Monday, September 05, 2011

Is it really Labor Day?

It is, or so the calendar says, though you might be forgiven for forgetting that there's a day set aside for labor, that is, for working men and women, people who aren't CEOs or investment bankers, who aren't the sort of "supermen" our society deifies in Ayn Rand fashion. (Just spend five minutes on Fox News or CNBC or any other mainstream media outlet, pretty much, and you'll see that deification in full swing.)

It's like "labor" doesn't matter anymore, except the "labor" of the millionaires and billionaires at the top of the corporate hierarchy. It certainly doesn't seem to matter in Washington, or in various state capitals, where the GOP has made it part of its plutocratic, corporatist mission to assault labor whenever and however possible. Republicans have always been anti-labor, of course, but at least many of them pretended to care about labor, pretended that their pro-business orientation included concern for workers. But now their mission is nakedly exposed for what it is. Even their populism is anti-labor, with their base, hardly plutocrats themselves, buying their anti-labor agenda. Whether it's teachers, factory workers, public servants, or family farmers, they don't seem to give a shit. Except when there's a union involved, when not giving a shit becomes venomous hatred.

One would hope, if not expect, Democrats to fight back, but they rarely do, so widely has the corporate net been cast. Unless they think they can score some political points, as in Wisconsin, they generally don't stand up for working men and women either, at least not with nearly enough passion and commitment.

So maybe it's time to call a spade a spade, as they say, as E.J. Dionne (not seriously, though his commentary is nothing if not serious) suggests:

Let's get it over with and rename the holiday "Capital Day." We may still celebrate Labor Day, but our culture has given up on honoring workers as the real creators of wealth and their honest toil — the phrase itself seems antique — as worthy of genuine respect.

No matter that the likes of Abraham Lincoln and Pope John Paul II, both quoted by Dionne, were ardent supporters, each in his own way, of labor.

That the language of Lincoln and John Paul is so distant from our experience today is a sign of an enormous cultural shift. In scores of different ways, we paint investors as the heroes and workers as the sideshow. We tax the fruits of labor more vigorously than we tax the gains from capital — resistance to continuing the payroll tax cut is a case in point — and we hide workers away while lavishing attention on those who make their livings by moving money around.

Consider that what the media call economics reporting is largely finance reporting. Once upon a time, a lively band of labor reporters covered the world of work and unions. If you stipulate that the decline of unions makes the old labor beat a bit less compelling, there are still tens of millions of workers who do their jobs every day. But when the labor beat withered, it was rarely replaced by a work beat. Workers have vanished.

But we are now inundated with news (and "news") about the world of capital. CNBC and the other financial media are for investors what ESPN is for sports junkies. We cheer the markets, learn the obscure language of hedge fund managers and get to know some of the big investors in off-field interviews. Workers are regarded as factors of production. At best, they're consumers; at worst, they're "labor costs" cutting into profits and the sacred stock price.

In other words, it's about time we gave a shit again -- all of us:

With the worker disappearing from our media and our consciousness, isn't it only a matter of time before Labor Day falls off the calendar? As long as it's there, it should shame us about our cool indifference to the heroism of those who go to work every day. 

It should... but, alas, it won't. There is too much "cool indifference," and far too much hatred. What is needed is a paradigm shift with respect to how we think about capitalism, and how we think about society generally -- about what we value, about the nature of work, about respect for the everyday heroes of those who don't get the Fox/CNBC deification. And that, I fear, isn't coming anytime soon, not given how entrenched our political biases are, not to mention our widespread ignorance.

Today is indeed Labor Day, but most people are just enjoying the day off without regard for what it means, or for what the struggle for the rights and dignity of the working class -- and that means almost all of us -- is all about.


Yesterday, partly in anticipation of Labor Day (and partly because I love the song), I posted a fantastic clip of Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band performing "Youngstown." It is one of the finest songs about the working man (and woman) ever written. It includes these lines:

Well my daddy worked the furnaces
Kept 'em hotter than hell
I come home from 'Nam worked my way to scarfer
A job that'd suit the devil as well
Taconite, coke and limestone
Fed my children and made my pay
Then smokestacks reachin' like the arms of god
Into a beautiful sky of soot and clay

I encourage you to check it out.

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