Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Applying the Language of the Left to Wisconsin

Those of us who grew up speaking the language of the left experience a little cognitive dissonance when we hear Wisconsin Republicans describing public sector unions as an insatiable “special interest.” Such talk runs up against an intellectual reflex coded into our ideological DNA, viz., the conviction that the labor movement is by nature the vehicle of general societal interests.

As a matter of intellectual history, that ideological reflex probably originates in the Marxian idea that, under industrial capitalism, the specific class interest of proletarians makes them into the collective agent of a classless society. American liberals domesticated that notion by aspiring, in the words of FDR’s second inaugural address, to make “the exercise of all power more democratic . . . [by] bring[ing] private autocratic powers into their proper subordination to the public’s government.” The formative political mission of American liberalism was to put together a political coalition that could exert enough countervailing power against the autocratic power of American capital to make it serve the common good. The labor movement furnished a lot of the ideological and organizational cement.

It’s a matter of ideological muscle memory for liberals to think of what’s happening in Wisconsin in these terms. Here, for example, is Ezra Klein insisting that Scott Walker’s project is less about balancing the state budget than about changing the balance of power between special “corporate” interests and the more general interests represented by the American labor movement:
“This is a crucial fact about the economy, and one often underplayed by economists: power matters. It's worth more, in many cases, than money. And that's what's really at issue in Wisconsin. It's why Gov. Scott Walker is uninterested in taking concessions from the unions on wages and benefits if they don't come alongside concessions on collective bargaining. What he wants isn't a change in the balance of payments. It's a change in the balance of power. . . .

“For all their faults, unions tend to see their constituents as not just their own members, but the "working class," broadly defined. That's why you'll find labor's fingerprints on everything from the two-day weekend to Medicare to the Civil Rights Act of 1965 - none of which require you to flash a union card before you can benefit from them. They act -- quite self-consciously -- as a counterbalance to corporate power. There's no reason, after all, that unions should be leading the fight to see the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy expire. That's political capital they could be spending on reform of the nation's labor laws. And yet they are.”
It would be crazy to deny that people like Scott Walker want to diminish the power of public sector unions and the Democratic Party in Wisconsin and the nation at large. But that doesn't mean that it makes sense to see that as a struggle between the special interests of corporations and the more general interests represented by public service unions.

Let’s follow the budgetary dollars. Walker is trying to make up for hole in the Wisconsin budget that is in large part a consequence of tax breaks he’s already given to Wisconsin businesses that hire additional workers and to out-of-state enterprises that relocate to Wisconsin. Granted, Walker is contemplating the redistribution of public subsidies from public employees to private employers, but the employers get the subsidy only insofar as they create private sector jobs.  So the operative conflict of interest driving the political battle in Wisconsin is between unionized public employees on the one hand, and private employers and private employees on the other.

Which side represents the more general societal interest while the other represents the more special interest?  Which side, for that matter, represents the interests of the working class?  Unless you subscribe to some version of Marxian eschatology or are suffering from the delusion that the New Deal coalition is still intact neither question invites the unequivocal answer that comes naturally to liberals.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this very interesting and enlightening post. Why aren't more liberals thinking your way? It would do us/them good.