It’s not about workers, their trials and tribulations. It is not about unfair terms of exchange. It is not about capitalism, the extraction of surplus value and the immiseration of the working class. It is not even about class consciousness. May Day is a spectacle, a show where the political biggies flex muscles, brag about achievements and beat chests about prevailing over all manner of obstacles or else fervent vows to oust the ruling coalition and secure power.
Of course there are the diehards, the various trade union ‘rallies’ splashed in red and marked by diminishing numbers and aging splinters from what was once the leading light of the Trotskyite movement. Negligible in numbers and even poorer in political clout.
The JVP is not negligible on the other hand. And yet, despite the usual Marxist-Leninist iconography, colourful and even innovative processions, and the customary ‘annual redding’ of the leaders, that party has little claim to be the voice of the proletariat. They’ve helped their ideological ‘enemies’ into power and helped them out of power as well, replacing one faction of the ruling class with another, each time with less and less allusion to the considerable theoretical canon of the ideology the party claims it subscribes to.
What happened to the worker on May Day, one might ask. Some would argue that the worker is plagued by false consciousness. ‘Two steps forward, one step back,’ is another possible explanation. Certain ‘leftists’ would argue that the trade union movement betrayed the workers while union leaders could counter that so-called ‘leftist’ political parties did the workers in by flirting with nationalists and centrists. It might appear that there are lots of rabid ‘running dogs of capitalism’ around; too many for the emergence of a united, coherent and formidable working class movement.
For all this, for now, capitalism is a reality. Exploitation is still the name of the game. And, despite disunity and against all odds, whatever victories for labour, meagre or otherwise, have been secured through fight or the threat of possible political destabilization. Crumbs, if you want to call it that, were not given out of pity.
For all this, also, May Day is not about workers, apart from the cursory token tossed from the various political stages. So should we ask if all those members of the working class who attend the May Day marches and rallies of the major political coalitions are stupid? Do they not know, should ask, that they are being taken for a ride, that their support brings to power or consolidates the power of forces that operate against their own interests?
There is that element, no doubt, but let us not for one moment believe that the workers do not know what is what and who is who. Instead, let us appreciate the fact that workers, like everyone else, are multi-dimensional in their lives and in their politics. Perhaps they are even smarter than their would be saviours because they know that in the long ‘interim’ between now and the consecration of ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’ they have to get what they can, survive and prosper to the extent possible.
One might call it ‘negotiating the terms of exploitation’. But then again, the sober theorists on their moral high horses are not going to get the a dirt road developed into one on which a bus could ply, something that might have a big impact on the life chances of children simply because it enables better access to things like education.
No, the working class is not stupid. It might appear that they are rather out of sorts in the hijacking of May Day by the very forces that act against the interests of workers, but then again what’s wrong in consuming a slice of the spectacle? It’s a show, after all.
Tomorrow, it will be ‘back to work’. Back to the same terms of exploitation. Back to the extraction of surplus value, the immiserization of the working class, the alienation of labour etc., etc. One thing is certain. Revolutions have never been plotted on May Day. May Day has never been a crucial political factor in the making of revolutions. All that takes places elsewhere and on other days. The workers, then, may have got it right. May Day is not a big deal.
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