May 2, 2010

Why we should care about May 1

By Aasim Sajjad Akhtar

The Cold War ended two decades ago. In the relative scheme of things 20 years is not a very long time. Yet much has changed in this short period. While we are incessantly bombarded by rhetoric about globalization and the information superhighway, much less attention is paid to the monumental perceptional changes that have taken place in society with regard to ethical and political questions.

On this account I think there is limited difference between the industrialized societies and the Asian and African peripheries. By this I mean that a large number of young people in all of these societies have little or no exposure to the ideological debates that were so commonplace during the Cold War. Many do not even know what it means to be on the ‘left’ or the ‘right’ of the political spectrum. The situation is obviously different in Latin America, where popular left-wingers are in power in numerous countries. In that continent ideological debates not only exist but have moved on greatly from Cold War themes.

Of course, during the Cold War ideological ‘debates’ were actually more like propaganda campaigns. The populations of the capitalist countries were led to believe that communism was equivalent to totalitarianism and that ordinary people in communist countries were deprived of their most basic needs. The populations of communist countries were, on the other hand, convinced that the failures of their own governments were actually conspiracies of class enemies and that certain freedoms were nothing more than ‘bourgeois illusions’.

The propaganda aside, the very existence of a battle of ideas made the world a very different place. I would argue that the dearth of meaningful ideological debates in the post-Cold War world have been detrimental for the cause of social justice and have seriously hindered our ability to think beyond the ravages of the capitalist world system. Some might argue that capitalism winning the Cold War entitled it to project itself as the socio-economic system of the 21st century. I think that the end of the Cold War is explained by the brute coercive power of capitalism on the one hand and the inability of the non-capitalist world to resolve its own contradictions on the other. As far I am concerned, the need to revive debates about how humanity can transcend capitalist modernity is more urgent today than it ever was.

May Day is the most glaring example of the extent to which ordinary people’s ‘common sense’ has been altered in the neo-liberal era. For most Pakistanis, including the majority of the working class, May Day is simply a public holiday. Many people expressed frustration that the 1st of May fell on a Saturday this year, and that too only a week or so after the government had announced the observance of the two-day weekend as an energy-saving measure (on the other hand, for the growing number of workers that are daily-wagers, this holiday was actually a curse rather than a blessing).

Participation of workers, students and intellectuals in the various events that are organized across the country on May Day has decreased steadily over the years. The largest gatherings in big cities such as Lahore and Karachi attract only a few thousand people, whereas in the heyday of the labour movement crowds of more than 100,000 were not unusual. The public expression of working class power (or lack thereof) is a reflection of the pathetically low percentage of the labour-force that is actually unionized. I believe the figure is now less than 3 percent.

Many of those who come out are compelled to do so by sheer force of habit. The rank-and-file workers in most state enterprises feel they have to respond to the call of their trade union leaders who they treat more like patrons than representatives of their class. Students are conspicuous by their absence, a far cry from the past when students and workers were virtually joined at the hip and together constituted the backbone of progressive political movements.

While the reasons for decline of the labour movement are many, I maintain that the root of the problem is the fact that workers — and those in society who fight for workers’ rights — are unable to place their demands for wages, better working hours and social security within the context of a wider struggle for systemic change. Thus what should be a politics of class becomes a cynical politics of patronage; the trade union leader becomes a street-smart client of bureaucrats and industrialists; and principles of justice and equality become subservient to instrumental short-term requirements.

It was during the Zia years that the labour movement degenerated and ideological politics deliberately undermined. As with everything else in that dark period of Pakistan’s history, Islam was the motive-force of the state’s machinations. A quote from a major English daily report on May Day in 1984 makes the point clear: ‘Tributes were paid to Chicago workers and rights and privileges given to the wage earners by Islam were highlighted’. The Zia regime ensured not only that working class ideologies were sidelined but also that meaningful policy debates were exorcised from the wider political process. This is why elections in today’s Pakistan are little more than exercises in doling out patronage; ideological debates about the merits of particular policy paradigms are non-existent.

Ultimately, it will require a new generation of political activists to reinvigorate politics at all levels of society, and particularly amongst historically active sections of the population such as students and workers. This is a tall order given that there is such a lack of political education amongst young people. First and foremost it is necessary to recover real history from the distorted official version that has been foisted upon us by the state. And I do not mean that there is a need to narrate the sacrifices of Chicago’s workers all the way back in 1886. Instead it is necessary to recount our own past, the one in which mobilized students and workers fought not only for immediate material improvements in their lives but also for transformation of the political and economic structures in which we are all ensconced. We need today’s young people to know that it was not always this way, that it is possible to be hopeful that the world can change, and that human nature is not capitalistic. That would be a start. Then we can actually think about making change happen.

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