FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The Bitter Wisconsin Cold Warmed by a Moscow Breeze

It’s been a harsh several weeks in Madison, Wisconsin for demonstrators against the governor and legislature, worse for the Progressive Era reforms being swiftly eliminated, one after the other. For those who aren’t following life in the Flyover regions, Right To Work passed the state Senate and is moving on to the Assembly, this coming week. With Republicans in charge, passage is all but certain. Also: temperatures rarely rise to the 20s.

We could reflect upon the great Uprising of 2011, the months of often massive demonstrations against “Act 10,” stripping state workers of their rights. But what I have in my mind is, rather, 1970. The contrasts are jarring.  Back then, students stood at center stage. These days, students—teaching assistants aside—seem largely absent, despite the hardships that the new state measures are certain to place upon them. Yet, buses arrive in Madison from Milwaukee, from Racine, Kenosha and LaCrosse, Wausau and Wisconsin Rapids, bringing hundreds of unionists, active and retirees to demonstrate at the Wisconsin Capitol—something that would never have happened in the antiwar days. A steelworker-orator even proposes a General Strike! Something that not only did not ever happen, but still seems improbable, lamentably.

We march to keep warm, and amidst the rubbing of hand warmers inside gloves, we appreciate the genuine enjoyment in marching, the human solidarity and the funny signs. Many of them are directed against the otherwise laughable, would-be presidential contender/governor Scott Walker. For us, he looks and acts like a Bad Howdy Doody.  Contemplating Walker and the Koch Brothers, a major source of funds, I remember a sign inspired by the old Wisconsin red light trade for summer season Chicago businessmen, “The money is on the dresser, Scotty!”

Marching just behind me, a nurse-unionist offers a Teamster a quip or truism that I never heard. Her union steward had “Prime Beef” tattooed “on her butt.” A pleasant joke to her husband (lover?). A better joke—she said—on her rest home caregiver, when she gets flipped over, in the years to come. This nurse has been there and seen worse.  One of many middle agers, this spunky lady, facing reality with more jokes to come.

Looking for other bright spots, I find one not too deeply buried in my memory:  a campus lecture by a visiting Boris K a little over a week earlier. This is a guy used to politics in the cold!

What brings it to mind is also the odd Russophobic trope that has seemingly invaded television and films, from The Americans (now in its Nth season) to the over-the-top Marvel’s Miss Carter, with its dramatization of Russian mentality and her balletic-like judo assaults on those who threatened America…in 1946!

Back in the present, a full room of perhaps 40-50, mostly older listeners, including many experienced political activists who I might see in the chilly demonstrations, gathered, under the auspices of the Havens Center (itself endangered thanks to hostility from the Republican state legislature), snatching up every available chair. We happen to be in the Memorial Union, down the hall from the large rooms where raucous arguments over tactics for the antiwar demonstrations of 1967-71 echoed over so many nights.

Boris is charming, a humorous, somewhat self-deprecatory lecturer, better in his imperfect English that I am with almost any unknown audience. Most of us know about, even if we did not read, the book that made Kagarlistky famous in the West: his Empire of the Periphery: Russia and the World System (2008), a survey of Russia’s rise as an imperial state from late medieval times to the recent restoration of capitalism, emphasizing its relation to western Europe.

He spoke to us for perhaps 70 minutes, rarely repeating, never sounding didactic or overbearing. From my listening, here are a few key points.

The Western press treatment of Russia and the Ukrainian crisis is completely misleading, he noted, but no worse than that inside Russia, where the television is pro-Putin, the radio network anti-Putin, and both owned by the same oligarch!

Behind this mass or mess of misinformation, he located a few realities for the eager audience. The traumatic recession in the closing years of the century destroyed nearly half Russian manufacture, but a small recovery  prompted some new businesses, typified by small-scale travel agents. Millions of more prosperous Russians now could visit abroad, and wanted to do so, urgently. Also the rising of oil and some other commodities brought back some prosperity.

But overall, the economy did not “develop,” it only “expanded,” and after a century of being a leading developed economy, Russia had become a “developing” economy, Third Worldish, supplying raw materials to the world.  With the fall of oil prices, serious troubles lay ahead.

Putin, considered by outsiders to be all-powerful, was actually put forward by a section of the oligarchs as weak, something more than a figure head but less than a convincing leader, which was just what they wanted. They have fallen out among themselves over strategies for their particular investments, but in some ways, the oligarchs of some mining and manufacturing, along with the military, are holding on determinedly to a medium version of the social state. That is, and for their own reasons; slow privatization. Others, now avidly anti-Putin, want rapid privatization, most especially of the health system, the most expensive and, by ordinary folks, the most needed part of the whole system.

What of the working class? Boris observed that the lies told about life in Russia had long since convinced Russian workers that the lies told about alleged Socialism must reflect lies about the realities of Western capitalism. Reading Moscow propaganda backward, capitalism European and American style just had to be a sort of utopia for consumers and workers. Soon enough, after 1990, these illusions shattered, but nothing, no conceptual alternative let alone a political one, arrived in their place. As the Russian economy falls, Boris predicted, so will Putin. Then the workers will have their chance.

What of the Ukraine? Boris spoke briefly—this was not his topic—but to the point of the general misunderstanding. He observed, for example, that Russia sent tanks to the rebels…and Russian factories supply used tank parts to the Ukrainian military. Economic relations continue no matter what, and this suggests a play-acting-game that will, eventually, find a conclusion. The eagerness of the West to overplay its hand is mirrored by Russian claims about Ukrainian Fascism, a very real thing but not, so far, as central as seen from Moscow or some observers from the West.

Which leaves us Wisconsinites where we were, already. Facing our own wave of privatization, our own need to fight back against austerity, lies, selfishness, stupidity and perhaps a touch of fascism. Boris, we’re with you. What happens next?

Paul Buhle is co-editor with Mari Jo Buhle of It Started in Wisconsin: Dispatches from the Front Lines of Social Protest (2012). His mother was a nurse.

(The journal of the German Left Party, maintains a page with his essays that have been translated into English, here:  http://links.org.au/taxonomy/term/629

More articles by:

Paul Buhle is a retired historian, and co-founder, with Scott Molloy, of an oral history project on blue collar Rhode Islanders.

September 24, 2018
Max Wilbert
Blue Angels: the Naked Face of Empire
Weekend Edition
September 21, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Alexandra Isfahani-Hammond
Hurricane Florence and 9.7 Million Pigs
Andrew Levine
Israel’s Anti-Semitism Smear Campaign
Paul Street
Laquan McDonald is Being Tried for His Own Racist Murder
Brad Evans
What Does It Mean to Celebrate International Peace Day?
Nick Pemberton
With or Without Kavanaugh, The United States Is Anti-Choice
Jim Kavanagh
“Taxpayer Money” Threatens Medicare-for-All (And Every Other Social Program)
Jonathan Cook
Palestine: The Testbed for Trump’s Plan to Tear up the Rules-Based International Order
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: the Chickenhawks Have Finally Come Back Home to Roost!
David Rosen
As the Capitalist World Turns: From Empire to Imperialism to Globalization?
Jonah Raskin
Green Capitalism Rears Its Head at Global Climate Action Summit
James Munson
On Climate, the Centrists are the Deplorables
Robert Hunziker
Is Paris 2015 Already Underwater?
Arshad Khan
Will Their Ever be Justice for Rohingya Muslims?
Jill Richardson
Why Women Don’t Report Sexual Assault
Dave Clennon
A Victory for Historical Accuracy and the Peace Movement: Not One Emmy for Ken Burns and “The Vietnam War”
W. T. Whitney
US Harasses Cuba Amid Mysterious Circumstances
Nathan Kalman-Lamb
Things That Make Sports Fans Uncomfortable
George Capaccio
Iran: “Snapping Back” Sanctions and the Threat of War
Kenneth Surin
Brexit is Coming, But Which Will It Be?
Louis Proyect
Moore’s “Fahrenheit 11/9”: Entertaining Film, Crappy Politics
Ramzy Baroud
Why Israel Demolishes: Khan Al-Ahmar as Representation of Greater Genocide
Ben Dangl
The Zapatistas’ Dignified Rage: Revolutionary Theories and Anticapitalist Dreams of Subcommandante Marcos
Ron Jacobs
Faith, Madness, or Death
Bill Glahn
Crime Comes Knocking
Terry Heaton
Pat Robertson’s Hurricane “Miracle”
Dave Lindorff
In Montgomery County PA, It’s Often a Jury of White People
Louis Yako
From Citizens to Customers: the Corporate Customer Service Culture in America 
William Boardman
The Shame of Dianne Feinstein, the Courage of Christine Blasey Ford 
Ernie Niemi
Logging and Climate Change: Oregon is Appalachia and Timber is Our Coal
Jessicah Pierre
Nike Says “Believe in Something,” But Can It Sacrifice Something, Too?
Paul Fitzgerald - Elizabeth Gould
Weaponized Dreams? The Curious Case of Robert Moss
Olivia Alperstein
An Environmental 9/11: the EPA’s Gutting of Methane Regulations
Ted Rall
Why Christine Ford vs. Brett Kavanaugh is a Train Wreck You Can’t Look Away From
Lauren Regan
The Day the Valves Turned: Defending the Pipeline Protesters
Ralph Nader
Questions, Questions Where are the Answers?
Binoy Kampmark
Deplatforming Germaine Greer
Raouf Halaby
It Should Not Be A He Said She Said Verdict
Robert Koehler
The Accusation That Wouldn’t Go Away
Jim Hightower
Amazon is Making Workers Tweet About How Great It is to Work There
Robby Sherwin
Rabbi, Rabbi, Where For Art Thou Rabbi?
Vern Loomis
Has Something Evil This Way Come?
Steve Baggarly
Disarm Trident Walk Ends in Georgia
Graham Peebles
Priorities of the Time: Peace
Michael Doliner
The Department of Demonization
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail