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The Hooks of the Machine

Can the Left Learn the Lessons of the WFP Debacle?

by JOHN HALLE

It was often said of my maternal uncle that whatever his character flaws (significant, by all accounts) “that guy could sell a broken refrigerator to an eskimo.”  Based on the reaction to last weekend’s convention debacle, it’s pretty much impossible not to issue the same back handed compliment to the Working Families Party with the defective product  being, of course, the right wing Cuomo candidacy marketed to the left eskimos in Albany.

Most remarkable about this particular sales job was that the left knew exactly what it was purchasing.  So odiously reactionary were the policies of the notorious Governor 1% that for weeks before the convention, WFP functionaries were assuring the left that they would never consider an endorsement, those of us suggesting it right wing trolls or provocateurs.

That was before last weekend when the WFP leadership required their spinmeisters to perform an Orwellian pirouette which they executed brilliantly.  They did not, as might be expected, characterize the deal as a regrettable compromise necessary to maintain the party’s “viability” and (by implication) its connection to the unions who provide its financial lifeline.  Rather they doubled down hyping a few puny concessions (immediately walked back by the Governor) as a triumph for the left, demonstrating, yet again, the WFP’s combination of “savvy, principle and sophistication”, dipping into the grab bag of adjectives provided by numerous previous puff pieces in the Nation, In These Times and the American Prospect.

This was the line emanating from, among others, Richard Kirsch of the Roosevelt Institute who denied “that the New York Working Families Party’s endorsement of a Wall Street, austerity Democrat – Andrew Cuomo – is a defeat for the surging progressive wing of the Democratic Party.”  Rather than believing our lying eyes, according Kirsch we need to recognize that “(i)n fact, just the opposite is true.”

Also weighing in via a profile on WFP head Daniel Cantor in Politico was former congressional staffer David Sirota. For Sirota, the endorsement is consistent with the WFP’s strategy to become “the tea party of the left”, a peculiar comparison given that the Tea Party refusal to compromise is precisely what has made them anathema to Washington insiders.

These pieces were typical of the left reaction, though, to be fair, some of the praise for WFP was combined with a recognition of the “troubling” ambiguities involved.

To find a more critical perspective one had to go to the far reaches of the left inhabited by Jacobin Magazine which ran a short piece I found myself compelled to write, as no one else would do the necessary job of sewage disposal.

But even here, the hooks of the WFP machine were evident as the editors chose to re-post at exactly the same time a gaseous faux critical apologia penned by a Yale PhD candidate accompanied by the editorial instruction to “consider the concessions wrung out of (Cuomo) . . . (b)efore writing off the Working Families Party’s endorsement as yet another capitulation.”

The question begged by the above is what accounts for the kid gloves treatment accorded the WFP.  The left is hardly unknown for being insufficiently vigilant in policing its own ranks for signs of contamination by right wing ideology, the denunciatory choruses of “check your privilege” emanating from some quarters of the left being a notable, and conspicuous example.  Why does a party’s consistent endorsement of an objectively right wing governance get a pass from much of the left?

One reason, as I suggested previously, is the role of the unions in the WFP pre-empts criticism.  First because it is seen as conferring working class authenticity the lack of which academics tend to be insecure about-this despite the fact by now, a unionized worker’s salary and benefit package would be a panacea for many of those attempting to enter the academic ranks.  (A reveaing comparison is the salary of the unionized U.C. Davis Police Lieutenant John Pike being more than double that of the assistant professor he attacked in the now legendary assembly line pepper spraying incident.)

Second, related to the first, is the traditional role of labor unions as a employment ladder, and in some cases, a life line, to campus leftists for whom jobs in the corporate world are for either practical or temperamental reasons (both laudable) not an option.  A well worn path runs from graduate students involved in unionization drives or undergrads in various Student Labor Action Movement chapters to positions as organizers or within SEIU or HERE.  Also within this category are labor studies programs and think tanks employing many left academics which are often financed by the unions themselves.  As I have written elsewhere, close ties between the unions and this (admittedly small) wing of the academy have had the consequence of an excessively credulous and insufficiently critical views of the unions, and union leadership in particular.  One indication is revealed by a JSTOR search of the archives of the professional journal Labor History failing to turn up a single reference to the legendarily corrupt union boss “Greedy” Gus Bevona and very few having to do with union corruption.  A similar bias was evident in the mostly hostile response to Fitch’s book by those in the profession typified by the Nation review by NYU Professor Kim Phillips-Fein.

The WFP convention should have provided a teachable moment for the left.

And it can still be if we don’t allow the official voices of the left establishment to convince us that the recent emission of bodily fluids by the WFP is a refreshing spring rain.

John Halle blogs at Outrages and Interludes