Until recently known as the home of whole food co-ops and alternative life styles, Madison, Wisconsin is today the key battle field in a class war declared unilaterally by capital. Formally at stake in the battle of Madison are the rights of public sector employees to bargain collectively. In practice the battle is joined over the basic human right of freedom of association, which lies at the heart of a democratic society. It is not hyperbola to describe the struggle in the snows of Madison to be a battle in US capital’s counter-revolution against democracy.
To understand the full significance of the confrontation in Madison it must be placed in historical context. A progressive alliance of farmers and workers in Wisconsin produced Robert Marion La Follette (Fighting Bob), who was probably the most leftwing politician elected to major office in the United States. Elected to the US House of Representatives, governor of the state, and US senator, La Follette was a Republican when it remain partly the party of Lincoln.
By World War I he was too progressive for either major party. In 1924, the year before he died, La Follette formed his own party, the Progressives. He won seventeen percent of the national popular vote for President, running as an uncompromising enemy of corporate power. If 100 years later the Republicans generated a defection to a new party, it would be neo-fascist (as opposed to the proto-fascism of what would remain).
Fighting Bob La Follette
Fighting Bob’s sons Philip (governor in the 1930s) and Robert Jr (“Young Bob”, US Senator 1925-1946) formed the Wisconsin Progressive Party that briefly controlled state politics. Wisconsin was a state deeply divided between progressive labor and reactionary capital. In a bitter electoral defeat of progressive ideals, Young Bob lost the 1946 Republican primary to Joseph McCarthy (by 5000 votes). McCarthy went on to defeat the Democrat in the general election and become perhaps the most venal US politician of the first half of the twentieth century.
The current governor leading the assault on human rights in Wisconsin, Scott Walker, rests comfortably in the McCarthy tradition. To give credit where it is due, Walker has considerably exceed McCarthy’s assault on human rights. While McCarthy for the most part restricted himself to alleged communists and the alleged “fellow travelers” of those alleged communists, the neo-venal Walker has broadened the assault to the population as a whole (except, of course, capital and its agents).
In the state elections of 2010, those who voted in Wisconsin brought a Republican majority to both branches of the legislature, as well as the governor. This would be no changing of the guard. With the state’s budget deficit as an excuse, Walker launched a program of savage cuts. Had he done no more than this, he would have remained as singularly undistinguished as he certainly is. He would have been lost in a crowd of similarly reactionary politicians throughout the western world, a George Osborne with a mid-west accent.
Walker of Wisconsin is no commonplace reactionary. He aspires to a far baser goal than budget cuts: a frontal assault on the right of people to associate. Freedom of association is the right of individuals to collectively express, promote, pursue and defend common interests. While the phrase “freedom of association” does not appear in the US constitution, federal and state courts interpreted the first amendment to include it (the amendment specifies freedom of religion, speech, the press, assembly, and to petition the government).
Just thirteen months ago the US Supreme Court stuck a potentially fatal blow to the freedom of speech part of the first amendment. By a 5-4 ruling the court voided restrictions on the funding of political campaigns (Citizens United v. the Federal Election Commission). This ruling granted capital unlimited freedom to propagandize and, by doing so, judicially reduced the rights of the rest of the population to freedom of speech. The unspeakable Walker has his eye on another first amendment prize, the freedom of people to “petition the government for redress of grievances” (last clause of the first amendment).
A growing number of people in the United States recognize the danger to democracy posed by Walker’s bill to destroy pubic sector unions in Wisconsin. Over 70,000 are suffering snow and freezing temperatures to stop him. Credit should also go to the Democrats in the state senate who temporarily blocked legislative action (by preventing the senate from having a quorum).
At stake in Wisconsin are not wages and pensions (the union has conceded to Walker these issues). It is not a “labor issue”. At stake is political democracy. Walker and the Wisconsin Republicans are militant extremists. With the overt support of big capital, they seek the destruction of democratic government. The demonstrators in Madison struggle against a reactionary vanguard that would implement its anti-democratic programme at the national level when it can seize the presidency.
For those of us living in the United Kingdom the struggle is at an earlier but no less dangerous stage. Only last month the prime minister David Cameron told members of parliament that he intended to act “to prevent militant trade unions holding Britain to ransom” (Daily Mail, 13 January 2011). Feeling its power on the rise, global capital is abandoning the pretense of democracy in favor of “order”. A New Order. With an old name, fascism.
John Weeks is the Professor Emeritus University of London & Senior Researcher, Centre for Development Policy & Research, School of Oriental & African Studies