The Meaning of Wisconsin

Submitted by Juan Conatz on June 21, 2011

Social movements act today as limitations that struggles must outmaneuver or overcome. In Wisconsin, contesting the management of the social worked to neutralize a latent ferocity and render the struggle an accomplice to its own racially coded anxieties. Arguably, the only political act in Wisconsin was recuperation. The Wisconsin struggle, in staking a claim in the social, self-regulated the exclusion and discipline of autonomous content and forms, thereby cutting the sinews of its greatest strength. This process functioned simultaneously to administer racial codes and barriers that all took place in the work of government. A different politico-historical conception of race and a corresponding strategy will arm us against these measures and prepare us for the crises ahead.

It began as a break with the certainty of work. It appeared first as spontaneous marches, walkouts, diffuse wildcat strikes—popular sick-outs complete with complicit doctors’ notes—and finally an occupation of the Capitol building in Madison. At the representative level, Democratic senators fled from sight, stumbling away from their roles. Each act of insubordination revealed the murky line between law and unlawfulness—for a moment, even the senators lost their appearance as politicians and accidentally co-authored a story of resistance to austerity.

A social movement appeared in Wisconsin. Unfortunately, our conditions don’t cohere socially. There is no unity of language, much less practice, and there is certainly no allegiance to what’s left of the institutions. The only unity available to us is that of capital. What should have immediately grown in intensity and frequency as an unpredictable counter-attack lined up behind the sad banner of better management of the social. It was precisely its appearance as a “social movement,” its stability and coherence, its simulacrum of civil rights, that led the Wisconsin struggle to its currently doomed path. The desire for legitimate subjectivity that governed the acts of even the most radical elements restricted the struggle’s ability to form communities and experiment with new languages. Even the anarchists could only be gagged by their image of blue overalls masses marching for the general strike. At each opportunity, they even sang lullabies of solidarity with police, rather than the terrible anti-state howl that only the anarchist can screech. Everyday subjects collectively imagined a struggle in Wisconsin, but not once did that imagination dirty itself with others. The moment that a new sense of community could be felt, those days when thousands of anti-austerity demonstrators faced off against the little Tea Party brown shirts, was the same moment the struggle in Wisconsin retreated to old roles and identities: precisely those granting one friendship with the police, and enemies with disorder.

What happened in Wisconsin in early ‘11 is inspiring on many levels, but nonetheless defensive and limited. In the period of one week the image of labor struggle in Wisconsin altered public discourse to include the scandal of “class.” However, in spite of the initial acts, no one who made their way to Madison, on our side of the barricades, did so in order to act politically. This failure is the terrain of our exploration.

Collective acts of interruption announce the coming of something else. During this moment—which, in the case of Wisconsin, stretched out for weeks—a time of the political is possible. Decision takes on its real power and uncertainty is revealed as potential. In the political moment, gestures that would have been empty at any other time become endowed with meaning. Decisions, ours or theirs, can have the power to smother a struggle or defend its barricades against the armed wing of progressive history. Here the struggle either grows or is added to the history of the vanquished.

Communication makes political action possible. The sense of We, as a collective force, is the outcome of a shared language. A struggle is composed of various languages and communities. Eventually the common negative element, not the positive, constitutes the struggle’s sense of we, a party. Even the old workers movement could only be named as such in its negative relation to capital. This is why today struggles function to reveal that there are two parties, the party of order—those who work to avoid the clash, the political moment—and the party of insurrection—those who work to hasten it.

The conditions in Wisconsin, although limited by the defensive nature of the discourse against “Governor Walker’s anti-union bill,” were arguably more favorable than most other struggles in the US in the last decade for such a moment. Judging by one demonstration in Madison alone, more than a hundred thousand people opposed the government’s austerity measures. More people opposed these measures than were at national demonstrations against the Iraq war, much less globalization. The level of spontaneous and grassroots organizing was breathtaking, enough for this nostalgic writer to forget his own cold skepticism for moment. Union halls actually had an interesting use, walls inside and around the capitol were covered in posters, and through various radical and social networking conduits, information spread quickly and appropriately both within and beyond Wisconsin. However, all of these means remained categorically separate from each other. No website, no space, no meeting point—besides the capitol—became a common hub of the struggle. The occupation by the anarchists and students in Milwaukee became a space from which to organize, but never established itself as the convergence point of a series of actions, mostly because there was no such series of actions. Although acting decisively on March 9 to distribute general strike pamphlets, the Industrial Workers of World (IWW) failed to actually develop practical forms of self organization that corresponded to their project. There were no strike committees, no general assemblies discussing the real logistics of a generalized halt of production and reproduction. Perhaps the IWW organization was already the wrong machination for these objectives, given its small membership, lack of funds, and limited network outside itself. Nonetheless, no one was getting organized to collectively provide for themselves once everyone and everything stopped working. Who wants to participate in a myth emptied of its material content? There is no political moment without collective practices that induce collective will.

Wisconsin is significant precisely because of these limits. It could have been the first of many developments in self-organized struggles against austerity, but for the time being, the struggle against austerity is hindered by its failure to initiate such forms and Wisconsin stands as a case study in this failure. The failures of the anarchists and the IWW are the most striking because of their composition and their ability to form an active minority position or communizing current within the struggle. Given the anarchists’ ethico-political imperative against the state, they still have much to contribute to the development of self organized forms. Given the IWW’s, clear anti-capitalist position, they (or something like them) are still positioned best to establish encounters with other organs and disseminate tactical information in situations like Wisconsin, even if their own programs will be a limit to their realization. The lack of self-organized forms can’t, and won’t, be the sole responsibility of the anarchists and the IWW, but such bodies do have an historical task to fulfill in the development and refining of a struggle because of what animates both—an irreconcilable antagonism. The events in Wisconsin prove that we can’t, and shouldn’t, rely on an any phantom of the left to give these antagonisms form. Neither social bodies, nor any other so-called radical actor, materially and substantially gave form to the desire for self-organization from which the initial acts of the struggle were born. Ultimately because of this failure, the thousands of tweets of “General Strike” on March 9 didn’t have the same sway as the prodigal politicians’ return from exile. During the week or so of the occupation and demonstrations the lack of self-organization as a form quickly gave rise to management, and the self-organized content of the struggle (i.e. various rebellious practices, languages, and intimacies) were quieted by the authoritative voice of management, or excluded from participation. This is how everyone went back to work on Thursday.

Wisconsin could have been a festival of disruption collectively authored by hundreds of thousands of people, but as I’ve shown, the process of giving form to the desire for self-organization was routed. The struggle was defeated politically through its own failure to engage in the political, to elaborate hostilities to the point of an intense friend/enemy distinction. The struggle was not only defeated because of its own failures in this regard, but these failures and limits are the outcome of the process that manages the composition, language, desires, demands, tactics, and imagination of a struggle. That is, the work of government. As I will reveal in the next section of this text, the work of government that includes the calculated, decentralized, distribution of subjectivities, endows racial subjects with a particular significance, and this significance has, and continues to have, catastrophic results. What can oppose this work of government from within a struggle? Because government now consists in the management of a dissolving society, and any rupture opens up the potential for new relations, the insurrectional hypothesis becomes the most sensible revolutionary wager. Given the racial implications of governance in the US, the insurrectional hypothesis also becomes the most sensible method through which to avert the racial catastrophe. While Foucault donning the black mask does not a revolution make, the police, middle class, media, and medical industry all acquire a racializing function in the US that only a war with everything as its object can affect.

Someone said race is the linchpin to exploding the social order in the US. I want to revisit this proposition in light of Wisconsin and the discourse of anti-austerity. Not to say that had there been a bunch of guilty-ass-white people trying to make the unions enunciate “privilege,” the outcome and current trajectory of the struggle in Wisconsin would be different. There are many such people already employed by unions after their stints at Common Ground in New Orleans, or after a visit to the Bay to go through a Catalyst Project training. On the contrary, my provocation is thus: The party of capital strategically targeted Wisconsin to make a spectacle of its austerity bill because the racial representation of that public sector labor movement is a better wager than say, Chicago, for things to not get out of hand.

Wisconsin constitutes one of the most racially segregated states in the US, with Milwaukee as the number one city. The fact that the struggle against austerity took place in Madison, a “white college town” as neutralized as any other (instead of the gritty streets of Milwaukee), is no coincidence. On the terrain of struggle, the GOP, the police, and the unions were in accord, and their shared “political civility” campaign was the icing on the cake. Selling the unions legitimacy in trade for governable demonstrations kept power flowing to the proper conduits. This excluded any belligerent practices from ruining the image of the white middle class demanding that things return to normal. The spectacle of the anti-austerity struggle in Wisconsin worked to administer the framework of who would be predicated as a legitimate opposition to austerity measures and how austerity could be opposed. This process, in which the white bourgeois individual with a strong work ethic becomes the legitimate subject of opposition, and passive and legal means become the only means of opposition, is realized by writing austerity as an attack on the middle class.

Middle class is code for white—never mind that neither category has any substance. When “defend the middle class,” became a common slogan of the struggle, it was already entangled in the process of its own racialization. The struggle in Wisconsin was strategically represented as white. The real composition of ‘who is affected by austerity measures’ will not only be those white people who see pictures of themselves in the media, butit’s not problematic that the composition of demonstrators who are trying to learn how to fight includes people with “white” as a property. The problem is not the real composition of the struggle. Everyone is increasingly proletarianized, and as it grows into insurrection the struggle will call into question every “people,” and every property. The problem is the concrete limit of the representation of the struggle as white and the racial discourse coded into austerity.

A struggle against austerity in the US reflects the loss of faith in the ability of politicians and capitalists to manage social life and regulate the economy. In many ways, the previous contracts that ensured social peace have reached their expiration date. Like capitalists who must imagineer a new bubble to replace the housing market, politicians must scramble to find something resembling stability that workers will invest in. If the discourse of austerity can be written as a fight, with one side against loss of jobs and another in favor of reducing government spending, the image of compromise can successfully placate antagonisms and conceal what (and who) is already excluded. However, if the discourse of austerity is written as a fight between an excess that has to be cut off or transformed and an increasingly limited, if not exterior, zone of work that must find ways to keep its logic the only option, then it becomes clear that self-organization is the hinge on which any future lies. From the position of the party of order, self-organization must come to mean self-management, it must be voluntary austerity; from our position it must come to mean ungovernable.

This process, which transforms self-organizing content into self-regulating subjects, played out perfectly in the Wisconsin, and the racialization of the struggle as white assisted it at every turn. If austerity was denounced on placards, it was enforced in the streets. The capitol in Madison becoming the focal point for struggle reduced the ability of many people to participate simply by locating the struggle geographically distant from the real front lines of the war. Who can make it to Madison to demonstrate when the bus lines don’t even run in your neighborhood? On the other hand, even when the struggle was animated by a more emotive sensibility, the anger was always quieted. The occupied Capitol never once forced out the police, nor did the demonstrators leave their mark with anything besides masking tape and posters. While the participation of a demographic that wasn’t only in its early 20s is inspiring, we still have to realize that an event that can ensure the safety of the family is no event at all. Intensity and police confrontation are frightening but should not be sufficient factors to exclude people older than 22. And every struggle worth mentioning has been composed of a diversity of ages, in spite of police violence. But this little white lie—the hallmark of the managers of revolt ever since the civil rights movement—was effective in Wisconsin. The discourse of privilege was mobilized in order to pacify the unruly elements. The plea to not endanger “women and children” (and sometimes “elders” are given that “innocence” status), despite dripping with patronizing overtones, never ends up actually creating a space in which restraint is demonstrated in order to communicate sensitivity to risk. On the contrary, such measures always end up reducing all sense and communicating nothing to those at-risk subjects who wish to fight. Instead struggles replicate the models of inclusion and representation practiced by democratic governments and businesses, always speaking the same wienery language, and authorized by the same white benevolence. The family-friendly demonstrations, the self-policing, the neutral relation to police and politicians, and the civility afforded to the Tea Party essentially gagged the struggles lips and tied its limbs. In accepting the terms of the politicians, media, police, and unions, the struggle in Wisconsin was represented as white, and geo-socially located in a white territory. This cut off a large portion of the public sector in Milwaukee, and reduced the struggle’s capacity to pose a threat to the normal flows of power. Instead of self-organized forms resonating and reverberating in other forms of self-organization against austerity, the struggle in Wisconsin imposed its own austerity measures—specifically against the excess of non-white political desire.

Both sides of authority in the US need austerity to be a white discourse. They need it be represented as a crisis for whites that only a reconfiguration of whiteness can solve. The left needs to recall the the promise of the middle class, even that of a distorted version of Martin Luther King Jr’s dream, to stake a claim and defend the borders of public sector job-security against the private sector precariousness The right on the other hand, needs to recall the same promises—through some Davey Crockett, rugged individual shit—in order to prepare a majority of the population (who won’t be white, as it happens) to roll up its sleeves, and believe in a future only possible through competition. The left needs its demonstrations to be polite, orderly, and family-oriented in order to maintain public legitimacy and to reveal to the right that it’s willing to bargain. The right needs the same thing, but in order for the struggle to never grow into the no-mans land of a non-white, or anti-social desire—which functionally achieve a similar thing. The irony is that the falling rate of profit resulting in global economic turmoil means neither side can afford to bargain, which is why this is happening in the first place. Put bluntly, they need to recite the promises of whiteness in order to have anything resembling power over an increasingly fucked generation and previous generations that are going to lose every gain they ever had. But who’s going to fall for that trick again? Apparently, most of the activist-left. In Europe the strategic deployment of the discourse of citizenship (civil duty, etc) often takes the place of racial jargon in the US. It’s used to force struggles into passive trajectories that end at the tombstone of compromise. Given the fact that austerity is about forced self-reductions of a population’s access to wealth and services—we could say making the economy even more intertwined through us and at the same time more foreign to us—wouldn’t the deployment of racial codes in order to achieve voluntary reductions and partnerships with the police also follow the same logic? How peculiar that this arrives at the same time when the racial configuration of power that functioned to reproduce white-supremacy in the US for centuries is now having internal errors. The inclusion of whites into the libidinal economy of police bullets1 corresponds to the fact that the Leave it to Beaver-ass-American dream now consists of working in precarious service industry conditions, eternally in debt, with some horrible catastrophe as the only foreseeable future. The struggle in Wisconsin had to be managed from this viewpoint, because Greece ‘08 is just around the corner2 .

Given the unique political history of the US, race occupies a special category of inquiry. Both classical politics and modern Marxist political-economic ideology inadequately approach the problem of racial order. Neither hypotheses can reconcile the forms of life that are captured and attenuated as racial subjects with the forms of life’s inclinations to wander. Moreover neither hypothesis has thus far articulated race as an apparatus: a set of practices, bodies of knowledge, measures and techniques aimed at achieving a strategy of governance. Race must be rethought and confronted as an apparatus. No struggle will grow into generalized insurrection insurrection without a decisive assault on the racial apparatus. This is true in Wisconsin and for the burgeoning anti-austerity struggle in the US, as it was true for the former US anti-globalization movement, who retreated to its bedroom once its liberal identity was called into question by 9/11.

  • 1Since ‘08, murders of whites by police bullets across the US have been higher than any other time since the depression. While there’s thus far very little statistics, a news google search, reveals an upsurge in police-subtraction of whites. Brian Wilkins, a blogger on Operation Nation, complied a list detailing white-death by police from March 09-10 counting 8 bodies eliminated. Add the white president of a UNC fraternity in North Carolina, Courtland Smith (2010), and 21 year old goth in Long Island, Anthony Digerinimo (2011) to Mix. It would be foolish to suggest this means that Obama is reversing the role of police, which is the argument of white-supremacist rhetoric. What this potentially means is that capital needs to overcome the limits of race, in order to be able to restructure the economy with a majority of value extracted from superfluous labor. Not by abolishing racial order, but by democratizing its police-operations. I could go on and on, but I think Giorgio Agamben’s suggestion that Bare Life is the a priori of all subjects reveals the intelligence of this governmental operation.
  • 2“Fuck 68, fight now!” marked the Greek revolt with a telling contemporary fervor. The Greek rioters rendered rebellion as both really existing and citable. The fact that the media attempted to capture what was enroute as the revolt of the “600 Euro Generation” should not go unnoticed either. While there’s no doubt that it was those precarious surplus laborers who felt immediately attacked by Alexandros Grigoropoulos’s death, it was also Albanian and Turkish immigrants, factory workers, farmers, students, house-wives—a slew of everyday subjectivities. In particular, Greece represented a swerve within the normal flows of struggles we’ve witnessed after anti-globalization. When the anti-CPE struggle emerged in France, invoking that same 600 Euro Generation, it could not communicate in a meaningful way to those in Banlieues who rioted against their conditions only a few months earlier. Instead of the blockades resonating across all French boundaries, they were limited to predictable student protagonists. Greece on the other hand, perhaps in its negativity, born from the annihilation of malfunctioning subjects, grew beyond this little container in Exarchia. For those capitalists shaking in they boots about the tremors of global economic crisis, Greece invokes a specter of inter-ethnic class struggle that doesn’t even want the reforms they could lie about imposing. Given the fact that the Oscar Grant riots in Oakland come immediately afterward in Jan ‘09, we can tip our hat to the capitalist paranoias. However, the self-organized measures that were taken in Greece to learn practical lessons from France’s mistakes are not what we might expect when we think of anti-racist organizing.