A Mayday tug-of-war

To mark #MayDay, Maurice Macartney considers the history and changing character of the celebration.

The bridge and the cranes: monuments to Belfast’s industrial history

Today is May Day. Or International Labour Day. Or ‘Loyalty Day’ in the US.

Why the range of names? A quick visit to Wikipedia reveals that May Day was originally a Spring festival with its roots in pagan Europe, then became a secular celebration before becoming associated with Christianity. By the 18th Century, it was tied to devotions to the Blessed Virgin Mary in the Roman Catholic tradition.

In 1889 the Second International dedicated 1 May to International Workers, in the wake of a Chicago rally, in support of an eight-hour working day, that began peacefully but ended in violence.

In 1955 Pope Pius XII revived the religious dimension, dedicating 1 May to ‘St Joseph the Worker’, husband of Mary and carpenter, apparently as an explicit counterpoint to the socialist celebrations.

In fact, though, the Pope was beaten to it by the US government, who in 1921 declared 1 May ‘Americanization Day’, again as an explicit riposte to International Workers Day. By the 1950s, Americanization Day had become Loyalty Day.

So it is hard to know what Mr Trump thought he was doing when, on Friday, he declared that 1 May is henceforth to be celebrated as ‘Loyalty Day’. It already had been, for decades. On this day, US citizens are expected to reaffirm their allegiance to the principles upon which America was built, including freedom, equality and justice. The two really new elements introduced by Mr Trump are a dedication to fighting terrorism and a commitment to “limited government”.

It is odd (or ought to be) that this blue-collar billionaire, the champion of the ‘forgotten’ working people of America, should jump in on this tug-of-war over the meaning of May Day and pull it towards loyalty and limited government. Surely he ought to be in there, shoulder to shoulder with the workers, celebrating the progressive legacy of the labour movement, as their representative in government?

But then, Mr Trump is not so much a champion of the worker as of those workers whose loyalty, whose allegiance he was able to command in his drive towards economic nationalism. Which means the crank economy conveniently shorn of any pretence of international commitments (such as environmental protections or labour rights).

Here in the UK, of course, today also marks the 20th anniversary of the first Blair government. Mr Blair has already resurfaced, claiming that his “brand” of politics (his word, and a very interesting choice it is too) would have the Tories “flat on their backs with their feet in the air” (one presumes he does not mean laughing in gleeful gratitude, but who knows).

Now to be fair it’s a long way from New Labour to Mr Trump, and Mr Blair is right to celebrate achievements such as the introduction of the minimum wage, investment in schools and hospitals, and even the Good Friday Agreement.

However, to ignore, as he continues to do, not one but two huge elephants in the room – Iraq and the subordination of democracy to the ‘needs of market’ – is to create just as ‘alternative’ a set of facts as anything dreamt up by Sean Spicer.

Let us be clear: progressives should continually seek to ‘modernise’, as Mr Blair urges. It’s just that his ‘brand’ of politics, and indeed modernisation, doesn’t do that. It is now old hat. It seeks to please the markets and placate the losers (those whose industries were shut down, for instance), for instance by raising the tax threshold and redistributing benefits.

But a crank with cushions is still a crank. It still pushes rewards to those at the top and presses down on those at the base of the economic pyramid – keeping workers’ power low and regulations ‘light’. This is inherently anti-democratic: vertically directed forces move more in the direction of plutocracy than democracy.

We need to build a truly new movement (and this has already begun), to spread power horizontally, so that the wealth, and thus power, that our society creates in common (and only in common) leads to widespread flourishing. We need to aim, too, for a regenerative form of economy aimed not at limitless growth, but at sustainable circulation within the planet’s capacity to replenish itself – we need to live within the ‘doughnut’.

For all the attempts to co-opt it and counter it, May Day remains International Workers’ Day, a day to celebrate what working people, in various combinations (from the Unions to the Chartists to the Friendly Societies to campaigners for the vote, for civil rights and much else) have achieved together: nothing short of the ongoing democratisation of our global society.

Maurice Macartney

1 May 2017

Postscript

For a fascinating take on the contested history of May Day see this video featuring Peter Linebaugh