Having gutted public sector unions in Wisconsin, attacking organized labor in one of its proudest strongholds, Governor Scott Walker now has his sights set on another of his state’s glories, the University of Wisconsin.
His target is the entire university and college system, but what sets him off most is Wisconsin’s “flagship” campus in Madison.
Some of America’s most nefarious capitalists — the Koch Brothers, especially — are telling him what to do; and rightwing public policy think tanks, like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), are telling him how to do it.
This is the bad news. The good news is that Walker is a flyweight – no less risible than any of the other buffoons seeking the Republican nomination for President in 2016.
Better still: the Republican legislators laying the state waste along with him make him look formidable in comparison.
The Kochs and the others bought themselves one shoddy crew.
Then why are Wisconsin Republicans on such a roll?
Part of the explanation is that Democrats are a feckless lot. Add to that the sad fact that, except where its immediate interests are concerned, the Obama administration is only good for malign neglect.
Had Obama campaigned against Walker in the special recall election in 2012, or in the regular election last year, Walker would today be yesterday’s lunch.
But Obama was too busy chatting up plutocrats and composing kill lists; he couldn’t be bothered.
The national Democratic Party decided not to make defeating Walker a priority either. Their only concern was reelecting the Commander-in-Chief.
Obama and Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, the Democratic National Committee’s hapless stoolperson, have a lot to answer for. But it is not entirely their fault that Walker is devastating one state and threatening to devastate forty-nine more, or that there is a small, but not negligible, chance that someday he will be set loose upon the rest of the world.
There are also deeper, structural and historical, factors at work.
The United States has become a homogenized consumer society. From sea to shining sea, there are the same big box chain stores, the same junk food emporia, and the same mind-numbing media outlets. And there are Democrats and Republicans.
Nevertheless, there are still sectional and regional variations. America is a vast country, after all; and notwithstanding the motto that the Continental Congress placed on the seal of the United States in 1782, e pluribus unum, its parts cannot really be made into one. Homogenization has limits.
Demographically, culturally, politically and in countless other ways, the upper Midwest is subtly different from the rest of the country, and Wisconsin is subtly different from nearby states.
For historical and demographic reasons, its political cleavages run unusually deep. This is one reason why, whether for good or ill, when politicians in Wisconsin break new ground, the consequences sometimes resonate far and wide.
* * *
The first European settlers, after the Louisiana Purchase, were, of course, Yankees moving west. But they were never very numerous. German and Scandinavian immigrants populated the state.
The Germans started arriving en masse after 1848, fleeing the repression that followed the revolutionary upheavals of that year. Mass immigration from Scandinavian countries ensued in the decades that followed.
Near the Illinois border and in Milwaukee, there were spillovers from the waves of immigrants who settled in and around Chicago; and, in time, African Americans migrated in from the South.
Then, since the sixties, when the rules regulating immigration were made less racist, immigrants again came to America from all over the world. Some of them settled in Wisconsin.
Like the African Americans who came up from the South, the new immigrants gathered mainly in regions where there were factory jobs. But, even in those areas, persons of German and Scandinavian descent continue to predominate.
Wisconsin is therefore whiter, more Lutheran, less Anglo, and less “ethnic” (eastern and southern European) than the states immediately to its east or its south.
This gives its “progressive” politics a distinctive cast.
Ever since its more radical members broke away to form the Communist Party after World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution, the Socialist Party of the United States, what remained of it, has been nothing if not tame. Even so, it is telling that, before 1960, Milwaukee had no fewer than twelve socialist mayors.
Also Wisconsin was where more than a few Progressive era and New Deal reformers cut their teeth.
Blame it on the state’s Lutheran and German Catholic culture, blame it on the weather –but Wisconsin progressivism has generally been more moralistic, more values and less interest driven, than progressive politics elsewhere in the United States.
Of course, there have been other species of homegrown values-driven politics. Some of them have left their stamp on American history, just as surely as Wisconsin progressivism has.
There were Anglo-Protestant abolitionists, for example, and Quakers; and there have always been high-minded people everywhere. But, in Wisconsin (and, with important variations in Minnesota), a distinctive kind of moralism shaped the larger political culture to an unusual degree.
Until recently, this ethos was bipartisan.
There have also always been reactionaries aplenty.
However, in the modern era, few, if any of them, have been Democrats. The GOP is, and long has been, the Wisconsin reactionary’s natural home.
Wisconsin reactionaries evince a “populist” streak, but their populism is not quite the same as in other parts of the country.
For one thing, with so few African Americans around (except in some of the larger cities), racism was seldom an important factor. And with a non-Anglo population that was overwhelmingly whiter than white, old-fashioned American nativism was less important in Wisconsin than elsewhere.
For the most part, Wisconsin’s reactionaries have never been especially ideological either.
They are just somehow born to be Right. There is something else too: when they are bad, they are very very bad. It is their nature.
Over the past century, the La Follettes and people like them, the good guys, usually prevailed over the (Joe) McCarthys. But, not always. And, no matter how soundly they are defeated, the McCarthys never quite disappear.
Walker and the legislators he commands are a case in point. Their war on organized labor would have been par for the course several generations back.
But their side lost long ago, or so it seemed. This is why their attack on public sector unions caught everyone by surprise.
In retrospect, though, it was foolish for progressives to let down their guard. In the struggle between capital and labor, so long as capitalism itself survives, nothing is ever definitively settled.
However, the Walker phenomenon betokens more than just the end of a long period of remission. It shows that the virus that is back has, so to speak, mutated.
That this latest reactionary onslaught is different from those of the past, including the distant past, has only finally become clear now that Walker and his posse have made the end of the state university, “as we know it,” one of their goals.
Even McCarthy never dared try that.
Like Walker, McCarthy was a pathetic figure of a man, and, again like Walker, he delighted in attacking, and inflicting harm upon, the kinds of people whom Spiro Agnew would later call “effete intellectual snobs.”
Seething with what Nietzsche called ressentiment and full of venomous fury, he was not shy either about going after, and bringing down, the high and the mighty in venerable institutions like the State Department, the army, and the Ivy League.
But he knew enough to keep away from the state university. He understood that it was too much a source of pride to the people who had elected him to the Senate, and too valuable a resource for the people bankrolling his escapades.
Perhaps he also realized that he couldn’t win – not back then. The UW’s administrators, in those long ago times, had more courage and integrity than the ones there now; it was not beneath them, when attacked, to fight back with all the means at their disposal.
The University of Wisconsin therefore emerged unscathed from the McCarthy era. When reactionaries and red-baiters struck, which they seldom did, they almost always met defeat.
* * *
I spent nearly thirty years in Wisconsin – in Madison and surrounding Dane County, and, briefly, in Milwaukee, under both Democratic and Republican administrations.
As far as I could tell, the only noticeable difference was on the statewide public radio network. When Democrats were in charge, Wisconsin Public Radio reported endlessly on the state’s purportedly dismal “business climate.” That became unnecessary when George Bush’s future Secretary of Health and Human Services, Tommy Thompson, became Governor.
I suppose I was aware, at some level, of the other Wisconsin, but, for the most part, reactionaries stayed out of sight. The only exception I can recall was during the Clinton era, when militias were briefly a national obsession. They were a bigger problem elsewhere, but the goody-goody Badger State was not immune.
If organized labor was under attack, there was no sign of it.
There was no need. By the time I landed in America’s Dairy Land in the 1970s, deindustrialization was already well enough underway that labor had slipped into a defensive mode.
Unlike in the forties and fifties, there were hardly any strikes to rattle capitalists’ cages. Out of sight, out of mind; unions were therefore low on the far Right’s enemies list.
No doubt, there were rightwing ideologues who still advocated union busting, and they must have had financial backers. But the only union busting going on was in their dreams.
Self-righteous vanilla politics — not viler-than-thou Walker politics — was the order of the day.
Maybe, it was different in remote areas that Madisonians visited only for vacations, or in the industrial towns near Lake Michigan; but, if so, I, along with everyone I knew, was unaware.
The labor movement throughout the United States was in a weakened condition, and its future looked dim. But public sector unions were so deeply ensconced in Wisconsin’s cultural and political landscape that they seemed impregnable.
If they were under assault, it was from the left – for their timidity, for their Cold War anti-Communism, and for the ways that their parent organizations, the AFL-CIO especially, aided and abetted America’s imperial projects.
Well into the nineties, the organized labor in Wisconsin seemed secure enough that a few thoughtful, politically astute Wisconsin progressives tried to forge a northern-European style corporatist alliance between capital, labor and the state government – with a view to advancing both prosperity and equality, and to making the prevailing capitalist order more democratic and humane.
They thought, in other words, that the union movement’s place in Wisconsin was relevantly similar to its place in the Netherlands, Germany and Scandinavia.
Elsewhere in America and around the world, including northern Europe, it was becoming clear that just the opposite was the case. The brutal fact that labor was weak and getting weaker was a condition for the possibility of the emerging globalized, neoliberal order.
But, before Walker et. al., it looked like, in its own small way, Wisconsin could buck the trend. This wasn’t just a fantasy of well-meaning liberals and deluded union leaders. There were representatives from “the business community” and government officials from both parties who were also on board.
I suspect that part of the reason why the Walker era seems to have marked such an abrupt transformation is that the state, including Madison, the Madison I knew, is slow to become aware of and to catch on to trends.
This was evident everywhere. Every mid-sized city in America had a Starbucks, dozens of them in many cases, before one finally landed in Madison. Even private schools came late.
And when the notoriously anti-union Whole Foods (“whole paycheck”) corporation finally alighted there, the United Food and Commercial Workers tried, half-heartedly and unsuccessfully, to unionize it. They tried this just as the grocery industry throughout the United States was rapidly becoming de-unionized. Unless their aim was to waste their members’ dues, they too must have thought that Madison was different.
At the University of Wisconsin, a faculty union had existed since the thirties. It never represented anybody, but it did allow faculty members and academic staff to be part of the union movement (by paying dues – making what were, in effect, charitable contributions).
This was important to quite a few members of Madison’s faculty and academic staff – and especially important for faculty in the School for Workers, a resource, to this day, for the union movement.
Tellingly, the School for Workers was established decades ago at the insistence of state legislators, Republicans and Democrats, who thought that if the university must have a business school (the name on the building was “commerce”), then the labor movement should have a school too.
In the early seventies, that union – it was part of the AFT, the American Federation of Teachers — merged with a large and thriving faculty group that had been organized to militate against the Vietnam War. United Faculty and Academic Staff remained a significant presence on campus for many years after the Vietnam War ended.
It was threatened only by indifference – fed not so much by the declining fortunes of the peace and labor movements as by its own irrelevance. All United Faculty did, from the Reagan era on, was poke its nose into occasional in-house grievance proceedings, allowing members with nothing better to do to play lawyer (for as long as the need for real lawyers didn’t arise).
If Republican legislators had a problem with this, or with the real unions to which campus workers belonged – or with public sector unions generally — they kept it to themselves.
Indeed, when, in the late sixties, Wisconsin teaching and research assistants formed one of the country’s first unions for student employees, the students actually turned down entreaties from state legislators to organize under statutory enabling legislation.
In those “revolutionary” times, the idea was to deal with the bosses directly, without benefit of the bourgeois state and its laws.
This was not as preposterous as it would later come to seem. Riding the wave of anti-war student unrest, anything seemed possible.
It also helped that some of the bosses the TAA, the Teaching Assistants Association, negotiated with had been among the founders of that AFT branch decades before.
The TAA did fairly well – at first. But then, as state funds began to dry up, Wisconsin’s graduate student employees found themselves worse off than many non-unionized student employees elsewhere. And as sixties politics faded into historical memory, the TAA eventually accepted enabling legislation. They had no choice.
However, with or without statutory protection, the TAA was never able to negotiate wages or working conditions directly.
That would have violated deeply entrenched – and widely venerated – statutory provisions that empowered the UW faculty. This was called “shared governance.” To my knowledge, no one, except perhaps some TAA activists, had any problem with that.
No longer! Shared governance, along with tenure, is now one of Walker’s prime targets. Their idea seems to be that a more business-like business model would better serve Wisconsin businesses.
This is shortsightedness on stilts!
Along with institutional inertia, itself partly a product of the tenure system, shared governance and tenure are among the reasons why Wisconsin has been able to sustain what, even decades ago, observers were already calling “a champagne university in a beer state.”
For deficit hawks, this was a reason to complain; for most Wisconsinites, it was a reason to be glad – for the good deal they were getting.
Other states that wanted champagne universities had to acquire them the old fashioned way – by paying competitive salaries. This was never quick or easy — in part because buying excellence defied prevailing norms.
Academics at leading colleges and universities who came of age in the thirties and forties had a cushy enough existence, thanks to the amenities they enjoyed. But they prided themselves on the vow of poverty they might as well have taken.
A generation later, salary levels were slightly higher, but still basically flat; the most distinguished professors rarely made more than three or four times the salaries of colleagues just starting out.
In recent decades, this too has changed somewhat – the prevailing norms are not as constraining as they used to be.
Still, it is hard, even these days, to pay wildly disparate salaries. The inducements that are offered to recruit and retain highly valued faculty members are still mainly non-pecuniary.
This fact of life is especially important for the University of Wisconsin.
For the entire time I worked in Madison, salaries, other than starting-salaries, were lower than at other Big Ten universities, and far lower than in the University of California system.
When I would tell people there how much I was paid, they would assume that the reason was that administrators were being punitive. This was not so. Stinginess was just the Wisconsin way.
Over the years, in reputational comparisons with leading public universities and top private institutions, Madison generally scored well; it still does.
However, salary comparisons, especially with private universities, have always been a joke.
Needless to say, Madison professors lead lives of Riley compared to most academics in the United States. There is a vast academic proletariat out there; and it has been growing in recent years. It is hard to think about that, and still complain.
Nevertheless, there was – and is — a widespread sense that Wisconsin salaries add insult to injury. This was demoralizing. It could also have been disabling, but it was not; high voluntary turnover rates, though often predicted, never quite materialized.
The legal and customary protections, and other job perquisites, that Walker and Company are now trying to take away are part of the reason why; a large part.
If they succeed, it will not just be ordinary Wisconsinites who will be harmed; “the business community” will be harmed too.
Whatever else they may be, universities are economic assets. Wisconsinites have benefited from that asset enormously; Wisconsin’s capitalists have benefited most of all. And it has all happened at fire sale prices!
Why, then, do Walker and Company want to kill a goose that is still laying golden eggs? Or, rather, since Walker is only a factotum, why do his paymasters want that goose gone?
There is no mystery about why they would want the labor movement done in. But the university? This is unfathomable.
Could it be that they are stupid?
It would seem so. How smart can you be if you entrust your affairs to the likes of the Walker gang?
However, it is not hard to see why they do that. They could buy better help, but they don’t need to because they are doing just fine with what they’ve already got.
Walker et. al. are good enough because Democrats are, well, Democrats; and because, as Robert Frost said of liberals generally, Democrats won’t take their own side in an argument.
But this doesn’t explain why the state university system and its flagship campus are now in the oligarchy’s crosshairs.
In a word, the reason for that is that, in the precincts of the hyper-rich, untrammeled greed now swamps enlightened self-interest.
It is worth pondering how this came to pass.
No doubt, character flaws must be factored in, but the main reason why greed has triumphed to the extent that it has lies in the logic – or illogic – of the current phase of capitalist development.
Today’s capitalism it is making the rich preposterously rich, at the same time that it is keeping everyone else down. Even the best off workers these days are no better off than they were decades ago.
* * *
As they have since the dawn of the capitalist era, ideologues promote the idea that the outcomes capitalist economies generate are somehow just.
This is plainly nonsense, especially in today’s world. The hyper rich become rich because, by chance or thanks to accidents of birth (also chance), they own resources that generate obscenely large returns.
It is hard to argue that capitalist markets distribute income according to merit or effort or any other standard that might somehow justify the vast disparities that exist; and harder still to convince all but the most gullible of this.
But this is child’s play compared to defending the massive wealth inequalities that afflict humankind. It is just too obvious that nothing more is behind this sorry state of affairs than sheer luck.
There is no actual wealth distribution lottery, but there might as well be. The difference is that lotteries are usually honest, while, in real world capitalist economies, the winners sometimes game the system.
Being only (or barely) human, those winners are then inclined to suppose that those shares are somehow their due, their just deserts. This only feeds their greed.
To be sure, some of them do resist the temptation to treat the world as if it really did belong to them. However, most do not. Their arrogance makes them dumber and greedier even than the capitalists of old.
In the past too, where there was injustice, there was also resistance. Capitalists feared, justifiably, the day when the expropriators would be expropriated. When they had to, they would even give in a little in order to save a lot.
There is plenty of indignation now, and resistance too, but it is politically disorganized. The hyper-rich today feel that they have nothing to fear.
And so, they have become atypically ungenerous and unenlightened. In their circles, this latest phase of the class war has all but done those virtues in.
In the past, if there was, say, a shortage of affordable housing for the poor, the lottery’s winners wouldn’t mind too much if the state used revenues collected from (not very progressive) taxes to subsidize or even supply low-income housing.
This addressed a problem that needed addressing, leaving landlords free to take advantage of the housing market’s more lucrative sectors.
Capitalists used to be forward thinking too. In the nineteenth century, for example, they did all they could to promote free public education for all.
It was a win-win situation. They got the trained work force the more enlightened among them realized they needed, and they got the general public to foot the bill. Meanwhile, ordinary Americans, the counterparts of today’s ninety-nine percent, got educations – with all the benefits, pecuniary and otherwise, that followed.
Public education helped form a democratic citizenry. Winners of the capitalist lottery could live with that – they would sometimes even send their own children to public schools – so long as their powers and privileges remained secure. This never became an issue.
But, then, the neoliberal age dawned, making the rich richer – and also greedier, by orders of magnitude.
Just as they realized that they could squeeze more blood out of the housing market if they privatized more of it, regardless the consequences for the poor, they realized that there was money to be made by privatizing as much of K-12 education as they could get away with.
If that made schools less effective than they used to be for promoting democratic citizenship, that was just too bad. Capitalists never really cared about that anyway.
It didn’t stop there. Before long, the call went out to defund everything the government did that did ordinary people any good.
It was not just that capitalists wanted lower taxes for themselves. They did want that very much, but the main thing was, as their man Reagan put it, to “starve the beast.”
The beast, after all, was holding them back.
And so, as wealth accumulated in all the wrong places, the United States entered into a seemingly permanent fiscal crisis.
Attacking public schools often meant attacking teachers’ unions and therefore the labor movement as a whole. For the beneficiaries of the new order, this was a no-brainer; two birds for the price of one.
But, then, why stop with K-12? Why not go after public higher education as well? For the terminally greedy, the temptation is irresistible.
Irresistible, but wrong-headed as can be – because, whatever else it may do, quality public higher education helps their bottom lines.
Evidently, many capitalists no longer see this; they are too blinded by greed. In their beclouded minds, if educational institutions must be publically funded, the people being trained in them should pay as much of the fare as they can.
Also, even more importantly, the mission of those institutions must change: educating critical thinkers is out; supplying human fodder for jobs that are now on offer or coming down the line is in.
For the Koch Brothers and others of their ilk, liberal educations are a luxury, reserved for students born into families with enough money to pay for them, either at private universities or, at slightly reduced rates, at flagship public universities that are fast becoming private in all but name.
No doubt, the oligarchs are wary even of this. After all, critical thinking breeds dissent. But the danger cannot be snuffed out completely because the institutions that sustain it are needed for reproducing social, political and economic elites.
Therefore, Walker’s backers would have real educations remain available – for the fortunate few. For everyone else, job training is enough.
This way of thinking is not new; underfunding public universities – in part, to encourage their quasi-privatization — has been a fact of life for decades. However, it has taken a long time for the consequences to register fully.
Quality public higher education, as good or better than in the private sector, was one of the glories of the United States. It was instrumental too for America’s economic success.
Though it was seldom free, it was inexpensive and, available to nearly everyone who wanted it.
In recent decades, though, financially strapped states and municipalities, finding it politically impossible to restrict admission, started charging more.
When Reagan was Governor of California, he tried, as best he could, to inflict harm upon Berkeley and other rebellious California campuses, but he never got far – in part because California’s still comparatively enlightened “business community” intervened, and in part because, in the sixties, the fiscal crisis had not yet set in.
Then, in the seventies, the era of stagflation, private universities suffered as much or more than public universities did. This is why, even after Reagan was long gone from Sacramento, public higher education in California retained its edge. It was the same elsewhere.
The neoliberal turn changed all this; public universities were forced to rely more on private donors and on tuitions paid by students or their parents. This did no one any good, but the changes fell especially hard on the less affluent.
These changes came on gradually, however; they were almost imperceptible. Even where they were very far along – the University of Michigan is an example — the process was never abrupt.
But that is not the Koch Brothers’ way, and therefore it is not Walker’s either. Shock and awe is more their style.
When they think they can win, they ignore the low-lying fruit, the better to attack their targets at their strongest points – on the principle that when they win there, they go on to win everywhere.
There was a foretaste of this in the 2004 election where, of all the many things about John Kerry that the Right could have attacked, they went after his military record –introducing “swiftboating” into the political lexicon.
Bill Clinton, who avoided the draft in ways that allowed him, as he said, to “remain viable in the system” got a pass on Vietnam, but not Kerry, who actually served with distinction, before publically denouncing the idiocy of that war.
Walker’s attack on public sector unions in Wisconsin four years ago is an even clearer example.
Apparently, the idea, over on the Dark Side, is to go after targets which, when they fall, bring the house down with them. It is a risky strategy, but the Koch Brothers don’t care; they can afford to take losses, and they believe that, in politics as in business, to win big you have to take big risks on.
In Wisconsin, under Walker, their strategy is working – so far. However, their successes have clouded their judgment.
They may win some or all of the battles ahead, but they are not doing themselves any good – not in the end.
Walker tried and failed, so far, to remove language from the University of Wisconsin’s mission statement that articulates the so-called “Wisconsin Idea,” according to which the university, engaged in a quest for truth wherever it leads, is dedicated to extending “knowledge and its application beyond the boundaries of the campus” in order to “serve and stimulate” the entire society.
It is a noble idea, belied in practice, but valuable for having been stated nevertheless.
Walker’s idea – or was it ALEC’s? — is to do away with lofty thoughts. He wants the university’s mission statement to say only that the university’s purpose is “to meet the state’s workforce needs.”
For the past hundred years or more, the Wisconsin Idea, one of the Progressive Era’s crowning achievements, affected education policy across the United States, much to the betterment of the larger political culture.
Walker and the oligarchs behind him would like to change all that, and they would like Wisconsin, once again, to lead the way.
Their aim is not just to replace inspiring language with trade school babble. They want to change the university itself, turning it into an instrument of capitalist greed.
But in just the way that too much light blinds us, too much greed undoes the conditions for its own possibility.
When capitalists want universities only to meet their workforce needs, we are plainly approaching that point.
If they had even a modicum of good sense, the people behind Walker would see the danger. But even if there still are reasonable capitalists around, it will be a while before saner minds prevail.
In the meanwhile, Walker and Company are poised to do incalculable, perhaps irreparable, harm to the people and institutions of their state.
The danger then is that their machinations will resonate out – that what they do in Wisconsin will not stay in Wisconsin.
Their antics may be good for securing Walker the Republican nomination – the Republican base is just whacky enough for that.
But this is not the main concern because, unless Republican whackyness somehow becomes contagious, Walker will never become President.
When it comes down to it, even garden-variety plutocrats, given a choice between Hillary and Walker – or anyone of his caliber –will likely opt for the miscreant with the greater gravitas.
After all, even lottery winners need a few smarts; otherwise, they and their money would soon be parted.
I’d wager that even the Koch Brothers, in their hearts, already realize this.
But Walker doesn’t need to become President to do irreparable harm. As Governor of Badgerland, he is doing it already.
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. 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).