Madison Wisconsin: A Vicious Attack ... A Powerful Response ... And the Storms to Come

This article originally appeared in Revolution 

Madison protesters

On Wednesday, March 9, Republicans in the Wisconsin State Legislature rammed through Governor Scott Walker's bill to essentially break public employees unions. The bill amounts to an 8 percent pay cut for most public workers, and big increases in payroll deductions for medical insurance and pensions. Even more ominously, the bill effectively strips public service unions of their right to represent workers in anything but the most limited wage negotiations.

For more than three weeks, as many as 100,000 people from Wisconsin and beyond poured into the streets of Madison. They surrounded the State Capitol, marching, chanting, and playing music. Thousands occupied the Capitol building itself. Their defiant protests and rebellious spirit captured the imagination of and inspired people around the U.S. The occupation of Madison set off smaller protests in other states and was even greeted by signs of support in Cairo's Tahrir Square.

The clash between the governor and the protesters represented and brought together a set of tense and potentially explosive contradictions simmering beneath the surface in U.S. society. The final chapter in how these contradictions will be resolved is far from written.

A Vicious Attack

On Friday, February 11, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker introduced his bill—directly impacting some 175,000 public sector employees in the state. The law strips a wide range of state workers—from faculty at the University of Wisconsin, to home health care workers—of the right to bargain collectively. It does not affect police and firefighters. ("What's in Wisconsin's new law?" USA Today, March 12, 2011)

In short, the law is a vicious and draconian attack on the lives of hundreds of thousands of workers and those who depend on them. Beyond that, in gutting the right of people to band together in a union to bargain with their employer—something which was fought for and won, sometimes at great cost and sacrifice—it strikes at what many see as a basic right. The fact that this has been done will encourage—and already is encouraging—many similar attacks, both in government and in privately-owned companies, and affects millions of people.

Massive Protest

As soon as the governor introduced the bill, people began to mobilize and protest across Wisconsin. By Tuesday, February 15, tens of thousands converged at the State Capitol in Madison, and the protests grew by the day. High school students walked out of schools across the state—many heading to Madison to join protesting college students. Rallies of tens of thousands continued for days, and broke out in neighboring states—in Columbus, Ohio, 4,000 protested against a similar bill in the Ohio legislature. According to a report at progressive.org, students in Alaska, California, Colorado, Idaho, Illinois, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, North Carolina, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Texas, and Washington State participated in protests in support of the Wisconsin public service workers.

By February 19, the protesters' ranks in Madison swelled to 70,000—even as the Tea Party and other belligerent reactionaries were mobilized and turned out in much smaller numbers to support the governor. Protesters occupied the State Capitol building.

Perhaps in part mindful of comparisons to the police state regime under siege in Egypt at the time, Wisconsin authorities refrained from a massive, violent assault on the protesters. But by March 3, security at the Capitol had became so restrictive that a team of firefighters responding to an emergency were denied access to the building, and Democratic Rep. Nick Milroy was tackled by law enforcement officers while attempting to enter the Capitol to retrieve clothes—Milroy described the Capitol as an "armed-
palace environment created by Gov. Walker." After three weeks of occupation of the Capitol building, courts ruled that protesters could not stay in the building overnight, but protests continued and drew widespread support, including appearances by Michael Moore, Tom Morello, Susan Sarandon, Tony Shaloub, and others.

On March 9, after the vote that rammed through Walker's bill, hundreds of protesters gathered outside the locked entrance to the Capitol, chanting "Break down the door!" and "General strike!" On Thursday, March 10, the entire Wisconsin Assembly passed the bill as protesters shouted "shame!" And on March 11, Governor Walker signed the bill.

On Saturday, March 12, 100,000 people rallied in Madison in protest against the signing of the law. This is quite remarkable and very welcome—it is very unusual that 100,000 people will turn out to demonstrate after a struggle has been, at least for now, defeated. This signifies the high degree of anger and militancy this has drawn forth in people.

There are calls for those who resisted this attack to re-channel their anger and outrage into the confines of voting Democratic and recall campaigns. But let none of us forget a crucial lesson here: It was only when people stepped outside those bounds, and took to the streets, that what first looked like another one-sided assault on people's lives turned into a two-sided fight for a change!

And among those who stepped out into the struggle, there is much wrangling with what is behind all the vicious attacks, an openness to new ideas, and wrestling with where to next.

Deep Discontent

The eruption of massive and determined protest in Madison hardly came out of nowhere. Official unemployment in the U.S. hovers around 10 percent, a figure that doesn't count vast numbers of people who have "given up" on finding a decent job, and it doesn't reflect the utter lack of job opportunities for millions in the inner cities of the USA.

Teachers, social workers, and other public service employees are being demonized as ruining the economy. And the very concept of providing social services like schools, medical care, personal and financial counseling to the poor, access to the arts, and sanitation is portrayed as "communist authoritarianism" by powerful voices who nobody in the halls of power on the Democrats' side of the equation, all the way to Obama, will call out for what they really are: fascists.

For many, even the ability to express anger through things like voting seems to be disappearing before their eyes. There is an ongoing reactionary reconfiguration of electoral politics to institutionalize Republican domination of the process—through changes like court rulings that give corporations and billionaires nearly unlimited freedom to buy elections anonymously. In the meantime, traditional funding sources for the Democrats are being closed off. Last year the Republicans orchestrated an attack on the community organization ACORN—a group which carried out, among other things, voter registration campaigns among the poor. As a result the group was basically destroyed. In addition, laws which target people who have been convicted of felonies have denied the right to vote to millions of Americans, many of them Black people, who at one time in their life have been ensnared in the racist and discriminatory courts and prison system.

And all the while, the Democratic Party—with Barack Obama in the White House—has been carrying out and carrying "forward" the essence of the agenda of the hated Bush regime. The unjust war of occupation in Afghanistan seems more endless than ever. Guantánamo stays open for business. Despite the fact that an African-American is President of the United States, the "new Jim Crow"—including the mass incarceration of a million African-Americans, and pervasive police brutality and murder—remains a defining element of U.S. society, unchallenged—indeed, fostered by—the mainstream of the Democratic Party. This too has fed the frustration and anger of people who have in the past thought that the Democratic Party would protect some of their rights and provide a means for them to express their political views.

Complex and Interpenetrating Contradictions

All these factors, and many more, have created a great tension beneath the surface in U.S. society. That pressure erupted in significant ways in Wisconsin.

Part of the picture is the existence of contradictions at the top of society—conflict between sections of the U.S. ruling class. Here, we are talking about political representatives of the interests of U.S. capitalism-imperialism. These are conflicts—between forces roughly represented by the Democratic Party and the Republican Party—again, within the ruling class. If you listen to the speeches of any of their leaders, and you dig down into what they are saying—in essence—their starting point is maintaining this system of capitalism-imperialism. During the recent uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, for example, both Democrats and Republicans have talked about "our interests" in the Middle East, and "our interests" in maintaining (or modifying) this or that repressive regime. But masses of people in this country actually have no fundamental interest in maintaining butchers in power—these are the "interests" of empire.

This capitalist system is built on exploitation, and enforced by oppression, in the U.S. itself, and in even more extreme ways around the world. This is why, for example, right now there is no significant difference between these parties on the need to wage endless wars of occupation in Afghanistan and Iraq, despite the terrible suffering this has brought down, and continues to bring down, on people in both countries. And why, now, there are no serious differences over whether or not great sections of people in this country will have their living conditions worsened. Nobody in the halls of power, for example, is talking about ending the desperate and hopeless situation in the inner cities of the U.S.

But there are real differences over how to maintain the rule of U.S. imperialism. The section of the ruling class associated with the Democrats sees doing this with an element of diversity and multiculturalism, maintaining forces like the unions in some form, and maintaining some minimal level of social services. The more openly reactionary and aggressive section of the ruling class—more or less grouped around the Republican Party—sees a need to re-cohere U.S. society around a vicious program of brutal cuts in social services, and a re-enforcement of the
cruelest elements of the dominant culture of intolerance and mean-spirited individualism—all wrapped up in a heavy and oppressive reliance on Christian fundamentalist religion and religious institutions. (A full examination of all these conflicts, and how they interpenetrate with conflicts between the interests of the people on the one hand, and the ruling class as a whole on the other is beyond the scope of this article, but we strongly recommend to readers "The Pyramid of Power and the Struggle to Turn This Whole Thing Upside Down," by Bob Avakian, available at revcom.us.)

Even though union leaders and their allies in the Wisconsin Democratic Party had assured Walker they would essentially cave in to his demands for drastic wage and benefit cuts, Walker had—as many commentators pointed out—refused to take "yes" for an answer. When Democrats in the Wisconsin Senate responded by fleeing the state to avoid being dragged into the Capitol to form a quorum, this might have had the effect of providing a sense of right and an impetus to protest to people broadly.

A further, very positive factor in the whole equation has been the heroic uprising of the people of Egypt, Tunisia, and other countries in North Africa and the Middle East. A correspondent writing to Revolution reported that "Salted through the crowds were references to the uprisings in Egypt and the Middle East: on an entrance to the Rotunda inside the Capitol Building: 'Welcome to Wis-Cairo,' 'Mubarak, Walker—one down one to go.' 'Walk like an Egyptian.' A couple women in their late twenties, who made a point that they worked for a union in the private sector but were there because this struggle was so important, commented that 'Egypt caught the wave from Tunisia, we caught the wave from Egypt and now we are passing it on. We are all surfers now.'" ("Correspondence from the Wave of Protests in Madison," Revolution #225, February 27, 2011)

Attacks... Resistance... and the Movement for Revolution

The attack on Wisconsin workers is part of a larger picture of the shredding of the social safety net—such as it has existed—and other attacks on the lives of people. Those attacks go back decades, and are taking place throughout the world—even in relatively prosperous countries of Europe with legacies of more substantial social services. With the extremely serious financial crisis of 2008-2009, and the ongoing aftershocks, the capitalist-imperialists are scrambling to restore conditions of "profitable accumulation"—and doing so with severe attacks on people's livelihoods. Homelessness, unemployment and increasing desperation in places like the U.S.... outright starvation and death in the oppressed nations of the "global south," or Third World.

The ramrodding of the attack on workers in Wisconsin did take the form of riding roughshod over normal democratic processes (the governor and the Republicans in the state senate essentially circumvented a rule that laws concerning fiscal policy can only be passed if a quorum of legislators is present). And the great changes in society are accompanied by moves to "stack the deck" within the contention of ruling class forces represented by the Republicans and Democrats. But the foundational causes of such attacks are not—in essence—driven by or caused by an erosion of democratic rights. Instead, the kind of democracy in this country is built on and serves much more defining and fundamental factors. Most essentially: the nature of capitalism. And right now, those factors often require dispensing with "normal methods."

Things that many people see as defining of U.S. society, like the ability of people to organize into unions, and certain concessions to the struggle of Black people and women that were granted in the 1960s are the product of a complex set of factors. Among those factors were the struggles of people—which erupted with unprecedented scope and determination in the 1960s. Challenges from revolutionary struggles worldwide at that time, as well as its rival, the Soviet Union, added to the compulsion on the rulers to dispense with, or at least modify, certain blatantly reactionary institutions, like open legal segregation against Black people, or "Jim Crow."

But the overall standard of living in this country, and the relative "upward mobility" of sections of the working class, are most fundamentally a product of the emergence of the U.S., in the aftermath of World War 2, as the world's dominant superpower. On that basis, on the basis of super-profits generated by vicious exploitation in the mines of the Congo, the plantations of Central America, the sweatshops of Korea, and the factory farms in Mexico... the rulers of this country both had the freedom, and felt a compulsion to grant certain concessions to sections of people. And these concessions served to present the United States to the world as a model of "freedom and democracy."

Much more could be said about the essential nature of the "American dream," but here we can just note that great changes in the world have taken place since the end of World War 2—including the rise and fall of the Soviet Union as a social-imperialist country (imperialist, but—for a while—socialist in name). Today, a whole series of challenges from a wide range of rivals confront U.S. domination of the world. The stresses and strains of maintaining that empire, including the massive military power and technology needed to try to enforce it on the world, have radically changed what the U.S. ruling class as a whole sees as possible and necessary as far as concessions to sections of people in this country.

These underlying changes in the foundation of U.S. society are why both "alternatives" at the top of the U.S. power structure are in agreement that things like the social safety net (such as it has existed) must be "ended as we know it." Bill Clinton ended "welfare as we know it," and Barack Obama is again talking "bipartisan compromise" with forces bent on dismantling Social Security and Medicare.

To the Republi-fascists, who insist that a fascist reconfiguration of American society is necessary for the survival of this system... to the Republi-crats, who argue "well, what can we do, we have to adapt to the new reality,"... it must be said that in terms of your system you're right—one way or another the survival of this system does depend on terrible and worsening horrors and outrages—in this country, and in an even more extreme way, for those who live under the heel of U.S.-sponsored regimes around the world. So long as people remain locked within the terms of choosing between these two "equally worse" alternatives—these two parties which together maintain a perfect shell game for the capitalists—then people's most fundamental interests will be betrayed.

But it is also the case that times like this pose the question: do things have to be this way? And eruptions of protest from the people's side of things, as happened in Madison (and the book is not closed on that struggle) also help show to millions that there are many who are alienated, many who are angry, and who are seeking to deal with that through collective struggle against those who are presiding over this system and enforcing its dictates.

If revolutionaries are in this mix, helping people to see the true causes of the outrages that they are resisting and the true roots of these outrages in the system of capitalism, and if the revolutionaries work to bring alive the possibility of revolution and a whole new society and world... then these struggles can contribute to not only beating back the particular outrage, but to building a movement for revolution and getting to a world free of all oppression.