What is the Left’s back-up plan if unions don’t come roaring back?

Andrew Sullivan asks the question, quoting from The Economist

Which brings me to my question for progressives. Supposing that Mr Walker and not the SEIU is the vanguard of history—supposing that America is headed toward the stable non-union equilibrium—what is the next-best scenario from a progressive perspective? What is the answer if resurgent unionism is not? Is there one? I hear plenty of progressive rhetoric to the effect that only a rehabilitated union movement can save America from plutocracy and middle-class stagnation, but my sense is that this is a lot like conservative rhetoric to the effect that only a return to constitutional principles will save America from sclerotic socialist decline. Do progressives, like their conservative counterparts, really believe their own hype?

Many socialists and communists certainly believe it, and that’s where progressives got their idea about One Big Union from, even if they aren’t aware of it. But the glory days of unions in the US were decades ago and aren’t coming back. Unions today can be as corrupt as the corporate interests they supposedly oppose and their power has been greatly reduced by the ability of companies to simply move their places of production elsewhere. Companies are transnational, unions are not. Deal with it. Yet you can still hear some lefties wheezing like it’s 1935 and millions of workers are in the streets. This, quite simply, is wishful thinking. The fightback in the US when it comes (and it will) won’t be so much from organized labor but from something like what we are seeing in MENA (Middle East North Africa) now, a totally unexpected upsurge seemingly out of nowhere.

The root causes of the current rebellions were there for years if not decades. But then something triggered the explosion. They aren’t led by ideologues or those with a predetermined political agenda. It’s much more amorphous than that, and invents itself as it goes. Lefties who continually look for the revolution to come from unions or from their doctrinaire conception of what the working class is will completely miss a populist upsurge like we are seeing now in MENA and won’t understand it when does happens.

Populism is breaking out all over the Middle East. People are tired of being robbed and abused by a tiny elite. Populism is not socialist or communist, although it has the same target. It’s doesn’t have specified politics when it starts – that comes later. That’s what we’re seeing in Tunisia, Egypt, and now Libya – outbreaks of populism.

Populism is where the left needs to be. Forget unions. Focus on populism. For one thing, populism can go either way politically and if the left isn’t there it will go right by default.


  1. Well, you’re right. But unions also did play a role in Egypt. And if it’s not 1935, then hopefully it can be something similar to 1875, when the country was in a recession and unions were starting to be built up and the Guilded Age was starting to be chipped away at and populism was starting to emerge. Hopefully something like that.

  2. Bob, I wonder what the drivers will be for a populist movement. I certainly don’t think that they will be political. It is more likely that they will be from ecological / economic problems that we can see coming but for which there is not yet the will to do anything: climate change, food shortages / price increases, declining resources vs. an ever increasing population.

    If that turns out to be true, the unions are no more an obvious part of the solution than any other organization. It is the left continuing to fight the previous war. Even Colin Powell learned not to do that.

    • I think the drivers are there. It’s economic and that can turn into political. Here in rural Utah, which is quite conservative, no one has the slightest quibble when I explain how the Populist Party of the 1890’s was mostly midwest farmers who were losing their farms to banks and being gouged by crop speculators. The first thing they did was form co-ops to buy their crops at a fair price, then they started getting people elected.

      People here (and elsewhere) understand this completely, and populism has no heavy baggage or anything complicated that needs to be explained. It’s as American as apple pie.

      (And thanks for your great posts. More, please!)

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