Wednesday was May Day. You may know that, but you probably didn’t think about it very much. It’s just one more bright holiday in which we don’t really get to participate in this joyless culture of ours. I’ve talked about this many times. We generally blow the holidays we manage to celebrate and skip altogether some of the best in the year. May Day is one of them.
People a generation or two older than myself, as well as those in my own generation who were fortunate enough to go to a Waldorf School or curse-blessed with NPR parents, are aware that May Day is an ancient spring festival celebrated all around the world. There are poles to dance around and songs to sing because life is back and we’re fully in the midst of spring. This is, if you’ve been following me even loosely, the kind of thing this wizard goes crazy for. I’ve stated previously that following such holy days of celebration is part of the reason for my existence in the first place.
But I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you that my heart yearns more for the other, more temporal, May 1 commemoration, which is often also called May Day but is more properly known as International Workers’ Day. It is exactly as its name suggests, a celebration of the international labor movement. It is formally recognized in 80 countries (spoiler alert: not America) and marks the anniversary of a riot at a labor demonstration in Haymarket Square in Chicago in 1886.
I have never tried to hide my passionate criticism of the present-day American workplace and I have never tried to hide my contempt for Market Worship and consumerism in general, but I have always tried to avoid delving deeply into the “morass” of politics in my posts as the Wizard. This is due to beliefs and boundaries I possess regarding the role of Wizard and not due to personal inclination. Those who know me personally understand that I believe “politics” to be as inseparable from “life” as “spirituality” is. Life is politics. Everything is politics. When I wear my other hats (I love hats, and have many), I say these things openly, all the time.
While I have hosted the occasional foray into political commentary, primarily in the minuscule Culture and the WORLD section, since the inception of this site in October, I have felt that to mire myself and readers in an endless stream of temporal debate and current events would be merely to indulge appetites I already gorge on msnbc and Salon and to fly in the face of one of the primary strategic foundations of the blog itself. It is a strategy based in pragmatism, and it is a pragmatism based in the things which I have learned and seen in my lifetime. We can use my politics themselves as the analogy. In high school, I was a card-carrying member of the Massachusetts Libertarian Party. I was a fervent volunteer at one of their annual party conventions and even got one of their statewide candidates to speak at an event at school. I don’t blame myself one bit for this insanity – let’s face it, libertarianism is a political philosophy that is tailor-made for hormonal white male high schoolers. But beyond a deviant year (2010) spent dallying in advocacy toward a peculiar self-invented anti-corporate fascism (whatever), I have spent more than the last decade as some sort of leftist or other.
Despite the fact that I am the most radical leftist in my office, it would surprise many to learn that I am a very bad socialist, the kind that the “pure” socialists would denounce as a vaguely pink liberal at best. You see, I quite frequently root for democrats.
But what many don’t understand about this is that I root for democrats in the same way that I root for the Red Sox. Some will castigate me for saying so, but it’s about enjoying the sport, which (arguably) requires choosing a favorite among the major league teams and rooting for them. I would rather the Red Sox win than the Yankees or the Blue Jays or the Phillies, and I would rather the soft, pathetic, cowardly, corporatist, center-right, neoliberal democrats win than the republicans, especially since they have devolved to represent little more than deranged sociopathic children running around setting off fireworks in random directions and making a game out of gleeful repression. Beyond love of the game, this is also born of my very real knowledge that, just as a rag-tag baseball team comprised of my local buddies isn’t going to win a World Series (or, likely, so much as a local softball championship), good-souled radicals seeking to replace the exploitation of the current system with something more ethical and human (or even old fashioned New Dealers, which I’d settle for) aren’t going to win any elections or revolutions here in America any time soon, and likely in our lifetime. Sadly, I’m also aware that the joyous victories of either the democrats or the Red Sox are not likely going to significantly change my life.
On a more personal level, it’s also born of the knowledge that a disproportionate number of elements that compose my life are outside of my control and beyond my capacity to fix. Since I lose a good deal of my finite time and energy struggling against this lack of control over unpleasant external conditions, I seek to focus, here at the very least, on my internal condition, which is something I believe myself able to control, at least to some degree. On the one hand, this can be viewed as defeatist. On the other, it can be viewed as entirely consistent with most religions and spiritual traditions, be they the theistic reliance of the Abrahamic religions or the acceptance and inner quietude of Buddhism and Taoism. As a seeker and a mystic and a wizard who knows what I know and who embraces aspects of all of these traditions, this drive towards inward revolution, this goal of changing the world only by changing our experience of the world by changing ourselves is paramount.
Yet it is with this fundamental assumption that I find myself profoundly struggling this week. The reason this post is late, a May Day retrospective instead of a timely special May Day message, is because I’ve been wrestling with a conflict of ideas in my mind, and everybody knows you can’t well write and wrestle at the same time. I’m locked in mental combat with the notion that I might be wrong about all of this.
It is true that lately I’ve been letting my reddest inner socialist run wild and poisoning my intellect with the challenging concepts found in places like Jacobin and In These Times. (Seriously, even if you’re a capitalist or hate politics, if you are interested in strengthening your brain by battering it with intelligent and complicated ideas you’ve never seen anywhere else, check them out – especially young renegade Jacobin.) But especially since I never do this, please indulge me this once, for but a few more moments.
We know that capitalism’s most obvious evil lies in its systemic concentration of benefit in the hands of the very few at the expense of the many, but there are more insidious aspects that are just as consequential, if not more. You see, capitalism perpetuates itself by changing accepted definitions of things. Capitalism transforms things which used to be held in common, such as food and land and water into a grossly expanded form of “property.” Capitalism transforms absolutely everything you can think of into math, also known as monetization. Everything is tied to money and ownership, to the point where we accept such notions as Scripture, Human Nature, and The Way Things Have Always Been, even though absolutely none of those descriptions are remotely accurate. And it’s getting worse as time goes by.
Because we don’t question the idea that everything involves money and everything can be owned, there are so many subsequent assumptions we just never challenge. In honor of May Day, at the very least, I will list some of them.
- We do not question the assumption that the owner of the means of production has a right to profit directly and handsomely from the labor of paid workers, even though said profits would not be possible without said labor
- We do not question the assumption that the person who happens to have money is entitled to a better life than the person who doesn’t
- We do not question the maxim that competition is better than cooperation
- We do not question the assumption that we must earn a life of basic dignity or that our value as humans lies in our capacity to be productive
- We do not question the assumption that those few who possess true financial security are those who deserve it or who have earned it and not merely those who are lucky
If you ask me, these are very serious philosophical concepts with profound implications on our lives which bear rigorous discussion in the middle of the public square. But as far as I’m concerned, this is also old news. It’s old news, like that of the Kennedy assassination, that really pisses me off all the time, but it’s not what’s got me all tangled in knots today. For that, we’ve got to get into some of the more recent (and more depressing) decline. In a post-industrial “service economy” complete with a weak and, some would argue, ineffective and uninspired labor movement, our workplaces employ a devious marriage of deskilling (the standardization and/or automation of tasks so that all employees are basically replaceable and/or interchangeable) and specialized differentiation (splitting of workers into specialized groups, not merely the separations of executive management, middle management, supervisory management, and worker, but also the division of tasks into smaller groups and departments in the name of efficiency) that serves quite effectively as one of many barriers to any sort of solidarity among the workers. The omnipresent carrot of possible promotion does the same thing.
If I help that dude, he might end up getting something that I won’t get.
No longer content merely to extract labor in exchange for money, the masters of capital today pay us for our time, as though this were something that is ours to sell them. All aspects of our time at work are therefore fair game for the most intense and inhuman regulation, all in the name of efficiency and productivity, which are the only things that matter anymore. If you spend too much time looking out the window and breathing and thinking, you are said to be stealing time as if these people actually own a piece of your life and you no longer have any rights to it at all.
Even this is not enough. With the advent of intrusive workplace drug testing and “unbecoming conduct” policies, employers have seized for themselves the right to regulate all of our lives, not just the hours that they pay for. It is, in fact, accepted on a mass scale that, since employment results in the paycheck that pays for everything else, work is the most important thing that we do in our lives, so it’s basically natural that our employer would have a say in all aspects of it. It is widely accepted that companies have a right to do whatever they want with respect to the employees they select and discard, just as it is widely accepted that one is “lucky” to have a job and should be “grateful.”
We should get down on our knees and thank our masters for the ability to spend the majority of our waking lives doing unpleasant things that we don’t want to do in order to earn the right to eat and have a place to live. Seriously? Seriously.
(One thing I find sad is that this is seen by the freedom-loving libertarians as “rugged individualism” and “personal responsibility” instead of the most threatening and destructive type of tyranny that human beings can possibly face.)
Considering all of this, I find the conclusion inescapable. To accept that our spiritual lives are our own private responsibility, something to be considered and exercised on our own, on “our own time”, is to act in service to these cruel masters. It’s to surrender to them, to collaborate with them. Thinking this way – the way that I usually think – helps them consolidate and root firmly the control of the few over the many. The very idea is born of the notion that nothing is collective, that all responsibility, and indeed all spirituality, is purely personal, purely private. Just one compartment in a life compartmentalized of necessity in service to one’s daily work. It’s spiritual robbery. How can I allow myself to collaborate in this nefarious scheme?
Yet, being myself an imperfect Wizard, it is often only in moments of great difficulty that I am confronted with this fact face-to-face. When things are only moderately bad, it seems possible to me that we might live a life of meaningful vibrancy solely on the basis of our personal comportment and inner direction. I can, regrettably, accept the defeat of the inhumane way in which we life when I can effectively practice defiant spirituality on my own.
But what about when I can’t?
In the same way that the philosophy of market capitalism requires endless growth, the philosophy of the post-industrial, scientific workplace requires endless gains in productivity. This is the reason I’ve held the same job for seven years and it gets harder over time. They keep the bar moving upward so that there is no success but that which is most fleeting and never any wayward mentions of “good enough” and “sufficient.” No, there must be “excellence.” There must be “improvement.”
But even though we’re constantly told, and often believe, that we are soft and lazy, productivity has been on the rise for two and a half decades in this country. We’re working harder than we’ve ever worked in our history, and we’re getting paid roughly what we’d be getting paid in 1972. That’s despite the fact that expenses have skyrocketed in the last 40 years and despite the fact that we did less work and retired earlier back in 1972. We go to college, which is more expensive than ever, going into impossible debt to do so. In exchange, we receive the vague possibility of a job. Once we receive that job, there is no security attached to it. It could always be gone tomorrow. So we must never relax in order that the job is still there tomorrow. We must continue to work harder and harder, longer and longer.
When the day is done, I am exhausted. Everyone else is, too. The best writing I have ever read on this subject is actually not something found in any “fashionable socialist rag” (as my closest friend would say), but in the Onion. It’s a little piece, one that will make you laugh bitterly, and one that really says it all. It’s not a purely physical exhaustion, it’s mental as well. Frankly, under such conditions, proper spiritual practice is impossible. It’s not because we’re “caught up in the world of desires and suffering” or “undisciplined” as many (especially eastern) spiritualists would claim. It’s because weariness is a very real thing, energy is a very finite thing, and sometimes too much of it is taken from us.
That is spiritual bullshit. That is the line that’s crossed, the line at which it is clear that we are being denied not merely our economic rights and human rights and cultural rights. We are being denied our spiritual rights as well. That’s the line at which you can’t escape the politics. The advancing conquest of their empire has moved forward from total control of the external into control of the internal as well, and that is bullshit. That is what must never be permitted. This is what fills me with boiling, healthy, human rage.
I’m calling bullshit, and in calling bullshit I’m calling for revolution. I’m declaring the right of all mankind to the Commons of the Spirit.
This means that spirituality can’t just be private. I do not mean this in the sense that we must all believe the same thing or must share in the same practices – far be it from me. I mean that we can’t keep it to ourselves, I mean that peace possessed alone is no kind of peace at all. I mean that transcendence experienced privately and personally in only certain times and certain places is fine and good for us as individuals but worthless to all of us as a people. The only way that we can prevent the wealthy and the powerful and the employer from taking our spiritual health is if we possess it in common. It is together, not alone or in isolated groups, that we must assert that life is more than anything related to our work, more than the level of our productivity, more still than the level of our “usefulness.”
It might make me a bad socialist or a reactionary, but I believe we possess a greater capacity to take this aspect of human experience back than we do some of the other aspects. I still believe, as I did before, that a spiritual revolution can – and perhaps must – come before the cultural and economic one. I believe that, realistically, we may not be able to secure many rights we deserve – the right to food, the right to health, the right (gasp) to income, the right to a place to live, the right to security, the right to freedom from fear (as FDR so nicely put it) – but we damn well might be able to secure the right to the health of our own souls.
This must start now, and I can’t do it by myself. I can’t do it on my own ideas alone, because I don’t know enough. Join me if you dare, even you libertarians out there – it’s in your rational self-interest to do so.
Happy belated May Day. Salaam.