A Challenge to the Left

7 Jun

This is a challenge to the left.

Not the left that’s out there already doing the hard work—the labor movement, the Occupiers, the immigrants rights’ organizers—but the left that’s like, well, me: the academics, the writers, the bloggers, the journalists, the think tankers, the kibbitzers. The people who talk too much.

My challenge is this: If you’re calling for the labor movement to be more radical—more adventurous, more willing to get out into the streets, to break laws, to challenge the social order (and let me be clear, that is an aim I share)—I want you to stop and ask yourself a question.

Have you ever organized a majority, even a plurality, of your co-workers—in an academic department, at a newspaper, in a think tank, at the little non-profit where you work—to confront the boss, whoever that might be, in such a way that all of your jobs were put into jeopardy?

If you haven’t, I ask you to imagine doing that. Not for the sake of you and your co-workers’ immediate well-being but for the sake of a larger collective good: a single-payer health care system, let’s say, or an end to adjunct labor, the elimination of capitalism, whatever.

And ask yourself whether you could do it — or if not you, whether and how you think it could be done. And not just for one day, but day after day, with no end in sight, and with no prospect for success.

What does that mean? Getting that untenured colleague in your department to stop teaching, that fellow reporter to stop reporting. Getting them out—and keeping them out.

If you think you can do it, I assure you probably can’t.

If you think you can’t do it, I assure you that you just might—and that it will take every last thing from you to make it happen.

41 Responses to “A Challenge to the Left”

  1. Blinkenlights der Gutenberg June 7, 2012 at 10:59 pm #

    …and what of those of us without jobs? How can we rise to the challenge?

    I have thought recently of organizing an “unpaid workers’ union” for those of us who, though without wages, certainly do work, in various ways. I am not sure what such a union could accomplish (there is no one with whom to negotiate) but as a political statement, I suppose there is some potential.

    Regardless, it seems the unemployed are approximately one in five of us; let’s not assume we’re all receiving wages, ok?

    • Corey Robin June 7, 2012 at 11:02 pm #

      Fair enough. Though I should clarify: my point here is not that everyone should be putting their shoulder to the wheel. It’s really asking people to engage in an imaginative exercise: to try and think how difficult some of this actually is. But you’re right: the exercised is biased toward those who are working. But the spirit of it could be extended beyond the workplace.

      • okie farmer June 8, 2012 at 12:23 pm #

        No. Its not difficult. What it is, is labor-intensive. I’ve chaired two state-wide campaigns in two states, worked on countless local elections over the last 40+ years, and I guarantee you left candidates can win if enough people can be enlisted to pound the pavement and register voters, particularly poor voters – then get them to the polls on election day.

        Its not hard work, just slogging work – look at the congressional race in NJ on Tuesday.

        “…thrust into a district where just over half of voters were represented by Rothman — making him the underdog… Pascrell registered thousands of new voters in Passaic County and ran up his margin so high there Rothman could not overcome it in his native Bergen County. Pascrell had 61.3 percent of the vote with 99 percent of the precincts reporting.” http://www.nj.com/news/index.ssf/2012/06/bill_pascrell_donald_payne_jr.html

        Even a janitor’s union can do this kind of work!

        This is exactly the role that organized Labor could do, but won’t. Why? For exactly the reasons stated by Dan Lynch below. As long as Labor operates as exclusionary “club” instead of being inclusive of all working people, they will continue their road to oblivion. Destroying the union movement in US (and now in Europe) has ALWAYS been on the ‘to do’ list of the well organized corporations and the neo-liberal politicians who work for them, as surely as dismantling the New Deal has been on the agenda of Right from its very beginnings.

  2. michael yates June 7, 2012 at 11:21 pm #

    Wouldn’t it be better to say that if we want a more radical labor movement, we should try to be part of it? I’m one of very, very few radical economists who teach workers, year in and year out, for thirty years now. Where are the rest? Chattering to their grad students? Plus there are many left critics inside the labor movement. I doubt they mind that those outside the labor movement criticize it, while supporting labor’s most basic principles. Something about this post seems off to me. Reminds me a bit of how Cesar Chavez used to talk to us. “I work 18 fucking hours a day for the union. Which of you can say the same? I’m not dealing with these chickenshit criticisms.” Of course, he got rid of anyone who offered harsh but accurate criticisms. No matter whether they talked too much or not. He did everything you ask of your leftist. It no doubt took every last thing from him. But a movment can’t be based upon heroic individuals. Nor can it demand that every person in it kill himself all the time. It has to be a collective effort, one where people submerge their egos (now this is where your chattering classes have a problem I think), and where we contribute according to our abilities. Chavez didn’t have a democratic bone in his body. Should everyone have kept their mouths shut about this just because we might not have been willing to give every last thing?

    • Corey Robin June 7, 2012 at 11:30 pm #

      I don’t really disagree with any of what you say, Michael. My point was a different though: not that people should shut up unless they’re willing to do the work — God knows I haven’t done the work in a very long time — but that they should try to imagine what the work would entail. Too much of the criticism I’ve seen seems to think the problem is one of pure voluntarism: bad labor leaders don’t want to do the radical thing. My point is that even the good ones would be hard pressed to do it. And if anyone doubts that, I simply ask them to imagine how they would do it. This isn’t a brief for heroic leadership: quite the opposite. It’s for everyone to imagine themselves in this role. But anyway, as I said: I agree with you.

  3. Jeremy Nathan Marks June 7, 2012 at 11:23 pm #

    I think that perhaps the most important thing you are saying here is that we all need to feel that this is a fight worth having regardless of whether or not we think we can win. I heartily agree.

    I think that there is so much about Wisconsin to be proud of. The recall alone was an accomplishment. And the fact the people from around the state got together to confront Walker and the Republican majority in the senate (which was taken away, after all) and the fact that people around the country were riveted by this is something significant.

    Wisconsin is heart-breaking but I am incredibly proud of the people who made it possible. It would be a mistake to see the results as the end of anything. This is one more stop along the way. One more fight in a long and drawn out battle that is never going to end. I think that in the mainstream media hype surrounding the recall that fact -that this is not a sporting event- is being missed.

  4. Dan Lynch June 8, 2012 at 12:01 am #

    Not sure what your point is ?

    My beef with labor unions is that they are corrupt and Ayn-Rand-selfish. Well, perhaps not all unions, but all the unions that I’ve had personal contact with.

    Instead of organizing for a higher minimum wage, they organize for a higher wage for senior union members.

    Instead of organizing for free universal health care, they organize for health care for themselves, to heck with everyone else.

    Instead of organizing for sick leave for all workers, they organize for sick leave for themselves.

    Instead of organizing for a strong national pension system for all workers, they organize for a pension for themselves.

    Instead of teachers organizing for academic freedom and academic excellence, they organize for money and for seniority privileges.

    Instead of organizing for progressive taxation, teacher’s unions organize for regressive taxes on the poor, to fund health care and pensions that the poor will never have.

    Hefty union dues go not to help the rank and file, but to union bosses and to crooked politicians who throw unions under the bus.

    These Ayn-Rand unions are morally not one iota better than the Koch brothers.

    I defend the right of unions to exist, but I criticize their behavior, and rightfully so.

    Before I ask a union to be more radical, I would first ask them to be more moral. I want them to be radically progressive and radically humanitarian, not radically selfish.

    • Peter Wirzbicki June 8, 2012 at 12:30 am #

      I would love to know how a union of, lets just say, janitors, would “organize for free universal health care,” without giving money to “crooked politicians,” and while maintaining their fundamental duty– to represent workers at a given workplace. Seriously, let’s hear the plan of action.

      • Corey Robin June 8, 2012 at 12:32 am #

        Peter: Exactly.

      • Paul June 8, 2012 at 10:49 am #

        Peter,
        You’re right that such a thing would not be feasible, especially since most private sector unions can’t even accomplish the “selfish” goals Dan has enumerated. But that’s not the point. I think what is so off-putting for people who share Dan’s point-of-view is the structure of political pluralism that unions require to function. In other words, if you’re not under one of the umbrellas that this or that trade union, church group, rich guy association holds up, then you’re out in the rain.

        But imagine if your janitors actually tried this, knowing full-well that they would fail. The head scratching that would result from the apparent incongruity between this quixotic, lofty goal of healthcare for all and the special workplace interests that janitors aught to be prioritizing would be very beneficial, in my opinion. First of all, we could point out that these ends are not so different, since janitors have a far more important role in public health than doctors do; basic sanitation, for example, has saved more lives than any size fleet of M.D.s. But more importantly, those who organize this event will have to work with ideas very different from the typical, “don’t let them treat you this way/ get what you deserve”, island of resistance stuff. Also, workers will come to recognize their best strategy is a general one, because their rights will be based on being human not being janitors, and if they ever lose their job, because maybe their not good at it, their effort is not left behind in that special interest focal point crystallized in the salary of the union official.

        Finally, Corey, yes you are right. It is easy to identify the problem, but much harder to do anything about it. But what is valid in the critiques of the loudmouthed left, is that we are failing in the wrong direction. The good ones had been criticizing this tactical orientation even when it was still showing some success; now that it appears to be entirely bankrupt, why not fail in the direction of more admirable goals? Does that mean putting things like equality and the general interest of the working class above a good career or even a steady job? Probably. Isn’t that what separates a leftist from a left sympathizer?

        I have been a “casualized” worker for ten years now, like millions of Americans. At least as far as my experience informs me, such a general mindset is very appealing to people who can no longer identify with a given trade or industry. I’ve been waiting for that attitude to find its way to our best and brightest. If that means they have to be un-anchored by budget hysteria, so be it. This can easily be a footing for solidarity if we make efforts in that direction no matter how doomed the short-run outlook is.

    • earthisroomenough June 11, 2012 at 4:34 pm #

      Maybe your experience doesn’t capture the whole picture. Take a look at the flipside:

      Who organizes for minimum wages? For sick leave for all? For national pension and national pension protections? For academic freedom and excellence? For progressive taxation?

      Organized labor. And very often organized teachers and organized janitors.

    • purple June 12, 2012 at 11:58 am #

      None of this is true today, except for perhaps few craft unions.

  5. Disaffected Liberal June 8, 2012 at 2:36 am #

    Unsolicited question, given Obama’s failure to campaign in WI against Walker:

    Is it too much to ask for a democratic president that is
    1) a genuinely good human being
    2) a competent statesman legislatively
    3) actually a liberal?

    The last 2 Democratic presidents have managed one of the above, at best.

    • BillW June 8, 2012 at 11:54 am #

      I would suggest reading up more on the history of and Democrats and those who pass under the political label of Liberals. Here are 4 books that helped lift the scales from a few friends’ eyes:

      From a review of Living with Hitler: Liberal Democrats in the Third Reich:

      This book addresses key questions about liberal democrats and their activities in Germany from 1933 to the end of the Nazi regime. While it is commonly assumed that liberals fled their homeland at the first sign of jackboots, in reality most stayed. Some even thrived under Hitler, personally as well as professionally. Historian Eric Kurlander examines the motivations, hopes, and fears of liberal democrats—Germans who best exemplified the middle-class progressivism of the Weimar Republic—to discover why so few resisted and so many embraced elements of the Third Reich.

      German liberalism was not only the opponent and victim of National Socialism, Kurlander suggests, but in some ways its ideological and sociological antecedent. That liberalism could be both has crucial implications for understanding the genesis of authoritarian regimes everywhere. Indeed, Weimar democrats’ prolonged reluctance to oppose the regime demonstrates how easily a liberal democracy may gradually succumb to fascism.

      An excerpt from a biography of Mussolini:

      Bosworth points out that Mussolini’s colonial atrocities in Ethiopia and Libya (where in Cyrenaica he killed half the population) as well as his opportunistic entry into the second World War was all too much in keeping with “Liberal” traditions.

      Excerpt from Changing Party Coalitions: The Mystery of the Red State-Blue State Alignment

      …All five Republic Presidents of the postwar period had a détente policy and that all but Reagan in his first term reduced military spending. All four Democratic Presidents prior to Bill Clinton raised military spending, each quite substantially, and all had serious confrontations with the Soviet Union…The Republican Party found it politically useful to balance its pro-détente policy with hard-line rhetoric toward the Soviet Union and defense, while the Democratic rhetoric emphasized arms control and global cooperation…In one way or another, they (Republicans) had emphasized the themes of patriotism and nationalism while actually following a policy of détente when in office’. ‘Nationalism was central’ in their campaigns, ‘yet the Republicans had always supported détente in practice: Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and George H.W. Bush.

      From an interview of Dennis Perrin, author of Savage Mules: The Democrats and Endless War:

      When you go beyond Andrew Jackson and the “Trail of Tears,” you find the Democrats were the leading American Indian killers of the 19th century. It began as a war party. It hasn’t changed. Later on there were anti-war and social justice movements that came up through the Democratic Party, or at least were co-opted by them, but that never defined the party itself. The party began in war and is still very much involved in war.

  6. Douglas D. Edwards June 8, 2012 at 3:05 am #

    Since initially I perceived the same hectoring tone in this challenge that Michael Yates did, I was very happy to see your clarification:

    “My point was a different though: not that people should shut up unless they’re willing to do the work — God knows I haven’t done the work in a very long time — but that they should try to imagine what the work would entail. Too much of the criticism I’ve seen seems to think the problem is one of pure voluntarism: bad labor leaders don’t want to do the radical thing. My point is that even the good ones would be hard pressed to do it.”

    But even with this clarification, your point is still not particularly cogent. The most relevant reforms suggested by critics are structural and theoretical, setting groundwork by trying to change people’s thinking and their modes of organization rather than calling for immediate radical action, and they meet with stiff resistance just the same. Rather than limiting our sights to the feasible, we should try to change the boundaries of what is feasible. Before we attempt radical action on the ground, we need to radicalize our mental workspaces. Deriding the chattering class (even from within it) does not help the cause.

    For example, one critical conceptual advance is to get people to shift the primary focus of their loyalty from their local or their trade to the labor movement as a whole (“One Big Union”), or better yet, to the 99.99% movement as a whole, including nonworking lumpenproletarians and sympathetic though “privileged” petty bourgeoisie. (The only privilege that is of fundamental importance is that of the 0.01% oligarchs; thinking otherwise is another conceptual roadblock that must be overcome.) The belief that the “fundamental duty” of a union is “to represent workers at a given workplace” (Peter Wirzbicki) is one of the reasons why organizing and striking are so hard. It may seem obvious to you and to Peter, but it’s thoroughly wrongheaded and a major obstacle.

    Likewise, as Doug Henwood and Bhaskar Sunkara have emphasized in connection with the Wisconsin debacle, right-wing ideology is not content-free, nor strictly a function of money, power, and privilege; its arguments must be answered. The “work ethic” (really a peonage ethic, since it recognizes only paid drudgery as work) is accepted even by many on the Left; but once accepted it can be turned even against unionized workers, supporting the argument that benefits won through collective bargaining are “unfair”, since non-unionized workers doing the same work do not receive these benefits. The peonage ethic must be thoroughly discredited.

    I have had personal experience of these problems. I participated in the 1992 AGSE/UAW graduate student instructor / researcher (GSI/GSR) strike at UC Berkeley, and I helped to organize off-site picketing of warehouses and the like to stop deliveries. A strong plurality, at least, of GSI/GSR participated initially, but only I and one or two others from my own field, computer science, participated (only myself and one other at the end). There was heavy attrition during the term and the strike was eventually lost. We were not recognized and were striking to gain representation, which was not achieved at the time, although it was achieved as a result of a later strike after I left Berkeley; the strike I participated in was not the first or the last.

    Within computer science, at least, the most fundamental obstacle to greater participation was not fear of retaliation or hardship, but straightforward ideological alignment with the administration. There were a few GSI/GSR in computer science who were sympathetic but fearful; most, however, simply thought unions were not for the few, the proud, the tech-savvy. After the strike was lost, another computer science student of known conservative ideology asked me “What did you expect?” and ridiculed my willingness to work with what he saw as stupid unionists.

    In that environment, no amount of union-organizing skill or determination would have helped much in eliciting greater participation from computer science GSI/GSR; but more insight into the psychological, sociological, and ideological roots of conservative ideology might have. (I’m an ex-conservative myself, but not, I believe, at all a typical one, so introspection by itself was not as helpful as I might have hoped.) Likewise, although the UAW deserves a great deal of credit for branching out into organizing of non-autoworkers, the strike was harder than it needed to be because it was limited to Berkeley and to graduate students, and because not all unionized workers honored our picket lines. My experience with AFL-CIO unionism really made me appreciate the need for something more like the IWW.

    • jonnybutter June 8, 2012 at 11:39 am #

      “Before we attempt radical action on the ground, we need to radicalize our mental workspaces. Deriding the chattering class (even from within it) does not help the cause.”

      I agree 100% with a premise, but not with the conclusion, of this implied argument. Absolutely we need to change mental workspaces – nice way to put it, btw. But I see CR’s post as advocating exactly that, and the binary choice above is actually an impediment to doing it. The claim that Corey is ‘deriding the chattering class’ implies an either/or: either deride the left or ‘support’ (cheerlead) the left (chat division). I think he’s *challenging* the chattering class – which is hardly the same thing as derision. He’s simply asking us to imagine actually doing labor organizing. Very hard!

      What’s wanted is imagination – the practical, sturdy, everyday kind. That can come from anyone, chatterer or worker.

  7. Mark Simmons June 8, 2012 at 10:18 am #

    Really too bad here in Wisconsin, the mass disobedience window closed a long time ago. When there were 180k people in the streets I think there were plenty of people that were willing to disobey. Still can’t figure out who gave the order to go home and start gathering recall sigs? The movement was actually popular here in Wisconsin. Then Democrats took over. Instead of dispersing they needed to crank up the resistance – it was their only hope of killing that bill – and I think they could have. It would have been an epic victory. Pretty amazing buzzkill. Oh well.

    • 1union June 28, 2012 at 8:27 pm #

      The PEOPLE decided to move from the streets to the recall, the PEOPLE.

  8. Jimmy Reefercake (@JimmyReefercake) June 8, 2012 at 10:47 am #

    the answer is no. I will not sacrifice my livelyhood for the sake of a the Occupy movement. Family first. Its what I call shakedown economics

    http://allthehypocrisy.com/shakedown-economics/

    We’re living in shakedown economics, but its better than just seeds and stems.
    We’re living in shakedown economics, you know the bankers always win in the end.
    Seeds and stems, no you just can’t smoke them,
    But if you got some real good shake at least you will be smoking,
    Politicians waving the American flag,
    Leave the 99% with the bottom of the bag,
    We all want to change the rules of the game,
    But how you gonna do that now when things are all gonna stay the same?
    In the shakedown game,
    Gotta keep putting that gas in the car,
    Gotta keep my children safe from harm.
    We’re living in shakedown economics, but its better than just seeds and stems.

  9. James Hoff June 8, 2012 at 3:03 pm #

    Cory,

    I am not sure if I entirely understand the thrust of your argument here. Surely, organizing a workplace strike or a general strike is difficult work, and surely, those of us not actively engaged in that work should at least be aware of the difficulty involved in pulling off such a thing. However, I don’t think anyone calling for more radical action is unaware of the courage it takes to do something like that. I also see no problem with calling for more radical labor action, regardless of whether or not one is in a union or actively engaged in radicalizing their own union–for the record I am involved in such work within the PSC. I think there is great power in talk and complaint and anger and outrage. For one thing it changes the limits of what people think is actually possible. The more we say the word general strike, the more we speak positively about socialism, the more we criticize compromise and political sideshows like the recall election, the more serious action becomes possible.

    As for Wisconsin, I see no problem in criticizing the unions’ decision to reduce this movement to yet another battle between Democrats and Republicans. And I am furious that they did not strike when they had the chance. And this is what really matters to me; the conditions were perfect for a general strike in Wisconsin and those moments don’t come very often. Under such circumstances, I know exactly what I would have done and what I would have been fighting for, and I don’t think such a confidence is a bad thing.

    James.

    • Corey Robin June 8, 2012 at 4:45 pm #

      A few thoughts. First, it’s partly my experience in the PSC that makes me extremely dubious of what you say. We are a long ways from any kind of strike — including a one-day job action — in the PSC. I don’t think such things are impossible, by any means, but when I think of the faculty where I teach, it’s awfully hard for me to imagine us getting out more than 5 to 10 percent of the faculty. I’m talking about full-timers; I have less sense of course about the adjunct faculty. We have a very progressive leadership, lots of commitments, everyone says the right thing — “talk” is the operative word in your comment — but we’re a long way away from action.

      Which leads me to WI: “the conditions were perfect for a general strike.” How do you know this? What indicators do you have? When I was a full-time organizer we had real tests so that by the time we launched a five-week strike, we knew almost to the person who would walk out and who wouldn’t. And of course the attrition over that period was tremendous. Walking out is one thing, staying out is another.

      But my point is that “conditions were perfect” is not the same thing as being able to make it happen. It was the teachers unions who called people out on a sick-out; from what I understand, they didn’t think they could hold it together for very long (You’re going to be a full-time professor soon, right? Just you wait till you actually start talking — for real, not in the abstract — about walking out on your students. It’s a whole different ball game.) And they could very well have been right (I don’t know; I wasn’t there.)

      But anyone who’s ever been through a strike knows there are a thousand little variables and details that determine who walks and who doesn’t, details that matter so much more than the ripeness of conditions, and it’s precisely the intellectual left’s failure to comprehend all that — frankly, to show even the slightest curiosity about that — that led me to post my post. And to be honest, the reaction of most folks since then has only confirmed for me the point of the post.

      • Bill Wolfe June 11, 2012 at 6:42 pm #

        Sorry, I’ve obviously missed all those nuanced details.

        But please tell me: How hard is it to get your ass into the street? I get on a train to NYC to Occupy. Is all that a waste of time? Is the possibility of mass mobilization a pipe dream?

        Just think if all the resources that are dedicated to the electoral process were plowed into mobilization organizing.

        How hard can it be to organize a movement of unemployed? Of those foreclosed?

        Are there not databases with addresses and phone numbers?

        How hard is it to go to a local unemployment office, community health care, or food pantry?

        Really, how hard is any of that?

        Folks are standing around waiting to be organized.

        (In theory, I like David Harvey’s most recent book “Rebel Cities” call for geographic organizing a log lines of “Right to the City” and creation of a commons.)

  10. robert wood June 8, 2012 at 4:10 pm #

    Ironically, if you want to hear some criticisms of the official union movement that make the stuff coming out of the left sound mild and even handed, you should talk to the dissident rank and file of the UAW who have seen their contracts go to shit over the past thirty years, due to a lot of union incompetence. Talk to the folks who went over to the NUHW in response to the ways that SEIU worked to undermine the contracts of UHW. Those blogs and conversations are harsh in ways that I can’t think of an equivalent in the ‘left.’ I think that there are a lot of limitations to the current scattered archipelago of radical groups, but the official union movement has done a lot to keep radical politics out of their organizing approaches and its led to a situation where less than 10% of the workforce is organized. Organizations like the UAW and SEIU have billions of dollars and massive infrastructures for organizing and they still aren’t getting folks to join up. They won’t challenge the laws that restrict organizing because the fines might risk their retirement nest egg. I make about 16000 dollars a year.

    Incidentally, I’ve done a lot of work in unions, as an rank and file activist, as an official organizer, and as a member of a reform caucus of my union. My frustration about the labor movement comes out of my belief in its importance and worker self organization, not its irrelevance.

    • Corey Robin June 9, 2012 at 2:15 am #

      I agree with all that. With one exception. “the official union movement has done a lot to keep radical politics out of their organizing approaches and its led to a situation where less than 10% of the workforce is organized.” My sense of things is that while bad leadership has certainly contributed to the overall decline of labor, lots of other factors — namely the massive repression visited on labor in the 40s and 50s, which destroyed a generation of exemplary leaders, and subsequent massive repression and retaliation — are far more important.

  11. Paula A. June 8, 2012 at 6:36 pm #

    As some other commenters have mentioned, I have been wondering if what we need is either for unions to somehow open up to people who can not now join because they aren’t union workers (if that makes sense) OR someone (who, when, where? which, as I read it, is Corey’s point) has to start a citizen’s union.

    The problem is that unions and the Dem party have had a long running relationship that for a long time benefited both sides, but no longer does. The Dem party apparatus has counted on unions to rally their members to give money and volunteer time to do the GOTV and all the rest come election time.

    But while the unions have unfailingly delivered, the Dems they’ve elected increasingly have not.

    Meanwhile, the rest of us non-union Dems have also relied on unions to do the bulk of the grunt work, although, in recent years, other groups have also contributed a lot of volunteers (OFA, Moveon, etc.).

    But that’s it. There are no other large-scale groups or other mechanisms to teach, communicate, encourage volunteerism, etc. Meanwhile, on the right there’s a massive machine that pumps out marching orders continuously, 24-7, 365.

    On the Dem side the Democratic Party apparatus in the states basically goes underground as soon as the votes are counted. The off-year elections show far lower turnout; then the presidential year approaches and suddenly the party is contacting us again. And sending us emails. Asking us for money. Once in awhile asking for “input” which I swear to God must get used purely to try to create more effective talking points, as opposed to things like legislation. But I digress.

    OWS offers many lessons here and I have the highest respect for the collective accomplishments of people all over the country and around the world. But I see their value — and it is extremely valuable — as lying in pushing the overton window to the left. They are mustering awareness, they are shaping discourse. But they don’t want to engage in institutional change in the traditional way and they explicitly don’t want to engage in electoral politics.

    To create change, though, we need the visionaries. We need the people who reject the status quo and seek out new ways to solve problems instead of constantly re-using old ways that don’t solve the problems. We need to take that spirit and turn it into pragmatic action.

    The idea of a general strike is old-school. It isn’t an answer to today’s dilemmas because people are too trapped in the system to challenge it in that way. I don’t think you can realistically ask people to risk their jobs and future careers in a time when jobs are scarce and futures can be seriously damaged. You’re also then asking many to risk their precious health-insurance too. There’s a reason OWS is filled with unemployed young people — they have nothing to lose and much to gain. Corey’s academics and the democratic party’s professional class membership have a whole lot to lose and little evidence to support confidence in what they would gain.

    Our challenge is to find a stick we CAN use.

  12. josh June 8, 2012 at 9:34 pm #

    The organizing part isn’t particularly difficult. Even what’s left of our unions are quite good at it. I have worked for quite a few unions and it’s not the membership or local activists that are putting a brake on radical actions. It is almost without exception the union “leadership” that is pissing away whatever power they have on electoral politics. Most union members and other working people really don’t have much to lose. It’s union leaders that hold them back, for fear of RICO or less charitably, fear of not getting invited to the cool DNC parties. The union bureaucracy has far more to lose than their members so they are much more risk averse.

  13. tom June 9, 2012 at 1:06 am #

    I did this 2 years ago. I organized my coworkers. And guess what. My coworkers sold me out and sold out everything we were asked for for a couple of token gestures. That’s the way the world goes.

  14. white collar crime kills June 11, 2012 at 12:29 am #

    replying to ok farmer (thread depth limit)
    okie farmer
    I assume you nominate the NJ efforts (your pascrell, payne link) because both districts replaced reddogs with more centrist dems?
    Even a janitor’s union…
    Working class untouchables usually saves the arses arses from their arseselves.
    I think not because the untouchables are better at it; because they are most cornered.
    In contrast, years ago, ‘snootier’ unions (pilots) seemed to fail to support their “bottom flank” sibling unions, thereby weakening pilots’ own foundation.

  15. El Cid June 11, 2012 at 1:18 pm #

    I think that very, very few people have any idea of how difficult it might be to organize a confrontation with their employer over some fundamental issue affecting not just themselves (as individual employee) but their coworkers.

    I don’t think many people have put themselves in that imaginary space, outside momentary speculation.

    On occasion I’ve seen confrontations arise by more spontaneous causes and circumstances, and often they’ve had beneficial effects, though more often not. The boss pulls something crappy and people do anything from loud complaint to enraged argument. At times it ends in one or more fired or quitting.

    At best, I’d have to guess that most people — and most people do not have experience with union organizing whether directly or with close family — think of those more spontaneous and not-organized conflicts.

    The kind of long-term and strategic campaign of struggle and threat to be waged to form a union, to keep it, and have it mean something? I think that neither the average person nor average blogger (even in the definite or vaguely “Democrat” or “liberal” category) has a clear grasp of that, even to the degree of thinking about it in detail or imagining it through.

  16. Bill Wolfe June 11, 2012 at 6:30 pm #

    Corey – I look to your work for ideas and analysis.

    I think you really missed this and provided cover for the numerous failures of the liberal class (Chris Hedges).

    I was just reading tour essay on Arendt and the dead weight of careerism, so I had hoped for you to use the moment for inspirational leadership.

    Instead, you provide and excuse for folks to hide behind the mortgage and the desk – it’s just soooo hard!

    Will that motivate direct action that puts all at risk?

    Or – to provide contrast – does CHris Hedges show the way in his column today on Daniel Berrigan?

    (ps – I am one who took the challenge and lost it all, so I speak from a righteous place)

  17. Bill Wolfe June 11, 2012 at 6:45 pm #

    Why were the right wing Mega-Churches so able and successful at doing the organizing you seem to suggest is so hard?

  18. Corey Robin June 11, 2012 at 8:52 pm #

    Bill Wolfe: You ask me how hard is to do the things that you do — e.g., get on a train, go to Occupy. etc. But that’s the wrong question. The question is how hard is it to get someone else to do it. So, if you want to know how hard it is, I suggest one of two things: First, try it yourself. Seriously. Come up with a campaign idea (and target), go to a food pantry, and try to get some folks to follow you. Give it a shot, see how you make out. I’m not being facetious or trying to dampen down your enthusiasm, I’m urging you to do it yourself so you’ll have some sense of this. Or, if you don’t want to do it yourself, call up a labor union near you. Try UNITE HERE, some parts of the CWA or SEIU, and have a chat with an organizer. Ask him or her how they do it. You say you look to me for ideas and analysis. Well, here’s an idea: find out what’s entailed in creating a mass movement.

  19. empirenotes June 11, 2012 at 10:39 pm #

    I’m a member of the Teaching Assistants\’ Association. I was heavily involved during the actual occupation of the Capitol, and then gradually less so after we were kicked out. I was at the meeting of the Wisconsin South-Central Federation of Labor when it voted to endorse a general strike if the bill went through. It should be noted that the final version of the bill involved endorsing an ”international” general strike, whatever the hell that would be.

    Although, to be fair, since the leadership knew they didn\’t have a strike fund or any advance work with any unions, they were only endorsing a strike in principle, I still thought I was on the set of a movie. Since, you know, the last general strike in the United States was in Minneapolis in 1934. I talked to a still-wet-behind-the-ears paid organizer for SCFL, and he told me that, indeed, there was serious talk about a general strike.

    When things actually hit the fan, of course, it was only the directly-affected public-sector unions that had any real strike talk. In my own, undoubtedly the most radical, there was a hard core of activists who had been working around the clock on the occupation who favored going on strike. I was willing to be one of them, but it became pretty clear that we had no chance in hell of winning a strike vote. The primary problem was not our ”fat-cat” union bureaucrats (our officers actually don’t draw a union salary) but the bulk of our membership. Even among the people who showed up to our large and contentious general membership meetings there were many who strongly opposed our ”teachouts,” in which we didn\’t teach our classes on campus but sometimes made alternative arrangements to teach near the State Capitol. I imagine that among the much larger number who didn\’t come to the meetings and didn\’t participate in the teachouts, such opposition was even greater. Certainly, those members would never have voted for a formal walkout.

    Even some of our progressive faculty were getting antsy about the continued teachouts, and, of course, there was a considerable public backlash against the wildcat sickouts that many teachers participated in, most notably members of MTI, the Madison teachers union.

    Without knowing all the decision-making details within the big public-sector unions, I am still confident that there is no way that a grassroots groundswell for a strike was squelched by union bureaucrats and Democratic politicians. They might have tried (and likely failed) to squelch such a surge had it existed, but it was clear to the vast majority of those involved that we had already done pretty much all we could do and that there was not going to be any strike, let alone the fabled general strike, the chimera of the left.

    It might be interesting to imagine what would have happened had there been some organized campaign to stop doing any other activism and start preparing for a mass public-sector strike. For those who think the recall was an overreach, you shouldn’t try to imagine what the backlash would have been against that.

  20. DeBee Corley June 11, 2012 at 11:03 pm #

    Wow, what a collection of wimps. Babbling on and on. I can envision your long hair and sandals. The free clinic, the food bank.

    You win with hard work and failure. Failure teaches. Sitting on your ass makes your ass look fat.

    • jonnybutter June 12, 2012 at 8:57 am #

      ” I can envision your long hair and sandals. The free clinic, the food bank.”

      Did you notice the sickly sweet smell of LSD wafting through the air?

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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  4. » “Have you ever organized a majority, even a plurality, of your co-workers to confront the boss in such a way that all of your jobs were put into jeopardy?” - June 12, 2012

    […] to see more labor-friendly results, writer Corey Robin makes a sobering request in his post, “A Challenge to the Left,” when he asks those who call for more action to imagine the process of organizing a […]

  5. What Might Have Been: One Report from Madison, Wisconsin « Corey Robin - June 20, 2012

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  6. Adolph Reed Speaks Truth on Wisconsin « Corey Robin - June 27, 2012

    […] argument, which he makes very well. I would also commend Corey Robin’s blog posting offering a “Challenge to the Left” to consider what actually attempting to organize a constituency to support an unconventional […]

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