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<nettime> Wiscons Uprising lit review: the books
Dan S. Wang on Tue, 10 Jul 2012 21:23:51 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Wiscons Uprising lit review: the books

Dear Nettime,

Speaking of documenta-Occupy (and not "Occupy documenta," tellingly) and
more failed revolutionary (or even reformist!) promise to write about,
there's already plenty out about Wisconsin, published even before the last,
worst failure of the June 5 smackdown. Here are my reviews of the book lit.


Dan w.


In Madison, Wisconsin, fifteen months ago the pitiable American inhibition
on public political expression dropped away on a mass scale. The result was,
among other things, the collective performance of an insurgent spectacle,
beginning with the demonstrations under the capitol rotunda. For once in my
political lifetime we had more performers than cameramen and the stage was
accordingly enlarged. The resultant images were and are fundamentally
appealing. With everybody participating, the picture represented not merely
a small group but rather a whole public, a whole society, a body in which
many viewers would recognize themselves, and, most significantly, want to

The images of the Wisconsin Uprising were made enduring through
thousands-fold repetition, most of them slightly different versions of the
same picture, a proliferation of infinite protest details bound by a whole,
generated over the many days of action. There is no doubt?the pictorial,
video, and sound documentation of the movement is vast. But finally, the
social movement actually lived up to the flood of documentation produced of

Writing is a peculiar form of documentation. Unlike photo and raw video,
writing by the nature of its production takes on a variable temporal
distance from the events being recorded. From on-the-spot tweets to daily or
weekly blog postings, to articles or columns that undergo an editing process
for webzines or newsmedia sites, to texts written for traditionally
published and distributed books, writing provides space for reflection and
descriptive processing. For that reason, in terms of understanding the hows
and whys of what happened in Wisconsin, writing is the most important kind
of documentation we have. And we have a lot of it.

There can be no hope of reviewing even a sliver of the ?first order¹ online
reporting that took place as the Uprising unfolded. There is simply too
much. For example, as of this posting I have well over 600 webpages
bookmarked in my browser¹s Wisconsin Uprising folder, each url representing
a notable detail or moment in the struggle. As a whole my bookmarked sites
preserve the feeling of daily and weekly turns of events, and how people
were thinking in the moment. These are but an unknown fraction of all that
was typed and posted. 

I have taken on the more doable task of reading through a selection of the
?second order¹ movement literature. These are the print media published
works, ranging from proper books published under well-known left wing
imprints to DIY zines produced by small groups or individuals. Though these
works vary in their physicality, professionalism of editing, and ideological
orientation, they all belong to the Uprising in the sense that they are
addressed to a movement-identified readership. This literature grew to a
considerable body of work less than a year after the uprising broke out, and
the titles I review here are not the complete roster.

The question of time frame must be considered from the outset. The writings
compiled in and through these publications represent the period January
2011, when Scott Walker was sworn in as governor, through December of that
year, by which time the effort was underway to gather signatures to force a
recall election. From where we stand now, at the end of June of 2012, after
the June 5 election debacle in which Scott Walker engineered a decisive
victory, that period can be considered the first and brightest phase of the
Uprising?and, most importantly, a phase of the movement that is definitively

The writings of that period are optimistic in comparison to the post-June 5
spirit of the movement. Even the most critical pieces are informed by the
memory and experience of the initial insurgency itself?the heady first week
through which a movement of many tens of thousands unexpectedly materialized
out of little but a suddenly recognized common precarity. After June 5, the
point of reference is quite different and certainly more difficult. Perhaps
more than even before June 5, then, we need to study our movement, our
collective decisions, mistakes, hopes, and potentialities, as found in the
literature of the Uprising, and do it with the sobriety of the defeated.


These are the four books I have read:

We Are Wisconsin: The Wisconsin Uprising in the Words of the Activists,
Writers, and Everyday Wisconsinites Who Made It Happen, Erica Sagrans,
editor. Minneapolis: Tasora Books, 300 pages.

It Started in Wisconsin: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Labor
Protest, Mari Jo and Paul Buhle, editors. Brooklyn: Verso, 181 pages.

Wisconsin Uprising: Labor Fights Back, Michael D. Yates, editor. New York:
Monthly Review Press, 304 pages.

Uprising: How Wisconsin renewed the Politics of Protest, from Madison to
Wall Street, John Nichols. New York: Nation Books, 192 pages.


Out of the four books We Are Wisconsin has the distinction of having
appeared earliest. Being a contributor, this is the one I know best. It was
a project initiated by editor Erica Sagrans <http://twitter.com/ericas> , a
young refugee of Nancy Pelosi¹s DC office who was inspired by the Wisconsin
Uprising from a distance. The collection of texts she put together make for
a remarkable pre-recall, pre-Occupy Wall Street document. Especially
valuable are the reprinted tweets, complete with time and date stamps,
grouped on pages interspersed between the essays. They convey the
excitement, anxiety, determination, camraderie, and astonishment of the
Uprising¹s first days and the occupation of the capitol. Look no further
than the tweets for evidence of the ?now-time¹ theorized by Benjamin, the
messianic arrival of historical possibility.

Though none is longer than nine pages, the articles are formally diverse. A
good number are first person, bridging the gap between the tweets and the
analytical pieces. Nationally-known left wing luminaries like Medea
Benjamin, Noam Chomsky, and Van Jones supply familiar voices at best and a
platitudinous superficiality at worst. Making the first of their appearances
that run through two of the other books are words from Michael Moore and
John Nichols. On balance, the lesser known and local writers offer the
stronger contributions. For example, UW graduate student Alex Hanna¹s
critical take on the Madison-Cairo (dis-)connection is an informed and
tempered analysis of two insurgencies that in some respects jumped a border,
but also remained particular to their locations. More so than either
Benjamin or Chomsky, both of whom also wrote about the Middle East/Midwest
vector, Hanna parses out the parallels worth holding onto. He is in a
position to do that given his membership in the TAA and the fact that his
area of study is Egyptian social movements.

The best articles are those that expand the scope of the Uprising while
retaining the urgency of the first phase. For example, in ³What Next:
Mobilizing or Organizing?² Milwaukee activist Monica Adams argues for
revisiting the known frames of oppression?racism, sexism, and other forms of
exclusionary supremacy?to interrogate the ³we² of the Uprising slogan ³we
are Wisconsin.² As well, she takes the mobilization/organization dichotomy
of her title from Kwame Ture¹s differentiation between mass
action against something (mobilization) and mass action for something
(organization). One both scores she adds substance to a struggle represented
mainly as a battle about collective bargaining rights. The text is an
excerpt from a report she delivered to the Left Forum on March 20, only
about five weeks after the Uprising began.

It Started in Wisconsin has the feel of a local production though it is the
book with probably the widest reach because of its publisher, Verso. The
cover image is a photo of the capitol dome and the endless blue sky above
it, a pure Madison image. It is the only one of the four books to use a
cover photo at all. The visual richness continues inside in the form of
photographs at chapter breaks, several comic spreads, and a couple samples
of graphic art. Though not a large selection, the visual voices range from a
wonderful shot of Uprising nuptials taken on a snowy day in front of the
capitol by wedding photographer Becca Dilley to the minimalist iconography
of Lester Doré. Other distinguishing features of the book are the lists of
recommended further readings at the end of selected chapters.

Editors Mari Jo and Paul Buhle have ties going back to Madison¹s radical
heydey during the Vietnam era. As the founding editors of the 1970s-80s New
Left periodical Radical America , they helped to disseminate essential
political ideas of from their generation¹s struggle. The Buhle¹s experience
in an earlier era is evident in the comics spread titled ³Solidarity 1970.²
It tells the story of the TAA¹s contract battle of that year, their first.
The then-newborn union won most all of their demands through a spring
semester strike that was respected by Teamsters Local 695, whose drivers
refused to make deliveries across picket lines. The chain of solidarity
running parallel to the narrative of escalation in 1970 rang true to the
opening salvos of February, 2011, when the growth of the Uprising similarly
corresponded to the escalation of resistance actions.

I remember the book for some spot-on texts, including Mari Jo¹s ³The
Wisconsin Idea.² She could have gone for the boring straight treatment, but
instead she plays off the familiar term to describe the complex and crucial
sense of identity, belonging, and ownership that produced the movement and
that in turn were produced by it. As she writes, ³No idea figured quite so
prominently throughout the course of events as that of the identity of
Wisconsin?.² The insurgent re-definition of Wisconsin and Wisconsinite
(finally!) is an aspect of the Uprising that has not been remarked on in
many places. Only after the expanded discussion about the Uprising¹s claim
on the state¹s identity does Mari Jo return to The Wisconsin Idea as an
historically specific policy orientation with links to the Progressive

Another valuable contribution is Patrick Barrett¹s interview with Madison
organizer and Green Party activist Ben Manski. Manski and one of the
organizations he helped to found, Wisconsin Wave <http://wisconsinwave.org/>
, were protest stalwarts. They came into the Uprising with an
anti-corporate, alter-global politics, and use as their banner motto the
European anti-austerity slogan ³we won¹t pay for their crisis!² The
Wisconsin Wave was significant because it offered the movement an organizing
force and a political discourse that went beyond the special interest
represented by the unions. As such, the Wave (as Manski calls it) helped to
dilute the predominance of AFSCME in the movement. This was a great service
even though the Wave itself was and is arguably unfocused in its organizing

Wisconsin Uprising is the most ideological of the books, though not
pointlessly so (I will get to the pamphlets in a minute). The book frames
the Uprising as a working class labor struggle, pretty much in those terms.
Going beyond the Wisconsin-specific touchstone of La Follette¹s Progressive
reforms, the contributors to this volume variously analyze the Uprising in
relation to earlier episodes of labor organizing from throughout labor
history. Elly Leary goes back to the Knights of Labor, the Japanese Mexican
Labor Association of the early twentieth century, and the IWW-led strike
against the American Woolen Company in 1912. Michael Hurley and Sam Gindin
consider the lessons from the Canadian hospital workers strikes of Ontario
in the mid-1990s. Rand Wilson and Steve Early co-author a chapter on the
experience of recent union organizing in such open shop states as Tennessee,
Texas, and North Carolina?a discussion even more relevant after June 5.

These and other authors make a compelling case for a wealth of tactical
creativity available in the broad history of militant labor struggle. What
they do not address are the reasons for the Uprising¹s failure in strategic
orientation, that is, why exactly the constituencies that initiated the
chain of militant escalation allowed for the strategic re-routing of their
movement. The failure is recognized as such given that it was the teachers¹
sick-out that raised the spectre of larger strike actions, and even gained
the term general strike traction at the height of the Uprising across a
grassroots segment of the movement. For example, both Dan La Botz and Frank
Emspak describe the strike possibility in their chapters, but neither offers
a good explanation for why the movement went in the direction of electoral
politics, just that it did.

Lee Sustar comes closest in his article titled ³Who Were the Leaders of the
Wisconsin Uprising?² In it he tells who actively argued for a general strike
(J. Eric Cobb, executive director of the Building Trades Council), who was
friendly to the idea (Joe Conway, president of the Madison chapter of the
firefighters¹ union), and who was against it (the top leadership of AFSCME,
WEAC, and the state AFL-CIO). If there is a take-home point in Sustar¹s
piece, it is that the big unions prioritized the preservation of their
dues-collection apparatus over the defense of their membership¹s standard of
living. As we now know definitively, this is a losing strategy.

John Nichols¹ resume reads like a long prologue to the role he played all
through the Uprising, that of a Madison-based progressive journalist and
commentator with national visibility. He has written books about media
democracy, socialism in America, and a critical profile of Dick Cheney, and
finds regular work as a Washington correspondent for The Nation magazine. As
one of the most consistently present pundits delivering the Uprising to a TV
audience (being a frequent guest on MSNBC¹s The Ed Show and other cable news
programs), as well as occasionally himself taking the microphone in front of
protestors, it was almost a foregone conclusion that his Uprising would be
the first book-length treatment of the subject by a single author. 

Nichols opens with a foreword that spells out his claim to authenticity as a
fifth-generation Wisconsinite, and points out that at one time in their
respective careers, he and Scott Walker were actually on good terms. As a
political reporter allowed the space to roam, Nichols brings in not only
discussions of labor battles from the past but the more timeless questions
of democracy itself. For example, in Chapter 2 ³First Amendment Remedies,²
he unpacks the problems of despotism and the faltering constitutional guards
against tyranny exposed in the course of the Uprising.  He interweaves into
these expositions of political history brief profiles or testimonies of the
ordinary Wisconsinites he discovered at the demonstrations. As the expert
journalist, he always attaches a human being to the most abstract parts of
the narrative and then name drops the heavy hitter (Michael Moore, Rev.
Jesse Jackson, etc) to keep up the narrative of national attention. 

My main objection to Nichols¹ book is really that of Nichols¹ politics. He
is basically a social democrat, which colors his perception of certain
events. For example, when he writes ³It was hard not to feel hopeful on
March 12, the day that 180,000 Wisconsinites welcomed home fourteen
Democratic state senators who had fled the state to deny Governor Walker and
his Republican legislative allies the quorum required to pass their
anti-labor legislation,² I question whether he attended the same event that
I did. Hopeful? I and almost everyone I know remember it feeling like a
wake. It was three days after Walker and the Republicans rammed their bill
through in a surprise procedural move, and the labor leadership did nothing
at all, even though thousands who gathered at the capitol on the night of
March 9 chanted ³general strike!² at the top of their lungs. By Saturday¹s
demonstration, the predominant vibe was, the protest phase is over and the
movement suffered a significant defeat. Nichols¹ experience of that day
might have been too heavily informed by the cheers he heard from his
position near the stage.

To wrap up my comments on the four books, I honestly recommend reading them
all for the fullest understanding of the Uprising, especially now that the
movement has gone into a forced retreat. As with any genuine popular
movement, all the perspectives and even the major storylines cannot be told
in a single volume. Outside of the broad outlines and a handful of recurrent
voices, there is surprisingly little overlap between the four.


In the next post I will cover a selection of pamphlets and zines.

Oh, and if you need another take on Wisconsin Uprising and It Started in
Wisconsin see Allen Ruff's review here
<http://www.solidarity-us.org/node/3589> .


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