Tag Paul Burkett

BOOK REVIEW: Michael D. Yates, ed., Wisconsin Uprising: Labor Fights Back (2012)


For the ruling classes, “austerity” is a preferred approach, along with the casualization of employment, “bailouts” for the “commanding heights” of the capitalist system (i.e., the FIRE sector, major corporations, the automotive industry, etc.) and other ways, for weathering out the economic crisis that began five years ago and reducing the cost of variable capital as a whole in order to realize more surplus value. Prominent examples of austerity as the policy of first resort include the decisions of the governments of Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Italy, and Spain to accept the structural adjustment terms which Germany and France, the leading member nation-states of the European Union, have set forth. Not surprisingly, opposition to austerity in Europe has been fierce. North America has not been devoid of unrest either. Two examples from North America, which originated in the United States, include the Wisconsin protests and Occupy Wall Street. However, for the purposes of this book review, the events in Wisconsin are the main focus.

During the previous year, 2011, one of the more prominent attempts in the drive toward austerity in the United States began when Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin decided, as one way among other methods, to strip public sector unions of collective bargaining rights. The consequence was a wave of massive social and political protest as the working class in Wisconsin took to the streets in opposition to Walker and his agenda. The resultant uproar took on national and international dimensions as support rapidly grew for the uprising and Walker's authority faced serious challenges from the working class. However, the working-class challenge to austerity became dented and appropriated when the AFL-CIO, with the involvement of the Democrats, funneled the uprising into “official” political-legal channels by merely subjecting Walker to a recall.[1] Walker won the recall, thus successfully fending off a weakened uprising and remaining in a position to continue with his policies.[2] Tellingly, although the early months of the Wisconsin saga attracted much public attention, less attention was paid to the aftermath. This marked decrease in attention to the events in Wisconsin from the last year to the present one speaks volumes as to the demobilization and defeat of the working class, to say nothing of the decision by trade union bureaucrats and Democratic Party politicians to subject Walker to a recall.

The initial attention toward Wisconsin came from various parts of society, including organizations and media outlets associated with “the left” (generally speaking); Monthly Review Press, for instance, published Wisconsin Uprising: Labor Fights Back in the early months of this year, 2012, prior to the recall victory by Walker. This volume, a collection of articles, was edited by Michael D. Yates, a retired professor of economics at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, a labor educator, an associate editor of Monthly Review magazine, and the editorial director of Monthly Review Press.

Wisconsin Uprising

Wisconsin Uprising, consisting of sixteen essays by different contributors and divided into three sections, provides a compact take on the upheaval. The general approach of the book is helpful for activists and organizers who are on “the left.” But the question to ask here is: Which left? Given that most of the contributors have trade unionist and/or “soft” Trotskyist backgrounds (i.e., Solidarity and the International Socialist Organization) and the political worldview of Monthly Review, the book is of interest to those associated with the left wing of devalorization.[3] Certainly for left communists, Wisconsin Uprising is, at best and at most, merely a discussion among trade union bureaucrats who aspire to be more “progressive,” “principled,” and “democratic,” and Leninists who still think of day-to-day trade union organizing work as a way to “take over” unions as vehicles for working-class revolution (the application of the vanguard party leadership model of political organizing to workplaces). Nonetheless the book is important and relevant for any reader (or any reader based in North America) because it provides, however limited, a glimpse of the potential for the Wisconsin uprising to spread and contribute to a wider working class rebellion. However the very real possibilities of cooption, demobilization, and thus defeat by “mainstream” trade union and political institutions such as the AFL-CIO and the Democratic Party and by political currents associated with the left wing of devalorization exist as well. By mid-2012, a few months ago as of this writing, co-option by the former reached its actual and logical conclusion: the defeat of the Wisconsin uprising.

First section of the book: The events in Wisconsin

The first section, made up of five chapters, provides an “on-the-ground” perspective that also takes into account the political-economic aspects of the situation in Wisconsin. Since Walker won the recall, the book begins to have a dated feeling with this section. Certainly in hindsight, an essay titled “A New American Workers' Movement Has Begun,” by Dan La Botz, a founding member of the Teamsters for a Democratic Union and a member of Solidarity, appears to be overconfident in terms of the spirit of its title. Content-wise, La Botz argues that the working-class revolt in Wisconsin qualitatively differs from previous worker rebellions.

The new movement that has arisen does not focus on the usual issues of collective bargaining—working conditions, wages, and benefits—but focuses rather on the political and programmatic issues usually taken up by political parties: the very right of workers to collective bargaining, the priorities of state budgets, and the tax system that funds these budgets. The new labor movement, because it has begun in the public sector, will not be so much about the process of class struggle as it will be about how class struggle finds a voice through political program.[4]

Premature statements about a new labor movement aside, La Botz does not really broach the issues of working-class struggles beyond “bread and butter” labor issues and “mainstream” political matters and their relevance to any new labor movement that may take shape due to the Wisconsin struggle. With regard to the former, “working conditions, wages, and benefits” were, as La Botz notes, not the main focus of the public sector workers' protest in Wisconsin; the “very right” of collective bargaining is something that even, at least one would think, a business union would fight to keep. Likewise for the latter, so far as political programs are concerned, state budgeting priorities and taxation policies are important issues that have a concrete, everyday significance. Yet attempts by “rank and file” workers to critically tackle the central roles of the state and money in capitalism as an organic part of the discussions on budgeting and tax policies would indicate a major step forward in the development of a revolutionary consciousness.

Also, the essays by Connor Donegan and Andrew Sernatinger, who are both also members of Solidarity, provide eyewitness sketches of the protests while grounding those descriptions in political-economic terms. Donegan, a graduate student of human geography at the University of British Columbia, places the uprising in the context of the economic crisis, which he terms the “Great Recession.”[5] So far as theoretical perspectives go, Donegan refers to Andre Gunder Frank, a leading world-systems theorist during the mid-to-late twentieth century and a contributor to Monthly Review (Monthly Review Press has republished two of his books in its “MRP Classics” series) and attributes the causes of the crisis to an over-accumulation of capital (and the resultant stagnation).[6] Sernatinger, in turn, who is a contributor to publications such as Against the Current, Socialism and Democracy, and Labor Notes, observes that there were two waves of austerity in 2008 and 2011 and also attributes the crisis to capital over-accumulation.[7]

To state the obvious, both analyses by Donegan and Sernatinger point to an interpretation of the economic crisis that is based on “monopoly capital” theory. Likewise, “monopoly capital” theory is the bedrock of Monthly Review's politics. In its broad strokes, “monopoly capital” theory discounts the notion of working class revolutions in the advanced capitalist nation-states. Instead, the working classes in the advanced capitalist nation-states are “labor aristocracies” beholden to capitalism and imperialism and thus all revolutionary prospects lie in the peripheral “Third World.” Monthly Review itself staked out such “Third Worldist” political positions by expressing uncritical sympathy and support for Stalinist movements and regimes throughout the world, especially during the 1960s and 1970s.

Yet at roughly the same time, working-class revolts occurred in the advanced capitalist nation-states, including France, Portugal, Spain, Italy, and the United States—revolts which occurred outside of trade unions and political parties (whether mainstream or Leninist) and which had little or nothing to do with nation-state formation and primitive accumulation in the “Third World.”[8] In terms of the latter, a few examples include China, Vietnam, and Cambodia. The Chinese transition from Stalinist state capitalism (which Monthly Review considered to be “socialism”) to neo-liberal capitalism has merely brought forth much hand-wringing from Monthly Review.[9] Additionally, the renewed and empowered significance of the FIRE sector due to the neo-liberal capitalist transformation has compelled Monthly Review in recent years to modify its “monopoly capital” theory by taking into account finance (thus renaming its theory “monopoly-finance capital theory”); however, there has been no fundamental re-interpretation, much less critique. Although Donegan and Sernatinger only briefly touch on capital over-accumulation and thus do not extensively write about the relationship of that specific concept with the rest of “monopoly capital” theory, it is worth noting that the formulation and use of “monopoly capital” theory prevents Monthly Review's editors and contributors from taking up a truly communist perspective on working-class uprisings in general and the Wisconsin uprising in particular.

Second section: Lessons from Wisconsin

The second section, the briefest with only three chapters, deals with what trade union and “left” (again, broadly speaking) organizers and activists can take away from the Wisconsin uprising. These “lessons” are mostly relevant to “mainstream” “left-liberal”/social-democratic politics in North America or, for that matter, anywhere else in the world. That said, many of the political lessons discussed in this section are those with which trade unionists, social democrats, and perhaps even Leninists can agree with or at least not disagree with. Yet even so, one of the suggestions by Jane Slaughter and Mark Brenner, both associated with Labor Notes, a left-bureaucratic trade unionist journal, “Workers will fight for even a boring business union,” is dubious, to say the least.[10] Additionally, it contradicts another one of their propositions, “Bottom-up unions are needed now more than ever.”[11] Hypothetically speaking, certainly people involved in a left political network or organization such as the Industrial Workers of the World would agree, although the IWW also would not consider bottom-up union organizing to be consistent with merely fighting and settling for a “boring business union” that simply has no interest in class struggle and the end of capitalism.

Stephanie Luce, a professor at the Joseph S. Murphy Institute of the City University of New York, provides a set of five annotated theses that are also rather lukewarm. For instance, one of her theses, “Hold politicians accountable from the left,” presupposes the robust existence of both a social-democratic left and a trade union movement that can in fact hold “left” politicians accountable for developing and enforcing proposed policies.[12] Neither exist, which effectively amount to a thesis that is devoid of current and practical political significance. If both did in fact exist, then at least there would be the possibility of achieving more “breathing space” via effective reforms, even though the danger of cooption by the state and capital is still a likely possibility.[13]

Rand Wilson, a onetime Working Families Party candidate and an organizer involved with trade union institutions such as the Communications Workers of America, the Teamsters, the AFL-CIO and SEIU and pro-Democratic initiatives such as Jobs with Justice, and Steve Early, a journalist and former trade union official with the Communications Workers of America, propose “union survival strategies in open shop America” by arguing that the experience of public sector worker unionization in the southern United States offers examples for public sector trade unionists and workers in Wisconsin to learn from.[14] The core idea they propose is that “workers must definitely shed their past role as ‘clients’ or passive consumers of union services. In workplaces without a union (or agency) shop and collective bargaining as it was practiced for decades, they must take ownership of their own organizations and return them to their workplace roots […]”[15] The moralistic wording (i.e., workers as “passive consumers” of union services) notwithstanding, one wonders, with good reason, as to whether the method of “taking ownership” of workers' organizations so as to return these entities to their “workplace roots” can have any applicability outside of the public sector. In public sector workplaces, the strategy probably has considerable potential and there is no harm in trying, but what can this organizing approach possibly mean for most workers who have “flexible” and/or temporary employment and who do not have workplaces to speak of and labor organizations to turn to in light of the retrogressive process that has taken place at a high speed under the neo-liberal variant of capitalism? At best, Wilson and Early's proposal amounts to a suggestion for a renewed defense effort that will only help a part of the working class.

Third section: Making Wisconsin relevant

The third section, which is the most extensive portion, attempts to broaden and deepen the significance of Wisconsin by touching on other struggles in North America which concern the trade union movement. The intention is to draw connections between the Wisconsin uprising and those other struggles, although the result has been a rather scattered section. As is the case with the previous two sections of the book, the third section contains points of view and arguments that, again, hardly anybody associated with the “progressive” currents of the trade union movement and the left wing of devalorization would disagree with, thus pointing to the possibility of a “democratic” and/or “populist” politics “of the left.” For instance, Elly Leary's chapter, which is a reprint (with an “up-to-date” foreword) of an article that appeared in the June 2005 magazine issue of Monthly Review, touches on the need for a working-class challenge to white supremacy, which is practically a consensus position on the contemporary US left.[16] Michael Zweig, likewise, writes about the relationship between the “organized labor” movement and the antiwar movement, thus sketching out some possibilities for a new left anti-imperialist politics that would have a working-class component. David Bacon weighs in on possible opportunities for cooperation between the undocumented immigrants' movement and the workers' movement. There is absolutely no question about the need for “the left” (again, generally speaking) to oppose white supremacy, war, and the various efforts to repress undocumented immigrants. Yet there is also the important question as to whether these are struggles are fundamentally within or against capitalism.[17]

Finally, Fernando Gapasin, an AFL-CIO official and co-author with Bill Fletcher, Jr. (a former member of the Maoist-oriented Freedom Road Socialist Organization and an advocate of Barack Obama) of the book Solidarity Divided: The Crisis in Organized Labor and a New Path toward Social Justice (2008/2009), argues for the importance for working class communities of solidarity, which can be interpreted as a call for the revival of the classical workers' movement and its legacy (p. 266). Gapasin's chapter also brings forth a left-Rousseauist perspective on class, a perspective that essentially reifies class as opposed to advocating the abolition of class.[18]

A Few General Concluding Thoughts

As mentioned before,the political and theoretical limitations of Wisconsin Uprising prevent the book from being of serious interest to left communists, especially since none of the contributors seriously question the effectiveness and appropriateness of the party and union models as models for orienting and organizing the working class toward anti-capitalist revolutionary goals (i.e., communism, which presupposes the abolition of the state, capital, the value-form, commodity production and exchange, money, and all socioeconomic distinctions). This book could have benefited more from a more extensive account of the political-economic context, especially the current and ongoing economic crisis. Although Donegan and Sernatinger do take into account the crisis, they do not give very extensive treatments. But out of fairness, the need to keep the focus on Wisconsin was probably the first priority. But again, Wisconsin Uprising should still be of passing interest for the reader in terms of understanding the concrete issues related to Wisconsin, so long as the reader keeps in mind two aforementioned caveats: the contributors' political perspectives are grounded in the left wing of devalorization and it has a dated feeling because of Walker's recall victory.

  1. [1]See this article, “How the Wisconsin Uprising Got Hijacked,” by Andy Kroll, which originally appeared on the TomDispatch website and later in Mother Jones magazine, for a concrete analysis from a mainstream social-democratic perspective.
  2. [2]See this weblog entry, “Walker's victory, un-sugarcoated,” by Doug Henwood for a concrete analysis.
  3. [3]The “left wing of devalorization” refers to the development of “progressive” or “left” politics based on giving the working class a “voice” in its own exploitation, marginalization, and expulsion within capitalism. Capitalism is, fundamentally, a system of self-valorization (M–C–M’)—its main objective is capitalist accumulation, the realization of surplus value in its monetary form. Realized surplus value returns to the M–C–M’ circuit, thus contributing to social reproduction (here, Marx's models of simple reproduction and expanded reproduction are relevant). In order to realize more surplus value, the reduction of necessary labor time becomes a priority for the capitalist class. Means of producing relative surplus value (i.e., new machinery, new methods of organizing work, etc.) assist in the reduction of necessary labor time, thus allowing the capitalist class greater opportunities to realize more surplus value in total. However, so far as the working class is concerned, the reduction of necessary labor time leads to less secure employment. Furthermore, commodities, now produced and available in greater quantities, become cheaper. Thus, the reduction of necessary labor time via the introduction of means of producing relative surplus value is also a process of devalorization. Thus, politically, the “left wing of devalorization” “represents” the working class by allowing the class to negotiate with or acquiesce to the conditions of capital and the state and to become more pliant vis-à-vis the workings of capitalism. See Loren Goldner's The Remaking of the American Working Class for a more detailed discussion.
  4. [4]Wisconsin Uprising, p. 87.
  5. [5]Ibid., p 30.
  6. [6]Ibid., pp. 39–43.
  7. [7]Ibid., pp. 47–48.
  8. [8]See Loren Goldner's review of Max Elbaum's Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals Turn to Lenin, Mao and Che (2002), “Didn't See the Same Movie,” and “The Universality of Marx” in New Politics in 1989.
  9. [9]As exemplified by a couple of books on China which Monthly Review Press published: The Great Reversal (1990) by William Hinton; Red Cat, White Cat: China and the Contradictions of "Market Socialism" (1996) by Robert Weil; and China and Socialism: Market Reforms and Class Struggle (2005) by Martin Hart-Landsberg and Paul Burkett.
  10. [10]Ibid., p. 147.
  11. [11]Ibid., p. 148.
  12. [12]Ibid., pp. 160–163.
  13. [13]On the issue of the potential helpfulness of reforms, see this interview with Michael Heinrich. Furthermore, Heinrich's book Kritik der politischen Ökonomie: Eine Einführung (2002) was recently published in English by Monthly Review Press.
  14. [14]Ibid., pp. 125, 136–137.
  15. [15]Ibid., p. 137.
  16. [16]Ibid., pp. 175–178.
  17. [17]Even some employers within the food processing and distribution sectors of the US economy are in favor of allowing undocumented immigrants to apply for “legalized” statuses whereas other employers within these same sectors and other sectors cynically and opportunistically threaten undocumented immigrant-background workers with deportation. See page 53 of “The Hands That Feed Us” (2012).
  18. [18]See also “Telling the Truth About Class,” an essay by G.M. Tamas that appeared in Socialist Register 2006.