Tiananmen to Tahrir to … Capitol Square?

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Tiananmen to Tahrir to … Capitol Square?

Published in the Maryland Daily Record March 14, 2011

            However it turns out, the confrontation between numberless hordes of demonstrators and the governor at the Wisconsin State Capitol these last couple of weeks illustrates how thoroughly imitation flatters.  Undoubtedly the non-stop cast-of-thousands demonstration was modeled on the street uprisings that have swept the Arab world in the last couple of months.  But Wisconsin is an adaptation, just as the gatherings at Tahrir Square in Cairo and Pearl Square in Bahrain were adaptations of the unsuccessful Tiananmen Square uprising of 1989.  For the Capitol Square demonstrators, it is more than a case of using what works; their quotation from the Arabs is also a deliberate rhetorical choice.

            The Lessons of Tiananmen and Tahrir

            At Tiananmen, the world learned that in a contest between large masses and a government that is willing to massacre its own citizens and has all social institutions behind it, particularly the military, the government wins.  Tahrir illustrates the opposite point: the military broke in favor of the demonstrators, and the government fell.

            The military was pivotal in each case because in a totalitarian state the laws are always set up so that anyone seeking regime change will have no legitimate means to effect it.  One cannot appeal to any independent social institution or branch of government because there are none.  There nonetheless has to be a real military in most countries, including, if not particularly, totalitarian ones because almost every country has enemies.  So you can dispense with or fake a constitution, a legislature, a supreme court, an electoral commission, but it’s hard to fake an army.

            But real militaries tend to be closed societies; once established, they hew to their own mores and rules.  Even in totalitarian countries, they function independently to some extent.  That’s one reason Stalin put political commissars in each Red Army unit, to try to maintain his control.  If uncontrolled, the military has veto power over every government.  (Just ask Salvador Allende.)

            However, where the military is neutral, then the people can, as we have witnessed, mobilize themselves as their own branch of government, at least for a while.  And I suspect that the visionaries behind the recent Arab uprisings made the bold and correct calculation that the armies in their countries would not act as the Chinese army did at Tiananmen.

            The Dialogue About Legitimacy

            The consistent reaction of the dictators to these uprisings has been furious and dismissive.  And the indignation is not all for show; one senses that the despots have come to believe in their own legitimacy.  They may well agree with pretty much the entire world that the bedrock source of legitimacy is popular will; they simply believe that they have the popular will at their back.  This may seem hard to fathom, since dictators so assiduously cut off all means of bona fide popular political expression.  Having disabled the independence of each organ of government to which citizens desiring regime change might turn, having silenced, murdered, or exiled all potential challengers, the despots have still somehow convinced themselves that they speak for their subjects.

            This leads to a fascinating dialogue in which the critical argument by the people is the sheer number and representativeness of the crowds which appear on the street.  They tell the dictator and his supporters: How can you claim popular support when all of the people are out here?  What segment of society, other than your paid cronies, desires that you continue?  If divisive tactics, ridicule, thugs and weaponry do not dispatch the crowds, if, in other words, the public demonstrates constancy in demanding that the regime go, the regime falls.  Once the illegitimacy of the regime has been so forcibly shown, it must go.  All social institutions that, had they been independent, might have protected the regime are useless to the regime then, as they have no greater power, authority, or legitimacy than that of the regime which had coopted them.

            Thus in the last few weeks we have seen, in a number of countries, the example of extremely large crowds – call them hypercrowds – demonstrating, by their sheer bulk and inclusiveness of all of the society’s constituents, that the existing regime speaks for none of then, and hence lacks all legitimacy.

            The innovation of the Wisconsin demonstrators has been to take this model and apply it in a situation where the illegitimacy of the regime is a harder case to make.  No one can make a serious argument that Gov. Walker or the Republican-led legislature was not duly elected; no one can doubt that if they lost at the next elections, they would step down.  Nonetheless, the rhetoric of the hypercrowds borrows from that of the Arab world: If we’re all out here, you must be illegitimate.  What then is the inchoate theory of illegitimacy?

            Union-Busting As A Human Rights Violation

            I think the theory comes down to this: in attempting to break the public employee unions, the demonstrators are implicitly arguing, Gov. Walker and the legislature exceed some unstated limitation on their powers.  This limitation is not, at least formally speaking, constitutional.  No one has suggested that there is anything in the federal or state constitution which prohibits disabling public employee unions.  Rather, the demonstrators must be relying a notion that worker organizing is a fundamental human right, akin to expression or association.

            This is by no means universally accepted.  True, the right to unionize is explicitly recognized in Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a compact the United States has entered.  But the Declaration has been deemed precatory only, and beyond the power of any court to enforce.  (We are, all too frequently, delighted to sign on to ideals with the proviso that we don’t actually plan to live by them.)  The Catholic Church also has a century-old tradition of viewing union association as a human right.  It seems the unionists want the right recognized as fundamental.

            If this view prevails, then, whatever is or is not in the constitution, the right to unionize will be recognized as beyond the power of the state to destroy, and not as one of the things Gov. Walker was or could have been elected to obliterate.  Hence, to the extent he tries to do so, he will in fact be seen as illegitimate.  This is the point the Capitol Square crowds are trying to make with their quotation from the Middle East uprisings.

            The opposing viewpoint also supports a fundamental right widely recognized: the right of the populace to control its government.

            It’s a truism most lawyers recognize early on: there’s no such thing as an absolute right, because every right collides with some other right sooner or later.  Wisconsin is one of those sooner or laters.  Another thing lawyers know is that when rights conflict, a solution that annihilates one of the rights is almost certainly wrong.  That is what Gov. Walker is seeking, and why his goal is illegitimate.

            Might union rights need to be exercised more compliantly with the will of the Wisconsin voters?  Most likely.  But is it legitimate to destroy the unions in the process?  Not if unionizing is a human right.

            And that is the point the Capitol Square crowds are making, as they play by Tahrir Square rules.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn

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One Comment

  1. Brian Barrett says:

    Dear Jack,

    What a thoughtful and well reasoned article!