by Franco Barchiesi
(Dept. of African-American and African Studies, Ohio State University)
“If you screw us, we multiply”, read one of the signs held by the hundreds of demonstrators who staged, throughout the second half of February, a virtually uninterrupted occupation of the State Capitol in Madison, Wisconsin. It was a rather unusual expression of defiance coming from a left end of the American political spectrum that, in the post 9-11 world and in the days of the Obama administration and its disappointed hopes, has realigned itself along paths of moderation and responsibility, or has simply been cowed into a public discourse that admits only “patriotism”, liberal-democratic individual rights, and the defense of the “American dream” as legitimate foundations for dissent.
But then, the huge demonstrations against the budget and the anti-labor laws of the ultra-right wing Wisconsin state government had a distinctly new quality about them. They represented the first instance of a mass, nationally visible mobilization explicitly directed against corporate power and its institutional representatives since the start of the current economic crisis, whereas the limelight has otherwise gone towards right-wing mobilizations, such as the Tea Party, blaming imaginary un-American foes and socialist conspiracies for the nation’s ills.
The catalyst of the Wisconsin insurrection has been governor Scott Walker, a staunchly pro-business Republican hawk elected in November 2010 with a 52 percent majority as part of an election cycle marked by a national wave of collective disappointment and disgust at the Obama administration’s response to socioeconomic collapse. Despite the hopes raised by the 2008 presidential election, it had in fact become quickly and painfully clear that the priorities of the new White House would be to demobilize the vast grassroots movements that brought Obama to power, rescue big business with a multi-trillion dollar bailout in the absence of any meaningful social measure to even alleviate the plight of the tens of millions thrown into poverty by the depredations of Wall Street, and put in place “bipartisan” measures – continuing tax cuts for the ultra-rich while slashing public spending and social programs – to make ordinary people and workers pay once more for the crisis.
No surprise then that, as many erstwhile Obama supporters stayed home for the 2010 elections, voters turned to the rhetoric of candidates like Scott Walker, poor of concrete policy proposals but rich with promises of “job creation”, opening their states “for business”, and globally competing for investment, all in the name of taking America back from big government. Faced with popular anger and revulsion at Wall Street and the Democrats’ corporate giveaways, the Republicans managed to sell the bailout as evidence of Obama’s dirigiste and socialist propensities. While letting the GOP off the hook for its own, deep-seated complicities with corporate greed, the reasoning powerfully struck at the collective gut level, despite its patent absurdity. In Wisconsin, also to confirm a powerfully entrenched working-class conservatism, white private sector workers and public employees like firefighters and police officers – central to American iconology in the age of permanent war and recurring emergency – enthusiastically turned to Scott Walker.
It was on this utterly devastated terrain of public discourse that, newly elected as Wisconsin governor, Walker probably counted when on February 11 he presented his Budget Repair Bill. Merging the technocratic language of fiscal adjustment with allegedly objective and unquestionable economic imperatives, a staunch faith in market forces and private investment, and reprobation at the unsustainable and unfair “privileges” of public workers – meaning basic job security, elementary retirement benefits, and wages above poverty levels – the budget longed for widespread social engineering. In the productivist rhetoric of his campaign, Walker had hardly mentioned collective bargaining and his plans about it. His budget’s proposals on the matter were thus a rude awakening for public workers, including many of Walker’s voters: the bill erased collective bargaining rights for state, county, and local employees on all matters except wages. It also sought profound wage cuts, a reduction of retirement benefits with increased contributions – with an eye to privatizing retirement programs under the supervision of Wall Street – a widespread privatization of energy generation facilities in view of their sale to friendly entrepreneurs, and the transformation of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the flagship campus of the state public higher education system, into a separate, corporatized institution with the right to set tuition and working conditions independently of state regulation. The earlier capitulation by major public sector unions, including AFSCME and the American Federation of Teachers, to Walker’s requests for major concessions did not distract the budget from its main political and ideological aim: the eradication of the possibility for workers to collectively express their voice and the suppression of the very idea of fundamental, non-negotiable workers’ rights, as employment conditions are reduced to dependent variables of budgetary constraints determined by public administrators totally aligned with business interests.
Nor was the weight of big business merely a matter of budgetary logic and rationality. Manufacturing and financial capital had heavily invested in Walker’s election. The control of electoral politics and legislative agendas by corporate funding is a long standing problem of American politics. A new landmark was the January 2010 “Citizens United” decision by the US Supreme Court, which removed limitations on private funding for independent support of electoral campaigns, with the argument that such spending, which overwhelmingly comes from business interests, is constitutionally protected as a right to free speech. On the footsteps of “Citizens United”, the Republican Governors Association has benefitted from corporate largesse, spending at least 3.4 million dollars on Walker’s election alone, which was directly supported by right-wing billionaires like the Koch brothers and their Koch Industries. During the campaign, Walker promised his corporate sponsors that “this is our moment to change the course of history”, evoking Ronald Reagan’s mass layoff of 11,000 striking air controllers in 1981 as an antecedent for the type of changes he had in mind.
Walker’s attack on workers’ rights reflected, on the other hand, a broad trend evident in a spate of similar legislation passed in other Republican-ruled states, such as Ohio and Indiana, as well as in the austerity measures and growing hostility towards public sector unions by Democratic administrations (New York, California). It also ominously resonates with international echoes like the exclusion from collective bargaining of unions that refused unilateral managerial restructuring in the Mirafiori and Pomigliano plants of Italian car manufacturer FIAT after its merger with Chrysler and consequent embrace of Detroit’s labor relations style.
Wisconsin’s budget was sold to the public as a merely technical matter, devoid of political controversy in its adherence to the objective strictures of the economic emergency. Local and national newspapers and networks (in a country where six media conglomerates control 90 percent of the information and opinions to which residents are regularly exposed) willingly echoed the administration’s rationality, according to which state finances cannot afford collective bargaining and its elimination is a way to reduce wayward spending and put the taxpayer back in control of the budget. “The taxpayer” became shorthand for a seductive, alluring idea of individual empowerment that justified the destruction of collective powers and guarantees. It operated as the ideological abstraction of good and responsible citizenship obscuring the basic fact that workers and families mostly hit by Walker’s cuts are actual taxpayers, which can hardly be said of the corporate interests that have benefitted of vast tax cuts under Walker and his predecessors. If anything, it was these latter, rather than “the taxpayer”, that the budget placed “in control”.
In the end, Walker’s budget is an extreme manifestation of a broader ideological pattern that immediately identifies the requirements of an increasingly financialized corporate capital with the general interest. By directly entrusting private business with the definition of the public good, it also created a supportive public opinion through compliant media and aligned the hollow institutions of representative democracy with the task of ratifying capital’s agenda while defusing and depoliticizing the resulting tensions under a reassuring rhetoric of rights and individual empowerment. A modern biopolitical discourse of protecting the bodies and virtues of the political community from the ravages of the economic state of emergency thus joined late-nineteenth century modalities of ruthless labor repression.
Still, responses to Walker’s budget defied the corporate ability to signify and engineer social reality and, in ways many of Walker’s supporters probably did not anticipate, revealed claims, needs, and forms of life that refuse to accept entrepreneurial rationality as a natural and unquestionable law. Opposition to the budget and its cutbacks emerged from disparate social strata, in a predominantly white state with powerful undercurrents of working-class conservatism. A wave of demonstrations culminated on March 12 in a 100,000-strong march, the largest in Wisconsin’s history, while the statehouse was occupied virtually without interruptions for the whole second half of February. Police officers and firefighters, which the administration eventually exempted from the budget’s collective bargaining provisions in a failed attempt to break opposition to Walker, demonstrated against the legislation. Public union bureaucracies and local Democrats were shaken from their earlier bipartisan embrace of compromise and moderation. As talks of a general strike became insistent (and at the time of writing have not subsided) Democratic state senators escaped to Illinois – in a move vaguely reminiscent of the secession of the parliamentary opposition dubbed “the Aventine” in the early days of Italy’s Fascist regime – to deprive the Wisconsin legislature of the legal numbers for voting the budget. On March 9, a legislative blitz by the Republican majority in the Wisconsin senate overcame the Democrats’ boycott and passed, without debate or notice of voting, the collective bargaining portion of the bill by splitting it from the budget, which requires a higher quorum. It was, in the end, the admission that the anti-worker legislation had its own ideological and political rationale, which the technical requirements of the budget served only to disguise. The following week, however, a judge deemed the Senate’s procedural move illegal, suspending the implementation of the bill in a dramatic image of the polarization the measure had generated within the establishment itself.
Opposition to the budget was starkly at variance with conventional images of an America pacified through political resignation, ideological conformity, and neoliberal individualism. In support of the two-week occupation of the Capitol, regular demonstrations increasingly swarmed the streets. Banners and chants explicitly connected to the slogans of the 1999 Battle of Seattle (“This is What Democracy Looks Like”) as well as, and more ironically, to the North African revolutions then underway (one poster read “Mubarak for Governor”). The reference was, on the other hand, reciprocated by the Egyptian demonstrators who ordered, from Cairo, food for the Madison occupiers from the local pizzeria that acted as their informal caterer. It was an eruption of iconoclastic irreverence, a joyous mood of insubordination that often contrasted with time-honored imageries of a liberal left – also quite abundant in the Madison demonstrations – sturdily attached to flag-waving and the buzzwords of the “American dream” and the defense of the “middle class”. When Walker requested the eviction of the occupants, the local Dane County sheriff refused replying that he and his men “are not palace guards”. When the governor called the national guard to intimidate the protesters – and this after dispatching the state police to locate the missing Democratic senators at their residences – the troops were met by signs such as “Walker: Now Ask the National Guard to Teach Organic Chemistry!” Sure enough, demonstrators expressed their support for trade unions that, for the sake of saving the legal guarantees of collective bargaining, had massively capitulated to widespread concessions on wages and benefits, and remained generally unable to elaborate an alternative narrative to the alleged neutrality and universalism of Walker’s invocations of “the state’s economy.” Labor bureaucracies were generally not a target of opposition. But marches and occupations brought a vast, cross-generational multitude, with many youths at their first experiences of contentious politics, into direct confrontation with the institutions.
The size and radicalism of the Wisconsin demonstrations far surpassed other still significant protests against even more draconian legislation in other Midwestern states, such as Ohio and Indiana. Observers and commentators have explained the particular radicalism of the Wisconsin mobilizations in terms of popular reaction to the authoritarian disruption of local political cultures and moral economies.1 Many have therefore emphasized labor’s deep roots in the state, the home of a progressive-populist republican strand impersonated at the turn of the past century by senator Robert La Follette and his fulminations at “vast financial power in private hands” and related foes of “the common man – the worker, the farmer.” Historical precedents used by way of explanation are, however, deeply problematic to the extent they assume a static view of political identities that – in a way that surely assuages the celebration of a linear progress so central to the self-image of American left liberalism – reproduce themselves mostly in terms of “tradition” and “heritage”. More useful would be an analysis of the shortcomings, failures, and ambiguities of such political and ideological threads to understand how they are modified and contested by forces, subjectivities, and desires making sense of present social dynamics and power relations.
In the early twentieth century, agrarian populism and a burgeoning white industrial proletariat boosted by Northern European immigrants echoing German and Scandinavian welfarist ideas propelled both a pioneering social and fiscal legislation and – especially in the 1924 elections when the socialist-backed La Follette ran for president beating the Republican and Democratic candidates in the state – working-class politics. Later Wisconsin became a stronghold of public sector unionism, and was the first state to allow, in 1959, collective bargaining for teachers and local government employees. Central to La Follettian progressivism was the collaboration between the state and the public higher education system, namely the University of Wisconsin (UW) centered on its Madison campus. The state government regarded then the university as a “laboratory for democracy” and a site to experiment with corporatist social compacts infused with strong doses of Christian social doctrine and work ethic. The aim was to turn capitalist industrialization into a process of social stability, reining in the disruptions and dislocations of waged employment. That was dubbed the “Wisconsin idea”, to which prominent intellectuals like labor scholar and UW professor John R. Commons added their contribution towards work-based social measures like unemployment compensation. It was a nationally significant experiment with harnessing workers’ power through productivity pacts for the purposes of orderly capitalist development. It was also a project underpinning specific social hierarchies and orderings of citizenship, at the pinnacle of which stood regular white male breadwinners as embodiments of productive virtue and personal responsibility, the necessary counterparts of the governmental welfarist deal and the factors enabling the participation of the “common man” to the affairs of the state. Commons himself, as a key advisor to La Follette, was in fact convinced that recent immigrants and non-white “races” were prone to sloth and laziness, which made them unsuitable for democracy. His ideas propped up a eugenics movement that was in full swing in the US as similar concepts were translated into policies in the very Scandinavian countries where so many of the Wisconsin working class originated.
Such historical antecedents are useful to evaluate the specific lacerations brought by the current corporate and neoliberal offensive in the local context, grasp the political nature of the Wisconsin singularity, and focus on its limitations, ambiguities, and potentials. Economic restructuring, deindustrialization, and the neoliberal offensive of the past four decades have affected Wisconsin as dramatically as other Midwestern states, destroying the bulwarks of the old, white mass proletariat just as it had reached the shores of “middle class” living standards – including social benefits and the possibility of sending younger generations to a place like UW – which the Fordist social compact had once promised as a reward for industriousness and consent. The old mythology of capitalism as a harbinger of progress, shared prosperity, and community values – on which the labor and liberal left had massively invested as an alternative to social radicalism and racial antagonism – was swept away. On its wake are shattered communities like Wisconsin’s main city, Milwaukee, once one of the richest metropoles in the US, now the fourth poorest. The hazy contours of the future carry, here as elsewhere, as Michael Hudson and Jeffrey Somers write2, an uncanny resemblance to the Gilded Age, a late nineteenth century scenario of violent primitive accumulation with its oligarchs, robber barons, and financial predators rejoicing in the celebration of rent seeking and rent extraction as avenues to wealth enabled by governmental deregulation and a surreally regressive tax system. “Vast financial power in private hands”, the villain that once struck powerful psychic chords among bygone progressives, is now back with a vengeance as governor Walker and his administration preside over a new wave of private enclosures.
It is at this point that historical similarities give way to the need of analyzing the innovations of the current phase and its unfolding antagonisms. At odds with capital’s optimism for its ability to reshape the social and natural reality, central to the mythology of the old Gilded Age, the new Gilded Age is rather marked by the desperate quest by the US ruling classes of profit-making alternatives to the continuous decline of the country’s imperial position and the still unresolved accumulation crisis following the 2008 collapse. It is a frantic search that, nonetheless, reveals little vision beyond the most blatant and shortsighted financial grab of livelihoods and resources. Organized labor, the partner of old techniques of social control and progressive-Fordist productivity pacts, is now cast as an “un-American” self-serving special interest, when not a cause of economic decline and social decay. Far from confidently representing itself as the pinnacle of an inclusive, upwardly mobile social order, the white middle class is increasingly lured into resentful images – which movements like the Tea Party consciously abet by fanning popular anxieties over imperial eclipse – of national purity under threat by a host of imaginary assailants, which depictions rife with racial stereotypes of the public sector, its programs, and its beneficiaries ominously fit. The evaporation of organized labor, sponsored by neoliberal administrations and aided by unions assuming the role of enforcers of productive discipline and global competitiveness, has resulted in a working population with a unionization rate of less than 7 percent in the private sector, rising to 12 percent overall due to the organization of public employees. In Wisconsin, about half of the 300,000 government workers are unionized, but they are only 6 percent of those with jobs, two million of which work in casual and precarious positions. The convenient rhetoric of “change” generously deployed by Obama to win the 2008 elections gained a lot of traction in Wisconsin too as the state went Democratic, but was followed by the usual rude awakening once President Obama and his aides quickly and cynically dismantled their left-wing grassroots support. The White House and the Democratic National Committee have actually intervened to discourage party representatives from endorsing the Wisconsin protests, the timing of which interfered with the President’s priority of recruiting bipartisan consent for his “win the future” vision. As an unforgiving approach to global competitiveness seen as a cut-throat race against China and other emerging economy, Obama’s “winning the future” requires the systematic defunding in the present of public entitlement-based programs and the reorientation of state support towards a cognitive capitalism where corporate interests determine the content and objectives of knowledge while critical debate as well as workers’ rights and social contestation are deemed unaffordable luxuries. In the juridical scenarios opened by the “Citizens United” decision of the Supreme Court, which realigns political representation with private funding flows, it is easy to see how old labor allies become a liability for a Democratic Party that, even when benefiting from the unions’ support in places like Wisconsin, seems ready to jettison organized labor and its demands at a national level.
Despite the substantial bipartisan convergence on repressing labor radicalism and defusing labor conflicts, in Wisconsin the establishment’s rhetoric of austerity or the Republicans invocation of an imaginary “taxpayer” as the virtuous, productive opponent of public spending and collective bargaining profligacy clearly showed their limitations as signifiers of social conditions. The radicalism of the demonstrations and occupations drew its energy from the fact that those taking part in them articulated not only the concerns of worn-out identities of past struggles (the union-based “middle class” with its productive patriotism) but also the claims arising from the precarious predicament of multitudes with little or no direct experience of the socially stable, protected life such identities nostalgically fantasize. In this perspective, the conflicts that originate from higher education as it embraces corporate imperatives and rationality are decisive elements of innovation in the Wisconsin struggles. Walker’s envisaged separation of UW’s two flagship campuses (Madison and Milwaukee) reflects the “New Badger Partnership” advocated by UW-Madison’s chancellor “Biddy” Martin. The result would be to restructure the most prestigious sites of the waning public system from “state agencies” into semi-private, commercialized “public authorities” or “charter campuses” with broad and autonomous powers in setting tuition, employment conditions, tenure criteria, and relations with outside contractors. It is a major step towards the end of statewide systems of “land grant” public institutions, pioneered in the Midwest and of which the old Fordist-welfarist social compact of the “Wisconsin idea” made a cornerstone in the state’s economy. In their place there would thus be a tiered university system mirroring labor market inequalities and hierarchies: private elite and nominally public campuses aspiring to Ivy League-type status would provide a diverse, well-rounded training, administered by academic superstars, for the children of the ruling classes; the remains of the existing public system would focus on professional degrees for intermediate managerial and technical jobs; finally, a vast layer of depleted colleges and universities would offer vocational and practically-oriented training, through legions of adjuncts and teaching assistants at poverty wages, for the swelling ranks of the precarious cognitariat. The process would represent, as Andrew Ross has suggested3, not so much a mere corporatization and privatization of the university but a comprehensive integration of higher education – public and private alike – into the managerial, organizational, and assessment logics of the business enterprise. The essential task of harnessing societal “general intellect” for the sake of human resource development would be, in other words, outsourced to the university as a vital node in the emerging forms of cognitive production that for many state-level lawmakers is the best prospect of economic “recovery.”4
The idea of “charter” campuses have been decisive, in Wisconsin as elsewhere, in dividing the academia and guaranteeing the acquiescence or support of significant strata of administrators and faculty towards the current corporate offensive. For many underpaid graduate assistants, professors with uncertain tenure prospects, and students already burdened with debts and escalating tuitions, however, such moves – compounded in the UW-Madison campus by a 13 percent cut in state funding and further likely tuition rises – signaled a further tightening of the screws of unprotected employment and financial servitude. University students and graduate employees – for which UW’s Teaching Assistants’ Association (TAA) is the oldest organization of its kind in the world – have been major protagonists in the opposition to Walker’s legislation. The sustained participation of graduate students in the Wisconsin insurrection revealed not so much the appeal of old left – liberal or populist – identities, narratives, and traditions, but a critical awareness of the contradictory place cognitive labor occupies in governmental imagination: praised as the engine of recovery, yet invited to continuous sacrifices and to think of itself as infinitely flexible and malleable; productive of knowledge in the socially cooperative networks of a university system that still calls itself “public”, yet subject to the constant private appropriation of the fruits of this social cooperation; invited to play a crucial role of economic stabilization, yet having its own daily existence constantly destabilized and precarized by market discipline.
A critical reasoning on such contrasts must come to terms with their political potentialities. The new Gilded Age is producing, like the old, its own enclosures aimed at turning into property, rent, and profit what is external to capital but which nonetheless capital finds necessary to its own expanded reproduction. In the old Gilded Age public land and natural resources were appropriated by railway and mining companies; in the new one, social cooperation producing knowledge, information, and languages is commodified as intellectual property. But, as Michael Hardt5 noticed, in the current context enclosures and rent-seeking mean not only the incorporation, quantification, and disciplining of nature and human labor by capital as its foundational and constitutive components but also, and especially, the incursion of capital in the realm of the living, or in a common substance – underpinned by cognition, affect, sensuousness, and desire – which, inasmuch it cannot be merely reproduced by capital through its own discipline, contains the seeds of its subversion. In the end, the targets of the Wisconsin insurrection were not only budget cuts, but also an idea of education “reform” consisting in the embrace by educational institutions of organizational and ideological modalities geared towards the creation by semi-servile workers without rights or protections of knowledge as a resource pool that capital can appropriate at no cost. School boards and county administrators, which the state government hoped to satisfy with its undermining of the teachers’ unions, expressed instead their concerns that the end of collective bargaining may mean a return of wildcat strikes in schools. Teachers’ participation in the demonstrations brought to the fore “a mass exodus from work”6 evident in practices like the “sick out” in which education workers deserted their workplaces by claiming health-related leaves. A Madison judge refused to deem the practice a violation of the no-strike pledge in the teachers’ collective contract because it did not constitute a strike against school districts but a movement against the state.
The ghost of the common most persistently haunted the rooms of the institutions during the occupation of the statehouse. The occupants defied a neoliberal reconfiguration of the “public space” where the palaces of power convey their disciplinary meaning through their separateness – at once reinforced by their walled, camera-monitored sacredness and the hollowness of their technocratic deliberation – from those they claim to represent. The depoliticized physical space of institutional decision has become as distant and irrelevant for everyday needs as it is obsequious to corporate demands. Sociality, therefore, has been diverted towards the equally monitored and policed locales of consumption and the malls. But the occupation of the Wisconsin statehouse subverted this compartmentalization, which leaves no space for the political as a conflictual expression of the multitude, between “public space” as the opaque site of abstract administrative decisionism and the “private space” of allegedly transparent, concrete consumer decisions. The occupation was, in the end, a process of inversion for which trite metaphors like the taking of the Winter Palace are surely inadequate to grasp its subversive meaning of reframing space as governmental apparatus into space as common.
Similarly to the ways in which the occupation of the statehouse transcended the articulation of private and public space as a technology of liberal governance, the broader movement against Walker’s legislation can hardly be captured by alternatives derived from twentieth century leftism, such as the opposition between neoliberal financialized capitalism and socialist or liberal progress underwritten by employment-based public policies and state regulation of capitalist accumulation. The very playing ground on which such alternatives have been enacted in the experience of Western modernity – the institutional and constitutional arrangements of liberal and social democracy – has, in fact, irredeemably decayed as its players, Democrats and Republicans in the US case, converge in naturalizing corporate agendas as the embodiment of societal well-being, with no further need of political mediation or pretensions of representation. Right-wing administrators could thus enforce policies that destroyed the basic rights of millions while claiming “mandates” that were at best shaky evidence of support – 24 percent of registered voters elected, for example, Kasich as Ohio governor. More generally, the rights and procedures of representative democracy have not countered a profound authoritarian drift in US public discourse and institutional practices in an age of ever-present war and emergency. The increasingly hollow signifiers of “nation”, “unity” and “patriotism” have thus identified, in the opposing discourses of mainstream political traditions, a frail, embattled, imaginary America threatened by equally imaginary foes – “extremists” and “dividers” for the liberals, the “other”, Muslims, immigrants, labor, the ideologically undesirables, for the conservatives.
As they evoked the empowerment and responsibility of the “taxpayer” as the citizen-subject of liberal democracy – a grotesque recasting of the “common man” in old progressivism – such narratives have tried to misrecognize austerity as a knee-jerk genuflection to the rationality of corporate think-tanks, presenting it instead as a legitimate governance project. It is not only Republican policymakers who are partaking of this discursive milieu, as demonstrated by the equally severe measures passed under their Democratic counterparts like governors Cuomo in New York and Brown in California. Many more politicians, at all levels of government, are promising kinder ways of slashing workers’ benefits and protections, possibly by involving the unions in a bipartisan spirit, so central to Obama’s ideological framework, which could use Walker’s crude repression as a scary alternative to extract further concessions.
The political question opened by the Wisconsin insurrection – meaning its actual practices and subjectivities rather than its mere sloganeering – is therefore whether, and to what extent, it can contribute to advancing a democracy of the common as the core of new narratives and grammars of social antagonism. The practices seen at work during February and March seem powerful enough to indicate a political potential in need of being engaged and articulated. Not only did they reveal the institutional hollowness of liberal democratic governance, but also pointed at a gap between their own political inventiveness and a liberal rights-based discourse of collective bargaining, which, inasmuch it is perfectly compatible with cutbacks and austerity, stands as a constant apparatus of capture, containment, and dilution of the political intelligence of the multitude. Spelling out the political meaning and potential of the Wisconsin events, let alone how replicable and generalizable they are, faces further challenges. As the historically hegemonic inflection of left discourse liberalism has, over the past forty years, found its most consistent and uncompromising ideal mission in the demonization of social conflict, also by presenting “citizenship” and its rights as an individual condition of empowerment only when exercised within market dynamics that depoliticize inequality and domination. In the persistently powerful seductions of liberalism, and in its view of American history as an overall trajectory of inclusive progress in need to be simply rescued and resurrected, lie a limitation on the capacity of the Wisconsin movements to speak to new antagonisms, in the US and globally. In a state with a 90 percent white population, the numerical success of the protests can also, sadly and paradoxically, be explained with the fact that the institutions could not resort to usual racial scapegoating by presenting the beneficiaries of union rights and collective bargaining as undeserving, dependency-prone, and work-shy blacks and Latinos. As the legacy of Wisconsin progressivism many demonstrators reclaimed also contains distasteful aspects of the state’s settler inheritance, the place of whiteness as a factor underpinning collective solidarity remains a thorny, little debated question in the demonstrations. Yet, even if only 6 percent of Wisconsin’s population is black, the large African-American community in Milwaukee – one hour drive from Madison and a local context of appalling poverty, segregation, and mass incarceration – remained largely distant from the protests. How resonant is, therefore, the Wisconsin insurrection with oppositional practices where blacks, Latinos, and migrants constitute the majority? Similar questions can be raised on the unassailable centrality of “the unions” in activist discourse: how does it speak to the precariously employed? How does it come to term with organized labor’s own history of corporatism, racial exclusions, defense of occupational privilege, and collaboration with neoliberal restructuring? Finally, one should also question how the nostalgic evocation of past welfarism, of which collective bargaining is ostensibly a cornerstone, keeps presenting governmental intervention as the harbinger of progress and social justice, ignoring how, even in the golden age of US social policy, such intervention has operated through the stigmatization of the poor, extremely residual and racially biased safety nets, gender hierarchies, and the unrelenting injunction to find employment as the exalted condition of virtuous social inclusion. In the absence of a critical interrogation of these trajectories, which optimistic claims of an unbroken left progressive legacy tends to paper over, the resignification of social struggles into a language of liberal-democratic freedoms is not only shortsighted as a discourse of alternative, but operates indeed as a key component in the very structure of subjection that the Wisconsin events questioned. Not only did the demonstrations and occupations reclaim rights and protections now under threat; they also practiced a reappropriation of politics as the autonomous expression of common forms of life. Thinking of the reappropriation of the common as a political project means critically engaging this and similar movements as much as the forces and strategies they oppose.
1: See Phelps, C. 2011. “The Wisconsin Idea”, The Chronicle of Higher Education Review, March 11.
2: Hudson, M. and J. Somers. 2011. “Wisconsin Death Trip”, Counterpunch, March 11-13.
3: Ross, A. 2010. “The Corporate Analogy Unravels”, The Chronicle of Higher Education Review, October 17.
4: It is then a consequential example that Ohio governor, John Kasich, an enforcer of anti-labor legislation even more extreme than Walker’s, has encouraged local colleges to develop short courses in physical proximity to major companies and in accordance with their “skills flow” requirements. See Vardon, J. 2011. “Kasich, Gee Will Push Aligning Colleges, Needed Job Skills” The Columbus Dispatch, March 23.
5: Hardt, M. 2010. “The Common in Communism.” In The Idea of Communism, edited by Slavoj Zizek and Costas Douzinas, 131-44. London: Verso.
6: Phelps, C., “The Wisconsin Idea”, cit.