International Workers’ Day, also known as Labour Day in some countries, is a celebration of labourers and the working classes that is promoted by the international labour movement, socialists, communists or anarchists and occurs every year on May Day (1 May), an ancient European spring festival. The date was chosen for International Workers’ Day by the Second International, a pan-national organization of socialist and communist political parties, to commemorate the Haymarket affair, which occurred in Chicago on 4 May 1886. The 1904 International Socialist Conference in Amsterdam, the Sixth Conference of the Second International, called on “all Social Democratic Party organisations and trade unions of all countries to demonstrate energetically on the First of May for the legal establishment of the 8-hour day, for the class demands of the proletariat, and for universal peace.”
This would be as good a time as any to say that I am not a socialist. For one, I don’t really like meetings, and I’m given to understand that those are a pretty big deal in the movement. For another, I’m pro-market, if not pro-Capitalist. I recognize that the DSA (who I further recognize aren’t the representatives of global socialism, but they have the funniest Twitter spokesfolks, so they’re my focus) isn’t against markets per se; in their words:
Regulated markets can guarantee efficiency, consumer choice and labor mobility. However, democratic socialists recognize that market mechanisms do generate inequalities of wealth and income.
I agree that the market is, while not solely responsible, is a major contributor to inequality. That’s why I think we need a well-structured economy, with a progressive tax system and clearly-defined financial, environmental, and industrial regulations–to ensure the fair distribution of inequalities. And I have no problem with a robust labor movement, provided it is allowed to exist in parallel to private ownership.
I want a market with rules, but I don’t want a market with limits. As Amartya Sen writes in Development As Freedom (emphasis mine),
A denial of opportunities of transaction, through arbitrary controls, can be a source of unfreedom in itself…This point does not depend on the efficiency of the market mechanism or on any extensive analysis of the consequences of having or not having a market system; it turns simply on the importance of freedom of exchange and transaction without let or hindrance.
He goes on to say that, “The merit of the market system does not lie only in its capacity to generate more efficient culmination outcomes,” but rather “there is some social loss involved in denying people the right to interact socially with each other.” For Sen, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, freedoms are both the goals of a society and the tools to build that society; both the ends and means of development. The freedom of transaction, or the freedom to participate in a market unhindered, is one of those vital freedoms.
The core of injustice is the unfair distribution of inequalities. But inequality itself is not the enemy–I’ve still got enough faith in the “American Dream” to stand by the idea that if Alice works harder than Bob, she should get more than he does.
That doesn’t mean Bob should be left to die in the street–in the same way that society benefits from a free market, society benefits when it provides its citizens with strong social programs to protect against the inevitable misfortunes of life. The State should be a floor, not a ceiling; we should eliminate the effects of inequality, not inequality itself.
That said, when the “Trump administration and the Republican majority will seek to defang the labor movement, destroy the welfare state, accelerate deportation and mass incarceration, empower police and prosecutors, undermine environmental protections, rollback civil rights, start wars, and criminalize our means of fighting back,” I’m prepared to make common cause with some pretty weird bedfellows.
Happy May Day, everyone!
Header image by Kevin Gordon, CC BY-SA 2.0.