A number of readers have asked for my opinion on the current union battle in Wisconsin. Here it is.
Some libertarians and conservatives have portrayed the conflict as one pitting parasitical government workers against beleaguered taxpayers being threatened by ever expanding public budget deficits. Predictably, Pat Buchanan makes this case as articulately as anyone. Says Pat:
Between now and 2013, the states are facing a total budget shortfall of $175 billion. To solve it, they are taking separate paths.
Illinois voted to raise taxes by two-thirds and borrow $12 billion more, $8.5 billion of it to pay overdue bills. The Republican minority fought this approach, but was outvoted and accepted defeat.
Wisconsin, however, where Republicans captured both houses and the governor’s office in November, and which is facing a deficit of $3.6 billion over the next two years, has chosen to cut spending.
Walker and the legislature want to require state employees, except police, firemen and troopers, to contribute half of their future pension benefits and up to 12.6 percent of health care premiums.
Wisconsin state workers and teachers enjoy the most generous benefits of state employees anywhere in America. According to the MacIver Institute, the average teacher in the Milwaukee public schools earns $100,000 a year—$56,000 in pay, $44,000 in benefits—and enjoys job security.
More controversially, Walker would end collective bargaining for benefits while retaining it for salaries and wage hikes up to annual inflation. This would ease the burden on local governments and school districts faced with the same budget crisis but less able to stand up to large and powerful government unions.
Pat attacks the public workers unions by taking an ironic position for a supposed reactionary conservative admirer of the Old Order such as himself. He appeals to democracy.
Can the states, with new governments elected by the people, roll back government to prevent a default? Or will the states be forced by street protests, work stoppages by legislators, and strikes by state employees and teachers to betray the people who elected them? Will they be forced to raise taxes ad infinitum to feed the government’s insatiable appetite for tax dollars?
In short, does democracy work anymore in America?
What Obama has done will come back to haunt him. He has encouraged if not incited an angry and alienated left that lost the country in a free election to overturn the results of that election by street protests and invasions of state capitols.
As the huge antiwar demonstrations in the 1960s broke the presidency of Lyndon Johnson and sought to break the presidency of Richard Nixon, Obama and his cohorts are out to break Wisconsin.
One hopes the people of Wisconsin will stand up to this extortion being carried on with the blessing of their own president.
The response of the Left to this battle is predictable enough and we all know what it is. Therefore, it really need not be discussed. But what about the libertarian or anarchistic left? Over the past few days, ATS has run a couple of columns by David D’Amato offering an interesting perspective on the battle of Wisconsin. Says David:
In the political phraseology of the United States, bogged down in the vacuous false choice of Republican versus Democrat, proponents of the “free market” are allegedly not supposed to concern themselves with scoundrels like government workers’ unions. They are rather to be regarded as the enemy, as conducting an incessant attack on taxpayers in order that they might get something for nothing.
But the anti-union turgidity of the Republican variant of the “free market” obscures the actual — as against the imagined — effects of the state’s pervasive interventions in the economy. When the state creates monopoly or oligopoly conditions, limiting competition to favor political and corporate elites, it also creates monopsony or oligopsony conditions for its own purchase of labor. In the same way that the state’s restrictions on the services that it and its cartels sell drive up the cost of those services, its strangulation of the number of buyers of labor allows those buyers to hire workers for pennies on the dollar.
The first question is to what degree government workers can rightfully be seen as social and economic parasites. Are we to take seriously the argument that someone who is paid to work as a janitor cleaning up state-owned building is a member of the exploiter class leeching off the taxpayers? We also have to consider the degree to which employment by the state is expanded through the elimination of non-state forms of employment by state actions creating monopolies or oligopolies in industries and occupations or by state efforts that overrun, crowd out, or outright prohibit alternative forms of employment and service provision. What about states where the public sector dominates the economy as a whole, such as states of a Marxist-Leninist nature or even some social democratic variations? From an anarchist perspective, it would seem that there are two essential questions that must be asked when examining labor uprisings, whether in the public or private sectors.
The first of these is whether or not the workers in question are engaged in an occupation that would be considered legitimate even in a non-state society. Clearly, there are many public sector professions of this types: librarians, firefighters, health care workers in state-run medical facilities, those responsible for road construction and maintenance, rescue workers, garbage collectors, those who maintain public parks and recreational facilities, and many others. It is also clear that there are many public sectors professions that would not be legitimate in a non-state society. We all know what most of these are so there’s not much need to elaborate.
At the same time, there are plenty of private sector professions that are not necessarily legitimate either. For instance, if hit men for the mafia were to go on strike claiming that the various crime families are underpaying them or owe them back pay, many of us would no doubt regard this as a dubious claim given the nature of the profession involved. If those involved in the production of nuclear weapons on behalf of ostensibly private “defense contractors” were to walk out on strike, we might be inclined to be less than sympathetic to their plight as well.
So logic would dictate that public sector employees cannot simply be dismissed as “parasites” by definition and private sector employees cannot be unconditionally regarded as virtuous and productive citizens irrespective of what they personally do.
The second question is whether the revolting workers in a labor battle have legitimate or reasonable grievances. Clearly, this is not always the case. For instance, there is at present some talk of the NFL players going on strike when their present contract runs out. The spectacle of millionaire athletes going on strike against billionaire football team owners is ridiculous and nothing that a serious person needs to be concerned about. Just as employers or corporations can be motivated by greed, pettiness, or narrow self-interest without regard for the common good, so can workers and unions have similar motivations. One of the big sources of outrage over the present battle in Wisconsin involves the role of the teachers’ unions. As Buchanan’s comments indicate, many regard public school teachers and administrators as pampered and over-indulged petty bureaucrats who are provided with levels of income and benefits far greater than that justified by their actual level of skills, training, competence, or productivity, and far greater than that of people who work harder in more productive professions.
No doubt many of the people reading this share my own low opinion of the public school systems, regarding them as prisons-lite whose primary purpose is the dissemination of the state’s legitimating ideology of either political correctness or old-fashioned jingoism, or some combination of the two, depending on the particular school district. This doesn’t mean that all public school teachers or employees are rotten people who are up to no good. I am personally acquainted with many who believe in what they do and try to do right when possible. But either way, it’s a mistake to allow hostility to the public school system to unduly influence our evaluation of uprisings by public employees generally.
What are the grievances of the public workers in Wisconsin? Essentially, the state wants public workers to increase their “contributions” to their pension programs and health premiums while reducing though not entirely eliminating the right of collective bargaining for public sector employees. As Jim Goad says:
So what exactly had (Governor Scott) Walker proposed that had people stomping hysterically around downtown Madison as if the Ludlow Massacre had just occurred? In order to put a dent in a proposed $3.6-billion budget deficit—which smirking TV she-male Rachel Maddow had falsely reported as a looming budget surplus—the mercilessly brutal despot proposed that government workers contribute 5.8% toward their pension plans and 12.6% toward their healthcare. He also proposed confining their collective-bargaining rights to wages rather than benefits.
Yes. That’s it. That’s all it took to have them wailing like infants.
On their face, these may not seem like unreasonable demands. As Goad continues:
Accusations that this is all about “class war” are severely misguided, because the class war is over and the ruling class won without firing a shot. They shipped all the jobs overseas and allowed at least a dozen million illegal workers to invade the country in order to Babelize and Balkanize the lower orders, ensuring that private-sector workers are never able to act collectively. As it stands, union membership is under seven percent in the private sector, while it’s close to 40 percent among government employees…
…It’s hard to empathize with the “suffering” of people who have it better than you do, which is why I make it a point never to fly to Zimbabwe and bitch about the pinched nerve in my back. For these workers to groan about their condition is roughly as rude as walking into a roomful of cancer patients and whining that you stubbed your toe.
I can’t remember the last time I saw a government worker working hard. So when I see these teachers complain, I’m reminded they work about 200 days a year while I work 300. I’m reminded that they’re bitching about having to pay twelve percent toward their health insurance while I pay 100 percent. They may think they’re suffering “labor pains,” but to me they’re just a pain in the ass.
What’s going on here is an odd sort of intra-class war among the working class.
The final sentence in the above quotation from Goad cuts to the chase regarding this question: Can the battle of Wisconsin be rightfully regarded as one pitting the everyday taxpayer against privileged government employees? Or is this an overly simplistic outlook that illustrates the inadequacy of the usual left/right, public sector/private sector, socialism/capitalism dichotomies?
I believe it is the latter. Neither the conventional libertarian class theory that says “private good/public bad” or the leftist class theory that says “workers good/bosses bad” provides a sufficient theoretical framework for understanding what is really going on in this conflict.
Modern state-capitalism operates as an alliance between state and capital, or between the so-called “private” and “public” sectors. The state is under the control of the political class, and members of the political class have their own class, institutional, or individual self-interests. The corporatist economy is the creation of the state and depends on the state for its continued existence, at least in its present form. Individual corporate entities can of course engage in conflict with the state, just as different corporations or different entities within the state can engage in conflict with one another. The “democratic” political class assumes the rule of old European monarchies and related institutions in terms of exercising direct control over the state itself. The privileged bureaucratic and corporate entities that comprise the infrastructure of state-capitalism assume the role of the state-privileged aristocratic and plutocratic classes of 19th century societies. The educational system and media assume the role formerly occupied by institutions such as the Church as the agents for dissemination and inculcation of the state’s legitimating ideology. As I have previously written elsewhere:
Out of this process of transformation from personal government to corporate government, the evolution of a system of state-capitalist privilege that has supplanted feudal privilege, the ever greater interaction and co-dependency between the plutocratic elite and the minions of the state, and the wider integration of organized labor, political interests groups generated by mass democracy and unprecedented expansion of the public sector has emerged a politico-economic order that might be referred to as the new manorialism. These new manors are the multitude of bureaucratic entities that maintain an institutional identity of their own, though their individual personnel may change with time, and who exist first and foremost for the sake of their own self- preservation, irrespective of the original purposes for which they were ostensibly established. The new manors may include institutional entities that function as de jour arms of the state, such as regulatory bureaus, police and other law enforcement agencies, state-run social service departments or educational facilities, or they may include de facto arms of the state, such as the banking and corporate entities whose position of privilege, indeed, whose very existence, is dependent upon state intervention. Out of this domestic state-capitalist order there has emerged an overarching international order rooted in the pre-eminence of the American state-capitalist class and its junior partners from a number of the other developed nations.
In other words, persons employed in our modern societies in either the “public” or “private” sectors (e.g. corporations, government bureaucracies, educational institutions) are the equivalent of persons employed by the plutocratic capitalists, feudal landlords, or the Church in previous societies. To be sure, some persons employed by these institutional entities are more privileged than others, just as some workers in past systems (members of guilded professions, for instance) enjoyed comparable systems of privilege. To be sure, some persons employed by these institutions are engaged in pernicious activities that would not be considered legitimate in a non-state society. To be sure, workers in our modern societies are more privileged than their counterparts in the 19th century.
But that get’s us to the main point. The economic agenda of the overlords of the “global economy” produced by regimes of “free trade,” and legitimized by the ideology of “neoliberalism,” have as their goal the re-proletarianization of the American working class. As Jim Goad states above, the class war is over and the ruling class won. The private sector working class had been reduced from a manufacturing economy to a service economy, a process brought about by a wide assortment of state and corporate policies, ranging from outsourcing to union-busting to “free trade” arrangements at the international level like NAFTA to mass importation of replacement workers via mass immigration to many other things. As Goad observes, only seven percent of private sector workers enjoy union protections while forty percent of public sector workers enjoy similar protections. The present efforts by the state of Wisconsin, under the domination of the neoliberal/plutocratic-controlled Republican Party, are to reduce public sector workers to the level of present day private sector workers with a comparable absence of benefits, substantive wages, collective bargaining rights, job security, pensions, health care, etc. A decline of the socio-economic position of public sector workers to level of their private sector counterparts would significantly escalate the process of re-proletarization of the U.S. working class specifically and the process of Brazillianization of the U.S. economy generally. Such a decline would further contribute to the McDonaldization and Wal-Martization of the American economy. Surely, this process should be resisted even at the cost of agreeing with Barack Obama or Nancy Pelosi for one fleeting moment.
To portray this struggle as one pitting taxpayers versus workers is to invoke yet another false dichotomy. Most rank and file public sector workers also pay taxes, while many private taxpayers likewise benefit substantially from a variety of state interventions and state-provided services. Janitors in public buildings still have to pay taxes while Wal-Mart workers often owe their jobs to state interventions that brought the local Wal-Mart to their town. As Richard Spencer observes:
Whatever the details of their demands, the fundamental cause of the recent protests in Wisconsin is the growing recognition among the American Middle that the lifestyle to which they are accustomed—think a house in the ‘burbs, a reliable pension or 401k, and the ability to live it up on easy credit—is vanishing before their eyes. (The fact that the state of Illinois, for instance, is financing its pensions with new debt issuances reveals the total unsustainability of “set for life” employment.)
In this way, the public-sector employees who have taken to the streets over the past 10 days have quite a bit in common with the Tea Party, despite the two being cast as sworn enemies by the media—the lazy free loaders vs. the Astroturf of corporate capitalism. Both the Tea Party and the Wisconsin phenomena represent genuine, grassroots protest movements of Whites caught somewhere between the stages of denial, anger, and bargaining in mourning the death of their “American Dream.”
(One could say that those who lose their jobs or take a serious hit now should probably consider themselves lucky; they’ll be able to adjust to the new reality before a further downturn. Those who remain in the boobgeois bubble longest will face the rudest awakening.)
Pat Buchanan recently opined that in siding with the unions and criticizing Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Barack Obama, ever the Alinsky-ite radical, has sought to “rub raw the resentments of the people; fan the latent hostilities to the point of overt expression.” In fact, something quite different is occurring.
Both the ostensibly “right-wing” Tea Partiers and the ostensibly “left-wing” public sector union members are a manifestation of the same sinking middle class that is facing re-proletarianization. In the past I’ve addressed how a libertarian-populist-anarchist, neo-tribalist, radical decentralist, third-positionist movement of the kind that ARV/ATS aspires to be might address these questions and appeal to these dispossessed classes:
As for the broader question of the relationship between the state and the economy, we need a populist economic program that favors elimination of state intervention into the economy on behalf of privileged interests and the reduction of taxes starting from the bottom up. This is an issue that dissidents from across the spectrum ought to be able agree on, from socialists to libertarians to paleoconservatives to Greens. Kevin Carson’s “Political Program for Anarchists” provides a good overview of how to approach this. As anti-state radicals, we should take a position of rejecting the welfare state as a means to poverty relief, while at the same time rejecting the scapegoating of the poor common to the talk-radio right-wing. We should instead be quite outspoken about the damage to done to poor communities (particularly rural farmers and inner-city minorities) by state interventions such as agricultural policy and urban renewal. As an intermediate stage to full abolition of the welfare state, we might consider the “negative income tax” suggested by Milton Friedman back during the Nixon era, whereby the costs of welfare management could be cut back drastically by distributing cash payments or vouchers directly to the poor and eliminating the bureaucratic middle-men that absord most of the welfare budget. With this approach, it might even be possible to increase subsistence payments to the poor while simultaneously cutting back significantly on both bureaucracy and taxes. The writings of Murray Rothbard, Karl Hess, Hans Hoppe, Kevin Carson and Larry Gambone also contain some interesting ideas on how to go about “de-statizing” those industries and services presently operated by the state.
It is of the utmost importance that the working masses view us as the champions of their economic interests. Nothing less will be sufficient. Our populist coalition must include rank and file blue collar workers, working class taxpayers, union members, small businessmen, farmers, the self-employed, the urban poor, single moms and the homeless. We do this not by promising entitlement rights to all, but by eliminating state-imposed obstacles to economic self-determination and self-sufficiency, placing state or state-corporate industries and services directly into the hands of the workers and consumers, developing alternative economic arrangements independently of the state, eliminating taxes from the bottom up and gradually phasing out archaic state-assistance programs, with poverty relief and social security programs being the last to go once the corporate state has been fully dismantled. This is precisely the opposite of the “cut taxes and regulations at the top, eliminate subsidies to the bottom” approach favored by the right-wing corporatists. Our approach should be “cut taxes and regulations at the bottom, eliminate subsidies to the top”. On these matters, authentic fiscal conservatives and authentic class war militants should be able to agree. We should describe our economic program as neither “conservative” nor “socialist” but as simple “economic justice”.
Keith, you may enjoy this story of mine: http://www.newkindofmind.com/2010/03/its-not-government-employees-who-are.html