Reflection on the May Day Up w/ Chris Hayes

by J.A. Myerson

There was an elephant in the room that I think is really worth exposing for practical reasons. When we talk about the hey-day of the labor movement — during the 1930’s, especially, but also before then, in the sort of radical construction that led to Haymarket Square and Lawrence, MA, &c. — we are talking about a specifically anti-capitalist movement. Labor leaders and self-organizing (mainly immigrant) workers adhered to ideologies that affirmed in their every supposition the primacy of labor over capital. These people regarded capitalism as an illegitimate vacuum, whose design was to extract our — the workers’ — excess labor value for the capture and indefinite accumulation of management and the ownership class. The alternative they proposed was essentially antithetical to the capitalist system: workers should own our own labor power, should control the means of production.

After the Second World War — that is to say, after the golden age of trade unionism, which is further to say, during the age of McCarthyism and the Cold War — that essential supposition was criminalized (literally, by the Smith and McCarran Acts, and socially, by the massive Red Scare effort undertaken by the forces of reaction), so that today’s labor leaders don’t look like Mother Jones; they look like Randi Weingarten. Now, I’m saying this as the son of a public school teacher. Weingarten was a labor leader during a really difficult time for teachers who are everywhere on the defensive as the forces of neo-liberal capitalism conspire to remove education from the commons. But she’s a Democrat, not a Wobblie, and that makes all the difference.

The Democrats are a capitalist party. There is a sense among more liberal Democrats, like Jerry Nadler, that the most ruthless excesses of capitalism have to be mitigated by government regulation and a social safety net. But this concedes the question about labor’s superiority to capital and, in so doing, bankrupts the theoretical, political, emotional and — if I may — spiritual basis for the types of class solidarity that we associate with the golden age of labor. The anti-capitalist locus, such as exists, is no longer the labor movement but the activist and academic classes, which is why the latter, not the former, are calling for a General Strike.

It is also worth noting that concomitant with the breakdown of the labor movement (most starkly under Reagan, but actually forecast by the McCarthy age) was the de-industrialization of the American economy. Today, what this country produces — complex financial products and tons of disgusting chickens — pales in comparison to the American consumer economy (fueled in large part by the Chinese production economy), which is why OWS’s version of May Day, as articulated by Marina Sitrin, is not focused exclusively on labor but also on consumption, education, &c. The American economic system is large and complex, which is essentially the reason Saul Alinsky (who is all of a sudden mysteriously infamous on the right) and others shifted the focus of their organizing from the factory floor to the communities where workers and the poor lived. This also helps to account for public-sector workers like those Weingarten represented, who haven’t got a parasitic ownership class to which to sell their labor (their essential species-being, if you ask Marx), but rather sell their labor to the state.

We need to revive the idea that labor exists for other than the benefit of capital, and we need to incorporate that idea into every facet of whatever ideologies come to define the American left in post-crash America. These will not look like the old left, which is why Liberty Plaza Park didn’t seem Communistic — just communal. Luckily, even the Republicans have an formulation of this idea embedded deep (too deep, perhaps) within their DNA. Their greatest president, Lincoln, a contemporary and reader of Marx, articulated it in his 1861 State of the Union: “Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.”

Towards a more Lincolnian Republican party and a more Bill Fletcher-heavy commentariat.