The following is an excerpt from the new book by historian Dawson Barrett, The Defiant: Protest Movements in Post-Liberal America (New York University Press, 2018). In it, Barrett connects the spirited and determined opposition to Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s push to strip labor unions of power and dismantle the welfare state to a broader range of insurgent movements against neoliberal capitalism.
Prologue: Wisconsin, 2011
“Under neoliberalism everything either is for sale or is plundered for profit. Public lands are looted by logging companies and corporate ranchers; politicians willingly hand the public’s airwaves over to powerful broadcasters and large corporate interests without a dime going into the public trust… As markets are touted as the driving force of everyday life, big government is disparaged as either incompetent or threatening to individual freedom, suggesting that power should reside in markets and corporations rather than in governments (except for their support for corporate interests and national security) and citizens.”
—Henry Giroux, “The Terror of Neoliberalism”
“Family farmers, like the labor movement, value economic democracy… For more than a hundred years, we have been fighting together, we have been picketing together, we’ve been dumping milk, we’ve been sitting in, [and] we’ve been blocking traffic. And we’re going to take this thing back… It’s a farmers’ issue because public workers are our friends, and our neighbors, and our family members—and we stand in solidarity with them.”
—Tony Schultz, Wisconsin farmer, March 12, 2011
For several weeks in February and March 2011, tens of thousands of people—more than one hundred thousand on peak days—marched through the streets of Madison, Wisconsin, to protest Act 10, the state’s new “Budget Repair” bill. Governor Scott Walker and a Republican-majority state legislature had been swept into office during the 2010 midterm elections a few months earlier, and Walker hoped to make a move that would catapult him onto the national political scene. Despite the governor’s threats to mobilize the National Guard, Wisconsin protesters—labor activists, teachers, students, farmers, taxi drivers, firefighters, and off-duty police officers, among others—maintained an around-the-clock occupation of the capitol building. Concerned Wisconsinites also offered an exhausting seventeen hours of official public testimony and blockaded the offices of state representatives with symbolic “sit-ins,” to keep them from voting. On February 16, 40 percent of Madison’s public school teachers called in sick, forcing the district to cancel classes. The next day, students at Milwaukee’s Rufus King High School walked out of class and marched four miles to join college students in one of the several- dozen protests that popped up in cities and towns all over the state. Wisconsin’s fourteen Democratic state senators then fled across the state line to Illinois in order to deny a quorum, while sympathetic demonstrations were held in every state in the country.
The “Wisconsin uprising,” widely cited as Madison’s largest protest wave since the Vietnam War, ultimately could not stop Act 10 from passing. It did, however, draw national scrutiny to the new governor’s proposals. Citing the ongoing economic re- cession, Walker and his allies had presented the bill as a necessary fix for a $100 million shortfall in the state’s budget. The same logic, however, also guided their roughly equivalent tax cut for corporations the previous month. Act 10’s many inflammatory “fixes” included increased barriers to maintaining labor unions and the effective elimination of collective bargaining rights for thousands of state workers. Walker also sought to cut more than $1 billion from the state’s K–12 and university education systems, to offer handouts to energy companies through “no-bid” contracts, to decrease accountability for corporate negligence through tort reform and the repeal of the state’s Equal Pay Act, and to loosen regulations on the state’s telecommunications and high-interest-loan industries.
As this program advanced in Wisconsin, legislatures in several other states—Ohio, Indiana, and New Jersey, among others— introduced similar bills to undercut workers’ rights. Additional proposals from Wisconsin lawmakers also mirrored aggressive anti-immigration legislation adopted in Arizona and Alabama, as well as the “Stand Your Ground” laws used to justify homicide in Florida and elsewhere. These parallels were not coincidences. Pushing “copycat” laws simultaneously in states all over the country, think tanks, such as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and Americans for Prosperity, and their financial backers, including billionaires David and Charles Koch and the Wisconsin-based Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, were advancing a very specific agenda.
These policies exemplified neoliberalism, an economic and political philosophy with a confusing name but a clear goal—to maximize the wealth and power of the elite. Neither liberal nor new in the parlance of any but its most devoted followers, neoliberalism actually harks back to an earlier historical moment, before the Great Depression and the US government’s willingness to intervene in the economy for the public good. It reduces capitalism to a raw and predatory form by reducing taxes for the wealthy, cutting government services for the poor, eliminating regulatory protections (such as labor and environmental laws), and redistributing public resources to corporations through privatization.
This Wild West, no-holds-barred vision for society has led some people to label the neoliberal end goal as a sort of “cowboy capitalism”—rugged, opportunistic, and, presumably, armed. Others have suggested the terms “savage capitalism,” “mafia capitalism,” and “Jurassic Park capitalism” to capture neoliberalism’s ruthless, rapacious nature. Another contender, “casino capitalism,” also seems appropriate, as neoliberal policies create an often chaotic series of winners and losers, while the house—the people who make the rules—always takes the biggest cut. Despite popular political rhetoric, neoliberalism does not, in fact, seek small government or an across-the-board reduction of government rules. Nor does it reward individual merit or competition. Since the 1970s, neoliberal policies have repurposed the US government as a tool for Big Business and transferred into private hands the massive public wealth that accumulated in the welfare state of the mid-twentieth century. As sociologist Loïc Wacquant argues, neoliberalism does not seek deregulation but rather “re-regulates . . . the economy in favour of corporations.”
By the time Wisconsin residents occupied their capitol building in 2011, the neoliberal project had been under way for several decades. ALEC began allowing US corporations and their lobbyists to write legislation in the early 1970s. By 1987, the organization boasted a membership of more than two thousand state legislators who were ready to add their names and change state laws—an enlightening point in the debate over “states’ rights.” Americans for Prosperity, founded in 2004 to funnel corporate money into politics, was a major player in the pivotal 2010 midterm elections, but it was just one of the dozens of neoliberal organizations funded by the Koch brothers. In the 1970s, the Kochs established the Cato Institute, an influential think tank, and in 1980, David Koch ran for vice president on a Libertarian Party platform that sought the elimination of Social Security and minimum-wage laws.
By 2011, aggressive neoliberal economic policies—from both major political parties—had achieved many of their backers’ goals. Most clearly, they succeeded in making the rich much, much richer. Individually, the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans, on average, saw their incomes double or triple since the early 1970s, while a typical worker actually made less in 2011 than in 1968 (adjusted for inflation). As a group, the richest 1 percent of Americans roughly doubled both their share of the nation’s income (to 20 percent) and their share of the nation’s wealth (to 40 percent).
The 2011 protests in Madison and elsewhere may have paralleled Sixties-era demonstrations in their size and in their zeal, but they occurred in vastly different contexts. The marches and rallies in the Wisconsin cold were just the latest clash of the Post-Liberal Era. They were a valiant, but failed, attempt to defend the labor rights and public-education victories that had been won by previous generations. In the decades since the 1970s, neoliberal policy shifts have reshaped the United States, fundamentally altering relationships between the American people, business interests, and the US government. Neoliberalism’s “casino capitalism” has stacked the political deck in favor of powerful private interests. At every step, however, protesters and other activists have opposed neoliberal logic and demanded the rights of people over the right to profits.
Excerpt from Dawson Barrett, The Defiant: Protest Movements in Post-Liberal America © New York University Press, 2018. Used by permission of the press.
Dawson Barrett is an assistant professor of US History at Del Mar College in Texas and the author of Teenage Rebels: Successful High School Activists from the Little Rock Nine to the Class of Tomorrow (Microcosm Publishing, 2015). His writings on activism, teaching, youth, punk rock, and the 2011 Wisconsin labor crisis have appeared in academic and popular publications, including American Studies, Teen Vogue, Portside, TruthDig, and Waging Nonviolence.