The Wisconsin Uprising

By McChesney, Robert W. | Monthly Review, February 2012 | Go to article overview

The Wisconsin Uprising


McChesney, Robert W., Monthly Review


This article is adopted from the Foreword to Wisconsin Uprising: Labor Fights Back, edited by Michael D. Yates and published by Monthly Review Press - The Editors

The essays in Wisconsin Uprising are outstanding. The accounts of the events in Madison in the winter and early spring of 2011 are the best I have seen in writing, with context, detail, and analysis I have seen nowhere else. Better yet, the connections of the Wisconsin revolt to the existential questions facing the labor movement are handled with a clarity, intelligence, perspective, and urgency that is exactly appropriate to the task. This book is a fundamental historical document in its own right and will stand the test of time. The authors include some of the most accomplished writers on the left, as well as a number of emerging young writers.

There are several related points I wish to add to the arguments and observations made in this book. First, as one who was there much of the time and who participated as one of the throng, not as a leader, there was most definitely something special happening, and everyone present knew it. For much of my adult life the actual prospects for social change seemed slender, and political work was too often distasteful, with petty bickering and mindless egotism playing an outsized role - hence the common description of left-wing politics as a "circular firing squad." I was there in the 1970s when being political went from being in a community of friends, of comrades sharing values and experiences, to being pointless drudgery, a form of penance. No wonder so many people jumped ship.

The Wisconsin protests reaffirmed what many Americans had forgotten or never knew: that when people come together in solidarity directed toward social justice they are capable of great sacrifice and unrivaled joy. When there is a sense of solidarity, of hope, of dynamism, everything changes. The feeling this engenders, this bonding, is like breathing fresh air for the first time. I had experienced this in a handful of political campaigns in my Me, but absolutely nothing came close to what was happening on the streets of Madison. It reminded me why the right to assemble is a core democratic liberty - inscribed in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution - and probably the one liberty those in power fear the most.1

Second, the Wisconsin revolt confirmed that the United States in the second decade of the twenty-first century is not a reactionary country. The participants, by and large, were the sort of folks the corporate media tell us inhabit Tea Party events. But the Tea Party and its billionaire benefactors could barely get a thousand people to show up at one of their Wisconsin demonstrations - even though they flew in the Koch Brothers' favorite union-hating worker, Joe the Plumber, to hype the gate. Compare this to the tens and ultimately hundreds of thousands of Wisconsinites who came out to the protests. The demands and signs were overwhelmingly progressive and far to the left of what most political and labor leaders would countenance. I did not see a scintilla of immigrant-bashing or racism. The signs and chants reflecting progressive positions on unions, taxation, social services, and military spending would never be found in the corporate news media. The cynical claim that the American people are a bunch of shop-till-you-drop airheads incapable of critical thought was purged from my system. It made me remember that people are far more complex and beautiful.

When the events in Madison began, they seemed the natural and proper course, both to me and to the other participants. No one felt like what we were doing was a flight of fancy, or something people in other states could never do. Yet it also seemed like we were on an island, and that once the matter receded, there was the threat that we would get sucked back into the depoliticized neoliberal hell of the past generation. It was a fear that haunted everyone there. …

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