Three May Day Meanings
A version of this essay was read as a speech in downtown Iowa City, Iowa, on May 1, 20012
Thank you Occupy Iowa City for inviting me to talk on the day recognized around much of the planet as the true workers’ day – the real Labor Day. This is a day when the world stands up and says “Enough!” to the arrogant rich. It’s a day to speak back with deep enmity to the pathological profits system that creates the reckless and disproportionate wealth and power of the corporate and financial Few while more than 2 billion world citizens try to get by on less than a dollar a day.
How can we NOT join in the chorus of protest here in the United States, forgotten home of the working class May Day? Thanks to the last “four decades of greed and deceit” (Noam Chomsky), the top 1 percent of Americans owns 40 percent of the nation’s wealth and more than half the nation’s elected officials in both of the political parties.
How can we not join in when the top 10 percent owns two-thirds of that wealth and the top fifth gets 84 percent, leaving the bottom four-fifths of America to fight it out for less than a sixth of the nation’s net worth? How can we not join in when six Waltons, five children and one daughter-in-law of Sam and James “Bud” Walton, the founders of Wal-Mart…when these six Walton heirs are granted a total net worth of $70 billion, equal to the aggregate wealth of the entire bottom 30 percent of Americans?
The six Waltons’ unimaginable wealth is due to Wal Mart’s sale of cheap goods whose unbeatable low prices reflect the super-exploitation of Asian workers yoked to production tasks that have been moved out of the United States because the 1 percent doesn’t want to pay wages that permit even modest working class incomes in the nation whose flag they so proudly fly. The flag they proudly fly even as they stash their profits in offshore accounts and use other devices to make sure that they pay low or even no taxes inside the U.S. We can apply for jobs at Wal Mart, where wages are so low that a third of the company’s workforce receives public assistance.
One of the nation’s top elites, a beneficiary of trillions of dollars in financial sector bailouts from both the Bush and Obama administrations, is J.P. Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon. Here’s a little news item and quotation from the Wall Street Journal last year:“$57,031. That’s about what the average U.S. archaeologist made last year. It’s also what Jamie Dimon made every dayof last year — $20.8 million total.”
It would be one thing if spectacular wealth at the top didn’t come along with – and at the expense of – deepening poverty at the widening bottom. But here in the industrialized world’s most unequal and wealth top-heavy nation by far, in the middle of a “statistical” recovery that masks a continuing human recession, tens of millions of our fellow Americans are running out of ammunition in the war on destitution.
The signs of hardship have intensified under Barack Obama thanks not so much to his policies or to those of George W. Bush as to the exigencies of capitalism, which “goes through booms and slumps just as people inhale and exhale” (David McNally):
* By 2010, the total number of Americans living beneath the federal government’s notoriously inadequate poverty level reached a historic high of 46.2 million. Over 15 percent of the nation’s population (1 in 7 U.S. citizens) lives below the poverty line.
* 1 in 6 Americans (50 million, a population twice the size of Texas) has no health insurance in the only industrialized democracy that does not guarantee health coverage to all of its citizens.
* 14.5% of Americans households are defined as "food insecure" – as facing difficulties putting enough food on the table.
* The 2010 Census revealed that a record-setting 1 in 15 Americans live in what poverty researchers have resorted to calling “deep poverty” – at less than half the poverty measure…that less than $11,157 for a family of four
* A Census report commissioned by the New York Times in the fall of 2011 showed that 1 in 3 Americans lived either in official poverty or in “near poverty,” either officially poor or at less than 150 percent of the poverty level.
* CBS News reported last December that “a record number of Americans – nearly 1 in 2 – have fallen into poverty or are scraping by on earnings that classify them as low income” Half the population – 150 million – is either officially poor or living at less than half the federal government’s notoriously inadequate poverty level.
As usual, the crisis has fallen hardest on people of color. While the nation has been patting itself on its supposedly color blind back for electing a first black president, the real combined unemployment rate for blacks and Latino workers has climbed to 25 percent – a number reminiscent of the worst days of the Great Depression. The black poverty rate has risen to 26 percent, double that of white poverty. The black white wealth gap has risen to 7 black net worth cents on the white net worth dollar.The criminal injustice war on black America continues, saddling more than 1 in 3 black males with the crippling lifelong mark of a felony record and producing more and more police state murder victims like Oscar Grant in Oakland, Sean Bell in New York, Terrence Shaun in Benton Harbor, Michigan, John Deng in Iowa City, Trayvon Martin in central Florida and now Reika Boyd on the West Side of Chicago.
I really want to second [an earlier speaker’s] comment about how we need to not get too full of ourselves and think we’ve really won anything yet in this country. Don’t get me wrong. It’s been really exciting the last couple of years for those of who pay attention to popular protest and social movements beneath and beyond the big candidate-centered mass-marketed big money big media electoral extravaganzas that the masters stage for us every four years, telling us, “that’s politics – the only politics that matters.” We’ve seen remarkable anti-austerity struggles in Europe and England, the Arab Spring, and the great Madison labor rebellion right next door and the remarkable Occupy explosion last year. We’ve got the media and elite liberal organizations, and top politicians, including the president, talking about economic inequality and using the terms “the 1%” and “the 99%.” Tens of thousands will come to Chicago this month to protest Western militarism and the corporate takeover of the world.
But let’s not fool ourselves. Just as Mubarak has been replaced by a new U.S.-sponsored military dictatorship in Egypt, just as American-sponsored autocracy remains in power in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia and the Arab emirates and in Honduras and Columbia, just as Palestine remains viciously occupied and tortured by Israel, and just as the central bankers continue to impose draconian wage and social service cuts on Greece and Spain, the United States remains under the thumb of its own unelected dictatorship of money. Our economy, our political system, our educational institutions, our medical system, our media, our, our culture and, most urgently and dangerously of all, our ecology ….all of this and more remains occupied from the top down by the rich and corporate Few. With all due respect to Woody Guthrie, this land is not our land. Not yet. Not even close.
There’s nothing particularly new about this. At the dawn of the United States’ formation, founding father John Jay said that “those who own the land shall govern it.” He and his upper class comrades in the Constitutional Convention developed a government dedicated to embedding that plutocratic idea in the very structure and sinews of American politics and policy.
Nearly a century ago, the great American philosopher John Dewey observed that “politics is the shadow cast on society by big business.” It would stay that way, Dewey prophesized, as long as power resides in “business for private profit through private control of banking, land, industry, reinforced by commend of the press…and other means of publicity and propaganda.”
What’s new today is the existential lethality of Dewey’s dark shadow. Thanks to the depth and degree of authoritarian social control that contemporary technologies of repression, diversion, propaganda and surveillance permit, thanks to the ease with which the moneyed class can shift jobs and currency and capital across local and national boundaries, and thanks above all to the ever more imminent death sentence the profits system is imposing on livable ecology, undoing the 1 percent’s occupation has become a life or death matter for a decent and democratic future. As the Marxist philosopher Istvan Meszaros noted more than a decade ago, “The uncomfortable truth …is that if there is no future for a radical mass movement in our time, there can be no future for humanity itself.”
As we struggle to act on Meszaros’s admonition in a time when capital’s collapse of the environment is emerging as our leading issue, we might well remember two other meanings of May Day. The first other meaning has pre-industrial origins going back to the dance around the Maypole. It is to celebrate the wonders and beauty of Nature as it blooms each spring across the northern hemisphere. The second other meaning comes from the industrial-age pilot who realizes that his plane is going down fast: “May Day! May Day!” he screams into his radio in the hope that someone will come to pull him out of the wreckage. Sorry to be so dramatic but comrades the Earth Science findings are in and the evidence is clear: the profit- and growth-addicted world “the 1 percent” made is pushing us past the environmental tipping point. The great capitalist metaphorical promise of the rising tide that lifts all boats is now literally raising sea levels and melting ice caps and leveling forests and shrinking glaciers and setting off the planet’s own internal methane bombs and killing off species and poisoning the air and water and soil in ways that threaten to close off a decent future. If we want to avoid this third and last May Day meaning (“Help, we’re going down”!), we are going to have to combine the first two meanings – the working class struggle meaning and the love-of-nature meaning – in a movement to tax the rich to put millions of idle and frustrated Americans to socially useful work on the ecological retrofitting of our economy and society. We’ve got 10 to 20 years to end the great capitalist occupation of our economy, our politics and out ecology if we want a world worth inheriting and turning upside down. Thank you.
Paul Street (www.paulstreet.org) is the author of numerous books, including Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Paradigm, 2004), The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Paradigm, 2010), and (co-authored with Anthony DiMaggio) Crashing the Tea Party: Mass Media and the Campaign to Remake American Politics (Paradigm, 2011). Street can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org