Revolution #226, March 6, 2011
On Wisconsin—From Revolution Readers
Editors' note: The following are some thoughts and analysis from readers on the outbreak of struggle in Madison, Wisconsin. These thoughts accompany the article describing the Wisconsin events ("Correspondence From the Wave of Protests in Wisconsin"). Footnotes have been added.
There is a certain confluence of events and interests in this situation that has brought forward both a very big attack and an outpouring of resistance that could have big repercussions on the political climate and terrain.
Republican Governor Walker of Wisconsin, part of the "Tea Party Revolution" of the November 2010 elections, put forward a bill that would gut the collective bargaining power of the public employees. It would take only a simple majority to pass the bill, and in both the state House and Senate the Republicans have the majority vote.
There was immediate and massive outpouring of resistance by teachers and other public employees as they grasped the magnitude of the attack and the need to decisively stop it. Within two days thousands poured into Madison and occupied the capitol; the continual 24-hours-a-day occupation has been going on as of this writing for over a week, a rather extraordinary event. The jolt of electricity this has sent through the political atmosphere has not been seen in Madison since the 1960s. Thousands of high school students from all over the state staged walkouts in support of their teachers, and many bused to Madison. After the growing outpouring, 14 Democratic senators left the state, which meant a quorum in the Senate could not be constituted and the bill could not be put to a vote, and this further galvanized the people. Tens of thousands from all over the state were demonstrating every day through Monday.
The main demographic is 25 to 40 years old, mainly white people.1 Teachers are the main force. Sixties people are thrilled and in the mix. Many high school and university students from around the state have mobilized at key times. Hundreds have come from the University of Wisconsin, Madison.
The key thrust of attack of this bill is aimed at crushing the public employees unions. The governor and his cohorts are throwing down the gauntlet. This reactionary attack must be defeated. The bill goes after the basic foundation and cohesiveness of unionization: it requires that every year a union will have to be re-elected, that union dues cannot be collected through payroll deductions, that individuals can opt out of union membership. The bill also allows current contracts to be torn up, and only wages—not working conditions and pensions—will be allowed to be negotiated. One commentator on CNN said that if this happened in another country it would be considered against the UN Declaration of Human Rights. The Wall Street Journal said what happens here could "have an impact on unions at least as lasting as President Reagan's firing in 1981 of 11,000 striking air-traffic controllers."
This is shaping up as a precedent-setting event. There are a lot of implications beyond Wisconsin on both sides. The defiant resistance in Wisconsin has already galvanized resistance in Ohio where on Tuesday, February 22, a similar bill was introduced and 15,000 protested at the capitol in Columbus. Indiana and Pennsylvania have also been targeted for this same kind of attack.
U.S. imperialism is in a profound economic crisis (which is beyond the scope of this article to analyze), but a few things can be said. This crisis has had a devastating effect on every state and local government, with huge losses of revenue at the same time as there is a much greater demand for state and locally provided services. Most states are faced with huge debts, and unemployment is around 10%. There is no federal bailout of the states forthcoming, and the "usual" measures that states have taken to deal with short-term shortfalls, such as borrowing money, are not available; and major cuts in state services and programs, as well as tax hikes, have not staved off the crisis. And there is no end in sight. It is worth noting that while it does have a significant deficit, Wisconsin does not fall in the category of states in the most financial trouble, and the unemployment rate there is 7.5%.
Even before the recent financial crash and crisis, the U.S. imperialists have faced the necessity to beat out their rivals in the global economy—while pursuing two wars and maintaining military dominance all over the world. There have been years of cutting away at public social services and programs: Clinton's abolition of "welfare as we know it," the growing privatization of public schools and services, and steep rises in fees and tuition at public educational institutions, accompanied by the drop in federal subsidies to education, transportation, etc., etc.
In this current situation, it seems like there is a struggle at the top (between different sections of the ruling class) over how to address these "budget crises" while maintaining political stability and cultural cohesion. And there is an attempt coming from the right side of the top of the pyramid to make a leap in radically restructuring the function of government to eliminate what's left of the New Deal/Great Society social contract. The right side of the top of the pyramid is focusing on sharply reducing the role of government and working to limit it to the basic repressive functions of an imperialist state (e.g. the military and police, as well as fire departments). The pyramid piece by Bob Avakian identifies the apex of the pyramid as "centrist mainstream imperialist thought and program, on the one end, and, on the other end, fascist thought and program—all ultimately serving the same imperialist system."2 As Bob Avakian says in that pamphlet:
"We can't be simple minded if we're going to actually do what needs to be done, especially if we are going to make the kind of revolution we need to make. You have to look at what's been building in this society for quite a while now.
"It's helpful to look at it kind of like a pyramid....And if you look at this kind of pyramid thing, on the top of this pyramid is the ruling class and its different political representatives, which (even though it may be a bit oversimplified) we can look at as the Democrats on one side and the Republicans on the other. And for decades now these people who are grouped around Bush and the kind of people that they represent have been working and preparing a whole thing in society —a whole infrastructure you might call it—a whole structure within the society itself that could move this society in a whole different way towards a fascistic kind of thing when things come to that.
"Look at this whole religious fundamentalist thing they've got. This is an effort to deliberatively build up a base of people, millions and millions and millions of people, who are frightened by the idea of thinking—I'm serious —people who cannot deal with all the "complicatedness," all the complexity of modern society, who want simple absolute answers to the complexities of this society....
"On the other hand, here are the Democrats at the top of this pyramid (on the so-called "left"). Who are the people that they try to appeal to —not that the Democrats represent their interests, but who are the people that the Democrats try to appeal to at the base, on the other side of this pyramid, so to speak? All the people who stand for progressive kinds of things, all the people who are oppressed in this society. For the Democrats, a big part of their role is to keep all those people confined within the bourgeois, the mainstream, electoral process...and to get them back into it when they have drifted away from—or broken out of—that framework.....
"This is significant in itself but it also demonstrates a positive potential in terms of revolution. I'm not saying that we are on the threshold of revolution right now, but just looking down the road, and looking at the potential, one of the things that leads to a revolutionary situation is that millions and millions of people feel that something is intolerable. They want certain leaders at the top of society to lead them in doing something about it, but those leaders are not in the position to and don't want to lead them in doing it—so whom do they turn to? The people who are willing and determined to lead them to do it and to take it somewhere. So this is a situation that's full of great danger; but the same situation—or the other side of the contradiction—is that it holds much positive potential for struggle now and for revolution as things unfold."3
Taking away the right of teachers and other public employees to collectively organize when that has been an established right for 50 years does seem to signal a qualitative change aimed not just at reducing wages and benefits, but mainly at destroying an organized force that is an obstacle to dismantling public education, health care—and just about public "everything." When the teachers, social workers, public health care workers negotiate on "working conditions," what is really being negotiated are the lives and futures of their students, clients, patients. The mayor of Detroit just announced that he is going to have to cut the number of schools from 140 to 70, increasing class size in high schools to 60 students per class. When home health care workers or social workers are required to double the size of their patient/client load, that means real, hurting people will suffer. There also could be an element of seeking to destroy an important organized base of the Democratic Party.
Clashing in this battle are two frameworks with two opposing moralities, and this has intensified the stakes for both sides. But, unlike much of the recent past, the side that is standing up for basic rights and needs of people has surged into real political resistance.
On the one side is what's left of the social contract of what was the "mainstream imperialist" framework established with the New Deal and carried forward (in response to struggles of the 1960s) by the Great Society. (This is discussed in depth by Bob Avakian in analyzing the pyramid of power.) And many of the teachers, social workers, public health care workers and others who are out protesting this attack hold the view that it is a moral right and duty (and a benefit to the society) that society as a whole, through the government on different levels, should have some level of basic support of services, programs, regulations that are for the social good. And that public education and a basic safety net, health care and services for the poor, unemployed, children, and elderly are basic human rights. They feel it is in the interest of all to support public libraries and public parks, and to regulate things like workplace safety and the global environment. There is a particularity of Wisconsin (especially Madison and Milwaukee): it was the first state to have unemployment insurance, the state where AFSCME (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees) was founded, and first to give public workers the right to collectively bargain. And public service is seen by a section of people as a worthy calling and cause.
A number of teachers pointed out that the reason the public employees unions are being gone after is not mainly for economic reasons, but to silence their voice as advocates for public education, and for the students. "If they can silence our voice and destroy the unions, they can destroy public education, public services of all kinds. If they can silence our voice, then it's their world."
This feeling and thought extends beyond schools to libraries, social work, public health, and public transportation. Social workers have talked about the devastation that years of federal and state cuts have already wrought among the poorest masses.
The opposing view is that funding the most basic of public services is an impediment to U.S. imperialism's being able to compete with the other imperialists and to resolving this crisis. This section of the ruling class wants a "lean and mean" capitalism without all the baggage and constraints. There is a whole fascist mentality and morality that corresponds to this which is right now concentrated in the Tea Party movement,4 and also reflected in the world view of Christian fascists, reactionary Christian fundamentalists who seek to impose their theocratic, Nazi-like program on society as a whole. These forces see public services (with the exception of the enforcement arms of the state like the military and the police) as being morally wrong. They hold that supporting public services actually constitutes "theft," meaning that it takes money from the pockets of the taxpayers and gives it to other undeserving people (undeserving being a code word for Black people and immigrants). These forces say it is up to each individual or each individual entity to decide what is best, and look after his/her/its own interest. And that any programs aimed at meeting social needs should be carried out solely through voluntary, private or religious organization or corporations. Part of this program has been a whole assault aimed at demonizing teachers and teachers' unions as greedy, self-centered moochers who don't care about the students or society, and blaming them and public employees more broadly for the financial crisis and the crisis in education. The Tea Party rallied in support of Governor Walker and the Wisconsin bill on Saturday and drew some thousands; at the same time, they were ringed by tens of thousands of the opposition.
The New York Times on Tuesday, February 22, reported that the Koch brothers (major capitalist players/financiers of the Tea Party) were major supporters of Governor Walker, and that the Americans for Prosperity, a group created and financed in part by the Koch brothers, was behind the concerted effort to introduce and pass these bills in several states. Although apparently Walker didn't bring this out in his campaign, and the bill was introduced in kind of a stealth way as a "budget repair" bill, this "out of the gate" assault in February after taking office in January seems to be an attempt to use the momentum and "mandate" Walker and the Tea Party got from the election to try to quickly push through the game-changing legislation.
On the other side, the fact that this attack came down on the heels of the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt did create for some people a new sense of possibilities, expressed by some as "the Egyptian people stood up and won, and if we stand up together we can stop this attack."
And the fact that U.S. leaders spoke out for "supporting people's democratic rights" and "rights of assembly" in Egypt and other countries has also imposed some constraints on the governor in terms of the ability to crack down on the occupation of the capitol building. There were threats by the governor (or spokesmen) early on in the occupation of the capitol to call out the National Guard, but these were quickly replaced by comments that the people have a right to protest but it won't matter because he is not compromising on this bill and they have the votes so there's no point in resisting.
So both sides identify the struggle in Wisconsin as ground zero with huge implications.
This is the first time in a long time the Democrats have called on the masses to take action outside the electoral arena. It is still very much within the framework of "pressuring the governor to compromise," and getting the normal process of compromise going, getting the state back to the bargaining table. But it is rather extraordinary to have a 24-hours-a-day occupation of a state capitol that has gone on for six days, and growing every day, and to have 14 state senators "in exile" for going on a week.
What is the role that Obama and the Democratic Party have been playing? It has been reported that the Democrats nationally as well as national unions are pouring a lot of money and resources into this fight. Obama's political group "Organizing for America" organized "lobby days" the first two days of the protests, sponsoring buses together with the AFL-CIO that came from at least 10 different parts of Wisconsin to the capitol. It's not clear if the Democrats'/unions' intention was just to lobby and things got out of hand, or if the occupation was part of their plan. Obama has made just one statement, that "[they] are making it harder for public employees to collectively bargain generally, seems like more of an assault on unions." There was a lot of hope among the protesters in Obama in general, as evidenced in rumors, for example, that he was calling on people in Indiana and Ohio to march to the state capitols there (actually he did not do this).
Jesse Jackson spoke at a rally Saturday night (February 19), which was broadcast on MSNBC. Jackson has a huge following among this section of people. He rallied them to fight this as an attack on the unions and to follow our "great president." The rally as a whole was shaped by the MSNBC host Ed Schultz, who was the emcee, as "we are the real patriots, the right-wing tries to wrap itself in the flag, but we are the real hard-working patriotic Americans." Right before Jackson came on Schultz invoked the crowd to sing "God Bless America." This focus on patriotism was not the character of the protesters in general, but this is obviously the confines that this section of the ruling class wants to keep things in. There were not many American flags. (There were many Wisconsin flags, and a couple Egyptian flags.)
We're trying to look at this in the context of BA's statement in The Coming Civil War and Repolarization for Revolution in the Present Era about the possibility of having to lead the struggle to defeat attempts to trample on and abolish bourgeois-democratic rights, "from our communist perspective and with the goal of proletarian revolution and ultimately communism –and nothing else and nothing less. The point is that we must not degenerate into bourgeois democrats ourselves in taking up the challenge of defeating attempts to trample on and abolish bourgeois-democratic rights."5
The union has announced that they are willing to make concessions on wages and benefits, but they demand the governor withdraw the union-busting clauses of the bill. But as one news analysis said, the Governor is not only refusing to go to the negotiating table, he is taking away the table. So the very reasons that Bob Avakian talks about why the Democrats don't want to call the people into the streets are now in play. The people have many illusions about "the will of the people" being heard, and "we are the reasonable people and the governor is unreasonable." "This is what democracy looks like" is the chant heard over and over again, along with "Kill the Bill." But the governor is not negotiating or compromising and has stated he won't, and that has galvanized the opposition and brought more people into the fight. While the overall atmosphere is almost festival-like, there is recognition among many that they are up against some pretty scary forces, with more than a few references to the Tea Party as fascist. One woman said, "We have to stop being nice."
As this develops the questions this raises and the need to search for radical answers also can develop. The point in the statement from the Revolutionary Communist Party, "On the Strategy for Revolution," about "sudden jolts and breakdowns in the "normal functioning" of society, which compel many people to question and to resist what they usually accept" is important to understand and think about. No one can say in advance exactly what will happen in these situations—how deep the crisis may go, in what ways and to what extent it might pose challenges to the system as a whole, and to what degree and in what ways it might call forth unrest and rebellion among people who are normally caught up in, or feel powerless to stand up against, what this system does.
We are grappling with the way to make the maximum advances possible in this situation.
1. Wisconsin's Black population is 6.2% of 5.5 million, or 340,000; in Milwaukee the Black population is 25% of 1 million, or 250,000 (about 70% of all Black people in Wisconsin live in the Milwaukee metro area); in Racine, 10% of the population of 200,000, or 20,000 people, are Black; in Madison, 4.7% of the population of 250,000, or 12,000, are Black. [back]
3. See "Elections, Resistance, and Revolution: The Pyramid of Power and the Struggle to Turn This Whole Thing Upside Down" from The Coming Civil War and Repolarization for Revolution in the Present Era. [back]
5. See "Not Being Jerry Rubin, Or Even Dimitrov, But Actually Being Revolutionary Communists: The Challenge of Defending Fundamental Rights—From a Communist Perspective, and No Other" from The Coming Civil War and Repolarization for Revolution in the Present Era. [back]
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