Jasmin is a PhD candidate in Political Science from York University in Toronto. Originally from Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, he regularly blogs about the Balkans, international affairs and social movements in Canada and abroad. His commentary has appeared in the New York Times, Al Jazeera, openDemocracy, Balkanist Magazine, Balkan Insight and TransConflict among other platforms. You can contact him through Twitter or through his personal website.
The terrifying spectre in these countries is not of ravenous foreign capital, though there is plenty of experience with this too, but of the persistent suffering of being an oft bloodied geopolitical borderland.
In the past two months, massive protests have gripped three far-removed states—Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH), Ukraine and Taiwan. In every case, the foreign press has struggled to offer its readers more than banal geopolitical musings.While the positions of Washington, Moscow and Beijing are not irrelevant to these situations, neither are they particularly susceptible to the grievances and concerns of ordinary citizens. And yet it is precisely the efforts of ordinary citizens that have forced these countries to the global front pages.
By treating the street mobilizations and occupations at the heart of these protests as tangential aspects of big power confrontations we obscure the experience of politics as a popular exercise—from Southeast Europe to East Asia—and lose sight of the essential and informative similarities between these events.
All three countries fit into a sort of ‘third-generation’ of democratic awakenings. This is not the Arab Spring, where the concern was with entrenched autocrats, nor can the situation in BiH, Ukraine and Taiwan be likened to the anti-austerity revolts in established democracies like Spain and Greece—though these too have witnessed the appearance of ominously anti-democratic actors.
Instead, these are ‘emerging democracies’, where nominally representative institutions are still dominated by static and corrupt oligarchies, assembled around a handful of political parties that maintain close linkages with criminal syndicates. Conveniently, a sheen of ‘ethno-territorial concerns’, ably manipulated by officials in all three countries, masks the tremendous citizen-led effort that has gone into creating genuinely popular movements, composed of all segments and communities in these societies.
There is another, especially unfortunate, similarity to note, however. BiH, Ukraine and Taiwan have all, at one time or another, been labelled as fictitious or inherently reactionary polities by a curious alliance of local chauvinists and certain western “progressives.” In the case of the former, the rationale has simply been propagandist opportunism.
The logic of the latter, however, has been considerably more muddled. Namely, that since individual regimes in Belgrade, Moscow and Beijing had and still do nominally oppose themselves to ‘western imperialism’, they were as a resultstandard-bearers of the global social justice movement and their opponents and/or victims tuto complete counter-revolutionary. This kind of logic is itself deeply reactionary, however, marginalizing not only the complicity of these so–called ‘progressive’ regimes in incredible campaigns of violence and extermination but, moreover, tarring entire ‘opposing’ populations with the taint of ‘fascism’.
A thorough analysis, in contrast, requires that we take seriously the complexities of democratization and specificity of individual societies—rather than fitting all of human experience into bankrupt ideological dualities.
To begin with, the attempt to place these countries exclusively into the arc of ‘anti-globalization protests’ glosses over crucial local dimensions. In both BiH and Ukraine, though post-socialist dispossession (‘privatization’) has engrained deep-seated resentment against local plutocrats, Euro-Atlantic integration remains an aspiration of large segments of the population. Not because the Bosnians and Ukrainians have any illusions about their peripheral status at the edges of the ‘known’ western world, but precisely because for many the alternative(s) appear still worse. Nor are the Taiwanese protesting against free-trade as such, rather they are steadfastly opposed to being economically, and eventually politically, swallowed up by Beijing. This does not make these movements backward, it makes them a product of local struggles.
The terrifying spectre in these countries is not of ravenous foreign capital, though there is plenty of experience with this too, but of the persistent suffering of being an oft bloodied geopolitical borderland. And the tanks and gunships that have, are and are likely to come rumbling towards the plena, occupied squares and legislatures of Sarajevo, Kiev and Taipei are of the distinctly ‘near abroad’ variety.
The second and, arguably, more important dimension of this conversation is about tactics—what Bosnians, Ukrainians and Taiwanese protesters can learn from one another. Democratization, if it is to be substantive, must ultimately be a bottom-up, grassroots process. Very generally, I think we can speak of three ‘phases’.
The first involves a generally mass insurrectionary or, at least, oppositional character, usually marked by spontaneous mobilization, energy and anger. The sudden ferocity of the Bosnian protests was exemplary of this first overture.
Once the initial episode of militancy subsides, the second phase consists of permanent occupations and blockades of practical and symbolic centres of power—public squares like the Maidan or, in the case of Taiwan, the legislature itself.
In an ideal world, the final step will include both the creation of new establishment actors (e.g. progressive-democratic political parties) and extra-parliamentary forces (e.g. autonomous and organized social movements). This, however, is a lengthy process with the likelihood of setbacks at every juncture, especially in the form of overt foreign-backed ‘counter-revolution’, as in the case of Ukraine.
None of these countries fits perfectly into this timeline and aspects of each episode have a habit of appearing half-formed in earlier moments. Moreover, it is still far too early to offer definitive analyses in any of these cases. Nevertheless, we can so far observe the following: in BiH, we had instances of brief militancy, coupled with spontaneous citizen plena but no lasting occupations, sustained street protests or new political parties. Nor have clearly democratically-inclined establishment actors emerged in Ukraine out of the sustained street violence and occupations. Moreover, the possibility of war has sharply narrowed the ability of genuinely progressive forces to organize against reactionary nationalists.
Meanwhile, the massive crowds assembled by the Taiwanese students have engaged only in peaceful civil disobedience as they have successfully occupied their country’s halls of power. Nevertheless, the intransigence of the ruling Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), and the ‘spent’ character of the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) suggests this confrontation is still in only its early days.
We can also begin to draw certain organizational conclusions, however. No democracy can exist where elites do not fear being toppled by the citizens—at the polls or in the streets. Moreover, claiming that democracy means only elections empties the term of its substance and promotes unaccountability and corruption in emerging democratic regimes.
Secondly, the promotion of democratic practices within protest movements is integral to preserving them as genuinely transformative initiatives. Rather than wide-eyed utopianism, the participatory and directly democratic aspects of the plena in BiH and the occupations in Taiwan signal sober political acumen—they are the change they want to see.
Finally, the relationship between numbers and tactics is important. Bodies in the streets are essential as is confrontation with the authorities. But the more violent a movement is, the more polarizing and less democratic it tends to become. As such, street warfare in Kiev promoted the emergence of hierarchic, nationalist militias while non-violent resistance in Taipei has produced and been produced by a network of horizontal working groups.
Democracy has opponents, though, as all three of these movements are discovering. In the coming months, the need for meaningful solidarity campaigns will only grow. Diaspora mobilization while important is not sufficient. Activists in emerging democracies must exchange experiences and support each other across cultural and geographic barriers. Widelyaccessibledigital platforms already provide these connections locally, now they must do so globally. We must help each other as it appears no one else will.
Additional insights into Taiwanese politics and media were provided by Elise Wang of Princeton University.
About the author
Jasmin Mujanović is a PhD candidate at York University and currently a Visiting Scholar at the Harriman Institute at Columbia University. His Twitter handle is @JasminMuj.
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Over the past two years, a collection of photographs of WWII memorials from (the former) Yugoslavia has made the rounds on social media. Popular sci-fi and fantasy blog io9 reported on it and this post from Crack Two appears to have been “liked” over 173,000 times on Facebook alone. And here is the same article, with more or less the same perspective, on a blog from BiH. This process of “re-discovery,” however is to me the truly fascinating aspect of this phenomenon.The authors of these articles, as well as those leaving comments, repeatedly refer to the monuments as “bizarre,” “haunting” or, at best, as “modernist,” which one can safely interpret to mean “weird.” This commentary is essentially an inversion of the Stalinist insistence on “socialist realism.” We are now surprised that a society once existed, some long ago civilization which we relate to as though it were an artifact of Tolkien lore, which was capable of producing abstract representations of real events. What does it say of our societies that in the second decade of the 21st century, we consider symbolic representations to be “strange?”
It may be the most important event post-war Bosnian history, to date—and it has a hashtag. Some ten thousand individuals from all over Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH) today gathered in the streets of Sarajevo. But they gathered also in Mostar, Banja Luka, Zenica—and reports of similar manifestations are coming in from all over the country.
The issue at hand is typical of the political climate created by Bosnia’s oligarchs: absurdity writ large, monitored by the international community, to the great detriment of ordinary people. In short, the problem is that newborns in BiH are not being issued ID numbers.
The newborns have fallen victim to an ongoing dispute between [Bosniak], Croat and Serb MPs of Bosnia’s central parliament who for more than two years have been bickering over a draft law on the personal identification numbers.
Bosnia’s constitutional court ordered a halt to the registration of newborns until the dispute is settled.
Bosniak and Croat legislators are rejecting the demand of their Serb colleagues, who want people from the Bosnian Serb part of the country to have different identification numbers than people in the rest of the country. (Al Jazeera)
Without ID numbers, the parents of these children are unable to secure vital documentation, including passports. As it happens, with the general collapse of BiH’s post-war social safety net, many seriously ill children and their families are forced to travel abroad for necessary treatments. However, without passports even this has become impossible. After local media reported on the case of young Belmina Ibrisevic, prevented from traveling to Germany for a life-saving surgery, events were set in motion.
Early last week, a small group of parents gathered in front of the state Parliament in Sarajevo demanding the immediate adoption of a unified state law on the issuing of ID numbers. In a country where the welfare of families, elders and children is still held up as a sacred social and individual good, the plight of Belmina and children like her tapped into a long-bubbling cauldron of discontent, all across BiH.
By Thursday, a group of a three thousand protesters had formed a human chain around the Parliament, refusing to allow any of the trapped Parliamentarians, politicians, and foreign dignitaries from leaving until a new law had been adopted. Inside, the trapped elites began feigning medical emergencies and attempting to flee through ground windows. Some attempted to force their way through the crowd with their burly entourages, some tried to paint the growing mass in the street as an “anti-Serb” mob, while others kicked off their shoes, danced and gorged themselves on food and drink. The head of the Central Bank insisted that the protesters had done irreparable harm to the image of BiH as a safe investment site.
The responses varied—but they were uniformly despicable, arrogant and illustrated perfectly the utter contempt of the BiH political class for their own people.
The weekend saw a spiral of smaller protests in Sarajevo and Banja Luka by university students, concerned about rampant corruption in the academy, but in solidarity with what had become known as the “JMBG Protests.” A barrage of Twitter and Facebook posts called on parents, students, unions and workers and the unemployed to gather on the following Tuesday in front of the Parliament. The focus remained on the implementation of a new ID law but the emerging consensus was clear: the system is broken, they’re all crooks—and all of them must go.
Even the Western media has picked up on the remarkable nature of this movement. The usual suspects attempted to play the “ethnic card”—an institutional pillar of the Dayton constitutional order in BiH—and failed. In response, Eric Gordy summarized: “The national game is up. When it worked it produced a generation of politicians who believed that firing up resentment and fear would give them a permanent hold on power. It’s ringing hollow and their permanent mark is fading. They have become objects of ridicule. They’re over.”
This political establishment has no substantive interest in meaningful reforms in BiH because they understand that a genuinely democratic and participatory society would effectively spell the end of their oligarchic reigns. In April of 1992, nearly 100,000 citizens of Sarajevo collectively and independently took to the streets, demanding a peaceful resolution to the developing crisis in the country which had already precipitated violence in Kosovo, Slovenia, Croatia and was now threatening BiH. Nenad Pejic writes that for “Bosnia’s political parties this was the greatest threat ever posed to them. An organic movement was spontaneously demanding their wholesale resignation.”
This is the narrative I want to establish in BiH today: one which recognizes the political and economic dispossession which characterizes our political system, and recognizes that only the people of BiH themselves can initiate meaningful change in response. Reconciliation between BiH’s communities will only be possible when the people themselves amputate the political classes which orchestrated and engineered the dissolution of Yugoslavia and whose heirs continue to profit from the politics of division and fear.
The people of BiH still have bridges to build between one another and they know this. These protests, as they develop and grow, however, have the potential to prove that these bridges can best (and perhaps only) be built by ordinary people themselves. Already, hot lunches are being provided, legal aid is on offer, and the brass bands are marching—organic, mutual aid is building the infrastructure for substantive change.
The transcendent, ethical imperative and focus of theses protests is precisely what was necessary to definitely expose the rot within the country’s political class. There has been no shortage of causes to bring the masses out into the streets of BiH but few have so wholly polarized and crystallized things. The obvious is being chanted in the streets now: we can expect nothing from the local elites and their international partners—not peace, not basic human dignity or democratic rights.
This movement may yet fail. A wedge may yet be driven between the masses. But two lessons have already been learnt and it is of the utmost importance that they be cemented and reiterated:
(1) Mass mobilizations are possible in BiH. They can bring people together and by instilling fear in the ruling class, they can accomplish more in days than has otherwise been accomplished in years.
(2) Democracy is only possible when the body politic, the civil society, the people, the raja are an autonomous, self-organized and mobilized force. Democracy is not something that happens in Parliaments or Central Banks. It happens in the streets, when workers and students occupy factories and universities, when ordinary people discuss and debate with one another and decide we know better, we can do better. Democracy happens when we oppose ourselves to Parliaments, when we replace elections with direct democracy and obedience with insurrection.
Regardless of how these heady days in BiH play out, it is difficult to imagine that they will not leave a radically remade political and social landscape in their wake. The people of BiH know their own strength now. Will they have the courage to use it to remake the country in their own image?
Owned by the Indian billionaire Lakshmi Mittal, ArcelorMittal is the world’s largest steel producer—creating some 93 billion USD of revenue as of 2011. Granted, steel is an essential building block of the modern world yet ArcelorMittal’s obscene profit margins do raise the question of “how are you possibly making this much money?”
Turns out, profitability margins are greatly aided by the economic pillaging and environmental destruction of a still-recovering-from-war southeastern European locale: Bosnia-Herzegovina.
The central-Bosnian city of Zenica has for decades been one of the industrial centers of the region. The steel mills in the area, prior to the outbreak of the 1992-1995 war, employed some 25,000 people—a shining beacon of the Yugoslav state’s productive capacities. Today, owned by ArcelorMittal, that number is just over 3000—with the company actually looking to downsize even further, according to local union organizers.
Yet the story here is not (so much) about the bargain-bin prices at which foreign multinationals have purchased massive industrial complexes across the former Yugoslavia—often only to dismantle and sell them off in parts.
No, the bigger story is about the massive ecological disaster zone that the company has transformed Zenica and its steel mills into, which, even at the height of their Yugoslav-era production, did not produce a fraction of the pollution they do today. The footage speaks for itself. Continue reading Why does ArcelorMittal hate Bosnia?→
In the 1990s, Bosnia-Herzegovina became synonymous with the horrific violence, ethnic cleansing and genocide which characterized the country’s experience within the broader dissolution of the Yugoslav state. In particular, the systematic rape and sexual violence of Bosnian women during the course of the war has continued to remain pertinent both in international legal affairs and as the subject of major Hollywood productions. Despite this, Bosnia remains a sort of static metaphor for bungled international responses to humanitarian crises—with solid, critical analyses of present day conditions being rare.
Frustrated by this fact, I recently reached out to Aleksandra Petrić, a Bosnian women’s right activist, blogger and Twitter friend. I wanted to hear the view from the grassroots level, as it concerned the question of women’s rights in Bosnia since the end of the war, the development of feminist activism in the country and its relationship with the emerging queer and LGBT scene. It is my hope that readers (especially those who have followed our coverage of women’s and feminist issues) will find Petrić’s wealth of information as engrossing as I did. In this respect, I should like to draw particular attention to Petrić’s discussion of how allies in Canada and elsewhere are able to assist the important work ongoing in Bosnia today (Question #10). We have provided a link to a central database in English, which provides contact information for a variety of groups around Bosnia, as well as individual links to many of the groups in question (though only a few these, as of this writing, had web pages which were both in English and Bosnian-Croatian-Serbia [BCS]).
Finally, a big hvala (thank you!) to Aleksandra for taking time out of her busy schedule to answer my questions with incredible detail and knowledge on this very important subject.
1. Can you tell us about your human rights and women’s rights activism? What sorts of projects have you been involved with and what are you currently working on or planning?
I became active in civil society sector in Bosnia and Herzegovina about 16 years ago, through Helsinki Citizens Assembly (hCa) Banja Luka, a local NGO that is part of a broader peace and human rights network at the international level. Together with hCa activists from Tuzla, I worked on establishing hCa Youth Network of BiH, the initiative that strived to connect young people throughout BiH to work together on promotion of peace, nonviolence and multi-cultural values, as contra-balance to ethnic and nationalistic public discourse. This was a challenging task, as communication and travel between the two BiH entities was almost non-existent, and war rhetoric was dominant in the public. We offered something different for young people that were tired of hate toward “those different from us.” The Youth Network gathered more than 100 local youth groups, and facilitated many successful actions, such are youth conferences, art workshops, pre-election youth voice campaigns, anti-corruption campaign, cultural festivals, etc. Although mainstream media did not support these activities, Youth Network became recognizable and accepted as alternative to nationalistic groupings of youth. It fulfilled its mission, and exists today through capacity building and resource information center for youth. Through my work with young people, I became interested to empowerment of women, and work on gender violence prevention. Since early 2003, I became active in NGO “United Women” Banja Luka. I am working with my colleagues on prevention and fighting gender based violence against women, and empowering women in governance and decision-making. We combine direct services for women in need (free legal assistance, SOS telephone, safe house, psychosocial support), education, action oriented researches, and legal and public policy advocacy in our work. Continue reading Women’s Rights in Bosnia: An Interview with Aleksandra Petrić→
This is as close to a eulogy and an ode as I can write for a place with which I struggle every day.
As I write this, a now yearly procession is making its way to the town of Srebrenica in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The remains of hundreds of men of all ages are making their way to the memorial site there, to join the bodies and remains of thousands of others already interred in the earth. They are Bosniaks, what some in the media still refer to as “Bosnian Muslims”, though presumably there were atheists, agnostics, and lapsed Muslims amongst them.
But such is the discourse in Bosnia. You see, the Muslims were late to “nationalize”, that is, to turn their religious identity into a secular, national one like the Serbs and Croats did before them. Hence, the “Muslims” of Bosnia were akin to the Jews in the rest of Europe: in practice, as much an ethnic group, as a religious collective. Continue reading The Bridge Builders: Cultural Survival in Bosnia after Genocide→
For all the attention it received, to my knowledge, no one provided much of a political analysis of Darren Aronofsky’s 2008 award-winning motion picture The Wrestler. I suspect this is largely a function of the subject matter of the film: professional wrestling has been a long standing punch-line, after all. Its participants are popularly known as ‘roid popping, juice monkeys and its fans are beer-swilling, inbred country yokels. Regardless of the accuracy of such assessments, the more substantive impact of such an opinion is that it de-politicizes the given subject matter. No human phenomenon is apolitical—not even professional wrestling.
Consider the main characters of The Wrestler: Randy “The Ram” Robinson and his sometime love-interest, the stripper Cassidy. Randy was a major superstar in the 1980s, selling out arenas and performing in front of thousands, but today is forced to live out of a trailer and perform in high school gyms. His body is a wreck, and Randy is increasingly forced to rely on drugs and steroids to make it through his matches. Cassidy, a one-time femme fatale, is likewise discovering that age has left her destitute: she is a single mother, she is barely making enough to support herself and her son, and is discovering that her body, her means of income, is no longer the commodity that it once used to be.
Both Randy and Cassidy live on the fringes of society: they are employed in sectors which are regularly mocked and derided, and their personal lives, much like their physical bodies, are ravaged by scars. They are, in truth, the truest representation of the wage-worker as portrayed by Marx. They have no means of income, no means of survival, nothing to sell but their bodies and the labour these bodies can produce. And so they sell them, for decades, and when their bodies are exhausted they are left in poverty.
The film is a commentary on capitalism. Anyone who has read Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickled and Dimed or Ben Hamper’s Rivethead or, for that matter, worked a day in their life should implicitly recognize what wage-labour is and what it does to both the human body and the human condition. They should also recognize the incredible prejudice that working class people have historically had to deal with. If we look at the contemporary debate surrounding migrant workers we see many of these themes alive and well, and returning with some of the most vicious elements of this prejudice: they are “illegals”, “aliens”, “un-American”/“un-Canadian”/“un-European”, carriers of disease, criminals etc. The mold that was once applied to, say, Irish or Black workers and migrants has today been applied seamlessly to Latino, South-East Asian and African workers and migrants. In short, being a working class person was (is) associated with idiocy, with poverty—with many of the very attributes associated with professional wrestling fans who themselves are overwhelmingly working class.
The sectors of the economy where these attitudes are still most acutely felt are those on the margins. We see that any sector where labour standards are not enforced stringently soon become exposed to the true nature of the capitalist system; that is, unmitigated exploitation. The history of wage labour is evidence of this fact. Today, sex trade workers are a prime example. In the past two decades, for instance, thousands of women have disappeared from the streets of Canada. Predators and serial killers like Robert Pickton essentially have free reign to target these women (and men, and yes, children). As participants in an unregulated sector of the economy, sex trade workers have struggled for economic security, physical security and legal recognition. Their struggle has been one mirrored by many migrant workers, often forced into slave-like conditions, as authorities turn a blind eye.
Spandex and Union Busting
One of these dark, some say “weird”, fringes is the world of professional wrestling. The death toll for professional wrestlers is not on the level of sex trade workers, but for a billion dollar industry, with millions of fans around the world, the numbers are nonetheless shocking. Since 1985, well over a hundred professional wrestlers have died before the age of 65—many of these due to drug overdoses, suicide and heart failure (a symptom of prolonged drug use). Commentators have referred to this as wrestling’s “dirty little secret.”
Since the high-profile deaths of Eddie Guerrero and Chris Benoit, the largest wrestling company in the world, World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), has instituted their own drug-testing policy and on several occasions suspended talent who were found to have failed these tests. The policy has not been without controversy, as for years rumors have circulated that top-tier talent has been “protected” from testing. Moreover, as evidenced by the steroid scandal that rocked the company during the early 90s, this is not the first time that the company, and the entire industry, has come under fire for the prevalence of drugs. Even a cursory examination of the roster of top stars in the industry at any given moment would strongly suggest that bigger has always been better. Indeed, Vince McMahon, long-time head of the WWE, has among fans always been known as preferring “hosses”: larger-than-life, muscular individuals whose actual ability to perform in the ring was secondary. Hence, up and coming talent have always had a clear indication of what the keys to success were—and rarely were those something which could be achieved without “a little help.”
But the structural problem has remained unaddressed: why do so many wrestlers turn to drugs in the first place? Other professional athletes, even if occasionally busted for steroid use, are not dying anywhere near the same numbers as wrestlers. The answer is the nature of the industry, its unregulated character and the sheer exploitation which wrestlers face. The matter can be described succinctly: “While the outcomes of the matches are pre-determined, the effort to put on those matches takes a huge toll on their bodies. The wrestlers are on the road over 300 days a year and unlike other athletes, they do not have an off season. In addition, accidents do happen and injuries occur. Unfortunately, if wrestlers take time off, their wallets will suffer significantly. These factors all lead to the deadly slope that many wrestlers have found themselves facing. They get addicted to pain killers to numb the pain. This medicine keeps them too lethargic to wrestle, so they take drugs to get high. This deadly mixture leads to illegal drug dependency that many wrestlers have to cope with even after they retire.”
What’s more, like any large corporate empire, the WWE has gone to significant lengths to break up any potential emergence of a union for professional wrestlers. When Jesse Ventura, former wrestler and Governor of Minnesota, attempted to start such a union in the 80s, McMahon quickly put a stop to it. Still today, Ventura claims that the “Immortal” Hulk Hogan was instrumental to breaking up this attempt—arguably the most popular wrestler of all time, and one who was implicated in the steroid scandal in 90s but one who steadfastly defended McMahon and was, in turn, defended himself.
For his part, Darren Aronofsky has called on wrestlers to become part of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), arguing that “the problem starts with the fact that [pro-wrestlers are] not organized and they’re not unionized. That’s the main problem. I mean, there’s really no reason why these guys are not in SAG. They’re as much screen actors as stuntmen…They’re in front of a camera performing and doing stunts, and they should have that protection…Why doesn’t SAG help get these guys organized? They’re on TV performing. Or, if they’re not even on TV, the ring is a theater. So they’re not just screen actors, they’re theater actors. They’re performers. They should have insurance and they should have health insurance and they should be protected.”
But the McMahons have resisted such moves fiercely. In fact, they have for years maintained that their performers were not “employees” but “independent contractors” and thus legally prevented from forming unions. In 2008, three former WWE “contractors” filed a lawsuit against the company on these grounds, but the case was eventually thrown out of court. Two years later, one of these men, Chris Kanyon, committed suicide.
Recently, however, the issue has come up again. When Vince McMahon’s wife, Linda McMahon, attempted a run at the US Senate in 2010, running of course for the GOP, she lost to Democrat Richard Blumenthal. But during the campaign, so called “worker mischaracterization” once again became an issue and the WWE and the McMahons were once again implicated. As of April of this year, Blumenthal has again promised to investigate the issue (with support from organized labour within the construction industry, where similar practices by crooked employers have been popular). Should these investigations evolve into something more than Blumenthal scoring points against a political opponent, it might represent the best hope for wrestler’s to improve their collective lot in decades.
A Short History of Wrasslin’
Believe it or not, professional wrestling has still more commentary to provide on the nature of capitalism. To this end, something on the origins of this industry is necessary.
The first modern pro wrestling bouts were essentially carnival acts. Much as one would have bearded ladies and double-headed kittens in jars at the local fair, wrestling matches were a frequent staple of early carnival acts. Much as with the ladies and the kittens, they were advertised as being completely on the level—a travelling champion would take on all comers, usually local strong men, who were in turn usually paid to take the dive.
The notion of the “dive” or “doing the job” as it has since come to be known came out of the simple realization on the part of promoters that actual fights were entirely too risky a monetary venture (and often incredibly boring). As anyone who is even remotely familiar with casinos should be able to tell you: the house never loses. This was the same premise behind “rigging” these fights.
Moreover, in 1908 something happened that shocked the conservative, white sports world: Jack Johnson became the first black world heavyweight champion in boxing. White America was in an uproar, and there emerged the idea of the “great White hope”—a desperate search for a white boxer to defeat Johnson. Johnson would hang on to the title until 1915 when he would lose it to a young upstart named Jess Willard in a bout that took place in Havana, and promoted by a man named Roderick James “Jess” McMahon. McMahon was to become the patriarch of the McMahon family, his grandson Vince, of course, being CEO of the behemoth WWE. Money has always such interesting roots, doesn’t it?
The Johnson debacle crystallized a number of things: on the one hand, actual fights were horribly unpredictable. Staged bouts, on the other hand were safe, and could be evolved to month, even, yearlong programs and feuds. The drama “real” sporting events sought so hard to create was usually undone by inopportune victors and losers. However, staged or scripted events would simply not have to contend with this problem.
On the other hand, there was money to be made in “bad guys.” White America’s hatred of Johnson was a boon to the boxing industry. Over twenty thousand people turned out to see Johnson take on James Jeffries in 1910, the man who declared that his victory over Johnson would prove the superiority of the white man over the “Negro.” Johnson won, and White America was livid. However, Johnson earned three figures for the fight—and thousands kept turning out in the hope of seeing him defeated. Another twenty thousand turned out in Havana in 1915—Johnson was a draw, whether it was permitted to say or not.
These two points would go on to form the bedrock of what has become known as pro-wrestling: scripted fights and simple antagonisms between “good guys” (faces) and “bad guys” (heels).
By the middle of the 20th century, pro-wrestling had become a staple entertainment commodity. Cities like New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Toronto, St. Louis, Charlotte and Memphis would over time become Meccas of wrestling and each region or “territory,” as they would come to be known, gave rise to its own promotion(s) and champions. An obvious problem resulted, however. All of a sudden there were dozens of individuals claiming to be world champions. Clever promoters realized there was more money to be made in having one world champion who would take on all comers and be a national sensation rather than a dozen regional celebrities.
With that in mind, several of these promoters came together in 1948 to form a “governing body” of pro-wrestling in North America: the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA). In turn, they also created the NWA World Heavyweight Championship (aka “the ten pounds of gold”). The possessor of this title would be recognized as the undisputed world’s champion and would tour the territories of the affiliated promoters and take on their top talents, thus drawing bigger crowds. The champion, accordingly, was decided by a vote of the NWA Board of Directors based on who they thought could draw the most money.
For the next few decades, the NWA territory system functioned quite well. Guys like Harley Race, Ric Flair, Terry Funk, and Dusty Rhodes toured all over the US and Canada while promotions like Georgia Championship Wrestling, Smokey Mountain Wrestling, and World Class Championship Wrestling, to name just a few, managed to carve out their own individual empires in their respective regions. The NWA established a collection of monopolies which, respecting “tradition,” stayed within their own borders and prevented inter-promotional wars. For the most part, everyone was happy with this arrangement. After all, even though companies like WCCW were essentially reduced to running shows strictly in Texas and parts of the Southwest, they were making money hand over fist. The Von Erich family (the owners of WCCW), for instance, were icons in the Houston area.
In 1982, however, all this would change. There had been some successful outliers to the NWA from the beginning, most notably the American Wrestling Alliance (AWA) and the World Wide Wrestling Federation (WWWF). Yet while the AWA and WWWF recognized their own world champions, they still largely had amicable relations with the NWA and talent exchanges were frequent. But in 1982, a young Vince McMahon Junior bought the WWWF from his father, Vince McMahon Senior. McMahon the elder had been a promoter in the mold of the NWA, a man largely respectful of the traditions and customs of the wrestling industry and eager to avoid conflict with his competitors. Junior, however, had a different vision. He wanted to take the WWWF global.
By the end of the decade, the WWWF had become the World Wrestling Federation (WWF), and had exploded across the world in a manner previously unheard of in the industry. McMahon began hosting massive cable and pay-per-view spectacles like Wrestlemania (1985) and the Survivor Series (1987) which were seen in millions of homes and, likewise, made millions for the company. He negotiated exclusive contracts with cable providers, forcing all competitors off the air, and in the process offering their talent contracts to “jump ship” which their previous employers could never hope to match.
The last hold-outs of the McMahon empire were consolidated in 1988 in a new promotion, owned and funded by the media mogul Ted Turner, which become known as World Championship Wrestling (WCW). In September of 1995, WCW would revolutionize the industry when they were granted, by Turner, a live, initially one, then later two hour, Monday night primetime slot on TNT. The WWF had, had a Monday night program (Raw) since 1993 but it was a taped show and had done little to “grow the brand” as such. Nitro (as the WCW show was called) and Raw, and WCW and WWF as a whole, were thenceforth locked in an actual blood feud that could only end with one company going out business. While Nitro would defeat Raw in the ratings war for a startling 84 consecutive weeks, by 2001 McMahon had successfully managed to buy out his competition once more.
The Monopoly of Capital
Since then, the WWE changed its name again (resulting from a lawsuit by the World Wildlife Fund) and has become a publicly traded media empire worth billions: the latest installation of the Wrestlemania spectacular (emanating from Atlanta, the former home of WCW) drew over 70,000 fans and made millions for the company in a single night. The WWE has numerous television programs, its own film studio, and has increasingly been branding itself as an “entertainment” company rather than merely a “wrestling” company. Its closest competitor, Total Non-Stop Action (TNA) Wrestling (along with their moronic moniker) has struggled to draw even fraction of its audience.
This short history of the industry should make one thing clear: it is the history of capital. From its earliest beginning, promoters were driven by profit, by greed and by the monopolistic logic of capitalism. With the arrival of Vince McMahon on the scene in the early 80s, the industry began a process of consolidation, from petty bourgeois to big capital. McMahon destroyed his competition, and the name WWE has become synonymous with pro-wrestling itself though hundreds of smaller entities continue to exist in the US, Canada, Mexico, Japan and Europe. Fans who remember the so-called “golden age” of the “Monday Night Wars” and even the period of the 80s and 70s, bemoan the state of wrestling today: an industry dominated by one brand, which produces a product largely devoid of content or quality but still draws millions as it has increasingly been marketed towards children (rather than to young adults as had been the case in earlier periods).
The biggest challenge facing the McMahons today is the UFC, which while involved in actual sports rather than “sports entertainment,” has taken a large chunk out of the WWE’s pay-per-view revenue. It remains to be seen whether this competition will take on quite the same character as the one with WCW, though it seems unlikely (and in any case, one which the WWE would likewise be unlikely to win, at least, if the UFC continues to grow at its present rate). However, like Coke and Pepsi, like Microsoft and Apple, the WWE and UFC, while ostensibly engaged in competition, remain empires in their own right and are likely to remain as such—while posturing as “diversity” in the marketplace.
All along this process, the WWE (and most of its historic competitors) have continued to promote storylines that have only entrenched its standing as a “performance art” founded in gratuitous violence, sexism, homophobia and racism—thereby consolidating the aforementioned stereotypes of wrestling fans as inbred yokels. And yet, at the heart of it, there is little within the essential form of pro-wrestling itself that need demand this. No more than football fans need be rage-fueled hooligans, as I have written before. Yes, it based in “violence” but so are many other sports, and the violence in wrestling is largely simulated. At its heart, it is simply athletic theater: good vs. evil, the thrill of competition. It simply embraces as its soul what most other sports seek develop through accident: drama. As such, it is little different from the film industry, and why Aronofsky was quite astute in his call for pro-wrestlers to be included in the SAG.
To that end, smaller companies like Ring of Honor (ROH) have increasingly moved away from the crass (or “crash” as it was known in the 90s) model of the WWE and prompted storylines advanced almost entirely through the simple athleticism of the in-ring performers (thus, largely restoring the “sport” element to the “sports entertainment” equation). But while ROH has garnered a cult following among fans, it is peripheral phenomenon to the dominance of the gigantic WWE and all its corrosive elements.
As pro-wrestling has grown to new heights, it has still remained trapped within a conceptual bubble. This bubble has largely serviced promoters and come at an incredible toll to the talent. It is unlikely that wrestling will ever be embraced by the larger public, and will always remain something of a fringe phenomenon. While it is interesting to discuss the politics and economics of this process, what is more urgent is a need to take care of the human beings employed within this industry. We have come to understand the exploitative nature of capitalism, and the way it permeates most every facet of our world. While certain industries or sectors may not employ as many individuals as others, and may have a sordid reputation in one way or another, these people still require protection and they deserve rights. The women and men of the pro-wrestling industry are no different. And like the passionate football fans who have tried to save their clubs from creeping corporatization, passionate wrestling fans have a role to play in this process too—their voices and support can improve working conditions and save the lives of the talent who have broken their bodies in the process of entertaining them.
De-Spinning the Political and Re-Spinning it for Social, Economic and Political Justice