The failure to recall Wisconsin’s anti-union governor Scott Walker is regarded by all as a bitter defeat for the progressive movement in general and organized labor in particular.
How could this have happened?
It was only a year ago that Wisconsinites from all walks of life stormed and occupied the capital building in Madison. It was only a year ago that the entire nation watched as students, municipal workers, fire-men and women, and people from every strata of Wisconsin life celebrated their new-found power by occupying the state capital. Union activists from around the nation swarmed Madison and were given a ground floor lesson in politics outside the ballot box. The entire left of the US, and a good deal of its middle, supported the Wisconsin occupiers. Walker was so roundly despised that wherever he appeared—whether inside or outside Wisconsin—he was met with hostility from large protests to individual hecklers.
But as pointed out by writers for the Socialist Worker, it was the Democratic Party and the labor leadership that sabotaged what should have been the leading spark for a broader movement against Wall Street and the right wing agenda.
In charting the long road to defeat, it was Democrats and labor leaders that first encouraged the Madison protestors to abandon their occupation of the capitol and thus move the movement away from its high-visibility occupation campaign to the world of recalls, ad campaigns, and ballot box politics. In the recall of Walker, the Democratic Party supported the moderate Tom Barrett, who had just been defeated by Walker in the governor’s race of 2010.
Despite the fact that the occupation was sparked by Walker’s attempts to end collective bargaining for state employees, the Democrat Barrett never promised to re-instate collective bargaining if elected. In fact, Barrett denounced his Democratic opponent for the primary, Kathleen Falk, for being too close to organized labor.
While the right wing formed a solid phalanx in support of Walker, the Democrats showed no such solidarity. Neither Barak Obama nor Joe Biden nor Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis were found anywhere near Wisconsin, and the token arrival of Bill Clinton in the last weeks of the recall could not take away the fact that the most powerful office in the world had nothing to say about the brave challenge to corporate America being waged in the key electoral state of Wisconsin.
Meanwhile, Scott Walker amassed a huge store of money with which to do battle in the way conservatives prefer—mind numbing mailers, commercials, radio spots, and billboards that denounced Walker’s opponent as a puppet of organized labor and spokesperson of the ‘NannyState.’ In the end, Walker’s campaign spent $7 for every $1 spent by his opponents. By moving the campaign from the street to the ad campaign, the ‘pragmatists’ of the Democratic Party guaranteed that the outcome was never in doubt.
Having brought to an end the occupation of Madison; having supported a moderate Democrat who bragged that he was not beholden to the unions, the Democratic Party and a good deal of organized labor succeeded in orchestrating a defeat out of what should have been a victory. Had the occupation continued; had Walker been heckled at every turn; had Wisconsin representatives continued to be scrutinized for their every vote on bills introduced to the Wisconsin legislature, the Wisconsin defeat could well have continued to be what it was in the beginning—an inspiration to all opposed to the failed policies of union busting, budget cuts, wage cuts, and bailouts for corporations. As it stands, however, the victory of Scott Walker can only be scored as yet another victory for the right wing corporate agenda that is strangling this nation. We cannot blame corporations for defending what they perceive to be their interests. We can, however, blame Democrats and labor leaders for consistently endorsing strategies and policies that are guaranteed to weaken the left progressive movement in the US.
1. Free universal health care for all
2. Free education for all from primary school through college and university
3. No war! Withdraw troops from Afghanistan and Iraq
4. End all aid to Israel, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Bahrain
5. Increase tax rates on the one percent and corporations to the levels of the 1950s
6. Increase minimum wage to above the poverty level
7. Government jobs program to eliminate unemployment
8. Real legislation to protect the environment
9. Hands off immigrants!
10. No bailouts. Nationalize all banks that received a bailout
Obama’s state of the union address should tell us all we need to know about the next four years. Obama mentioned tax breaks to “small” business at least five times, which in the US is any business of 500 employees or less (a payroll of $25 million!). By comparison, European nations consider a small business as anything less than 50 employees. There will be no significant jobs program and no serious regulations to prevent what happened in 2008. To expand education, colleges and universities must be more tech oriented–read online classes where a professor such as myself will teach thousands instead of hundreds a semester.
Hardly mentioned was the plight of the poor, which is now one in six Americans, and almost one in four children.1
There are of course real differences between Democrats and Republicans, but these are intra-class disputes, not class warfare. Obama is just as much a part of ruling class hegemony as Romney and Gingrich.
True, Republicans are personally repugnant, but this is not about individuals and personalities. Obama’s election is a perfect example: with all the ‘hope and change’ stuff, his administration is made up of rehashed Bush operatives (Robert Gates, Timothy Geithner and Ben Bernanke), or war hawk Democrats (Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden), which is why his economic policies are virtually identical to those of G.W. Bush and his foreign policy not only sticks to the Bush playbook but also added the overthrow of yet another Arab nation–Libya.
We know who is going to win the election–Barak Obama. So the question is: what should we socialists do? I suggest we roll up our sleeves and begin the work of building a real socialist movement in the US. Participate in as many “occupy” events as possible. Get involved in the San Fernando Valley Socialist Alliance, which puts on forums and reaches out to other socialists, whether in established groups (Greens, SWP, ISO, or MoveOn) or independent.
To convince socialists of the futility of voting for Democrats, just attend Town Hall meetings sponsored by the supposedly liberal Brad Sherman. These meetings begin with prayer, a military call to colors and other patriotic drivel, and feature hard core Zionism. One town hall meeting should convince anyone that the Democrats are a waste of time for anyone on the left.
There should be no mystery as to the motivations of the ‘occupy’ crowd (Occupy Wall Street, Occupy LA, Occupy Oakland), yet the political, financial, and media elites cannot hide their growing impatience at what they perceive is the lack of a clear message. Given that these elites (Wall Street executives, government officials, political consultants, district attorneys, and most all the news media) would not recognize democracy if it stared them in the face, their frustration is understandable. Like a child that has yet to understand how a checking account works, these elites have no idea how democracy works.
And despite a few statements to the contrary, the elites of this nation, and this world, want everyone to just go home and do as they are told, since they, after all, know what is best for everyone else. The refusal of the ‘occupy’ crowd to just shut up and do as they are told only increases the frustration of our ruling elites.
In Greece, for example, world stock prices plunged at the suggestion that the Greek prime minister, George Papandreou, might submit to a popular vote the latest austerity package offered up by the economic elites of the world. Shock waves rippled through board rooms from Tokyo to New York at the thought that the people might be allowed to decide their fate. Heaven forbid! Calm was restored, of course, when an army of diplomats, bankers, and financial titans strong-armed Papandreou into suspending this vote. For now, apparently, the referendum is off.
Yet despite elite contempt, democracy is a stubborn thing that refuses to go away quietly. I have visited Occupy LA on several occasions and each time I was struck by the high level of both organization and cooperation, not to mention the impressive display of urban planning—all of it on the lawn surrounding City Hall. I assume that similar ‘occupy’ movements are also similarly well organized, which means that the elites are full of shit. No surprise there!
At the southwest entrance to Occupy LA was, yes, a drum circle. Never has such an innocuous, innocent endeavor been so demonized as the rant against drum circles that can be heard throughout the elite press during the occupy movement.
So people sit in a circle and drum while others dance to the rhythm; big deal. In fact the drum circle at Occupy LA is vastly superior to the rage-inducing drum pounding of a typical high school or college football game. Get over it Rush Limbaugh!
On the south end of Occupy LA were the tents where over-nighters slept, and not a single scrap of trash did I see. All the tents were neatly tended and there were plenty of trash cans to make sure there was no litter problem. Next came the steps on the south wing of the City Hall, where anyone, and I mean anyone, could speak. How different from the engineered babble sessions at a typical city council or ‘town hall’ meeting!
South of the steps is a large oak tree where “educationals” are held, in this case a presentation by the International Socialist Organization on why the current economic crisis is part of the larger problem of the capitalist economic system. Shocking!
Along the walkways were tables from which various organizations presented their literature and spin on the events of the day. There were libertarians, anarchists, communists, liberal Democrats, conservative Republicans, socialists, big government types, small government types, and no government types. My own sympathies are with the socialists, but the libertarian “End the Fed” movement is well-represented at Occupy LA. While ending the Fed would in fact cause an even worse economic disaster, the important thing is that it was at least expressed—a view almost completely shut out of the media, our government, and both political parties. Stay-at-home Republicans would be surprised at the large number of ‘occupy’ advocates who believe that the government should cut taxes and cut regulations in order to help small businesses and stimulate the economy.
In short, Occupy LA is a marketplace of ideas, which naturally makes crazy the leaders of our Soviet-style political system. The vitriol on radio, television, cable, and the print media has spewed forth rhetorical questions: what are they doing? raged Fox News. What do they want? asked NPR. What do they hope to achieve? wondered the New York Times.
Like Pat Robertson at a Gay Pride parade, the elites just don’t get it. The message is loud and clear. It is informed, it is nuanced, it is heated and it is respectful, and so therefore the message of the ‘occupy’ movement is incomprehensible to the people that run this nation.
On the north lawn of Occupy LA was located a first aid center, a cafeteria, a library, and a clothing tent. All of it was free, and when I asked how much for V.I. Lenin’s What is to Be Done? the library manager smiled and said, “keep it and just bring some of your books next time.”
You’ll find no junk food at the free kitchen, and I wolfed down an avocado and cheese sandwich on wheat bread with an orange juice chaser and a banana for desert.
On the west side of the ‘occupy’ grounds were the portable toilets and more areas for speakers. Sprinkled throughout were performing artists, painters, musicians, yoga instructors, skateboarders, teenagers, homeless, white, black, brown, and all the shades in-between. Without any direction, without any pre-determined plan, Occupy LA managed to create a far more accurate representation of the people that make up Los Angeles than one would ever find at Lakers’ game, a Glendale shopping mall, or a Lady Gaga concert.
What is missing from Occupy LA is junk food, logo-ridden sound stages, beer concessions, product plugs, scantily-clad hotties passing out glossy promotional fliers, television, Disney, Taco Bell, MacDonald’s, CNN, Dr. Phil, Oprah, John and Ken, and the ghost of Steve Jobs. What is absent from Occupy LA is the toxic swill that is normally rammed down everyone’s throat 24-7 in order to get people to buy shit that they would otherwise never buy.
In 1968 Garret Hardin published his article “The Tragedy of the Commons” in which he argued that communally-owned property would always be mismanaged and fall into disrepair because no individual stood to benefit from its preservation. Yet even a cursory survey of the the urban-industrial nightmare that is Los Angeles, from its abandoned storefronts and warehouses, garbage strewn parking lots, and trashy billboards to its eyesore cell phone and cable towers, boarded up businesses, and dilapidated slum lord-owned apartments, makes clear that it is private, not public property that is subject to the greatest amount of neglect and abuse. Rather than the tragedy of the commons, the real tragedy in the world today is the tragedy of capitalist individualism, in which all of us are hard wired to do anything and everything to accumulate wealth, even if it means stepping on our neighbor, our fellow citizen, our fellow human being.
Conversely, a visit to Occupy LA illustrates that when individuals congregate together in a spirit of democracy, when individuals congregate in the commons, they will organize in a way far superior to the shysters, sociopaths, and human swill that currently run things in this nation and this world.
The following is a talk given by Mike Powelson at California State University Northridge.