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A considerable degree of confusion appears to be attending the ostensible conclusion to the Chicago Teachers’ strike. Indeed, with various interests proclaiming victory, it is difficult to arrive at a clear understanding of just what the outcome portends. Before addressing the facts, however – which are indispensable in any effort to evaluate a situation – a word ought to be given to the context in which the strike unfolded. Among other things, it is important to note that, beyond the talking points regarding school choice, accountability, and teacher and student performance, we must recognize the key austerity impetus subtending the efforts of Rahm Emanuel, and his ilk, to push forward their plan to privatize public schools in Chicago and elsewhere. Like most things that pass for social policy considerations these days, the purpose of shutting down schools and so-called education reform is not the improvement of education so much as it is an effort to convert public schools into private, charter schools.
Whether advanced by the Koch Brother-funded Republican governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker, or the no less business-friendly Democratic mayor Rahm Emanuel, the ongoing attack on labor and public sector employees and unions is at its root just this effort to transform public education into private education. Just as the privatization of public utilities created and continues to create new markets – creating new sources of profits for businesses and further polarizing wealth – the privatization of public schools is a bonanza for businesses, while its benefit to most people is questionable at best. Confronted by this, unlike the public transit workers’ strike waged in London earlier this summer, in which London’s transit workers’ pushed for better working conditions and pay, the Chicago teachers’ strike must not be seen as an offensive strike. Rather than striking to secure better working conditions and better pay, per se, the Chicago teachers’ strike is a defensive, conservative strike, one in which labor is merely attempting to hold onto not only the wages and benefits that were gained through decades of struggle and which are now under threat, but to their jobs themselves.
Under the familiar call for accountability, which masks the push for of austerity (accountability which, it should be noted, is rarely invoked to rein in corporate criminals) Emanuel demanded that Chicago’s teachers concede some of their benefits in the negotiations over the renewal of their labor contract. Among the things that Rahm Emanuel, and the privatizing classes, demanded were longer working days, greater power over the firing of teachers granted to school principals, and teacher performance evaluations that are tied to standardized test scores – the latter two allowing the mayor and his constituency to more easily shutter public schools, and to replace them with private, charter schools. Initially resisting these efforts, the Chicago teachers soon found themselves facing Rahm Emanuel’s threat of a court-ordered injunction. Cowed by this, the teachers’ union agreed to a compromise.
Among the concessions the union agreed to were just what Emanuel asked for: more rigorous teacher evaluations (though they are only partially, rather than wholly determined by standardized test scores), the aggrandizement of the power of principals to hire or fire teachers based on performance – with layoffs now for the first time being determined by teacher performance – and a lengthening of the school day (an increase of half an hour a day for high schools, 75 minutes a day for elementary schools, and two weeks added to the total school year).
Even a cursory look at these concessions must yield the conclusion that rather than achieving a victory, or even a stalemate, the contract under consideration represents a loss for labor in the ongoing class war of attrition. For, among other things, the lengthening of the school day and the school year alone amounts to something close to four extra weeks of work for high school teachers, and considerably more for primary school teachers. Such an extension of the time teachers are expected to work is hardly remunerated by the raises under negotiation. To be sure, when factoring in the extra time they will have to work, teachers won’t receive much of a raise at all. For the first few years of their new contract, when their work load increases by close to 10% and their pay increases by only 3%, they will be taking a loss. And while the teachers did attain some of their demands – books will be more readily available to students – and stave off a more forceful attack by the forces of privatization, they ultimately lost rather than gained ground.
As it is highly relevant, it is worth reflecting for a moment on the legal argument that Rahm Emanuel advanced in favor of seeking to enjoin the teachers to end their strike. In addition to arguing that their strike was illegal because they were demanding more than mere wages, Emanuel argued that the strike was illegal because it threatened public health and safety. Such an argument (which Bloomberg, by the way, invoked in order to eject demonstrators from Zuccotti Park last year) requires a tremendously narrow-minded and shortsighted conceptualization of public health, one which has long been employed as a pretext for power’s designs. Intimidated by this threat, and vilified by the mainstream press, the teachers backed down. Rather than submitting to his power play, however, and ending their strike, the teachers should have counter-argued that it is not they, but Emanuel himself who is harming the public health by creating social conditions that are objectively harmful to not only teachers and students, but to society in general. For if in the short-term the teachers’ strike is conceivably harmful to the public health, Emanuel’s long-term designs pose a substantially greater harm.
Beyond the fact that public health requires a reasonably well-educated public – a public possessing not only a basic understanding of such health issues as the importance of nutrition, sanitation, and exercise, but also an awareness of the prevalence and transmissibility of communicable diseases, not to mention the environmental issues that determine our public health, or lack thereof – such an education must itself be afforded in conditions that are conducive to learning. Crammed into overcrowded classrooms, Chicago’s students and teachers alike are consigned to operate in facilities that are neglected and decrepit to such an extent as to pose serious risks to the public health. Beyond their other deficiencies, many of the classrooms in the Chicago public schools lack basic air-conditioning. In Chicago’s torrid heat, such conditions alone can severely challenge students’ health, and the public health in general, not to mention the more serious problems attending a generally dilapidated infrastructure.
In addition to the conditions that teachers and students encounter within the schools themselves, however, who can reasonably maintain that it is not in the interest of public health to provide decent living conditions to the sizable portion of the public represented by school teachers? For, as much as those who vilify them argue otherwise, teachers are not gluttons so much as the victims of those very gluttons championed by their detractors. Not only is it well-documented and well-known that nearly all teachers eke out a fairly modest living, if the opponents of teachers, and of the working class, have their way the result will be an even greater number of people living in conditions of precarity – conditions which, it should be noted, have been demonstrated by a mountain of studies to be a contributing cause of illness. Beyond the health problems attending poor nutrition and poor housing, for instance, the stress accompanying the inability to make ends meet is itself a significant cause of disease. Producing such conditions can not possibly be in the interest of the public health.
But Rahm Emanuel is not interested in the health of society so much as he is interested in the health of a mere segment of society. This is hardly new; appealing to health is an old trick of such political types. And though he may not be referring to it by name, in arguing that the teachers’ strike is a public health concern, and therefore justifies his putting it down by force (by violence, which is the opposite of health), in many respects Emanuel is invoking the ancient Roman maxim Salus Populi Suprema Lex Esto – the health of the people is the supreme law.
Attributed to the Roman statesman and orator Cicero, the maxim has long been used to justify the machinations of the State and coercive power. Modernly, one of the first political theorists to employ the ancient Roman maxim was none other than the Renaissance political-theorist Niccolo Machiavelli. Titling one of the final sections of his Discourses on Livy with the above maxim, Macchiavelli argued that what was necessary for the health of the people was the supreme law, to which all other laws had to yield. Of course, Macchiavelli’s notion of what comprised ‘the people’ was limited, pretty much, to the prince. Then as now, the people in general were considered something more like a resource from which profit could be extracted. But the maxim’s use is not restricted to princes and their followers.
Fighting against the Royalists in mid-seventeenth century England, and resisting the enclosure, privatization and sale of commonly owned lands, the so-called Levellers appropriated the maxim that the health of the people is the supreme law. Earning their name from their practice of leveling the hedges used to divide the commons, the Levellers argued that the maxim applied not to tyrants and oligarchies, but to the people in general. As such, the Levellers gave the maxim an emancipatory interpretation. Maintaining that it granted people certain rights against the crown, including an extension of the suffrage, the Levellers repeatedly employed the maxim in their struggle for self-government and collective control of lands that had historically been held in common. But the Levellers were not alone in deferring to the maxim. Around the same time, Thomas Hobbes, the great theorist of absolutism, employed the maxim that the health of the people is the supreme law. Rather than the Levellers’ interpretation, however, in his treatise Leviathan Hobbes’ gives the maxim something closer to a Machiavellian reading.
Around the time of Hobbes’s death, John Locke – whose thought was to exert a significant influence on the thought of the North American colonists of the eighteenth century – referred to the maxim in his Second Treatise of Government. And though Locke’s thought is deeply problematic, and he attributes the designation ‘people’ to only a narrow segment of humanity, it is not only important that he employs it against the crown, but his liberatory interpretation of the maxim would be imparted to the North American colonists fighting the British for the ability to govern their own lives. Playing a significant part in the articulation of justice in the years leading up to and beyond the American Revolution, the maxim is appealed to repeatedly as an authority limiting coercive power. Not only did it appear again and again in the writings and speeches of John Adams, among other Founders, the sensibility that the health of the people is the supreme law finds expression in the Declaration of Independence. It is especially noteworthy to remark that in the period following independence from the British, around the time that Shay’s Rebellion was being fought in New England by soldiers and farmers whose homes were seized when they were unable to pay the debts they had accrued while fighting in the war, in the south other debtors challenged their debts as well. Invoking the maxim Salus Populi Suprema Lex Esto, they sought to discharge their debts completely. Arguing that high debts are onerous and against the health of the people, the debtors prevailed. Much to the chagrin of their creditors, their debts were forgiven. If the health of the people is the supreme law, the argument goes, that which is hostile to the health of the people is invalid. As such, contracts that would harm the health of the people were nullified – something debtors today might want to consider.
These two interpretations of the maxim, the emancipatory and the dominating, were employed again and again throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Overriding contracts and property law where these infringed on the health of the people, the maxim was used to shut down slaughterhouses and tanneries, as well as to regulate food production, and other industries. And while the maxim did nothing to liberate people from slavery, and excluded Native Americans, African-Americans, and women, not to mention disabled persons as well as the poor from the designation ‘people,’ it nevertheless possessed an emancipatory content in relation to the harms spread by business – one that, today, ought to be expanded. As the 20th century progressed, however, its emancipatory interpretation gave way to a reading more favorable to dominating power. In referring to the health of the people as the supreme law, this latter type of interpretation favors the health of the State and business interests. That is, it possesses a narrow understanding of health that views the people of the world as a population to be managed, a workforce from which to extract profit, and a resource to employ to further its own particular well being. Indeed, according to this reading, the health of the people is for the wealthy what the health of the horse is to the farmer. The horse, whose job’s to drag and haul and otherwise support the lavish carriages of plutocrats, is not to enjoy health for its own sake. It is this reading of the maxim that Michael Bloomberg referred to in clearing out Zuccotti Park last November, and which now Rahm Emanuel appeals to in breaking the Chicago teachers’ strike.
But while Rahm Emanuel may have learned this tyrannical reading of the maxim from Machiavelli, his hostile treatment of his political opponents leads one to wonder whether he ever learned Machiavelli’s chief insight: that a society cannot function without popular support. Indeed, such support is the only thing preventing a given society from wholly collapsing. And though teachers may be announcing that they’re happy to be returning to work, and Emanuel appears to have won this battle, given the state of the economy and the environment, it may very well be that the next strike won’t be a conservative one like this. Rather, it may be a total, permanent strike. For not only has it become apparent that Rahm Emanuel is an abusive person, it is becoming increasingly obvious that that which he advances – that is, the policies of the Democrats as well as the Republicans, of Romney as much as Obama, of capitalism – is abusive. These are not only abusive to people in general, throughout the world, and to animals as well, it wreaks its abuse upon the entire ecosystem. And just as dignity from time to time compels people to quit abusive work relationships, walking out with no intention or desire of ever returning, the next strike might very well see the people of the world simply quit this abusive system for good. The health and dignity of the people of the world demands it.