Workers of the World United in Their Divisions
“Workers of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains!” was the rallying cry by the prophet of Prussia, Karl Marx who wanted to rouse the oppressed proletariat, the working class to revolt against their capitalist overlords.
A century later, the deferred dream of the class-less society he envisaged seems further out of reach than ever. The Haymarket affair, in which working class labourers and machinists in Chicago, shed blood for more humane working conditions, has almost slid into obscurity. International Labour Day does not have the same significance as it’s more venerated cousins of a religious or nationalist nature in the annual holiday calendar. This lack of popular appeal is the perfect exhibit of what many political scientists label as the ‘wrong address problem’; they contend that instead of a golden dawn of international brotherhood by the working classes of the world, their passions have been channelized through religious, cultural or nationalist causes. Humanity stands united within their divisions. The masses rally under the banners of God, land and country more readily than international equality.
Many revolutions have been fought in the name of the common man only to betray them when the revolutionaries became the establishment. The only trade union government ever to be elected through the ballot box was the Solidarity movement in Poland, but today it is only a marginal player in Poland’s politics let alone the European Union. Other proletarian governments that came to power through the barrel of the gun have either been consigned to the dustbin of history or have faded into irrelevance. The fall of the Berlin Wall also turned to rubble the dream of international communism. No phoenix rose from the ashes. Instead a more aggressive, unfettered capitalism ran amok in the absence of an ideological rival.
And yet the biggest tragedy was not how international communism ended, but how it was practiced. Aside from rare exceptions, communist or marxist ideologies were responsible for some of the most gruesome episodes of human cruelty in modern history. In their zeal to radically transform society, whole sections of society had to be annihilated. The 25 million who died in Stalin’s purges or the 45 million who perished in Chairman Mao’s cultural revolution bear testament to the tyranny done in the name of liberation.
Liberal democracies on the other hand, co-opted the spectre of the workers’ revolt by the instituting the welfare state or addressing their concerns through electoral politics ( the Social Democrats of Germany are a prime example). In the long run these political vehicles were to be accommodated within the larger edifice of liberal democracies. And yet what was given with one hand was taken by the other from the working classes. Even in the heyday of Cold War politics, neo-liberal stalwarts like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher decimated Trade Unions and opened up public sector enterprises to privatization. That swift erosion of the working classes in rich world economies has continued through the decades. Half the world’s wealth is held by just one percent of the global elite. Real wages adjusted for inflation have been declining in the West while unemployment is rising.
Automation, inequality and globalization have colluded to squeeze the working class leading to mass disaffection. This in turn has provided fertile ground for populist demagogues in the absence of credible leadership by the Left. Donald Trump, Nigel Farage and Marie Le Pen have provided a convenient red herring to the deeper structural problems that plague their own economies and the global economies at large.
Simply bringing jobs home, curbing immigration and buying local products is not going to change the sagging economic fortunes of the developed world. Dealing with ageing populations, automation and mass overhauling of the education system are but few of the many slow, painful transitions that the rich world democracies would be having to make in the coming decades. Sooner or later populist governments would have to accept the painful reality that the jobs they promised to bring back or create have been made redundant or obsolete by technology. What luddite or protectionist reaction that would bring about is anyone’s guess.
In the meantime, the global Left movement has a lot of soul searching to do. The Occupy Movement, an umbrella term for a global confederation of protests on the heels of the 2008 financial crisis, only showed how divided the Left really is. There are too many voices speaking “truth to power, often speaking past each other instead of as a unified whole. Leftist politics has dissipated into the many strands of identity politics whose different manifestations are feminism, LGBTQ , Black Lives Matter along with countless others. With these divided energies, power and capital have remained on the summits of influence more firmly than ever before.
The ugly truth is, that it’s not going to get any better. The milieu in which the Haymarket affair happened is radically different from the context that the working class or all sections of the society for that matter find themselves in today. There is no telling how many jobs will be lost as technology, automation, robotics and artificial intelligence make manual labor dispensable. The current university system is ill equipped to address the rapidly changing demands of the job market. Adding to the complication, the ageing populations in the rich world would need re- training and skill development by governments or private sector programs.
Furthermore, there must be a new social contract not just between the working class but all citizens and their governments. After the New Deal in America and the welfare state there has been no landmark milestone when it comes to social spending. The need is not just to increase spending on government programs but to come up with innovative solutions from within the public and private sectors as well as civil societies. There is no ‘a one size fits all’ approach to every country. These are the inconvenient questions that populists like Trump are avoiding.
Lastly, there should be a more equal and fair orientation for market economies than there is right now. Not nearly enough has been done to address the stark inequalities that have arisen in this age of High Capitalism. Lax tax codes, corporate campaign financing, offshore tax havens are but few of the many ploys used by the moneyed elites to shore up their interests at the expense of others. There must be a radical re-orientation of how capitalism is ordered and the role played by capital.
The International Labour Movement may be dead and the lingering fear of a mass class revolt with it. However, it would still be a bit too early to write off the legacy of the Haymarket massacre. Another dismal prophecy of Marx was that capitalism would crumble under the groaning weight of its own internal contradictions. While that too hasn’t been proven yet, it would be foolhardy for the global elite to dismiss it.
The writer has been associated with media and the social sector.He tweets @hadesinshades