It’s May 1. Here in Chile, it’s a national holiday, the official name for which is Día Internacionale de Trajabadores (International Workers’ Day). The holiday isn’t celebrated in the U.S., of course, or in Canada, because of its association with far left groups, especially communist ones. This day has an interesting history, to say the least. It was on May 1, 1776, that Jesuit-trained law professor Adam Weishaupt founded the notorious secret society known as the Illuminati, which infiltrated European Freemasonry until, accused of conspiring to subvert and destroy all the governments of Europe, they were suppressed and driven underground. That was the late 1780s. In 1789, of course, the French Revolution erupted. Its causes are well known, or so we are told. Weishaupt himself continued to live in relative obscurity until 1830, interestingly the same year the secretive Skull & Bones was founded at Yale University in the U.S. Both George W. Bush and John Kerry were members, and it was “so secret they couldn’t talk about it.” Some make more of this entire trajectory of events than others. The trajectory may be noted as one of those intriguing sequences of factoids about which we may never know the whole story, if there is a whole story to be known.
May 1 is also the day, in 1884, a proclamation demanding an 8-hour working day began; on the May 1 two years later a general strike erupted over the issue that led to the violence of the Haymarket affair, which resulted in a number of deaths when someone lobbed a bomb at police. They fired back, killing four demonstrators; the next day, disruptions resulted in bystanders being shot to death by militiamen. The 2nd International Congress called for an International Workers Day, to be observed on May 1. “May Day” was formally recognized for the first time in 1891, and has remained a focal point for various leftist groups claiming to represent the interests of the proletariat. It remains one of the most important national holidays in mainland China, North Korea, Cuba, and is still recognized in the former Soviet Union. Many noncommunist nations throughout Africa, South America, and elsewhere, celebrate International Workers Day, of course. It became a recognized holiday here in 1931.
Does celebrating a holiday accomplish anything for those not in power, however? I would surmise not.
Here in Santiago, Chile — in our neighborhood, anyway — the holiday was an excuse to stay up most of the night partying. I doubt the revelers gave the day’s history more than a moment’s passing thought, if that. I don’t have to know the personalities involved to be able to surmise this. I’ve lived here almost five years.
As an ex-academic, I’ve observed both how those seeking power operate, and how those with real power carry it forward.
The former are noisy and often obnoxious. The latter are generally as quiet as the dead. They don’t have to use noise to get what they want.
Many of us are heirs, in one way or another, of the so-called culture wars that began to erupt, little by little, during the Reagan-Bush years. Those years were witness to the meteoric rise of so-called new scholarship focused on race, gender, eventually sexual orientation, and identity-politics generally, which was incompatible with the ideals of objectivity and rationality that imposed essentially the same norms on everyone. Traditionalist responses that tried to articulate and reaffirm those norms had begun to appear. I was one of those people who began to look at policies such as affirmative action as propelling identity-scholarship, the fact that several highly visible Supreme Court decisions had begun pushback against race and gender preferences in, e.g., university hiring and admissions practices, advancing the thesis that political correctness erupted to protect preferences of various kinds from legitimate criticism by using propagandistic ruses (allegations of “racism” being the most obvious) to circumvent them as well as intimidate the critics. The ruse worked more often than not, as otherwise those bringing them forward generally saw their academic careers lying in ruins — even if they had tenure, in some cases.
It was all very noisy and visible. What nearly all of us missed was the fact that outside the academic disciplines they had hijacked, and outside the media, none of these groups truly had power, which is not merely organizational but political-economic and has as its sources those with very little interest in how many women the philosophy department has hired this past year.
Neoliberalism had begun its own top-down transformation of the universities as far back as the early 1970s following the Powell Memo, which specifically referenced figures such as Herbert Marcuse and Ralph Nader as having inculcated an anti-business mindset in the universities. Indeed, the late 1960s had seen the rise of an entire generation that hijacked the national conversation. As a result, a war those with economic power wanted was rendered so unpopular that it was no longer beneficial to said powers-that-be to bankroll it. U.S. efforts in Southeast Asia were curtailed and discontinued.
To be sure, members of that generation stayed in academia, eventually won tenure, and began to transform their disciplines from the inside. This would gradually discredit them on the outside. What, after all, were we to make of the claim that a “female-friendly” science would be different from “traditional” science because women see the world in more relational terms than men? Would such a science be able to erect skyscrapers and fly airplanes? Would it surpass quantum mechanics? And how seriously, later, were we to take the prevailing feminist allegations that one in four girls and women on campuses would be raped while they are in college? (Or is the official number one in six? I honestly can’t remember, and can’t see that it much matters.) Today, the humanities are struggling to survive. The neoliberal university, having vastly expanded administration and focused on the furtherance of corporate interests, inculcating students into that mindset by having redesigned campuses to look more and more corporate (using corporate logos, etc.), has little more use for academic philosophy than it has for “gender studies.” At its best, after all, academic philosophy still at least pays lip service to questioning authority.
While the visible debates surround such matters as the role of free speech on campus, the less visible ones involve such matters as the relative absence of academic jobs that pay livable wages, and whether several academic disciplines, once seen as at the center of intellectual inquiry, will be able to survive the present scourge of academic-corporatism intact. Or whether the average brick-and-mortar college with a full range of educational offerings (as opposed to well-endowed Ivy League institutions) will survive the rise of an online world which supplies the same offerings for nothing, or nearly nothing!
There is, in all this, little concern for those currently doing the real work of a college or university: educating its students, who have usually gone into once-unheard-of levels of debt in order to attend. Fewer than 30% of academics today have tenure or any hope of obtaining it outside of very, very good personal contacts. They are struggling to keep a roof over their heads at the same time they juggle stacks of papers to grade for the five or six courses they teach, spread over two or more campuses or even institutions (at one time I taught courses at two institutions spread across three campuses). And if students’ would-be employers ever discover that online educational world and tailor it to their advantage … ?
This environment is, of course, perfect for the intended political economy of the future, which if present tendencies continue will be global rulership by an economic superelite that will dominate the governments of the world through their central banks and financial systems, and through the latter, will dominate national portions of economies and educational systems. I believe STEM subjects are being encouraged because they fit this future model so well. Trained technicians will survive, and some may do reasonably well. Scholars trained in the art of questioning power systems will not do so well.
Not a pretty sight, but I am sure that what comes to pass will continue to allow holidays recognizing “worker’s rights,” which the workers themselves will use to escape into parties and such. “Where’s the revolution?” asks the British group Depeche Mode in their newest single. Answer: in the revolutionists’ dreams, where it always was.