I am one of the people who was sleeping and living in the Wisconsin State Capitol building. We did not do this because of free speech or as a protest against the elimination of the public worker unions, but because it is our house, the People’s House, and we mean that quite literally.
Wisconsin has had a functioning social democracy for over 100 years based on respect and citizen participation. We expect our politicians to be accessible and accountable. We expect our government to be responsive. We expect our government to function because we keep a close eye on it. The Capitol building embodies this: Just as the government belongs to the people (and we consider “democracy” to literally mean “the people rule”), the Capitol itself belongs to us. It’s our house. We have built ourselves a marble palace because we are the rulers. Therefore it is unacceptable that we should have to have any restrictions on entering our house, just as you would be offended if the government set up a security checkpoint to enter your own home’s front door.
The reasons for the Wisconsin system of democracy are probably a synthesis of many factors. Most clearly, the German Anti-Socialist Laws of 1878 drove thousands of socialists, social democrats, communists, anarchists, and sympathizers out of Germany; many of them settled in Wisconsin, where there was already an existing German-language community. They infused the state with an anti-corporation, pro-people, pro-democracy ethos. They believed that money should serve people, not the other way around, and, in addition to influencing our philosophy of government, the Progressive Era left a wake of credit unions and cooperative businesses, many of which still exist to this day and are an integral part of the state’s economy and infrastructure.
Also, Wisconsin is still largely rural, and the pioneer ethos of self-reliance is strong. We hunt deer to maintain that frontier ethic, for example. As with every good person, that self-reliance turns into generosity when we have a surplus, because to hoard greedily is both anti-social and potentially deadly on the frontier: it is unacceptable to have too much while others are suffering, and there are social sanctions for caring only about yourself.
The family dairy farm is another manifestation of the nobility we consider ourselves to have. In many cultures, such as pre-feudal Northern Europe or parts of modern Africa, the ability to have cows (a luxury if ever there was one; most of their food products are unhealthy and they are terrifically inefficient on a caloric basis) is a matter of pride and social status.
In some sense the Wisconsin idea of government might be considered a descendant of the old Northern European “Thing,” a general assembly of all the landowning adult males in a region, which would meet periodically to discuss matters of common concern in a directly democratic, consensual, mutually acceptable way. Of course, the “landowning” and “males” requirements are more-or-less gone (although Patriarchy is still a major problem in Wisconsin); but, regardless, even hundreds of years after the Thing has ceased to formally exist on a wide scale the idea of the general assembly is powerful. I saw it spontaneously resurrect in the form of thousands of citizens in the Rotunda giving and hearing testimony and speeches. Even aside from that kind of rupture, the idea of Wisconsin government is that of a gathering of equals with common interest meeting to consult and consent on matters of mutual concern in order to find mutually agreeable solutions.
We are descendants of barbarians and pioneers, people who prefer pride, dignity, respect, and good life over imposed safety and insulating comfort (as opposed to the stated reason for the restrictions on entering the Capitol, which was that it is ‘for our safety’). We despise others attempting to place restrictions on us, because we can protect ourselves just fine, thank you. It was Zapata that said, “It is better to die on your feet than live on your knees,” but those words might have come from any of our mouths. We don’t accept disrespect (such as the humiliating security checkpoint to enter the Capitol, involving emptying one’s pockets into a plastic tray and having to hold out one’s arms and be gone over with a metal-detecting wand), and don’t respond favorably to threats. We consider ourselves to be kings, because we have fought and worked for it; and, all being of the same status, expect to be treated equally. As another example, in Feudal societies hunting was the privilege of the noble class; in Wisconsin, we can all hunt because we are all the noble class.
That is the main reason why we are so upset with Walker. It’s not the proposals themselves (in addition to eliminating collective bargaining, also decimating Badgercare which will probably result in tens of thousands of deaths, new voter ID requirements, cutting a billion dollars from schools, breaking UW-Madison away from the rest of the system which will probably result in Madison becoming a second-rate private school and the rest of the system becoming a backwater, and an anti-environmental maniac being put in charge of the DNR, among other disasters, any one of which would effectively destroy the state; all supposedly to solve a deficit of some $400 per person per year), it’s the anti-democratic and disrespectful way he’s going about it.
First, he lied during his campaign, never mentioning any of this; in fact never saying anything other than that he was going to “create 250,000 jobs”. A few months before the election the Republicans produced a ‘plan’ which was only as many pages as it was because the font was so large that only a few words fit on each page! But the other guy was a loser who wasn’t even proposing anything at all, so we went with the only one who seemed to actually want to be governor. Lying to people who consider respect to be paramount is simply unacceptable, and by all rights Walker and his cronies should immediately step down and beg for forgiveness.
Second, and fundamental to the entire crisis, is that everyone in Wisconsin read two news articles in the papers on February 11th: In the first, that Walker was eliminating the public worker unions; and, in the second, that he would call out the National Guard in case of ‘labor unrest’. We took that as a threat to use force if he didn’t get his way, which is not OK. Wisconsin has had relative labor peace because respect is a pillar of our social and governmental systems. Even more than that, we are free people in a free state and we consider ourselves respected equals, and to threaten to use force to compel us to do anything is to insult our dignity. That is unacceptable under any circumstances and anyone who does such should be defeated for that reason alone.
We consider Walker’s actions to be an attack on Wisconsin itself. Our system of social democracy is as much a part of our culture as beer, and for the same reason (the aforementioned German exiles). We understand that we are all in this together, and that a strong community and strong social supports in turn protect and strengthen us individually. Walker and his ilk have declared war on Wisconsin, and this is not just a war on unions or workers in isolation, but a national war.
About the nature of the attack: some people, such as Jon Stewart, have said that it’s not accurate to compare the situation in Wisconsin to the revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, etc. I disagree. It’s true that we haven’t been oppressed by a horrible dictator for decades; in fact, we have it very nice here. What the critics fail to consider is that while they have something to win, we have something to protect. A few years of this kind of treatment might leave us just as bad as some of those countries, albeit probably with fewer political murders. Walker’s agenda will likely cause tens of thousands of people to die unnecessarily, destroy a first-class education system (both at a grade school and university level), drive hundreds of thousands of people into poverty, and devastate the natural environment. When Egyptians are sending money to buy us food and Libyans are chanting “Kill the Bill!” in solidarity, who are we to say that they are wrong? This is one struggle, the global struggle for true democracy.
This is Neoliberalism trying to do to Wisconsin what it has done to so many other countries- privatize, drive down wages, remove environmental protections, drive up public debt, remove social supports as ‘wasteful’ and ‘unnecessary’ but demand subsidies for businesses to ‘create jobs’. It’s the same process we’ve seen play out in Bolivia, India, Kenya, indeed most of the world, driven by organizations like the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and World Trade Organization, which we gave a bloody nose in Seattle in 1999 when movements for workers, the environment, and social justice transcended their usual single-issue myopia and came together in the Movement of Movements. That same alliance is spontaneously and rapidly reconstructing itself in Wisconsin (which is part of the reason the occupation went as well as it did; it operated in the same Horizontal manner as protest camps, using organizational techniques honed over the last 15 or so years), and after we defeat Neoliberalism here we are going to hunt it down and defeat it everywhere it lurks in the world.
Finally, a warning: Do not trust Socialists and Communists who are in organized Parties, such as the Workers World Party, Revolutionary Communist Party, International Socialist Organization, Freedom Road Socialist Organization, or one of the dozens of others. They contribute nothing, and are only interested in taking power for themselves. They were fundamental in helping defeat the anti-Iraq War movement by channeling the popular rage into completely futile efforts. They have betrayed us every time, whether due to malice or incompetence, and will always do so. Just thinking that Lenin was a stand-up guy should alone be enough reason to ostracize them. Don’t work with them, don’t read their papers, don’t give them money, and don’t attend their events. While the labor unions and Democrats may be periodically ineffective, members of Parties are duplicitous authoritarians. They are not the main enemy at the moment, but do not consider them to be friends.