Current events make me so angry I trip over my words. There aren’t phrases ugly enough to express how I feel. Here are a few notes on some recent conversation I had with friends and loved ones sparked by current events. To head off the occasional jerks who stumble here then gripe at me – no insight promised.

I talked to a friend on the phone the other day about the police in Madison supporting the protests or joining them, something I found very confusion. Here’s my notes on what I remembered after our conversation.

1. Institutionally gummed up gears
There’s a crisis here analogous to the economic crisis, where one set of capitalist institutions isn’t working right and so causes problems for the system. This is political and a matter of judgements and vision, not automatic. Same deal with the democrat senators temporarily breaking quorum in response to the republicans playing ball a bit too hard with them. The cops coming out against the governor is similar. They recognize that they’re pay will get cut too. They’re probably really tight with the democrats locally and the democrats have an interest in seeing Walker’s bill defeated or at least toned down. A lot of the cops are probably married to people who are on the chopping block economically. So they’re coming out as an independent institutional player here, or at least siding with one side (the dems et al) against the other.

This institutional stuff matters a lot. The dems breaking quorum provided and continues to provide time for the movement to gather and ups the possibility for an autonomous and genuinely working class force. Likewise the cops’ delay or refusal of busting heads and clearing the capital does the same. But, this is a temporary convergence in a field of forces in motion – what they’re doing matters for the people we sympathize with – but it’s not a convergence of interests, at least not in any good way. To the degree that the forces mobilizing in Madison have interests in common with cops, well, I trust that in conversation with you I don’t need to finish that sentence.

2. subjective side
If the cops enter the movement, rather than just act as an institutional force, that’s going to be a big problems. No working class movement can involve police as participants without being conservative, unless the police are actually ex-police refusing their social function etc. This will especially limit participation by poorer people and people of color. Even if the cops don’t enter the movement, this will promote illusions (for some, the cops aren’t so bad, for others, the revolution may break out because the cops are putting down their guns), probably still turn off youth of color. So while the preserving space aspect is really important it introduces other tendencies that will have less positive effects, to put it mildly.

In terms of any use of this in Madison/in response to Madison, instead of being ineffectually right (which is I feel too much of the time), the move probably should not be to polarize against the cops and democrats in the very short term for the reason of not picking a fight that the movement isn’t ready for. A better move might be to try to broaden the demands, grievances, and interests involved here, which is more a matter of tryign to expand who is involved. If connections can be made to people of color and youth who are in conflict with the police more in terms of imemdiate interests that might force the movement to make some decisions and take some turns.

Also, the cops are the clearest piece, the prison guards too, but it’s not just the cops – teachers and social workers are involved here too, and those are people with at best contradictory relationships to different strata of the working class.


Some older notes as well –

I was briefly at the rally in Madison when the firefighters showed up. It’s a very contradictory grouping and I for one have a strong impulse toward writing off this kind of thing but I think that’s a mistake. When the firefighters showed up the crowd was electrified, people started cheering and many were crying, it’s hard to articulate this clearly but there is a certain something in the air that is almost tangible, in part tied to people’s anxieties over what will happen but also tied to standing up together. This is powerful stuff and it creates some kind of possibilities I think. The issue of how we voice criticisms is really relevant here too. I think it’s important to put out critical perspectives, because they’re true and necessary for people navigating what’s going to happen, but we have to try to do so in ways that don’t put us outside the feeling. I think it feels to lots of people involved like it expresses something real and important, I think our responses have to be like “yes, and…” instead of being simply like “all of this is reducible to its conservative elements” if we want to be heard much at all. I don’t mean pandering or blunting points, though to be very honest I’m not sure how to actually carry this out in ways that don’t feel like doing so.

As people probably heard, the democrats in the wisconsin senate have not shown up, to deprive the senate of quorum to delay the vote on the attack on public sector unions. This article talks about it –

this includes republicans calling for the use of police against the democrats. I’m glad that the demorats are doing this but it’s probably going to foster some illusions about the democratic party and electoral politics. Obama’s response is instructive, he said something like “this bill is an unacceptable attack on collective bargaining” but also said that unions do have to give in to concessions.

Obviously the politicians and perhaps the different parts of the capitalist class they represent are strongly divided here. The right is very bold in its attacks on workers and is willing to divide the politicians and capitalists (we’ve seen this in Arizona too, where many business owners are against the racist immigration laws). There’s a real chance that this hard right agenda could win out so it’s important to fight the passage of the law and fight to reverse it if it passes, but it’s also important to be aware that the democrats have been a party of attacks on workers. This article gets into that briefly –

As this struggle in Wisconsin and similar ones heat up, the democrats will temporarily seem more left. But they’ll move right again. As they move one way that will create a little more space for better ideas and vision – ideas like ours will seem more legitimate in part (and only in part) because of changes in the more official and respected forces, and as they move right again those ideas and vision will be more obviously in opposition.

Whatever happens in Wisconsin, there will be more of these fights. Because the push for austerity is coming alongside the election of hard right politicians who are ready to fight other politicians and aren’t really interested in or well placed to create negotiated conscenss, these will probably play out in a polarized and conflictual way, in many respects that’s a mistake on the part of the people up high. As the responses broaden and deepen the smarter move on the part of the politicians will be to get more moderate and put out concessions in the way that Obama has called for. Their role in the Wisconsin fight and their status as the opposition party will probably set the democrats up really well to play that role. I think in the short term personalizing and polarizing around the republicans is a good idea, they’re easy to dislike, but the move will have to become more toward defense against any attacks and hopefully toward a counter-attack by workers, or we won’t be ready when the turn comes and the democrats are back in office.

In the short term, this delaying tactic by the democrats is useful because it creates space and time for more mobilization and growing outrage and more space to push a long term vision. The uncompromising and polarizing posture of the republicans helps (though some have slightly tried to ease up on this, saying stuff like “These are moderate changes!”) by further polarizing and discrediting them, eroding their legitimacy. For Wisconsin there’s a lot of possibility to deepen this fight. It also has to lay some long term basis, though, more relationships and organization and spreading a radical vision. Because let’s say the fight against the law is won – it’s not like things were good before this kicked off. This is in some respects a lot like the Republic Windows and Doors stuff – exciting but the demand was actually a defensive and sad one — for Republic they wanted layoff pay, in Wisconsin they want to keep collective bargaining and prevent a big increase in insurance premiums etc.


My wife and I were talking the other night about the petit bourgeoisie and the far right and I wanted to bounce some of the thoughts off you that came up in our conversation. It seems to me that bosses tend to have a very clear sense of their interest as bosses in relation to their employees. They like to preserve their power in relation to employees and don’t like it to be challenged. That’s really important stuff. But that’s not the same thing as their interest as a class/class fraction. That is, employers can have a very clear boss-consciousness, so to speak, without being particularly class conscious as capitalists.

Two historical examples — In England, one of the motivations behind reductions of hours and condition was that life on and off the job for the English working class led to the English working class being shorter and, it was believed, less healthy and so less fit for military service. The English government was worried about this, and I’d argue that English capitalists in general had an interest in England’s military strength.

In the US, workers compensation laws were introduced mostly through the actions of associations of big manufacturers, companies like US Steel. (There were also really similar worries in the US about how fit US workers were, or weren’t, for military service due to the effect of work and living conditions.) Among the reasons in favor of workers comp, before workers comp there were tons of injuries that went uncompensated, which made the capitalist system less legitimate. And, before workers comp, if workers tried to get compensation they had to sue and the US has what’s called an adversarial legal system – plaintiffs vs defendants – in which there’s an argument about whether or not something was wrong. Many employers felt like this position of workers vs employers in court as adversaries plus debate about whether or not injuries was wrong was also creating unrest on the job and potentially undermining the legitimacy of the system. Finally, workers comp made injuries a cost that could be made predictable and evenly distributed by regular insurance payments (instead of having it just happen suddenly), and this was a cost that all employers would have to bear to some extent because everyone had to get workers comp insurance.

With workers comp, it was supported by big employers because of the law of averages, so to speak. Injury rates were insanely high. Depending on the industry, 1 worker in 1000 or as much as 1 worker in 400 would suffer a fatal or permanently disabling injury every year. That meant that big companies employing thousands of people would predictably face injuries and since some percentage of injured workers won law suits, they knew they’d have to pay for some portion of them. But for small companies employing 10, 20, 100 people, they could play the odds and have a much better chance of not having injuries happen (not because they were safer, just because they had fewer employees). So for small companies, this was an added cost – workers comp insurance premiums – with a benefit they felt like they didn’t need.

I think creating health and safety regulation was in the capitalists’ interests in that it restored some level of legitimacy and took care of some of the other problems I mentioned. So those capitalists who fought for workers comp were fighting in their interests and in favor of the long term viability of the capitalist system. Individual capitalists, especially smaller companies, fought against this because it wasn’t in their individual interest – their individual interests weren’t in harmony with the over all interest of the capitalist class – or in the case of some bigger companies, they were ignorant of their class interests or disagreed with some of the ideas involved (so they weren’t very class conscious capitalists).

My hunch here is that the state is really important as a mechanism for helping identify problems that are systemic – tied to the interests of the capitalist class as a whole – and that it’s also a way to work out politically how to respond to the capitalists’ class interests. That is, visionary capitalists and their employees in foundations etc can use the state to put forward proposals and communicate them to others to try to win them to this view. If that fails, with enough political support from other capitalists (and some workers, in many cases), particular parts of the capitalist class can get the state to do certain things, to discipline individual capitalists who aren’t with the capitalist class’s over all interests.

The US workers comp system is largely modeled off of the German system which was done in attempt to forestall/get out in front of the German socialist movement. It came in response to fears of the working class etc — the capitalists implemented these reforms in response to constraints created by the working class. This is one of the more difficult things about capitalism and reformism – the smarter capitalists have repeatedly been able to identify ways in which workers struggles point out systemic weaknesses and then formulated policy proposals to try and respond. The regulation of the working day is a good example (chapter10 of v1 of Capital is all about this). The most visionary capitalists used dramatic struggles by workers to help whack the more individually focused capitalists (what I called less class conscious capitalists) upside the head with their class interests.

Workers comp guaranteed payment for injury, that was new, but it put a cap on the payments. Prior to workers comp, this stuff was handled by lawsuit. Workers basically always lost their lawsuits up through the 1860s/1870s or so. That started to change in part because of decisions by juries and judges (probably in response to the rising rates of injury and public concern over it), and it changed even more because of legislation that made it easier for workers to win. The odds never got good but they were getting increasingly better, and often the awards were much higher when workers did win. Workers comp removed the issue of fault and wrong, and lowered the high level payments. The people who wrote the laws were largely in the corporate sector – Ohio’s program was basically the same as the in-house insurance program that US Steel was already operating. Wisconsin and Illinois’s plan was basically the same as the policies that the Pullman corporation was running. This isn’t want the the organized working class was calling for at the time, the labor movement actually opposed workers comp initially, they wanted reform more like the British system, which made it even easier to sue, let workers keep the right to sue, and established standard payments for workers who didn’t want to sue for whatever reason.

Workers comp doens’t matter all that much here really, I just get hung up on it because I’ve read a ton about it. My over all point is just that individual capitalists don’t necessarily pursue the interests of the capitalist class and sometimes they pursue things that are to the detriment of their class and and so need to be brought in line eventually (workers struggles can be one mechanism for that, though a dangerous one). Another parallel here would be health insurance in the US. I haven’t kept current but in 2001-2002 I knew this stuff pretty well and I doubt much has changed for the better. The only really measure according to which ‘our’ healthcare/health insurance non-system makes sense is that of the profits of the insurers. The current non-system poses public health risks (which can become political and economic problems). For many people it results in less preventive care, which is cheaper. So it causes worse health outcomes, which cause loss of economic productivity and more expensive health care. The arrangement also raises the costs of the same procedure in the US and by maintaining a very minimal emergency floor it results in very large amount of public dollars going to healthcare, in addition the excessively high private healthcare and health insurance costs. This is not good for anyone except the people making money of it, and some of the costs are passed onto employers (via unions, via market pressures – need to have a competitive benefits package for certain jobs, and via taxes), as well as causing conflicts with employees that could be avoided. This is a form of highly mediated inter-capitalist conflict with regard to who gets what share of the total surplus wealth extracted from workers (some companies have to pay what would otherwise be profits), and it’s over all not good for US capitalism beyond insurers and a few others. That this arrangement continues of course demonstrates an important point, that changes in all this stuff are not natural or built in to capitalism or predetermined, they’re political. Those politics include the class struggle for sure, above all, but also political conflict among the other side.

That’s all I have to say about all that. The other thing we talked about is far right ideas and the petty bourgeoisie. My hunch is that the petty bourgeoisie tend toward especially reactionary positions for two or three reasons. One, there’s less social distance (and often less physical space) between them and the working class. That means they need additional mechanisms to create psychological distance and to justify their position. Two, they really don’t want to fall on the social food chain, because they’ve seen it somewhat up close and personal, what it would mean to do so, so they’re willing to be pretty intense over this, as bosses. Three, they identify with the larger capitalists – who often expropriate the petty bourgeoisie, so their interests are not really so close with the larger capitalists as the petty bourgeois often think – in part due to their aspirations to move up from petty to big capitalist.