Musings on May Day

Labor Day, celebrated each year on the first Monday of September, is widely known and celebrated as a holiday for American workers; perhaps less well known as a day for the labor movement is May Day, observed around the world on the first of the month.

While it originated as a celebration of nature and of spring, May Day became, by the close of the nineteenth century, a decidedly working class holiday, set aside for parades and demonstrations by tradesmen and organized labor groups.

In the United States and abroad, the concerns of the labor movement are often assumed to be plainly at odds with those of free market libertarians. Mutually unaware of their historical and ideological overlap, both groups have been skeptical, indeed antagonistic, toward each other, each regarding its counterpart as ideological foe. But this need not be the case, and, as it happens, it hasn’t always been.

The “industrial problem” besetting the working class today is nothing new, nor are its features unique to the age in which we live. Radical libertarians of the nineteenth century were alert to the very same problem, undertaking to critically engage the insights of classical political economy in order to finally unravel it.

The result in the United States, at least in part, was a distinctly American, free market labor movement, an idea that sought to obliterate privilege and monopoly — forever intertwined — through respect for individual rights and free, mutual exchange.

Commerce, these libertarians argued, was not necessarily entangled with exploitation, at least not without the state to protect unfair advantages for capital. And those advantages, completely irreconcilable with genuine free markets, are ubiquitous in the contemporary economic system of global capitalism.

So-called “intellectual property” laws allow giant multinational corporations to forcibly monopolize the technologies that give us the tools for survival, right down to patents on the DNA of plants we eat. State-enforced barriers to market entry — built through rules and regulations that inflate the costs of doing business — allow a handful of players to operate absent worries of real competition.

Subsidies, direct and indirect, grant billions of dollars in pure welfare to politically connected and favored companies which invade Washington’s Beltway with armies of dedicated lobbyists. The net result of the state’s influences on the economy is a system in which the average wage-earner is systematically handicapped.

As Benjamin Tucker related it, “Capitalists … have placed and kept upon the statute-books all sorts of prohibitions and taxes … designed to limit and effective in limiting the number of bidders for the labor of those who have labor to sell.”

Once the reasoning of individual sovereignty is fully understood, the soritical move to anarchism, the absence of rulership or external authority, seems natural, hardly unreasonable or fanatical. I endorse market anarchism precisely because it is rational, accounting for basic assumptions about power and human nature that almost everyone at least implicitly accepts.

Were its popular caricatures accurate — were it either the violent philosophy of unhinged, antisocial maniacs or else the starry-eyed dream of naïve utopians — I wouldn’t spill a drop of ink in its defense. Anarchism inures to the benefit of labor in that it benefits every individual who does not hope to live at the expense of anyone else, barricaded behind the protections of coercive privilege.

This May Day, take a moment to reflect upon the questions of who actually benefits from the game of politics and what kind of economy we actually have. Have ordinary people seen most of the benefits of state involvement in the economy? Do we have a free market, or a very unfree one?

The answers may surprise many of those in both the mainstream labor and libertarian movements. They may even bring new meaning to the phrase, “workers of the world unite!”

Citations to this article:

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory