Adolph Reed Speaks Truth on Wisconsin

27 Jun

Over at The Nation, Adolph Reed weighs in on the great debate about Wisconsin. (His piece, as of this writing, is second from the top, just after Bill Fletcher’s and Jane McAlevey’s.) Adolph, whose credentials as a thinker and activist I assume no one (at least no one in her right mind) would question, has got some choice words of wisdom that I hope we’ll all heed.

Many observers have noted that the Madison occupation depended on intense, aggressive, even extraordinary mobilization by unions, and not only unions in Wisconsin. That point has underscored the labor movement’s centrality to any mass action of that sort because it alone has the capacity – people and organizational and economic resources — to pull it off and sustain it. The other side of that coin, however, is that the intensity of effort required to sustain that kind of action could not be maintained indefinitely. It is too easy to imagine, as the numbers in Madison grew, that the mobilization had taken on a life of its own, that the People were rising. However, generating and sustaining that mass action required great commitment of effort and resources – effort and resources that weren’t going toward meeting other pressing needs and commitments.

Mass protest is not the end all and be all of political action. It does not necessarily mark going on the offensive or seizing political initiative; it can just as easily be the opposite – an act of desperation or an attempt to create a little space or breathing room to try to recover from a serious blow. It is only the fetish of the Spark that underwrites the default assumption that mass protest or street action equates with radicalization and expansion of the struggle. How many of us have ever really seen (i.e., not simply read or heard about – everybody tells that fish story) a protest action grow entirely on its own to a point where it overwhelms political opposition or converts into a new insurgency?

The tendency to scapegoat the labor movement for Walker’s most recent victory in Wisconsin – and, to be clear, that is what I see in Henwood’s, Rothschild’s and Kroll’s arguments – stems from frustration and desperation and, ironically, recognition, if only backhanded, of the fact that labor was the only element of the coalition challenging Walker with the material and organizational capacity to set and pursue a strategy. What other organized political forces could be identified in order to be blamed? This scapegoating not only rests on a naïvely formalist juxtaposition of street action and electoral action; it also feeds on a long-standing suspicion in many precincts of the post-Vietnam era left of a politics rooted in institutions in general and unions in particular. Gordon Lafer is correct that these criticisms misunderstand what unions are and how they operate as democratic structures, the realities of union leaders’ accountability to their members. I don’t need to reiterate that 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 program requires. For those who want to build a left, that’s the mindset of slow, steady, face-to-face base-building we need, not lurching from one self-gratifying but unproductive action to the next. The point of politics is after all, to resuscitate an old Maoist dictum, to unite the many to defeat the few. Our objective has to be to create that “many,” not merely assume it’s out there already.

29 Responses to “Adolph Reed Speaks Truth on Wisconsin”

  1. Sam Holloway June 27, 2012 at 3:26 pm #

    Hear, hear. If Morris Berman (via “Dark Ages America”) is anywhere close to encapsulating who we (of the U.S. electorate) are as a people, then I’d say the creation of Adolph Reed’s “many” (in the shape of a formidable, organized U.S. ‘left’) is a taller order than may be possible in the near to middle future.

    • Thomas Nephew June 27, 2012 at 5:14 pm #

      There’s plenty to think about and appreciate in Mr. Reed’s remarks. Certainly mass action isn’t an end in itself, it’s a means to an end. Certainly building any movement must be a patient, long term endeavor.

      But it seems unfair and not constructive to characterize Kroll’s, Rothschild’s, Henwood’s and others’* critiques as merely “scapegoating unions,” and I think there’s a real danger in dismissing the real thrust of their remarks.

      The main overlapping issue that each of the authors raise is simply whether the electoral “Democratic champion” strategy was the best way to go in this particular case. That is much more a cut at Barrett, the Democratic Party, and the electoral system we have than at unions or labor. (And that’s the answer to ‘who else could be blamed?’ A political party looking for a do-over for one of its hapless empty suits, that’s who, as noted by several of the authors named above.)

      At best, in this case, elections were a terrifically delayed, highly uncertain tool against well-funded opponents that would result (again, at best) in tepid, conflicted champions of the rights at stake. At worst, they risked ratifying Walker’s policy. It seemed at least as magical a brand of thinking to say ‘this will fix it: let’s recall the guy a year and a half from now by running a labor champion against him’ as it was to imagine the Revolution Was At Hand.

      The facts remain: we lost. What was tried did not work. It’s critical not to ignore that, it’s critical to look for lessons *for labor and its friends* to draw from that. It is *not* scapegoating to suggest that the recall strategy was a mistake — it is merely restating the outcome of the election. If one were to name one proven, unproductive action for Wisconsin labor to lurch into, the *recall* is now it. As union organizer Colin Millard told Andy Kroll, it was playing someone else’s game by someone else’s rules.

      ===
      * My own, too, at least, mentioned in prior comments here. Perhaps the distinction is between the idea of *labor rights* on the one hand and *unions and their leadership* on the other. I support labor rights strongly (as do each of Kroll, Rothschild, and Henwood, as near as I can tell). I for one also wish *unions and their leadership* all the best — but see both as simply the means to the end of labor rights, and can imagine that both sometimes make the wrong choice in how to accomplish that end.)

  2. Douglas D. Edwards June 27, 2012 at 4:29 pm #

    I don’t doubt that serious organizing work is necessary for success in any kind of political movement. But if Corey Robin and Adolph Reed see “scapegoating” of organized labor in Doug Henwood’s (and similar) critiques, what I see in this post and similar ones (starting with the “Challenge to the Left”: http://coreyrobin.com/2012/06/07/a-challenge-to-the-left/) is organized labor and its intellectual allies *circling the wagons* against well-deserved criticism from which they could and should learn.

    Not all the critics are Blanquists or insurrectionists who worship the Spark by any means. And the problem is not limited to corruption within organized labor. Certain elements of the Left (I’m thinking particularly of Corey Robin, Seth Ackerman, and Mark Ames) show a depth of animosity toward anything resembling libertarianism that leads me to wonder whether they intend to abandon to the Ayn Rand Right forever, as hopeless cases, everyone whose fundamental value is liberty, and for whom equality, to the extent that it is a value at all, is derivative from liberty. *That would include me!* It would also include, for example, Chris Maisano, who writes in “Take this job and share it: on loving work and hating freedom” (http://dedicto.com/wordpress1/bib/#maisano-2011-take-this-job-and-share-it):

    The one-sided focus of most Marxists and socialists on distributional questions has obscured the fact that the animating principle of the Left is not so much equality, but rather freedom—freedom *from* alienating work and freedom *to* use our time and creativity for our own self-directed ends.

    Whether that is a “fact” or not, it is clearly Maisano’s sentiment, and mine, and no doubt that of many on the Right who presently believe that going over to the Left would mean permanent abandonment of the fundamental value of liberty.

    In response to a discussion of Michael Bloomberg’s soda-size limit, Seth Ackerman tweeted:

    I just can’t stand libertarians. Even the “good ones.” http://twitter.com/SethAckerman/status/209040086313082880

    In response to a comment on Andrew Dittmer’s caricaturish “Journey into a libertarian future” (http://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2011/12/journey-into-a-libertarian-future-part-iii-%E2%80%93-regulation.html), Corey Robin tweeted:

    Well, as I’ve been arguing for some time, libertarianism is a variation on feudalism. http://twitter.com/CoreyRobin/status/217074008254988288

    (I wonder how *that* would play in Wisconsin?) In “V. S. Naipaul and the American Right” (*Jacobin* 2012 Spring; 6:54–57), Mark Ames writes:

    They’ve replaced the Naipauls with libertarians, the fake, predictable, genetically-modified version of reactionary intellectualism – so insanely corrupt and so profoundly retarded that, like a skunk spraying foul stupidity whenever threatened, libertarianism has successfully scared away anyone with brains and dignity from bothering them while they feed.

    While some right-libertarians may well deserve these harsh words, I see no sign here that Ames recognizes there could be another species of libertarian. (I also fail to see non-libertarian reactionary intellectuals, generally speaking, as any more sympathetic than this.)

    I don’t think any mass political movement in the USA can succeed without the support of those for whom liberty is *the* fundamental value. Do you?

    • Corey Robin June 27, 2012 at 4:35 pm #

      “…leads me to wonder whether they intend to abandon to the Ayn Rand Right forever, as hopeless cases, everyone whose fundamental value is liberty, and for whom equality, to the extent that it is a value at all, is derivative from liberty. *That would include me!*”

      That would include, um, me too: http://www.thenation.com/article/159748/reclaiming-politics-freedom

      “I don’t think any mass political movement in the USA can succeed without the support of those for whom liberty is *the* fundamental value. Do you?”

      See response above.

      • Douglas D. Edwards June 28, 2012 at 6:39 pm #

        Your article “Reclaiming the politics of freedom” was an immense relief — I was not looking forward to having to contend against you on a value judgment of such fundamental importance! — but also a surprise. I had just finished Fear the night before, and its argument read to me uncomfortably like an attempted reductio ad absurdum of liberty as a fundamental value. Yes, “freedom and equality” are repeatedly affirmed as values in the Conclusion, but in a way that makes them appear to be joined at the hip, and even leaves open the possibility that freedom is derivative from equality, rather than the other way around. The main text of the book (especially Part 2, “Fear, American style”) repeats the scenario of appeals to liberty playing into the hands of power again and again, like a morality play. “Reclaiming the politics of freedom”, by contrast, emphatically states that:

        Security and equality are critical values, but they are means to an end. The reason we value security is that it enables us to act freely, without fear. The reason we value equality is that inequality is the throughway of domination: someone with vastly more resources than I—an employer, for example—can coerce and control me, abridge my freedom. By emphasizing security and equality, we focus on the means and lose sight of the end.

        Amen to that! Part of what I was proposing above was that this point cannot be stressed enough, and is key (as the rest of the article says) to reaching out to any conservatives who are reachable. Finding the grain of truth in libertarianism, and teasing it apart from the malignant authoritarian elements, may well do more than any amount of labor organizing to break the power of the American Right. Please try to develop the message of “Reclaiming the politics of freedom” further, again and again.

    • Foppe June 27, 2012 at 4:49 pm #

      without the support of those for whom liberty is the fundamental value

      Problem with libertarians is that they define ‘liberty’ in terms of the property rights, not in terms of freedom of assembly/freedom to band together and act together to create new forms of life, etc.. So no, not unless those libertarians are first sent to a re-education camp where they learn that property rights should not be considered fundamental. ;)

    • MF June 27, 2012 at 11:42 pm #

      So the problem with the left in general, and with the movement in Wisconsin in particular; is that some leftist commentators made a few mean remarks about libertarians on the internet?

    • Cavoyo June 28, 2012 at 6:48 pm #

      As Foppe points out, there’s liberty and then there’s liberty. The problem is that the propertarian* conception of liberty is tyranny. “Liberty” means the right to demand Facebook passwords, eliminate bathroom breaks, enforce racial segregation, and sexually harrass employees. “Liberty” means the right to determine who’s on the assembly line and who’s on the bread line. I have no respect for those who think that what’s great when an employer does it is Stalinist when a government does it, or what’s tolerable when a state government does it is totalitarian when the federal government does it. These are not people that we want to support or compromise with. Unfortunately these are the people that define libertarian in the US. They far outnumber any libertarians who think that tyrrany is tyrrany, no matter the source.

      *I’m not going to use the word “libertarian” to refer to property-worshippers, since they’ve stolen the word from actual libertarians. Look up Joseph Dejaque if you don’t know what I mean.

  3. Foppe June 27, 2012 at 4:59 pm #

    Adolph Reed:

    At bottom, the problem is that this left has lived in the fictional echo-chamber universe for too long. Not being connected to practical politics anchored in institutions removes an important constraint of interpretive and strategic discipline and leaves too much space for indulging appealing but simplistic fantasies about political mobilization and what it requires.

    Apologies for the slight plug, but this remark kind of reminds me of Graeber’s little book Revolutions in Reverse, in which he talks both about ‘the sadness of post-workerism’, and the connections between alternative lifestyle movements (artistic groups), avant-guardism, and theoretical innovation on the left (Marx, Derrida, Foucault).. Anyway, a better and likely more enthusing introduction than I am able to give can be found here.

  4. JW Mason (@JWMason1) June 27, 2012 at 5:31 pm #

    I also like Adolph’s contribution.

    I think there is a larger problem here, which is that — IMO anyway — it is just not logically possible to infer a positive program from failures and defeats. The fact that neither X nor Y has worked could be an argument for Z, or it could be an argument for W, or for just giving up. There’s a little too much confidence — not just from Doug but from everyone in these debates, including me at times I’m sure — that the failure in Wisconsin is in itself evidence that things would have gone differently if only our preferred strategy had been followed. That’s just a non sequitur, I think.

    • Corey Robin June 27, 2012 at 5:37 pm #

      I agree wholeheartedly, Josh, though I think the thrust of my comments has been that there is no clear strategy forward. And like you, I think trying different things is the way to go. Look at this way: nearly 90 percent of the American workforce is not organized. Even if you think that’s the fault of union bureaucrats, they’re not going to be able to stop some organization from mobilizing or organizing or doing whatever the remaining 90 percent. There’s lots of room for experimentation!

    • Doug Henwood June 27, 2012 at 9:24 pm #

      Josh, that’s not fair. I’ve got some broad ideas about what labor needs to do, but I hardly have a blueprint. I think it’s very important to have a serious debate, but it seems that Gordon, Corey, and I’m heartbroken to say Adolph seem to think that discussing things honestly is aid and comfort to the enemy. I have seen little or nothing from any of these folks that even begins to address the What Is To Be Done? question.

      Adolph spent something like 10 years trying to organize the Labor Party. I don’t see any reflection from him on the experience and what can be learned from it.

      What part of this do you disagree with: labor is in deep crisis. Merely doing more of the same won’t turn things around. A serious strategic and organizational rethink is necessary, and it won’t happen if we’re not honest with ourselves and each other.

      • JW Mason (@JWMason1) June 28, 2012 at 1:40 am #

        Sorry, Doug, I didn’t mean my comment as a criticism of you. It’s the whole debate I find frustrating.

        On your questions — I don’t disagree at all on the first two points, but I’m not sure how far they go. To be honest, I’m not sure that doing *anything* will turn things around. We have to keep working, of course, but a different outcome may have to wait for a change in conditions that is outside our control. And if there is a right strategy, I don’t think anyone in this conversation knows what it is. (I certainly don’t.) We won’t know until it happens.

        I think that in a situation where it’s very unclear what is the best way forward, it’s not really useful to think of different approaches as being rivals. Now, in the specific case of Wisconsin, where there actually was a mass protest movement in place, the case is a little different — to the extent that the organizations associated with the recall, including unions, actively discouraged people from continuing to occupy the statehouse, etc., I think that’s legitimate grounds for criticism. But that’s much narrower than most of what’s getting talked about here.

        As I keep saying, right now, we need more of everything. We need more direct action, and more strategic use of the electoral system, and more disruptive protests, and more creative efforts to win workers union representation, and more theoretical work on political economy, and more popular education, and more experimentation with new forms of collective decision making, and more cross-border solidarity, and more incremental decommodification of our own lives, and on and on.

        Suppose the recall had won, as it very well might have. Would that prove that it was right to drop the protests at the Capitol? I don’t think so, and I assume you don’t either. The success or failure of any one strategy just doesn’t imply anything about the value of other strategies. We need more of all of them.

        Your third question is harder. This is a really tricky thing to express in a way that doesn’t sound craven, but I do think that part of being on the left is a sense of responsibility in one’s arguments. I’m not sure I can articulate this in a way that I’m fully comfortable with, but I do agree with Adolph that you do sometimes have to ask not just, Is what I’m saying true, but also, Is it helpful or harmful to the struggles going on now? Which sounds like saying you should censor yourself, which I don’t mean at all. But there does have to be a difference, I think, in how one talks about a movement that one is part of. We have to be able to talk about the very different labor movement that we both want in ways that draws connections with with the existing one, not just ways that draw lines between them.

        I’m not saying I don’t want a debate, not at all. But we need to think more about how to build on the organizations and forms of solidarity that actually exist. It can’t just be ruthless criticism. You used to quote Foucault on the temptation to treat people we’re debating as enemies, and let our political arguments follow the “model of war.” That was a good line.

  5. David June 27, 2012 at 5:41 pm #

    I’m not impressed with Reed here. It strikes me that he’s just taking the same attitude the Left always takes: that we have all the answers, we just have to “create” an army of minions to do our bidding. The “Spark” of spontaneity that Reed decries occurs as a result of the broad appeal of given movement, beyond the movement’s leadership. That’s what happened at Tahrir Square and Zuccotti Park. Is there lots of hard grassroots organizing to do to advance progressive causes? Sure. But it strikes me that the Left party vanguard should stop telling people what to do and what to think, and instead start listening to the people they want to lead.

    • Foppe June 27, 2012 at 6:30 pm #

      Sorry, but which left are you agitating against here? I’m afraid I don’t know Reed well enough to know how he balances top-down with bottom-up inputs..
      Having said that, please do note that on the basis of what you write here, I could quite easily accuse you of being against education/awareness-creation (which is the benign name of the tendency you complain about here). However, since I don’t know enough about you and your leanings to know if that would be a fair — rather than a knee-jerk — accusation, please interpret the previous sentence as hypothetical.

      In any case, I agree that it is certainly possible for protest movements to be too ideological — because they are too convinced that their job is to educate the masses and tell them why they should dislike their lives — and to on the basis of those beliefs about what is wrong with society decide to ignore experienced grievances that might be built upon productively. However, it also seems to me that, to the extent that Mark Ames’s observation at the end of Going Postal that American citizens just suck it up and take pretty much all of the abuse that’s thrown at them until they snap is accurate, there is still a place for such initiatives, to combat the very idea that political action is unacceptable.

    • Dr. Richard J. Beck June 27, 2012 at 7:26 pm #

      David: well put! Dr. Richard Beck

  6. Benedict@Large June 27, 2012 at 7:38 pm #

    Unfortunately I come away from Reed’s piece with the exact same feeling I had after reading Lafer’s piece at the Nation. … AND? It’s all well and good to say there’s a lot of work to do, but that should be the start of an article, not it’s conclusion, because as a conclusion, it offers nothing.

    OK, there’s a lot of work to do, but when is it going to start? This nosedive has been going on for 30 years. Are we just getting around to noticing this fact? Probably not, so what has everyone been doing for the last 30 years? Seriously, I’d like to know that, because it’s time to stop doing it. IT’S NOT WORKING. To simply hear it takes time at this point from the one’s who already had those 30 years sounds like just so much excuse making. Labor started radical, and if it’s going to rebirth itself, that’s the route to take. Why? Because it’s the only one we know of that has worked. This current stuff doesn’t.

    • michael yates June 27, 2012 at 8:51 pm #

      Benedict, I thought that Bill Fletcher’s and Jane Mcalevy’s essay was much superior to Reed’s. Reed’s piece has a kind of “ex cathedra” tone to it, which put me off. I know that Corey says about Reed (in what some might take to be a preemptive strike), “whose credentials as a thinker and activist I assume no one (at least no one in her right mind) would question, has got some choice words of wisdom that I hope we’ll all heed.” But he’s not Karl Marx, for heaven’s sake. I didn’t see a whole lot of wisdom here. I don’t see how we antilabor leftists have scapegoated the unions for the failure of the Walker recall. I don’t see how we are all awaiting the Spark to start the fire of revolution. Chapter and verse ought to be provided here. And aren’t there plenty of unions for which Reed’s statement that the “felt and expressed concerns of workers as [does he mean “are”?] articulated largely, though not exclusively, through their unions” sounds ridiculous. Did all those union members articulate their desire for two-tier wage agreements? And if they did, wouldn’t this express the failure of the leaders to engage in the education Fletcher and Mcalevy talk about. Finally, when he says, “I think it is appropriate to consider that some topics are, for reasons of political sensitivity (and, yes, concern that statements could wind up on the National Right to Work Committee’s homepage qualifies as such a reason), best not discussed in open forums like The Nation or the Progressive,” he’s lost me completely. I’ll have to look in the mirror, I guess, and ask, “Michael, are you in your right mind?”

      • Foppe June 28, 2012 at 4:54 am #

        Agreed on most points, especially the first few.

    • Doug Henwood June 27, 2012 at 11:35 pm #

      The major response I’ve seen to your point is: oh, it’s all so hard. Harder than you can imagine. Which leads back to your opening point: AND?

      • michael yates June 28, 2012 at 12:43 am #

        Yes, and isn’t everything hard. It’s hard to organize people; it’s hard to knock on doors; it’s hard to talk to those with whom you don’t agree but whose support you need; it’s hard to write an article, much less a book; it’s hard to raise kids; it’s hard to do most any kind of work; and, well try to imagine yourself doing any of these hard things. Yet, by god, people do hard things all the time. Take risks too. When one thing doesn’t work, you do another. Some labor leaders used to know this stuff. When Trumka was spearheading the strike at Pittston, he led a mine occupation. Other tactics weren’t working. Something like a quadrillion dollars in fines were levied against the union. But it won the strike. John L. Lewis hired reds to organize and made peace with John Brophy, once his enemy. One thing not working, try another. So how is it scapegoating to say that, well, what you are doing brother Trumka isn’t working, Do something else.

        I had a group of steelworkers in a collective bargaining class once. Their local leadership, in cahoots with District staffers, gave the company mid contract concessions. The members were outraged. My students taped every class and took what they learned and, through good organization of the members, defeated the incumbents in local elections. An aroused and empowered rank and file soon forced the company to rescind the concessions. They took risks, but when your cause is just and you have a chance to succeed, you take those risks. You do that hard work. But there have to be principles worth fighting for, worth doing that hard work for. And leaders willing to act and not just talk. Trumka talks. The house of labor burns. Where is the action? Phone banking and house calling for Obama? Putting a guy who ran away from labor’s support in place of Scott Walker? Life is too short to waste on such shit. And not criticizing those who should know better, who claim the mantle of all of the labor stalwarts of the past, would be, for me, not to give aid and comfort to the enemy, but to dishonor every poor fucking working stiff in my own extended family–miners, steelworkers, secretaries, clerical workers, glass workers, construction laborers, hospital workers, plumbers, all those men and women who did shit work all their lives.

    • Linnaeus June 28, 2012 at 12:24 am #

      I’ve enjoyed reading all of the contributions to this discussion, and I think it’s vitally important to have this conversation. All of the contributors have had useful things to say the challenge is now, I think, to try and bring those things together in some kind of coherent fashion.

      If unions are to broaden their appeal, I’d like to see some more specifics on how they should do that. Sure, “organize more” is a good idea, and I agree that “organizing is hard” is only a starting point. But let’s hear more on such details as who will do the organizing, where such organizing will be done, and (most importantly) what the content of that organizing should be. Because there’s a certain paradox here that I’m not sure that Doug Henwood, et. al. have seen, which is that the very precariousness of workers that they argue makes those workers less sympathetic to unions is the same precariousness that will be an impediment to the workers giving precious time and/or money to a union-led movement from which they may not realize a tangible benefit in the foreseeable future. That’s not a reason not to organize, but it’s a real challenge that needs to be taken seriously.

      That’s one reason why, as pedestrian as such things may seem to some, the focus on union rights and collective bargaining is a major part of organizers’ appeals to workers when they want to form a union. There’s a defined process that, ideally, achieves a benefit that workers can see. Which leads into another point I’d like to make, that unions have to balance their social activism with their responsibilities to their members. Folks like me, who are philosophically pro-union from the get-go, are pretty easy to sell on the principle of a union as institution of the workplace and as part of a broader social movement. But I know from my experience organizing that for some workers, the real selling point is the power of collective bargaining to achieve material benefits. A broad social appeal may simply not be tangible enough for them; even if they agree with such appeals on the merits, they may want the bulk of their union’s resources to go to more immediate workplace issues. Again, the point isn’t to say that Henwood, et. al. are wrong, but that we need to go further than “organize more” and recognize that this will take a long time and there will be some failures mixed in with the successes.

  7. Todd June 27, 2012 at 10:14 pm #

    Adolph Reed channeling Laura Ingraham. I think I’ve seen it all now . . . .

  8. John Gulick June 28, 2012 at 10:03 am #

    I never thought I’d live to see the day when I agreed 5x more with something written by Bill Fletcher than Adolph Reed, given their historic dispositions towards the Democratic Party, respectively — but there it is. Fletcher and McAlevey’s points about the value of participatory worker education, and unions’ sidelining of it, are precisely those made by some of us in this ongoing debate. In reply to their critics, the supporters of really existing organized labor protest that “the unions ARE doing member education”. But what do they often mean? They often mean that union members are the passive recipients of transmission belt, or drill and kill, or education by rote exercises — in effect, being told who and what to vote for, and the ordered rank of their interests.

    Vast tracts of US culture are insipid and idiotic, including especially political culture. (The first poster on this thread mentioned the work of Morris Berman, whose observations I think of as highly insightful exaggerations, although not exaggerations by much.) Why cannot organized labor play some small role in reversing this idiocy and insipidity, by cultivating in workers the ability to intelligently decide for themselves what their interests are, and to conceive of themselves as political actors and public citizens, as agents of radical democratic-republican virtue?

    Fletcher and McAlevey make the excellent point that class struggle (in the form of organizing campaigns) is one of the best teachers, but I wouldn’t dismiss book learnin’ or classroom discussion, either. Us lefty intellectuals have great fun engaging in these heated debates, why should workers be denied the same luxuries? Why shouldn’t unions have debating societies (and reading rooms, and knitting circles, and brass bands like the old fin de siecle German Social Democrats)? Why do the freaky middle class anarchists get to have a monopoly on all the eccentric, counter-cultural, anti-capitalist stuff that makes life worth living, but is only truly worthy if it includes the mostly excluded working class?

    • Cavoyo June 28, 2012 at 6:06 pm #

      But why would union leaders want an educated rank and file? What if they disagree with the leaders, and do so skillfully? Union leadership isn’t going to invest in education that could have benefits that might not work in their favor. Also there’s the urgency of current workplace struggles and getting Democrats elected that pushes longer-term issues like these to the sidelines.

      I agree with your vision, I’m just not sure that a union could provide it. It’s all dependent on whether unions can be convinced that it will pay off in the long run, and whether labor leaders can be humble enough to realize that the greatest success is to make themselves unnecessary.

      • John Gulick June 28, 2012 at 7:13 pm #

        I wholeheartedly agree that organized labor is very unlikely to move in this direction in a serious way. Without having put much thought into it, I foresee new forms of worker organization emerging at some point to take up this mantle, maybe. (With so many US institutions in something like a crisis, with the interdigitated economic-environmental-imperial crises, and so on, it’s hard to imagine that the coming years will be ones of organizational stasis.) But it never hurts to put a trial balloon out there — if only to say that the idea is out there, but organized labor is resisting it.

  9. Bill Riordan July 9, 2012 at 1:39 am #

    I can’t really decide which is worse. That Reed accused Henwood et al of scapegoating labor when they correctly pointed out the abject failure of labor in Wisc (a failure that has been going on for some 30 years, now, a failure of political vision, and ideological imagination), or that criticisms of labor should not be made in the open lest we give aid to right wingers. So criticisms of labor should not be allowed a public and transparent airing apparently. I used to respect and admire Reed. But that is over.

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