Friday, May 1, 2009

May Day and the Contradictions of Capitalism

How different this May Day looks on the two sides of the Atlantic. In France, for the first time since the election of Sarkozy, all the unions are marching arm-in-arm. But it is a unity of façade only, which evolves in a void masked by the convenient amplification of Sarkozy's image into a symbol of everything that is wrong. The convenience of this symbol is that it obviates discourse, which would only reveal the depths of the disunity in which not only the trade unions but the entire opposition is mired. Naturally, the Socialists are drawn to this tawdry spectacle as moths to a flame. They can march in "solidarity" (albeit with Ségo self-exiled to Heuliez, though she is, as Benoît Hamon grudgingly observed, technically "with the workers" and therefore toeing the party line). Alain Badiou wrote a book entitled De quoi Sarkozy est-il le nom? Now we know: "Sarkozy" is the name of the void that the opposition in France has become, a mere reproduction en creux of the only game in town.

Meanwhile, in the US, Chrysler went bankrupt on Mayday eve, and the union, the much-maligned UAW, is now, in the person of its pension fund, among the directors of the company. Ironically, this turning of the tables pits retired workers against active workers. To turn the company around, the retirees on the board must draw upon the standard bag of tricks of creative destroyers everywhere: they will need to shed jobs, cut costs, eliminate product lines, close plants, downsize.

So French unions march for a boost to the "purchasing power" of workers, citing the consumption stimulus in the US as an example of what ought to be done, and Ségo marches shoulder-to-shoulder with beleaguered auto subcontract workers at Heuliez. Meanwhile, in the US, auto workers may not be taking much encouragement from any temporary stimulus to their purchasing power as their futures turn bleak before their eyes, and the union itself has become the capitalist ogre--for it must now, literally, devour its own children.

This may be the bleakest May Day in living memory, but in France the festive banners and lusty denunciations of the hyperpresident put all that out of mind for a bit, while in the US the loudest howls are coming from Chrysler's bondholders, and the mood among workers is too grim for parades. A May Day parade of Wall Street bond traders denouncing President Obama for "politicizing" the markets -- now there would be an interesting visual for the French TV news this evening. Something to talk about other than Sarkozy.