“Recalls Taking Center Stage”: Wisconsin, Workers, and Corporate Totalitarianism, American Style

The smack to my head came late on the day of my second trip to Madison in support of public sector workers and their struggle against rightist Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s epic assault on union rights there. It didn’t come in the form of a state trooper’s swinging baton in or of a brick thrown by a right wing thug.   It came softly from my car radio at midnight as the lights of Dubuque, Iowa appeared in my windshield beneath a misty half-moon on the other side of the bridge across the Mississippi River.  It came in the sexless voice of Chicago’s WBBM News Radio (780 AM), which reported briefly and incidentally that “one hundred Chicagoans went up to Madison to join thousands of people marching against a new labor bill recently passed by Wisconsin’s governor and state legislature.”  The “reporter” moved quickly to another item that received more time – the story of a young lady selected as honorary queen of the St. Patrick’s Day parade in downtown Chicago.


“Thousands”? There were at least 125, 000 people marching against the Walker/Republican bill in and around the Madison Capitol Rotunda yesterday (I am writing on Sunday, March 13, 2011). The number of pro-union workers and citizens assembled there was massive and historic on any scale. There were thousands there from Chicago alone.


The egregious downsizing of the Madison crowd by WBBM was certainly intentional. Somewhere in his chilling 2008 book Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism, the left-liberal political scientist Sheldon Wolin observes that American-style corporate totalitarianism ( “corporate-managed democracy”) doesn’t generally involve the violent repression of left and liberal  protestors. It more typically operates by deleting democratic and popular protests from the record by failing to report them or by drastically under-reporting and misrepresenting those protests in the corporate-owned media. 


By Wolin’s analysis, the American mode of totalitarianism (what he considers the third great totalitarian formation of the 20th century) is different from both German and Italian fascism and Soviet pseudo-socialism (the two great totalitarian systems of the 20th century) in a number of ways. While it (to be sure) incarcerates an outrageous number and percentage of black males and reserves the right and capacity to violently repress protestors, it doesn’t rely so much on hard force at home, preferring softer methods of diversion, deletion, and demobilization.  It doesn’t mobilize fascist thugs in right wing mass movements to smash the heads of labor, liberals, and leftists.  It doesn’t advance explicitly racist and statist ideologies and the absolute rule of a charismatic dictator speaking the highly militarized and the explicitly anti-democratic will of the nation.  Speaking the language of “free markets,” constitutionalism, electoral choices, and personal responsibility (all covers for corporate and military rule), it doesn’t explicitly attack parliamentary institutions and advocate an openly one party state. Its elite business masters prefer to work through the evermore right-tilting democratic façade of what Wolin calls the  “one-and-a-half party system” – one where aggressive, radically regressive authoritarians in the Republican Party lead the authoritarian way posing as “conservatives” while cautious, conservative, and corporate-captive (though equally militaristic) Democrats masquerade as reformers and representatives of working people, progressives, environmentalists, minorities and poor.  As Wolin noted nearly three years ago:


“While the Republican Party is ever-vigilant about the care and feeding of its zealots, the Democratic Party is equally concerned to discourage its democrats…. The timidity of a Democratic Party mesmerized by centrist precepts points to the crucial fact that, for the poor, minorities, the working-class, anticorporatists, pro-environmentalists, and anti-imperialists, there is no opposition party working actively on their behalf. And this despite the fact that these elements are recognized as the loyal base of the party. By ignoring dissent and assuming the dissenters have no alternative, the party serves an important, if ironical, stabilizing function and in effect marginalizes any possible threat to the corporate allies of the Republican. Unlike the Democrats, however, the Republicans, with their combination of reactionary and innovative elements, are a cohesive…force.”


“…The character of the Republican Party reflects a profound change: radicalism has shifted its location and meaning.  Formerly it was associated with the Left and the use of political power to life the standard of living and life prospects of the lower classes, of those who were disadvantaged under current distributive principles.  Radicalism is now the property of those who, quaintly, call themselves ‘conservatives’ and are called such by media commentators.  In fact, pseudoconservatism is in charge of and owns the radicalizing powers that are dramatically changing, in some cases revolutionizing, the conditions of human life, of economy, of politics, foreign policy, education, and the prospects for the planet.  It is hard to imagine any power more radical in its determination to undo the social gains of the past century” (Sheldon Wolin Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism:[Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008], 206).


With the Republicans playing the tough cop role and the Democrats as Officer Friendly,  corporate totalitarianism American-style doesn’t so much smash or crush the people as turn them into a “managed electorate” – a spectator-ized ex-citizenry trained to understand political democracy as requiring little more than staggered and episodic participation in big-money, big-media, and candidate-centered election contests pitting elite-vetted personalities from the cautious and pseudo-reformist wing of the business and empire party (the Democrats) against elite-sponsored personalities from the radical and pseudoconservative wing (the Republicans) of that same party.


I’ve seen more than a few protestors in Madison carrying signs likening Scott Walker to Adolph Hitler and accusing the Republican-controlled, Koch brothers’-captive government of Wisconsin of “fascism.”  Well, God knows Hitler and Mussolini would approve of Walker’s sense of messianic, union-busting authoritarian mission and his lack of regard for liberals, political opposition, labor, leftists, and democracy. But it really isn’t fascism that progressive and other citizens are up against in Wisconsin and elsewhere in the U.S. Under fascism, cops, troopers, and a mobilized mass movement of racist-sexist-nationalist thugs beat the crap out of you when you protest for workers and/or against war.  I haven’t seen many jack-booted brown-shirts in or around the Capitol Rotunda in Madison.  We the (working class majority of the) People have pretty much owned the streets and the Capitol grounds for the last few weeks.  The capitol police have taken the “nice cop” approach to removing would-be occupiers from state structures.  Their chief is a gregarious persuader who has been dubbed “The Protest Whisperer.” He gently talks activists into leaving the Capitol without arrest. Walker is an unmitigated arch-regressive, deeply undemocratic and plutocratic asshole of epic proportions, but he’s not a fascist.  But he’s not having the protestors clubbed, whipped, and shot en masse. He’s waiting them out as he moves boldly forward with his right wing anti-union, anti-poor, anti-environmental, anti-liberal, and power- and wealth-concentrating agenda. He’ll be than happy to permanently fire and massively billyclub workers who dare to strike and otherwise resist his war on labor through direct action, but he’s counting on the protestors to get worn out with the work of solidarity.  He’s counting on dominant media to get more and more bored with the story of the great Wisconsin worker rebellion. The mass consent-manufacturing communications organs have been doing exactly that as horrors in Lybia and now Japan take center media stage.


It’s all very Wolin-esque.  True, the mass marches and demonstrations in and around the Capitol of February and March 2011 seem like a repudiation of the popular de-mobilization that lay at the heart of Wolin’s notion of the United States’ distinctively “inverted” form of corporate totalitarianism.  But now that Walker has succeeded in ramming his anti-collective bargaining bill though the state legislature, the tone of the marches and rallies in Madison seem overly focused on electoral strategies.  Most of theh signs and speeches are advocating the weaker and less courageous side of the one-and-a-half party system (the Democrats).  They seem under-focused on the sort of direct and ongoing social movement action that is required – including above all General Strike that many rank and file activists are pushing. Radical and disruptive popular anger and energy is being dangerously pushed into system-safe, people-demobilizing electoral and legal channels as union officials and their supporters turn to the dissipating and de-radicalizing tasks of electing Democratic state Supreme Court judges, suing the state, and recalling Walker. Reverend Jesse Jackson has come to give heavenly assent to calls for citizens to vote for the Democrats, the other corporate party – a party that has done a lot for big business, little for working people, and much to help the right turn policy in a radically reactionary direction. As one correspondent recently noted in the comments section of an essay I titled “Gut Check in Madison: Will Labor Fight to Save its Life?:”  “I think we have our answer, Paul. I watched the rally in Madison yesterday and the tone was polite. Jesse Jackson leading prayers, politicians saying vote Democrat, blah blah. Recall petition drives puts the ball back in the electoral court, stall the momentum, bring in Big Money to defeat it, slick ads, you know the litany. What Labor doesn't understand is: the world’s attention span is short. We have moved on to Japan, Libya, other things while they dither.”


Here is a depressing (from my perspective) account from David Dayen, who is providing on-the-ground reports for the liberal-left website Firedoglake:


“Latest from Wisconsin: Recalls Taking Center Stage”


“…the debate in Wisconsin has not ended, even if Scott Walker signed the bill to strip collective bargaining rights from public workers. Over 100,000 people again protested in Madison on Saturday and welcomed the Fab 14 Democratic Senators back. Protests in smaller parts of Wisconsin grew in size as well …Legal challenges to the bill and the process by which it was passed have only begun; the next hearing in Dane County Court is on Wednesday.”


“And then we have the upcoming elections and recalls. According to the Democratic Party of Wisconsin, they have collected almost half the required signatures needed to get the 8 Republican recalls permitted by Wisconsin rules onto the ballot. They have 45 more days to get the rest, so I’d say that a ballot action is almost assured. And they’ll have no shortage of funds to draw upon for the recall efforts, either: the state party has raised over $1 million from small donors in the past three weeks.”


“Talk of a general strike has cooled down significantly, probably because of the item in the bill that passed which would allow for mass firings if public workers participated in walkouts….clearly, everyone has pivoted to the recall….”


If it’s true, that’s a crying shame. As Emma Goldman once said, the masters would abolish voting if it really made any difference. How many more times must we see the ballot box function as the coffin of the real class consciousness and activism we need?


Left author Paul Street’s latest book (co-authored with Anthony DiMaggio) is Crashing the Tea Party: Mass Media and the Campaign to Remake American Politics (Paradigm, April 2011 advance order at http://www.paradigmpublishers.com/books/BookDetail.aspx?productID=280225 . Street will speak (alongside Glen Ford, Pam Chamberlain, and Lance Selfa) on “Understanding and Responding to the Tea Party Threat” at the Left Forum in New York City, Pace University, Room E308 on Saturday, March 19, 2011 at 10 AM – seehttp://www.leftforum.org/content/understanding-and-responding-tea-party-threat )  Street can be reached at [email protected]

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