A Solidarity of Strangers

My “Challenge to the Left” has provoked a fair amount of discussion and pushback (the latter mostly on Facebook and Twitter, as well as on email listserves, or so I’m told). Part of the problem with this discussion, to my mind, is that very few people have a real sense of what organizing entails. One of the ones who does have a sense is Jay Driskell, a talented young historian at Hood College. Jay offered some thoughts on my Facebook page, and I asked him to turn them into a blog post.  So here it is.

• • • • •

Since the defeat of Tuesday’s recall effort in Wisconsin, there has been a lot of debate over whether it was a good idea to hitch the energies of the February 2011 occupation of the State Capitol to the vehicle of electoral politics. Many have questioned the relationship between the labor movement and the Democratic Party and how that relationship—not to mention “union bosses”—tamps down worker militancy.

I’m sympathetic to that critique, but I’d like to offer another perspective.

In the weeks following the introduction of Walker’s bill stripping public workers of the right to organize, several unions affiliated with the South Central Federation of Labor voted to endorse a general strike should the state legislature pass Walker’s bill. Most folks I know in Wisconsin, however (none of them “labor bosses”), counseled against it.  Why?

Two reasons.

First, aside from a militant core of people willing to occupy the Capitol and face arrest (and those with the free time to attend seemingly endless meetings), most folks who would have had to participate in that strike were too scared of losing their jobs for something that might not have worked at all.  What the advocates of the general strike in Wisconsin were up against here were not “labor bosses” demobilizing otherwise radical workers but the same old thing that every organizer contends with: fear and hopelessness.

Overcoming that fear and hopelessness entails a good deal of organizing—that is, reaching out to strangers and artificially creating a solidarity that did not previously exist. It was the work of organizing that sustained the last fifteen months of mass mobilization. This work remains largely invisible to the armchair quarterbacks of the punditocracy. The relationships forged in the process of organizing a mass movement are easy to forget in the pain of losing a hard fought battle.

I learned this lesson as an organizer for the Graduate Employees and Students Organization (GESO), the union for graduate teachers and researchers at Yale University.

In 2003, we held an election supervised by the League of Women Voters, which we narrowly lost by a vote of 694 to 651. That election was my first experience of truly losing a battle that mattered to me, and it would have been easy to throw my hands up to say that it was the death knell for GESO, hole up in my ivory tower and write radical books about struggles long since over.  We had been fighting to get Yale to recognize our union since 1987: sixteen years later, we got rejected by a majority of our colleagues (including a few close friends, who later told me that they voted against the union.)

The reason I didn’t give up was because of what historian Michael Denning told us at the rally we held the morning of the election: the most radical thing a union can do is to forge solidarity among a group of folks whose companionship they didn’t choose.  By and large, we don’t choose our co-workers. They are chosen for us by the employer who hired us. We must build a community with them, whether we like them or not.

Hell, anyone can stick up for someone who thinks like themselves and looks like themselves. The real challenge is building a union or a movement alongside people who aren’t like you, who maybe make you uncomfortable and who maybe you don’t like. (And being a working-class kid who almost didn’t go to college and then wound up at Yale, there were plenty of people I didn’t like.)  At the same time, you have to ask these strangers to do something that probably scares them—and maybe they don’t like you all that much either.  Therein lies some of the most difficult—and some of the most important—work that unions do when they organize successfully.

In such a deeply divided state as Wisconsin, this forging of a solidarity among strangers ranks among the most important things unions can do. (Case in point, Wisconsin is the only state where I have been driven off the road by a pro-lifer.  My crime: a pro-woman, pro-choice bumper sticker).

I’d wager that during the recall election even getting some folks to vote for Barrett in redder parts of the state—to publicly come out against Walker—took an act of real courage.  They didn’t face guns, but they possibly faced the opposition of their fathers and mothers, husbands and wives, boyfriends and girlfriends, coworkers and bosses.  And, since almost nobody is born with that level of courage, someone had to reach out to that voter and build a relationship of solidarity, from which that person could draw the strength necessary to be brave enough to put a Barrett sticker on their car.

Ella Baker, one of the most talented civil rights organizers of the twentieth century, once said “strong people don’t need strong leaders.”  But, as Baker understood, strong people don’t exist in a vacuum.  People are made strong by their relationships.

Having once been a Republican (I come from a long line of Reagan Democrats), my special job in GESO was to organize those graduate students who were either libertarians or conservatives or who did not seem like likely candidates for mounting the barricades. This was a group of folks who did not necessarily like me all that much at first (some still don’t) but whose support we needed to get to a majority.

Week after week, I’d knock on their door and find them after they taught, show up to their parties (I can be a real pain in the ass!) and eventually we’d talk and keep talking. If we got through enough of our ideological disagreements, what remained at the heart of their opposition to the union was a fear of retribution by their advisors (whether those advisors were radical, liberal, or conservative didn’t seem to matter all that much).  And as people wrestled with this fear, the next question they faced was whether or not joining the union, signing a public petition, or going on strike was worth all that risk.  Fear and hopelessness.

I failed a lot.  But not always.   I met with one guy—still a good friend—every week for months and months before he finally signed his union card.  After he joined, it took me another six months to get him on the organizing committee and after that, he and I walked two picket lines together.

Another guy was a leftish libertarian type. It took me weeks and weeks to get him to even come to the strike vote.  Over the course of our conversations, he would get up, storm off, yell at me, and once he even threatened to hit me.  I never got him to vote yes – he showed up, loudly voted no, but he still went on strike.  And, when he did, he wrote on the biggest picket sign he could find: I VOTED NO.  I’M STILL ON STRIKE.

That’s solidarity—and that’s what scares the bosses.  And it’s an example that what matters is not always winning the argument, but building relationships of solidarity capable of overcoming the fear and hopelessness that prevent people from taking collective action.

The challenge here is to think about how you would get that person in your workplace, the one who lives down the street, or your pro-life, gun-toting red meat Republican brother-in law—in short the least likely candidates for radical collective action—and get that person to join you.  What would you say to that person? How would you move that person? Given the enormity of what we are up against, a whole lot of that sort of work is going to have to happen—regardless of any critique of the Democratic Party or the current leadership of the labor movement.

Jay Driskell spent five years organizing for the Graduate Employees and Students Organization. He is currently assistant professor of United States history at Hood College in Frederick, Maryland. His first book, First-Class Citizens: Rights, Respectability and the Making of Modern Black Politics (currently under contract with the University of Virginia Press), traces the development of an autonomous black politics in Atlanta surrounding the fight for black public education in the early twentieth century. He lives in Silver Spring, MD.


  1. ethan young June 8, 2012 at 8:33 pm | #

    Terra firma at last.

  2. Arker June 8, 2012 at 9:08 pm | #

    Since I imagine I am one of quite a small number of your readings that can say ‘yes’ to your qualifier (having organised labour on more than one occasion – having indeed even lost my own job doing so,) I feel compelled to respond, even though I know you are aiming your writing primarily around modern ‘liberals’ who agree with more of your basic premises than I do.

    Much of what Driskell writes (and much of what you wrote) resonates with me – but at the same time, I see it from a very different point of view than you do, and it seems to me both of you see only half the picture.

    Yes, fear and hopelessness are real, and big issues. But there is another one that you miss – that ‘liberals’ or ‘progressives’ or whatever you want to call yourselves these days are not only asking people to overcome fear and hopelessness and take action to prevent injustice which does not directly and immediately impinge on them personally – and that would be hard enough. But you go so much past that. You want them to do these things not only for good causes that give them only hope for indirect and delayed benefit, you so very often want them to do this for BAD causes that will do nothing but hurt them!

    And even if this makes no sense to you, any working class people who read this are going to be shaking their head in agreement. You know what the single best qualification is right now to be a labour organiser? A conservative republican identity. Now I hate identity politics, but it’s the truth, and there is good reason for it. You send an ivory-tower left winger into a job to organise and no one is going to trust him or believe a thing he says. A blue-collar workplace in particular. These people have been treated as pawns by left wingers for generations and they have developed a sort of immune response.

    And I dont blame them. I went to what was billed as an antiwar rally only to hear this over-privileged ignorati rambling on about ‘social justice’ by which he of course meant to promote social injustice, enlargement of theft and redistribution of resources from the productive to the unproductive. I left, and a lot of other people did too. Why? We came for an antiwar rally. Not to be lectured on communism.

    To tie that back into your thread…. single-payer health care? Really? That’s what you want to promote as worth fighting for. Forget about ending the racist wars, forget about ending an economic system that plunders the middle class to profit the banksters… you are more interested in making sure I have absolutely no authority with my own doctor!

    And that is exactly why the working class in the US runs runs from ‘liberals’ like they have the plague, and any chance of a ‘proletariat uprising’ will have to depend on conservative republicans to organise it.

    • Steve Kas June 12, 2012 at 9:22 am | #


      Surely you realize (I hope) that “the working class” to which you refer in your text really only refers to one person — yourself?

      If what you say were actually true of “the working class” (and we’ll just assume for now that you’re referring to low-income workers with less than 4 years of a good college education), then the far right in the United States (acting mostly through the GOP) would not be so intent on disenfranchising low-income Americans.

      I’m not going to bother with detailed examples of this disenfranchisement, but I will point out that any examination of this process would illuminate another problem with your argument — low-income Americans with less than a good 4-year college education are NOT just white men. As opinion polls and exit polls routinely show, women, latinos, and blacks overwhelmingly support “liberal” candidates. (Here again, we get into the problem of your “working class” being you, Arker.)


      But your text inadvertently raises one truly interesting question, I think.

      This question points to a challenge that organizers on the left are facing today. And I think it’s a challenge that isn’t fully addressed by Robin & Driskell’s texts.

      The question (and challenge) is this: how do organizers working to build a powerful, broad-based, democratic & genuinely-progressive social movement — or an array of such social movements — deal with reactionary/right-wing populists?

      if the rhetoric is altered to appeal to them, then the objectives of the movement or organization might be altered next, and if so, then co-optation has occurred, at the invitation of well-meaning leftist organizers. (And these leftist organizers would end up doing almost exactly what the Democratic Party has done in recent decades, under the influence of DLC organizers like Bill Clinton & Rahm Emanuel!)

      Perhaps, whenever possible (and for labor organizers, in some workplaces, as Driskell discusses, it’s not possible) reactionary populists should NOT be targeted for immediate recruitment or membership. In time, if the movement(s) are successful in standing up to the power of capital, successful in instituting some genuinely public-interest reforms, and successful in communicating leftist analyses to wide audiences, then a significant number of previously-right-wing populists might find themselves developing left-wing analyses themselves.

      Progressive labor unions and their organizers should also, it seems to me, consider these things. Even while recruiting right-wing populists (and libertarians), truly-progressive labor unions should take care not to dilute their demands for broader social change, but work to persuade and even convert populists over the long run to develop more comprehensive & nuanced analyses of personal & political economic problems as well as social & environmental problems.

      One thing should be clear — organizers and social movement organizations on the left (including progressive labor unions, of which the NNU stands out as a great example) cannot simply and blindly say and do whatever is necessary to bring the greatest number of people on board. The challenge of organizing on the left is more difficult than that.

      Social movement organizations — through individual organizers and a variety of other channels — must also persuade and convert people, not simply register people as members. The process of persuasion and conversion can take a long time to accomplish.

  3. William Neil June 8, 2012 at 10:25 pm | #

    Thank you very much for your post, it was informative, and the task you lay out is a daunting one. My union experience was in an already organized public workplace, whose “epic” strike was about five years in the past. This was in NJ, and in the 1970’s the state centralized the bargaining for wages and most major contract terms – literally set the wage and benefit parameters for state and county employees, and banned strikes. So we had a bargaining unit: about what and with what powers? To haggle over minor terms in the contract and give employees “legal” representation with management, and to “police” the contract. Given those terms, it almost leads one to the general background of ideas in the broader society, the ones affecting the legislators and governors, who had taken the local powers away.

    You gave great emphasis to the personal and the persuasive skills; I would take nothing away from that, but from my experience the ideas that the workers did or didn’t have from the broader culture played a key role, and they’ve shifted even more to the Right since the 1970’s. So my plea is that ideas matter as well, and that unions need to find some way to conduct schools of politcal economy education, because it just doens’t take place in our general culture. This is almost a different realm that the day-to-day nuts and bolts of even unionized worlplaces; we would have our union meetings during lunch hours, ex. bd. meetings after work… but given workers lives, which if anything have speeded up and become more fragmented since then…I never saw the time (nor the inclination) to get into the realm of political economy…the broader educational role for unions. Some will dismiss that as not as important as the face-to-face, one-on-one persuasion encounters…but when you think of the Right and how much public discussion in politics and economics revolves around their terms and worldview…I’m still trying to imagine the households in Wisconsin where private union/public union splits occurred and the household ended up voting for Walker. Yet even in my public welfare system workplace, a good portion of the workforce shared an anti-welfare outlook, were Reagan Democrats who voted for candidates at all levels who were going to end their jobs.

    And I had another thought Jay, after reading your post; I was thinking of Ronald Reagan’s role while at GE, in his early days when he went out to the plants to socialize with the workers, a kind of counter-organization, or disorganizing task. All charm and smiles, soft pedaling the ideology, but the mission was explicitly counter the world view built by the CIO especially. I’m thinking of the pictures in “Invisible Hands.” A professional charmer who had down to earth people skills. Or so it seemed to me. But where did he come from, actually? Reagan came out of cultural apparatus, Hollywood, so there it is, in my way of looking at the problem of unions, the left and the state of politics. It is personal persuasion, the ideas held about “the political economy,” and the general cultural mood – which is itself a reflection, in good part, of the dominant economic ideas.

    I don’t want this post to get much longer, but I have to add one closing thought: I think both the nature of the workplaces and the general culture have added immense difficulties compared to the “golden” 1930’s or 1960’s: workplaces are smaller, more dispersed, and the workforce ever more diverse in race, gender and sexual orientation. So the common denominator on the psychological and temperment plane is much harder to achieve. Something which I also believe has created difficulties for “leaders” emerging on the left.

  4. Thomas Nephew June 9, 2012 at 12:08 am | #

    Now wait a minute.

    I think I get that I don’t know as much about organizing as I should, and that it’s hard and deserves respect, and that labor organizing is a uniquely hard kind of organizing. But I’m not the one here favoring the opinions of ‘most folks I know in Wisconsin’ over a unanimous 100 vote decision by Wisconsin union delegates — follow the link provided — to begin work towards a general strike.

    Now maybe even those delegates came to agree with the folks Jay knows at some later date; maybe those delegates aren’t real organizers or something; I don’t know. I also don’t deny for a minute that a full-fledged general strike would have been a momentous, risky decision. Nor do I deny that there was some value to the work done in the recalls — relationships built, points made, minds changed or at least loosened up.

    But at the end of the day a *lot* of energy was poured into uphill battles against heavy odds for an indirect benefit — electing dubiously pro-labor Democrats and unseating well funded incumbent Republicans in red districts. To very little tangible effect. And surely there could have been actions short of a full-fledged general strike that would have filled that role: slowdowns, one-day strikes, sickouts — I admit, I don’t know what all. But it didn’t have to be election work, and it certainly didn’t have to be *recall* election work. It could have been the classic labor “we’ll do these painful things until you hurt so much you quit messing with us.”

    I’m no expert, but when I compare the scenes inside the Rotunda and in those Madison rallies in early 2011 to this week’s outcome, I don’t think it’s disrespectful to labor organizers to wonder if a strategic mistake was made, and to wonder who made it. There have been many complaints in the various discussions Corey has hosted here and on Facebook about how people don’t like unions, there isn’t enough solidarity with them, liberals and non-union people never show up for them. But suddenly, in early 2011, that wasn’t the case — there were tens upon tens of thousands of people showing up over and over again for a labor cause, people who got that the right to negotiate was a big deal. They weren’t all union people. They weren’t just talking. They weren’t showing “fear and hopelessness.” It was infectious; I took part in solidarity rallies in DC, so did lots of other people.

    I’m no organizing genius or labor historian, I don’t have the experience Mr. Driskell or Corey do. But it seems to me like a lot of that early 2011 energy and support and hope and courage and solidarity was misdirected into a tired “let’s pray we can elect some Democrats in red districts” campaign. I quite agree critics like me should listen very carefully to labor organizers and respect their work. But from the outside looking in, comparing snapshots of early 2011 and summer 2012, it’s hard for me to avoid thinking that a great, perhaps unique moment was dissipated.

    I think the fear and hopelessness Driskell talks about weren’t felt by the people in the streets in 2011 — it seems to have been felt by organization Democrats and (maybe) union higher ups who drew back from ‘the brink’, and opted for the same old same old just when a golden opportunity had come their way to change the rules of the game. If so, it might be important to suggest we try to bottle solidarity-lightning a little differently the next time it strikes.

    • Corey Robin June 9, 2012 at 12:24 am | #

      Thomas, some fair points your raise here. But keep in mind that that that South Central Federation vote you mention covers 45,000 workers. Even assuming that all those workers would walk out — a very big assumption — there are, according to the latest BLS statistics, 339,000 unionized workers in Wisconsin. So you’re only talking about the leadership — again, the leadership — of 13.3% of the entire unionized workforce in Wisconsin adopting that position. AND here’s the real kicker: those 339,000 unionized workers are only 13.3% of ALL workers in Wisconsin. So you’ve the leadership of 13.3% of all unionized workers, who are themselves only 13.3% of all workers in Wisconsin, voting in favor of a general strike. That’s a very very weak position to be starting from. Now these sorts of actions often begin from fairly weak positions and can grow. But given all the other risks attending a general strike, you can imagine why other union leaders would not be that impressed by this vote. As for the sickout, remember the Madison (or perhaps even all Wisconsin, can’t remember) teachers did do a sickout. And it was quite difficult to pull off and from what I read elsewhere, on something someone on one of the various FB pages posted, the leaders of those unions were really stuck, particularly when it seemed — and for good reason — that Walker was not going to back down. I don’t know this for sure at all but it could very well be that far from diverting radical energy that might have gone elsewhere, the push for the recall was something that took energy that was rapidly dwindling and fading and channeled into something concrete. May have been the wrong choice; obviously in hind sight it was. But I can easily see how it might have been the choice at the time.

      • george June 9, 2012 at 8:39 am | #

        I really liked Jay’s piece. He hit upon at least two of the more jobs of organizing and organizers. First, organizing is very difficult and takes the kind of time, patience, and people skills Jay described from his own experience. Indeed, it is a 24/7 experience that often burns some people. Why, is another story. Secondly, one of the basic task is to work with people and provide them with hope and sense of direction which helps create a community of common concern and purpose. If they had hope and a sense of direction, they would need an organizer. To do this, the organizer has to be engage people, be trusted, have a vision, being able to act and think very fast on your feet, and have the ability to think strategically and the ability to create imaginative tactics. Not everyone has these skills, and as Thomas points out, the ‘college types’ tend to be preachy and full of cliques; many simply do not inspire confidence or trust. They simply cannot move people, except to move people away from them.

        Organizers also have to be a little crazy and have some anger. The job pays little, entails long hours , and often you do not have a life.

        As far as Wisconsin, I personally would be more prone to use the non-electoral methods, but I do not know if the people there were ready for the different strategies, nor if there were enough good organizers there on the ground. And labor organizing is just one type of organizing, and many are not prepared for the more direct action approach. The same goes for the political types. The direct action approaches entails community organizing skills and approaches. For many reasons many labor organizers simply do not have these, but it seems more and more are learning about community organizing. ( Labor legislation- especially the Taft Hartley law 40s took away many tools that entailed community organizing.)

        Regardless, the job for Wisconsin folk- labor and others- is to learn and go on. They really should leery of trusting the legislative process as it is designed to stop things and thus keeping the fat cats well feed. However, there are many ways to skin a fat cat, but sometimes it tales a lot of knifes.

      • Thomas Nephew June 13, 2012 at 2:19 pm | #

        Those are fair points too, Corey. I want to add that I didn’t mean to attack Mr. Driskell, just to point out that I was asked to weigh one set of authorities against another, and leaned to a different conclusion than he intended. I might have written that part better.

        I’ve hesitated to reopen my part of this discussion because of both not knowing when and why decisions were made, and not knowing what the alternatives to electoral work on the one hand and a full fledged general strike on the other might have been.

        I do think that even if the South Central Federation of Labor (SCFL) are only 13% of all of WI union members, they were also nearly exactly the right 13% — Google tells me the SCFL is “an umbrella organization for labor unions in Dane, Dodge, Sauk, Columbia, Jefferson and Iowa Counties,” and therefore is located in and around Madison. Therefore it had a lot of AFSCME (and SEIU) locals, but also others like IBEW and IAM. (Indeed, an IBEW local pres. was still arguing for a general strike in April 2011.) There were also articles approving of the April Oakland ILWU/Occupy action shutting down the docks.

        By June, though, the SCFL site was pushing the ‘We Are Wisconsin’ recall effort as the main way not to squander the anger and opportunity. Without knowing more, some alternative hypotheses about what happened are that (1) the general strike talk of Feb 2011 was always just bluff, (2) there were unspoken or unreported conditions like statewide cooperation, (3) SCFL folks changed their minds purely on their own, guided by nothing but unaided reason, (4) SCFL folks were talked/pressured out of pursuing the general-strike(ish) approach. The recall petition drive was already going great guns in early March, and may have just sucked the oxygen out of or overwhelmed alternatives. It looked superficially plausible if you’re sitting in NY or CA or DC, so you gave $ to it — maybe turning that into the best looking thing to work for if you’re Joe Nonunion Liberal in WI.

  5. William Neil June 9, 2012 at 2:35 pm | #

    Some further thoughts on Jay’s posting and the several replies. Mike Davis, the gited writer and commentator who now teaches writing, wrote a book about the tribulations of American labor, and the title was “Prisoners of the American Dream: Politics and Economy in the History of the U.S. Working Class. My comments are to his not fully articulated opening words, “Prisoners of the American Dream.”

    Jay, it must have been some experience trying to organize middle and upper middle class professionals, or soon to be professionals – aspiring teachers at an Ivy League school, no less. Many crossroads there for someone trying to organize, to sell “solidarity.” I have written in previous essays that what Davis was driving at was that the American Dream in its most prevelant and dominant form is not class solidarity in the work place and community but an upperwardly mobile entreprenurial driven geographical restlessness, rootlessness, trends and traits always there in American history, now intensified by the forms of the workplace and globalizations speed-up and hyper mobility. I would think your experience in trying to organize such a workplace in what, the 1990’s…Yale, had to be more difficult than some of the very difficult enough situations described by Mike Davis for the 1890-1910 years and then the second great wave, the 1930’s.

    And an added thought. We both live in Montgomery County, Maryland. I live in a “working class” community with lots of immigrants that represents, by the small size of the homes, also starter homes for young professionals – the most affordable in the overwhelmingly upper-middle class tone and tenor of “MoCo.” Because I write full time about the political economy, from a Social Democratic perspective, “where has the memory of the New Deal gone,” and have before my eyes all the conversations and “conversion” conversations I’ve had in this setting …I can sympathize with any union organizer…knowing where people are starting from….the ideas folks hold in their heads in 2012. Let me just finish by saying that in MoCo, so representative of the upper middle class democratic party since 1980, the entrepreneur is king and queen, and its Bill Clinton’s/ Larry Summers/Bob Rubin”s version of the economy that is the dominant model.

    There is no other history in people’s heads and the Democrats themselves do their damndest to make sure none is recovered. Maybe you think that’s fine; the organizer starts from scratch, with all the interpersonal skills and the immediate economic situation at hand…but that posture is itself an erasure of history and alternative models….thus for the left and union organizers, the conversation starts with only the narrow window of what’s passable today (think Obama -AFL/CIO dynamics here)…does that create the intensity and vision drive level to push things forward? The Right still has an overwhelmingly dominant “meta-narrative,” – the left jettisoned theirs – which was always very weak in the us…under the conditions of “postmodernity,” so you’re starting from scratch, unless you consider Bill Clinton’s golf cart wooing of the financial elite a good substitute.

    That’s the way it looks to me from MoCo.

    • rick June 9, 2012 at 5:09 pm | #

      Incisive. You lay down a challenge which is at the same time a questions: How do we get people who are not like us, and who we may not like to join our cause(whatever that is). It’s no secret that Americans vote against their own interests. How do we change that? Why do dems allow themselves to be bullied by repubs?

      • ethan young June 9, 2012 at 6:43 pm | #

        1: The more political interaction individually and socially, the more influence – and influence includes just getting on the radar screen and being understood, even short of winning people over. 2: See 1. 3: They don’t. They remember 1968, 72, & 80, the rise & decline of left social mvmts and the rise of well-funded, politically savvy right social mvmts. They have no contact with the ‘middle class’ white enclaves so all they can do is panic when they see that solid New Deal-era base melt away. They remember 2004 and realize that East Coast ruling class liberals have taken a powder. So they convince themselves that the way to be recognized as the ‘center’ and gain independent votes is to lean right, shrug off the punches while talking bipartisan, which worked in 96. They’re very narrow-minded and driven by ambition without a clue about the time bomb[s] they are sitting on.

  6. William Neil June 9, 2012 at 8:06 pm | #

    I have to admit I’m not surprised at the loss in Wisconsin, and I’ve been reading the post-mortems ever since. There were local angles to be sure, but the split in union households, given the clear ideological direction of Walker’s efforts, has to be startling.

    The left has not been winning the “kitchen table” economic discussions, much less the public debate because so much of it revolves around the “common sense” notion – and local and state laws – that budgets must be balanced. Because the center-left does not have a clear economic narrative outside of Clinton’s from the 1990’s, plus a shot of intervenous Keynesian “emergency room” stimulus, to be withdrawn as soon as the patient shows any signs of life, without realizing it, much of the left’s economic history is missing, especially Keynes views on jobs and employment. You can say what you like about Keynesianism: his insights, and his books, are hardly “kitchen table” common sense, most decidedly on the subject of deficits. In 2010 I could find very little difference in the web pages of democratic vs. republican candidates in Maryland, even from progressive ones. They were all about austerity, just like families have to practice; and setting a conducive table for small businessess, making the entrepreneur feel “less uncertain.” Not a single one,no Democrat called for a public employment program, not even with the sinking state of the Chesapeake Bay, rife and ready for a new CCC. Even the group called “Progressive Maryland,” close to unions, refused to call for a full employment program. I resigned from my not so prominent post as a vice-precinct chair on these grounds.

    “Structural” problems in the economy now are not the populist and progressive definitions from the 1890’s, 1900-1910 period, and the early years of the New Deal; they are the Right’s definition that workers have skill Y when the private sector needs skill X. Meanwhile, over on the environmental left, “abundance” and full employment without a radical reworking of the production processes is a non-starter (see Naomi Klein’s Capitalism vs. the Climate) – which is very threatening to the traditions of Marxism and Keynesianism, counting on continued tech.progress and a more social control and distribution of abundance. It’s abundance vs. austerity even within the left, much less the broader austerity vs. demand stimulus in the greater economic debate.

    Here’s my “mainstream” attempt as summarizing the Democrat’s stance, 2008-2012:

    “If the Right’s answers to the economic problems of the ship of capitalism that brought us to the present crisis are to double down on its main features, to open the throttles of creative destruction to “full speed ahead,” the centrist Democratic response, as we have seen from Gene Sperling, is a pretty timid one. They want to increase the budget for the Keynesian sick bay, add a few more regulatory lookouts and lifeboats, and hang a plaque reading “We’re All in This Together” over the navigators’ cabin. They too want additional stokers in the boiler-rooms to keep the innovative fires burning hot. That’s not much consolation, however, to the passengers watching the waters rise above the foreclosure and unemployment decks. They are confused by the course steered by the captain and the navigators: one day they are tacking towards the Austerity Islands, the next day heading towards the Stimulus Peninsula. On some days they even claim that they can follow both courses simultaneously. Meanwhile, some of the more observant passengers say they are close to heat stroke from all that creative destruction down in the boiler room, and from the carbon dioxide that’s pouring out as well. They say that the ship is no longer seaworthy. But the captain and the navigators are very leery of more drastic course changes. They know that it’s the owners of the ship, and the owners of the ultimate destination, the twin Islands of Boom and Bust, separated by the treacherous Speculative Channel, who really set the course, and who hire the crew; the passengers are merely being taken for a ride. That’s why some want to get off, and set sail in a different direction, towards the Green Coast of Sufficiency, in a lifeboat named the “Alternative Economy.”

    That’s from the last section, Part IV of The Costs of Creative Destruction: Wendell Berry vs. Gene Sperling,” with the subtitle being ” The American Left in the 2nd Great Crisis of Capitalism: 2008…???? here at http://ourfuture.org/blog-entry/2012062202/part-iv-costs-creative-destruction-wendell-berry-vs-gene-sperling

  7. William Neil June 11, 2012 at 11:50 am | #

    I was debating whether to leave the following thoughts here or at the David Montgomery post site; well here they are.

    Whether one sets out to try to organize a unionless workplace, or recall a union busting “austerity” champion like Scott Walker, the effort takes place in a context of what those in the “audience” have in their heads about the political economy, especially about unions, the public vs. the private sector, and all that we mean by “balanced budget” politics.

    So, like any good ocean swimmer, its makes some sense to know the water’s temparture and the strength of the currents. Ideologically, can we measure the intensity of contending forces? Some are now suggesting that the recall was the wrong effort in these “waters,” and misjudged the main currents of our time, despite all the good signals sent by the vast winter turnouts in Madison.

    Because I also “swim” in these water’s, I’ll offer my own methods, which will make pollsters and I’m sure some others on the left laugh, but bear with me for a moment. I’m fond of using the reactions to the “New Deal” to measure the ideological forces of our time, because it seems to me, it was the last relevant historical “moment” – and the closest in time – and memory, for the left to draw upon for inspiration and policy guidance. I’m almost, but not quite, tired of reciting the fact that the Democratic Party has been consciously marching away from the New Deal, especially its “interventions” into the economy for three Democratic presidencies now. And I have also written that the Right is strangely still obsessed with denouncing it, with aggressively stamping out any faint glowing embers that might still be smoldering from say, the public jobs programs (and the foreclosure solutions) like the CCC and WPA.

    So here’s how I take the temperature of our times at this ideological fault line. I go to Amazon.com and look at the books still being written about the New Deal, some from the left, some from the right, esp. the ones written near or inside the financial crisis datelines we are now passing through. Amazon invites readers to review books, and I’ve done about 15 of them, serious, lengthy reviews, not one paragraphers, which is the common pattern. I maintain that the number of these reviews, which takes some time and energy, even if it’s just a paragraph, serves as a decent barometer of the distribution of passion and energy along the poltical spectrum and esp. between the left and the right. Yes, yes, its quite true this is not scientific, or a valid “poll” sampling because i would be the first to conceed that the folks who wrote them tend to be the already ideologically motivated….so, keeping that in mind, isn’t that in itself a good part of the measurement I’m aiming at?

    And remember back to the early days of the economic crisis and Obama’s arrival in 2009: many commentators in the mainstream press were setting up the winter of 2009 as the successor to the 100 days in the spring of 1933, including the Time magazine cover. So let’s see how this played out in book reviews.

    First, Amithy Shlaes revionist history of the New Deal, “The Forgotten Man,” came out in 2007, and it has been waved and raved about in Congress by the Right ever since. It has gotten a cumulative four star rating out of a possible five, and 365 Reviews. (I just posted mine and gave her 1 star, the lowest) The five closest books that lean towards a favorable view of the New Deal and which came out in a comparable time setting, have between 3 and 66 reviews, an enormous difference of interest and energy.

    They are: Robert Leighninger’s Long-Range Public Investment: The Forgotten Legacy of the New Deal, which came in 2007: 3 reviews; (including one of mine.)

    Jonathan Alter’s The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred days and the Triumph of Hope, which came out in May of 2007: 66 reviews;

    Nick Taylor’s “American Made: The Enduring Legacy of the WPA: When FDR PUt the Nation to Work.” out in Feb. of 2009: 20 reviews.

    Adam Cohen’s “Nothing to Fear: FDR’s Inner Circle and the Hundred Days that Created Modern America,” out in Jan of 2010: 26 reviews’

    And then from Obama’s regulatory czar, Cass Sunstein, we have his “The Second Bill of Rights” FDR’s Unfinished Revolution and Why we Need It Now more than Ever,” from 2004: only 11 reviews. Talk about a title which serves itself to the times…I never hear anyone refer to it…Sunstein or the President included…

    And, reaching back a little further to some other classics on the Depression and the New Deal, where one might reasonably expect a pickup in interest, I looked at these:

    The grandaddy, which eveyone should read before they look at the very contemp. books, William E. Leuchtenberg’s Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal: 1932-1940: 15 reviews;

    Robert McElvaine’s The Great Depression: American 1929-1941: just 31 reviews…

    And then, the closest “the left” has to match Amity Shlaes ideological intensity, but from 1995, and really in a different genre of writing, we have Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in WWII: 185 reviews.
    I would suggest, with some trepidation that this volume attracted many feminist readers who might not otherwise visit a volume on the New Deal. So I would qualify this left leader by saying it’s not a barameter on the poltical economy.

    I’ll close by saying that there is another barometer within these reviews at Amazon: when the review is posted, readers can like or dislike, another scoring system. The books written by Right wing authors tend to register in the high hundreds of responses; the left’s far, far less. Amity Shlaes “The Forgotten Man,” the attack on the New Deal, had it lead review found “helpful” by 796 out of 897 people who “read” it; Jonathan Alter’s “The Defining Moment..” lead favorable review has 70 out of 76.

    So perhaps this is just one insight into why, when you talk to the “average person” in the street and you state that the nation needs a full employment program like the CCC or WPA from the New Deal…you’ll get a blank stare or a hostile rejoinder that “the New Deal didn’t work.”

  8. Archibald T. Conflagration June 11, 2012 at 2:54 pm | #

    Corey Robin was never “working class”. What a fabricant he is. Corey Robin is 100% pwoggy power-noggin, a pretentious fool with a teaching gig where he offers puffery, distraction, and politically correct miasmic meanderings on what HE imagines are the pivotal issues dogging America and Americans today.

    What he’s wrong about? Well, most everything. To Robin, everything is a symbol and the symbolic is the essential. He mimes a Chomsky, he mimics a Lakoff. And in the bargain he offers nothing original, let alone accurate.

    Socially anxious middle class kids come to Robin’s classes and have their dullminded middle class anxieties palliated by Robin’s reinforcement of Political Correctness. “Yes, Chuck, by attending a private college or university and studying leftist perspectives, you become a vastly superior type of American. Remember to always hate on reactionaries. What are reactionaries? Anyone who isn’t politically correct!”

    Wish I could get a confidence racket gig that productive.

    • george June 11, 2012 at 3:01 pm | #

      Archie did not take his medication today.

    • Corey Robin June 11, 2012 at 3:03 pm | #

      Just two minor corrections to your comment. First, the author of this post — that is, the one who says he comes from a working class background — is Jay Driskell, not Corey Robin. You might have missed that point, buried as it was in the very first paragraph of the post. Second, Corey Robin — i.e., me — teaches at CUNY, which is a public university, not a private college. Most of its students are not middle class, but poor and working class, though a great many of them are indeed anxious. Oh, and one little pro-tip for the future: if you do want to get a confidence racket gig as productive as mine, it helps to get at least some of your basic facts straight.

      • Archibald T. Conflagration June 12, 2012 at 12:14 pm | #

        What “facts” are those, Corey? The “fact” that a “reactionary” is whatever frightens you? The “fact” that you don’t know your ass from a whale’s blowhole, where American politics are concerned? The “fact” that you and your topcoat and your brownstone are a sad fucking cliche of meritocracy and pwoggy “professionalism”?

        I’d love an in-person debate with you, in front of your mushmind students. I wonder how many would respect you (if they suffered that perspective already, that is) after the thing was done.

        Doubtless you’d use distraction and pleas to appreciate “nuance” on subjects where there is none; surely you’d devolve everything to What Corey Likes vs What Reactionaries Like. That old broad-brush of stigmatism is your neatest trick, isn’t it?

    • Donald Pruden a/k/a The Enemy Combatant June 11, 2012 at 4:34 pm | #

      Yeah, “Archibald” — what Corey said!


    • jonnybutter June 11, 2012 at 4:41 pm | #

      I’d say it take a lot of gall to call someone else both pretentious and a fool in a comment which contains, among other foolish and/or pretentious things, ‘fabricant’, and ‘miasmic meanderings’, and ‘He mimes a Chomsky, he mimics a Lakoff.’ No actual content, and no argument. D+, Skippy.

  9. Corey Robin June 12, 2012 at 12:52 pm | #

    Archibald: “What ‘facts’ are those?” The two facts that you got wrong in your original comment to me, which I corrected in my comment to you.

  10. Chatham June 13, 2012 at 12:36 pm | #

    This is exactly the conversation we need to be having. Whenever I see bloggers on the left lamenting the lack of a strong progressive movement, I always think, “what are you doing?” If I got to look at Atrios or Digby or most other popular blogs, I see post after post about how Rick Santorum said something shocking or how out of touch Romney is. Fine. Good. That’s needed. But where the discussion about where we go from here? Where’s the effort to actually mobilize the readers? If even a fraction of the readers spent half the time they did reading the blogs going out into their community and organizing, we’d see a big difference.

    There’s hope. I’ve been working with a number of good groups at the ground level. A lot of people have given up on looking up to find leadership, and are trying to take up the tasks themselves. Help from people that have a big soapbox would of course make things easier; it would be nice if the “netroots” actually tried to live up to it’s name, and did and talked at least as much about building a movement as it does about the faux scandal of the day (that will be forgotten in 4 months time). I’m not holding my breath. Those on the ground are going to have to keep working with what they’ve got, knowing that this long struggle is going to be longer than it has to be.

  11. Todd June 14, 2012 at 6:26 pm | #

    It’d be nice if unions in general spent more time and money doing this same kind of slogging and dangerous work Jay did in order to get more/better stuff for non-union members so more unorganized workers would think better of unions instead of just doing that slogging and dangerous work _just_ for their unions and their fiefs.

  12. michael yates June 17, 2012 at 9:22 pm | #

    Someone above mentioned the need for more education in political economy. Most unions do no member education in basic subjects, much less in political economy. Some do steward training or grievance handling, but for most that is it. The UAW used to use business profs to teach economics in one of their “jointness” programs. College based labor education programs have a hard time getting a good person to teach political economy. Left economists very seldom offer to teach such courses. Too many union leaders are like Anastacio Somoza who said he wanted oxen not educated people. There is plenty of room out there for independent labor education ,organzied by left groups and rank and file dissidents. U.S. union leaders will never organize such a thing. Ideas are important, but the US labor leadership doesn’t have many. One a UAW member said to me during a break in a class, “You’re opening a lot of eyes.” Too bad his union didn’t do the same. Unions these days won’t even pay tuition for members to get labor educaion degrees. Yet the bank is always open for murderers like Obama.

    By the way, the UE, so maligned by Gordon Lafer on these pages, is an exception. A few others are as well, and there are plenty of good locals out there too. I teach my students to teach others in their union, and some of them have. There is always some hope.

    • Corey Robin June 17, 2012 at 9:27 pm | #

      Michael: You say, “The UE, so maligned by Gordon Lafer on these pages.” I assume you mean this statement Gordon made in the Nation: “After all, if the real problem was overpaid union bureaucrats, then radical unions like the Wobblies or United Electrical workers—unburdened by highly paid staff or Democratic politics—should be meeting greater success in organizing. But, of course, they are not.” Now Gordon might be wrong about the UE, but to call that statement “maligning” is a serious misreading. So much so that it gives me pause about your judgment of unions more generally above.

      • michael yates June 17, 2012 at 9:34 pm | #

        The maligning was in the general absence of historical context concerning the UE and any notion of what it is doing now with limited resources. His sentence, which you chose to put front and center(I could say I wondered about your judgment here), was a real throwaway line, unworthy af a serious analysis.You are free to wonder about my judgments. Why would I care about that? But I will take back the use of malign. Gordon’s essay was pretty bad in any event.

  13. michael yates June 17, 2012 at 9:37 pm | #

    I might add, Corey, that you are free to do a little research and challenge what I say about labor education. Go to it. It’s summer vacation, no?

  14. Corey Robin June 17, 2012 at 9:46 pm | #

    Michael: “But I will take back the use of malign.” Thank you. That’s all I was asking.

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