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Monday, March 7, 2011

Still Waters Run Deep: Phase 2 of the Madison Uprising

"The Scream" by Edvard Munch
The differences between Madison, Wisconsin and Tripoli, Libya should be obvious.  The fact that the Madison hasn’t been floated away on a crimson tide of gore should be encouraging—horrors on that atavistic scale happen only where there exists not even the nominal right to redress majoritarian excesses through protest.  And the contrast to America’s experience of 1968 is positive as well; I remind you that movement flamed out prematurely due to inexperience and lack of discipline.  The image created in my mind by this phase of the Madison Uprising is more like that evoked by Edvard Munch’s “The Scream”—the silent edge of a rising shout.
The crowds in Madison seem to have leveled out at a steady 30,000-40,000 per day, according to most reports.  That is a pretty freakin’ huge # when put into context of the relatively sparse population of this section of Wisconsin and personal commitments being made by protesters in order to attend, in terms of time and money.  All the more so when you consider the scanty number of counter-demonstrators that the dilettante Koch brothers have been able to scare up from out of state, even with literally billions of dollars at their disposal.
And the theatre isn't over by a long shot.  There are ongoing recall efforts on both sides.  And beyond recent Hollywood fly-bys, there is a plan for thousands of Wisconsin farmers to show their solidarity with a tractor convoy to the capitol on Saturday, March 12th. 
Nonetheless, it has to be admitted that the two camps have pretty well defined their positions, and the recent encounters between them seem limited to procedural skirmishes rather than the sort of rooftop todeskampf that our infamously short-attention span media crave.  Here are a few of the highlights:
-Courts ruled that Walker’s attempt to close off the Capitol building to protesters is unconstitutional—but also placed restrictions on the hours that protesters may access the building, including a prohibition on overnight stays.
-Authorities discover live ammunition left at the entrance to the Capitol building.  Given his breezy contemplation of hiring undercover goons to start a ruckus within the protesters’ ranks, some speculate that Walker is using this as a black op of some sort to ratchet up the tension. 
-If so, the balance of the evidence suggest that this is a MAJOR miscalculation on Walker’s part.  The peaceful conduct of the protesters was formally commended by a local judge, and the single confirmed incident of which I have become aware seems to have been resolved quickly and quietly with no disruption to the peaceful conduct of the protests.[1]  Although police are dutifully maintaining their mandate to oversee public order, they don’t seem inclined to violate citizens’ rights in the name of Walker’s power grab.  In fact, the police have gone on national record as declaring solidarity with the protesters.
-Senate Majority Leader, Republican Scott Fitzgerald, called for vigilante action to apprehend the Wisconsin 14.  Jim Palmer, the president of a major police union, decries the action as an abuse of power, being neither in accordance with the state’s constitution nor statutory law.
-Walker didn’t really unleash any surprises in his official budget unveiling  last Tuesday, either.  There are suspicions that Walker may have coordinated with Koch in order to bus in ringers to applaud his highness’s speech.   But no surprises.  The substantive detail drawing the most public attention are the devastating cuts contemplated to the state’s education programs—not generally considered a wise workforce development strategy.
These actions all seem par for the course, and few, in the short term, are likely to be swayed out of their current positions.  But that would be to ignore the tremors rumbling beneath the surface, the silent scream rising within.  The opposition is beginning to get organized.  Walker’s stupid, scattershot intransigence has done the single thing that Clinton- or Obama-esque triangulations could never do, which is to meet together and formulate coordinated structures, strategies and tactics to actively promote a truly moral agenda.
Getting’ Organized
I don’t think the terms “Left”, “liberal”, “Democrat” or “progressive” are much use here, because even if they are widely associated in the public mind with the stated platform of the Democratic Party, their high-flying connotations don’t match the recent history of its actual policy.  I’ve written at length about this phenomenon and why I think it spells the end of Obama’s career elsewhere, so I’ll just limit myself here to mentioning that, for the purposes of this article, I intend to refer to as “moral” all aspects of the genuine, since and active promotion of policies supporting what heretofore has been commonly known as the “Democratic” platform.   Feel free to write to me with comment, protest or counter-suggestion at your leisure.
It’s worth reminding ourselves that while the spark that lit this whole conflagration was Walker’s insistence on depriving unions of their collective bargaining rights, as time wore on a legion of other spooks came crawling out of this bill that aroused even deeper public ire and distrust, being total prima facie betrayals of even the Tea Party’s minimalist ideals[2]:  
1.  Destruction of collective bargaining rights.
2.  DHS takeover of Medicaid, which some are calling Walker's de facto "Death Panels"
3.  Severe restriction on women's contraceptive options
4.  The destruction of the Wisconsin educational system, at both the primary and secondary levels.
5.  Scott Walker's $60 million per annum corporate tax give away.
Could any one of these items in isolation have pulled tens of thousands protesters onto Walker’s back daily for over two weeks?   Or sparked similar outrage in Ohio and Indiana?  I doubt it.  Certainly it would not have created a rallying point for advocates of civil rights, peace, fiscal responsibility and economic equity.  In a previous blog post  I wondered aloud whether Richard Trumka and Jerry McEntee, the presidents of two of this country’s largest trade union federations understood this.  I haven't heard anything from them to that effect, but certainly others ARE taking big strides in this direction.
American Dream Movement
On 22nd February a piece by Van Jones in the Huffington Post announced the launch of the “American Dream Movement” by Moveon.Org and others to harness the energy of Madison Uprising into a formal platform and statement of policy goals.  Basically it’s a call to unity and a conscious attempt to avoid the pragmatist splits that peeled off the civil rights, peace, fiscal responsibility and economic equity wings of the Democratic Party under Clinton and Obama.  They, too, appear to be abandoning the tired, co-opted language of the DNC in favor of a purer distillation of their philosophy—MORALITY.  Just what I was groping for in my more experimental meditations posted here and at Disinformation.
I find this to be totally frickin’ aweseome—it could just be the framework that a new alternative party could be built around.  I had pretty much announced the demise of the national Democratic Party in another blogpost, noting that Obama’s worthless inactivity in face of the crisis and the energy Madison had garnered in spite of it greatly appealed to my sense of history and emerging possibility.  I was unaware at that time that the American Dream Movement had already been around for a week previous, yet I still don’t think my article was really redundant since the nascent American Dream Movement appears conspicuously to be missing some key components discussed in my blogpost:  the scale and existential commitment of the unions, and identified leadership. 
The Moveon approach is great; it cleverly leverages the media in a way that is truly responsive to the zeitgeist.  But it is a very informal network of extremely loose affiliations whose effectiveness, many argue, has been diluted by a structure that advocates around individual, specific issues as selected by a plebescite rather than a coordinated long-term plan.  One might be tempted to call it the counterpart to the Tea Party movement in its populism, but I’d say that the Moveon approach, lacking a slate of charismatic candidates of their own, they’re at a severe communications disadvantage.  The American Dream Movement adds a formal platform, but still lacks a formal list of candidates and real physical infrastructure.
Distant Rumblings:  An Awakening Giant or Merely the Re-Emergence of Old Intramural Rivalries?
The unions, however, DO HAVE the physical infrastructure that is needed.  Their problem was an exhausted complacency, given the deceptive appearance of “prosperity” in the economy at large for the last 30 years, gradual erosion of their apparent relevance in the tide of globalism, and the end of vicious internecine warfare between the so-called “Left” and “Right” wings of the movement.  I hope that the general contours of collapsed bubbles and the impact of outsourcing are well enough understood by my audience to preclude the need to address them in depth here.  But if you’re anything like me, you probably didn’t know much about the recent history of the labor movement in the United States or why the International Workers of the World’s (“IWW”) general strike campaign in Madison should shock you.
America is not an environment that has long tolerated radical movements.  My overseas friends might be surprised to hear that, given the truly jaw-dropping stupidity on display by Tea Partiers the likes of Sarah Palin or Christine O’Donnell, but it’s true.  There have been comparable radical bumblers in American history, like the John Birch Society and the Know Nothing Party, but they’ve generally been flashes in the pan, so to speak, because they inevitably offend two core American values:  personal liberties and social mobility.  We’re less than three months into the new session of Congress or any of the state legislative sessions, but recent polls suggest that the Tea Party’s refusal to confront difficult realities during the campaign, and therefore to develop an approach to government respectful of those core principles, is already coming back to haunt it.[3]
And in the eyes of many, the IWW was simply a Left-wing counterpart, par excellence, of the Birchers, a bunch of crazies just as unrealistic in their refusal to accomodate American values.  On the face of it, the IWW’s constitution does seem openly hostile to the notion of social mobility.  They were physically harassed by U.S. government agents for their efforts to oppose American involvement in WWI and they were practically rubbed out of existence by the anti-Communist Taft-Harley Act of 1950.  Today their numbers in the U.S. are estimated at about 900 (i.e., about 0.02% of the AFL-CIO federation and 0.10% of Andy Stern’s “Change to Win” organization, which includes the Teamsters).  Recent achievements include and some organizing some Chicago bicycle messengers.
Yah, I know what you’re saying, “WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU WASTING MY TIME WITH THIS IWW CRAP?!  Nine hundred dudes?!  That’s a slow weekend for Paris Hilton!”  But that’s precisely my point:  the truly ideological Left has been so utterly marginalized in this country that top leadership of traditional trade unionism may well be in as bad a fix as the Democratic Party leadership, bereft of much more than a few populist-sounding platitudes that it has no intention of pursuing forcefully. 
I’m not a union guy myself, let alone with any serious access to the top echelons of that rarified crowd, so I couldn’t say to you that this is a universal fact.  Certainly there are more than a few rank and file union members who are willing to vilify individual leaders—Andy Stern, in particular, is seen as being a sellout, closely allied to the unreliable Barack Obama, a frequent visitor to the White House and serving with the desultory National Committee on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform.   While that does seem damaging to me, let’s remember that the issues are complicated.  Stern led a major revolt against the AFL-CIO by creating the “Change to Win” federation, peeling off perhaps as many as 5 million members from their rolls in 2005 in an effort to divert priorities towards membership recruitment rather than political campaigning or lobbying.  Although many of the unions that defected to “Change to Win” have since returned to the AFL-CIO, there are some lingering animosities; some say that the AFL-CIO’s reluctance to pursue more aggressive recruitment goals was due to xenophobic reluctance to seriously expand out of its white, rustbelt heartland.
And Madison, February 2011 is where the IWW comes back into the picture, advocating for a general strike.
Posters like these and pamphlets like these have been circulating in Madison, trying to stir up more dramatic action than the well-ordered marches that have regularly taken place on the Capitol these past three weeks.  I myself don’t quite know what to make of them yet.  My first reaction was to dismiss them as an irrelevant self-promotion, given the paltry numbers that the IWW itself is capable of mustering, and the massive practical difficulties confronting any general strike (e.g., their illegality, the high degree of discipline required, the likely depleted condition of strike funds, etc.).  [4]  Remember:  general strikes are attempts to shut down an entire economy, so they’re no small joke.
But now even if the IWW is not really a mover-and-shaker, there IS reason to wonder if a general strike may not be in the offing:  Some members of the traditional labor establishment seem to be rising to the challenge.  According to a Huffington Post article of 3rd March, Kenny Riley, president of a South Carolina longshoremen’s local, was expected to call for a NATION-WIDE general strike during an emergency meeting of various labor representatives in Cleveland, Ohio.  Given what many perceive as decades of neglect of unions and a sclerotic shift to the right by their top leadership, how feasible is this notion?  Could its primary importance, like that of the IWW pamphlets, really be as a signal that a new generation is beginning to challenge the old guard?

[1]  One incident involved the tackling of a Democratic assemblyman, Nick Milroy as he attempted to enter the Capitol building.  However, the matter doesn’t seem to have created any lingering ill will, and Milroy chalked it up to an understandable consequence of the heightened tensions brought on by Walker’s extraordinary security measures and related breakdown in communications in such unusual circumstances.  This explanation is a lot more plausible than outsiders might first think, especially in context of the administration’s refusal to allow fire fighters access to the building in response to an emergency call.
[2] I’ve discussed all of these earlier at this link.  The only item new to me since that time, I believe is Walker’s subterfuge to severely limit contraception options through his takeover of healthcare.
[3]  Authoritarianism and austerity aren’t nearly appealing in reality as they sounded in the abstract:  Nearly two thirds of Wisconsinites believe Scott Walker is being too inflexible with regard to unions.   Nation wide, there seems to be a growing call to increase taxes on the rich closer to their historic norms, to make them “carry their own weight”.
[4] In a previous post (paragraph # 8), I touched briefly on these how these difficulties were reflected in recent news articles here and here.


  1. Thanks for the post. Drifted here from Disinfo.

    FYI - this week I won't be heading to Madison, but will be at a rally and short march (5 blocks or so) from the Kenosha City Hall to Civic Park, across from the county court house. Starts at 4pm tomorrow (Wed, March 9th).

    Confirmed speakers include the mayor and leftie columnist Jole McNally (you might have read him in the Shepherd Express). Rumor is that Michael Moore is the main speaker, but to the best of anyone's knowlege he has yet to confirm. Still, he was here last week so you never know.

    Consider the above your personal invite.

  2. Wow! Thanks for the heads-up. Good reminder that this thing isn't contained by a few square blocks in Madison--this thing is NATIONAL!