Solidarity Forever

on March 8, 2011

As the emerging counterculture takes shape, the pieces of the kaleidoscope are starting to shift and fall into new patterns at a rapid pace. One of those patterns has been revealing itself in Wisconsin, where we are seeing an unexpected rebirth of union activism for the first time in more than 50 years.

By the 1960’s, unions in the US had effectively ceased to be a force for change. They had bought heavily into the American dream after World War II, and as long as wages were high and industry was booming, their inclination was to resist anything that threatened that way of life. Their membership was for the most part socially conservative, wary of desegregation, and fiercely anti-communist.

The inevitable outcome was a parting of the ways between the social and political radicals of the 60’s and the unions. There was always a certain regret about this in the counterculture, and the occasional working-class hippie was treasured as a badge of authenticity. But as Nixon’s silent majority turned into Reagan Democrats, the divide only grew wider.

Over the past decade, though, something has started to change — as can be seen in the fetishizing of working-class style by middle-class hipsters that began about 2002. But the hipster embrace of blue collar chic has been unilateral and imbued with self-conscious irony. This makes the sincere and entirely non-ironic nature of what is happening in Wisconsin all the more striking.

There are still limitations to the new alliance being forged in the current protests. The union members whose collective bargaining rights are under siege are public employees, not factory workers. Teachers, in particular, are better educated and more highly paid than the average private sector employee — and corporate interests are trying to exploit that fact to perpetuate the old resentments and divisions.

But despite these uncertainties, there seems to be a good chance that union solidarity will prevail. And no matter what happens, this moment marks a significant shift in social alignments..

For the last 35 years, our society has been dominated by a partnership between the democracy and chaos visions, whose supreme embodiment is so-called “liberal democracy” — the system of free elections and free market economics that is now breaking down.

As it does, the democracy-and-chaos partnership is collapsing along with it. Democracy is being revealed as a hollow shell, chaos is spiraling into nihilistic hyper-individualism, and the only alternative source of social direction is the next vision along in the sequence — the holism vision, which underlies both environmentalism and the internet.

Holism has been playing the outsider role all through the era of democracy-and-chaos, and it remains purer and more idealistic than either. It still faces challenges of its own, however, and it is going to have to mature and broaden its base before it can take on the moral leadership of society.

The most immediate problem is that although holism has struggled against the core premises of democracy-and-chaos, it has never quite gotten clear of their shadow. One of those premises is the assumption that meaningful public action can take place only through government channels — which is why everything from climate change to net neutrality now hangs on the whims of elected representatives who are themselves in thrall to corporate interests.

Another is the belief that freedom is maximized when every individual functions as an autonomous unit. This bias against any sort of collective action not only undermines the legitimacy of labor unions but stands in the way of any group that might demand solidarity to promote its common interests.

The Wisconsin protests, however, are all about direct communal action. Their aim is not to appeal to the hypothetical good will of a Republican governor who believes he is on a mission from God to destroy the unions, but to put on a show of moral force that will establish collective bargaining an an inalienable right.

And though the protests have not been undertaken in the name of any recognizable expression of holism, they do partake of that broader set of attitudes that is coalescing around the holism vision as it evolves to become a moral and political force.

This is particularly evident in the respectful attitude the protesters displayed during their occupation of the state capitol. One of their favorite chants was, “Whose house? Our house” — and they treated it as such, cleaning up after themselves and being careful not to damage the marble and granite interior.

It’s significant that Wisconsin Republicans tried to paint the protesters as Sixties-style dirty hippies — with one state senator calling them “slobs” and an official wildly guessing they had done $7.5 million in damage — but failed to make these accusations stick. Today’s protests are holism-based, not chaos-based, and the different is obvious.

There are other changes, however, that need to occur within the holism vision itself before the shift of the kaleidoscope is complete.

The greatest weakness of holism has always been its tendency towards elitism. This goes back to its origins in the late 19th and early 20th century, when it presented itself as offering an alternative to the lowest-common-denominator values of the democracy vision.

Holism has long since given up its early hierarchical leanings, but there is still a popular perception that many of its manifestations are indulgences only the wealthy can afford. Our politicians, at least, continue to assert that that honest working folk will always choose jobs over clean air and water, SUVs over hybrids, and cheap imported plastic crap over durable, locally-made goods.

These claims may contain some kernel of truth, but they are essentially propaganda derived from the common-man ideology of the democracy vision. The only effective answer to them is for holism to finally break off its extended love-hate relationship with democracy and embrace the newer multiculturalism vision, which is based on community, peer-to-peer relationships, and the dignity of all participants.

I’ve written previously about how the 60’s counterculture was ignited when the chaos vision broke away from the influence of the failing science vision and turned towards the holism vision for inspiration. In precisely the same way, the coming counterculture will be based on holism inspired by multiculturalism — a shift that is already in progress, if you know where to look.

Here, for example, is one article that caught my eye as I was working on this entry:

Environmentalism may not be dead yet. In recent months signs indicate that the faltering mainstream environmental movement is about to be resuscitated by, of all things, the contemporary food movement. Foodies to the rescue! …

Anyone living in Seattle or Portland over the last several years is well aware of the revolution afoot. … The words “organic” and “local” are ubiquitous in the northwest. But they’ve also become synonymous with urban, coastal, and elitist. Foodies themselves, like farm-raised fish in a barrel, have become easy targets. …

Such stereotypes obscure a history of hard work. The roots of the contemporary food movement in the Northwest run far deeper than Seattle’s hastily tilled parking-strip gardens. The movement is more geographically dispersed and firmly established than most of us realize. Most surprising, despite its coastal image, its birthplace is not Seattle or Portland. This region’s food movement pioneers originated in … Eastern Washington.

That’s right. The Northwest origin story of what used to be called “alternative agriculture” began in gritty, conservative Spokane. During that city’s World’s Fair in 1974, a motley group of farmers, professors, and students from nearby universities met to debate the environmental politics of food. In those dark days of energy crisis and Nixonian cynicism, these “environmental heretics” saw the light. Although the politics of food had no place in mainstream environmentalism in the early 1970s, young people, such as Mark Musick and David Holland thought otherwise. Along with a growing group of like-minded allies, they began to merge the politics of food with the politics of ecology. They called it Whole Earth Ecology.

One thing which struck me about this article is that it makes clear a distinction I had not fully grasped when I did an entry a few weeks ago that touched on both the “depavers” of Portland and the far more purposeful farm hackers of the Young Farmers Coalition.

Depavers and guerrilla gardeners give the impression of acting more symbolically than out of a sense of necessity. Hipsters similarly long to put their holistic ideals into practice but wind up embracing such eccentricities as fixed-gear bicycles. But radical farmers, driven by the urgent politics of food, show no such self-consciousness.

A second point of interest in the article is that this “alternative agriculture” goes back to the early 70’s, when Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog was attempting to steer clear of standard left-wing politics and combine holism with a new multicultural perspective. That fusion faded into the background as the democracy-and-chaos partnership formed and mainstream environmentalism took hold, but it is now returning to visibility.

And the food movement even promises to add its presence to the Wisconsin protests next weekend, with the Family Farm Defenders putting out an appeal to “bring tractors and solidarity to the WI capitol to fight for labor rights and a just state budget.”

The Family Farm Defenders are themselves firmly located in the nexus of holism and multiculturalism. “Our mission,” their website proclaims, “is to create a farmer-controlled and consumer-oriented food and fiber system, based upon democratically controlled institutions that empower farmers to speak for and respect themselves in their quest for social and economic justice.”

Certain words in that statement, like “consumer” and “democratically,” appear to be a holdover from the old order — but “empowerment,” “respect,” and “social and economic justice” are the shape of the future.

Related:

A listing of all my posts on the emerging counterculture can be found here.

A general overview of the areas of interest covered at this blog can be found here.

A chronological listing of all entries at this blog, with brief descriptions, can be found here.

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