Wisconsin’s recall election proves no substitute for a social movement

By Pete Dolack

Walking home on election night in 2008, my partner and I waded into a street celebration. Young people, primarily, had taken over an entire block to joyously celebrate Barack Obama’s trouncing of John McCain. Veteran activists that we are, we talked to many of the celebrants, cautioning them that the work of progressive change had only begun: If there is no strong pressure from President Obama’s supporters, he would be taken off the hook and feel himself free to not do what he said he would do.

Neither of us believed the president-elect would follow through on most of his campaign platform, and the fact that the strong anti-war movement that mushroomed during the Bush II administration had been silenced by United for Peace and Justice’s deft channeling of it into the John Kerry presidential campaign and its unwillingness to work with any coalitions to its Left should not have been far from activist minds. The hopes of Obama voters for an end to wars waged for imperialist plunder and for meaningful “change” soon met the traditional graveyard of U.S. social movements, the Democratic Party.

And so it was in Wisconsin last week. Yet again, an energetic, grassroots movement, motivated by a sense of urgency, was diluted, rendered “respectable” and converted by political and union leaders into an election campaign. And thereby lost their biggest battle. Are they to lose the war, too?

Before we tackle that question, let’s analyze the battle. Given the legitimate questioning of electronic voting machines that do not print records that can confirm the results, it is understandable that some question who really won the Wisconsin recall vote. But it is necessary to point out that the 53 to 47 percent victory of Scott Walker over Tom Barrett, although wider than expected, does fall within the margin of error of the many polls that consistently had Walker ahead. We should accept the result as legitimate, and analyze seriously a bitter defeat for all working people.

Union leaders’ fear of Madison’s energetic resistance

One of the groups critical to the uprising in Madison, the Wisconsin state capital, were graduate students organized into the Teachers Assistants’ Association. The TAA is centered on the University of Wisconsin’s main campus, located blocks from the Wisconsin capitol building. Already anticipating cuts to the university system, the TAA had begun mobilizing for a February 2011 protest. When details of Governor Walker’s draconian program of deep cuts to education and social programs coupled with union-busting measures became known, the sense of urgency increased.

Mike Ludwig, writing in Truthout, has described the birth of a movement that quickly had the world’s eyes on it:

“A public hearing on the legislation was scheduled the next day and the TAA organized a massive turnout. At such hearings, each member of the public is given up to two minutes to speak, and thanks to the tireless TAA and allied groups, a continuous stream of testimonies prevented the bill from going up to a vote. It was the birth of an occupation that would take over the Capitol and stall Walker’s union-busting bill for more than three weeks.”

Teaching assistants and teachers came to that first legislative hearing prepared to stay overnight. An early attempt to evict the Capitol occupiers backfired, solidifying their public support. Demonstrations in numbers that sometimes exceeded 100,000 outside the capitol building were regular occurrences. Support for the capitol occupiers was exemplified in a continual stream of well-wishers from outside Madison phoning in pizza orders to be delivered to the occupiers. Crowds lined the streets of Madison when a procession of farmers riding tractors drove down one of the city’s main streets to the capitol. African-American and Hispanic high school students from Wisconsin’s biggest city, Milwaukee, and people from small towns across the state were on board.

Sadly — but not surprisingly — union leaders saw this inspiring solidarity as a threat to be contained.

Talk of a general strike was in the air — something that has not happened in the United States since the 1930s. Although some organizers believed that there was too little infrastructure in place for a general strike to be realistic at the time, there were other steps that could have been taken to ratchet up the pressure on Governor Walker and his Big Business funders.

Matthew Rothschild of the Madison-based monthly magazine The Progressive, who participated in many of these events, said the co-optation of the movement began early:

“Actually, it began to disintegrate the moment the leaders (and who were they, exactly?) decided to pour everything into the Democratic Party channels rather than explore the full potential of the power that was latent but present in the streets back in February and March of 2011. … Procedurally, decisions were made (again, who made them?) in a very undemocratic way. Here we had 100,000 people storming the square but there was no effort to include them in any meaningful — or even symbolic — decision-making process. … We gathered at noon every day, we gathered every night, and we massed on the weekends, but then the decision was made (by whom?) to stop marching and essentially to go back to our home districts and throw all our energies into recalling state senators. I remember being at a protest and being told to do so from the podium.”

Local activist Allen Ruff, quoted in a Truthout analysis written by Arun Gupta and Steve Horn, confirmed that state-level Democrats actively demobilized the movement:

“One got up in the middle of the [capitol building’s] Rotunda when there were a few thousand people present and asked them to walk out to show we are willing to compromise and around 1,200 people left the Capitol with him. At the last big rally in March, with more than 200,000 people present, Democratic [state] Senator Jon Erpenbach, said ‘I don’t want to see you people back here. Go back to your home communities and work on the recall.’ ”

Briefly, the intensity of the movement had driven Wisconsin Democrats to take their lead from the masses of people in the streets; the party’s state senators fled the state in an ultimately failed attempt to block a vote on Governor Walker’s bills. But soon enough, Democratic Party and union leaders asserted leadership, and steered the movement’s energy into the usual directions. People deferred to those party and union leaders, who were afraid of the power of people on display, afraid of a movement that had blossomed out of their control and afraid that they would not look “respectable” in the eyes of establishment power brokers and the corporate mass media. Union leaders, once again, mobilized their memberships to elect Democrats without asking for anything ahead of time.

That channeling involved not only tactics, but message. The early message of linking fightbacks against the entire panoply of neoliberal attacks became narrowed into messages tailored to appear “safe” to Wisconsin’s suburban middle class.

Bruce A. Dixon, writing for the Black Agenda Report, wrote:

“When would-be movements sideline the youthful risk-taking initiative and egalitarian core values that might have sustained them to become political campaigns, they generally don’t even run good campaigns. The crowds on the sidewalks and parking lots in Madison were conducting anti-racism seminars and study groups. But the electoral campaign the whole thing was turned into, even though they had a whole year to plan, neglected to do the labor-intensive ground game of massive voter registration in poor and minority communities. They spent their relatively scarce dollars on media instead, and pursued the easy consultant-class strategy of pursuing the “frequent voters” alone. They didn’t talk about the poor and renters, of which there are many in Milwaukee. They only talked about the middle class. They didn’t talk much about mass incarceration either, even though Wisconsin and Milwaukee consistently have the highest rates of Black imprisonment in the U.S. … They came up with a black candidate for lieutenant governor. But mostly they went from hundreds of thousands of people shivering in the cold, standing outside the people-proof, democracy-proof cages of elite consensus and two-party politics and beginning to feel their own power to decide what to do next to folks campaigning for the candidate and the slate that sucked less.”

The slate that “sucked less” and its union backers may have been eager to “compromise,” but the billionaire funders opposed to them were not.

A money deficit, yes, but an uninspired recall campaign

As a matter of strategy, organizers of the signature-gathering campaign to get the recall vote on to the ballot intentionally avoided naming a candidate. Brendan Fischer, writing in AlterNet a month before the election, reported:

“Their strategy was to make it clear that signing a petition was a choice to recall the governor, rather than a vote in favor of any particular challenger. But that move left Walker opponents without a candidate when signatures were handed in on January 16.”

That decision gave Governor Walker a huge head start. The unions’ preferred candidate lost in a primary to Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, whom the governor defeated in 2010. By the time Mayor Barrett began raising money, Governor Walker had already spent 20 million dollars, according to Mr. Fischer. The challenger had only a month to make his case, but although the recall election inevitably was based on the personality of the governor, Mayor Barrett had not only already been defeated a year and a half earlier, he stood for “austerity lite” instead of providing a clean alternative.

During his 2010 gubernatorial campaign, the centerpiece of Mayor Barrett’s campaign was a 67-page document called “Put Madison on a Diet.” He advocated layoffs, cuts to benefits and cuts to wages as the main routes to trimming more than one billion dollars in state spending per year. This time around, he avoided drawing attention to such plans, but also avoided saying anything of substance. In a June 2, 2012, commentary published in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, he offered platitudes but no concrete programs. Instead he offered a general critique of Governor Walker and issued bland declarations such as “My priority is Wisconsin.” Had somebody though his priority Saskatchewan?

He did, however, offer a hint of his previous program in a debate when he said, “The real test of leadership is whether you can say no to your friends.” That, perhaps, was less than inspiring to those whom he needed to get to the voting booth.

Whatever else can be said of the Republican Party, it does not boast of “standing up” against its base. But nor does the Democratic Party wish to offend its corporate benefactors, without whom it could not survive. We square the circle here: Mass movements are the only possible alternative to corporate power and money (especially as that money and power holds a tight grip on both major parties), but such movements are precisely what Democrats fear most. Union leaderships have become so removed from their rank-and-file members and so entangled with party politics that they are unable to critique the dead end of giving support to Democrats with no demands, hoping that some crumbs will fall their way.

When you guarantee unconditional support, when you keep your mouth shut when you are forgotten after the election, when you desperately suppress any independent mass movement, when you are so comfortable in your bubble that you can’t conceive of doing anything different, when you are unable to differentiate between a crumb and a loaf, you will lose. And you will keep losing.

Union households who voted for attacks on themselves

An analysis of the recall vote is not complete without examining the eyebrow-raising exit-poll finding that 38 percent of union-household members voted for Governor Walker. In 2010, he earned 37 percent of that vote — no substantial change.

More than one-third endorsed a direct assault on their ability to maintain their standard of living. How do we account for that?

In part, answering that question is partly dependent on knowing the breakdown of those voters between public-sector and private-sector union households, a breakdown that does not appear in the results of the exit poll conducted by Edison Research. Governor Walker generally directed his anti-union rhetoric at government workers, although the fierce attack on public-sector unions are an opening gambit — corporate antipathy toward unions does not differentiate. Such attacks are the tip of a well-honed spear aimed at breaking down solidarity among working people.

Capitalist ideology furiously promotes individuality in an effort to atomize society and to justify extraordinary disparities in wealth. We are constantly bombarded with messages that declare you, too, could be rich if only you worked as hard as the chief executive officer does. Many CEOs undoubtedly work hard, but 340 times harder than the average worker? The reality is that only a handful can be rich, because being rich means accumulating money and capital through paying employees much less than the value of what they produce. Therefore, most people are going to struggle economically. How can that be if you work hard every day?

Scapegoats are provided as the answer — not that the is system stacked against you and always will be, nor is the answer that the capitalism system is undergoing a serious structural crisis that is the logical outcome of its highly competitive nature and need for ever more accumulation. A favorite scapegoat are always a society’s minorities or immigrants, and when that line loses effectiveness, the scapegoat becomes public-sector workers. Thus we have the sad spectacle of the current Big Business-led war on teachers, waged across the United States. Government workers in general are demonized as lazy and the recipients of unwarranted largesse.

Another critical strand of capitalist ideology is to foster jealousy. This is a crucial piece of ideological campaigns, in part to create atomization of society (crucial to blocking ideas of solidarity and common economic interests from taking root) but also to facilitate the scapegoating. Carefully targeted, the jealousy is never against the executive or speculator who makes millions of dollars off other people’s hard work, but rather the jealousy is carefully fanned against other working people who have something somebody else does not.

Because government workers — and unions — were the designated scapegoats, their pensions became easy targets. Republican Party operatives went to rural counties and made sure to play up the fact that most people no longer have pensions, while government workers do. Mike McCabe, the executive director of the watchdog group Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, argues that Wisconsin Republicans have forged a “rich-poor alliance” of suburban and rural areas:

“Republicans ask people in places like [rural] Clark County if they have pensions, and the answer is invariably no. ‘Well, you are paying for theirs,’ they tell them. ‘Do you have health insurance? No. Well, you are paying for theirs. Are you getting pay raises? No. Well, you are paying for theirs.’ For years now Democrats have not plausibly made the case that they will deliver better health or retirement security or higher pay to all. Only the state’s few government workers have so benefited from the Democrats’ toil.”

Exit polling seems to back up these claims. Residents of cities with at least 50,000 people voted by a close to 2-to-1 margin in favor of Mayor Barrett, but all other areas voted by wide margins for Governor Walker.

Notice, however, how the question is framed by conservatives: “Why does someone have something you don’t have” (a pension), instead of “Why do you not have something that you should be entitled to but don’t have.” Once the question is framed that way, and anti-government rhetoric is wrapped around it, then it is a short path to making pensions indistinguishable from excessive government spending.

An analysis in the Wisconsin State Journal newspaper contained a noteworthy quotation from the district attorney and Republican Party chairman (the same person holds both posts) of another rural county, Green County. This official had his district-attorney pay cut but, considering his other post, not surprisingly backed Governor Walker. “I was also able to see the other side of the equation. Taxpayers, businesspeople and retired citizens had just as strong feelings about the necessity to control state spending and require state employees to ‘pay their fair share,’ ” the official said.

Once again: Why do those people have something I don’t when I work hard? Nor can such sentiments simply be waved off by virtue of party — one-sixth of Governor Walker’s voters intend to vote for President Obama, according to the exit poll.

Capitalist ideology permeates every every institution. Not simply the corporate mass media, but churches, schools, think tanks, militaries and a host of others incessantly carry similar messages: We “deserve” what we get. The generally unspoken but nonetheless inferred coda to that message is that if what we “deserve”  is not as much as we need in a time of scarcity and cutbacks, then then someone else must not be deserving, either, so we should take away from them. Take it away from them, not have it for ourselves and our neighbors, too.

If you’ve heard this before, you are not hallucinating

There is nothing unique about Wisconsin. Or about the United States. Government workers are the brunt of attacks in Greece. If it is true (I don’t know myself) that the Greek government is over-staffed, government workers there nonetheless have to pay their taxes because their employer certainly isn’t going to fail to collect them, while it is Greek corporations, the wealthy and even some middle class private-sector workers who don’t pay taxes, a significant factor in Greece’s financial crisis.

Voters in two California cities, San Diego and San Jose, one a conservative military town and the other a liberal Silicon Valley town, voted last week by 2-to-1 margins to cut the pensions of public workers despite the fact that those pensions are subject to collective bargaining. In New York, there has been the odd revelation that leaders of a group of construction-worker unions donated half a million dollars to the “Committee to Save New York.” That is odd, because the committee has been bankrolled by millions of dollars by corporate donors and is the leading ally of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s drive to impose layoffs, pay cuts and pension reductions on government workers. That drive continues despite the government workers already agreeing to cuts.

The capitalists pushing the anti-union agenda must be delighted to have unions of private-sector workers joining their attacks on public-sector workers. Talk about short-sighted: Private-sector unions will become targets if public-sector unions are disabled, and construction unions are already routinely scapegoated as responsible for high construction costs. Never mind that real estate is a fantastically profitable business for developers and landlords in and around New York City, where most of the population of New York state resides. Non-union labor has become a more common sight on city construction jobs, but you should not hold your breath waiting for rents or sale prices to be reduced on account of resulting lower labor costs.

All these agendas do not fall from the sky. A handful of billionaires bankrolled Governor Walker’s victories in Wisconsin, and there are plenty of other capitalists who are happy to free-ride on their largesse. Austerity may come in several flavors, but, ultimately, from one source. If so-called leadership offers only austerity-lite “me, too,” the alternative is to become our own leaders.

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10 comments on “Wisconsin’s recall election proves no substitute for a social movement

  1. Alcuin says:

    This article appeared on the blog This Can’t Be Happening and I found it interesting reading. It seconds your opinion that only mass demonstrations in the streets will put enough pressure on the corrupt “leaders” of this country to do the right thing. It is a small step from becoming “our own leaders” to anarchism, is it not?

    • Becoming “our own leaders” doesn’t necessarily imply any one particular grouping of ideas. The end goals of Marxism and anarchism, for instance, are essentially the same, but with different ideas about how to get there. A fully (economically and politically) democratic system can only be created by democratic mass movement(s), but such movements would require considerable organization, a duality not without tensions and contradictions.

  2. Alcuin says:

    Oh, I beg to differ! There is a huge difference between anarchism and Marxism. Marxism is statist; anarchism is not. The Soviets were anarchistic; Lenin and his Bolsheviks were statist.

    • Marxism has many tendencies, just as anarchism does. For instance, there is the anarchist tendency associated with Louie-Auguste Blanqui, who believed that a small group of conspirators could stage an insurrection to change society. That is, a small, closed group could force a revolution through their own actions regardless of concrete conditions. Quite elitist. Today, most anarchists would not hold to such a view, and are not bomb throwers as some anarchists were in the 19th century.

      Karl Marx described communism as a state whereby the economy would consist of “associated producers” — free individuals engaged in cooperative production for the good of society rather than private profit. I don’t see that as substantially different from what anarchists say is their goal. Today, many anarchists adhere to some variant of the ideas of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, who believed that society could be changed through organizing workplace cooperatives while “ignoring” the state. But the “state” and the capitalists who have decisive influence over the state, are not about to sit back idly while working people organize them out of power and property. Marxists believe that organization is needed to defeat the power of capitalists and their state and that, in contrast to Blanqui, only working people can liberate working people.

      So the goal is similar, but the means to get to the goal differ significantly. What worked in the 19th century, or 1917, is not necessarily what is going to work today. We do need 21st century ideas for the 21st century, ideas that of course will be enriched by the experiences of the past.

  3. Alcuin says:

    You’ll get no argument from me stating that Marxism doesn’t have many tendencies. I do think, however, that there is a greater awareness amongst anarchists about the deleterious effects of hierarchy in social organizations. I still maintain that Marxists, by and large, defend the utility of the dictatorship of the proletariat as a means of attaining their goal. Anarchists, in contrast, are acutely aware of the dangers of hierarchy and have striven for egalitarianism, however ineffectively. A better understanding of the benefits and dangers of hierarchy is what is needed in the 21st century.

    • Marxists use the term “dictatorship of the proletariat” as a short-hand way of describing a situation in which working people — the vast majority of a society — have gained political and economic control. It simply means that the former ruling class, the “bourgeoisie,” has been removed from power. Thus, the advanced capitalist countries are “dictatorships of the bourgeoisie” because capitalists (industrialists and financiers) control society. The use of “dictatorship” is confusing because the so-called dictatorship can take hugely different forms. For instance, if we want to continue to use this terminology, the “dictatorships of the bourgeoisie” can be a literal dictatorship, as in a fascist state, or it can be a social democratic-run parliamentary democracy, or anything in between.

      But let us say that we have all organized ourselves sufficiently to put an end to capitalist exploitation and have implemented a cooperative economy, based on cooperative enterprises (and state-owned enterprises in certain key industries) and accountability to the community in which everybody, including the former capitalists, can freely participate (as an equal member of a cooperative, not as a boss). Is this a class-less society, as Marxists and anarchists aspire to, or is this a new form of “dictatorship of the proletariat”? Or are we simply getting bogged down in terminology unnecessarily?

      A better world can only be created in its making, and learning the hard lessons of past so that there are no more dictatorships of a party or a faction or a single leader is critical to the process. As for myself, I’d prefer to jettison a lot of unnecessary terminology (“dictatorship of the proletariat” among them) and use more modern concepts that are more concrete to 21st century people. I’d don’t wish to see a “dictatorship” of anybody but rather a fully egalitarian society with no classes in which everybody can reach their full potential free of exploitation. But as capitalists are not going to cooperate, we’re not likely to go straight to such a society from present-day capitalism. The question, then, becomes how to make the journey as quick and painless as possible.

  4. Alcuin says:

    Hierarchy. It is all about hierarchy. I’ve started looking at the world through the lens of hierarchy and it all makes much, much more sense. If you aren’t familiar with the work of David Graeber, I’d recommend him highly. If you are interested in how hierarchy could work, as opposed to how it does work, consult some books on management and organizational psychology. Humans are hierarchical animals and because hierarchy is so thoroughly embedded in us and drives every action that we take, very few people look at it as the driving force that has gotten us into so much trouble over the centuries.

    On another topic, why are anarchists always tarred with the label “bomb thrower”? Could it be because their view of how society could work is an enormous threat to those at the top of the hierarchy – the capitalists? Isn’t it in the best interests of the elite to demonize the opposition so that they can be murdered without remorse? Like the Haymarket martyrs? How many of them were proven “bomb-throwers”?

    • On “bomb thrower,” point taken. People who challenge an established order are always demonized by the rulers, whether they call themselves “socialists,” “anarchists,” “the civil rights movement,” “Occupy Wall Street” or something else. It wasn’t my intention to call anarchists “bomb throwers” nor do I believe that they are. I was merely attempting to illustrate that movements change over time as do perceptions of those movements, much more slowly, and to illustrate that intellectual traditions tend to have many variations.

      I think it is best we not get bogged down in terminology or ideology of the past. It would not be accurate to say anarchists predominately follow Blanqui (they don’t in my experience) nor is it accurate to say Marxists predominately seek a dictatorship (they don’t in my experience). The Blanquist idea that a small group of self-selected revolutionaries can seize control of the state has been proven a failure; the Soviet idea of state centralization of production has been proven a failure. Marxists correctly pointed out that Blanquist ideas were mistaken and elitist; anarchists correctly pointed out that Soviet-style state centralization reproduced hierarchy.

      Human beings are a complex mix of contradictory characteristics. An economic and political system that encourages and rewards cooperation would bring out cooperative and social personality components; the current economic and political system that encourages and rewards competition amplifies individualism, greed and other anti-social personality traits. Moreover, causes and effects oscillate back and forth.

  5. Alcuin says:

    Are you familiar with the concept of governance known as sociocracy or Dynamic Governance? Here is a short article in Communities Magazine that describes how an intentional community re-energized itself by switching from consensus based decision making (what the Occupy movement groups used) to sociocratic governance.

    Looks good to me! After 33 years of working for an authoritarian company, I’d like to see this concept spread widely.

    • I’m not familiar with Sociocracy. I will look into it and encourage other readers to do so as well. Cooperation sounds good to me after a similar number of years of working for several authoritarian companies.

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