There are tantalizing endgame projections to all of this, of course,
readily implicit in the high-stakes collision now beckoning: Two distinct
versions of democracy (and let's finally be precise, economic democracy,
not the procedural travesty) -- the corporate model, which goes to the high
bidders; and the sole version afforded to working people, which utilizes
what is potentially the most equitable mechanism of the democratic process
-- trade unions, singularly and in consolidation. It warrants careful emphasis
that it is primarily on this basis -- the inclusion of as many workers as
possible in labor unions -- that the AFL-CIO and other unions have approached
academia. What will be requested of intellectuals is a complementary contribution
toward strategy and policy research via publishing and national forums and
in conjunction with labor unions' emerging presence on the Internet.
Therein, simply, lies the caveat: Don't blow it again. The authoritative mien distinguishing the thinking class has also brought it low; and however rousing and corrective the appeals from the lectern have been of late, they haven't exactly been reverberating through the malls and corner bars, apropos an old refrain. Only rank pathos seems a suitable docent for memory-lane assessment of the few and feeble attempts by the academy to connect with working people. It was tortuous enough to have once witnessed "vanguard" types waving their Little Red Books and making blanket pronuncios to sheet metal workers, only to have this same self-declared elite eventually commence with their Richard Perle imitations. Leave it to our era's academic left to have blithely crested both swings of the pendulum and stopped nowhere in-between. Is it any wonder working people have felt alienated and confused?
Is this a call for "moderation," that most despicable of conditions? Well, you know me, I'd probably phrase it less harshly. (And in any event, as the expression goes, I take full responsibility.) But let's be clear: The inclination of academia to prescribe from on high -- assuming a social institution or cause is worthy of its ardor -- has produced an abysmal track record. In linking up with labor, it ought not only be self-evident that scholarship-as-decree won't wash, but that labor itself is cogently analyzing its own situation. Labor's revitalized trans-border organizers certainly understand the rubric about thinking globally and acting locally, and more than likely could hold their own in academy-like pedantry on the distinctions between globalism and internationalism. Similarly, the progressive new leadership which has emerged from the shop floors of the 1980s is as intimate with the repertoire of dirty tricks as the corporate vicars who devised them. As to the students who spent the summer organizing unions in the South, they have little to learn from their professors on that score, of that you can be sure.
It's to be expected that academicians who want back into the action -- among them many who'd like to rehab their acquired anti-class reputations -- might find the limitations of junior-partner status in this alliance difficult. Indeed, the prescriptive inclination is an occupational hazard, and consensus-building has been traditionally absent from their required duties. The late Saul Alinsky used to impart a cardinal rule to each organizer he hired: If you want to successfully organize people to stand on their own, then be prepared to work yourself out of a job. If such advice begins to resound throughout faculty lounges, that at least would be a start, and maybe even a historic one after all.