'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Confessionals of a Situational Nihilist (Part 2) 

In Part 1, I explained why I find the current social climate for progressive, much less radical, change so bleak. Today, I will provide begin to provide some signposts that would, if found, suggest reasons for optimism.

One of the most disheartening developments of the last 30 years has been the acceptance of neoliberal economic doctrine by not only liberals, but even labor unions. During this period, union leadership has become more and more docile, focusing on procedural impediments to union membership, through measures like the Employee Free Choice Act ("EFCA"), instead of direct challenges to the country's economic structure. One of the most vivid concrete expressions of this phenomenon occurred in Seattle in November 1998, when union march marshals directed the participants in a massive union protest away from the direct action civil disobedience taking place downtown near the World Trade Organization assembly hall.

Upon the election of Barack Obama, unions were quiescent as Obama continued to direct trillions of dollars of assistance to transnational banks and brokerage houses, while millions of Americans faced foreclosure. Indeed, they even failed to organize for the passage of the EFCA as major corporations put on a full court press against it, calling into the question the sincerity of this inconsequential endeavor. Unions held innocuous rallies across the country but failed to pressure the President or the Congress to pass it. Meanwhile, in relation to health care reform, unions left it to firebrands like Jane Hamsher and other liberals like her to forestall the abandonment of the public option.

Accordingly, the emergence of a confrontational movement within the unions to push for a more assertive leadership would be cause for cautious optimism. Earlier this year, some health care workers challenged the employer friendly practices of their union, the Service Employees International Union ("SEIU"), by attempting to form a new union, the National Union of Health Care Workers. Unfortunately, that effort has yet to succeed. Meanwhile, emblematic of the Social Darwinism endemic in the union movement, SEIU has attempted to raid members from another union, UNITE HERE. Under conditions of extreme neoliberalism, it is much easier to devour the weak than to confront powerful elites.

For those schooled in the traditions of the left, whether it be Social Democracy, Communism or anarchism, the reinvigoration of trade unionism is an essential precondition to any prospect of a progressive, not to mention revolutionary, social transformation. While there has been many points of disagreement between these leftist variations, there has been one constant. All three have emphasized the necessity of participating in unions as a means of educating and organizing workers in support of a radical, class based politics. None of them, with the exception of anarchists in the 1890s, believed that we could bring about a more just, more egalitarian society independent of the trade union movement. Furthermore, the unions served an essential purpose by providing a means whereby workers could learn how to manage their workplaces for themselves.

If the moribund trade union movement cannot be resuscitated, the consequences for the left are profound. An entirely new doctrinal approach will be required, one that reinterprets class and capitalism in such a way as to present the prospect of social change despite an immobilized union movement. It would require transcending nearly 200 years of modernist left thought that sanctifies the worker as given expression through trade unionism. It is hard to imagine, but it may be unavoidable.

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