School & District Management Opinion

Wisconsin Teachers Show Us How to Resist the Shock Doctrine

By Anthony Cody — February 20, 2011 2 min read
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What the heck is happening to teachers? Across the country, in state after state where Republicans gained power in the 2010 elections, teachers and our unions are being absolutely hammered. Tennessee, Ohio, New Jersey, Idaho, Florida - and as we all know, Wisconsin. But teachers in Wisconsin are showing us how to turn these attacks around -- just as teachers in Florida showed us last Spring when they defeated Senate Bill 6.

A few years ago, Naomi Klein wrote a rather prescient book, entitled The Shock Doctrine. Her central thesis was that in our current global economic system, people and corporations take advantage and even create crises, and then use these crises as opportunities to change laws in ways to their advantage. Circumstances in Wisconsin are lending credence to this, as she explained in this interview on MSNBC a day ago (starting at minute 4:29).

Klein offers the following insights:

The thesis of the book is that the right wing playbook is tremendously unpopular in most places, particularly when it involves rolling back benefits that people have fought for. Everyone likes a tax break, but people are going to protect hard-won public services, public benefits, labor rights. What I argue in The Shock Doctrine is that if you look at the thirty year history of the triumph of these policies around the world, what you see is that their great leaps forward happen during times of extreme crisis. And that's because in a time of crisis you have politicians able to do exactly what Scott Walker is doing right now in Wisconsin, which is to say "the roof is falling in, we have a state of emergency here. We don't have time for democracy or public or deliberation or collective bargaining."
So it becomes an opportunity to ram through these unpopular policies, many of which he did not campaign on - he campaigned on the popular stuff - the tax cuts, but he didn't say how he was going to pay for it. So lo and behold you have a budget crisis, you exaggerate the extent of the crisis and you say "we don't have any alternative" but to push through these very unpopular measures. Part of that really means constricting the democratic space, and that is why I think it's so significant that they are going after collective bargaining. Because it isn't just the particular roll-backs that they are after. They are trying to reduce the ability of participation of the workers in their own futures. It's a constricting of democracy. So it is pretty much a classic example of the Shock Doctrine


I end the book by saying the way you resist these tactics is by understanding that they are happening while they are happening. Because the reason these tactics work is that when you do have an economic crisis or another kind of crisis like a natural disaster or even a war, people are terrified, and they tend to put a lot of trust in their leaders - we saw this after 9-11.
What's happening in Wisconsin is an excellent example of what I describe as "shock resistance," because people are naming this while it's happening, they're saying "you're manufacturing a crisis so that you can exploit it." And the other thing they are doing is talking about all the other ways that you could fill that budget shortfall, besides this very narrow vision that we're seeing. This is a challenge to one of the original shock doctors, Margaret Thatcher, who's famous phrase was "There is no alternative." We're seeing people very loudly talking about the alternatives that are available.

We have all been in shock for a while.
It is no coincidence that our schools are often declared to be “in crisis.” The caricature that emerged from Waiting For Superman and other propaganda last year was part of a drive to undermine our public education system.

Earlier in the clip above, the Nation magazine’s Chris Hayes explained:

The knives have been out for teachers' unions for a while. Some of that enmity is self-inflicted by bad work rules and bureaucratic paralysis, but that's not what's driving the massive and well-funded campaign we've seen across the country to destroy teachers' unions. What's driving it is the ultimate aim of permanently scrapping the model of public education that has sustained this country for years. Teachers' unions are the stewards of preserving public education, which is the core element of our civic life - of the collective democratic enterprise that is these United States. Conservatives have wanted to abolish public education in its current form for a while, and getting rid of the teachers' unions is a necessary first step.

As Naomi Klein suggests, the way to resist these shock tactics is to understand them as they are being employed. There is no shortage of money in our society. Everyone agrees that profits have never been higher. The trouble is that government funds have been diverted towards war, and at the same time taxation has shifted to the middle class, allowing a concentration of wealth that is extreme. Teachers and other public employees are not to blame for these crises, and cutting our already meager wages and benefits will not resolve them. This is a pretext for destroying our ability to even negotiate the conditions of our work - things like class size, for example, that directly impact the quality of education.

The teachers and other public employees in Wisconsin have done us a huge service. They have taken the first step in preserving our profession and our schools. I hope to meet some of them when teachers across the country gather July 28 to 31 in Washington, DC, at the Save Our Schools March and National Call to Action.

And if you want a bit of inspiration, please watch this video created by University of Wsconsin media specialist Matt Wisniewski:

Wisconsin Budget Repair Bill Protest from Matt Wisniewski on Vimeo.

What do you think? Is Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker an example of the Shock Doctrine at work? Are the teachers there good examples of shock resistance?

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