of public money to outfit and train an army of riot police for the noble task of shielding NATO and the state from that dreaded public enemy, the democratic protest march.

In the event, the demonstration was impressive and energetic, the mayor and the police had their chance to “look good” for the global ruling class, and some elements of the protest clashed with the riot cops in a prolonged and violent standoff at the march’s end. This ensured the predictable series of images in media channels: the confrontation between demonstrator and police; the beaten and bloodied demonstrator; and the orderly columns of rationalized state violence, fully anonymous and fully ready to brain those who might stray away from the state-permitted protest zone. The corporate media never fails to drive the argument home for the benefit of the broader public: to confront the state is to get one’s face smashed, so don’t join these yahoos because it’s bad for your health!

Regardless of the sycophantic tripe peddled by most of the corporately owned media – most notably the wretched Sun Times and the Tribune, the latter owned by the insane Sam Zell – the sheer size and dynamism of the demonstration would have impressed itself upon anyone who saw it first-hand. Strolling about Grant Park before the march, I was again struck by the amazing diversity in style and culture that is constitutive of mass-left politics today. Bucking the city’s prolonged campaign to arouse fear surrounding crazed anarchists planning to blow things up, along with a relentless hyping of the city’s militarization of the police force, dozens of different community groups, political and activist organizations, cultural affinity groups, and trade unions came together in a common opposition to the NATO war-machine. At a given moment, one could do any of the following:

  • Join in a political debate with Second International Marxists;
  • Talk with “libertarians” about the need to reform the tax code, and how achieving socialist transformation is pointless because the U.S. is already “socialist;”
  • Dance a lot;
  • Give Maoism another chance;
  • Talk with native Palestinians about life in the Occupied Territories;
  • Join an artists’ collective in making signs, puppets, and other visual paraphernalia;
  • Chill with members of Occupy Wall Street
  • Discuss the need for a General Strike with radicals from the Nurses’ Union, the I.B.E.W., or the C.T.U.;
  • Don a hood and bandanna with Black Bloc anarchists, in preparation for an inevitable confrontation with the state;
  • Have a conversation with Hindu peace activists;
  • Talk LGBT justice with the radical queer coalition;
  • Hang out with some sweet clowns;
  • Participate in a Human Micropoem;
  • Eat some really good, vegan-friendly, free hot-dogs.

…and so on and so forth.

They don’t want to give you a free hot-dog.

This patchwork of diverse viewpoints, languages, and ideologies comes together to create quite a spectacle. A first-time protester might understandably come off a bit bewildered. Why are these guys here arguing that we should defend North Korea as a “deformed workers’ state”? Who is Bradley Manning? And what do clowns have to do with radical politics?

Speaking broadly, what more or less serves to bring such a wide array of social elements together is a common opposition to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which is an example of what Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe call an “empty signifier.” It is a symbol that can mean many different things to different forces of opposition – e.g, NATO is an expression of the warmongering military-industrial complex, the military arm of an unaccountable global oligarchy, the handmaiden of the system of global capitalism, the vanguard of neo-colonialism, the anti-democracy, and a symbol of patriarchal, racist-chauvinist hierarchy, to name only a few examples. The common opposition to NATO as a multivalent symbol constructs ‘negative solidarity,’ or solidarity among groups based upon common opposition to what they are against, to what they are not. Thus to oppose NATO it is sufficient that one be anti-racist, or anti-fascist, or anti-state, or anti-patriarchy, or anti-Federal Reserve, or anti-capitalist, or anti-injustice, or anti-war, or anti-heteronormative, anti-imperialist, or any combination of these. U.S. mass-left political action today collects a vast array of different attitudes, viewpoints, and ideologies on the basis of a shared opposition, of a deep hostility toward some institution, figure, policy, etc. Importantly, though, the reasons among the various elements for that opposition, and the social and political vision that animates them, can be and often are in conflict with one another. What does the libertarian have to say to the syndicalist? What the Trotskyist to the Stalinist? This particular form of mass politics does not require agreement on the deeper level of vision and definitions of contested concepts, like justice, freedom,  the meaning of socialism, and so on; it merely requires a sense, however vague, that something is wrong with the present system and that the occasion for protest is somehow related to it. The buy-in isn’t too steep, ultimately.

That this is the way mass-left mobilization works today is no coincidence, of course. With the gradual dissolution of the social infrastructure of what used to be called the Old Left over the last 30 years, the classical reference point of organized radical consciousness – the ‘point of production, ‘as they used to say – has increasingly become sidelined, integrated into a larger web of struggles that cast a wider net around what counts as social justice. This is unquestionably a major achievement. But such an expansive view has come at a cost. The terra firma of the older forms of praxis, which was located at the economic point of production because that was widely understood to be the source of general immiseration, has been to a certain degree lost – or more accurately, obscured. The old vision has become but one among many. As a result, the old link between radical theory and practice has become attenuated, which is a precondition for the contemporary splintering of the idea of “resistance” into countless fragments: resistance can be articulated as street performances, throwing bricks at cops, mass-marching, canvassing for electoral candidates, consuming ethically, holding a concert, dancing in the streets, culture-jamming, and of course shop-organizing – the list goes on. Opposition to a sedately imperialist, predatory liberalism, it would seem, has taken on the very pluralistic qualities that the latter ideology holds so dear.

What would the conditions have to be for something like general agreement around tactics and strategy to materialize? I would tentatively suggest that what’s happening in Quebec right now, and what happened in Oakland 6 months ago, both have something to do with the answer, as increasing numbers of organizers, activists, and community leaders are realizing that the future of radical struggle lies in combining the social pluralism of contemporary protest with direct intervention in the productive forces – that is, in combining negative solidarity with the mass-strike.

Marcuse on the One-Dimensional Society

A comfortable, smooth, reasonable, democratic unfreedom prevails in advanced industrial civilization, a token of technical progress. Indeed, what could be more rational than the suppression of individuality in the mechanization of socially necessary but painful performances; the concentration of individual enterprises in more effective, more productive corporations; the regulation of free competition among unequally equipped economic subjects; the curtailment of prerogatives and national sovereignties which impede the international organization of resources. That this technological order also involves a political and intellectual coordination may be a regrettable and yet promising development…

Today political power asserts itself through its power over the machine process and over the technical organization of the apparatus. The government of advanced and advancing industrial societies can maintain and secure itself only when it succeeds in mobilizing, organizing, and exploiting the technical, scientific, and mechanical productivity available to industrial civilization. And this productivity mobilizes society as a whole, above and beyond any particular individual or group interests…

The brute fact that the machine’s physical (only physical?) power surpasses that of the individual, and of any particular group of individuals, makes the machine the most effective political instrument in any society whose basic organization is that of the machine process. But the political trend may be reversed; essentially the power of the machine is only the stored-up and projected power of man. To the extent to which the work world is conceived of as a machine and mechanized accordingly, it becomes the potential basis of a new freedom for man. Contemporary industrial civilization demonstrates that it has reached the stage at which “the free society” can no longer be adequately defined in the traditional terms of economic, political, and intellectual liberties, not because these liberties have become insignificant, but because they are too significant to be confined within the traditional forms. New modes of realization are needed, corresponding to the new capabilities of society. Such new modes can be indicated only in negative terms because they would amount to the negation of the prevailing modes. Thus economic freedom would mean freedom from the economy—from being controlled by economic forces and relationships; freedom from the daily struggle for existence, from earning a living. Political freedom would mean liberation of the individuals from politics over which they have no effective control. Similarly, intellectual freedom would mean the restoration of individual thought now absorbed by mass communication and indoctrination, abolition of “public opinion” together with its makers. The unrealistic sound of these propositions is indicative, not of their utopian character, but of the strength of the forces which prevent their realization. The most effective and enduring form of warfare against liberation is the implanting of material and intellectual needs that perpetuate obsolete forms of the struggle for existence.

Herbert Marcuse, One Dimensional Man