In 1894 Pullman workers, facing wage cuts in the wake of a financial crisis, went on strike — and Grover Cleveland deployed 12,000 soldiers to break the union. He succeeded, but using armed force to protect the interests of property was so blatant that even the Gilded Age was shocked. So Congress, in a lame attempt at appeasement, unanimously passed legislation symbolically honoring the nation’s workers.
It’s all hard to imagine now. Not the bit about financial crisis and wage cuts — that’s going on all around us. Not the bit about the state serving the interests of the wealthy — look at who got bailed out, and who didn’t, after our latter-day version of the Panic of 1893. No, what’s unimaginable now is that Congress would unanimously offer even an empty gesture of support for workers’ dignity. For the fact is that many of today’s politicians can’t even bring themselves to fake respect for ordinary working Americans.
Some pundits and pols, unfortunately, keep seeking to turn Labor Day into something entirely alien to its tradition. You may recall (as Paul Krugman did today) Eric Cantor’s tribute to business owners in his Labor Day message last year. On Friday we were treated to a Peggy Noonan column about Labor Day that wound up being about the “romance of the marketplace” and the deep insights of Ronald Reagan—who, whatever else you think about him, did not exactly exemplify the Work Ethic—into the connection between hard work and the American character.
Please: on this one day a year, can we be spared the contempt of the wealthy and the powerful for the “losers” who still work for wages and can’t seem to save and invest? Can Republican pols perhaps re-learn the lip service for the necessity of collective bargaining rights and the utility of unions they used to employ on occasions like this? And can conservative “thinkers” express some understanding that workers are not mere raw materials to be burned up in the creative forges of heroic capitalists? Can we please stipulate that the wildly unequal wealth and income levels in this country that are getting more unequal every day are not the pure product of natural or marketplace selection or—more laughable yet—the results of employers and individual workers freely contracting as equals?
The vituperation with which Walmart has attacked the living wage bill is perhaps most striking because capital’s threats, typically tacit, have actually been openly made. The City Council dared question the untrammeled control of capital, and now they’re seeing the result of such temerity. Even marginally shifting the locus of power from capital to labor— even if it’s done by a state that usually does the bidding of business—is enough to occasion outcry from the business community. DC’s deputy mayor, for instance, has said,“People have no idea how damaging this is,” and argued that even a veto wouldn’t be enough to restore business confidence.
The controversy throws into sharp relief one of our era’s great unspoken truths: Capitalist democracy, if not an oxymoron, is less a placid pairing than an acrimonious amalgamation. The marriage that Francis Fukuyama famously pronounced eternal is in fact a union of opposites. Inherent to capitalism is inequality, fundamental to democracy is equality. Class stratification, the lifeblood of capitalism, leaves democracy comatose. The economic “base,” to put it in classical Marxian terms, actively undermines the purported values of the political superstructure.
Capitalist democracy is a domesticated democracy. Even before it makes its existence visible in the political arena—via campaign donations and high-powered lobbyists—capital markedly narrows the range of policies available to citizens and their elected officials.
Krugman, “How the Other 47 Percent Lives”
David Sirota, “How Labor Day Was Hijacked”
Sarah Kliff, “Happy Labor Day, in Eight Charts”
Benjamin Sachs, “A New Kind of Union”