Why Madison Matters

Progressivess look at Wisconsin – and labor struggles to come in Indiana, Ohio, New Jersey and elsewhere – and rightly see Republicans on the attack. The Supreme Court’s dreadful Citizens United ruling gave corporations and labor unions carte blanche to buy elections; were the unions gone, that would leave just the corporations. And with private sector unions on the skids, especially after NAFTA, public sector unions are all that stand in the way of unbridled corporate dominance of a political system where money almost always prevails. Since corporations generally prefer Republicans to Democrats, Republicans have everything to gain, and Democrats everything to lose, if Wisconsin’s Tea Party governor, Scott Walker, gets his way.

It’s hard to understand how anyone who has been sensate over the past two years could regret misfortunes befalling Democrats, though many liberals still do. But the fact remains that the Democrats are the much lesser evil of our two semi-official parties. This is why, however much Obama has betrayed the interests of every one of his core constituencies, including labor, whoever runs against him is likely to be worse by orders of magnitude. Democrats and Republicans serve the same paymasters and uphold their interests with almost equal fervor; and, thanks to Bill Clinton, even the Democrats’ flacid social democratic wing has been largely decimated. They deserve whatever they get. But the alternative is even more awful. Therefore it does matter that the Republican onslaught be beaten back.

As the struggle in Wisconsin intensifies, it is becoming clearer, especially in labor circles, that its Democrats versus Republicans aspect is only secondary to a larger assault by capital on labor. This matters more than how Democrats and Republicans fare in up-coming elections.

What is at stake is the endgame of the so-called Reagan Revolution. In a world where liberals are no longer particularly bothered by gaping inequalities or by a Nobel peace laureate who wages multiple self-defeating wars of choice or by a Constitutional law professor who continues Bush era attacks on the rule of law (while protecting Bush era war criminals from being brought to justice) or by an environmentalist who does nothing of consequence to keep corporate America from wreaking havoc upon the planet or a community organizer who stifles efforts to relieve poverty (disingenuously, in the name of cutting budgetary deficits), a full consummation of the Reaganite program is not far off. A victorious assault on organized labor would settle the matter once and for all. Fortunately, for all of us, this is an outcome workers – or, as liberals now say, “the middle class” – cannot abide. Neither should anyone else. This is one battle the workers must win.

But even this is not the main reason why Madison matters. It isn’t just Democratic-leaning unions that Walker and his Tea Party colleagues want to undo – it’s public sector unions. This matters for reasons that are much more obscure than the others but that are plainly related to many of our contemporary afflictions — the financialization of contemporary capitalism, the globalization of manufacturing and trade, and, more generally, the world-wide assault on social and economic advances won at great cost over the past century and a half. The problem, in short, is that to survive, capitalism must expand – and, with so few areas left for expansion, the public sphere is a target too tempting to resist.

This is why economic elites have set their sights on those institutions that have so far avoided thoroughgoing commodification. No one these days protects them more than those who work in them. Certainly, the Obama administration does not. It is no accident that teachers are in the foreground of the struggle to save collective bargaining in Wisconsin. Of course, they care about their own rights and wellbeing, but they also care about public education. Can we say the same of Arne Duncan and Barack Obama?

No one knows how the events now taking place in Madison will unfold. But this much is clear: they put the privatization of the public sphere in question to a degree that little else has in recent decades.

When public sector workers struggle to keep the public sphere alive, they are engaging in perhaps the main domestic struggle of our time. We should join them unequivocally – seeking not just to restore pre-Reaganite levels of social solidarity, but to move beyond their horizons. The forces behind Scott Walker understand this; increasingly, workers and their allies understand it too. They are coming to realize that their efforts to retain collective bargaining rights in the face of a vicious right-wing assault have for now made Madison Ground Zero in an on-going battle in which the stakes are as high as can be.

ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.


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ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

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