Thursday, 21 April 2011

Saving what classes? Saving what dream?


Better than Scott Walker
This will be a long entry, because I will quote a lot from a text by Franco Barchiesi (thanks to Peter Waterman for recommending this) - his ”Notes on the Wisconsin Insurrection”, published on Edufactory on April 14. The quotes are there as a service to the reader - because I find them impressive. If anyone wants to read my own reflections on them, you'll find them at the end of the entry. 

Just two remarks. First: if any reader feels that his or her time is too limited to read all of this, go directly to Barchiesi's text and just read the last paragraph - highly recommended! Secondly, let me state here at once one reason that I found the text so illuminating. It helped me understand better the centrality of slogans about "saving the middle classes" or "saving the American Dream" in the recent demonstrations in the US (See for instance the detailed reports here about "Rally to Save the American Dream", a nationwide manifestation expressing solidarity with the struggle in Madison. “This is more than unions now. This is a fight against the extinction of the middle class,” one protestor is reported to have shouted).

Here's a quote from the beginning of the article, describing the wave of demonstrations in Madison, culminating on March 12 with a 100,000-strong march. The background is of course the rightist Wisconsin state government proposed budget and anti-labor laws which would strip public sector employees of collective bargaining rights.


It was an eruption of iconoclastic irreverence, a joyous mood of insubordination that often contrasted with time-honored imageries of a liberal left – also quite abundant in the Madison demonstrations – sturdily attached to flag-waving and the buzzwords of the “American dream” and the defense of the “middle class"
This passage introduces what I see as the central theme of the text. The protests are placed in a force field, still captive to the "time-honored imageries of a liberal left", but also with a "distinctly new quality about them". Something new and promising is taking form here. "They represented the first instance of a mass, nationally visible mobilization explicitly directed against corporate power and its institutional representatives since the start of the current economic crisis".

In an important next step, Barchiese turns to history to give us some background. It's a long but rewarding quote. In it, he shows that the conservative or "liberal" tendency to back away from open confrontation is rooted in the strong progressive or Leftist legacy of Wisconsin itself. The argument is provocative but important.
The size and radicalism of the Wisconsin demonstrations far surpassed other still significant protests against even more draconian legislation in other Midwestern states, such as Ohio and Indiana. Observers and commentators have explained the particular radicalism of the Wisconsin mobilizations in terms of popular reaction to the authoritarian disruption of local political cultures and moral economies. Many have therefore emphasized labor’s deep roots in the state, the home of a progressive-populist republican strand impersonated at the turn of the past century by senator Robert La Follette and his fulminations at “vast financial power in private hands” and related foes of “the common man – the worker, the farmer.” Historical precedents used by way of explanation are, however, deeply problematic to the extent they assume a static view of political identities that – in a way that surely assuages the celebration of a linear progress so central to the self-image of American left liberalism – reproduce themselves mostly in terms of “tradition” and “heritage”. More useful would be an analysis of the shortcomings, failures, and ambiguities of such political and ideological threads to understand how they are modified and contested by forces, subjectivities, and desires making sense of present social dynamics and power relations.
    In the early twentieth century, agrarian populism and a burgeoning white industrial proletariat boosted by Northern European immigrants echoing German and Scandinavian welfarist ideas propelled both a pioneering social and fiscal legislation and – especially in the 1924 elections when the socialist-backed La Follette ran for president beating the Republican and Democratic candidates in the state – working-class politics. Later Wisconsin became a stronghold of public sector unionism, and was the first state to allow, in 1959, collective bargaining for teachers and local government employees. Central to La Follettian progressivism was the collaboration between the state and the public higher education system, namely the University of Wisconsin (UW) centered on its Madison campus. The state government regarded then the university as a “laboratory for democracy” and a site to experiment with corporatist social compacts infused with strong doses of Christian social doctrine and work ethic. The aim was to turn capitalist industrialization into a process of social stability, reining in the disruptions and dislocations of waged employment. That was dubbed the “Wisconsin idea”, to which prominent intellectuals like labor scholar and UW professor John R. Commons added their contribution towards work-based social measures like unemployment compensation. It was a nationally significant experiment with harnessing workers’ power through productivity pacts for the purposes of orderly capitalist development. It was also a project underpinning specific social hierarchies and orderings of citizenship, at the pinnacle of which stood regular white male breadwinners as embodiments of productive virtue and personal responsibility, the necessary counterparts of the governmental welfarist deal and the factors enabling the participation of the “common man” to the affairs of the state. Commons himself, as a key advisor to La Follette, was in fact convinced that recent immigrants and non-white “races” were prone to sloth and laziness, which made them unsuitable for democracy. His ideas propped up a eugenics movement that was in full swing in the US as similar concepts were translated into policies in the very Scandinavian countries where so many of the Wisconsin working class originated.
Especially people in Sweden, with its "consensus culture" and its pride in a "Swedish model" in which basic social justice is combined with labor peace and superior economic performance, should find ample food for thought here.

Bachieri then turns to the present conjuncture:

It is at this point that historical similarities give way to the need of analyzing the innovations of the current phase and its unfolding antagonisms. At odds with capital’s optimism for its ability to reshape the social and natural reality, central to the mythology of the old Gilded Age, the new Gilded Age is rather marked by the desperate quest by the US ruling classes of profit-making alternatives to the continuous decline of the country’s imperial position and the still unresolved accumulation crisis following the 2008 collapse. It is a frantic search that, nonetheless, reveals little vision beyond the most blatant and shortsighted financial grab of livelihoods and resources. Organized labor, the partner of old techniques of social control and progressive-Fordist productivity pacts, is now cast as an “un-American” self-serving special interest, when not a cause of economic decline and social decay. Far from confidently representing itself as the pinnacle of an inclusive, upwardly mobile social order, the white middle class is increasingly lured into resentful images – which movements like the Tea Party consciously abet by fanning popular anxieties over imperial eclipse – of national purity under threat by a host of imaginary assailants, which depictions rife with racial stereotypes of the public sector, its programs, and its beneficiaries ominously fit. The evaporation of organized labor, sponsored by neoliberal administrations and aided by unions assuming the role of enforcers of productive discipline and global competitiveness, has resulted in a working population with a unionization rate of less than 7 percent in the private sector, rising to 12 percent overall due to the organization of public employees. In Wisconsin, about half of the 300,000 government workers are unionized, but they are only 6 percent of those with jobs, two million of which work in casual and precarious positions. The convenient rhetoric of “change” generously deployed by Obama to win the 2008 elections gained a lot of traction in Wisconsin too as the state went Democratic, but was followed by the usual rude awakening once President Obama and his aides quickly and cynically dismantled their left-wing grassroots support. The White House and the Democratic National Committee have actually intervened to discourage party representatives from endorsing the Wisconsin protests, the timing of which interfered with the President’s priority of recruiting bipartisan consent for his “win the future” vision. As an unforgiving approach to global competitiveness seen as a cut-throat race against China and other emerging economy, Obama’s “winning the future” requires the systematic defunding in the present of public entitlement-based programs and the reorientation of state support towards a cognitive capitalism where corporate interests determine the content and objectives of knowledge while critical debate as well as workers’ rights and social contestation are deemed unaffordable luxuries.
Note that the passage portrays two "actors" that are both struggling and in the course of their struggle inflicting injustice on others. First, there is the American elite and their frantic quest to keep up a tolerably profitable level of capital accumulation and preserve their imperial hegemony from slipping over into Chinese hands . Second, there is the resentful white middle class, jealous of its rights and seemingly not giving a thought to the mass of cheap and dispensible workers.

So where, then, does the radicalism come from, that genuinely "new" quality Barchiesi detected in the protests? One source is the university, home of the cognitariat, part of the very stratum of precarious workers customarily neglected by the unions and left out of all agreements with power. 
In a state with a 90 percent white population, the numerical success of the protests can also, sadly and paradoxically, be explained with the fact that the institutions could not resort to usual racial scapegoating by presenting the beneficiaries of union rights and collective bargaining as undeserving, dependency-prone, and work-shy blacks and Latinos. As the legacy of Wisconsin progressivism many demonstrators reclaimed also contains distasteful aspects of the state’s settler inheritance, the place of whiteness as a factor underpinning collective solidarity remains a thorny, little debated question in the demonstrations. Yet, even if only 6 percent of Wisconsin’s population is black, the large African-American community in Milwaukee – one hour drive from Madison and a local context of appalling poverty, segregation, and mass incarceration – remained largely distant from the protests. How resonant is, therefore, the Wisconsin insurrection with oppositional practices where blacks, Latinos, and migrants constitute the majority? Similar questions can be raised on the unassailable centrality of “the unions” in activist discourse: how does it speak to the precariously employed? How does it come to term with organized labor’s own history of corporatism, racial exclusions, defense of occupational privilege, and collaboration with neoliberal restructuring? Finally, one should also question how the nostalgic evocation of past welfarism, of which collective bargaining is ostensibly a cornerstone, keeps presenting governmental intervention as the harbinger of progress and social justice, ignoring how, even in the golden age of US social policy, such intervention has operated through the stigmatization of the poor, extremely residual and racially biased safety nets, gender hierarchies, and the unrelenting injunction to find employment as the exalted condition of virtuous social inclusion. In the absence of a critical interrogation of these trajectories, which optimistic claims of an unbroken left progressive legacy tends to paper over, the resignification of social struggles into a language of liberal-democratic freedoms is not only shortsighted as a discourse of alternative, but operates indeed as a key component in the very structure of subjection that the Wisconsin events questioned. Not only did the demonstrations and occupations reclaim rights and protections now under threat; they also practiced a reappropriation of politics as the autonomous expression of common forms of life. Thinking of the reappropriation of the common as a political project means critically engaging this and similar movements as much as the forces and strategies they oppose.
Barchiesi's assessment is thus that there is potential here after all, provided that the Wisconsin insurrection can "contribute to advancing a democracy of the common" not just in slogans but in actual practices. However, his closing words a grim and come close to sounding like a condemnation.

The radicalism of the demonstrations and occupations drew its energy from the fact that those taking part in them articulated not only the concerns of worn-out identities of past struggles (the union-based “middle class” with its productive patriotism) but also the claims arising from the precarious predicament of multitudes with little or no direct experience of the socially stable, protected life such identities nostalgically fantasize. In this perspective, the conflicts that originate from higher education as it embraces corporate imperatives and rationality are decisive elements of innovation in the Wisconsin struggles. Walker’s envisaged separation of UW’s two flagship campuses (Madison and Milwaukee) reflects the “New Badger Partnership” advocated by UW-Madison’s chancellor “Biddy” Martin. The result would be to restructure the most prestigious sites of the waning public system from “state agencies” into semi-private, commercialized “public authorities” or “charter campuses” with broad and autonomous powers in setting tuition, employment conditions, tenure criteria, and relations with outside contractors. It is a major step towards the end of statewide systems of “land grant” public institutions, pioneered in the Midwest and of which the old Fordist-welfarist social compact of the “Wisconsin idea” made a cornerstone in the state’s economy. In their place there would thus be a tiered university system mirroring labor market inequalities and hierarchies: private elite and nominally public campuses aspiring to Ivy League-type status would provide a diverse, well-rounded training, administered by academic superstars, for the children of the ruling classes; the remains of the existing public system would focus on professional degrees for intermediate managerial and technical jobs; finally, a vast layer of depleted colleges and universities would offer vocational and practically-oriented training, through legions of adjuncts and teaching assistants at poverty wages, for the swelling ranks of the precarious cognitariat. [...]The sustained participation of graduate students in the Wisconsin insurrection revealed not so much the appeal of old left – liberal or populist – identities, narratives, and traditions, but a critical awareness of the contradictory place cognitive labor occupies in governmental imagination: praised as the engine of recovery, yet invited to continuous sacrifices and to think of itself as infinitely flexible and malleable; productive of knowledge in the socially cooperative networks of a university system that still calls itself “public”, yet subject to the constant private appropriation of the fruits of this social cooperation; invited to play a crucial role of economic stabilization, yet having its own daily existence constantly destabilized and precarized by market discipline.

                                                              *

Let me now, loosely based on the quotes above, put down a few brief reflexions. In these I will try to expand the picture a bit further than Barchiesi. The result will be a sketch, and a rough one at that. Let me call it a kind of rumination on the kind of politics that might be possible today.

Let me return, first, to the observation I made above that both the corporate elite and the white middle class come forward as fighting rather desperate battles. They both appear as what I think could be termed conservative actors, anxious to preserve on the one hand a threatened hegemony and rate of profit, and on the other a threatened status and standard of living. The defensive nature of the both these struggles strikes me as significant for three reasons. Firstly, it confirms the observation - made by Ulrich Beck and others - that today's struggles don't seem to be so much about the distribution of wealth and riches any more, as about the distribution of risks and sacrifices. Secondly, it seems safe to say that the shift towards the latter kind of distribution struggle goes hand in hand with an intensification of the struggle. The Swedish socialdemocratic model as well as the "Wisconsin" idea both demonstrate how easily it is for workers and elites to come to amiable agreements as long as the conflict is mainly about the distribution of wealth. Thirdly, the fact that both elites and middle classes share a certain conservative orientation creates something likea paradox: the fact that both are keen to defend something is what intensifies the conflict, but it is also what creates a possible - and from a Leftist perspective, rather poisonous - common ground for these antagonists, noticeable in slogans such as "saving the American dream", a dream, one could say, about restoring the old harmonious relationship between billionaires and workers in which large parts of the working class started to identify as middle class.

For many reasons, I believe that the standard of living must be lowered in the "old" core economies (Europe, North America, Japan) from now on. One reason is the environment. We will not be able to extract energy and other resources forever. Another is the rise of the "rest" of the world outside the West. We will not be able to buy cheap T-shirts from the global south for ever either. Much of the affluent life enjoyed in the "old" core has depended on a de facto imperialism which will have to end. The third reason has to do with the shift of the global hegemony from the USA to East Asia and how this shift is related to debt. The more the motors of capital accumulation move outside the countries of the old "core", the more the populations within that core will have to depend on debt to maintain standards of living. Demand is kept up through a hypertrophy of the credit economy, foreign loans and other infusions of foreign capital. This happens partly in order to keep up the semblance of profitability (Harvey's "temporal fixes") and partly because governments know that politicies that would lower the standard of living will be unpopular.

However, since competitive "new" core economies and other holders of spare capital only have a limited interest in financing high standards of living in the old "core" - namely so long as it yields desirable returns in some form - there will be pressure among elites in the old core to lower the dependency on foreign capital flows, and cutting debts in order to "restore competetiveness". This pressure is manifested in the hypersensitivity of the market to even moderate levels of indebtment (as in Portugal) and in the popular mantras of governments everywhere about the need to cut back and reduce.

So, there wil be pressure for a lowering of standards of living. It can take three forms: 

1) Lowering the standard of living of the poorest, most marginal and politically weakest elements of the population (immigrants, the sick, the homeless, the unemployed, the elderly, children, students...). That would meant disbanding the welfare state and curtailing large chunks of the public sector. This is what we see happening in Sweden now under its present rightist government.

2) Lowering the standard of living of the middle classes (including workers with secure employment). This is hugely unpopular, as the protests in Madison demonstrate. It is an attack on the bulk of population, the mass of voters and the very basis of the productive labor force. It risks alienating and radicalizing the middle class. Only some, I fear, will join the Left. Many will turn to rightexremism, fuelling the racisms and "immigrant hostile" movements so conspicuous in Europe today.

3) Lowering the standard of living of the richest. This is certainly the most reasonable and rational solution, but it will encounter fierce resistance from the most powerful elements in society, who - apart from the economic and political clout - today enjoy ideological hegemony. To maintain growth and restore competitiveness, we need to increase the income gap - that is the argument, which almost nobody dares to gainsay nowadays.

The struggle about the distribution of sacrifices will be a struggle about where among these three options the brunt of the lowering of the standard of life will happen.

The right enjoys ideological hegemony today, mainly since they have been able to go for the first option. As long as they limit their attacks to the weakest and most marginal groups in society, they enjoy the support of mainstream opinion and most of the middle classes. That is more or less the situation in Sweden today. The slogan used by the rightist government - "It should pay to work" - is an attempt to drive a wedge between the employed and the unemployed portions of the working class. In a parody of the American dream it is asserted that anybody is able to get a job, provided that they are willing to work. Meanwhile, the brunt of the sacrifices are heaped on the back of the chroncially sick and the unemployed. Not even a collapse of the ideological hegemony of the right will necessarily favor the Left. In Sweden too there are already "white middle classes" eager to lash out aggressively against the weakest in society and eager to save the Swedish dream.

The Left is certainly in disarray. Social democracy was once able to provide a bridge between the weakest groups and the employed classes in the middle, but that was in the age when the prime political issue concerned the distribution of wealth. How will things be when this issue is overshadowed by the distribution of what many will feel to be sacrifices? Raising taxes for the rich is of course a necessary measure which might represent a viable line of continuity for the social democrats. Raising taxes, however, was more popular when Keynesianism still held sway and provided a theory for those who wanted to argue that a greater public sector role in the economy could actually improve economic performance. This worked fine until economic hegemony started to dissolve in the old "core", a process that Keynesianism was unable to reverse. The onset of hegemonic decline coincided in time with the shift away from struggles about the distribution of wealth towards struggles about the distribution of felt sacrifices. The crisis of social democracy in Sweden and many countries today is closely linked to that of capitalism - or at least of capitalism in the "old" core.

If, in such a harsh climate, a possible ground for solidarity can be discerned, how would it look? Merely reviving Keynesianism won't be sufficient. To begin with, the very idea of competetiveness and growth is suspect. In a world in which the the game of chasing hegemony is the only game in town, the idea of competetiveness will always be used as a blackmail against workers. Sharing the meagre resources that are available is the only realistic form of solidarity, plus struggling against the rich and powerful to make them pay their share of course. In the precarity movement there is an inspiring ambiguity, a desire to strive in two directions at once. On the one hand there is an "anti-poverty" orientation expressed in the demand for material security and joyful angry slogans such as "Hand over the money!". On the other there is a "Viva poverty" orientation, an orientation driven by the realization that true freedom is also a freedom from the obsession with material wealth and careers and that it can very well mean self-chosen poverty. There is on the one side a desire for justice, driven by anger, and on the other a desire for peace, driven by what I feel is a desire for happiness and freedom. It may sound schizophrenic, but as far as I can see this movement's hit the right spot. The only way forward is to move in both directions at once.

"If I work, I think I will be a loser" (from the Kyoto Mayday of dispersal and disobedience, April 2010). An expression of "Viva Poverty"?


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