05 May 2014

The unrecognized and unrecognizable worker

There was a line from an epic prose poem by Carl Sandburg that inspired what became a signature slogan of anti-war agitation in the USA in the sixties, ‘Suppose they gave a war and nobody came’.  The original line is ‘spoken’ by a little girl who sees a group of soldiers marching in a parade.  This is how it went:

The first world war came and its cost was laid on the people.
The second world war — the third — what will be the cost.
And will it repay the people for what they pay?...
The little girl saw her first troop parade and asked, 
‘What are those?’
‘What are soldiers?’
‘They are for war. They fight and each tries to kill as many of the other side as he can.’
 The girl held still and studied. 
‘Do you know ... I know something?’
‘Yes, what is it you know?’
‘Sometime they’ll give a war and nobody will come.’

That was in the sixties.  It’s a wish.  All wishes are timeless, especially when it comes to war.  The sad truth is that the war-needy will always use argument, law and coercion to find people to fight wars. 
The same goes for May Day here in Sri Lanka.  We can make a similar wish: Sometime they’ll give a May Day and nobody will come,’ but there’ll be enough men and women to join this or that parade.  They’ll come because there’s food, drink and merriment.  They might not know what May Day is all about but they would know about bread, butter and which side gets buttered. It is not always out of ignorance. Who cares, after all, what the party is about if there’s tangible benefit scripted in for the moment, the day or the end of the day?

Somewhere down the line, something happened.  Experts on capitalism, globalization and related cultural politics would best explain the phenomenon which gave us a May Day of the Bosses, hijacked of course from the working class, their grievances, their resistance and related solidarities. Somewhere down the line, May Day was robbed from the workers.  Somewhere down the line the workers lost the May Day.  Sure, we have the odd trade union faithfully going through May Day paces of quoting Marx and Engles, unpacking the capitalist moment, pointing to fault line, lamenting betrayal, berating betrayers and pledging to carry on the struggle until the system is overthrown.  By and large, however, there’s a lot of red on May Day but little redness when it comes to substance. 

In the main there is of course mention of workers, conditions of exploitation, curtailing of rights and bragging about what the particular party has done for the workers.  That’s all drowned by other rhetoric.  Parties and politicians quickly move to blowing their trumpets and berating their opponents.  The ‘working class’ remains unidentifiable, clothed as they are in party colors and outmaneuvered as they are by slogans, flags, banners, rowdiness, invective, vulgarity and drunkenness.  Of the parties that count, going strictly by numbers, the JVP would be the exception to what has become ‘rule’. 

As always, the JVP did not disgrace itself the way other parties did, even though one need not be fooled by rhetoric, march-discipline and absence of alcohol.  One doesn’t have to be a diehard Trotskyite to note that the JVP is hardly a working class party, either in membership or ideological bent. Still, the JVP did not insult the working class the way that the UPFA and UNP did. 

So under what conditions will there be a May Day which is truly about workers?  Under what conditions would there be these kinds of May Day celebrations where party and politician are abandoned by the masses? 

Well, in a world where people think of May Day that draws from the original idea where worker was central to celebration and defiance, it might be possible.  Perhaps there’s been too much of theft embedded in May Day celebrations over the years to be optimistic about it.  Perhaps also workers and working class, Marxist rhetoric and utopias envisaged, theoretical development and developmental fallacies have made all that impossible and even irrelevant. 

If May Day is just excuse to party, then so be it.  If any meaning associated with workers is to be salvaged, though, then boycotting May Day might be a good place to start if not for any reason because delusion is something that the oppressed can ill afford.  In a world where definition and description are the preserve of the powerful, the least that the worker can do is not to conspire with oppressor.  If the worker is to be recognized only in the preferred terms by exploitative and oppressive forces, the worker will end up being unrecognizable. The recovery of recognition and thereby self demands that a different path be walked, a road that leads away from the pernicious joke that the May Day has become.   



Anonymous said...

oh no. the white highlight again :/

Anonymous said...

You have to put the 'Superb' checkbox back here.... please.

sajic said...

'the mills of God grind slowly'. The wheel will turn.