Capitalism Divides, Mayday Unites
Every week brings a new division.
As I write my annual May Day sermon, division is everywhere I look. Following the death of another black man at the hands of the police, a number of Baltimore police officers have been indicted for his murder, causing division between those who think justice is never dispensed to the dispensers of justice and those who think it a scandal to treat the police like criminals. There is division, too, between those who think the very fact of the charges a victory and those who think them merely a show that stands no chance of resulting in conviction, let alone reforming police brutality. There was division over the riots that led up to these indictments, between those who felt the rioters were expressing an all-too-understandable frustration and rage, and those who felt they went too far and alienated those who might otherwise support them by resorting to looting and violence.
Division is at the very bottom of our political system, then, as largely impoverished minorities grieve for the loss of another of their own and arguments erupt amongst others, themselves of all races and classes, over whether the pattern of police abuse is a matter of race or class or both, and what can possibly be done about it. But it is also at the top. Hillary Clinton, the presumptive favorite to bear the Democratic standard in the next presidential election, is already facing the barbs not only of her Republican opponents, but of detractors in her own party who feel she represents a cowardly centrism, a party cronyism, a way of doing things out of step with our times, a political dynasty functionally no different from an aristocracy. But when Bernie Sanders, one of the few politicians of standing in America unafraid of the word ‘socialism’, announced his own plans to run for president, it caused further division, with otherwise well-credential liberals calling him a traitor, a splitter, a no-hoper, a spoiler who has zero chance of winning, even less of a chance of effecting change if he does win, and good odds of handing the election to the G.O.P. if he doesn’t.
All of these divisions are understandable. I myself am on one side or the other, and have made the easy error of thinking anyone who takes the opposite position much be my enemy. It is easy to feel beleaguered, to feel set about on all sides, especially if you are a member of what seems like a rapidly vanishing progressive minority. But what it is vital to remember today, and to carry forward into the hard times to come, that division is the meat of the bosses. It is what keeps them where they are, safely at the top and profiting endlessly off of our immiseration, and us where we are, on the margins, forever uncertain, forever afraid, forever willing to take whatever scraps we are given. When we remember that there are two classes only — bourgeoisie and proletariat, boss and employee, owner and worker, landlord and tenant, rich and poor — there is nothing we cannot demand that will not be given to us, because they can never match our numbers. But they have division, and it is a dreadfully powerful tool.
It has always been thus. It was easy when we all lived in tribes, when we did not have the advantage of diversity and multiculturalism (enormous assets, both of them, which the bosses have predictably tried to turn into hindrances to sow further division); we could be kept from common cause by matters of language, faith, and custom. But once the global economy became a reality thanks to communications and technology, the game had to get more complicated. When the unions arose and threatened to take away the power of the bosses through unity and solidarity — the only tools they cannot defeat — they started to set nationality against nationality. Soon, the races were turned against one another for the ‘privilege’ of working for the rich; when women entered the workforce, they were set against men as the new prole threat.
So it has carried on through today, as the young are set against the old in the workforce they both need to survive, and both have forgotten that they were both meant to be exempt from this heartless struggle to earn. The skilled have always been set against the unskilled, as far back as the earliest clashes between agrarianism and industrialism, and now the tech workers have begun to think of those outside their world as enemies instead of customers or, better yet, allies. The liberation of gays is now discussed entirely in terms of social progress, with economic issues unmentioned. And the one great hope against unfettered capitalism, the existence of a robust and powerful system of unions, has been turned into another point of division; instead of seeing union members as people with whom they could unite in order to bring themselves the gains the unions have made, many working people see them through eyes greened with greed an jealousy, and want to see them brought down and destroyed. When trade agreements are signed, everyone says unions are no longer practical when foreign workers toil for pennies, and so we import low pay and rotten working conditions to America instead of exporting unionism overseas.
It’s the same old story: the bosses sow division in order that, rather than all people being elevated to a better life, everyone is dragged down to a worse one. It is an appeal to the old and ugly in us, to the tribal and mindless and afraid, to the notion that the problem is not enough wealth rather than that what wealth there is keeps being put into the already-fat pockets of those who have it already. It keeps happening because it works; because we allow ourselves to be cowed by the superior wisdom of the lucky rich and the blind authority of the uniforms that protect them. But it stops working the moment we refuse to let it, the moment we realize that the unity of the plutocratic thousands can never defeat the unity of the working billions. Today is the day we must remember unity, we must remember who we are and how many, we must not allow ourselves to be parceled out like dry goods. We have had the numbers, and we will always have the numbers; we can only lose if we allow those numbers to be reduced by constant division.