It is May Day: the original Labor Day. In fact, it still is International Workers’ Day. It is the day that we celebrate the the working class. Is it any wonder that in America we are anywhere from a bit queasy to hysterically fearful of the term “working class”? Generally, people say this is because Americans don’t think in terms of class. Or as conservatives like to say: the poor are just the future rich. These are nice thoughts and talking points, but I’m afraid that the truth is darker and simpler: the American ethos so devalues work that it is thought to be a terrible thing to be part of the working class as a final destination.
Thus we get the fetishization of the middle class. Because in the United States the middle class is no class. Ask a rich person what class they are in and they will usually say, “Middle class,” but sometimes say, “Upper-middle class.” I remember reading an interview with Bill Gates when he was by far the richest man in the world. He was asked, “Do you consider yourself rich?” And as I recall, he responded, “Well, I’m certainly not middle class.” This was just before he built his $63 million mansion with change he found under the sofa cushions. It used to be the poor would claim they were “lower-middle class,” but times are so bad they (We!) seem to have given up the pretense.
But by not embracing the working class that the vast majority of us are in, we yield a great deal of ideological ground. It has allowed us to go on an almost four decade long adventure to take from the poor and give to the rich. And it doesn’t seem like there is any end in sight. The “liberal” party wants to slightly raise the minimum wage and tax the rich just a tiny bit more. The conservative party wants to abolish the minimum wage and eliminate any form of progressive taxation. This is why things are so screwed up in America: the framing of our thinking is completely skewed.
Here’s an example. A year and a half ago on Labor Day, Eric Cantor tweeted this out:
Today, we celebrate those who have taken a risk, worked hard, built a business and earned their own success.
— Eric Cantor (@GOPLeader) September 3, 2012
I have no problem with starting a business. I am involved with three right now that I’m part owner of. But Cantor isn’t really celebrating that. He’s pushing the idea that somehow starting your own business is more valid. And not just that: starting your own successful business. The truth is that the working class is filled with people who have previously had or currently do have their own businesses—successful and not. But Cantor isn’t celebrating them. Actually, he’s not celebrating anyone really. He’s just trying to co-opt the only official recognition we have in this country of the existence of the working class. He is trying to insult the entire working class without being obvious about it.
I think that May Day is a good day to think about our places in the world as workers. I think most of us are dissatisfied with our positions. Part of that—a large part—is the pay and working conditions. But there is also a substantial part that is simply that our society doesn’t seem to value what we do. One of our parties gives us an insincere tip of the hat and the other party can barely stop from disemboweling us. But stay strong, because we do matter. They would be lost without us. And at some point they may learn that.
Happy May Day!