Emergent Liberal Community

There’s an easy solution to the controversy over evangelical churches hosting Halo Nights:

Left Behind: Eternal Forces

Teens can get their kill on in a Christian way. Everyone wins except Satan! Unless you play as the Satanic forces. Slight bug there…

More Seriously, Zeitlin’s actual point in the above-linked commentary was that there is a dearth of liberal community and few prospects for its revival. To quote:

Liberals, because of their disavowal of transcendence and pursuance of essentially rational, veil of ignorance defined politics and ideas, do not have a coherent core to build any of these social capital maximizing institutions around. Jonathan Haidt’s identification of liberals as those who value maximizing reciprocity and minimizing harm in their moral calculus — and do not consider purity, in group identification or hierarchy — gets at the core at why liberals are having difficulty building or maintaining any institutions comparable to the megachurch.

All of this to say: “liberal” is not a real term. In the electoral realm, we’re united in our desire to win against conservatives, but beyond that, want vastly different things out of government and economy. There’s not an obvious reason we should all be friends outside of campaigns. This isn’t to say that conservatives have ideological unity, but they seem to have a few major, identifiable divisions (christian vs. fiscal vs. hawk) where liberals have many, less individually significant schisms. In fact, if we could all agree on even something as vague as the ‘veil of ignorance’ as a decision-making process, that would be a big step forward.

Then, Zeitlin looks back to the golden days of the CIO as a time when these disadvantages were overcome, and widespread liberal community successfully formed.  However, this strikes me as wrong.  The 30s labor did not somehow overcome a set of community-formng disadvantages inherent to liberals — they simply didn’t have those disadvantages.  Instead they benefited from a shared, transcendent ideology: socialism.

To be sure there were divisions, but the non-professional unions were a bunch of radicals who had much more in common that current “liberals.”  That’s why when the Taft-Hartley act required (among other things) union leaders to sign statements that they were not “communists,” the CIO had to purge many members (to TNR cheers.  They’ve always been tools.)

So then, the question that community-lovers need to ask is:”How do we arrive at shared transcendent ideology?”

Union are one answer, though Zeitlin discounts them, saying: “as Andy Stern and his service workers are the most important union in the country, and since service workers are a more transitory and diverse workforce than the industrial workers of generations past, the labor movement will not be the locus of liberal community.”  This does not follow.  If the most important union has achieved success by organizing workers who are, because of the nature of their work, especially difficult to organize, that would seem to point to the great potential for a resurgent labor movement if other unions, who operate in industries with less structural disadvantages to organizing, copied Stern’s methods.

See, this is an important point that may not be obvious.  The success of SEIU and, to varying degrees, the other CTW unions has to do with how they organize.  They conduct strategic campaigns, targeting companies in markets they want to move into or who threaten the existence of workplaces they’ve already organized, rather than going wherever worker outrage is highest.  The normal union ratio of service reps to organizers is 3:1.  SEIU & co. reverse this, recognizing the necessity of growth in order to succeed against the ever-expanding companies they target.  They pioneered card-check as an organizing strategy and partner with (or create) community groups to pressure targeted companies on other social justice issues.  None of these tactics are somehow uniquely applicable to the service industries.  When (if?) these tactics are widely adopted within the labor movement, we’ll have a much better labor movement.

So even if service workers’ unions aren’t ripe sources of liberal community, it’s entirely possible to export SEIU tactics to unions where revived unionism would create community.  However, I disagree with the premise; SEIU and HERE have created community, it’s just not in places Zeitlin or I would tend to see it — unions don’t have Halo nights for the kids of their white suburban members, or Megachurch-like weekly meetings.   My anecdotal experience is that they do lead to lets of small gatherings and friendships, and the union house is still a place one can go and hang out, but that’s different from saying the union is a relevant community institution in latino and black urban populations.

Regardless, union relevance as a community would seem to be entirely proportional to union density.  Right now, one person in my friend-group is part of a union.  So it doesn’t seem relevant.  But if we all were housekeepers in a Santa Monica hotel, HERE would be an important part of our community infrastructure.

Which is to say, more and better unions is still a viable path to community.

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