By SARAH RAYMUNDO
If it were up to television, then there seems to be no reason for people to have strong affinity with Labor Day, let alone a clear idea of what took place on May 1, 1886 when scores of workers/unionists in the United States organized big strikes to demand that the 8-hour work day become standard. Before this, workers were made to labor for as long as 14 hours a day. The strikes lasted for days in different States. Police clashed with strikers in what would be known as the “Haymarket bombing.”
The striking workers were determined to keep up the fight despite wild firing and random arrest by the police. The trials that ensued were prejudicial to the persons who were randomly picked up and seven persons were subjected to death penalty. Many workers were demoralized by this horrifying outcome, but the more organized continued. These notorious trials are regarded as one of the worst miscarriages of justice in the history of the United States. In the 20th century, the Soviet Union embraced May as an official holiday, and it had been known as such until amnesia took over. Nowadays, May 1 is supposed to be a non-working holiday to be spent with friends and/or family.
For this year’s Mayday, we are adding our voices to the call for a 16,000 national minimum wage. This campaign aims to reach the millions of employed, semi-employed, and unemployed in the country. And not really a small bunch of economists who are trained to think for the good of business, the harmony between labor and capital, and a good defense of presidential pork barrel. That our call is impossible and laughable for this highly skilled technocrats does not matter.
But in more general terms, for me and my small academe-based circle of friends who have pledged commitment to a broad movement for nationalism and democracy (thus widening our circle like anything, in and out of the academe), some moments are aesthetic as much as they are political. Labor Day is simply so. We just know it, something beautiful is on. So we cheerfully and dutifuly assemble in the University every May 1, and march the avenues of Espana to Liwasan, to Carriedo, to Quiapo, and finally, to Mendiola.
I am not going to tell you how ordinary our conversations can get during rallies, or how ridiculous my jokes and impersonations can be under conditions of extreme heat and mastered distance. The latter is definitely more gruelling than, say, conventional suspense. In a short prayer I wrote to Sherlyn Cadapan, desaparecido of my generation, I tell her: I still come to mass demonstrations/to picketlines, to Mendiola, to Liwasan./And not for the way we were./But to claim time,/to claim history./A miracle does not happen/when we revolt./Only us.
There is no need to “humanize” the Left to people who have not heard that the usual appearance of the new is the monstrous. Of course, we have been socialized to spend our time better than protesting the worst violations of human rights. So to claim that activists are no different from your regular next-door neighbor or best friend is probably an idea as awkward as petting one’s porcupine.
But what with all these new and exciting strategies of muscle toning and fat burning featured almost everywhere, it becomes easier than ever to look forward to Labor Day march. If this system has made it almost impossible to see the difference between activism and “being normal” on account of the stuff that people collectively consume regardless of their stakes on the future, then a line must be drawn. Not between the non-activist and the activist but between the rulers of this system and rest of us.
Recently, I had to confess some of my deepest thoughts about activism to a large audience at the Claro M. Recto Hall. Someone asked about the difference that the protracted struggle for genuince democracy and peace has made. It was like deja vu. The same question is raised time and again to activists. Not long ago, I thought of coming to terms with the same question with a remorseful admission that I had responded to it in the most defensive manner when I was younger and did not know any better.
“Do your protests, meetings, educational discussions (EDs), basic masses integration (BMI) etc. impact on your class enemies, how come nothing ever changes, rulers only change their names and faces but they’re the same incorrigible hustlers?”
Had I known better, I would have explained that we all do come from the same system. We are not bearers of radical ideas coming from elsewhere. We protest, we study, we meet regularly, and so on, with the objective to change things. But in doing so, we also realize the urgency and the necessity of changing ourselves. All those activities may have not yet worked to beat our opponents. But they have definitely worked on me, especially in terms of aligning myself with the logic of fighting back instead of coping with the system. This is the same system which remains seductive to me in some ways. But building and broadening a movement with the proletariat as the vanguard and the farmers as the primary force of the revoltion entails that we join protests, attend meetings, engage in EDs, and immersions because in the course of changing the world, must we not also transform ourselves into the people that we want to become?
I’ve lost count of the number of times when I have listened to a statement made by a comrade whether in a mobilization or a forum, in a meeting, or in a poem or song and joyfully noted that my interest was heightened, my complacency displaced, and perception transformed.
Labor is a lonely word
But probably it is only in the academe where “radical theories” seek to rebrand communism and make it more palatable to neoliberal imperatives. One cannot be a straight out anti-communist reactionary for the liberal atmosphere in the university seems to take that as maladaptive. Just maladaptive. And it is precisely why I sense that something discursively criminal has taken root here.
Perspectives that are remotely democratic and outrightly anti-labor are to be considered as legitimate options. Such is the academe’s interpretation of pluralism. It denies that there is in fact a dominant ideology that can only make fun of communicative discursive strategies. Evil agreements with Philippine government clinched by imperialist United States such as EDCA did not for a moment consider the “pluralism of ideas.” I am afraid that a few years from now, the liberal champions of pluralism will have to surrender to failure. Failure chases a discourse whose primary aim is to deny the dominance of ruling class ideas.
Meanwhile, “radical theories” claim to have something more to offer. Academics of this persuasion swear deep in their hearts that they cultivate some kind of passionate attachment with socialism and communism. But this is meant to be a secret lest they will be marginalized and none of their secretly socialist oriented reserach will be funded by mainstream agancies.
It is not surprising how academics speak vaguely of labor and global capitalism nowadays. They rebrand exploitation to something more palatable to mainstream and painfully discriminating jurors. (Sometimes you would wonder whether these academics feel like they are vying for the title American Idol or The Voice). But mind you, they do not easily fit any stereotype of scholarship or ideology.
Their theories are to be perceived as dynamic and refreshing, and I guess, with History’s mercy, the worst cases will soon pass on. But for now, there is a need to understand this kind of rebranding, which in my view is in fact an attack to proletarian politics. They like Marx but not Lenin, and definitely not Mao Zedong. And not because they have read Lenin or Mao. But because they were obedient enough to heed the liberal warning against exploring the thought of these revolutionary movers both in society and theory.
Labor is at risk, vulnerable, precarious, and disposable. That is all true. But this is not just a matter of word choice. Why is there an undeniable compulsion to censor the fact that labor is exploited? And on account of which the proletariat, the revolutionary class have started to rise up and wage the struggle against capitalist exploitation.
In the Philippines, the worker-peasant alliance, joined by other patriotic forces are waging a national democratic struggle toward socialism against a semi-fedual, semi-colonial system. Say that again in an academic setting and you will be charged of orthodoxy, abuse of power by recruiting students to the New People’s Army, and a spokesperson of a radical communist front organization. Ridiculously, in the center of liberal discourse, red baiting is not only the norm, it is what is to be done in the name of freedom and the motherland.
Big Brother wants us to use new concepts devoid of the “baggage” of working class politics and revolutionary theory—the multitude, the precariat, the knowledge class, the millenials. They ramble on that way, and more. Meanwhile, I prefer the flagrant use of the word peti-burgis (petit bourgeoisie) back in the 70s and 80s, it is more honest.
Nowadays, the acceptable anti-capitalist discourse to be espoused in the academe is to state the fact, with a bit of sadness and rage, that capitalism is not inclusive. To which the communists respond by saying that “No, we have loftier goals than being “included” in the capitalist system, we are making revolution for another system.” What is actually sad and enraging is the fact that anti-capitalist discourse has been reduced to the politics of inclusion that battles the exclusivity of the rule of the few under capitalism. Clearly, that is just social climbing.
Take the case for example of Filipino reformists (not reformers) who believe that the system can only be changed from within. Haven’t they been so busy defending the Aquino regime against the rest of us who have been enraged by the persistence of landlordism, government corruption through presidential pork, the balatant puppetry and violation of the chain of command in the Mamasapano tragedy, and lately, the lamentable government neglect of migrant worker turned woman-on-deathrow Mary Jane Veloso?
J. Moufawad-Paul, author of The Communist Necessity, addresses the issue of orthodoxy and dogmatism quite thoughtfully and succinctly:
“Obviously we cannot discount attempts to conceive of struggle through new concepts; it is indeed dogmatic to adhere to a pure theoretical constellation and to reject all interventions that challenge static ways of seeing the world. At the same time…it is equally dogmatic to reject the theoretical tradition that emerged through concrete revoltionary struggle—this may be the worst form of dogmatism, in fact, because it echoes precisely what we were taught was normative by triumphalist capitalist ideology.(2014:89).”
The global capitalist system and its semi-feudal, semi-colonial articulations in non-capitalist formations like the Philippines have more lives wreck. We cannot simply battle this using sinister concepts that very well end up as ingratiating ideas to the system that they aim to critique or even change. There is more to proletarian vanguardism than how fascist phillistines like General Jovito Palparan, former President Gloira Macapagal-Arroyo, and President Noynoy Aquino make us want to understand it.
Significantly, more and more academics are commiting themselves to the theory and practice of proletarian revolution. Part of the reason is the relatively complacent kind of sloth and slack in academic disciplines that have embraced anti-communism as a secular religion.
The task and promise of labor day remains to be compelling. May First’s stakes were never contingent on any cooperation or compromise with the capitalist and the State. Its revolutionary spirit was crucial and remains to be so.
Sarah Raymundo is a full-time faculty at the University of the Philippines-Center for International Studies (UP-CIS Diliman) and a member of the National Executive Board of the All U.P. Academic Employees Union. She is the current National Treasurer of the Alliance of Concerned Teachers (ACT) and the External Vice Chair of the Philppine Anti-Impeiralist Studies (PAIS). She is also a member of the Editorial Board of Interface: A Journal for Social Movements.