February 17, 2011

Two, three, many Wisconsins

What a week it's been! And it's not even over. I've had people asking me whether I feel vindicated about my post of two weeks ago, where I said that the fight over public budgets was going to be the key front in the class struggle in the United States this year. I can't say that I feel especially insightful; it took no genius to see the significance of these fights. But I am pleased -- pleased, that is, to see that in this struggle, our side is now fighting back.

The mass action in Wisconsin has dealt a severe blow to Scott Walker's attempt to out-Christie Chris Christie. As of this writing, State Senate Democrats, responding as all wily bourgeois politicians are wont to do in the face of unexpected levels of mass pressure, are denying the Republicans a quorum by hiding out of state. All of this could change for the better or worse tomorrow. Everything depends on the ability of workers to maximize the disruption of business as usual in the state: keep the Capitol shut down, keep as many schools as possible closed and teachers and sympathetic students at the Capitol or in the streets, etc. The rest of the country is watching, and the activists among us are wondering if we'll be able to reproduce this level of constructive anger in response to the attacks that we face.

The fight is never identical from one place to the next, but the possibility of having a good example is encouraging for the rest of us. Why has Wisconsin risen up? I'm happy to report that they were able to start in a place where I suggested we not start: with a militant defense of the rights of public-sector workers. Economic hard times, I wrote, mean that this is a bad place to start, because so much of the public resents public-sector workers who have benefits that they do not have. Better to defend public-sector workers only in the context of a broader fight against service cuts, I said, and then we need to put the demand to make the rich pay at front-and-center, lest we lose too many people to capital's mystifications about taxes. I still think a lot of this holds true going forward, but I also think I underestimated the catalytic potential of public-sector workers. After all, their unions are still the big battalions of the fight to defend public services. And perhaps more crucially, no matter where you are, everyone knows a teacher. Everyone knows a city trash collector or state worker. Everyone knows a firefighter; they were exempt from Walker's direct attack, but they know the meaning of solidarity, and are aware that their own bargaining positions will be weakened if other unions are weakened, so they showed up at the Capitol in some strength. And yes, everyone knows a cop: they were also exempt from Walker's attacks, but reports indicate that plenty of them showed up to support the other unions as well -- out of uniform, of course, but thereby marking the first time you were ever grateful to see a plainclothes policeman at a demonstration. (If you're having a hard time dealing with contradictions, you're going to have to get used to it.)

So part of the explanation for why Wisconsin has exploded is that Walker miscalculated: he assaulted the unions frontally in an aggressive manner, and as the South Africans said in another context, he struck a rock. When the public-sector workers moved, others began to move as well, including the University of Wisconsin students, and the fight has at least partially taken on the character of a fight to defend services, even if the immediate issue of public-sector workers' rights is still at the center.

But if a belligerent attack on public-sector workers is the explanation, why isn't John Kasich getting the Scott Walker treatment? Today's union-led gathering in Columbus, Ohio, did have an affect at the capitol, but was much smaller than what Wisconsin was able to pull off: 1,800 people by some reports, or maybe 2,000, and they all had to face off against the teabaggers. And Columbus, like Madison, also has a large state university. OSU is no UW-Madison, but still . . .

Some may put the Wisconsin successes down to the relaxed atmosphere of Madison itself. There is something to this. Over the years I've talked to people who attended demonstrations in Madison after having been activists in other parts of the country, and they bewilder the Madisonians by expressing shock at protest tactics that would get people arrested just about anywhere else; in Madison, though, you will see police blocking traffic to let unpermitted marches to pass through the streets. But let's be clear: these are cosmetic differences, and they don't explain anything. Our job is to reproduce the successes of Wisconsin everywhere else, in our own conditions.

So I would submit that plenty of people are watching to see if this thing actually succeeds. Then, and only then, will it look like a viable option elsewhere in the country. So Wisconsin has ended up in the vanguard, to which the rest of us say: congratulations, and now you still have a big job to do.

We should note another aspect of all of this that is impossible to deny: the Wisconsin resistance has been inspired by the militant spirit of the Arab revolt. It's not just a few leftist students from UW-Madison carrying signs; you have Democratic state senators making the comparison, saying of Walker's attacks: "The story around the world is the rush to democracy. The story in Wisconsin is the end of the democratic process."

This kind of thing is enough to make any old proletarian internationalist all dewy-eyed, and in a real rather than a sentimental way. Year after year we could bang our heads against the wall for international solidarity: end US military aid to Colombia; allow Aristide to return to Haiti; end US military aid to Israel and Egypt; and so on. Our efforts were worthy, but we could get nowhere until now because of the iron law -- true no matter how much we fight to change it -- that people only begin to see the need for international solidarity when they see how the liberation of others is bound up with theirs. The democratic enthusiasm accompanying the budding revolutions in the Arab countries is so infectious that you didn't even need to watch Al-Jazeera: the plain truth of it all began to come through even on CNN, or even on the snippets of news that most people watch.

Most dazzling of all, after 10 years of the most vile racial demonization of Arabs and Muslims in the United States -- including, lest we forget, an especially ugly episode of national prominence at so-called "Ground Zero" just last summer, as the Republicans prepared for the fall elections -- the ordinary people of Egypt were able to touch something among the ordinary people of the United States. It is why Glenn Beck's racist insanity has lately become even more shrill than usual, as his tribe of Klan-like followers declines in number: democratic revolutions in the Arab world and the broader Middle East do not only mean trouble for US imperialist interests there. They really do present the threat of a good example right here in the United States, as millions of people start to question the myth that "we" are exemplars of freedom for the rest of the world, and start to realize that in fact we are laggards with a lot to learn from freedom fighters elsewhere.

Tough as our own struggles are -- and most of them are still very much uphill -- it is hard to avoid the feeling, unthinkable as recently as a month ago, that we live in a time of revolutionary inspiration. In fact I am reminded of the words of one of the most overrated poets in the English language: William Wordsworth, whose reputation has unfairly overshadowed a more talented contemporary because his rival was a revolutionary and Wordsworth a sycophant. Ironically enough, Wordsworth is relevant in a discussion of public budgets, because in his snarling dotage (which lasted a long time), he lost some money on some Pennsylvania bonds after the Panic of 1837, and in response he actually wrote a poem -- an extremely bad one -- denouncing Pennsylvania for not paying off coupon-clippers like himself. But even Wordsworth could look back on his own brief period of revolutionary optimism, inspired by that revolution that is still the greatest of them all: "Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive/ But to be young was very heaven!"

We shouldn't get carried away, of course. We are still in a world of trouble. Worthy as the Wisconsin resistance is, it is still a defensive struggle, and the eventual compromise solution will still look pretty bad unless the mass activity takes some truly unusual large-scale turn. And while the demonstrations in Wisconsin are winning sympathy from many residents of the state, getting to the overwhelming majority needed to stop budget cuts will still require a clear answer to the confusion many people have about public-sector workers who have decent benefits while so many tax-paying workers do not. Therefore, I think that my call for aggressive make-the-rich pay initiatives is still a valid one, for Wisconsin and everywhere else.

This is not policy wonkery. I think that it is good to have some concrete tax proposals, but also to raise the issue generally: throw a spotlight on some of the worst bad actors, corporations that get through tax loopholes, wealthy individuals who pay the same sales taxes as poor people -- whatever works. We should begin to go on the offensive everywhere with the message that there is no real budget crisis, only an unwillingness of the rich to contribute what they ought to contribute.

We should not shy away from militant support of proposals that are already on the table, either. In Minnesota, Democratic Governor Mark Dayton wants to raise income taxes on the wealthiest taxpayers; his assistant commissioner of revenue uses the same kinds of arguments about the regressiveness of state and local taxes that were in the ITEP report I cited in my post two weeks ago. If the governor's proposals were to pass, the tax increases would hit only the wealthiest 5.5% of taxpayers, and would mean that all taxpayers would contribute roughly the same proportion of their income -- a flat tax structure, not a progressive one, though at least not a regressive one either. Mild as this is, and in spite of the fact that Dayton is also proposing severe spending cuts, his initiative deserves mass support on its merits, and it will need it if it is to have any prayer of passing the Republican legislature.

The preponderance of state budget proposals out there now remains awful and is getting worse as each governor lays out plans. In Michican, Republican Governor Rick Snyder proposes changes to business taxes that would actually raise $1 billion less in revenue, even as he hints at a new $900 million tax on pensions (!) and calls for the end of the state earned-income tax credit.

The struggle continues. And while Scott Walker has led the way in anti-people aggression, Wisconsin's workers have led the way in militant resistance. And it is in this latter sense that we should fight to make two, three, many Wisconsins.


Tell No Lies said...

Another fine piece from Felix. (Indeed a better one re: the Dems) I am, however, generally distrustful of all assertions of "iron laws."

I don't think it is in fact true that our various previous efforts at international solidarity "could get nowhere because of the iron law -- true no matter how much we fight to change it -- that people only begin to see the need for international solidarity when they see how the liberation of others is bound up with theirs."

While there is obviously a great deal of truth in that, it is also true that some people see the need for solidarity for reasons quite disconnected from their own interests. My observation is that the sweet spot is when self-interests converge with higher purposes of human emancipation in general (communism). But the sweet spot is not as easily found in all circumstances and that when it isn't there it is still critical to rally people on the basis of a higher purpose and that doing so is precisely what prepares people to navigate those situations in which the masses move in ways that exceed simple self-interest.

Felix Dzerzhinsky said...

It would appear that Wisconsin's South Central Federation of Labor has issued a call for a general strike.

Felix Dzerzhinsky said...

An opinion piece in yesterday's Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel put some meat on the bones of the make-the-rich-pay demand in Wisconsin.