Monday, March 14, 2011

Re-Wiring Wisconsin And The Whole Wide World!

This is getting too serious to ignore.

I normally wouldn't venture on the topic, given I come originally from England where "socialism" is perfectly polite public speech, and so perhaps I lack cultural sensitivity to comment in the US context. But don't worry what I'm saying is really very little to do with that whole traditional framework. And that's the serious point!

In Wisconsin Governor Walker pushed through a bill stripping bargaining rights from public sector workers. Originally linked to a budget proposal the legislation became a piece of flat-out union-busting.

And it's not just Wisconsin that's on the line. Over a dozen states are considering similar legislation as a way of balancing books by undoing union agreements as well as making cuts in local government programs for schools, health care, social services etc. As in Wisconsin the overall effect will be to weaken unions to the point of rendering them meaningless.

Michael Moore on the Rachel Maddow show called this "class war" and issued a call to working people everywhere to mobilize, demonstrate, protest. Without resorting to that exact nomenclature a chorus of mainline church voices has been raised, urging the protection of workers' rights and supporting collective bargaining, but to no effect. Walker and other Republican politicians like him are gambling that the present political climate in the USA, backed up by a compliant corporate-owned media, will allow them to make economies on the backs of their workers while a tiny minority of super-rich experience an epochal shift of taxation and wealth in their singular favor. Michael Moore's hope of an Egypt-style mobilization seems fanciful While the official Christian voices raised to defend workers appear politically negligible.

The political language of workers' struggle and its church theological support were evolved in conditions of 19th century industrialism. In the dense setting of the new manufacturing cities and the long, crowded, dangerous workday of mechanized factories it was impossible for workers--and any who accompanied them--not to feel a huge sense of collective identity. Automatically this identity would and did define itself in fierce opposition to the group of people who owned the factories or the mines, who hired them and fired them, and at the same lived at a vastly different level of material well-being. It was the experience of this mass of unhappy humanity that convinced Engels and Marx it would be England which would witness the first communist revolution.

Well, as we all know, it didn't happen that way, none of it. Instead progressively living standards of workers in the Western world improved, and at the same time a mass media developed which substituted the collective and anonymous identity of the Radio and TV audience for the solidarity of workers at the pit-face or production line. And now, yes, the internet is a different phenomenon, allowing individuals to communicate one-to-one in large numbers; however, its ability to mobilize must depend on relationships of solidarity that are already there--it cannot create them. And that solidarity is what is missing in the West. Or at least still to be revealed.

For the truly critical thing is the anger and hostility directed against the owners, the bosses, those in power. This is what has classically "mobilized" the masses. But by constant media orchestration popular anger in the U.S. has been made to feel thematic, not against super-wealth, but against government taxation and social legislation. The very thing that should appear as the "class enemy" is what many ordinary people seem to be siding with, against themselves! And it's very difficult to see how the voices of Michael Moore or statements from bishops can turn that round. Therefore the whole notion of class struggle seems outdated and futile.

But hold on here, am I expressing here some sort of pure nostalgia for the good old days of workers' revolution, now gone but much regretted? Not at all. I put this out front and center in order to show how things have changed (really) and so clear the way for a whole new sense of solidarity and identity. From this point of view the loss of workers' political identity in mobilized anger against their bosses is a good thing. All that is based in an old violent anthropology. In its place, I believe, there can and will emerge a much deeper solidarity, one even more subversive and eventually much more effective against the legislation in Wisconsin. It's time is coming, and it's high time the churches caught up with it and their teaching about it became consistent, conscious and persistent!

Mimetic anthropology indicates how deeply wired to each other we all are, and in a way that potentially goes much deeper than mere class solidarity. Sure, we can connect powerfully as the crowd in opposition to the blameworthy oppressor, but because of unconscious imitation of the rival we can end up no different from the one who is oppressing! In contrast compassion might seem weak and directed only toward those who are too helpless to help themselves. But on closer study we can see Jesus has released into the world a radically re-wired compassion, a solidarity with everyone, simply as a way of being in the world. And there is no limit to the lengths to which this compassion can and will go.

This new compassion brought into the world by Jesus is in structural opposition to the brutal individualism of right-wing politics. And now in its light the right wing are overplaying their hand.

By continually stripping people of the protections of social policy it makes the real solidarity of Jesus stand forth, a limitless, self-giving, transformative sense of being human. Naturally in the short run this does not help the public sector workers, as it doesn't help the city schools and state welfare programs. And it doesn't stop the ever growing threat of random or manipulated violence when people individually and collectively are driven crazy by the lack of care and meaning in society. But all this together simply acts vastly to increase the urgency and centrality of transformative anthropology and the task of the church to teach, preach and live according to it.

The word of this anthropology cries out to the church, "Let's be done with insurance-policy salvation for the hereafter, just as much as good works for God's approval, and let's hear instead Jesus' radical intervention in the human condition, and especially now in the 21st century. Jesus teaches human solidarity in and for itself as a new way of being on the earth, a radical re-wiring of humanity, and it stems directly from his own transforming humanity raised up by God for all to see. The one and only act of salvation!"

The more this teaching penetrates our Western mind the more the idea of possessing a billion dollars while a family is scraping by below the poverty line will become as inhuman and barbaric as ritual sacrifice to ensure a good harvest.

And if that seems like a harsh comparison remember I am not talking rhetorically, to score a point, but in terms of anthropological actuality. Human compassion as a dominant way of being in the world has to come, and will come, because truly that is all that is left us!

Perhaps then, to change the image, we could say that the character of Gov. Walker's policies are in effect like the tsunami in Japan. That natural disaster fills us with horror but also very quickly compassion, with an overwhelming desire to help and make good the disaster. Because of the brutal policies now gaining vogue in our society the same thing will happen in terms of our inner cities, our poor, our weak, and the world's poor and weak. We will come to see selfish ideological politics as a kind of tsunami, wrecking our world, but then in the same moment that will become an infinite call to help and make good.

So here's what I think. Any people who are demonstrating in Madison or in any state capital across the nation, yes, be there, get there, raise your voices. But do so not from the old 19th century righteous anger against the bosses, rather from the deep emerging well of compassion that Christ has broken open within us, brimming up to change the face of our earth.

Tony Bartlett, Theologian in Residence

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