Hortatory Uplift Is Not a Plan

by Rich Yeselson on July 9, 2013

I thank John S. Ahlquist and Margaret Levi (hereafter A/L) for their response, “With Fortresses Like These …” to my essay in Democracy, “Fortress Unionism.” I had an odd feeling reading and rereading their essay. I though its bark was far worse than its bite. A/L warn that my strategy is “doomed”, and rests on “dangerous assumptions.” Unions are already doing what I advocate, and they are thus headed down “the drain.” Yet, given their final set of suggestions, it seems as if we really don’t have much to disagree about at all.  When all is said and done, A/L ignore most of my proposals before agreeing with others.

To take a stab at synthesizing these initial impressions about the A/L rebuttal to “Fortress Unionism: it frames its major disagreement with the essay in such vague terms that it barely presents an alternative to it at all. My goal in writing the contemporary sections of “Fortress Unionism” was to give readers a deeper understanding of how historically rare truly large union membership growth spurts are, not just in the United States, but throughout the entire advanced world. Therefore, I proposed a very specific list of transitional action steps to take in the perhaps very lengthy interim until such growth occurs again.  A/L don’t address most of these proposals and recommendations. Therefore, they don’t put forward a concrete set of contestable counter-proposals, relying instead upon a sturdy group of incontestable, but very general axioms that don’t speak to the question: Given how occasional union growth fueled by militant worker’s activism is, what should unions do now? A/L’s underlying argument is saturated with the hortatory uplift alluded to in my title, but with very little strategic or tactical detail.  I don’t object to hortatory uplift— “Si se puede” is not the slogan of modern labor for nothing—so much as I think of it as insufficient. “With Fortresses Like These …” has an emotional urgency unmatched by analytical precision.

A/L reference something I call “fortress unionism” in order to reject it. That’s fair enough, as far as it goes. But they don’t actually quote or even comprehensively paraphrase exactly what I mean by it. As I just wrote, in “Fortress Unionism”, I included a list of quite specific next steps for action, including extensive organizing within already existing areas of strength and training of the leaders of (perhaps) tomorrow’s period of labor militancy today. Yet A/L barely allude to this list. Reading their essay, a reader would be entitled to think that I propose no actions, no organizing at all—just a quiet euthanasia for the remnants of American organized labor. This, however, is untrue. A/L seem so mesmerized by my use of the word, “wait,” at the conclusion of my suggestions, that they’ve forgotten everything written immediately before it. They claim that, “….’fortress unionism’ is not a proposal; it is the doomed strategy unions have been following for some time.” If A/L had directly and specifically addressed my recommendations, readers would quickly realize that, for better or worse, unions are not at all following this “doomed strategy” today.  For two large examples, the logic of, as I write, “[increasing] the density of existing strongholds” might indicate that the Teamsters should considering throwing an enormous store of their existing resources into a 20-year program to organize Fed Ex or that the UFCW should undertake something similar vs. Whole Foods. Moreover, the recently announced deal reached between UNITE HERE and the Hyatt hotel chain is a perfect example of augmenting existing strength while also creating conditions that should organize thousands of low-wage workers of color. Perhaps none of these projects is so wonderful, in concept or execution, but I don’t understand why A/L label the antecedent analysis for them as, in their phrasing, magical or cynical. Therefore, for the assistance of readers who haven’t read my essay (and to refresh A/L’s memories), I include my conception of Fortress Unionism and my recommended steps for action below. (For those who have my read my essay and/or prefer to skip to my direct responses to A/L’s rebuttal, see the non-indented text that follows.)

So what is to be done? I propose what I call “Fortress Unionism.” (I am speaking here only about private-sector unions, which face a deep crisis. Public-sector unions have their own well-known dilemmas, but require a completely different discussion.) Fortress Unionism would buttress the remaining strengths of labor. The fortress would remain open; labor’s effort to build coalitions with other progressive forces should continue. Unions, however, should not undertake long, expensive comprehensive campaigns outside their core areas of strength. Today, less would be more. In sum:

Defend the remaining high-density regions, sectors, and companies. They include, respectively: Las Vegas, Los Angeles, the Bay Area, Seattle, and New York City; the auto industry, large supermarket chains, several hospital chains, building services in major cities, and convention-sized hotels in major cities; UPS (Teamsters), and the telecom companies (Communications Workers). Strong labor movements in metropolitan areas are especially important to sustain, as they are labor-liberal bulwarks of economic and political strength. The labor movement has been particularly effective in jointly mobilizing with Latinos in Las Vegas and Los Angeles. There is no contradiction between organizing around class issues and so-called “identity politics.” It was called something else then, but identity politics as part of union organizing has been around since the first German-American and Irish-American workers unionized in antebellum New York and Philadelphia.

Strengthen existing union locals. Many local unions have atrophied. Staff and a cohort of committed members often run local unions on behalf of a large silent majority of members, who view union membership as something like an insurance policy, paid for by their union dues, rather than a rank-and-file driven activist organization. Train more workers and hire more staff to enforce contracts and teach workers their rights. Invest heavily in worker education programs, everything from knowledge about occupational safety and health to labor history courses. Workers who feel connected and engaged with their local union will someday help organize new members.

Ask one key question about organizing drives: Will they increase the density or power of existing strongholds? Try, for example, to organize remaining nonunion casinos in the labor powerhouse of Las Vegas. (The Culinary Workers Union in Vegas is, arguably, the strongest, most militant local union in the country.) Continue “bargain to organize” efforts, in which unions gain new organizing rights as a condition of collective bargaining agreements for current members. But for the time being, do not try to organize, via multiyear campaigns, currently nonunion or de minimis union sectors.

Sustain coalition work with other progressive organizations. Post-New Left egalitarians fill top leadership positions across the labor movement and are pushing the movement beyond the white-male iconography of the Taft-Hartley era. They have urged unions, with increasing success, to reach out to environmentalists, community organizations, immigration reformers, racial justice advocates, feminists, gay rights activists, and political reformers to pursue policy changes like limiting the filibuster and protecting voting rights. Unions should make the most of these alliances. They expose unions to creative thinking from outside of organized labor and put union money and staff to use behind important projects. Unions, whenever appropriate, should yield control to other organizations and advocates, and play a supporting and facilitative role. Labor’s time in the spotlight is during those great upsurges of high growth. This is not such a time.

Invest heavily in alt-labor organizations, especially Working America. Alt-labor is the name given to efforts to organize disparate workers outside the conventional one-union to one-workplace structure. The AFL-CIO’s 3.2 million-member Working America, led by legendary “9 to 5” organizer Karen Nussbaum, is the largest and best funded of these efforts. The logic of alt-labor is to find the potential leaders of tomorrow’s mass union organizing and organize them today around discrete, achievable demands. It’s exactly the right idea. As AFL-CIO president Trumka said in The Nation recently, “We hope that we will have the seed planted for people to understand the importance of collective action.” Seed away.

And then…wait. Wait for the workers to say they’ve had enough. When they demand in vast numbers collective solutions to their problems, seize upon that energy and institutionalize it.

 


That is how massive union growth occurs—workers take matters into their own hands and then unions capture that energy like lightning in a bottle. The workers risk their jobs, and sometimes even their lives, to form a union. It has happened this way all over the world. The workers will signal—loudly—when they want to organize.

By not including or properly summarizing in their essay my recommendations above, A/L, not surprisingly, end up simply eliding them.  And they don’t propose much in the way of concrete alternatives. I don’t think they are so much wrong—although there is a bit of that—as I think they are earnest, engaged, and yet too allusive to generate even a useful heuristic procedure.  I will now review A/L’s argument section by section.

Comprehensive Campaigns: Process and Paradigm

I argued that comprehensive campaigns, conceived in response to the atrophy of labor’s power in the workplace, had “responded creatively to [this] problem, with some substantial victories to its credit.” However, after 30 years (really more like 35), “they haven’t worked on a scale sufficient to reverse the trend [of the decline in union density].” In their opening section, “American unions: circling the wagons (and the drain)”, A/L seem bored by this assertion: “Union leaders know all this….” I think there is a bit more to the failure of comprehensive campaigns than that. Comprehensive campaigns, as either a strategic paradigm or a measurable process for union growth—have failed. They’ve been around since the late 1970s.  Union density in the US has declined by over 50% since then. To say, as A/L do, ”…. it seems unlikely that existing organizing efforts were really as “comprehensive” as Yeselson claims,” is only to restate my argument in another register.  If 30-35 years of working to “build capacity,” to use the language of union staff, in the major unions hasn’t led to the initiation of dozens of more campaigns than we have seen, it tells us that the idea fails as both conception and execution. Yet, it indeed has been the dominant paradigm for union organizing of the contemporary era, the ideal type that major unions strive to master. It’s no defense of that paradigm to say that most campaigns are too complicated, too expensive, too time consuming, and yield too few new union members for them to be considered successes (Which is why, as I noted earlier, extending existing areas of union strength allows the several unions who are competent to run such campaigns to continue to do so.)  In summary, it is not even clear what A/L are lamenting here, my remarks about comprehensive campaigns or the overall decline of the American labor movement. 

Public Sector Unions and Private Sector Unions: The Banal Truth

Next, A/L contest my decision not to address the dilemmas of public sector unionism in an already long essay. I wrote that public sector unions have “their own well know dilemmas” and “require a separate analysis.” They, instead, claim that my essay “dismisses the need to discuss public sector unionism” as if I found the entire subject to be of no value whatever.

I then looked forward to A/L providing the synthesis of private and public sector union analysis that I had chosen, in my essay, to omit—or, in fairness, just the outline of one.  Instead, A/L make two points. First, public sector unions need private sector unions to dramatically increase their membership, because, “Voters are more willing to [support public sector unionism] when they, themselves, enjoy the rights and benefits of union representation in their own workplaces.”   Second, in an inversion of point one, the “largest, richest, and most stable” unions today are public ones (or, like SEIU, hybrids of public and private).  Therefore, “Any meaningful defense or expansion of workers’ organizations in the United States is going to need the active support and participation of public sector workers and their unions.”

Indeed. To slightly paraphrase a vastly better writer than myself, these are truths universally acknowledged. Which therefore, as Jane Austen wisely did not continue, are simply truisms. Yes, to make myself clear: I entirely agree with these truisms, and, thus, as I often did while considering this essay, feel puzzled. If I thought I could have plausibly synthesized a rigorous analysis of private and public sector unionization by merely repeating nostrums that affirm that public sector unions ultimately need the support of larger private sector unions in order to survive and that private sector unions ultimately need the support of public sector unions in order to grow stronger, I would have done so. I don’t see how such observations, however well meaning, advance the discussion of what unions should do, so I saved my analysis of public sector unions for another day.

A/L conclude their analysis of this issue by claiming, “…. the labor movement has been unable to defend basic union rights in states like Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin, former ‘strongholds.’” But, in part, this statement is false, and in a revealing way. Another truth universally acknowledged is that Ohio’s labor movement achieved a smashing victory by rolling back that state’s onerous anti-union laws via a 61-39 referendum victory in 2011. California’s unions have also successfully resisted Republican efforts to weaken them over the past several years. I think that, in the next several years, the laws in Wisconsin and Michigan will be repealed, too. We will see if I’m right.  The point being: Union ‘strongholds’ may win or lose these fights, but it’s not clear, in A/L’s telling, why my proposals would weaken, rather than strengthen them for these battles. (Although this is precisely what they purport: “It is hard to see how long the fortress will hold under Yeselson’s recommendations.”)

For one very large thing, I would hypothesize that my suggestion to strengthen existing local unions (unacknowledged by the authors) would only help in the push back against anti-union state politics. A mobilized membership is one that fully engages in pro-union political persuasion.  In Wisconsin, 38% of union household voted against the effort to recall Gov. Scott Walker, effectively dooming it.  It’s hard to imagine unions even holding their own unless they can internally organize their own members and their families.  So A/L end up being annoyed with, as I’ve noted, what they call my “doomed strategy”, but I argue that my strategy of extending existing areas of union strength via more organizing and also internally organizing local unions would serve labor quite effectively in these political fights. And they argue…what? I’m not even sure, except that they don’t seem to like the world “fortress.”

Dangerous Assumptions, Vaporous History

A/L then go on to assert that, although I understand the basic pattern of past waves of union growth, I misconstrue what to make of this pattern. Citing Richard Freeman, I argued that unions since the 1880s, not only in the United States, but also throughout the western world, have had only five great spurts of growth. Edited for space, although implied in my historical account are when these growth spurts have occurred: during either periods of intense worker militancy or, during the first and second world wars and their immediate aftermath when the hand of the state decisively places itself on the scale in favor of labor, so as to facilitate maximum production.  In almost all other periods, unions have languished or regressed.

A/L think that, “Yeselson makes a big jump, arguing that since previous organizing happened in large waves we should therefore sit back and wait for the next Big Era of Worker Anger…. His prescription rests on two dangerous assumptions, both of which are contradicted by existing social science.”

Dangerous assumption #1 seems to be (it is not stated directly and clearly) that I think that workers are not yet “….pissed off enough to mobilize in the face of current repression….”, and that, in fact, according to surveys, they are—but this, itself, is insufficient to generate massive growth because “….the existence of grievances are unlikely to be a good predictor of collective action or movement success.”

Several readers have cited this survey work to me, with which I am deeply familiar.  A/L and others seem to think this is somehow a decisive argument:  you see, workers really are pissed off right now, and have been for a couple of decades!  In their telling, the wrinkle is that this proto-militant condition doesn’t mean that they can be motivated to organize without several other conditions being met. A/L say the survey work describes an “extensive, deep, and persistent unfilled desire by workers for a greater voice on the job and more control over their working lives.”

I disagree and the disagreement is connected with my motivation for writing “Fortress Unionism” in the first place. I wanted to sketch for those interested in unions just what real union power meant in the late 1940s, and, also, what real rank and file worker activism entailed in that period (with a brief look back to the 1930s). In short, I wanted to convey to practitioners and allies what a strong labor movement actually looks like so that they might see that regenerating a strong labor movement is even harder than they thought it was. I have read the survey work, heard about the focus groups, talked to workers. “Extensive, deep, and persistent unfulfilled desire….” would be, to transmute fully into the language of romance, an ardent unquenchable erotic and romantic passion for another person—as if millions of American workers had committed Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse to memory and were prepared to act on it. Most workers today are, at best, abstractly interested in something that might improve their lives, but they don’t know what they are getting into.  Some of them are at the stage of, “Ok, I’ll have coffee” with the union. Very few (although they certainly exist) are in the throes of an ardent and unquenchable passion.

What I tried to evoke in “Fortress Unionism” was not something like a wan interest, a tepid sense that the average worker might give unions a try if it was convenient to just sign up, the way buying a subscription to Netflix is convenient. Instead, the militancy required to increase unionism by the millions means the willingness to risk being fired or beaten up or sometimes something worse— millions being willing to risk that, not a few hundred workers at a time (although a few hundred, sometimes, might lead to millions).  And, no, I don’t blame people for not wanting to do that—that’s kind of a heavy lift.  That’s the kind of guts I certainly don’t know if I would have if faced with similar circumstances. Those kinds of surges have happened only several times in labor history. Most people in the history of the world haven’t done anything like I’ve described. But every once in awhile, some of them do.

Here’s what I mean, multiplied countless times. An African American scow captain (basically a freight boat employee) in NY harbor on strike in 1934 says to his boss (from Irving Bernstein’s classic history of labor in the thirties, Turbulent Years, p. 119):

You’ve got to settle this strike. We’ve been hungry. I’ve been hungry and if I get any hungrier I won’t stop short of killing you. If you can afford a beautiful office and a good home, you can afford to pay your men enough so that they won’t have to go to their garbage cans for food.

This is what I’m talking about—not merely telling an academic pollster, “yeah, ok, sure: I might be willing to sign a card and join a union.” That’s fine for starters, but it doesn’t go nearly far enough.  And, if you say: Well, that’s just envisioning something that may never happen again, that’s almost unthinkable—you’re right.  It might not happen again. I am not making a foundational or deterministic argument. But this is how unions grow—-by enormous numbers, or pretty much not at all. If workers by the millions don’t match that scow captain’s desperate rage, there isn’t going to be much union growth, if any. To say that American worker’s today are, in aggregate, at that point, but only need to be competently organized, as A/L imply, is absurd.

A/L then consider my “dangerous assumption” #2. They argue that:

Yeselson seems to imply that the success of past waves of union organization hinged entirely on external events, independent of the work of generations of union activists who toiled in less opportune moments but gained knowledge of local conditions and relationships with local workers, ultimately planting the seeds for local organizations.

Here is where A/L present their alternative to my specific proposal to organize and extend existing areas of union strength as well as simultaneously buttress the hundreds of local unions around the country—a plan that, if unions took it seriously, would provide them with years and years of work to do.  A/L promisingly begin, “A longer look at labor history can be instructive.” Yes it can!  We can derive significant historical and analytical questions from examining case studies in the history of the American labor movement.

So: Would A/L they describe the period between the failed 1919 steel strike and the creation, via the Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC) of the steelworkers union almost 20 years later?  Would they discuss the trajectory of railway organizing, say, between the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, and the Pullman Strike of 1894, which made Eugene Debs a national figure?  How about the building and sustaining of 1199, the hospital workers union, from it beginning as a union of pharmacists in the early thirties to its dramatic expansion to include hospital workers of color in the late fifties and sixties? Or the background and conflict that led to the 1934 textile workers strike, the only large failed strike of the Depression era, in which, nonetheless, 2/3rds of Southern textile workers, 170,000 strong, courageously walked off the job.

Well, no. Let me pay A/L the respect of quoting the entirety of their “history” paragraph in full:

There have been many periods of unrest, riots, short strikes and protests that left no durable legacy on which to build.  There have also been extended periods in which labor organizations were continuously trying to organize large groups of workers, with only limited near term success. Many of these activities may have appeared unprofitable at the time or seemed to leave no marks, but they were crucial.  They trained the leaders and laid the organizational groundwork necessary for unions to take advantage of opportunities when they come.  They also enabled new kinds of workers—first, craft; then industrial; now service—to develop organizing and action repertoires more appropriate to the nature of the work and skill and more likely to succeed in the given political environment.  As the economy and the laws change, so do [sic] must the labor organizations.

I think this single paragraph encapsulated my disappointment with “With Fortresses Like These …”, a disappointment underscored by A/L’s foreshadowing at their essay’s outset that this section of the whole would “most importantly… highlight some of the lessons available from existing social science research that can inform—and correct—what we believe to be some of Yeselson’s misguided policy advice for unions.”   Despite A/L’s anticipatory nod to labor history, they don’t engage the specificity of actual history, or even the controversies of the relevant historiography.  They only use an intellectual signifier with a distinguished pedigree (History!) to substitute for actual, concrete examples and analysis. It’s the difference between an incantation and an argument.

To sustain my dog trope from this essay’s beginning: there’s nothing here to sink one’s teeth into. This is supposed to be the substantive alternative to my “two dangerous assumptions, both of which are contradicted by existing social science.”  What A/L wrote will never be accused of being dangerous; it is not even memorable. Again, how does this actually address the particular dilemmas of the labor movement today? If you were a union officer or a director of organizing designing a course of action, what would you make of this paragraph, how would it inform your future actions? At worst, these remarks are evanescent. At best, they are benignly incontrovertible. Within, there isn’t a single name of a union or any other institution, a geographic location, a reference to a significant historical actor or the date of a significant event or a series of dates that analytically frames a social, economic, cultural, or political period. I should also note that my queries do merely evoke a disciplinary conflict between history and political science. Despite the earned disciplinary expertise A/L bring to this subject, the paragraph does not even hint, either, at a replicable social science model.  A/L basically say that organizing can be “crucial”—except, as they also remind us, when it’s not.  They use different terms for what we know to be familiar and inarguable concepts, and thus they do not extend their analysis in compelling ways.  For example, they urge that “organizational groundwork” be undertaken—is this distinct from just plain organizing? So, too, we shouldn’t forget the need for “action repertoires”, which may or may not be what old timers used to call “tactics” or just “ideas.” Finally they conclude with a shocker: when the times change, institutions must change, too. I’m kind of surprised they didn’t squeeze, “In the long run, we are all dead” in here, too.

There is nothing here, even in the merest sketch (all that can be done in a single paragraph), that approaches David Brody’s still masterful 1967 essay, “Labor’s Institutional Sources of Expansion and Contraction” which argues that the “pure and simple” unionism of Samuel Gompers and the early AFL have, for better and worse, informed the subsequent successes and failures of American throughout most of the 20th century.  Such an analysis may be disappointing to those, like A/L and myself, who wish that labor be part of a broad movement for social justice. So, too, might Thaddeus Russell’s Out of the Jungle (2001), a brilliant revisionist recasting of the history of the Teamsters. But these interpretations cannot easily be dismissed. It may be, however, that the tension that A/L allude to between the an amorphous organization of both individual and disparate union like the Knights of Labor, and a successful member-centric union like the Teamsters is irreconcilable.

So choices must be made. Strategizing, as is said of governing, is to choose. When A/L modestly continue that, “Such moments of opportunity are exceedingly difficult to foresee ex ante, so there must be organizations in place, continually experimenting with new tactics, strategies, and objectives”, they sound like nobody so much as failed venture capitalists who lack the judgment to make shrewd investments while eschewing less savvy proposals. There “must be organizations in place”?  Ok. What kind of organizations?  Where should they be located? Which industries or corporations should they address? Should unions focus on founder owned and controlled companies like Walmart and FedEx, which are rabidly anti-union, yet market leaders? Or should they, instead, focus upon more conventional public companies, which may result in more rapid, but less significant victories? Or should labor look to the increasingly significant sector privately owned by hedge funds/pensions funds/sovereign wealth fund? How many of these labor counter-organizations should there be? How large should they be? What criteria do we use to distinguish between what appears to be ‘unprofitable’ and what, in time, might become ‘crucial’?  Labor can’t just cast a big net across the United States in order to compensate for the fact that “moments of opportunity are exceedingly difficult to foresee ex ante….” For that very reason, unions have to make hardheaded calculations about where they should organize and how great the opportunity costs will be. This is what I have suggested. I am not at all sure what A/L have suggested, except that, writ large, history is unpredictable.

After this invocation of Clio, the “suggestions about strategy and tactics” come as something of an anti-climax, and almost entirely replicate and underscore my own recommendations.  A/L stipulate and acknowledge that I am correct regarding the “crash” of “private sector unionizing rates.” We have no dispute here. They note, as I have in this essay, following Freeman, that war and periods of social activism are most likely to generate union growth. Here, however, they apparently do not grasp what it is about total war—world war—and only world war that engenders mass unionization. It is not, as they suggest here, the repurposing of returning veterans as organizers, although this is a fine and good thing, and has certainly helped on the margin. And it is not that union growth occurs during and in the wake of any old war. To be crass, medium or small wars will not suffice. There was no union surge during and after the Korean War, the Vietnam War, or either of the two Iraq wars.  Only the capacious economic imperatives of a world war force the government to propitiate labor in order to keep it on the job and making the guns, bombs, planes, and uniforms required to sustain total economic and military mobilization. We should be grateful that it is hard to imagine in the nuclear age a third conventional world war.  But that also means that American unions may never again have the full leverage of the federal government behind them.  The merciful (we hope) end of world wars has the secondary effect of severely proscribing the operational possibilities of organized labor.

Endgame: An Important Insight

A/S conclude with another unexceptional paean to the power of organization, in which they argue, “Workers’ organizations able to uphold the rights and livelihood of workers must become part of a larger movement on behalf of citizen rights and protections.” Again, this rehearses remarks from my essay (see the Fortress Union proposals, reproduced above), although the desired social democratic left liberal labor movement—call it a Reuther/modern SEIU model—however normatively desirable, is not necessarily more achievable and sustainable than pure and simple unionism. Nor is it necessarily more attractive to ordinary workers. We can, however, save this meta- discussion for another time.

I credit A/L with one very interesting and shrewd intervention. They make an extremely provocative point about the structural constraints on existing labor organizations, and then observe, “Existing unions may need to channel their resources into building their replacements—a difficult task for any organization and a difficult thing to convince existing union members to do.  But the alternative is losing everything.”

Now, I don’t think it’s realistic to imagine that existing unions will, on behalf of the greater good of the movement and of workers, commit organizational suicide.  But the larger point stands: much of the most militant, risk taking organization over the past 125 years has come from new or nascent labor organizations with no money in the bank and nothing to lose. Certainly the recently certified UAW’s actions at Flint in 1937 are such an example. The new union exploited the freedom of its insignificance. It could afford to ignore a judicial injunction, secure in the knowledge that Governor Frank Murphy, the greatest of the New Deal governors, would not bankrupt what little they had or brutalize the sit down strikers.

Today, however, the remaining large, functional unions—especially them, in fact—find themselves in a kind of sweet spot of weakness.  They are too weak to have the enormous influence over the economy and politics that unions did in the late 1940s, when unions truly were “big labor.”  But they are paradoxically still too strong—with building and pension funds worth millions, hundreds of employees, six and seven figure membership rolls—to take the legal risk, the sanctioning of worker civil unrest, that are necessary to force elites to recognize unionization rights on a mass scale.

This is also why, as the historian Melvyn Dubofsky pointed out in a comment about my article, it is more likely that, as in the past, the impetus for mass organizing will come from non-union workers who, as Dubofsky notes, “have broader rights to engage in direct action, that is to strike, than employees bound by union contracts.” It is an excruciating situation for unions to be in, ensnared within a juridical trap they dare not upset. Thus, in ways we cannot today predict, workers may have to create, from scratch, their own alternatives to existing unions. I noted in “Fortress Unionism” that, if it is to happen again, union growth on a massive scale was much more likely to be generated by workers themselves than by unions. This will include the creation of new unions or other labor related organizations. Presumably, as with the Farmer’s Alliances of the 1870s and 1880s which led to the rise of American Populism, new labor organizations will contain aspects of what Raymond Williams called “residual” and “emergent” cultural and institutional formations.  As I wrote in “Fortress Unionism,” the fortress “would remain open.” My proposals are designed to sustain labor until the time when another great spurt of growth might occur. Beyond them, my remarks, too, are necessarily general. As Yogi Berra never said, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.”

I would not, finally, want the tough give and take of our respective polemics to obscure that A/L are obviously deeply knowledgeable about the American labor movement and deeply concerned about its fate. Their final insight about structural burdens that inhibit contemporary unions is a good place for me to end my remarks, too. I look forward to reading their forthcoming book, which, given its greater length, might contain some of the details I wished for here. Again, I thank them for reading “Fortress Unionism” and thinking, along with me, about the history and future of American unions.

 

{ 68 comments }

1

Rich Puchalsky 07.09.13 at 7:18 pm

I’m going to reply to the one, tiny part of this that I have any direct familiarity with:

They have urged unions, with increasing success, to reach out to environmentalists, community organizations, immigration reformers, racial justice advocates, feminists, gay rights activists, and political reformers to pursue policy changes like limiting the filibuster and protecting voting rights. Unions should make the most of these alliances. They expose unions to creative thinking from outside of organized labor and put union money and staff to use behind important projects. Unions, whenever appropriate, should yield control to other organizations and advocates, and play a supporting and facilitative role.

I’m skeptical about this. Here is where the same vagueness that you criticize in A/L’s response seems present in yours. It’s a small part of your overall piece, so maybe you just didn’t have room to say really what unions would be doing in cooperation with all of those people beyond the filibuster and voting rights — many of the kinds of people mentioned have no direct contact or influence on those issues.

I’ve worked with unions as an environmentalist. On toxic chemicals, unions have workplace issues that mirror community interests. On global warming, unions have generally been opposed to the environmental community, because the union fortresses are where the existing work is, not where the new work would be. The end effect is pretty much a wash.

I’ve also been an Occupy activist, and experienced the union attempt to work with Occupy. Again, kind of a wash. Unions had more organization and resources than anyone else involved, and were the only traditional form of social organization to try to work with Occupy, but (outside Oakland) they seemed to in a very low-profile way. In my small town, it was obvious when union organizers showed up, because e.g. suddenly our protest march would be diverted to something of interest to unions that we’d never talked about, but those people would never go to GA or say they were union organizers. The effect wasn’t precisely one of being co-opted, but there were no enduring links made in the same way that environmental and social justice groups made enduring links with Occupy people.

Is there a good piece on the Oakland aftermath?

2

john in california 07.09.13 at 10:18 pm

I may be talking thru my my hat, but it seems to me that the biggest obstacle to more union membership is the stagnation or downward trend of middle class wages, generally. If labor is to be supplied by higher paid union workers then those who ultimately pay for that labor must be able to afford it. The highest rates of union growth during the postwar period coincided with high rates of employment and higher wages for more skilled workers. The decline coincided with outsourcing, globalization and much higher ‘acceptable’ rates of unemployment. There were the usual politics of resentment piggybacked on these trends and total absence of any real fight from the unions or their dem allies, all frogs in the same pot, but effectively it has been the use of non domestic labor that has driven the decline. Until manufacturing is brought back here and kept here, unionization outside the service industry will remain on the decline.

3

Joshua 07.09.13 at 11:21 pm

It seems to me that there is a general failure to recognize that unionization is merely an act of capitalism…that individuals are corporations, as corporations are (legally) individuals. When corporations cooperate or merge with other corporations to increase profit and protect market-share, this is capitalism at work. When individuals do, it is socialism? No, it is also a capitalistic enterprise. We are incorporated as citizens. In a free market (idealized), contracts allow us to conduct business under the law to whatever advantage or disadvantage that contract elicits. The contract is central.

Take the gay marriage debate. Has there ever been a debate so off target? Marriage can be a) a contract between individuals, or b) a social or theological contract, or c) both a and b. In no case should the government be involved. Business contracts can be made without consent of government under appropriate witnesses. Any one can make social or theological based contracts at will (and break them). The government should not be involved in the formation of contracts, just the enforcement of the terms of the contract, as given by law. Therefore the law should not define marriage as being one way or another. Business contracts are valid no matter the party’s orientation or belief. The whole premise is wrong. Acceptance of the social contract of gay marriage does not belong in the courts, but in the evolution of culture.

So, I do not see that contracts are a problem. Its a problem that some contracts aren’t viewed as contracts, that some activities arent viewed as capitalism. Unions are capitalistic.

4

Joshua 07.09.13 at 11:24 pm

Unions died from the labor overseas. Overseas labor won’t be needed within 15 years from AI powered production. The solution is …

5

Alan 07.10.13 at 2:43 am

john @ 10:18 should expand this to an essay. My bullshit meter was completely quiet as I read his comment.

6

Mitchell Freedman 07.10.13 at 4:15 am

I’m with John in California. But I’ll add this:

Tariff policy needs to be restructured to restore industrial capacity in this country.

Union law reform needs to be the top agenda item for a party that claims that be pro-worker.

End the NAFTA and the trade treaty monstrosities and renegotiate as if people and environment not a narrow slice of profit for large international businesses were the important thing.

Perot got it. Nader got it. Buchanan couldn’t quite grasp it without his racism coming through…again. Jill Stein got it. Too bad nobody in the Democratic Party leadership who runs for president gets it, and certainly the Reeps’ leaders don’t get it either.

7

Bruce Wilder 07.10.13 at 4:41 am

Oh, they “get it” well enough — they just see it as a profit opportunity.

8

Brett 07.10.13 at 4:55 am

Tariff policy needs to be restructured to restore industrial capacity in this country.

We have plenty of industrial capacity, it’s just that it doesn’t create as much jobs as it used to. That’s not just in the US too – manufacturing employment is a shrinking fraction of overall employment in most first-world countries.

9

Dr. Hilarius 07.10.13 at 5:52 am

I haven’t seen any mention of the Republican-Business Axis’ decades-long war against unions in the public’s mind. Labor history is treated like pornography in schools. There might be a nod to the Triangle Shirtwaist fire but the implication is that unions might have been necessary long ago but no longer. My guess is that any high school teacher aggressively teaching labor history would immediately be targeted for “bias.” Every paper has a business section, usually hostile to labor. Business schools generate multitudes of degreed hopefuls waiting to get rich. Manual occupations get no respect. People who work with their hands are usually portrayed as dullards in sit-coms. The list goes on and on without even arising to a conscious level in the public mind.

Living here in Seattle, one of the mentioned fortresses, I’ve witnessed a remarkable change in how unions are viewed. When union wages and benefits are discussed, in the media or in private, non-union workers, instead of aspiring to those benefits, scorn union workers as lazy and overpaid. Boeing workers go on strike and comments are posted about them being spoiled crybabies. These critics don’t make the connection that the existence of union workplaces elevates pay for non-union workers as well. Respect for unions has eroded in this union city. (A test: ask any under-30 what Labor Day celebrates. Grim.)

The contradictions run deep. My spouse works with a woman who is a public-sector union employee. She has breast cancer. Her contract provides for excellent medical benefits but she still expresses a total disdain for her union. She seems to think that she would have the same benefits without a union and resents paying union dues. I don’t know how to reach people like this. On the flip side, non-union workers have come to accept few or no benefits as the norm. Low-wage service employees will change jobs, if they can, when a workplace gets too bad but usually trade it for another workplace with similar characteristics.

The whole idea of collective action seems to be limited to students and a thin strata of activists. Hourly workers toil on with their grand individualism intact. Trying to educate these workers to accept unionization, even as an abstract good, is daunting. A new factor is the existence of Fox News and other right-wing news sources. Anti-union propaganda is now piped into millions of homes on a daily basis.

I don’t have a solution but have to agree with A/L that a rear-guard action is slow suicide for unions. Waiting for worker unrest sounds far too much like waiting for the revolution.

10

Bruce Wilder 07.10.13 at 6:40 am

We bowl alone, or haven’t you heard?

And those people vote against their economic interests, and we just have to wait their coming to their senses.

Good god! Are you people insane?

Organization needs resources. Has there ever been a truer truism?!

Dramatis personae ain’t resources!

11

Trader Joe 07.10.13 at 12:01 pm

Dr @ 9
Students in north-east and union heavy states like NY, PA and IL get more than ample high-school education coverage of the joys of unionism. About every 5 to 10 years their schools are in-fact turned into full scale labs where the students can look at labor activism first hand. They are even held out of class to watch their instructors demonstrate how to walk the line, jeer scabs and make disparaging comments about the “administration.”

Teacher strikes, transport strikes, other ‘public servant’ strikes irrespective of their merits which few take the time to understand, have deeply undermined the broader public perception of unions. In the northeast when every other household had a union person inside them, everyone “understood” why the teachers were out. Now, when less than 1 in 4 homes overall and these all heavily concentrated participate – no one sees the labor side of the coin, they only see inconvenience.

I’ve carried a card. My mother was a local leader. I ‘get’ what a union can do for you, but it also must be acknowledged that some part of the failure of unions was the greed and malaise of union leadership as well.

Lastly, it has to be said, at this point the deck is pretty well stacked against organization. Any effort toward activism and change has to be embarked on as a multi-decade effort – its not something most existing union employees have the hart for. A new labor movement will need to come from those not currently organized and then spread to other areas who can observe first hand the benefits created.

12

hix 07.10.13 at 1:59 pm

Narrow unions organised arround skilled trades never work. The best example is the typical demand for protectionism to push up skilled industrial workers wages at the expense of everyone else. At least everyone working at a particular industry needs to be in the same union, no matter if he is working in the canteen, accounting or at an assembly line.

13

Bruce Wilder 07.10.13 at 6:10 pm

There seems to be a common view that unions and unionization, in their specific, concrete, historical manifestations, are adaptations to specific economic structures and circumstances, but not much direct, sustained engagement with sorting out exactly what those structures and circumstances are.

There’s an almost throwaway assertion that the state supports labor, and maybe incidentally unions, in a time of total war to appease and consolidate labor support. Do we attribute nothing to political solidarity? The decline of unionization would seem to have something to do with the decline in the proportion of direct labor in manufacturing, as automation has advanced during the information revolution.

The reduction in economic rents associated with the regulation of transportation seems to have been a huge blow to unions. The railway unions were among the first strong unions, and their pattern of strength was extended to trucking and airlines for a time, but reversed with the Carter-Reagan deregulation of transportation.

Globalization and out-sourcing is mentioned, and, I guess, financialization is served a glancing nod. But, I’m curious about the shift in felt interest in non-unionized upper management, and at the executive level. In the 1960s, when the auto and steel unions were reaching their peak, in terms of economic results, management was thought by many to be sympathetic in the main to union demands, at least to the extent that the management ranks would automatically get the same pay increases and benefit increases as granted in the union contracts. (That was also when the quality of auto manufacture was at an absurdly low point; cars were crap and the overpaid union workers were blamed, in the popular imagination, at least — an important defeat, worth remembering and contemplating.)

Globalization and out-sourcing has been as hard on workers as it has, because upper management — not the top executives, but the upper reaches of middle-management — have found it in their interest to devise fragile, complex schemes of global sourcing, which enhance the demand for their own skill sets, at the expense of both the firm’s long-term viability and, of course, lower-level workers. This is a parallel reinforcement of the kind of executive-level vulture capitalism that grabs headlines and nominates Presidential candidates.

A large part of the divergence of interests between the mass of working and middle class folks, on the one hand, and the 1/3 of 1% on the other, has a lot to do with the decline in marginal income taxes and corporate income taxes, and other institutional changes, which separate the elite into a world of their own, where there are ginormous rewards available from screwing workers and the merely middle class: the aforementioned vulture capitalism of Romney.

It seems to me that that poses challenges to unions on several levels. One is that the problem of a generally predatory economy extends far beyond the workplace. If you wanted one policy intervention to improve the lives of the bottom 50%, it might be usury laws. Another is that social solidarity is at a very low ebb, and it is very hard to tie elite leaders of any organization to the organization’s purposes. Non-profits are going broke all over the country, because the leaderships jacks their own salaries beyond the organization’s fund-raising capability. Colleges and universities are going broke, as administrators grab resources for themselves, from the debt peonage of students and the slavery of adjuncts.

My point is that it is not enough to talk about training leaders, when we live in an era, when the culture puts such pressure on aggressive leaders to turn on the followers. There’s a deeper, fundamental problem, both of finding leaders, from outside the now predatory elite classes, and in devising mechanisms of tieing leaders to followers in credible ways.

If I were advising a local or regional labor council on what to focus on, I think I would suggest at least considering trying to take over a regional Federal Reserve Bank. The populist governance structure makes such a project feasible; in theory, unions and community organizations have as substantial a claim on governance as financial institutions. And, it provides entry into the core of our financialized economy.

14

Bruce Wilder 07.10.13 at 6:38 pm

Probably not very clear, but one point I wanted to make is that it’s never hard to convince people on the bottom that things are screwed up. Convincing them that a particular diagnosis is the “right” one, and, therefore, they can, in fact, do something, is hard. Convincing them a particular diagnosis applies, but they remain helpless, but virtuous, and the leftists are going to be useless, , is quite a bit easier; Fox News does it every day.

Powerlessness near the bottom is familiar territory. Anything else is another country. And, they really don’t know how to run things. And, imagining alternatives is seldom adequate preparation for doing so.

Just saying, “no”, until they put something on the menu you like, is, sometimes in history, a viable political strategy. Mostly not, though.

15

William Timberman 07.10.13 at 7:38 pm

Watching good people argue themselves into total paralysis is a painful, but all-too-familiar experience these days. I don’t have anything better to offer — no answers, certainly, and not even any questions that haven’t been asked hundreds of times already. In looking at the history of working people’s struggle to be conscious of themselves as a class before the Taft-Hartley Act, though. or the African-American people’s struggles not only to endure, but to prevail, I still think that there are still things that we could learn. If nothing else, we could learn how many had to sacrifice themselves knowing that they’d never see the promised land themselves. Do we believe that we should be exempt from all that? If so, it would explain a lot.

16

Bruce Wilder 07.10.13 at 9:28 pm

Wat Tyler, Jack Straw and John Ball lost their heads. Was that sacrifice “necessary” to a long game of the rights of Englishmen in competition with the claims of aristocratic domination? “Sacrifice” and martyrdom are written deep in the genes and the archetypes. And, I’m inclined to think that calls for collective sacrifice are often cynical and hypocritical efforts to increase elite extraction — from Papal simony to Obama’s Social Security “reforms”.

The top of the pyramid is always better organized than the bottom, and always bearing down on the bottom — that’s why they are the top. And, there will be a pyramid, there will be a top — it is no use imagining otherwise.

Breaking the (social or labor) contract in a strike or a revolution is almost always going to be more costly to the bottom than the top. The top arranges it that way. Any elite, but a thoroughly palsied one, is going to make a strike or revolution fail a prospective cost-benefit test, if they can. Punishing the elite will be costly, and costly enough to cost more than it seems to be worth (within the ambit of the foreseeable future). That’s why you need righteous anger and desperation to make a bottom-up mass movement mobilize successfully: to get people to either disregard the cost-benefit test in righteousness or feel such desperation that the cost-benefit test no longer makes sense.

The legitimacy of the elite can erode for a very long time. That’s one of the things that makes a long game, long, I would think. And, again, the elite usually has deep pockets that gives them an advantage in the long game, even after they lose big in a round or two. There are German princelings occupying city center palaces today, more than 200 years after the end of the Holy Roman Empire and Germany’s loss of two world wars; the present Duke of Norfolk’s ancestors were beside Richard II, when he confronted Wat Tyler.

“Then, what?” is the hard question, and revolutionists, historically, have often been short of answers. FDR’s New Deal was an exception; there was lots of intellectual preparation in the aftermath of Progressive reform.

Apparently the consensus is that we are in a long game, now, whether we like it or not. And, I suppose, part of playing a long game, is accepting that sometimes you win, by losing. I’m not quite sure I can believe that; it is too Christian, to believe in redemption by suffering, in place of reform and amelioration. But, I can believe that losing battles is part of the game, as long as you choose to play for the weaker, more numerous side.

17

William Timberman 07.10.13 at 10:30 pm

Yeah, playing for one side or another as a matter of choice is the real luxury, I suppose, but for me it never really was a matter of choice. We don’t necessarily have to play for the side we were born on, but it does seem that we have to play for the side we believe in. Edward Snowden springs to mind as a recent example, assuming that he is who he says he is — and I’d prefer not to be cynical about that, at least not without further evidence. Come to think of it, it’s preferences like that which probably wind up being destiny for individuals, if not for the groups they belong to.

And yeah, martyrdom is exploited by both sides, if actually required only by those at the top. Unfortunately, when your adventures as an individual lead you onto that ground, your retreat is sometimes cut off, and even when it isn’t, it’s a tough row afterwards if what you have to do to survive negates what you were before you stepped onto that ground in the first place.

As for the legitimacy of the elites, the remnants of church and monarchy are indeed still with us, even if they disguise themselves these days as part of the haute bourgeoisie. I remember reading somewhere a few years back that a huge percentage of the land in London is still owned by the hereditary nobility. In a fit of irony, the article even claimed that this was at least partly a good thing, as the land use policies these noble landowners demanded of their corporate tenants were more environmentally friendly than those of the skyscraper builders of more plebeian cities like New York. This was before the Gherkin and the Shard, of course.

The long game…. It’s always that, until it isn’t. And do the sans-culottes know how to run nuclear power plants, or the global economy? Well, maybe without people like President Obama dropping bombs on them, they might at least get a chance to learn how. They might even learn how to replace them with something more humane. Not forever, mind, but then I’d settle for their hegemony’s lasting as long as the present Duke of Norfolk’s, or the Pope’s.

18

Bill Barnes 07.11.13 at 4:54 am

I always slow down and read more carefully when I see Bruce Wilder weigh in in-depth — not that I typically fully understand or fully agree with (much less both) the majority of what he says, but there are always some seriously stimulating nuggets. Bruce (and readers), I’d like to ask you to put your comments quoted below side-by-side with the arguments I made in my contribution to last March’s review symposium on Erik Wright’s book re (1) the new, stark “long game” before us that will increasingly clarify the minds (as the sight of the hangman’s noose is said to do) of all kinds of people not usually amenable to such clarification, and (2) the need, and opportunity, to drive a wedge between the corrupt upper eschelons of modern middle class professionalism and the less privileged majority of the educated professionals and technicians of modernity, such that the latter gravitate toward and help to build a new labor movement and popular front.

“… social solidarity is at a very low ebb, and it is very hard to tie elite leaders of any organization to the organization’s purposes. Non-profits are going broke all over the country, because the leaderships jacks their own salaries beyond the organization’s fund-raising capability. Colleges and universities are going broke, as administrators grab resources for themselves, from the debt peonage of students and the slavery of adjuncts.

My point is that it is not enough to talk about training leaders, when we live in an era, when the culture puts such pressure on aggressive leaders to turn on the followers. There’s a deeper, fundamental problem, both of finding leaders, from outside the now predatory elite classes, and in devising mechanisms of tieing leaders to followers in credible ways.

Any elite, but a thoroughly palsied one, is going to make a strike or revolution fail a prospective cost-benefit test, if they can. Punishing the elite will be costly, and costly enough to cost more than it seems to be worth (within the ambit of the foreseeable future). That’s why you need righteous anger and desperation to make a bottom-up mass movement mobilize successfully: to get people to either disregard the cost-benefit test in righteousness or feel such desperation that the cost-benefit test no longer makes sense.
…..
The legitimacy of the elite can erode for a very long time. That’s one of the things that makes a long game, long, I would think. And, again, the elite usually has deep pockets that gives them an advantage in the long game, even after they lose big in a round or two. ….
Apparently the consensus is that we are in a long game, now, whether we like it or not.”

19

EqualToJake 07.11.13 at 2:36 pm

When Malcolm X was in high school he was a brilliant student, and he thought about becoming a lawyer. His teacher told him that as a black man he should try and become a janitor. In his autobiography he talked about how he would have turned out if he had instead been encouraged, he was glad in retrospect because he felt he would have become a well-off apologist for the racial status quo.
If the same situation happened today the school would be falling over itself to help him become a lawyer. And it would be the same if he belonged to any of the other marginalised groups in society, the poor, immigrants, etc.
Malcolm X obviously wasn’t a union leader, but I wonder how much of the recent failures of the union movement are a result of the successes of earlier progressive movements, In removing the barriers to personal advancement for members of historically marginalised groups.
How can class consciousness grow when the brightest and best members of the class can so easily move up?

20

Bruce Wilder 07.11.13 at 5:16 pm

Those of the boomer generation, who “moved up” from historically marginalized groups, usually chose to become establishment figures of one kind or another, whether Richard Parsons or Clarence Thomas. They became prosecutors, not public defenders. The Congressional Black Caucus supported reductions in inheritance taxes. But, the whole boomer generation did not experience class antagonism, did not experience the giant corporation as a threatening monster, in the way previous generations had. They did not grow up with Harry Bennett as the face of Ford Motor. The WASP leaders of early 20th century Progressivism had little to do with industrial unionism, and many were hostile to racial reform, but they built, promoted and extended the professions as a counterweight to plutocracy and the giant business corporation: technocracy had an ethical core, which made it antagonistic to the authoritarian hierarchy pursuing profit. The professions, in their technical idealism, were to supply the public good of trust. Those, who thought a professional journalism would raise the standards of Heart’s yellow press, could not have imagined the debasement of Politico.com.

I have read the Shelby threads, with their strident cries of “this is racism” and wondered about the sanity of some of my fellow commenters. I don’t disagree that racism figures among the motives for, as well as the means of vote suppression, but that’s not the big picture.

“How can class consciousness grow when the brightest and best members of the class can so easily move up?” comes from a different viewpoint, a different set of prejudices, but it is just as absurdly obsolete. Do you think anyone is moving up? Can anyone, but the already rich, afford to go to college? Go to the LGM blog to read about how Law Schools are collapsing in on themselves, trying to soak up every last dollar of student debt, before anyone figures out that most lawyers are underemployed at best. And, in Malcolm X’s day, a janitor might expect to at least make a living, not be consigned to two or three part-time jobs, so no corporation has to respect the laws on overtime.

Somehow, I think the highly abstract way so many on the left try to talk about the rise of “(income) inequality” as a social or political problem, is related. Even when the Koch Brothers are trotted out as cardboard-cutout bad guys, there seems to me very little real anger. But, it doesn’t seem as if a narrative that sees, not abstract “inequality”, but parasitism and predation, as the problem requiring revolutionary reform, has found fertile soil, despite the despair and discontent. Characterizing Goldman Sachs as a “vampire squid” attracted attention and admiration for rhetorical inventiveness, but did it stick in many minds as a plain truth?

In my mind, the widespread non-reaction to Snowden’s revelations and the response to Obama’s appointment of Comey, are also illustrative of this same foundational problem: the failure of the country to react to the continuation of the neoliberal program, despite its manifest corruption and the onset of undeniable economic decline for most people.

21

William Timberman 07.11.13 at 6:40 pm

As I read history, a mandarin class can be awfully good at transmitting an outline of the kind of value system many of us aspire to from one generation to another, but in political terms has never been — and probably never will be — very resilient when the cossacks and other predators are about. The young idealists who were recruited to serve the New Deal seem to have been just as idealistic about serving the military-industrial complex in the 50’s, except for genuine geniuses like Oppenheimer, or maybe McCarthy’s legendary 57 or however many commies in the State Department, who, commies or not, went away with barely a whimper.

I like technocrats and bureaucrats, mind you, especially UN bureaucrats, and EU bureaucrats. I like their calm rationality, their intelligence, and their general good humor — but I still imagine them walking up and down the tracks with rubber stamps in their hands, and that same humane smile on their faces, as some bedraggled bunch of malcontents, perhaps including my own sorry self, huddle together awaiting transport to the Gulags of the future.

22

Bruce Wilder 07.11.13 at 8:46 pm

Chinese mandarins belong to a completely different social dynamic from the one Progressives sought in a technocracy of professionals. Mandarins belong to a social cadre, which reinforces the hierarchy, which it staffs — not unlike military services and ranks, paralleling a military or naval force’s line-and-staff arrangements.

The idea of a profession was to set up social support for values, and a social role and identity, which was independent of, and opposable to, the social role of the bureaucrat, embedded in, and dependent on the hierarchy.

Professionals would be socialized by university education, not bureaucratic apprenticeship, and would seek status and economic independence in their professional identification and associations, even if employed at any one time in some bureaucracy. And, the trust associated with professional values and imperatives would have economic value, which would allow it to survive economic competition.

And, of course, professionals would be professionals by virtue of mastering some actually practically useful technical body of knowledge, allowing them to press progress forward.

Altogether, not a completely crazy idea.

But, one which is nearing free-fall failure mode in some surprising areas. The ones I’m most familiar with are in my (former) profession, economics, and they are utterly shocking. How can the Euro be such a catastrophe?

The failure of law is, if anything, scarier. But, John Yoo is still at Berkeley’s alleged school of law, last time I checked. And, Obama is . . . a disappointment.

The failure of journalism, by this point, is dog-bites-man.

The failure to heed climate science . . .

23

Arne Anderson 07.11.13 at 11:57 pm

Rich
Thanks for spurring this debate.

24

William Timberman 07.12.13 at 1:40 pm

Bruce Wilder @ 22

I thought I was done here, as you’ve once again pretty much summed up the interaction of intent, organizational structure, and historical evolution in the sorts of conflicts that Yeselson, Alquist and Levi are debating here. I do want to add one thing, though. Your not a completely crazy idea doesn’t seem to have worked — we agree on that — but it’s the apparent reason why it hasn’t worked that’s interesting.

The Chinese mandarin class was created to support those with the supposed mandate of heaven, while the modern bureaucratic class, like Martin Luther’s Protestants, was created to define the mandate of heaven on its his own, and to bring it about in a purely managerial arena previously cleared of both politics and ideology. Now maybe that wasn’t a completely crazy idea, but it was just crazy enough, given that the philosopher king at the head of the whole shebang ended up — not at all coincidentally — being George W. Bush. (Or Barack Obama, if we want to put a little rouge on the cheeks of our dilemma.)

Power is power, as the lady in the HBO soap opera said, and power is nothing if not brutal and capricious. Without it, though, you can’t run a carnival calliope, let alone a modern welfare state, so it shouldn’t surprise us that our modern bureaucrats wind up in the end being just as committed to the awful status quo as the Chinese scholars who preceded them. If they dared oppose it, they’d wind up tieless, with no dials to monitor, buttons to push, memos to dictate. or seminars to attend. Ronin, in other words, but of a sort no villager in distress would ever look twice at….

25

Rich Puchalsky 07.12.13 at 2:18 pm

“The idea of a profession was to set up social support for values, and a social role and identity, which was independent of, and opposable to, the social role of the bureaucrat, embedded in, and dependent on the hierarchy.”

It seems relevant in this context to point out that professionals were set up to be a class of non-unionized workers, too. They’re not management, but they are supposed to identify with the profession and their individual status within it, not with workers in an industry or as a whole.

Chinese mandarins, if I understand them correctly which I probably don’t, formed a kind of floating management cadre, and their equivalent in contemporary terms would be the pool of business school educated upper-management people who often go from one company to another. Those people have very little exposure to governmental / bureaucratic work, as far as I can make out — it’s too low-paid for them. There’s a revolving door for people who work as governmental regulators, but they usually revolve into lobbying positions, not positions in which they actually manage anything.

26

Trader Joe 07.12.13 at 2:58 pm

Perhaps the reason some MBA-ers colorfully label themselves as Spreadsheet Samurai.

Imagine a financial crisis committed by legions of unionized MBA’s with a blackbelt in Excel and PowerPoint nunchucks, that can’t be fired but only furloughed for their errors and we’d have Bizzaro-land Socialism that only a Libertarian could love.

27

Bruce Wilder 07.12.13 at 4:52 pm

“previously cleared of both politics and ideology”

The story we have now is of a prior clearing, but that’s the story that was manufactured in the conversation between Friedmanite libertarianism and neoliberalism in the 1960s and 1970s, a dialectic that deliberately redefined citizen as consumer, and politics and economics, both, as a catering to consumer demand.

The historic reality was using mass membership organization combined with expertise to erect the welfare state and the regulatory state as a countervailing force: two kinds of power, the power of mass-membership organization enabled large numbers to act in concert and the power of expert knowledge enabled acting practically, effectively and efficiently. Public utility regulation. The Townsend Plan, which enabled enactment of Social Security. The Tennessee Valley Authority. Harry Bridges and the San Francisco General Strike. The UAW and the sitdown strike. And, with roots even older, Progressives had built cooperatives, municipal and state enterprise, and non-profits and mutual companies as alternatives to for-profit corporate business. Mutual insurance and the savings and loans, celebrated by Frank Capra, stood as a bulwark beside Glass-Steagall.

The Boomers bought Friedman’s story of consumer sovereignty and an emergent American dream, a divine desire born like Venus, in the California surf, and served on the half-shell. It fitted conveniently with a desire to keep the suburban lifestyle afloat, despite the challenge posed by expensive petroleum.

Power is power”

Indeed, and perhaps only pedants notice that Weber ended the Protestant Ethic with a remark about the dependency of bureaucracy on fossil fuels.

It seems to me that the New Deal unraveled with Reagan lowering marginal income tax rates. Once the top executives of established corporations could keep a significant part of whatever they could loot, and take it home with them, they lost interest in the prestige value of good corporate citizenship. The relative value of employment in public service declined, and the revolving door for lobbyists and the like began to spin in earnest. The New Deal rested on a commonly held intuition, derived from Henry George and the single-taxers, that rentiers were deadly poison for a dynamic or a fair society, and economic rents should be taxed and taxed heavily, to finance the provision of public goods. It was an intuition that disappeared under the avalanche of Friedman’s b.s., neoliberal propaganda, the Laffer Curve and the like. Still a lot of institutional barriers had to be swept away, including the Savings & Loans, but extending to such small details as the Fairness Doctrine or oddities, like the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment.

A lot has been written about how movement conservatism was built and succeeded over 30 years. Not so much about why there’s been so little effective pushback from any element on the Left. Instead, we’re told whatever minute difference might exist between Obama and Mitt Romney, a vampire capitalist tax-evader, redeems the former. Not much of a vision. Nor is the idea that we might redeem ourselves with electric hybrids, home gardening and solar panels.

How one restrains and constrains and polices the elite is always Job 1, for the center and for the left. It would help, if they took it a bit more seriously than an idle shrug of the shoulders, or a wish that people would be more fed-up than they already are.

28

Bruce Wilder 07.12.13 at 5:02 pm

Rich Puchalsky: “professionals were set up to be a class of non-unionized workers”

Unionized, but by another name, so as to preserve the self-esteem of middle-class, college-educated, salaried workers, sensitive to class status. But, the AEA, the AMA, the American Bar Association, the AAUP, Newspaper Guild, etc. are functionally equivalent to unions, with sometimes more, sometimes less consciousness of being such, and were supposed to fight the tendency of the for-profit, corporate hierarchical borg to absorb all.

Hasn’t worked out that well, of late.

Given that there are many fewer workers in direct-labor manufacturing, and many more in services and in semi-professional staffing positions, it would seem logical to expand the definition of “Labor” to encompass people, who are already, at least, nominally organized. But, what do I know?

29

Rich Puchalsky 07.12.13 at 5:06 pm

“It seems to me that the New Deal unraveled with Reagan lowering marginal income tax rates. “

That’s an idealization. I could just as well say that the New Deal unraveled with the Civil Rights Movement. A lot of the solidarity that the New Deal depended on was frankly racist solidarity, and a lot of the willingness of people to create a system that spread benefits widely was based on denying those benefits to a despised class. Once low-income whites could no longer automatically look down on black people, the consensus that they had to restrain the elites vanished. Modern U.S. conservatism for the non-elites is based on the idea that you may be poor and desperate but at least black and brown people are worse off and that gives you a remaining store of psychological value.

That happened for unions, too. I’ve worked with primarily black communities on environmental justice issues who remember their local unions as being based around keeping the good jobs for white people and keeping minority workers out. People don’t like to talk about it, but that was one of the reasons there was more “solidarity” back then.

30

William Timberman 07.12.13 at 5:10 pm

The problem with the left’s project as you define it — and I agree with your definition — is that its success depends too heavily on too many people remaining clear about what the project is. Try explaining the virtues of a proper government, as you’ve described them, to a TeaPartier, while simultaneously asserting that the vices of a government captured by people whose interests are inimical to the majority of us aren’t the vices of governments in general. Frankly, I’d as soon be Sisyphos hisself.

31

Stephen 07.12.13 at 6:39 pm

Bruce Wilder@16
“The top of the pyramid is always better organized than the bottom, and always bearing down on the bottom — that’s why they are the top. And, there will be a pyramid, there will be a top — it is no use imagining otherwise.”

Here I completely agree with you, in some ways. After the revolution, there will always be a pyramid, with a top, bearing down on the bottom: but given the ferocious acts needed to accomplish the revolution, the top will bear down with even greater force than before. See too any historical examples.

The alternative, of course, is to go for marginal incremental improvements of the existing system. I appreciate that is not nearly so emotionally satisfactory.

By the way, if I remember Chaucer accurately, what Jakke Strawe was famous for in his time was heading a massacre of recent unpopular immigrants.

32

Bruce Wilder 07.13.13 at 7:41 am

Rich Puchalsky: “A lot of the solidarity that the New Deal depended on was frankly racist solidarity, and a lot of the willingness of people to create a system that spread benefits widely was based on denying those benefits to a despised class.”

The New Deal made accommodation with the pervasive racism of the country. The whites of the white supremacist South were part of the Democratic Party coalition, including a faction that was strongly populist. There was also a strong antagonism, there, as liberals, with strong anti-racist convictions, also became part of the Democratic Party New Deal coalition. It was during the 1930s, that African-Americans, as a voting bloc, began moving from Lincoln’s Party to FDR’s Party. So, complicated.

Labor unions also present a complicated picture. Some labor unions took very strong stands against racial discrimination. I mentioned Harry Bridges, the legendary leader of the Longshoremen in San Francisco in 1934.

It’s complicated, because the political psychology of lower-class followers can be contradictory, by the standards of liberal intellectuals. Bob Altemeyer’s work on the political attitudes of “authoritarians” is quite helpful is exploring the scary difficulties. Shocking, I know, but people lost in the lower reaches of the economy and society are often not very knowledgeable about high policy nor are they interested. They may be deeply fearful and resentful. They are easy to demagogue. They are egalitarians, but only in relation to an in-group, and can be extremely hostile to perceived out-groups. They want to belong, to be members of something bigger and stronger and better than they themselves, and they want their membership to have privileges; they want to be taken care of, by the something bigger of which they hope to be part. It can get very ugly, but at its core, it is just deeply frightened, needy people.

33

Bruce Wilder 07.13.13 at 8:21 am

WT: “Try explaining the virtues of a proper government, as you’ve described them, to a TeaPartier, while simultaneously asserting that the vices of a government captured by people whose interests are inimical to the majority of us aren’t the vices of governments in general.”

Hell, I cannot even manage that with Rich P.

Too many of my fellow liberals think that the consensus that permits a democracy to function has to be homogenous. (I think Rich actually pointed, elsewhere, how this tendency distorts liberal views of conservative libertarians — always looking for the serious, critically-minded libertarian, etc.)

My liberalism says, interests conflict, and differing worldviews are often incommensurable. People disagree. People want to cheat one another. People oversimplify. People are maddeningly resentful and callous and devious and selfish and unselfish, at times.

My big problem with neoliberalism and conservative libertarianism is that I think they want to eliminate conflict into the harmony of monopoly capitalism or deductive constitutional principles that favor their side.

It’s not helpful when Paul Krugman, for example, says of his political opponents, or just political officials, that they are fools, who don’t understand Paul’s insights into macro-economics, and are failing in the pursuit of goals, Paul thinks they ought to have. It prevents Krugman from identifying what the actual goals are, of the folks, who’ve put the unemployment rate in Spain or Greece near or above depression-level, 25%. (Here’s a hint Paul: they are not trying to reduce unemployment.)

There actually was a fairly narrow range of political opinion, when I was very young. Nixon was a kind 0f, sort of liberal Republican, who established the EPA. And, we started worshipping bi-partisan moderation as a political standard. And, it was poison.

As far as I’m concerned, everyone can agree that having government controlled by the other guy is too dangerous. (They’d be right about that.)

The only bit of nonsense I would disagree with, is the common notion that “minimizing” government is a viable option, and not an outright fraud.

Politics should be a sometimes desperate struggle to control the state, so that the state favors your group, or, second-best, does the “right thing” splitting the differences between contending groups with conflicting interests. People should really imagine that governance matters, because it does — it has consequences.

That’s the other thing that bugs. I really think many of our pundits and leaders think policy has no consequence, or involves no choices, beyond the immediate distribution of goodies. They can be quite fevered in their partisan contest du jour, but it doesn’t seem to carry forward, in a way that leads me to believe that they believe their own rhetoric. They want to appease their campaign fundraisers and future employers, and, beyond that, it’s all . . . inconsequential — I cannot think of any other word that covers the irresponsibility.

The TeaPartier may be het up about the wrong things; but, being genuinely het up, even about imaginary grievances, shows some . . . investment.

34

Mao Cheng Ji 07.13.13 at 8:28 am

“A lot of the solidarity that the New Deal depended on was frankly racist solidarity”

The KKK depends on racist solidarity; the New Deal/unionism do not.

To support your assertion, you have to employ a two-step argument, something like (in the case of the New Deal): ‘this category of workers was excluded, and a lot of blacks were in that category, therefore…’ Even though most people in the excluded category were probably white anyway. And there are other plausible explanation why it was excluded.

That is not an argument, that is rhetoric. If I wanted to respond in kind, I’d say: anti-unionist, and therefore pro-capitalist rhetoric.

35

Collin Street 07.13.13 at 9:21 am

“(Here’s a hint Paul: they are not trying to reduce unemployment.)”

Projection isn’t something that only happens to other people, in other words.

36

bob mcmanus 07.13.13 at 10:12 am

34: A Second Look at Social Security Racist Origins …Bard Plumer at Wonkblog, bookclub on Ira Katznelson

I’ll let other people look at the linked evidence, but I am frankly worried, if not frightened, by certain trends in recent American academic history production.

But do not want to derail the thread.

37

bob mcmanus 07.13.13 at 11:13 am

20: I have read the Shelby threads, with their strident cries of “this is racism” and wondered about the sanity of some of my fellow commenters. I don’t disagree that racism figures among the motives for, as well as the means of vote suppression, but that’s not the big picture.

Ummm…a short continuation of 35, because perhaps the thread has been derailed already. And trying to make this vague and ambiguous.

The composition of elites tends to shift and change, and the new composition of elites will very early in the change, want something like a foundational narrative that justifies their wealth, status, and privilege relative to the median or new composition of the average, abject, and subaltern. This needs to be not only different from the old justificatory narrative, but actually contrasting and delegitimizing.

The Soviet bureaucracy needed a narrative to justify their power that refuted the old feudal structures. The same with the English liberal capitalists. An American “whiteness” needed to be created that included new Irish, Italian, East European immigrants, so the old Wasp ethnos had to go. Etc. Unlike RP, I suspect the socialist, social democratic, or union discourse was both a cause and effect of a relatively dominant international working class, and this is the discourse that must be repressed for the next hegemony.

The composition of an emerging hegemony can probably be discovered in the current “hot” confrontational discourse.

38

Ronan(rf) 07.13.13 at 12:48 pm

I don’t know, in the unionised workplaces I worked in during the 00s there seemed to be a consistent attempt by the workers to isolate non native employees, and the unions either not caring or actively reinforcing that tendency (entire setions recruited from one specific small town etc) And this was at a time of full employment and high wages.
Which isn’t to say one thing or another about unions in general (I’m sure larger, better run unions less influenced by their most retrograde members are more inclusive) just to note that a union led solution is going to be quite exclusionary (I guess it’s easy to beat up on ‘identity politics’ when your identity is the norm)

“but I am frankly worried, if not frightened, by certain trends in recent American academic history production.”

Well Katznelson has written a lot on the topic, and it seems to be well supported in general

39

Rich Puchalsky 07.13.13 at 1:32 pm

I actually wasn’t expressing an opinion on Katznelson, and I wasn’t saying that the New Deal was racist by the design of the people who created it. And as bob mcmanus writes, there’s a long history of Marxists seeing race as a discourse that’s a thin cover for class. Certainly I agree that it’s a justificatory narrative for elites.

But I meant something simpler. Bruce wrote that “It seems to me that the New Deal unraveled with Reagan lowering marginal income tax rates.” All of the Reagan reaction is incomprehensible without race. The question of why he lowered marginal tax rates may have something to do with “an intuition that disappeared under the avalanche of Friedman’s b.s., neoliberal propaganda, the Laffer Curve and the like.” But the reason he was *allowed* to lower marginal tax rates without effective opposition or later reversal was race — a majority of white people in the U.S. would rather not have New Deal economic arrangements once black people started to achieve something like full legal equality. What the New Deal creators may have thought was a consensus about rentiers actually rested on a consensus about race.

I also don’t see any point in avoiding talking about the history of unionism. The original Fortress Unionism piece does, after all. It includes bits like “Sustain coalition work with other progressive organizations. Post-New Left egalitarians fill top leadership positions across the labor movement and are pushing the movement beyond the white-male iconography of the Taft-Hartley era.” Unions are generally quite good about race now, out of both ideology and necessity. But that’s not what a large number of actual people of color remember. And an assertion that only overtly racist organizations depended on racial solidarity strikes me as denial.

40

bob mcmanus 07.13.13 at 1:41 pm

Well Katznelson has written a lot on the topic, and it seems to be well supported in general

You might follow the link in 36. I don’t plan on reading Katznelson.

41

William Timberman 07.13.13 at 1:55 pm

No, you’re never going to arrive the New Jerusalem through politics, if by that you mean some sort of steady-state utopia, and you’re never going to steam politics out of a contentious human species. The idea that we seem to have had in our post-war liberal American minds of 20% managerial hubbub and the rest a more or less bovine consumerist paradise domestically, and a remote-controlled oppression elsewhere, doesn’t seem to have been such a good idea after all.

We need to manage a competition of political adversaries, just as the libertarians’ imaginary free market needs to manage a competition of goods and services providers, and we need to recruit our competitors from the rest of the world as well as from the United States. Representative democracy was supposed to accomplish the first of these for us, and perhaps the second as well, with the help of heaps of careful, statistically-justified government regulation and what-not. Eventually, the hopeful among us hoped, it might even accomplish the third, if not through the United Nations or its successor organizations, then through slowly evolving multi-national organizations like the EU, the G-20, or ASEAN.

Unfortunately — and this is crucial — representative democracy became instead a kind of paralysis of the will and the imagination. If you’re a cynic, one of those who calls him/herself a realist, this was probably inevitable. It certainly was predicted by some, and ought to have been predicted by all who were supposed to somehow keep it from happening. They went for aircraft carriers instead, and now, like it or not, we earnest American liberals have had a painful re-think plunked down on the table in front of us, not under the best of circumstances, and with not a lot of time left to work through it before the yahoos and men on horseback worldwide decide to take up the work in earnest themselves.

42

Mao Cheng Ji 07.13.13 at 2:01 pm

Kennedy/Johnson was the first administration to lower the top brackets. Pretty radical too, from 91% to 70%.

“And an assertion that only overtly racist organizations depended on racial solidarity strikes me as denial.”

rf, 38 explains it better, imo: it tends to be community-based, exclusionary, nepotistic even, but that’s not the same as ‘racist’.

43

Rich Puchalsky 07.13.13 at 2:23 pm

“rf, 38 explains it better, imo: it tends to be community-based, exclusionary, nepotistic even, but that’s not the same as ‘racist’.”

But there’s an outside context that’s interested in your community even if you’re not interested in it. Sure, a local union might have started as a refuge for immigrants from some disfavored European country. And in the U.S. most immigrants from these countries weren’t even originally considered to be white. But all of this, by 1950 or so, became subsumed in the U.S. into a narrative about “race”, and it was no longer possible to be community-based and exclusionary in this way without being racist.

But if you prefer community-based and exclusionary, that’s good enough for the purposes of what we’re talking about, which is union decline, whether it’s reversible, what could be done and should be done etc. Unions can no longer be as community-based and exclusionary as they once were. And I think they shouldn’t be — my union sympathies are most strongly with the IWW, which, yes, I’ll take all the “you’re a kook” remarks as read — but more to the point, that was an actual source of strength that unions depended on that they can no longer depend on. The narrative that Fortress Unionism likes is one of Taft-Hartley, then decline. But unions declined for a lot of the same reasons that I think most New Deal arrangements declined, and that has a lot more to do with race than I think that most people here seem to think.

44

Collin Street 07.13.13 at 3:02 pm

If unionism declined in the US on account of race, even partially, then you’d expect that countries with different histories of racism would have… if not greater or lesser at least *different* histories of union decline.

45

Mao Cheng Ji 07.13.13 at 3:05 pm

“Unions can no longer be as community-based and exclusionary as they once were.”

And why not? Any particular local union can be as exclusionary as it wants to be, can be outright nativist for all I care, but if it’s a part of a strong federation, good things might happen. If, otoh, you demand from hillbillies to practice cosmopolitanism or they’re out, you’ll definitely get nothing; atomized individuals.

46

EqualToJake 07.13.13 at 3:21 pm

“The composition of an emerging hegemony can probably be discovered in the current “hot” confrontational discourse.”

Very intruiging. Care to be less “vague and ambiguous”?

Your argument sounds very convincing, but I’m not sure what it means in terms of future predictions.

47

Rich Puchalsky 07.13.13 at 3:21 pm

“Any particular local union can be as exclusionary as it wants to be, can be outright nativist for all I care, but if it’s a part of a strong federation, good things might happen.”

While this sounds possible in theory, it no longer happens to any important degree in the U.S. It’s not because of some demand from the left that hillbillies practice cosmopolitanism. It’s because, since the start of the Southern Strategy, the right has successfully nationalized the connection between nativism and right-wing economics.

As whether other countries have really had the same decline that the U.S. has had, I really thought that there was more individual variation among them, with the general decline in percentages of the total population being more linked to the overall decline in manufacturing and farm labor due to productivity increases and to a lesser extent due to globalization and the export of those jobs. But if there really isn’t a reason specific to the U.S., it can’t be due to Taft-Hartley either.

48

Mao Cheng Ji 07.13.13 at 3:47 pm

” It’s not because of some demand from the left that hillbillies practice cosmopolitanism. It’s because, since the start of the Southern Strategy, the right has successfully nationalized the connection between nativism and right-wing economics.”

But the Southern Strategy was only made possible by the left prioritizing, nay, choosing cosmopolitanism over unionism. Compare, for example, RFK’s dealings with MLK vs. Hoffa.

49

david 07.13.13 at 4:06 pm

Demanding segregation, disenfranchisement, and non-education of black internal migrants is not a harmless mere failure to embrace cosmopolitanism. You talk as if the ‘cosmopolitanism’ opposed by the Southern Strategy was some outrageous imposition by the left upon the innocent ‘hillbillies’, when it was merely restraint upon the ‘hillbilly’ from stamping their boot upon the faces on internal black migrants.

50

Mao Cheng Ji 07.13.13 at 4:57 pm

“You talk as if the ‘cosmopolitanism’ opposed by the Southern Strategy was some outrageous imposition by the left upon the innocent ‘hillbillies’”

It’s only inside your head I talk like that. I don’t believe anything I said can be reasonably interpreted as “outrageous imposition”. I said that one was chosen over the other, and that choice left unionism without much, if any, political support. Is that not true?

51

Bruce Wilder 07.13.13 at 5:26 pm

david @ 49 I don’t think “the Southern Strategy” was “demanding segregation”, etc. so much as using racial resentments to assemble a political coalition to breakdown the institutions of the New Deal, for fun and profit. Racism was the means, not the goal. Reagan’s Administration wasn’t about re-establishing white supremacy; it was about oil and money, about a Bush alliance with the Middle East and destroying the savings and loans and deregulating transportation as a means of destroying unions — things like that.

52

david 07.13.13 at 5:32 pm

In what counterfactual universe does an increasingly majority-minority urban working class wait loyally whilst a Dixiecrat coalition finally realises the last stage of communist revolution? It is hardly as if the northeastern industrialists lacked for historical rapport with American blacks, even as late as the 1970s.

53

Bruce Wilder 07.13.13 at 6:10 pm

William Timberman: “. . . representative democracy became instead a kind of paralysis of the will and the imagination.”

For me, that phrase echoes the 1920s in uncomfortable ways, which I’m sure you do not intend to invoke.

Representative democracy on the scale of the societies in which we live requires organized, concerted activity by millions of people. That’s why we inevitably end up talking about political solidarity, racism, the political psychology of Bob Altemeyer’s “right-wing authoritarian followers”, public relations and propaganda techniques of Lee Atwater or Frank Luntz, unions and mass-membership organizations, religion, etc. This is a kind of social organization that goes far beyond what can marshaled by a military hierarchy or bureaucracy, even in total war. It’s amorphous and, even if it is deeply rooted in individual instincts, it is remote from personal experience in a way.

It makes political choice almost mysterious, because political choice — the choice made by a body politic — can be so maddeningly difficult to discern and so unlike the choices arrived by at an individual. We often cannot figure out what we are disputing in real time. How many times in blogospheric political discussions do we come back to, “something changed circa 1980”?

The United States had a population of around 3 million, when it achieved practical independence from Great Britain around 1781, and a population of about 30 million, when it entered the conflagration of Civil War around 1860, and a population of over 300 million today. These are order-of-magnitude changes. (Not every country has experienced this kind of change in the modern world; Metropolitan France has a population today, which is only somewhat more than twice what it was, at the time of the Revolution.) The population of the U.S. has doubled in my lifetime!

And, racism, which was always an important “organizing principle” in our politics, for good and ill — sometimes extreme ill — has followed the general pattern of social affiliation and solidarity to a relative low ebb. The absence of mass membership organization and affiliation is creating a power vacuum, while a globalizing elite seems ready to abandon nationalism, which was the rally point in the 19th century for liberals seeking to establish constitutional representative democracies.

I’d accept that there was something “inevitable” about the gradual decline of the extreme of solidarity achieved in the cauldron of WWII. It marks out much of the history I’ve lived through. On social fronts, I’ve often cheered the gradual decline of racism and the demands for conformity, and I genuinely fear the nonchalance with which the arrival of the surveillance state has been greeted.

Politics and economics are an historically-situated series of unsolved and imperfectly solved problems, with each solution creating new problems in its wake. At the moment, mobilizing mass something to generate the political power to adapt to the on-rush of the industrial revolution nearing its last crescendo is among the most pressing.

54

Bruce Wilder 07.13.13 at 6:16 pm

david @ 52 “urban working class” “communist revolution” “Dixiecrat coalition”

I guess I haven’t visited that particular counterfactual universe. Send me a postcard.

55

Ronan(rf) 07.13.13 at 6:33 pm

“Any particular local union can be as exclusionary as it wants to be, can be outright nativist for all I care”

Well that’s fair enough, but you’ll understand if some of us aren’t as willing to listen to iteration 100 of ‘how come they get a prayer room?’

56

david 07.13.13 at 6:38 pm

When the New Deal coalition was tearing itself apart over the civil rights movement, the Republican Party was also undergoing its own internal struggles, between the culturally liberal Rockefeller Republicans and the state’s-rights conservatives under Goldwater.

The obvious outcome of a counterfactual where the CRM doesn’t galvanize racists into abandoning the New Deal coalition, is that the ethnic underprivileged instead flee back to the industrialist party. Which is hardly unimaginable in the American context, given that there is exactly where the New Deal progressives and urban reformers had come from to begin with.

57

William Timberman 07.13.13 at 7:46 pm

Bruce WIlder @ 53

For me, that phrase echoes the 1920s in uncomfortable ways, which I’m sure you do not intend to invoke.

Oh, but I did intend to invoke them — although maybe I sliced the irony a little thin. It was a naked attempt on my part to conjure a sense of urgency in the face of the Paul Krugmans of our world, who God bless ’em, don’t seem to realize how thin the present ice is, or how it is that the passions of the unwashed Republican right haven’t arisen entirely from spontaneous generation in untended Confederate cemeteries.

It was also a bit of a hand-wave to Corey Robin, who appears to blame Nietzsche, of all people, for the proliferation of grubby native authoritarians trolling everywhere you look these days for an all-American Mussolini’s pantleg to cling to, and an attempt on my part to set the stage for the men on horseback in the final paragraph of my screed, who, if our will and imagination fails, will be all too happy to supply all the pantlegs anyone could want.

I don’t think that there’s any doubt that the liberal imagination is mostly dead, or at least paralyzed, by your orders-of-magnitude growth in the size of the liberal task. You can argue that President Obama isn’t a true representative of liberalism, I suppose, but you certainly can’t argue that Joe Biden isn’t, or — heaven forfend — Joe Lieberman. And then there are the European examples, from Tony Blair, who’s now in the business of telling anyone who’ll listen over at Project Syndicate how we should go about fixing Syria and the Syrians, or Kanzlerin Merkel, the woman who in her youth resembled Sahra Wagenknecht, but now finds herself nailed to the prow of the 3-funnel Bundesschiff Nur Durchhalten.

Phooey. Nietszche was at least half right. As much as I appreciate peace, habit, and muddling through, especially now that I’m an old geezer, I look at the social contract and the machinery of state these days, and shake my head in disbelief. I lived through what got us from 1945 to Bobby Jindal, and I still can’t see how it happened.

Finally, though, I want to say that the will and imagination that the liberals are missing these days isn’t the kind that Mussolini was on about. It’s the kind that gave us the Bauhaus, or Cubism, or, God help us, every worthwhile political idea from American Constitution to the Labor Theory of Value. Both of those abstract mental attributes are still out there, but the distillation process is expensive, and the quantities are small so far. If nothing else, maybe we could try giving the people who’re diligently working away unnoticed in the garages of empire a little aid and comfort, instead of debating the braying asses now crowding one another off the international stage.

58

Mao Cheng Ji 07.13.13 at 7:57 pm

“…you’ll understand if some of us aren’t as willing to listen to iteration 100 of ‘how come they get a prayer room?’”

I’m not sure I understand what you’re saying, but anyway:

You could pass a federal law requiring every union to have a prayer room for every religion. This way you will have prayer rooms for everybody, and you’ll have to listen to “iteration 100 of ‘how come…” If you aren’t willing to hear it, you’ll have to move to a more cosmopolitan community.

Or, you could let the locals sort it out. You’d still have to leave, but in all likelihood the rate of unionization would be higher. That’s the choice.

59

Rich Puchalsky 07.13.13 at 8:22 pm

“But the Southern Strategy was only made possible by the left prioritizing, nay, choosing cosmopolitanism over unionism. Compare, for example, RFK’s dealings with MLK vs. Hoffa.”

If the left has to choose one over the other, then insofar as I can choose for the left I’d make the same choice again. It’s a lot more critical that black people have full legal rights than that the union movement thrives. Both then and now.

I understand defending populism, and agree with an impulse to say that the left-liberal rejection of anything populist in favor of technocratic solutions was a bad idea. But wasn’t that already baked into the New Deal?

60

Ronan(rf) 07.14.13 at 12:17 am

Mao
Of course, that’s what I’m saying. I’m not making any larger point. If you want to build a union dediated to sorting out small time xenophobia in your home town then I’m more than happy for you

61

Ronan(rf) 07.14.13 at 12:20 am

..that’s muddled, instead of *sorting out* I should have written *enouraging*

62

john c. halasz 07.14.13 at 2:47 am

Jeez, Rich Puchalsky, are you at all aware of how you’re relying on a weirdly inverted form of “race essentialism”? I suppose if it allows you to endlessly moralize self-referentially, that’s O.K. But I myself would prefer to entertain moderately corrupt motives within a broader context of overall economic forces/pressures.

63

Rich Puchalsky 07.14.13 at 3:05 am

Maybe if jch was ever more coherent, I could figure out whether he was ever writing anything substantive.

64

Bruce Wilder 07.14.13 at 3:28 am

jch: a weirdly inverted form of “race essentialism”

Is that what it is? I tried to write a comment in reply to RP on racism in politics, but I couldn’t quite figure out the strange reversals that seem to lurk in his algebra.

65

Ronan(rf) 07.14.13 at 3:38 am

RP is correct, imo, generally. But what do I know, a simple farm hand* and all

*investment banker

66

Mao Cheng Ji 07.14.13 at 6:56 am

Well, that’s, in part, a matter of personal taste I suppose; somewhere on the subconscious level. However, it brings to mind Churchill’s quip about making a virtue of the equal sharing of misery.

67

Bruce Wilder 07.16.13 at 3:45 pm

bob mcmanus @37: When you’re good, you’re very good.

William Timberman @ 57: Nice.

68

Trader Joe 07.16.13 at 6:53 pm

Rich’s point @ 29 linking unionism and race is an interesting one and not one I’ve really thought about before. In retrospect, it connects several dots.

That said, at the risk of drawing generalizations from personal experience, it differs from the unionism that I viewed in my home as a youth and later as a young adult. The 1970s flavor of unionism, as practiced in the Midwest at least, was far more focused on issues of job security and the maintenance of benefits over wages.

The animus of the discussion was very much “fortress-like” and debates centered around offering concessions in some areas to extract more favor in others. “If they want 10% across the board cuts in area X, we’ll give it if they do 1, 2, and 3.” Even in advance of contracts there was a reactionary mindset “Let’s see what they offer” rather than “Here’s what we should ask for.”

Decades of trench warfare brought into leadership not the people that were the most visionary, but rather the people best equipped to build consensus. This of course to the extent that leadership itself hadn’t become its own ‘fortress’ that sought to ostracize “troublemakers” rather than risk their own power pursing a bolder agenda.

By definition, it’s damn hard to run a “revolution” with consensus builders.

As to race, it was surely the case that there weren’t a lot of minority faces at any of the meetings or picket lines I remember. That said, at the time the black population in these parts of the Midwest were quite low, certainly less than 10% and Hispanics were even less prevalent.

Heritage was a bigger theme. “We’re not letting the Pollocks run the organization,” “We’ve had enough of these …fill in the derogatory ethnic slang…. and their big ideas” Since everyone was white and often only 1 or maybe 2 generations removed from imigration these were the most defining personal characteristics and figured prominently in internal power structures within the union.

Women in the union were in fact the “minority” leaders were concerned about to the extent they were worried about minorities at all. Where Rich could well be correct is that the unions weren’t worried about minorities since they hadn’t been admitted in the first place.

We can imagine any number of reasons for their exclusion, but racism in the mid-west was every bit the equal of racism in the South – maybe fewer lynchings and beatings, but segregation, red-lining and a practice of exclusion was alive and well (at least through the mid 1980s).

As I noted upstream, I can’t see any current unions being the source of new union activism. These groups have too much to lose and leadership too entrenched to risk anything that would radically expand membership. They are content to milk their cash cow provided there is no real chance of the cow being slaughtered.

As trite as it sounds the effort to organize the NYC Starbuck baristas was a more lucrative vector for starting a labor movement then anything the major unions have attempted by trying to block and tackle on an incremental basis. Indeed the NYC Starbucks organization, as I understand it, was making good progress until one of the national unions butted it and drew an unnecessary amount of attention.

Maybe said differently “Unionism” would likely stand a better chance if existing entrenched unions just minded their own fortress and kept the heck out of new efforts as they are really just a lightning rod for attention and serve to increase the stakes. There are dozens of industries ranging from call centers, to food service workers to retail employees that could benefit from a collective voice.

Indeed the national trend of hiring 30-hour workers to avoid Obama-care obligations is just the right sort of issue to draw collective action. I’m skeptical it will happen, but its not for lack of having the right merits. Its a little sad when we can fill the streets over a jury verdict that involved a fairly narrow set of circumstances but can’t even get a ripple of interest for a business practice that effects millions.

My two bits, but an interesting topic.

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