Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Book Review: WISCONSIN RISING by Michael D. Yates

Excerpts from a Critique

Wisconsin Uprising: Labor Fights Back edited and with commentary by Michael D. Yates is an important contribution to the growing body of literature on some of the more complex questions confronting organized labor today. The book itself is a collection of insightful essays on the significance of the labor-led demonstrations that took place in Wisconsin after the governor, Scott Walker, began directly attacking the rights of organized workers. What makes this book a point of particular interest is that it moves beyond the typical criticism of Neoconservatism offered by progressives of the liberal variety, offering a more focused, labor-centered analysis which takes the focus off parties and individual political leaders, and focuses them squarely on the larger, systemic issues challenging workers today.
Yates, whose previous book Why Unions Matter, offers insights into his own experiences as a worker and trade unionist, offering an eloquent, personal summary of the rise and decline of organized labor in the U.S. as experienced in his own hometown:

Ford City was a company town, with all that meant in terms of power of the workers…when compared to the power of the men who owned the corporation. Then matters changed dramatically, the union forced the company to pay much higher wages and provide the benefits that made working in a factory tolerable…It was a hopeful and prosperous period for the white working class, and I couldn’t imagine anything but good times ahead. I never thought, much less worried, about the future.
Today the good times are gone…Jobs are scarce; drug and alcohol abuse are rampant; and wages are shockingly low. (19-20)

Undoubtedly, the condition Yates describes when looking at the life and death of his hometown is reflected in the overwhelming majority of cities across the United States today. He goes further to point out that the decline of the American labor movement has led to far more than simply a decline in the standard of living of the average worker, but – with all the great expectations fostered during the prosperous decade following World War II – the descent of the U.S. economy and the corresponding loss of basic security has created a sort of existential crisis amongst the U.S. working-class. As Yates, highlights, those fortunate enough to be members of a union not only have the opportunity to fight back, they have a duty to do so.
Yates also injects his analysis with a central theme: the need for uniting the labor movement with broader sectors of society, not only to develop sympathy for their own cause, but also to offer structure and leadership to the spontaneous rebellions that have appeared on the scene during this volatile period of gross social inequality and seemingly endless warfare. Specifically, he sings the praises of those with the foresight within the labor movement to build on the momentum generated in Wisconsin – namely, those who united with the less organized, but equally important Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement. On this point, Yates is correct to insist on broadening labor’s coalition partners by allying itself with those groups sharing common enemies. However, his portrayal of the OWS movement lacks a level of nuance that borders on naivety…
...When reading works like Yates’ Wisconsin Uprising, it appears that Americans have a tendency to embrace either an overly optimistic point of view choosing to believe that anything is possible if we simply “maintain a positive attitude” or, to the contrary, they remain crippled if not altogether impotent due to ideological cynicism. At the heart of each of these perspectives, however, is philosophical idealism – that is, we see that ideas (either pessimism or optimism) rather than facts often determine the course of a movement. Yates, who brazenly evokes the sentiments of Marx and various Marxists, should be the first to use a Marxist materialist perspective to criticize this line of philosophical musing. After all, it is this idealistic approach (both positive and negative) that we must resist, and with it we must resist the notion that belief alone (intuitions, feelings, positive thinking, etc.) is the most important factor in moving events forward. To be precise, labor activist and Professor David Guest, writing during the heyday of the American labor movement, gives an insight into the philosophical distinctions which separate the successful union strategies of the past (philosophical materialism) from those of the current period (philosophical idealism):

The kind of philosophy which glorifies mind, ideas, spirit – whether human or “divine” – exalting them above matter and external conditions (as the idealist philosophy does), and that other kind of philosophy which sees these intellectual processes as secondary and dependent, as only arising at a given stage in the evolution of the material universe (which is the view of materialist philosophy). 
Idealist philosophy leads to a skeptical attitude towards science, to “masked” theological conceptions (if not to open supernaturalism), and to the obscurantist misdescription of existing human relationships. It thus becomes a useful buttress of the existing capitalist order.
Materialist philosophy, on the other hand, is challenging, critical, revolutionary. It makes clear the actual nature of human relationships [and humanity’s relationships to its environment], and demands that human action be based upon scientific study of the real world instead of upon pleasant, mental fantasies. (Guest, Textbook of Dialectical Materialism, 26, 32)

Undoubtedly, it is important to maintain the morale of a movement if it is to grow and flourish. But for those concerned with developing successful strategies and implementing winning tactics, we must resist all forms of wishful thinking. The philosophical idealists’ attitude – the attitude of all those who wish to “believe” rather than know – invariably degenerates into a resistance against even the most healthy criticism and ultimately stunts the growth of a movement by setting up false binaries (typified by the ‘are you with us or against us’ types). In other words, both ideological optimism and pessimism are resistant to facts and criticism, and culminate in uncritical attitudes that cause movements and organizations to atrophy and ultimately die. Here, we see the built-in folly in Yates work where he writes, “Despite any and all caveats, there are many hopeful things going on that will keep the spirit of Wisconsin alive for the foreseeable future.” (282) Indeed, there are many things to be hopeful about. But, if the Obama Presidency has proven anything to the American labor movement, it is this: hope does not necessarily translate into reality. Nevertheless, this critic does recommend Yates’ Wisconsin Rising as a useful and important contribution to the growing body of modern labor literature with one important caveat: rather than taking Yates’ analysis at face value, readers should also do the hard work of reaching out in their communities, in their workplace, and in their unions (if you are fortunate enough to still have one). Identify the local obstacles as well assets, and take inventory of the attitudes of friends and colleagues to inform you when making your own strategies. Be scientific and do not fall prey to either optimism or pessimism, nor act according to fear or arrogance. Rather, look at the actual conditions around you, search for opportunities, strategize and act upon the facts.

No comments:

Post a Comment