Incomplete Thoughts on Wisconsin and Political Enthusiasm

Incomplete Thoughts on Wisconsin and Political Enthusiasm

by Okla Elliott (with photos by Jenna Bowen)

“In Kant’s philosophy of history, crisis or tension is necessary for human progress. He is pessimistic about individual success[es] but confident about mankind.” —Sidney Axinn, “Kant, Authority, and the French Revolution”

Much was made in leftist circles of the fact that an Egyptian protestor purchased a pizza online to help feed the protestors in Wisconsin—and rightly so; it was a touching and telling moment. The international solidarity and the shared humanity this gesture showed are truly inspiring. But aside from the feel-good aspect, not much else has been discussed about it, which is in fact indicative of a larger gap in our discussion of recent world events. There have been some minor gestures at connecting the events in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Greece, France, and Wisconsin, but no serious theoretical investigation has yet been undertaken. This is not entirely a bad thing, since there are moments when action is called for, not theorizing. That said, however, mass movements that do not have a (self-)critical or theoretical component have a habit of either failing or turning into things almost as bad as what they sought to depose.

I would like to simultaneously celebrate the efforts of the protesters in Wisconsin (and around the country) while opening a critical-theoretical discussion on all of these related matters. This is even more necessary given that I predict we will lose these immediate legislative battles, and without the proper cultural-philosophical view of these matters, these short-term defeats could cripple a burgeoning and necessary movement.

Immanuel Kant looked at the French Revolution itself—that is, the actual historical events of the French Revolution—as largely a failure, but he considered the French Revolution a grand and important event for the progress of humanity toward more humane laws, more equal and fair distribution of wealth, and a point of inspiration for those who would see humanity better its station. How could he hold what seem at first glance to be contradictory notions of this single (and singular) event? It centered around what he called ‘enthusiasm’ and his belief that the revitalization of enthusiasm for human dignity and the struggle for a more equitable and rational society was more important than a single success or failure along the way to achieving these goals. I cannot get on board with Kant’s view that history is inexorably moving toward a better and more rational future, but I do think that we can move it in that direction, if only for a time.

(It is also worth briefly mentioning the German word for enthusiasm—Begeisterung—which has the root word Geist in it, which means ‘mind’ or ‘spirit’. I mention this only because it is a mindful and spirited enthusiasm we need, not a blind one.)

The leftist-reformist (or, in some instances, leftist-revolutionary) momentum currently sweeping three continents and many countries is only fully understandable in these Kantian terms. It is the enthusiasm caused by protestors in Wisconsin which has led to protests in nearly every state in the US in solidarity with the workers of Wisconsin and elsewhere. It is this enthusiasm that has spread from Tunisia to Egypt to Libya. It is this enthusiasm that might save the Democratic Party from its own spinelessness, because if they have any hope of retaining power in the US Senate and retaking lost House seats and governorships, they need this kind of enthusiasm to carry over into their campaigns. (I am skeptical we’ll see a real reform in the corporate-controlled Democratic Party, but if we can get even a fraction of those in elected office to take our side on these matters, and even if they are doing it for purely cynical reasons, then we’ll have won a real victory.)

But we need also to think of what other means we have at our disposal, and the limits of each tool we can put to use. Protests are good for visibility, but what are our next or concurrent moves? How do we get more Democrats and even Republicans to support union rights, education funding, and fair benefits for public employees? How do we get more Green Party members in office? How do we make it unthinkable that our government (state and federal) feels free to bail out Wall Street on the backs of average workers, guaranteeing historic bonuses and gains for the already filthy rich, and then cut our benefits in the name of ‘sacrifice’ in tough times? It seems to me that we average workers and public employees have sacrificed enough.

It was telling that Obama said in his 2010 State of the Union Address that universities would have to make more sacrifices in the current economy. FDR gave a similar speech once, except he called on bankers and the captains of industry to make sacrifices, not public employees and universities. We have to teach these Democrats that they need to be taking FDR as their model, not Ronald Reagan.

In 2008, I angered a lot of friends by telling them Obama was not the harbinger of change he claimed to be. Now, many of them are saying it and trying to pretend they never really believed in Obama. But I don’t want to squelch their enthusiasm; I want to stoke it and redirect it, to get it to such a high level that politicians who want to get elected have to pay attention to it. We are not going to achieve utopia, and I don’t think that revolution is the answer here in the US as it was in Egypt and Tunisia. We have to try reform first and foremost, especially given the democratic possibility of it in this country. (I am reminded here of Hugo Chavez’s failed attempt at a coup followed by his successful election a short two years later.) But how can we make these sorts of leftist reforms in the U.S., where two people, the Koch brothers, have more power than the 100,000 protestors in Wisconsin, and where this sort of disparity of power exists constantly?

I asked Cary Nelson (renowned scholar and author of No University Is an Island and Revolutionary Memory, among others) what the events in Wisconsin might mean. He had this to say: “The outpouring of public dissent in Wisconsin heralds the possibility of a new progressive coalition focused on restoring human decency to government action.” I fully agree and would add only that all of these popular agitations for more rights and more democratic governments herald such a possibility, even if some of them fail, precisely because they will usher in a great political enthusiasm for such changes. This is very much akin to the hope so many felt about Barack Obama, but even if that hope has turned to disappointment for many, we ought not give up the enthusiasm but rather the candidates who no longer inspire it. And this coalition is international, since our struggles are much the same—or, as Marx and Engels instructed us: “Workers of the world unite! All you have to lose are your chains.”

Equating the riots in Greece and France with the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia or the protests in Wisconsin and across this country for labor rights would be facile and false, but they do share a new-millennial enthusiasm for revolt, resistance, and, when necessary, revolution. We have already lost the battle to protect workers’ rights in Ohio, and I suspect we’ll lose the battle in Wisconsin as well, but just as Kant urged us to look past the failures of the French Revolution to the enthusiasm for democracy, broader civil liberties, and more widely spread education, I would urge us to look past these legislative defeats in a few states and look to fueling the enthusiasm for greater freedom, truer democracy, and more citizenship. The purchase of a pizza by an Egyptian for his brothers and sisters in struggle here in the U.S. is a sign of this Kantian enthusiasm and of the “new progressive coalition” Nelson speaks of.

Let’s not let such enthusiasm die, even if there are individual set-backs or failures; let’s fight for causes that seem lost, since every cause worth fighting for has seemed that way at one time or another. I opened by saying we need to theorize these events as they are happening, and I have only barely begun to do so in this short piece, but I want to reiterate that action and thought must be brought together, if we’re going to ensure that our strategies for reform here work and that the revolutions elsewhere don’t turn into the horrors revolutions have often become.

About Okla Elliott

I am currently an assistant professor at Misericordia University in northeast Pennsylvania. I hold a PhD in comparative literature from the University of Illinois, an MFA in creative writing from Ohio State University, and a legal studies certificate from Purdue University. My work has appeared in Cincinnati Review, Harvard Review, The Hill, Huffington Post, Indiana Review, The Literary Review, New Letters, Prairie Schooner, A Public Space, and Subtropics, as well as being listed as a "notable essay" in Best American Essays 2015. My books include From the Crooked Timber (short fiction), The Cartographer’s Ink (poetry), The Doors You Mark Are Your Own (a coauthored novel), Blackbirds in September: Selected Shorter Poems of Jürgen Becker (translation), and Bernie Sanders: The Essential Guide (nonfiction).
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6 Responses to Incomplete Thoughts on Wisconsin and Political Enthusiasm

  1. Peter Gabel says:

    This a very good piece…but what you’re calling enthusiasm is not an added-on, positive, subjective element of objective efforts to pass positive social legislation, but an expression of the deep spiritual longing for mutual recognition and solidarity, for turning passive into active, for overcoming the pain of isolation/alienation/disconnection. The intersubjective zap that has ricocheted from tunisia to egypt to wisconsin is an expression of the spirit trying to release itself from its reciprocally imposed constraints, the legacy of the fear of the other that isolates us and prevents us from becoming fully present to each other in authentic social connection and from challenging the system of passivity/hierarchy/control that we ourselves are complicit in reinforcing, however much the corporate state institutionalizes it. From this perspective, we have not “lost” the battle to protect workers rights in Ohio as you say, Okla…Whether that happens depends upon whether we (meaning both the organized unions and us disorganized supporters) accept a legislative vote as blunting the upward movement of the movement itself and the spiritual hope for transcendence that it embodies. That may happen, but I hope not!

    • Okla Elliott says:

      I like what you’re saying quite a bit here, Peter. To clarify: I meant only the current legislative battles, not the overall struggle for justice (perhaps in that old cliche of losing a battle but not losing the war).

      What’s interesting to me is the alienation and longing for justice existed 6 months ago, but somehow an intersubjective brushfire has taken hold across the states of this country and the countries of multiple continents. It’s that sudden brushfire I am speakng of (and I think Kant was speaking of). It does seem something added on top of the pre-existing desires of disparate individuals fed up with their governments and the corporations that own them. But again, I like that you point out (which I left out of this short piece) that the conditions for such a brushfire of political enthusiasm were already existing and already smoldering (to carry my metaphor perhaps too far) — that is, the majority of the factors were already in place and this enthusiasm rides on the shoulders or is an uprising (pun intended) property of the underlying state of affairs.

      Thanks for reading, and thanks for your thoughts.

  2. Its an important and urgent conversation that you’ve opened here. I’ve only just gotten around to reading it. Hopefully, collecting my thoughts about this will be the springboard to begin my next AIOTB blog for next Sunday.

    You are right that all of this has, so far, been under-theorized. And, as you point out, this is important not only for the purely intellectual task of theory, but also is a pressing political task. As you say “mass movements that do not have a (self-)critical or theoretical component have a habit of either failing or turning into things almost as bad as what they sought to depose.”

  3. Okla Elliott draws our attention to an important political task: how do we theorize the political enthusiasm generated around the Wisconsin movement? Theory is not an abstract and intellectual task. Improperly theorized political movements have little chance of achieving long term success, and failed movements can sometimes strengthen the hand of reactionaries. Nazism and Fascism, for instance, moved in to fill the void left by the failure of workers’ movements in Germany and Italy. And in Egypt today, only daring to struggle and daring to win will ensure that a new Egyptian military regime does not emerge that is even more repressive than the Mubarak regime that it overthrew.

    Okla, Wisconsin, the Midwest, the Middle East. Keep up the struggle, both material and intellectual. Take yourselves seriously, and dare to win!

  4. And what does “justice” mean in secular terms?

    “No University Is An Island?” Hahaha

    • Okla Elliott says:

      First off, thank you for reading the piece. I will ignore the laughter about one title of one book written by one interviewee for the piece and focus instead on your question of secular justice.

      There is a huge body of work on what justice would mean in secular terms — take, for example, the entirety of the Western legal tradition, which is secular by design. There are also models based on human thriving (so, for example, starving someone would not be considered ethical/just, simply because the human organism doesn’t thrive when starved). As it turns out, the primary forms of justice in Europe, North America, South America, and Asia are in fact secular. We therefore have a plethora of models to work from and to improve on.

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