Although May Day is now past, the insight it can bring continues on, much like how we continue our exploration from last time of it and how our studies at AU separate us from the conformity of clapping hands and stomping feet.
As times changed so did Mayday celebrations. But, like Mother’s Day that celebrates human life in all its origins, toil itself remained a common denominator as society shifted from agrarian to industrial labour. From celebrations that danced with coloured ribbons around maypoles evolved a drabber and sterner demonstration of the work that builds and maintains the modern world. Although North America has Labour Day in autumn, for much of the world, and through much of history, early May was the time to appreciate the labouring classes.
As the medieval era gave way to the Industrial Revolution a different spirit was in the air, one that contained and embodied the same collective sentiments present all along but with a clearer understanding that in all societies there exists more than a single economic class of bipedal participants. We’re not all just humans; some of us (to paraphrase Orwell’s famous pigs) really are more equal than the others.
Labour unions arose not long after the Tiny Tim era of the Industrial Revolution reached its zenith, or, if you were a soot-covered worker in the belly of the coal-fired beast, it’s nadir. In terms of human abuse and denigration, the 1800s were awful for people wherever the steam engine had supplemented the water wheel. This demonstrates how new technologies in the wrong hands may not improve life but simply improve the means of oppression. May Day thus came to symbolize not only liberation from winter but a demand for freedom from unreasonable work conditions; a springtime of the spirit was in the air.
This buxom exuberance, with an undercurrent of certainty in the progress of human life toward a brighter and sunnier future, found concrete expression by the latter half of the 1800s. In 1886 the battle was for an eight (rather than up to 16) hour work-day, and the weapon of choice was the general strike. In North America, as in France and England, “the idea of celebrating the First of May was an appropriate day for Labor’s festival” (Goldman, 302). Emma Goldman, then considered an anarchist theorist but, to 21st century eyes, a thoughtful advocate of the need for labour rights, described how on May 1 of 1886 “the workingmen were to give the first practical demonstration of the power of the General Strike as an at least one-day protest against oppression and tyranny” (Goldman, 302). With joyous rebellion the strike, earnest and dour though it appeared to those whose riches it threatened, succeeded.
May 1 of 1886 wasn’t the first May moment of unrest leading to justice; Karl Marx himself noted that “the French took action on May 13, 1839. The sections of the federation joined in the fray and were thus involved in the general defeat” (Marx in Ruhle., 73). Defeat was common for labour unions fighting management.
Unlike in pagan days of yore, where the outcome of a Maypole dance’s success was hinged on the mystical whims of nature herself, unionizing workers could fully see who was dispensing their manna from heaven and bread for their families. Management stood between them and prosperity, simple as that. Yet there remained an element of gleeful idealism to the proceedings that still remains whenever the small and many undertake to challenge the few but powerful. As the greatest rock icon of the past fifty years famously sang: “it’s fun to lose, and to pretend”.
Changing the Tune
Goldman in her time realized how steep the climb to attain a more egalitarian society really was. Anybody can sing songs of freedom or imagine a better world but to achieve it means utilizing the ability to stomp one’s feet and not just affix flowers to one’s hair. Yet history shows that justice and free thinking often win out, as the modern rights of unions to organize and engage in collective bargaining (including student unions such as publishes Voice Magazine) show.
Ideally, fun comes with revolution! Seasons change and turn like constellations in the night sky and yet progress is attained when the general will shifts its focus. There’s something ineffably powerful about people united in seriousness and glee. It’s a tough combination to beat and collective glee proves almost irrepressible by the whips of authority. This May Day let’s recall that every special event, such as banging pans and ringing bells to celebrate our Health Care workers, has the capacity to change, rather than simply celebrate, the collective nature of our world.
Goldman notes how from these successful early fights for labour rights, something easily clarified these days as workers around the world are forced to risk their lives during the pandemic to satiate the greed of their bosses, led to a sea change in people’s mentality toward authority figures in general. She wrote: “the clergy, too, learned a valuable lesson. They were like hens hatching duck eggs. When the young ones took to water, they realized, to their horror, that they had hatched not their own kind.” (Goldman, 303). Back then many people’s only encounter with the reading of books was in church; today let’s consider how social media functions as a congregating agent not unlike a church. What sort of sea change might be imminent?
Do All Emotions Amount to Being Emotional?
Eruptions of ecstasy and anger are wrought of the same essence of social connection; progressive potential involves creativity while also demanding a certain conformist component. As Time Magazine succinctly summarised 45 years after Goldman (in 1929) described the 1886 General Strike: “To old-fashioned people, May Day means flowers, grass, picnics, children, clean frocks. To up-and-doing Socialists and Communists it means speechmaking, parading, bombs, brickbats, conscientious violence. This connotation dates back to May Day, 1886, when some 200,000 U.S. workmen engineered a nationwide strike for an eight-hour day”. It takes awhile for the mainstream media to fully acknowledge the winds of change. And yet, May Day has historically been the day that unites people in a common purpose. At AU, one task we might consider for ourselves is to see above the commonality of sentiment and emotion and consider the pedagogical meaning of our unusual times.
As a child who resisted singing children’s songs the emotional unleashing of forces of creation, destruction, or both struck me as intuitively disconcerting. Maybe I was just a dweeb. It was just a song, after all, but it was clear that if one wasn’t happy, and knew it, one was nevertheless expected to tow the line, smile, and ‘do the actions’. Social science begins, for better or worse, with what the structural functionalist Talcott Parsons famously termed a sense of our self as ‘alienated’ from society as a whole. To be sure, we must place ourselves beyond our normal purview to attain a scientific view of the human condition either in our specific time or as an abstract universal. Yet, social structures are built for stability and seem to have an answer to every question. When all else fails the powers that be resort to the classic “because I say so!”
Groupthink, at its height in classrooms, cult meetings and social media chat forums, demands conformity to the bounds of a conversation adorned with baubles of pre-existing assumptions and expectations. Parsons wrote that “without deliberate planning on anyone’s part, there have developed in our type of social system, and correspondingly in others, mechanisms which, within limits, are capable of forestalling and reversing the deep-lying tendencies for deviance to get into the vicious circle phase which puts it beyond the control of ordinary approval-disapproval and reward-punishment sanctions”. To think outside the collective mindset is to preach not to the choir of expectations but to enable our intellectual critical thought capacities.
This Fly on the Wall can attest that not everything we learn in kindergarten is in the official syllabus. Once you’ve tasted the playdough of alienation, you’re on your way to thinking like a creative participant in society. AU is thus a unique experience; we’re not immersed in a campus environment. Instead, that each moment of learning propels us into new cerebral climes. Whoever we are entering AU, we may become a different sort of self by the time we emerge. There’s creative potential in academic learning, as with any social act. Recall that textbooks are living artifacts of humanity, as are our phone conversations with tutors, and online forum discussions with classmates. And when we take what we learn and apply it to our world of peers, coworkers and loved ones we find ourselves adding our newfound harmony to any social setting. One of the best things about distance education is that our world becomes a chance to demonstrate our learning. We may clap our hands or stomp our feet but all along we will be learning and, happily, becoming more independent-minded and less apt to be carried away by the slipstream of unthinking conformity.
Goldman, E. In Glassgold, P. (2001). Anarchy! An Anthology of Emma Goldman’s Mother Earth. Washington D.C.: Counterpoint.
Marx, K. in Ruhle, O. (1943). Karl Marx: His Life and Works. New York: The New Home Library.