Today is May Day -- the date when all around the world workers take to the streets to show solidarity and protest for their rights, except in America where innocent young girls dance around a pole. OK, OK, actually it's a lot more complicated than that. For one thing, I'm a little surprised the extent to which May 1 is becoming a day of social protest here in the United States. In fact, as I write this, a few hundreds folks are bouncing around Center City protesting against income inequality and for worker empowerment.
I certainly agree with much of what the people are fighting for, and -- in an age where the average citizen has few tools to fight the influence of Big Money on our politics -- I definitely applaud folks who are willing to take it to the streets. But a part of me -- probably a part from the 1950s, the decade I was (by 11 months) born in -- wonders if May Day is the best day for making the case.
I guess that's because then growing up in the 1970s, I hear May Day and my mind conjures up large missiles rolling by Leonid Breshnev and the Politburo in Red Square, because for most of the Cold War era (the real one, not this one) May Day was closely associated with that most extreme ideology of the far-left working class, Communism. We're in a new century, and the excesses and abuses of unchecked capitalism have certainly created an environment where socialism -- which is on the scale somewhere between worker-friendly forms of capitalism and communism -- is increasingly popular and even saying one's a Communist won't mean getting hauled before the House Un-American Activities Committee.
But even in 2014 I think people who support the progressive causes that are most important in this country -- raising the minimum wage, creating working class jobs, offering affordable health care and higher ed, curbing the military-industry complex -- risk hurting themselves politically when the cause drifts too close to the political "C-word." I think of not Lenin but Lennon, who said that "if you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao, you ain't gonna make it with anyone anyhow."
Let me be clear: Capitalism -- in the current unchecked kleptocratic way that it's carried out currently in the United States -- sucks. But Communism -- as it's been practiced over the last century -- is worse. I saw that first-hand when I traveled to the Soviet Union for a week at the end of 1979 on a bizarre student journalism junket, a trip in which I got to meet and spend time with the anti-Soviet Nobel Peace Prize laureate Andrei Sakharov, still a highlight of my life. many years later. What I saw that week was grey and depressing, with people working dreary make-work jobs. Most Communist regimes deny basic freedoms (including my favorite, freedom of the press) and more broadly it has failed as an economic system. China only became a world power when its "Communists" became totalitarian capitalists.
Socialism is more debatable -- even American society has aspects of socialism today, and I believe there are areas such as health care in which a single-payer system (cutting the profit margin out of who lives or dies) is preferable to what we have now., But when you look around the last 100 years or so of industrialized and now post-industrial society, you have to ask yourself what works, and the answer is clearly...fair capitalism, with equality not of outcome, but of opportunity.
Simply put, give the kid from North Philly and the kid from Lower Merion an equally good education...and then see which one becomes Steve Jobs.
What worked was America in the decades after World War II -- when labor unions were at their strongest and so was the Middle Class, when government policy was not geared toward the rich but toward regular folks, with VA mortgages and the GI Bill.
But what works today? Not Communism...but Canadianism. The other day, the New York Times and its new website the Upshot made its very first piece a look at how the U.S. middle class has fared against other nations -- and it found that while our workers have lost ground, dramatically, the middle-class is holding its own just across the northern border.
The piece generated so much chatter that the Times went back to see what was the deal with our polite next-door neighbors.
It reported: "Canadians have little doubt that they face less financial stress about medical costs than Americans. Many also credit their labor unions for the size of their paychecks; union membership rates are higher in Canada. Canadians also know that the American housing bubble and bust were more severe than their version."
As always, personal choices matter, too -- the story notes that Canada has more two-parent households, and that also helps. But it's clear that earning a living wage -- which in a capitalist society can only really come through collective bargaining -- and a national health care system make a big difference, In America, the decline of the middle class began around 1980, when Ronald Reagan's crushing of the air-traffic controllers strike started an open season on unions.