The West Virginia Teachers' Strike Is the Rebirth of American Progressivism Made Manifest

Politics Features West Virginia Teachers' Strike
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The West Virginia Teachers' Strike Is the Rebirth of American Progressivism Made Manifest

West Virginia had enough. Everything which followed grew from that single fact. You can rewrite and reframe the debate in a thousand different ways, but that’s what it finally comes down to: the teachers fought back, and the teachers won. Strikes get the goods.

Their victory is wonderful news, and welcome tidings in a cold season. Already, the Right is trying to shift the debate: the teachers winning means we have to take money away from Medicare. It’s bullshit, and they know it. They’re using the same old playbook: divide and conquer. They are preaching the same moth-eaten sermon: “There’s a limited amount of money for the plebs to share.” It won’t work anymore. The lie is falling apart, like the pieces of a dying octopus. Capital can only grind so hard and so far before it hits a spine. There’s a limit to how far you can push people before they become militant. That moment was reached in coal country last week.

The importance of West Virginia represents more than union power, as remarkable and special as that is. It also illustrates the failures of the Corporate Democratic establishment, and heralds the possibility of a new, hopeful Democratic Party, one which will represent working people.

Of course it happened in West Virginia. The state was reliably blue until very recently. When the big-money crowd turned the Dems into the party of well-heeled professionals, all of the old Democratic constituencies fell by the wayside. No wonder the state voted for the Republicans. What choice did they have? But with a popular movement, the tide will turn. West Virginia shows how a non-Hamptons-based Democratic movement could be built.

The fact that newspapers were so surprised by the strike demonstrates a shallow understanding of history. The American story is a long saga of labor battles, bloody and violent. There is a reason this chronology is not taught in schools: such notions are dangerous. And the people in charge figured it didn’t matter. After all, in the Nineties, victorious neoliberalism told us all that the age of ideas was dead. The End of History had arrived. There was simply nothing to fight about. If there was exploitation, it was simply the market working out the kinks. Austerity was a law of nature. Everything would be better in a few years.

When I was growing up, there was one answer to any social problem. That answer has been replaced by questions: What happens when the old world wakes up? What happens when people rediscover the old ideas? What happens when people discover the consensus no longer holds? The farce is over.

In plain truth, West Virginia is an act of remembering. In Greek drama, there is a term called anagnorisis, or “recognition.” It’s basically a fancy old term for what M. Night Shyamalan does in every movie. Anagnorisis is the name for the moment when tragic hero Oedipus realizes the stranger he killed on a dusty road was his own father. Wikipedia says anagnorisis “originally meant recognition in its Greek context, not only of a person but also of what that person stood for.” West Virginia is the anagnorisis of the Democratic Party. A rediscovery. The Pelosi wing of the Democrats forgot who built the party. They are remembering now.

Chesterton once suggested the English commonwealth did not “rest on the kindness of the rich to the poor. It rests on the perennial and unfailing kindness of the poor to the rich.” And so it is in modern America.

Civilization depends on the tolerance of working people for their incompetent overclass. Seen in this light, austerity is a fragile, silly thing. It is brittle like a silence, which vanishes when a single person happens to sneeze.

Physical might, physical power, is always on the side of the ruled. It is simply impossible, even with a great military, to rule millions of people, unless you have their cooperation. And that cooperation is coming to an end. If the teachers can strike, anyone can strike. The teachers of West Virginia do not exist by the grace of the state; the state exists by the grace of the teachers.

The success of the West Virginia strike leads us to a second question: When do mass movements turn a corner? Why do some ideas seem silent as the grave, only to jump to life a moment later? Three years ago, would this strike have seemed possible?

A look at the last year is helpful.

There have been a large number of horrific school slaughters over the last decade; no change followed. But Parkland opened a door.

There have been stories of abusive, powerful men in Hollywood since its founding. Then, last year, the dam broke, and #metoo was born.

The working class of this country have been on the ropes since the Carter Administration. The depredations of Reagan, Clinton, Bush, and Obama were endured. And then, the teachers of West Virginia fired a starting pistol, and the unions seem to have woken up.

Malcolm Gladwell has theories about such moments: tipping points, he called them. But the answer may be more modest.

Human beings are much better at detecting sudden, sharp changes than they are at understanding their present condition. Our bodies can tell, easily, when the temperature of a room has shifted. Ask us to guess the temperature and we are less likely to know. In our social and political lives, we can bear slow changes of fortune … but sudden, sharp swings stir us to action. That is why progressivism has mobilized now, in the age of Trump. During the Obama years, we told ourselves comforting stories about change. Trump illustrated those fables were not true.

We can see just how widespread this anagnorisis is by looking at two unlikely success stories.

In the last two years, a pair of odd figures have risen to power. In Britain, the socialist Jeremy Corbyn became leader of the (previously) neoliberal Labour Party. In America, the corporate Democrats found themselves challenged and nearly defeated by the strange, hectoring Prophet Sanders—who is now, incidentally, the most popular politician in the country. When you read their biographies, their rapid ascents become even more amazing. In their careers, both men were the archetype of the decent, long-enduring political outsider. Both men were incorruptible characters on the fringes of the political establishment. There was no Napoleon in them. Both candidates seemed destined for footnote status in American and British history.

Reading accounts of their successes makes their victories seem even stranger. In “The Candidate: Jeremy Corbyn’s Improbable Path to Power,” by Alex Nunns, and “Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics,” by Richard Seymour, both authors drive home the fact that Corbyn was lifted up by the strange confluence of forces outside the party. The same thing happened with Sanders. In “Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign,” by Allen and Parnes, the Sanders campaign (and its one van) is treated like news of Jurassic Park: how did they bring back the dead?

The point both books make is that neither Corbyn nor Sanders are genius strategists or Nixonian climbers. They did not Machiavelli their way into power. They were simply ideologues with integrity at the exact moment that the people of America and Britain got fed up with the Nineties settlement. The descent from Obama to Trump was the moment the temperature shifted. We see the results.

In 21st-century America, we have a curious idea of how progress happens. You could see the gulf between the illusion of change and the reality of change this past week. If you listened to the talking heads, the Oscars were a revolution in the making. But the lasting advances always come from the ground up. On Tuesday, the real source of progress in America could be found far to the east. The wellspring of the future was in Charleston, not Hollywood, when the teachers forced Governor Jim Justice to sign that five-percent pay raise. In a state that is a stranger to blue waters, a tide is building, and it’s one that can sweep away the walls of oppression. This is a teachable moment for us all. Here beginneth the lesson.