The Meaning of Wisconsin: A Leftist Resurgence

Shannon Ikebe

The time has finally come. Ever since the beginning of the global, systemic crisis of the neoliberal economy in 2008, there has been a hope for the leftist resurgence that could finally bury three decades of right-wing hegemony. The establishment politicians began imposing further austerity measures and assault on workers, using the budget crisis as an excuse. This budget crisis was also created in the first place to save capitalism from its own destruction by enriching private banks out of the public funds. We’ve seen workers and students in Greece, France and Britain staging tremendous protests, and we watched the enduring culture of political resistance across the pond with envy.

Not anymore. Americans didn’t merely sit back and passively complain, as Scott Walker attempted to decimate public-sector unions by virtually eliminating their collective bargaining rights and starving them of vital financial resources. The sight of tens of thousands of workers and their allies in solidarity, who have flooded and persisted in the streets of Madison for more than a week, is the most hopeful and uplifting scene we have seen in America in a very long time. Unlike the pseudo-populist, pseudo-progressive cause they rested their hope on in 2008, protesters are clamoring for a genuine cause of the people — that of trade unionism. Despite their decline and the weakness of American “business unionism,” unions are a powerful political force: There is nothing that drives millions of ordinary people more than the fate of their own livelihood. (This principle is called “base determines superstructure” in Marxism and “it’s the economy, stupid” in Clintonism.) Workers, simply acting as workers, become advocates of progressive politics through trade unionism, and the simple truth is that most Americans are, or will be, wage-earning workers.

Amazingly enough, the Democrats are fighting back as well. When was the last time that we saw a group of Democratic politicians fighting for the workers like they actually care, rather than acting like Obama and caving in? (Unsurprisingly, Obama has done nothing to support the workers or the state senators of his own party, except for one brief comment.) The protesters and the politicians need each other. The Democratic delegation in the Wisconsin Senate deserves the highest praise for its dedication and courage as it continue to protest and struggle in solidarity with the unions.

The significance of the struggles in Wisconsin and Ohio go far beyond the fundamental rights and dignity of the public union workers who serve our communities every day. The emerging movement could be a catalyst for the realignment in American politics — and we should do our utmost to make it the tipping point. The protesters in Madison and beyond are finally making populism progressive, and its political significance can never be overestimated. The strength of the American far-right is derived from their claim to speak on behalf of the American people. The far-right position is integrated into the glaringly populist discourses, enabling the reactionaries to tap on massive discontents among the people that were caused by the right-wing policies in the first place. If the grassroots workers’ and unions’ movement can compel the Democratic leaders to thoroughly adopt economic populism, then the Right can no longer hijack and monopolize the anti-establishment sentiment.

History cautions us against undue optimism. In the 1970s, the last period of systemic economic turbulence, trade unions possessed unprecedented levels of power and resolve in the history of capitalism; They waged fierce struggles to make the world better, but they were still unable to stem the tide of neoliberalism. Not only is the victory of the unions very far from assured this time (with defeat leading to historic devastation of their power), the unions’ struggle is purely defensive, even if they are successful. They are nowhere near clamoring for an alternative economic paradigm which would result in a fundamental and irreversible shift in the balance of power and wealth in favor of working people as workers in the ’70s did, which we essentially need if we are to stem the tide of austerity as the contradictions of capitalism worsen.

However, now is at least a time of hope. We can finally see the glimpse of the potential agent of change in America. The global movement against further austerity is emerging, which cannot fail to absorb the spirit of the democratic revolutions in the Arab world. Most importantly, there is a possibility now that when the economy plunges further into the depression, the rising anger could be the source of left-leaning change. Wisconsin workers have decisively inspired hope for the future of America; It is our turn to develop the struggle further.