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"We're Workers," Says Jon Stewart; or, May Day 2009

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A few weeks ago, Jon Stewart once again did what the people who are actually paid to do it often don't. In his interview with that hired flunky of the financiers, Jim Cramer of Mad Money, Stewart raked the financial networks for their shameless boosterism of easy money before its collapse last year.

The large volume of commentary on this interview, including on this website, largely missed what in my view was Stewart's most searching statement: "When are we going to realize in this country that our wealth is work. That we're workers..."

On this May Day and in the midst of the economic crisis, it is worth remembering that we are, most of us, workers.

This dimension of our identities, of our very existence, is not currently prominent in our political discourse, popular culture, or academic institutions. Alone among the major democracies, the U.S. does not have a major political party focused on issues of class and labor. As a result our politics shies away from open conversation, let alone conflict, over these issues. During the presidential campaign last year only Sarah Palin openly (and, of course, opportunistically) used the term "working class" in her speeches. Modest tax increases on the wealthy are routinely denounced as "class warfare," while virtually no mainstream commentator describes the hardened anti-unionism of some of the country's largest companies, and the ongoing pillaging of the public coffers by financial firms, in those terms.

Our centers of knowledge and learning don't fare much better. My guess is there are far fewer departments in our leading universities of labor or class studies than departments of women's studies and African American or other race and ethnicity studies. In recent decades the academy has been far more enthusiastic in its support of scholarship in gender, race, national origin, and now sexual orientation--all vital areas of study--than of class relations and power.

This wasn't always the case. Until the mid-20th century, this country was the scene of some of the liveliest politics of class and labor anywhere. Socialist and anarchist parties, powerful unions, and organizations of farm workers and tenants were major political actors. Cultural luminaries like Steinbeck, Guthrie and Chaplin were openly allied with or sympathetic to these movements, as were many faculty and students at major universities. This class consciousness eroded over the last few decades as unions settled for deals on wages and working conditions instead of seeking political power independently of the two parties, and the Cold War and McCarthyism effectively purged the ranks of radical intellectuals and cultural workers.

The trajectory of this erosion is neatly captured by the evolution of Labor Day in the U.S. The international May Day actually began in the U.S. on May 1, 1886, when hundreds of thousands of North American workers mobilized to strike for the eight hour workday. Since then, May 1 has been celebrated everywhere as a demonstration of labor solidarity and power--everywhere, that is, except in the U.S., which, thanks to a decree by President Cleveland in 1894, marks Labor Day on the first Monday in September, and which most of us treat as a long weekend of TV and end-of-summer barbecues.

Perhaps the economic crisis will serve as a reminder that, for all of our politically significant differences and multiple identities, most of us share the reality of having to work for wages so that we can live.