Sympathy for Emanuel

Bhaskar Sunkara

Newly-elected Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel was a key supporter of the bill, which could make it more difficult to file claims for work-related injuries.

Here I am, writing for a storied Chicago-based monthly, on the day of that city’s first teachers’ strike in 25 years, admitting that I feel bad for Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

Well, not exactly. Emanuel’s reforms are odious. He’s exploiting a wider climate of austerity and bipartisan precedents set by politicians like Wisconsin’s Scott Walker and New York’s Andrew Cuomo to radically reform the way key public services, education included, are delivered.

If Emanuel gets his way, hours would increase 20 percent, promised pay raises would be reneged on, school budgets cut, and sixty new privatized and thoroughly non-union charter” schools created. Though initiated in a budget crisis, these reforms” would be permanent, signaling neoliberalism’s continued rise.

Beyond cries of shared sacrifice” so endemic to our era, the offensive also rests on the idea that public employees, since they’re funded by taxpayers, are somehow siphoning funds from productive” private sectors of the economy. Ignored is the fact that these employees also produce goods and services, and should have a say on the conditions under which they work. Still, the politics of resentment, a curious anti-social populism fueled by neoliberal politicians, is hard to combat.

So a progressive counterargument from the Left needs to be rooted not just in the idea that public employees are workers just like private-sector employeesalthough that’s truebut are organically tied to regular citizens and the communities in which they inhabit.

To this effect, the Chicago Teaches Union’s 10-point plan and longer 46-page vision of what a functioning education system is valuable. The ideas articulated, from smaller class sizes to universal pre-K, are not utopian, but pragmatic, perhaps to a fault.

But they do beg the question: Where is the money going to come from?

The answer coming from the liberal-left is simple: Tax the rich, cut corporate subsidies, and free funds in a myriad other ways. But maybe there’s an even better answer: Who cares?

This is where my sympathy for that odious bastard Rahm Emanuel kicks in. He’s a neoliberal technocrat at heart, but even if he wasn’t he’d still be administering a major American city, with all its concomitant budget constraints.

There’s an alternative to conforming to strapped city budgets. It’s one that relies on using times of financial crisis to make a leftward, not rightward, push. It’s a strategy that goes back to a 1966 Nation article by scholar-activists Richard Cloward and Frances Fox Piven called The Weight of the Poor: A Strategy to End Poverty.” [PDF] Cloward and Piven recognized that few of the families eligible for welfare were actually signed up. They proposed exploding the welfare rolls in order to create a fiscal crisis for state and local governments, a crisis that could result in federalizing America’s welfare system and the creation of a universal basic income.

Glenn Beck and other right-wing fantasists have seen this strategy as the root of a half-century long Bolshevik plot, culminating, I suppose in the election of Barack Obama and mass incidents of sodomy. But it actually is Politics 101.

Rahm is exploiting a crisis to push his political agenda. The Left doesn’t have to respond by accommodating its counter-agenda to the budgetary needs of the city’s government. If state and local governments can’t fund quality social services, then we need another federal stimulus or for the whole system to be federalized. If the political climate doesn’t allow for that then we’re at an impasse, but we also have accomplished something very important: We took a crisis billed as technocratic and exposed it as political.

Money can be found: Governments can run deficits, raise taxes or cut bloated defense spending. Most importantly, it’s worth remembering that protests don’t write policy, they create the climate in which it is written. It’s about time we took our crisis and made it their crisis.

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Bhaskar Sunkara is the founding editor of Jacobin magazine. Follow him on Twitter: @sunraysunray.
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