THERE was a time when May Day was one of the most important dates on the calendar. When the workers’ movement exercised significant influence over politics as well as intellectual debate. When governments, the media and corporations could not run roughshod over the working masses. When progressives all over the world had an internationalist agenda, unabashedly supporting oppressed nations like the Palestinians and pushing back against capitalism more generally.
Over the past 16 months, Covid-19 has made clear how much we miss a powerful and internationalist workers movement. After 30 years of tales about the greatness of neoliberal globalisation, the pandemic has hastened the intellectual and political retreat towards economic nationalism. Western governments’ hoarding of Covid-19 vaccines is sheer cynicism.
The scenes from India are the latest reminder that capitalism’s crisis is worsening. It was also in India that millions of casual workers were effectively evicted from cities at the outset of the pandemic when the Modi regime enforced a lockdown of unprecedented proportions.
This is the same Modi regime whose BJP contests electoral campaigns around slogans like ‘Shining India’ and ‘Vikaas’ (development). India is described as one of the success stories of neoliberal globalisation, its mythical globalised ‘middle class’ said to have spearheaded its ‘economic miracle’.
Covid-19 has shown how much we miss a powerful workers movement.
This ‘miracle’ is now subjecting virus-stricken masses to suffocation without oxygen. India is one of the world’s biggest production sites for pharmaceuticals but has proven incapable of administering the Covid vaccine to more than 1.7 per cent of its population.
What is happening is a consequence of a domestic and international order that is rigged in favour of corporations, state establishments and the rich more generally. And while India can still boast a left politics and labour movement far more vibrant than anything on this side of the border, it has not been able to stop the tide of right-wing hate under Modi or the devastations the ‘free market’ continues to wreak.
Our predicament will not be addressed by wishing for a return to the 20th-century and trade unions, peasant organisations and mass left parties that espoused an emancipatory politics for the world’s people. In the form of Chavez and Morales in Latin America, Sanders in the US and Corbyn in the UK, Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain, today we have experiences of left politics that propagate new ideas about the ‘workers’ to lead progressive movements, alongside evolving notions of the horizon of an alternative politics for the world.
So, here are two building blocks of a May Day manifesto for our times.
Class: The global right-wing political upsurge cannot be defeated without a political left that centres class in its political lexicon. Most working people live in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, regions with youth bulges. The tens of millions of casual workers who have lost their livelihoods during the pandemic are just the tip of the iceberg.
A combination of demographic pressures, deepening of casual/flexible employment arrangements, automation, and dispossession by private entities like Bahria Town as well as the state will force more and more into what Marx called the “vast reserve army of labour”, and contemporary theorists call ‘surplus populations’. The latter include the majority of women and girls who perform unrecognised labour inside the home (housework and caring for children). There can be no revitalisation of the left without reaching out to all types of working people. Further, progressives must close ranks around short-term proposals like Unconditional Basic Income and indiscriminate wealth/property taxes.
Internationalism: It is widely acknowledged that we now face a world-historical predicament of unprecedented proportions, namely the planetary crisis. As the political mainstream becomes increasingly insular, resorting to narrow nationalism in the face of neoliberal globalisation’s ongoing implosion, universal thinking and action will be the left’s distinguishing characteristic, as it was when revolutionary internationalism was at its peak in the 1960s. Progressives in more developed regions must join hands with all peripheries.
For us, in Pakistan, this means politics across ethnic-national and religious divides, but it also means making common cause beyond nation-state borders, not least with the Indian and Afghan people. Also important is the recognition that we need a system that meets human needs and eschews conspicuous consumption so as to rehabilitate Nature, lest there be no politics or world to fight over for generations to come.
As the pandemic, militarism and hate continue, a May Day manifesto can unite progressives — if we want to displace the militancy of the right, and the cynicism of mainstream electoral parties, and thereby make another world possible. This article was originally published in Dawn on April 30th, 2021.
Asim Sajjad Akhtar is an academic, author and Leftwing political activist. He teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.