Wither Labor?

Who is not devastated by the news from Wisconsin? The bad guys won.

In the wake of the news of Scott Walker’s easy victory over recall challenger Tom Barrett, the online Left was abuzz with an unusually wide-ranging variety of interpretations of what it all means. (See this roundtable for a particularly illuminating discussion). Two takes stood out to me: the reading of the Wisconsin recall defeat as a sign that the era of organized labor has finally come to a close, and the call to take much more seriously the political grievances of the  midwestern reactionaries who rallied behind Walker. Both readings resonate with the picture I have put together of the state of the labor movement and the current political conjuncture; both also bother me. So it seems not unproductive to devote a few moments to thinking through exactly what it is that I find so unsettling and unsatisfying.

First, the question of whether Wisconsin signals the final demolition of the house of labor. The answer is obvious: no. All politics, as they say, is local, and the Wisconsin labor movement was forced to negotiate a series of challenges of geography, politics, and political economy that cannot be generalized to the US as a whole. Labor has faced worse crises before and bounced back. The delegitimization of labor following acts of violence like the bombing of the LA Times building in 1910, and the persecution of labor activists after World War I, was far more debilitating. Within a generation, activists rebuilt a vibrant trade union culture and won key legislative victories that remain the foundation of labor rights today.

Most of the voices claiming to read Wisconsin’s tea leaves as evidence of a Thelma and Louise-style conclusion to the era of collective bargaining actually argue from other data. Less than 12% of workers in the US belong to unions, a stunningly low density rate. And opinion polls on the trustworthiness of unions (spoiler alert: pretty abysmal) should certainly be taken seriously. The root causes of public distrust of unions has less to do with distaste for the idea of collective bargaining than it does with uneasiness with the perverse role that American capitalism and business-friendly labor jurisprudence has forced unions to play. As Nelson Lichtenstein argues, since World War II, unions have had to take on quasi-state functions (like insuring medical coverage and overseeing retirement savings) for which they are structurally unsuitable, and which incentivize corruption and bureaucratic torpor.

And, although nobody likes to talk about it, the shoehorning of unions into this monstrous dues-collecting/benefits-administering role has, from time to time, attracted the interests of criminals both petty and organized. Given the long-running rhetorical link between unions and “rackets” (as Andrew Wender Cohen reveals in his wonderful book The Racketeer’s Progress), and the embrace of a cartoonish “tough guy” posture by certain unions–all of which grist for the Right’s neo-fascist “union thuggery” demonology machine– it is a wonder that the public still trusts unions at all. When we throw in the legitimate grievances of folks who have had negative experiences with public sector workers and bureaucracy (including cops and teachers, as well as the more mundane miseries of the DMV and post office), the absurd misbehavior of union leaders like Andy Stern (who has spent millions of dues monies suing dissident unions in self-destructive turf wars), and the media’s constant harping on the severity of the current crisis and the need for cutbacks and sacrifices, I actually think the numbers look pretty good.

To increase public trust in unions, everyone agrees, the labor union will have to morph into a very different sort of organization. The obvious mission of that sort of organization would be to invest every cent into increasing the political and expressive capacities of the working class, including, emphatically, those not in the formal workforce and the undocumented. There is plenty of historical precedent for such an orientation, and many contemporary examples of unions and friends of labor organizing exactly on these lines. The impetus for such a change, as Sam Gindin recently noted, must come initially from outside the labor movement, and should take the form of an agency that is both inside and outside the labor movement. To my mind, the first priority of such a movement would logically  be the construction of labor education and leisure centers, open to all, in cities, suburbs, and rural areas (why not–as Gindin and Leo Panitch one suggested–in shopping malls?) Certainly a more worthy way to spend dues money than throwing it away on Democratic candidates, and the easiest and fastest route to cultivate cultures of solidarity.

The post-Wisconsin debates have played host to a wide variety of faulty historical analogies. These exercises in what Kenneth Burke called “casuistic stretching” are sometimes productive, but most of the time dangerously misleading. For example–the frequently repeated refrain that the current troubles are the result of the US labor movement’s failure to “take the Wobbly path” at some opportune moment, presumably the early years of the Wilson administration. IWW worship is easy to understand, but such arguments are about as legible as ones that would argue that jazz took the wrong path by becoming bebop rather than building upon the legacy of New Orleans’ spasm bands. The Wobblies could never really have formed the basis for a national labor movement, rooted as they were in a very specific culture of itinerant and class conscious men in extractive and transportation industries (many to become “sick” in the 1920s), in which workers possessed a great deal of autonomy and the ability to engage in point-of-production politics. It would have been wonderful had the craft unions been converted to the IWW’s racial egalitarianism and critical understanding of capitalism, but there was no realistic “Wobbly path” for US labor in the past, and we should stop pretending that there was.

Some critics have also claimed that the difficulties of the labor movement speak to the end of the era of the contract. Historians of capitalism have long spoken of the passage from status to contract, and there is no reason to assume that there could not be another passage, to something else, either underway or already completed. Marx spoke, after all, of the era of the contract as a sort of final frontier, beyond which lurked either “socialism or barbarism.” Maybe we have entered the era of barbarism? Sure feels like it.

This question is certainly interesting from the perspective of the historiography of capitalism. It calls to mind debates about race and colonialism and the emergence of the capitalist modes of exploitation and accumulation. As postcolonialist Marxists and post-Marxists argue, Western historical materialists have downplayed the degree to which capitalism was built on the superexploited labor of slaves and colonial subjects, convicts and disposable peasants. While white Marxists came to believe that the worst capitalism has to offer is the alienated state of the worker dulled into complacency by the 5-year contracts, no-strike pledges, and the hegemonic iron fist encased in the velvet glove of the weekly paycheck, the rest of the world has always known a very different reality. Are workers in the West–increasingly casualized, precarious, and without workplace rights– now going to confront this hellish face of capitalism?

Perhaps. But this “post-contract” capitalism is hardly a fait accompli. As legal historians of capitalism have long recognized (in the US, stretching back to the work of John R. Commons), contracts are useful for capitalists as well as workers. They ensure reliable production schedules and the compliance of large integrated workforces in possession of a great deal of human capital and knowledge of the production process. So the contract may well stick around for a while.

More importantly, the specter of a “post-contract” capitalism carries with it all manner of “negations of the negation.” The personhood and dignity of workers cannot be endlessly violated without producing resistant practices, knowledges, and methodologies. As rhetorically useful as the cliche may be, there really is no such thing as “one-sided class war.” And because capitalism needs buyers as well as workers, some form of renewed Keynesianism is likely in our immediate future. The state has traditionally served as the agency that disciplines individual capitalists when their greed, phony sense of atomistic independence, and hatred of society begins to interfere with the reproduction of capitalism itself. The Federal Reserve and much of the New Deal apparatus came about out of such processes, and served the function of saving capitalism from (and for) capitalists reasonably well. There is no reason to think that the state won’t step in to perform a similar act of reconstructive surgery in the near future.

What of the question of whether we ought to attend more closely to the grievances of the working class reactionaries who supported Walker? I think that such an orientation is exactly correct, if we mean by it what virtually nobody means by it. Over the last few years, the Left has become obsessed with the Right; in their study of the conservative movement, left historians have come to the strange conclusion that only ideas–and not feelings–matter. How such a strange analytical orientation ever emerged is indeed a mystery, but as Corey Robin points out in The Reactionary Mind, the results have been significant. We don’t get conservatism because we have been told that affect must be delinked from substantive content, as if language really worked via the sender-reciever transmission charts of 1960s-era studies of communication. Nothing could be nuttier than attempts to draw on the legacy of, say, Ernst Bloch (who was very aware of the interlinked character of affect, fantasy, language, and political ideology) to urge the serious appreciation of the complaints of contemporary Tea Party reactionaries at the level of content. What matters (I think Bloch would agree) is that we take seriously the strong emotional dissatisfaction of working-class reactionaries, that we diagnose this affective politics, and that we extract, if we can, some utopian strain of wishing that the miseries of capitalism were not so immiserating amid all the nonsense and garbage.  But we should be clear about the nonsense and garbage: the racism and nativism and sexism and homophobia that inflect right wing politics as it is pitched to both billionaires and the poor. We need to continue to think about what whiteness has done, and continues to do, to US labor and working-class politics (which means we need to reread David Roediger and George Lipsitz), and we need to think about how heteronormative patriarchy continues to define political horizons (which means that we should reread Lisa Duggan, over and over again).

Thus, along with Robin’s indispensable The Reactionary Mind, I think that we should also think carefully about the ideas at the center of James Livingston’s two most recent books, The World Turned Inside Out, and Against Thrift. In these works, Livingston sketches out a possible future agenda for the US Left–away from the austere commitments implied by the US Left’s nostalgic romance with agrarian Populism and the republican homestead. What we need is a new ideological synthesis that not only rejects austerity, but that embraces deficits, spending, and expansive state services, as a revolt against the restrictions of both the balanced budget and the contained subjectivity of the nineteenth century worker-citizen.    Such a synthesis, perhaps, might form the basis of a renewed Leftism that could lure potential and actualized reactionaries away from the false freedoms promised so extravagantly by conservative claptrap.

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