The workers uprising in Wisconsin has been going strong for a fortnight and is starting to spread across the region. Which made me wonder — what would our chubby old German friend have had to say about the Republican war on the unions, had he still been alive today?
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For the past two weeks, the Wisconsin State Capitol has been the theater of the largest and most protracted US worker protests since Reagan killed air traffic control and unleashed the dark forces of neoliberalism on the world. In fact, according to some, these are the biggest demonstrations in the US since the Vietnam war.
In yet another telling tale of the fascinating times in which we live, tens of thousands of workers and sympathizers have been taking to the streets of Madison for almost two weeks now, protesting a budget bill proposed by the state’s Republican governor that aims not only to cut wages and slash benefits, but also to kill public unions, taking away the people’s hard-won democratic right to collective bargaining.
Paraphrasing an observation by Paul Krugman, you don’t need to be a Marxist to recognize that this is class war, plain and simple. As a social scientist and a political economist (not necessarily a Marxist), I just spent an agonizing five weeks struggling to get through Marx’s Capital. Watching events unfold in the Midwest right now, I’m starting to wonder what our grumpy German friend would have written in the New York Daily Tribune had he still been alive today.
I was both astonished and frightened by what I found. Check out this passage on page 903 of Capital, for example:
“The barbarous laws against combinations of workers [i.e., unions] collapsed in 1825 in the face of the threatening attitude of the proletariat. Despite this, they disappeared only in part. Certain pretty survivals of the old statutes did not vanish until 1859. Finally, the Act of 29 June 1871 purported to remove the last traces of this class legislation by giving legal recognition to trade unions. But another Act, of the same date … in fact re-established the previous situation in a new form. This Parliamentary conjuring-trick withdrew the means the workers could use in a strike or lock-out from the common law and placed them under exceptional penal legislation.”
A little further on in the same paragraph, after criticizing the ‘great Liberal party‘ for being “ever ready to wag their tails for the ruling classes” (a theme that most readers of this blog will be all too familiar with by now), Marx continues:
“It is evident that only against its will, and under the pressure of the masses did the English Parliament give up the laws against strikes and trade unions, after it had itself, with shameless egoism, held the position of a permanent trade union of the capitalists against the workers throughout five centuries.”
Fast forward 150 years and move the location from Manchester to Madison, and we’re still fighting the exact same battle. Generously funded by multi-billionaire capitalists, the legislature of Wisconsin, “with shameless egoism,” is trying to regain the same very position of a “permanent trade union of the capitalists against the workers,” that the English finally managed to overthrow after five centuries of class struggle.
“During the very first storms of the revolution, the French bourgeoisie dared to take away from the workers the right of association they had just acquired. By a decree of 14 June 1791, they declared that every combination by the workers was ‘an assault on liberty and the declaration of the rights of man’ … This law, which used state compulsion to confine the struggle between capital and labour within limits convenient for capital, has outlived revolutions and changes of dynasties … Nothing is more characteristic than the pretext for this bourgeois coup d’état. ‘Granting,’ says Le Chapelier, the rapporteur of the Committee on this law, ‘that wages ought to be a little higher than they are’ … the workers must nevertheless not be permitted to inform themselves about their own interests, nor to act in common and thereby lessen their ‘absolute dependence.'”
Now that you know about Marx’s idea of the bourgeois coup d’état, I’ll ask you to do me a massive favor and read this. If ever there was a bourgeois coup d’état, it’s occurring right now, right in front of our eyes. The multi-billionaire Koch brothers have got one hand in the governor’s pants and the other on the throat of the American people.
On that note, all we need to do to answer our first question (“what would Marx say?”) is to imagine for a second that he’s still alive and well, writing for the New Yorker while working on a new book, Capital 2.0: The Continued Relevance of Class Struggle in Post-Industrial Society.