Politics and the Kenosha Kid

by jmcneill on October 31, 2006

I come to Berman’s book as an American labor bureaucrat—envious of the social democratic world she reveals to us, embarrassed by our failure to sustain anything like it on these shores. I read of the just wage established under Sweden’s Rehn-Meidner centralized bargaining system and weep.

Fortunately, Berman’s analysis leaves little room for despair. She reminds us that even Sweden hasn’t existed forever in some prelapsarian state, that in fact it was one of Europe’s most backward countries before its social democrats decided they didn’t have to wait helplessly for dialectical forces to work their magic.

In one slim book, Berman shows that both Marxists and Manchester liberals were wrong—that we do have the ability to imagine a better world and make it.

If I have a critique of The Primacy of Politics, it is only the lack of explicit instruction for an American audience. Berman makes two brief references to the failings of the “U.S. Democratic Party” and that’s it. Given the book’s European focus, I suppose it’s unfair to expect any commentary on the American scene, but since we’re writing here in the ill-mannered blogosphere, I feel free to press Berman on the point.

In America, a nation that hates politics—and seems to hate them more with each election—how do we convince its people that politics is their salvation?

At one time, I had an easy answer to that question. (Please bear with me as it involves an anecdote from early in my life as a labor bureaucrat, just after I’d begun working in Racine, Wisconsin, for one of America’s last union weeklies.) On a cold night, late in 1993, I traveled down the road to Kenosha to cover the 60th anniversary celebration of a UAW local that had organized the once-massive and still substantial auto plant there. Paul Russo, one of the local’s shockingly vigorous founders, was on hand and I got the chance to interview him.

Russo, who was barely out of his teens at the time of the strike that launched the local, said he and the union’s callow leaders had turned for advice to the “very strong, very socialist” head of Racine’s labor council. Russo, who would go on to become a regional leader in the UAW, said the old socialist had “really taught us what politics was all about.” He learned that union work was much more than a contest between labor and management. “I like to call it this whole question of politics,” Russo said. “Where there’s a difference of opinion, there’s politics…. I love the word.”

I’d never heard such a rousing defense of politics, and from that night on it was blindingly obvious to me that unions were once, and would once again become, the great incubator of American democracy. And so for years I waited—a little like Kautsky and the SPD’s true believers, I suppose—for the American labor movement to fulfill its world-historical mission and wash away the stain of Reagan-era conservatism.

At this late date, I can’t say I’m certain that labor will fulfill its mission. I don’t know that I’ve lost the faith, but I fear that American unions are so beaten down—that the legal and ideological obstacles they face are so severe—that they are less likely to be the vanguard of a progressive revival than the (I hope) beneficiary of it.

I wonder now if the Paul Russos of the 21st century will come from within labor or whether they’ll come from some other corner of American life. And I’m very curious to know what Berman thinks.

Who does she believe can restore a positive definition of politics in this simultaneously cynical and naive society? Does she think our Hjalmar Branting has already been born? Is there an American Jean Jaurès out there right now translating the language of European social democracy into the local vernacular?

Since the American vernacular is increasingly Spanish as well as English, I hope Berman will expand on her critique of identity politics. Certainly, crude multiculturalism is something the American left needs to transcend. But I’m not sure that the communitarian politics she outlines in her conclusion are strong enough to unite an America still riven by race and ethnicity. Just as Eduard Bernstein decried the “mushy internationalism” of the SPD, I wonder if Berman’s communitarian nationalism is too vague to build a progressive majority in America.

But this sniping takes nothing away from the achievement of The Primacy of Politics. And given Berman’s brilliant reading of the European past, I eagerly await her insights on the American future.



James 10.31.06 at 1:07 pm

“In America, a nation that hates politics—and seems to hate them more with each election—how do we convince its people that politics is their salvation?”

Perhaps you might start by considering the reasons why Americans hate politics. Speaking for myself, politics makes it possible for me to cajole the government into making allocative decisions with other people’s belongings for my benefit. At the same time, politics makes it possible for everyone else to cajole the government into making allocative decisions with my belongings for their benefit. I see that as a fantastically bad risk.


abb1 10.31.06 at 1:37 pm

You see this as a zero-sum game, James? What if the government makes an allocative decision with everyone’s belongings and builds, for example, an interstate highway system – who is being screwed here?


Jeff R. 10.31.06 at 1:53 pm

Problem is that the government, like Soylent Green, is made of people, and thus cannot be trusted to provide perfect or even near-perfect results: for every interstate highway system you might get, you have to sign on to having your pocket picked for a hundred Helium stockpiles, Bridges to Nowhere, Farm Subsidies, Weapons systems that will never be used, Weapon systems that will be used somewhere you’d rather they not, and so forth…


Jim Harrison 10.31.06 at 3:01 pm

Politics, in a broad sense, is always going to make allocation decisions since there never was and never will be a self-running, self-policing economy. The best we can hope for is a political system that is relatively open and promotes policies that allow as many people as possible to live well.

One cavil: America is not the only nation that hates politics. Everybody but Hannah Arendt hates it. Europeans, Asians, Africans, Latins, Antipodeans…all of us dream of the machine that runs of itself or pine for the maximum leader who will finally shut up the goddam squabbling parliamentarians or just try to forget about the whole thing and retreat into the idiocy of our private lives.


abb1 10.31.06 at 4:28 pm

Where no one is interested in politics they’ll sure build a lot of bridges to nowhere.


engels 10.31.06 at 5:07 pm

James – Most of the stuff which you claim is your “personal belongings” rightfully belongs to other people. It’s your government – with its unjust institution of “property rights” – that prevents them from taking it back. So I’d be careful what you wish for…


James 10.31.06 at 7:03 pm


No, I don’t see politics as a zero sum game. I’m not even considering any interpersonal summation of benefits and costs. Rather, I see politics as an activity in which the risks to me exceed the benefits to me. It’s entirely possible that politicians will do things that I like, but that alone doesn’t make it seem like a good risk to me, any more than the possibility of winning the lottery makes a lottery ticket seem a good risk.

To answer your other question about highways, those persons who would rather have allocated their belongings to ends other than highways get screwed.


Please continue to post here and elsewhere. Start a blog, even. Be as prolific as possible. From where I stand, nothing could be better than for you and others who share your ideology to be as vocal and explicit as possible.


engels 10.31.06 at 8:15 pm

Please continue to post here and elsewhere. Start a blog, even. Be as prolific as possible. From where I stand, nothing could be better than for you and others who share your ideology to be as vocal and explicit as possible.

James, you self-righteous cretin, you don’t know the first thing about my “ideology”. Not everyone who questions absolute property rights is a Communist. If doing so puts them beyond the sacred circle of the virtuous souls with whom you will deign to defend your views, and forces you to resort to making faux dark and sinister prophesies, then you are a very stupid person indeed.


engels 10.31.06 at 9:38 pm

And since you failed to address my point the first time around, I’ll try again. Everything you said in your initial – marginally relevant – comment depends entirely on the assumption that you own – exercise full liberal ownership rights over – what you refer to “your belongings”. But your ownership of those things – or the extent of that ownership – is precisely what is at issue in politics. So your description of political arguments over distribution of the social product as “cajol[ing] the government into making allocative decisions with my belongings for their benefit” is a ridiculously loaded characterisation of the process which entirely prejudges the issues at stake. It does not give anyone who does not already agree with you any reason whatsoever for believing that you have those rights in the first place.

And simply refusing to address anyone who disagrees with your premise, implying, as far as I can tell, that they are Communists, is pathetic. Within political theory – which in your blog you claim to have an interest in – most people to the left of John Rawls, and many, many people to the right of him would contest that premise. In the real world, many billions of people would. If you really have nothing to say to such people, except trying to insinuate that they are evil, then why on earth do you expect anyone outside of your tiny circle of extremist libertarian nutjobs to have any interest whatsoever in your ignorant, irrational opinions?


James 10.31.06 at 11:35 pm


Why don’t you quote me where I imply that you are a communist and we’ll go from there?


engels 11.01.06 at 12:55 am

James – Whether you explicitly said I was a “communist” – obviously you didn’t – is hardly the central issue, is it? I couldn’t tell what exactly you were trying to say and that’s why what I wrote was “implying, as far as I can tell, that [I am a] Communist”.


Please continue to post here and elsewhere. Start a blog, even. Be as prolific as possible. From where I stand, nothing could be better than for you and others who share your ideology to be as vocal and explicit as possible.

If that isn’t exactly what you meant, perhaps you can tell me what were you trying to say here? It certainly isn’t an intelligent reply to anything I wrote. The most natural interpretation of it is that you thought my attitude to absolute property rights was evidence that I subscribed to an “ideology” that is so obviously objectionable to you that my argument did not merit a reply, and which would supposedly refute itself if made explicit. I do not think that Communism, let alone Social Democracy, is such an ideology but in any case I am not a Communist, just someone who does not share your views of property rights. Therefore I found the tone of your reply objectionable, and I think it is an irrational way to respond to someone with whom you have a substantive disagreement.


abb1 11.01.06 at 2:16 am

Well, James, I see your point, but this is a bit like complaining about the weather: it’s unpredictable, it’s always too hot or too cold so you have to buy different clothes, it rains, it snows, it makes hurricanes and tornados – it’s a bitch.

Yes, sure, but try to move outside the atmosphere where there is no weather and you’ll see that it’s not a good option.

And it’s not the reason to become uninterested in weather, quite the contrary: if the one you have annoys you, you may want to try to find a better one (and, in the case of a government, you may even be able to improve it).


Sebastian Holsclaw 11.01.06 at 1:22 pm

If you don’t like dealing with the weather you could move to San Diego. ;) We have interstate highways too!


engels 11.01.06 at 3:22 pm

Interstate highways? I would rather have spent that money on organic vegetables and statues of Ho Chi Minh! I woz robbed! Help, help, I’m being repressed!


engels 11.02.06 at 3:11 pm

And let me say one more thing, James. (Even though I do not hold out much hope that you are reading this I would prefer to assume that your request to me for clarification was not made entirely in bad faith.)

Without democracy (or “politics”) there is no freedom. You really need to think a lot harder about where your own “ideology” is leading you. People like you have a lot in common with supporters of Stalin, and I’m not just talking about your rhetoric.


Henry (not the famous one) 11.02.06 at 7:34 pm

If I can call the meeting to order: while there are fierce identity politics within unions (SEIU had to struggle with black-brown conflicts in some of its California locals; I assume that the same occurs elsewhere), the union movement is still one of the few institutions that has the potential to cross those boundaries. Even though the UAW couldn’t eliminate white racism in Detroit in 1943, it did a pretty good job trying; same for TWU in Philadelphia the next year. Unions can fight the tide of nativism in 2006 in concrete ways that other organizations (the Democratic Party, the churches) can’t or won’t. When the AFL-CIO (and the Laborers and Carpenters outside it) makes common cause with day laborers, then things are changing.

Second point, before the sergeant-at-arms cuts off the mike: when unions did change American society in the 1930s, it was because they had a healthy infusion of radicals of all shades. We’ve never been able to do it alone. Or, more accurately, when we try to we end up with the movement that Samuel Gompers led.


Seth Edenbaum 11.03.06 at 11:25 am

I’ll post this here since it’s as far as I can get, on this site, from the Social Darwinism of Tyler Cowen.

Still nearly every comment here is backwards: par for the course for the intellectual life on the WWW. “The Primacy of Politics” or of “ideas” is a peculiarly modern peculiarly American idée fixe.-

“In America, a nation that hates politics—and seems to hate them more with each election—how do we convince its people that politics is their salvation?”

-that is to say it is no more or less than the mirror image of the anti-politics of our cultural life. If any of you were more interesting in observation rather than intellectual object creation you’d see how ideas come from systems of communication and culture, not the reverse. Social Democracy is not an invention, it is a fact of social behavior that was first seen in it’s latency, then described, and finally defended. But none of this is invention. Invention is the dream of Randians Chicago School Economists and vulgar Marxists. The Scandinavian “model” is no more of an “invention” than Swedish. And as I keep trying to remind people, Esperanto was a failure.

The questions- I hesitate to say ‘choices’ -for the future are whether we get Social Democracy or Hyper-capitalism. You could call the web an example of the sort of communicative network that would foster the former, but ironically or not, in the Anglo American world the people who are most involved in the web are more comfortable with the latter. But as the web becomes normalized the romance and the futurist logic will fade.

The lack of imagination of those who prize imagination over observation never ceases to amaze me.


Seth Edenbaum 11.03.06 at 11:26 am

I hate Textile.

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