Saturday, 30 April 2011


MAY DAY 1886 - MAY DAY 2011 may not seem like they have anything in common. After all, what does 21st century modern man and woman in developed or semi-developed society have in common with ethnic workers in Chicago getting themselves killed during the unfolding of the Industrial Revolution? And what relevance does such a symbolic day that most of the world celebrates in honor of the worker's struggle for social justice?

Should people just go collect flowers on May Day (International Workers' Day) (in most case buy or order them from their nearest florist), and should the intellectuals ignore this day as no different than any other day? As a reminder that the military and police remain guardians of capital that has preeminence over workers' rights, the US has designated May 1st, LAW AND ORDER DAY, one of the many law and order days that difference cities and states celebrate!

Does the intellectual have any moral or social responsibility beyond that of any other person to promote social justice? Is the intellectual merely a microcosmic reflection of society that demands institutional/sociopolitical conformity? Or at best, is the intellectual merely observing and analyzing the world from above as the poems THE RAVEN by Edgar Allan Poe and ALBATROSS by Charles Baudelaire so eloquently articulate? Unlike ethical duty-bound creatures (Abraham and Agamemnon), intellectuals cannot help it but to remain a sky-view observers as the father of Existential philosophy Soren Kierkegaard argued, despite his belief that "subjectivity is truth and truth is subjectivity."

If the goal of the businessperson is to make money, why should the intellectual who is also serving a function in society be any different? Should any profession from medical to artistic or philosophical deviate from society's norms, and does it have a higher ethical and social obligation to call the public's attention to injustices?

What are we to make of the values of intellectuals if they are conformists because money, power, and glory are the only things society values? What does it reveal about their values if intellectuals are mere observers and analyzers of nature, of people, and of their craft for the satisfaction it yields to them personally (Kantian view)? Is it at all possible for intellectuals to be above society's commonly shared values whether in a pluralistic society or not? Would the teachings and writings of a devout religious person in a traditional (heavily religious-influenced society) reflect the same values as those of an atheist who encourages skepticism, critical thinking and evaluation, rationalism and rejection of mysticism, all reflecting pluralistic conditioning?

The concept of social responsibility on the part of intellectuals is ancient. We find evidence in classical Greek writers Solon, Sophocles, Aristophanes, and Thucydides of a sense that they intended their writings to be as much a mirror for society as a critique and a vehicle for consciousness raising. The same holds true for some writings of classical Rome that continued the secular tradition of Greece. Social justice, however, was hardly the domain of Greek and Roman scholars, as we find evidence of it in India, Persia, China, Mesopotamia and Arabia. Clearly social justice in secular Greece and Rome lacked the religious and/or mystical sense around which it was dressed in Asian countries. Intellectuals under Christendom, East and West, also had to express social justice and social responsibility in religious and/or mystical terms from the time of Saint Augustine to the Age of Reason.  

Operating within the Enlightenment's ideological framework, the French Revolution inculcated the idea into the public mind that the intellectual had a higher obligation to society, namely to work toward its secular 'progress' as the Enlightenment defined it - including principles of personal freedoms, end of slavery, rights for women, representative government, end of privileged orders and institutions in society. That was all in theory and it remains so. For the pragmatic if not opportunistic intellectual, the road to progress is conformity and not an ethical dissident route that yields no benefits and it may be an impediment to personal progress and may even invite punishment.

What if no intellectual spoke out about the rights of workers in the 19th century when industrialists and bankers ruled like mobsters under the protection of government in the world. On 1 May 1886, anarchists in the American Federation of Labor demanded an 8-hour work day. More than 400,000 people, skilled and unskilled, black and white, men and women, native and immigrant took part in the labor strike in Chicago. What followed in known in history as the Haymarket Massacre that inspired a generation of intellectuals and activists throughout the Western World.

Because of the struggles of activists and intellectuals to raise the level of awareness of injustice against workers on the symbolic MAY DAY, and because of ongoing struggle and countless tragedies on the part of workers, women, and ethnic, religious and racial minorities, some progress toward social justice was made.

Although capital, its political defenders, and its apologists in media and intelligentsia constantly fought against every demand by workers to gain some ground toward improving economic, social and political life, that struggle would not have gone very far if major intellectuals stayed silent on social justice. Imagine, if intellectuals merely observed like the RAVEN from the sky and did not descend to the earth to be a part of life down here where tragedies unfolded in May 1886.

MAY DAY 2011 is not very different from that of 1886. Today, not just workers but the middle class is  struggling to maintain its social status that has been waning in the last three decades. In a world where the state affords institutional protection for capital that is far more powerful today than it was on May Day 1886, the intellectual has to reexamine her/his values and ask if there is an ethical obligation to speak out for social justice and against the tyranny of economic dictatorship operating under cover of 'free economy'. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"Contemplate the mangled bodies of your countrymen, and then say 'what should be the reward of such sacrifices?' Bid us and our posterity bow the knee, supplicate the friendship and plough [sic], and sow, and reap, to glut the avarice of the men who have let loose on us the dogs of war to riot in our blood and hunt us from the face of the earth? If ye love wealth better than liberty, the tranquility of servitude than the animated contest of freedom - go home from us in peace. We ask not your counsels or arms. Crouch down and lick the hands which feed you. May your chains sit lightly upon you, and may posterity forget that you were our countrymen!" -

Samuel Adams, Speech at the State House, Philadelphia, August 1, 1776