“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.” – Okla Elliott, Incomplete Thoughts on Wisconsin and Political Enthusiasm, AIOTB, March 3, 2011.
Okla Elliott asked here on March 3, “how do we theorize the political enthusiasm generated around the Wisconsin movement?” He calls our attention to an important political task, and not merely to a task that is abstract and intellectual. Andrew Levine attempts to show what is stake domestically in this battle in his article “Why Madison Matters: Endgame of the Reagan Revolution” [i]. “Almost overnight,” writes Levine, “the world changed. Madison became Ground Zero in America’s domestic class struggle; and, just as amazing, labor launched an uprising in defense of union rights which thousands of students joined.” Okla draws our attention to the fact that we almost instinctually know that Madison matters, before we have even reasoned it through. And knowing it matters generates an enthusiasm that is contagious, but not having reasoned it through means that the movement that this enthusiasm creates does not yet have a sufficiently “(self)-critical or theoretical component.”
In one sense, the very absence of that self-critical theoretical component is one of the keys to understanding the cultural-philosophical underpinnings of the peculiarities of American students and American labor in this instance. Americans are the inheritors of a particularly Anglo-Saxon loathing of theory and speculation, and American capital, American labor and even American students, by and large, adopt a single dominant philosophy: pragmatism. The situation could not possibly further from that of much of North Africa and Europe, where, in recent strikes, protests and direct actions, theory and practice seem to have developed together dialectically; and there is a wide range of ways in which recent movements are theorized. As Mao would have said, “a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thought contend.” In America there is no time for flowers. In America, there is only what works.
What works, for the past 30 years, my friend Charles Brown has pointed out to me, can neatly be summarized using one word: Reaganism. Reaganism is the strange marriage of two seemingly contradictory worldviews: neo-liberalism and neo-conservatism. What these two philosophies combined have amounted to, in their instrument effects in the world, are a justifying ideology for the global retrenchment of capitalist class power, as has been noted about neo-liberalism by David Harvey in A Brief History of Neo-liberalism, and by Gérard Duménil and Dominique Lévy in Capital Resurgent.
The era of industrial capitalism was theorized by Marx just as it was coming of age. Marx asserted that it created the conditions for socialism through the centralization and concentration of capital, but more importantly, it created its own gravediggers by facilitating the development of the self-consciousness of the working class through the centralization and concentration of labor in giant industrial factories. In one sense, the dwindling numbers and the inertia of labor in core capitalist countries also would seem to vindicate the notion that classical industrial workers had conditions more conducive to the development of proletarian consciousness when compared to the disarticulated, more atomized and isolated workforce that has emerged during the post-Fordist Era of production in places like the U.S., Western Europe, and Japan. However, I would argue that the fact that capitalism since Reagan and Thatcher has taken on a more rapacious form has, in the longer term, created a consciousness of shared conditions of immiseration in much of the world, as persons from China, India, Brazil, Egypt, the American Midwest, etc., are beginning to recognize, to perhaps a greater extent than ever happened before, that they are indeed fighting the same struggle and the same fight, against the class warfare of the transnational bourgeoisie.
For the domestic scene in the United States, one factor that Andrew Levine [i] does not mention that grew out of the Reagan Revolution, is the longer-term trajectory of the disappearance of a middle class. Alternatively framed, he does not address the longer-term disappearance of a large, relatively prosperous fraction of the American working class. These are the concrete material conditions that now show the potential to make possible in the United States the movement of coalitions and class alliances that remained largely matters of theory rather than of practical and sustainable alliances during the 1960s. The worker-student alliance that Levine mentions, for instance, now has conditions which make it a potential that can be realized in practice and not just posed as a theory.
Levine emphasizes the fact that a student-worker alliance was impossible in the 1960s, in part because of the ‘counter-cultural affinities’ of the student movement, and because the American working class, in large part, was not supportive of the student anti-war movement. Unlike the labor-capital pact that supported the military industrial complex of post WWII America, many more working people in the US today see a connection not between military spending and their livelihoods as workers in the military-industrial complex. Rather, the experience of today’s working class and poor is that spending on never-ending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has created a federal debt crisis in the US that the government attempts to partially offset through dollars saved by the destruction of what remains of a social safety net and basic social services. The same class fraction that once formed the American “labor aristocracy” now, incredibly, has begun to see the truth that Martin Luther King, Jr., among others, articulated in the U.S. during the late 1960s: that the anti-war movement, and the movement for social and economic justice in the United States, are indeed a part of the same struggle and the same fight.
At the other end of the student-worker convergence, we see students in the United States and elsewhere faced with the harsh reality that, in spite of their higher level of education, they have no reasonable basis by which to believe that they will do better, or even as well, as their parents generation did economically. Richard Wolff has pointed out that this is the first time in American history, as far back as statistics have been kept on these matters, that the American working class has not experienced long term rising prosperity in comparison to workers of the past. This generation has experienced the end, in effect, of the American dream – the dream of perpetual progress towards ever greater wealth and prosperity for the majority of its citizens. Something of this same realization lies behind what has driven the recent student movement in the UK. Sparked in part by drastic tuition hikes put into place by the new Lib-Dem/Conservative coalition government, one interesting fact about the UK movement was the widespread participation of secondary school students. This is perhaps because the tuition hikes end the illusion of a meritocracy, and signal that even those poor and working class students who worked hard and achieved high test scores will increasingly be locked out of tertiary education. Locked out of the possibility of rising above their class by way of higher education, poor and working class students face a bleak future, with dwindling opportunities for employment without further education, accompanied by dwindling opportunities for advancement by pursuing diplomas and degrees through the university system.
Simultaneous with the convergence of the material interests of students and workers, there has been, at least at the rank-and-file level, the emergence of a genuinely multi-cultural/multi-racial labor movement in the United States. While much of established white labor only came on board with the goals of the Civil Rights movement slowly and begrudgingly during the 1960s, the old slogans of “same struggle and same fight” have actually become a part of the lived reality of a greater part of American labor, and have become an institutional reality at the level of rank-and-file union membership during the years of the hegemony of Reaganism. The attack on private sector unions having largely been successful, and the greater representation of people of color in the ranks of the public sector unions, combined with the gradual realization on the part of labor leaders that a large part of the hope of recruiting new union members and reviving the labor movement lie in organizing some sections of the working class where African Americans, Latinos, and immigrants and people of color generally are disproportionately found. These are the low wage service sector, the remaining low wage agricultural and industrial jobs, and the public sector.
While there may be a significant contingent of the non-white middle class, that believes, along with Barack Obama and Bill Cosby, that the United States has largely become a “post-racial” country, the lived experience of the majority of African Americans, Latinos, and other oppressed minorities tells us a different story. What establishes the basis for recognition of real common material interests is the fact that the white working class, the old labor aristocracy, has largely been decimated, and has also experienced, albeit to a lesser degree, declining material conditions during a time with capitalist elites are richer and more powerful than ever.
Furthermore, at the level of its leadership, trade unionists in the United States have gradually recognized that adopting an anti-immigrant stance is counter-productive, and that labor’s goals should not be to fight against the immigrant worker, but rather fight alongside these workers against the common enemy of the transnational capitalist class. Shared reasons to oppose NAFTA were perhaps one turning point here. This recognition by trade unionists, however, has not yet had the sufficient power to challenge anti-immigrant ideologies that we see spreading like wild-fire among some fractions of the American working class, leading them to vote against their real material interests as they hear right wing populists and nationalists falsely blaming the decline of the material prosperity of the American working class on the competition it receives from immigrant labor and from the relocation of industrial production to the developing world.
The Tea Party faction of the Republican Party, which came to power electorally during the mid-term elections of 2010, has been making some of the last moves in the “Endgame of the Reagan Revolution”. It came to power on the basis of thinly veiled racism against a black president. It came to power on the basis of xenophobia, nationalism, and anti-immigrant sympathy. It came to power by appealing to cultural wedge issues that obfuscate what is at stake for working class people economically. Portraying themselves as the representatives of, and counting on the continuous support of, white, working class Middle America, once in power their main actions are aimed at stripping away what remains of a degree of hope and dignity on the part of working class Americans. As they are really the representatives of the most reactionary factions of big capital, the Tea Party cannot operate in any other manner than to shed pretenses, to take off its mask, and bring the illusions of Reaganism to an end. They can no longer wear Ronald Reagan’s happy face. They must reveal themselves finally as what many of us argued they were from the start: corporate goons, creeping Fascists in sheep’s clothing. And they came first for the trade unionists.
While the Endgame is being played out domestically in the United States, where a breaking point has been reached, a breaking point has also been reached internationally. Internationally, as well, the strange bedfellows of neo-liberalism and neo-conservatism have played themselves out. Internationally, there is a populist revolt against the cumulative effects of the increasingly rapacious character of capital as it has developed over the past 30 years. There is also a concerted effort on the part of entrenched power around the world to crush this populist rebellion by any means necessary.
On March 3, Okla Elliott wrote here at As It Ought to Be, that “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.” Commenting on his piece, I echoed this sentiment by saying:
“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.”
Similarly, in the U.S. and Western Europe, neo-Fascism looks on hopefully at the legislative defeats experienced by labor in the United States. Legislative failures that have come in spite of resistance such as that in Wisconsin, where the largest protests that have taken place in the United States since the Vietnam War occurred. Neo-Fascists look on with glee as they come for the trade unionists.
Meanwhile, there is an active, engaged, and very real populist revolt that will not be easily persuaded to give up rights to collective bargaining even if the manner in which these rights have been stripped away is deemed as legal and constitutional. Contained within this revolt is the potential that the political enthusiasm it generates will, at long last, awaken the sleeping giant of the American working class. On February 21st, Wisconsin’s South Central Federation of Labor voted to endorse a general strike opposing Governor Walker’s bill that would, among other things, eliminate the right to collective bargaining.
Calling any kind of solidarity strike is against the law under currently existing American Labor Law as defined in the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947. American Labor has not called for actions like General Strikes in the United States since the time of the Great Depression. Hopefully this is a sign that the sleeping giant is awakening, because if it is not, then we will certainly have a world that is more oppressive and totalitarian than the one that we have had up to now. The fundamental theoretical question that we must ask is not one that is new. It is one that has been thrown up repeatedly during capitalism’s major crises. It is largely agreed that we are at the greatest moment of crisis that has been faced since the Great Depression. The question that we must ask today is fundamentally the same as the burning question of that earlier crisis: do we want to fight for a world that would move us closer towards socialism, or do we want to accept a world where big capital day-by-day makes the world ever more barbaric?