Another May Day come and gone and the foundations crumble just a little more. What has the working class won since we last celebrated the busman`s holiday? What gains has it made, what victories has it won beyond the daily fight to stay alive and toil another day? Even the latter, the basest of triumphs, has eluded workers at home and abroad.
Fools abounded this April, but it was a grim month for those foolish enough to still have to work for a living; as I write these words, the death toll from the collapse of a slapdash building housing sweatshop textile labor in Bangladesh creeps inexorably toward the 500 mark. The men, women, and, inevitably, children were forced to return to the swaying, crumbling wreck by their employer so as not to lose precious hours of profit margin finding someplace safe for them to sleep; though this is as close to a definition of murder as anything I would care to put in writing, it has provoked little outrage among America’s paid guardians of conscience. Matthew Yglesias, in particular, penned a virtual sneer of a column in which he impatiently explained that this is simply the cost of affordable chinos, and besides, Bangladeshi child laborers are more than happy to risk their lives for the remunerative dollars a week they are paid. After all, it’s not like we would put up with such atrocities in America, is it?
Or is it? In the same week, a factory in West, Texas burst into flames and then exploded, killing 15 people and injuring hundreds in an industrial disaster of the scale and destructiveness normally associated with mine collapses. The governor of that state, who made his reputation on trumpeting its laxity of regulation in order to attract businesses, puffed up in rage at the very suggestion that his policies might be partly to blame for the bloodshed; it has since come to light that the plant had not received an Occupational Safety & Health Administration inspection in almost 30 years, and, in defiance of federal law, it stockpiled explosive fertilizer in massive quantities but failed to disclose the amounts to the government, lest it be subject to visits from regulators that might slow production, and thus, profit. So gross was the loss of life, and so visible were the fires and flames, that lawsuits are being filed and congressional hearings are being held; if America manages to sustain its outrage for more than the usual media cycle, one or two people might even go to jail.
But the systemic problems of modern consumer capitalism have long since become entrenched, and the odds that any of these massacres of workers who trusted their employers to value their lives over money will result in any kind of widespread reform is practically nil. Deregulation has become the norm in almost every industry imaginable, and even the most egregious catastrophes — from the Gulf oil spill to the ginned-up California energy crisis to the financial collapse that capsized the world’s strongest economy in 2008 — have failed to produce even the most toothless regulation in their wake. The current Democratic administration has shown itself to be almost as business-friendly as its predecessor, and neither party seems in a particular hurry to establish that human life should take precedence over a rich man’s right to get richer. On the same day that I write this, Republicans in Congress have proposed the downright Orwellian move of withholding leading economic indicators from the public, applying a no-news-is-good-news rubric to an attempt to prevent people from finding out how truly fucked they are.
And where is the counterweight in all of this? Where is the public outcry against all this, this chain of events that makes it even more depressingly clear that class warfare exists, that it is being waged by the rich against the poor, and that the poor are losing, badly? Where, on the international worker’s holiday, is the rage? It is tamped out as a wet squib on a rainy Fourth of July. In America, where the whole notion of unionism has been under relentless assault since the Reagan years, solidarity is a joke word, and May Day is a boutique holiday whose observation is relegated to well-meaning Facebook posts by retro-minded slacktivists. I once thought the political system so bought off and the American people so passive and indifferent that it would take bodies piling up to shake us out of our torpor, but it seems I’ve wildly underestimated: the bodies are stacked high, and still not a single arrest, let alone a factory boss hanging upside down like Mussolini. It seemed for a while that the owner class would follow Europe’s lead and impose the austerity swindle to keep down dissent over the downgrading of our First World status, but now it seems like that won’t be necessary. Why prepare a form letter in response to no one complaining?
We did it wrong, folks. We bought the lie that corporate America is against collectivism, when no one acts in more perfect communal lockstep than a bunch of capitalists trying to protect their cash flows; and we railed against the valorization of competition while secretly competing with one another over every advantage, every opportunity, every chance at status. We were handed, through the sheer critical mass of incompetence and greed that is modern American business, a dozen opportunities for reform in the wake of some incomprehensibly costly moving disaster brought about by deregulation, and we let them all pass by. We demanded no new rules, lest we someday be bound by them; we demanded no justice, lest it be served to someone who might one day be in a position to do us a favor; we demanded no reform, lest it stand in the way of the cheap t-shirts which are all we could afford to buy after a decade of wage stagnation. We have ceased to resist and are giving our goodbyes. We no longer even allow; we aid and abet. We are still digging graves, but they’re not for the bourgeoisie; they’re for us, and we’re being charged for the privilege of occupying them.
Say good night, First of May; you belong to the nerd culture now. Working men and women no longer care enough to claim you.