May Day in a Neoliberal Society

May Day Photo

A Forbes article entitled, “On May Day, Communism Is A Much-Closeted Joke” proclaimed the triumph of neoliberalism and the end of celebrating workers as follows: “Once its biggest self-celebration, May Day now signals Mayday for global communism. Just a half century ago, it seemed irrepressible, now communism is just reprehensible, with the relevance of a renaissance festival. Ironically, it is the Left who most want to forget… before the lesson behind communism’s demise can be more broadly applied.”

By identifying the workers struggle for social justice with the Soviet regime, Forbes assumes that the rights of workers have no legitimacy in the social contract, unless otherwise subsumed by the neoliberal institutional structure. In a world of poignantly expressed “selfie” narcissistic pathology as a manifestation of how the hegemonic culture has triumphed over humanity, collectivist humane values are antithetical to the neoliberal status quo. The dominant culture indoctrinates the individual toward preoccupation with self and the rejection of the real community replaced by the virtual one where the self is itself a commodity and where misanthropic traits are inadvertently cultivated by the institutional structure that molds identity around material possessions as conduits to happiness. Despite widespread neglect, abuse and financial exploitation of the elderly in run-down nursing homes; and despite poorly educated children are a stark reality, as the rich-poor gap and poverty is rising amid a growing economy, the dominant culture incessantly conditions the individual to reject the welfare of humanity, and to focus only on the self and virtual reality of a commoditized world.

How has civilization degenerated to this level, just as its elites proclaim that everything is done in the name of “progress” for all of humanity? How has the world come to except systemic exploitation as normal within the context of a ‘democratic’ society identified with the market economy and with labor as its enemy? Beyond anti-unionism, a euphemism for pro-corporate-welfare capitalism, the dominant culture is misanthropic in practice no matter what the varieties of bourgeois liberals and conservatives proclaim, only to be contradicted by policies detrimental to working people who are constantly distracted by everything from nationalism, militarism, religion and all types of identity pollical issues intended to maintain the existing unjust social order and misanthropic culture.

Against the background of an open war on labor by capital and the state, a war that intensified after 1945 – advent of the Cold War – and became more openly hostile after 1980 – advent of neoliberalism – the significance of May Day has been diminished to such a degree that even the sixty-six countries still officially celebrating this day to honor workers, do so superficially, with vacuous populist rhetoric while public policy points toward a different direction. Governments pursue anti-labor policies in accordance with neoliberalism aimed to intensify capital accumulation at any cost to society, including wars that displace millions of people from their homes, and downward social mobility with all its consequences from poor health to lack of education and adequate housing.  To buttress private enterprise, which would otherwise collapse if it were not for government and its agencies acting as conduits for income transfer from the general population to the richest segment, the state constantly transfers income from social programs to corporate welfare, all in the name of economic growth synonymous with capitalist accumulation.

It is indeed ironic that the US, where May Day has its origin, government has never celebrated this day, but instead has declared it ‘law and order day’ since Eisenhower. This is indicative of contempt for workers by a capitalist-controlled state and the resolve to prevent labor from demanding a voice in public policy as it did in the 19th century when it confronted a violently hostile employer backed by the state. Today, many Republican and Democrats openly and unapologetically acknowledge capitalist monopoly over public policy.  Mick Mulvaney, director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, unashamedly invited 1,300 bank executives to help him convert the agency that he heads into a pro-banking institution, more so than it is currently, by contributing money to politicians favoring banking deregulation and curbing consumer protection safeguards. “We had a hierarchy in my office in Congress.  If you’re a lobbyist who never gave us money, I didn’t talk to you. If you’re a lobbyist who gave us money, I might talk to you.”

An honest admission of the degree to which neoliberalism has triumphed, Mulvaney’s speech was indicative of the degree to which capital is now in an open politically-normalized war against labor and society. This is no different than it was in the post-Civil War era when the nascent labor movement in America confronted the combined forces of both employers and the state in the struggle for living wages, safety, and varieties of employer abuses of workers, including children and women. An estimated 35,000 workers, mostly Italian and Irish immigrants, went on strike in Chicago on May 1, 1886 in what became known as the Haymarket Massacre. They demanded an 8-hour workday, fair wages, work safety, abolition of child labor, and the end to labor exploitation by management in the workplace. The response was the police striking workers and government adopting harsh measures against any worker trying to organize in the aftermath. William J Adelman, founder of the Illinois Labor History Society and Vice President, correctly stated: “No single event has influenced the history of labor in Illinois, the United States, and even the world, more than the Chicago Haymarket Affair. It began with a rally on May 4, 1886, but the consequences are still being felt today. Although the rally is included in American history textbooks, very few present the event accurately or point out its significance.”

As Adelman pointed out, American society is more anti-labor than many other advanced capitalist countries, though anti-labor policies have spread globally under neoliberalism since the 1980s. While the police are not out killing workers as they were in the 19th and early 20th century, the contemporary neoliberal state has adopted policies intended to crush organized labor and silence any voice of dissent to the corporate welfare state.  As a market-based institutional order impacting every aspect of society, including personal identity, neoliberal corporate welfarism has replaced social welfare capitalism. The neoliberal goal is to turn the clock back to the early stages of capitalist development when labor had no rights and the state’s role was to act as a conduit for private capital accumulation. Although society’s institutional evolution does not permit for a return to 19th century social conditions, the trend is to erase as many of the vestiges of social welfare as possible in order to accelerate capital accumulation.

Whether neoliberalism operates under the pluralist model where vestiges of social welfare and diversity remain as part of the legal structure, or under the populist authoritarian model intended to erase pluralism and social welfare, the goal is capital accumulation through massive transfer of income from labor and the middle class to the richest tiny percentage in the world. Employers had no difficulty convincing the government to crush the labor movement in Chicago through violent means in the 1880s or to execute a number of labor leaders in the aftermath, thus sending a strong message to the world about the absence of workers’ rights, civil rights, human rights and social justice. The infamous Chicago Haymarket Massacre left a legacy of the class struggle with reverberations around the world, exposing the myth of bourgeois democracy as representative of anyone outside the capitalist class. Anti-union and anti-labor policies were characteristic of the US government from Haymarket until the Great Depression when Roosevelt cleverly broadened the labor movement in order to co-opt if as part of the Democratic party, thus deradicalizing workers and subordinating the class struggle to capital, in return for a social welfare state.

Post-Vietnam War progressive opposition to the misanthropic neoliberal culture in most countries has been co-opted by pluralist neoliberal political parties claiming to represent all classes within the context of the existing social order. Every identity group, from minorities, women, elderly, alternative lifestyle, environmental groups, etc. is represented under the larger umbrella of a pluralist political party. Similarly, the conservative to rightwing identity groups, religious, nationalist, militarist, xenophobic, racist, misogynist, etc. are under the umbrella of the populist/authoritarian neoliberal political camp as in Trump’s Republican Party. The left representing the working class – lower middle class included – has a very weak voice so marginalized a much in the historically anti-left America as in most of the Western World. Instead of joining the progressive leftist camp, the labor movement is itself co-opted by the neoliberal political parties of the pluralist or populist variety, thus society operates under a totalitarian canopy within which the choices are between the neoliberal pluralist or the populist pluralist parties, with variations in modalities, considering inherent conflicts among the political and financial elites choosing different camps. President Macron representing the pluralist neoliberal camp in France is just as militaristic and anti-labor as Trump representing the populist neoliberal camp in the US. Labor’s representation in these governments is non-existent. Operating within the parliamentary system, France has an anti-capitalist non-revolutionary party, though it has not been put to the test and it has a very long way to go before it takes power.

In the neoliberal age that dominates life in all its aspects, the development of genuine socialism seems unattainable and people become fatalistic or apathetic. However, the contradictions of the neoliberal establishment, the countless of contradictions in the social order will produce the foundations of a new social order built on the ashes of the one decaying. The declarations of the Asia-Europe People’s Forum in the last two decades point out some of the structural problems of the neoliberal status quo, as articulated by heads of state. However, these declarations remain mere rhetoric, as the 11th Asia-Europe Meeting Summit of July 2016 illustrates.

Working for Inclusive, Just, and Equal Alternatives in Asia and Europe. AEPF11 tackled strategies on major themes or People’s Visions, representing the hopes of citizens of the two regions. These are:

  • Resource Justice, Land Rights, Equal Access to Water, and Participation – Going Beyond Extractivism
  • Food Sovereignty/Food Security – Beyond zero hunger
  • Climate Justice – Towards Sustainable Energy Production and Use, and Zero Waste
  • Socially Just Trade, Production and Investment
  • Social Justice – Social Protection for All, Decent Work and Sustainable Livelihoods, Tax Justice and other egalitarian Alternatives to Debt and Austerity
  • Peace Building and Human Security – Responses to Migration, and Fundamentalism and Terrorism
  • Participatory Democracy,  Gender Equality and Minority Rights

ASEM11 touches on some of the problems without analyzing their root causes, namely, globalist neoliberal policies that the same heads of state as signatories are pursuing.  While agreeing on the interlocking nature of the crises of capitalism, and acknowledging such crises are the cause of greater social polarization – poverty, inequality, joblessness, and insecurity – they are not willing to abandon the very system that gives rise to the crises. While they readily admit that “We are increasingly experiencing corporate capture”, whereby multinational and national corporations structure and determine our lives and livelihoods,” they are unwilling to do anything about it. No government is doing anything to encourage genuine grassroots progressive movements, labor and social movements that would become the foundation for a new social order rooted in social justice. On the contrary, the goal is to prevent labor mobilization, progressive social organizations, unless of course they are co-opted and subordinate to the goals of neoliberalism. That the US does not celebrate May Day to honor workers is a reflection of the dominant culture’s contempt for labor. For those countries that officially celebrate May Day while pursuing neoliberal anti-labor policies, the holiday has been reduced to about the same level of hypocrisy as any national Independence Day – oppression remains a reality for workers, while equality and social justice are a distant dream.

Jon V. Kofas, Ph.D. – Retired university professor of history – author of ten academic books and two dozens scholarly articles. Specializing in International Political economy, Kofas has taught courses and written on US diplomatic history, and the roles of the World Bank and IMF in the world.



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