The ruling class of this nation largely does what it wants to do.
Anyone who has participated in protests over the last ten years will tell you a familiar story: protesters gather, create a spectacle, and return home. The gears of power and wealth grind on uninterrupted. The politicians pass the bills they wanted to pass, then scurry back to their homes in the wealthiest and whitest neighborhoods of the polities they claim to represent. A protest, on its own, has a negligible impact on our political future.
In Wisconsin, we know this process all too well, as politicians at the state, county, and city level pass bill after bill against the super-majoritarian dissent of our communities. Consider, for example, the protests against Scott Walker’s union-busting Act 10. The protests wrapped for miles around and continued on for weeks. The Wisconsin State Journal reported that tens of thousands of people attended.
They packed the capitol square:
They filled the interior of the capitol building like sardines:
Hell, protesters even slept on the floor, hoping to be one of the few able to make it into the over-stuffed hearing rooms:
If there was ever a protest that could pressure politicians into carrying out the will of the people, these were those protests.
But, the ruling class had its agenda. Business owners hoping to gut public provisions and cash in on the vacuum wanted public sector unions busted. And busted they were, from teachers to sanitation workers.
Compare the Act 10 protests to this week’s anti-quarantine rally, and you might even feel relieved (though I will argue you shouldn’t). The few hundred protesters in attendance couldn’t cover the green on a single corner of the capitol, much less wrap the capitol and surrounding streets. There were so few people, they wouldn’t have put the capitol building at capacity if they had gathered inside instead. Have a look:
There’s nothing wrong or shameful about a small protest. (Though, there’s plenty shameful about downplaying the severity of a destructive pandemic because you are impatient to return to consumerist comforts like salons and brunch.) Every movement has to start somewhere. But there’s something very off about these small protests.
We’re being lead to believe they are working.
The Washington Post claimed the president was “siding with protesters.” The Atlantic called it a “Culture War” between polarized citizens. Politicians from top to the bottom have celebrated the protests as their democratic authorization to act. Four states have lifted their quarantines, with more stay-at-home orders set to expire before the weekend. Their calls to reopen non-essential, consumerist businesses like shopping malls and vacation resorts have been retold as the passionate amplification of community consensus. They are merely bending to the will of The People, spoken through loud congregations of our democratic will.
Now THAT is fucking bonkers.
Data collected by political scientists and the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism both confirm that these politicians have never in their careers acted according to the will of the people. In Wisconsin, our own history is enough to know this. Far, far larger protests than these have been laughed away by oligarchs who are either exceptionally powerful themselves or in the pocket of those who are.
If it seems a bit strange to you that these champions of oligarchy are suddenly claiming to be acting on behalf of you and I, your instincts are solid. Let’s dig into what we know about these protests.
For one, the protesters are unlike the vast majority of protests I’ve attended around the country. Whereas pro-union/worker protests are typically overwhelmingly attended by working class and/or poor members of the community, the anti-quarantine protests have been populated by a shocking number of business owners, such as the self-identified “boss” of Real Milwaukee CBD and owner/president of Sebring Garage, the owner of Collura Financial, a variety of Wisconsin landlords, and a host more restaurant, salon, and hotel owners.
To be fair, there were also genuinely working-class people in attendance. They are (reasonably) terrified that the tax money they’ve paid into the state will not be used to their benefit when they need it the most. Rather than demanding a proper safety net for their community, they have joined forces with business owners who are protesting because they are interested in maintaining a level of wealth and equity far beyond what most of us are paid for a full year of work under the best circumstances.
The disproportionately high turnout from bosses and managers is consistent with the overall top-down character of anti-quarantine political momentum. First, there is the roster Fox News recently released of advisors tasked with reopening businesses as quickly as possible:
Far from the motivations, desires, and needs of everyday people, the council is made up of the economic elite. There’s Mark Meadows, a real estate mogul whose multi-million dollar net worth placed him among the richest recent members of congress. And Ivanka Trump, whose familial wealth has opened doors for her from hedge fund management to a line of jewelry available from the U.S. to Saudi Arabia. Then there’s the $600 million man, Wilbur Ross, Mnuchin’s $400 million, and so on down the line to Kudlow’s comparatively paltry $25 million net worth.
Second, there’s the suspiciously astroturfed nature of these protests. As the Times reports, anti-quarantine rallies around the country have been “backed by well-funded interest groups” linked back to organizations who advocate for further shifting power away from workers and towards bosses, and away from tenants and towards landlords. Here in Wisconsin, that’s included pro-business lobbying groups and thinktanks like the MacIver Institute; in neighboring Michigan, it’s been groups linked to the anti-public school interests of multi-billionaire Betsy DeVos.
When it comes to questions of policy–who the government should favor in confrontations between corporations and consumers, developers and residents, or CEOs and workers– the drivers of anti-quarantine momentum are people who have entirely different interests and motivations than the vast majority of people.
Little about the supposedly democratic nature of these protests is true. This is no culture war between competing factions of neighbors. This is a class war waged by our bosses and landlords against the rest of us. It is fueled by the deep-seated bigotry taught through America’s ongoing race war against black, brown, and native communities. Because the lives and labor of racial minorities are continually devalued, corporate fat cats have been able to build a surplus of labor in prisons and detention centers. This labor surplus is simultaneously disposable (such as during a pandemic) and also robust enough to fill in mass casualties among workers if quarantines are lifted too early and cases skyrocket. This is a war that stacks bodies every day while offsetting the blame onto the zany conspiracy theorists who live and work in our own communities. We are told this is a culture war, but that’s at best downstream. This is class war. This is race war.
What exactly is the culture allegedly shared by these individuals anyway? A reverence for the accumulation of wealth over the well-being of those who produce it? That’s not a culture, that’s an entirely different set of interests held by a very small class of individuals who own and rule most of the world. Now, they are once again poised to bend the arc of history in favor of their pocketbooks at the expense of our lives, using anti-quarantine protests as democratic sanction.
Putting our communities in unnecessary danger to protect corporate interests isn’t an example of democracy in action, but in fact the very opposite: astroturfed protests backed by special interests, attended disproportionately by bosses who stand to benefit from lifting quarantine too early. While this travesty is being blamed on our fellow neighbors, very few of them have attended. And trust Wisconsin– they’ve never listened to us anyway. The ruling class was always going to do what it wanted to do, and this is no exception.
PS- There is one silver lining. Usually the will of the powerful is carried out without the pretense of democratic consent. The fact politicians feel like it’s needed this time around means we’ve got them on the ropes. The oligarchs are afraid of what we can do when we come together during a crisis. In particular, they’re afraid of our demands for shared power in the workplace and food, housing, and healthcare as baseline community provisions. Keep pushing. And don’t let them get away with blaming their actions on the will of the people, when our will is the very think they fear the most.