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.

#Konymania and the Bourgeois Political Imagination

By the standard temporal cycles of the Twitterverse, this post on the Kony/Invisible Children controversy arrives a bit late, perhaps, but even if this is already old news the whole affair, it must be said, is pretty remarkable, and it seems to me to raise issues that haven’t yet been addressed in the various diatribes floating about the internets.

On the surface it might look like an unusual occasion for controversy. Who is Joseph Kony? What is Invisible Children, and why has that organization come in for such withering criticism (see here, here, and/or here)? Is their ostensive purpose not to expose atrocities in order to generate a concerned public around them, which could then presumably serve as a basis for some kind of further activism? Isn’t Joseph Kony all around a pretty major piece of shit? And aren’t the guys behind Invisible Children some pretty serious dudes (see below)? What gives?

Sure, he is a piece of shit. Despicable, even. And the dudely credentials of the guys behind the documentary are not in question. But as the myriad critics of #Kony2012 have made abundantly clear, the video’s story and its main rhetorical message – that in backward parts of the world really evil individuals do really evil things, like kidnap and employ child soldiers, and its up to the morally-righteous and aware American public to do something about it – participate in a very well-established tradition of racist and imperialist narratives that have been shaping the Western colonial imagination for centuries. It doesn’t help that they seem to be blissfully unaware of this (though, to their credit, they have posted a “response” to the most substantive objections). Probably the most original perspective brought to bear thus far on the matter is Richard Seymour’s, who draws attention to the potentially massive propaganda power of this kind of sentimentally and morally motivated viral media, of which the current fad is doubtless doing much to demonstrate to the stewards of U.S. imperial interests. If cultural phenomena like Bieber-Fever can be enlisted in the viral generation of pro-intervention sentiment among the public, then we have on our hands what is only the latest, but perhaps the most promising, vehicle for the targeted co-optation of social media apparatuses in campaigns of manufactured consent. This would be another example of how Adorno and Horkheimer’s classic analysis of the Culture Industry, usually dismissed among contemporary theorists as being “cynical” or “too pessimistic,” remains as relevant as ever.

Throughout all this, the Invisible Children crew haven’t found many defenders (pictures like this don’t help.) To date I’ve only been able to locate one piece, an op-ed penned by the NYT’s generally sedate Roger Cohen, that makes a considered judgment in favor of the embattled, would-be humanitarians. Yes, they crassly reduce a complex geopolitical history into an infantile, good vs. evil scenario; yes, the presentational style of their documentary insults the intelligence of the viewer in a variety of ways; and yes, there are apparently wildly egregious factual errors in the report of the documentary itself. Despite all of it, for Cohen, it is better that the documentary emerged – warts and all – than if it had not, as tens of millions of people are at least now conscious, who were not before, that such a crisis exists. Notwithstanding its own unremarkable simplicity, Cohen’s argument unwittingly strikes at the core of the issue, in the context of which he marshals a solid, traditional middle-class ideal – the value of practical action over inert criticism – in the service of defending what is a quintessentially middle-class form of activism:

“On balance I back Russell [the leader of Invisible Children] over his armchair critics. He’s put his boots on the ground and he’s doing something. Gross simplification of Africa is nothing new. It’s the poor, disease-ravaged, war-torn continent where every complicated war is about control of diamonds, right? The reduction of Uganda’s many problems to Kony abusing children is not much different from the reduction of conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo to a fight for mineral riches. So, Russell works in a well-established genre, even if he pushes it.”

Cohen supports Russell and the Invisible Children crew on a twofold basis: one, at least they’re doing something, misconceived though it may be in some ways, and two, they are doing it in a way that is legible for an influential and expansive mass-public – namely, the bourgeois hosts of the predominantly (though not entirely) Protestant, white American middle class. These social strata are taught in great numbers to ‘look outward’ from American society at those who are less fortunate than ourselves, at those who are hapless victims of circumstances beyond their control and are in need of ‘our help;’ this occurs through the lenses of both religious and secular education, whether we are told about the American providence to spread the ‘good news’ of God’s word, or the ‘good news’ of liberal democratic freedoms to other less fortunate parts of the world. In either case, critical attention tends to be diverted from understanding extant forms of social domination closer to home, such as authoritarian, stultifying work conditions, urban and often racially-motivated police brutality, and the chronic social disaster that is the American working poor, a class which has been steadily growing for some time but, judging from extant news coverage, would not even seem to exist. Cohen is right to point out that, all things considered, at least the Invisible Children documentarians are attempting to actually do something about an egregious injustice, and in a way that ‘makes sense’ for a very large constituency; unfortunately, the practical consequences, for the great majority of sympathetic citizens in the United States, amount to buying a rather silly “action kit” consisting of a couple of bracelets for $30. Needless to say, the meager, consumeristic nature of the activism itself does much to temper the argument that the Invisible Children crew deserve credit for merely “doing something.”

One strategic possibility for left politics in coming years would be to concentrate on devising strategies for better harnessing middle-class moral fervor in the service of traditional left goals, for channeling that energy in the direction of more immediately accessible practical contexts for action. In principle, at least, it should be possible to pitch radicalising propositions like workplace democracy, participatory/community forms of economic organization, and extra-electoral struggle at a level and in a form that would be legible to the moral imagination of large sections of the progressive middle-class; this has already been happening to a notable extent in the context of #Occupy, whose populist rhetoric taps into a tried-and-true tradition of reform in the U.S. However, to win large constituencies over to the more radical propositions of the left program, it might be necessary to rethink the way we pitch our ideas at the popular level, perhaps striking an ideal balance between what Max Horkheimer called the “critical attitude,” and the more readily legible, culturally-specific forms of political and social argument that find expression in something like #StopKony2012, but in a less proto-imperialist, simplistic, and sentimental format.

This idea will be unpacked in a less schematic way in future posts.