Unit le Race Humaine
America has always done things differently. Sometimes that’s a good thing, and sometimes it’s not.
Falling firmly on the “not” side of the divide is the way this country observes — I don’t say celebrates — Labor Day. In most other countries, the holiday that celebrates the working class falls on May Day, the international day of the worker. But in America, the country where capitalism made its most defiant stand against socialism, it is shunted to the end of summer, to the first Monday of September. This is not by accident. A federal observation of a labor holiday was one of the left’s most-demanded goals in the 1870s and 1880s, and it was meant to be May 1st; but in 1894, following the murder of dozens of workers during the Pullman Strike, President Grover Cleveland exiled it to the dawn of autumn. It was an expressly political decision, meant to disassociate America’s sop to labor from the international qualities of socialism and communism, as well as to discourage celebrations of May Day, which was felt to have altogether too radical associations.
At a time when American workers were being killed in great numbers for the crime of organizing for their rights, it was thought essential to isolate them from any notion that they were part of any kind of global movement, to inculcate them with the idea that they were Americans first and workers second. This kind of calculated nationalism would prove to have devastating effects down the road, particularly in Europe, but America pursued it with ruthless determination: some thirty years later, during another period of bloody labor agitation, May Day itself would be rebranded “Loyalty Day”. The international celebration of the working class would be turned into a pointless and largely unobserved spectacle of enforced patriotism, while our home-brewed festival of labor would ultimately be transformed into a debauched kiss-off to good weather, an utterly apolitical excuse for runaway consumerism.
But more was lost with the relegation of Labor Day to September than just its anti-capitalist character. One of the most tragic losses was the uncoupling of our observation of the vital nature of the worker from its universal aspect. The labor movement, the socialist-communist ideology, has always and necessarily been an international one. It was never meant to be uniquely American, or to belong to any one country, because solidarity knows no borders. This is particularly true now, in the era of international capital and global capitalism; while the bosses have managed to escape local regulations and national law by outsourcing their businesses to wherever they can be conducted cheaply and without interference, the working classes have remained isolated and discouraged from pursuing the international unity that would give them the power to smash their chains no matter how far they stretch.
As usual, neoliberalism is as much — or even more — to blame for this than traditional conservativism. A massive worker’s strike is taking place in India right now that may be the biggest labor action in the history of the world, and which will play a critical role in determining the future of a country where constant outsourcing of work from America has created great class upheaval; but in the U.S., the press ignores this and blathers on about a football player’s alleged dearth of patriotism. Both candidates for president have abysmal records on labor issues; Donald Trump’s casinos were so hostile to worker’s rights that the oldest of them was allowed to shut down rather than make even the smallest concessions to strikers, while Hillary Clinton supported her husband’s hugely destructive trade policies, and has only claimed to change her mind on the similarly awful Trans-Pacific Partnership under extreme pressure from the campaign of socialist candidate Bernie Sanders. Foreign labor movements receive almost no attention in the American press; we blithely gloss over the deadly price of our consumer goods, made cheap by the ruthless exploitation of foreign labor; and our allegedly liberal pundits react with scorn to lethal working conditions in other countries, writing them off as the cost of doing business or defending them as matters of foreign sovereignty we are bound to respect.
This blindness to the essential humanity of workers in other countries, to the fact that they are humans of the same blood and bone whose workplace struggles could be ours with a slight shift in the economy, has more ruinous effects than simply forestalling a global socialist revolution. It trains us to consider the suffering of humans in other countries as something we can safely ignore under any circumstance, even if the actions of our own government is its primary cause. It is in this way that we can excuse with a shrug the lack of due process for the prisoners at Guantánamo and ignore the broken promises to close it down. It is in this way that we can claim the mantle of feminism for Hillary Clinton while ignoring how the coup she backed in Honduras has led to the murder of a number of female indigenous rights activists. It is in this way we learn to paint Donald Trump as evil for wanting to deport millions of immigrants, when Barack Obama has already done it. It is in this way that we defend murderous aggression overseas, dehumanize refugees from wars we started, ignore the unthinkable human costs of our foreign policy, and come to terms with the fatal imprecision of our bombing campaigns overseas.
Once, communism was used as a cudgel to alienate the victims of our support for bloody right-wing dictators. Sure, they may have committed mass democide, but if a communist is truly part of an international movement, he is truly a man without a country, and so the brutal juntas we support cannot be said to have killed their own people. Now, we are encouraged by incipient nationalism and run-of-the-mill self-obsession to ignore other countries altogether. Their fortunes cannot possibly tied to ours, and our success or failure cannot possibly depend on them. They are no more real than phantoms, useful for this or that rhetorical flourish but certainly not people like us, with hopes and beliefs and potential. But today, more than ever, when the connectedness of every nation could not be more clear and the havoc caused by one country jeopardizes everyone, we must abandon this isolation of the mind and begin to think of labor as an international movement again. In the words of the song that should rise from every voice today, we need to “end the vanity of nations”. Labor Day is today, but labor’s day should be every day, and everywhere.