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May Day Is About Confronting the Capitalist System That Governs Our Lives

Let’s celebrate by coming together to imagine how workers’ collective power can transform the world.

Protesters and workers gather at the Union Square Park to mark International Labor Day in New York City on May 1, 2021.

Each year, May Day invites us to revisit and rethink revolutionary traditions from the nineteenth century for the present and the future. The annual international holiday comes out of a trajectory from the Haymarket Massacre in Chicago in 1886, when police attacked workers making demands for an eight-hour workday. At that time, the demand for an eight-hour workday was understood as a total opposition to the capitalist workplace, where employers extracted as much as possible from their exhausted workforce. The beginnings of May Day were not about better wages and working conditions but about an opposition to the whole system of life governed by capital and ruled by money. To insist on sixteen hours for play and rest every single day was understood as a real threat to capital, a fact corroborated by the hostile opposition to those making the demand. Take a look at the history of May Day, International Workers’ Day, and you will see that it comes from immigrants, anarchists, communists, socialists, revolutionaries of many varieties, and others disenchanted. I think one could argue that May Day is the holiday of imaginary power and real horizons.

Present and Future

I shall begin by presenting three insurgent thoughts on work and life suitable for the spirit and aims of May Day.

(1) Our first thought comes from Paul Lafargue, Karl Marx’s son-in-law. Lafargue did not reproduce his father-in-law’s fixation on work and the working class because Lafargue felt we were better defined by what we did outside of work. As Lafargue put it, “Modern factories have become ideal houses of correction in which the toiling masses are imprisoned, in which they are condemned to compulsory work for twelve or fourteen hours, not the men only but also women and children. …. . Our epoch has been called the century of work. It is in fact the century of pain, misery and corruption.” Lafargue wanted us to reconsider the so-called virtue of hard work, which today remains a relatively unquestioned “sacred virtue” outside of radical circles. Lafargue considered the virtue of laziness instead.

Laziness remains one of the most damning character traits, despite the fact that it is one of the most common and recurring of human inclinations. Throughout history, liberals and conservatives have variously spoken of the “right to work,” as if the most fundamental right we have is to go to work for capitalists. Liberals often talk about jobs and full employment as if that were the solution to every problem, and conservatives like the former Wisconsin governor Scott Walker defend so-called “right-to-work” legislation that gives workers the “freedom” to not pay union dues. Liberals and conservatives agree that hard work is a virtue. May Day is an opportunity to question the religion of work, to consider our lives outside of work, and to consider the virtues of not working, of all the creative and joyful things we could do in time reclaimed from capital.

(2) I offer now a second insurgent thought, following an idea from a non-insurgent source, American philosopher Martha C. Nussbaum. Despite many shortcomings in and disagreements with Nussbaum’s philosophy, I appreciate that she insists on play as a central human capability. A good life is not possible without play. I would add that play — at its best — is an antidote to work. At work, play is often called insubordination. We have come to think of insubordination as a bad thing, but consider that the opposite of insubordination is subordination. We cannot accept subordination as a virtue. Young children know the difference and distance between work and play and predictably express a general preference for the latter. For adults, play is often eventually abolished altogether or reserved for smartphone distractions at the end of an exhausted day. Many adults only reconnect to play when they’re with young children.

May Day is an opportunity to question the religion of work and to consider the virtues of not working, of all the creative and joyful things we could do in time reclaimed from capital.

One thing to notice about play, which I notice in play with children: It is an activity outside of work, and it follows a different logic. It is not governed by a profit logic but by imagination, free time, and open space. Play is a space of imaginary power. For many young people, the first direct experience of a little liberation is the end of the school day. Free jazz musicians play too. They make playful music, they play with subversive forms and approaches. On May Day, we might consider the importance of play and how work aims to abolish it.

(3) A third insurgent thought now from the feminist philosopher and revolutionary Silvia Federici, who, in the 1970s, participated in the Wages for Housework movement along with other important activists and writers, including Leopoldina Fortunati, Selma James and Mariarosa Dalla Costa. Wages for Housework highlighted that so much of women’s work is not treated as eligible for wages and is typically expected to be unpaid. But before readers demand to know who should or could pay for housework and child-rearing (often called “care work”), we should clarify the main point. Federici opposes the capitalist wage system, so winning wages for housework was not the central aim. As Federici put it, “The things we have to prove are our capacity to expose what we are already doing, what capital is doing to us and our power in the struggle against it.” If women actually won wages for housework, which would undoubtedly be an upgrade from unpaid and surplus labor, that achievement would also inadvertently prove the virtues of the wage system Federici condemns. Federici’s point is better made by the impossibility of wages for housework in the current system of work and life, which is why her landmark essay is titled Wages against Housework.

Federici wants to reveal a flaw in capitalism, a system that is incapable of valuing what people value the most. Simple questionnaires about the most important functions of any society reliably return “the health and well-being of children” as among the most fundamental commitments. That commitment is near universal in terms of cross-cultural and global resonance. But capitalism shows what it values only with money. Capitalism is incapable of paying wages for housework because it is incapable of valuing the most basic human values and wouldn’t survive the back pay. Even in the case where families outsource childcare to professionals, that labor is overwhelmingly done by women working low-paid, exhausting and precarious jobs.

Now take a look at the pathetic state of wage politics today. Liberals and conservatives today consider it “too radical” to demand $15–20 an hour for a minimum wage. We should stop to think that $15–20 dollars an hour, at 35 hours a week, comes to roughly $25,000–36,000 per year before taxes. One position today, then, taken up by many so-called “democratic socialists,” is to demand what would be a living wage in the 1940s and 1950s for a family of two or three. Fifteen dollars an hour is far less than half of what would be a reasonable demand for a basic living wage in most any city in the U.S. today. This highlights the fact that reason is too radical for our irrational capitalist reality. May Day is a fine time to point that out, although it is worth recalling often in between.

At what point do we realize that the solutions on offer are simultaneously the problems? Radicals, by definition, want to deal with problems at their root causes, and that requires a total transformation of the whole arrangement of work and life. Until then, the solutions will always also be problems. During the generalized insanity of a capitalist election cycle, it’s especially important to point out that we cannot vote for the total transformation we so urgently need. What we need is not on the ballot. On May Day, all over the world there are people who know we need a total transformation — sometimes such transformation is called a revolution.

What is practical in these insurgent thoughts? I claim that the question of what is practical is the wrong question here. What is practical is only what can be implemented in the present situation, and when people ask the question of practicality, it is often a disingenuous way of saying that what we want is too far away from what we have. That is why we must insist on a different question, the question of what is possible and desirable, as we have considered throughout this book. The possible and desirable is also practical, something that is easier to see after we start doing it. Many things (including a living wage) are declared impractical in the world today. Today’s practicality answers nothing. Neither did yesterday’s.

Past and Future

Earlier May Day speeches illustrate the crucial importance of reaching for the possible and desirable beyond the so-called practicality of the capitalist reality. Let us consider the speeches of two revolutionary women and one Ukrainian anarchist and see what lessons we may draw out for the present.

Consider Eleanor Marx, youngest daughter of Karl and Jenny Marx. In 1890, on the occasion of the first May Day, she said: “We have not come to do the work of political parties. …We believe that the eight hours’ day is the first and most immediate step to be taken, and we aim at a time when there will no longer be one class supporting the others. …This is only the beginning of the struggle. …We must speak for the cause daily, and make the men, and especially the women we meet, come into the ranks to help us.”

May Day was never for the expressing of what comes through the major political parties. In the U.S., we do not speak on May Day for Democrats or Republicans, nor for the Green Party or socialist parties, all of which invest too much in the rigged game of capitalist elections. We do not speak, in other words, for what gains we might extract from the world bell hooks called an “imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.” No, we have to create space for a critique of all that. The eight hours’ movement was about the reclamation of space and time from capital for the possible and the desirable, which is to say for the flourishing of the human being. So many great figures of history fought for eight! eight! eight!, and today, we give it away without thought or resistance through screen-mediated lives that, beyond eating up all of our shrinking leisure time, offer employers total access to us all hours of the day. May Day was for gathering people for the imagining of hopeful horizons and rival visions. Eleanor Marx notes, as well, the special importance of bringing women into revolutionary movement. Women have experiences and perspectives unique to their lives. This has always been true. Women have shown that living in a sexist, misogynistic and patriarchal society matters for women’s experiences and lives, and that revolutionaries need to be especially attentive to the perspectives that come out of such experiences. For the same reasons today, we have to be especially attentive to the experiences and perspectives of transwomen. Transwomen and transmen, as well as those with nonbinary gender identities, have to confront not only gendered discrimination but also transphobic and transmisic gender essentialisms that cisgender men and women cannot simply claim to already appreciate.

Let’s jump forward in time now to Elizabeth Gurley Flynn on May Day 1941:

May Day traditionally celebrates victories won; makes new demands; presses forward slogans of immediate action. …Ten million organized workers in America today and more to come. Skilled and unskilled, black and white, native and immigrant, man and woman, young and old — shoulder to shoulder. Let the warmongers shout; let the profit-mad rave. “We shall not be moved!” retort these millions of American workers on May Day. …Against all imperialism and fascism, including American! …Lower the cost of living. Resist wage cuts and longer working hours. Free all fighters against imperialist war. …End Jim Crowism and anti-Semitism . . . peace and socialism are in the hearts, in the minds, on the lips of millions around the world May First, 1941. The “sun of tomorrow” shines upon us. The future is ours.

You can see that Gurley Flynn wrote in 1941 about racism, fascism, antisemitism, immigrant and Indigenous workers, and classism. She was an early radical feminist, a member of the IWW. She thought a lot about sexism, racism and patriarchy. Segregation was alive and raging in 1941, and the U.S. had no official position against fascism in May 1941 either. It is worth remembering that the U.S. did not enter World War II until December of that year, and previously had no qualms with the rise of fascism in Spain. The U.S. entry into World War II in December of 1941 did not indicate any opposition to fascism in principle. It is a horrific fact that we must continue to stand up against racism, sexism, antisemitism, classism and fascism today, but worse, they are even resurgent. Perhaps we can now finally conclude that we cannot reform them out of existence. Slavery could not be reformed into a kinder, gentler institution. The abolitionists were right. Slavery had to be abolished. The same goes for mass incarceration today. The same goes for capitalism. We have to add new things to the list. We have to add transphobia, new permutations of white nationalism, patriarchal masculinity, and the latest developments in neocolonial thinking and imperial power. We have to retain Gurley Flynn’s abolitionist hope, because to abandon it is to accept the unacceptable, to tolerate the intolerable.

I want now to move backward to a moment in between the words of Eleanor Marx and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn to Nestor Makhno, a Ukrainian anarchist on May Day 1928. “The first of May is considered the Labor holiday. On that date, toilers all over the world should come together in every village, every town, and organize mass rallies, not to mark that date as statist socialists as especially the Bolsheviks conceive it, but rather to gauge the measure of their strength and assess the possibilities for direct armed struggle against a rotten, cowardly, slave-holding order rooted in violence and falsehood.”

May Day is fundamentally about imaginary power and real horizons. Often, the first struggle is to learn that what we desire can actually be realized. There are countless examples of this happening.

Indeed, Makhno himself participated in armed struggles against early imperialist adventures of the Russian state in Ukraine. The USSR could have been called “state socialist,” but I prefer the analysis of thinkers like Raya Dunayevskaya, Cornelius Castoriadis, C.L.R. James and Guy Debord that it was really “state capitalist,” essentially a state-administered capitalist country, even going back to the first days of the Cold War.

In 2022, Putin’s regime appeared as a revitalized revanchist state seeking to reclaim territories the Putin government considered rebel, NATO-related threats, or otherwise subversive to the interests of the Russian state. Notice that I say “Putin,” or “Russian state,” and not “Russia.” That is because we must never mistake any head of state for a whole people. Makhno understood this well. Many in the U.S. would easily say that Trump or Biden do not represent us, and we are telling the truth. Why then should we conflate Putin for the entire people of Russia? There are many in Russia who oppose Putin’s war on Ukraine and who protested against him and his regime long before the military escalation in 2022. We should listen to what everyday people in real struggles, in both Russia and Ukraine, may articulate as possible and desirable, and we should never choose heads of state as allies, never Putin nor Zelenskyy. Likewise, we cannot categorically take the side of an entire civil society, of a whole nation of people, because in every nation there are fascists, neo-Nazis, racists, conservatives, sexists and capitalists. Who says we must choose to take sides with any head of state? Who says we cannot take sides, instead, with real emancipatory struggles against imperialism, colonization, fascism and capitalism wherever we find those struggles? Whoever says so is wrong.

In the U.S. and throughout Western Europe, we should especially beware of the tendency to ask one imperialist state, like that of the U.S., to deal with another imperialist state, like that of Russia. Sometimes, in the midst of heated conflicts, even leftists forget that imperialist states do not oppose imperialism. Imperialist states do not have a critique of colonization, never in principle and especially not when they are the ones doing the colonizing. That is also why the U.S. government scarcely bats an eye when the Israeli government actively pursues the genocidal murder of Palestinians in Gaza.

Problems of international conflict under the leadership of state power and capitalist interests are not easy to solve. Not theoretically, not practically. If there were easy solutions, we would not have needed so many May Days for the future. If there were easy solutions, May Day would have become a commemorative holiday for recalling and honoring past victories. But the issues raised by Eleanor Marx, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and Nestor Makhno — among so many others — are still before us, and in new and pressing ways.

As we have seen throughout this book, the possible and desirable are also practical. Asking someone what they desire is a dignified and appropriate question. It is not always easy to answer. The question of possibility is also difficult, because that which is not possible immediately may be deemed “impractical” up to the point it starts happening. May Day is fundamentally about imaginary power and real horizons. It has always been, and must continue to be, for that is the basic orientation of all revolutionary aspiration. Often, the first struggle is to learn that what we desire can actually be realized. There are countless examples of this happening.

What does it mean for us in the here and now? It means that we must search our talents and desires and place them in the service of the world that we want. I am a writer, a philosopher, a teacher and some other things too. You are many things, also, and maybe you are many different things. What do you like to do and how can you place your joyful activity in the service of revolutionary aspirations? To answer the question, one has to consult their imaginary powers, and from there we speak out, teach, gather, protest, write, paint, perform, drum, care, subvert and sing for the sun of tomorrow.