The problem between studying history and living through it seems pretty obvious. When reading about historical events you already have a great eagle-eye, 20/20 hindsight view of the thing. You have a narrative, or a number of arguing narratives, the facts, the figures, mere decades are read through in hours, you know how the story ends before you even begin. The NAACP activist Rosa Parks isn’t some simple person doing an act of civil disobedience that’ll make the 12th page of the local newspaper and will soon be forgotten, she is the touch stone of an entire massive period of struggle that will last for years and a movement that will involve millions. The Minneapolis Teamsters isn’t just a really exciting labor struggle for the city that effected people’s lives for a few weeks, it is part and parcel to an entire period of massive labor radicalism. It’s easy to look back and understand the past, the present is a lot trickier. We have to live history day by day.
So what to make make of the last year? Honestly, I’m not sure. I will try to throw out some ideas, but in all, I’m uncertain. Anyone can look at 1968 for instance and write up a genius analysis of that year’s particular zeitgeist, but doing that in real time as history is happening is a lot harder.
For the last few years some have been talking about a “New Period” in American politics. The start of this new period can probably be put at the beginning of the economic crisis beginning in 2008 and the simultaneous disintegration of the Republican Party of the Bush years. But such a hard fast line is tricky to draw. The GOP was in decline since 2006 thanks to the political fallout of the Iraq War and the policies that defined the Bush years, namely the War on Terror, have continued under Obama.
In terms of struggle, that is the long-awaited left-wing resurgence, there wasn’t that much special about that point in time either. Sure 2008 had the Republic Window and Doors factory occupation, a pretty amazing occurrence, but 2006 had the massive demonstrations around the May 1st Day Without an Immigrant. And the years directly following the start of the economic crisis didn’t see any great great upswing in struggle in this country, rather a series of flash in the pan explosions of fight-back that then quickly died back away. In fact, thanks to a massive astro-turf campaign, the right was able to reassert itself in 201o around their now defunct Tea Party.
This is all not to say that something wasn’t indeed changing in this country. Rather the change was a slow one that’s still happening. One of the great lumbering tectonic political plates of America shifting in ways barely perceivable. There was no great moment, no great conjuncture, no single point in time and space that could be pointed to as proof positive that this period was indeed new. Until 2011.
The qualitative shift came from outside the United States. It didn’t have to, but it did. The example given by the revolutions in the Arab world was what was needed to finally crack the crust and reveal what had been happening underneath. The struggle in Madison, Wisconsin in the January was our answer back, our echo, to Tahrir square. Other fight-backs would follow that year, the Slut Walks for instance, but it was really the Occupy Wall Street movement that was the political earthquake of this moment. Here was the first time in 30 years that a truly mass movement was in the streets of United States, that was growing, evolving and fighting from day to day. So much has been written of criticisms and praises for Occupy, for this I’d rather just say, despite all the many many problems, for its short existence it was glorious.
Then the Winter came, both literally and figuratively in the form of massive state repression coordinated by Obama and the Democrats to, successfully, crush the Occupy movement. And thus in this story we enter 2012.
As I’ve said before, the much waited for and touted ‘American Spring’ never emerged. The Occupy movement, that contradictory but still unabashedly class consciousness mass movement, was never able to restart itself. And at times that has made me worry. Speaking of just the United States of course, was the Autumn of 2011 our May 1968? Was Occupy our high point? Are we currently at the over the hill downswing of this period of struggle? Is this what the 1970s must of felt like to those ’60s radicals? Honestly, I don’t know.
2012 did see its show of struggle and fight-back. The mass protests around Trayvon Martin for instance. Yet nothing had that same coast-to-coast spread and depth of Occupy. If you list out all the examples of pertinent and impressive political events these years, it is a formidable list that’ll kick the ass of most years in the since the ’80s. But something feels different that I can barely put my finger on, the scale, the scope of struggle seems diminished compared to the previous year somehow.
Likely a huge factor in this was the election cycle. Nothing dampens political progress, lowers people’s expectations, dumbs down debate and intellectual life, leads to feelings of hopelessness, undermines people’s sense of their own ability to change things and disempowers their will to struggle in this country, like an election. It will be very interesting to see what happens next year, with no fanciful carnival of an electioneering to distract people from what they can organize and win themselves.
In that, moving forward, I think whatever long-term hope that was seen in 2012 was seen in the American labor movement. The Chicago Teachers Union strike, the Walmart workers walk-out, the fast-food workers strike, even the failed protests in Michigan against the “right to work” legislation, this, if anything, is the future. All of these struggles taken individually (with maybe the exception of the CTU strike) were largely drops in the bucket. But taken as a whole, and if they indeed show themselves as part of a real process to rebuild the crippled labor movement, then they can be seen, somewhere down the line in retrospect, as the start of the true ‘new period’ we’ve been waiting for.
Build new unions, organize new workers, turn the old unions into real class organizations ready for a fight. If the left has any future, it is in this. With any luck, 2012 will be remembered as not a loss year, but the precursor for something even grander in 2013.