Saturday, April 30, 2011

May Day

Today (don't be fooled by the date above; this server is behind NZ time!) is May 1. Traditionally, this has been celebrated in many parts of the world as a significant holiday or festival. Celtic societies called it Beltane (or Bealtaine).

Beltane marked the beginning of the pastoral summer season when the herds of livestock were driven out to the summer pastures and mountain grazing lands. The lighting of bonfires on Oidhche Bhealtaine ('the eve of Bealtaine') on mountains and hills of ritual and political significance was one of the main activities of the festival. Another common aspect of the festival in Ireland was the hanging of May Boughs on the doors and windows of houses and the erection of May Bushes in farmyards, which usually consisted either of a branch of rowan/caorthann (mountain ash) or more commonly whitethorn/sceach geal (hawthorn) which is in bloom at the time and is commonly called the 'May Bush'. Furze/aiteann was also used for the May Boughs, May Bushes and as fuel for the bonfire.

But in more modern times, May Day has been co-opted by Left-wing organisations, and is celebrated as International Workers' Day.

In many countries it reflects the struggle to achieve the eight-hour working day, and is often referred to as Labor Day. New Zealand, of course, has it's own Labour Day, celebrated in October each year, to mark the eight-hour day principle fought for and won in the nineteenth century.

In a number of communist countries (The Soviet Union, East Germany, Poland, etc) May Day was used as an opportunity to show off the military muscle of these "peoples' states" - a jingoistic display of the 'victory' of the proletariat, as manifest in the virtue of the workers' party, the Communist Party.

So does the date continue to have relevance in 2011? I believe so, and perhaps, more than for many years.

In New Zealand we are 'blessed' with a centre-Right government. There have already been moves to wind-back the hard-won protections for workers - laws allowing employers to insist on a 90-day get-out clause (permitting sackings without reason or compensation) and the 'buy-back' of leave. The balance has swung firmly in favour of employers - the natural supporters of the National-led centre-right government.

And now National's bedmate in this government, ACT, has seen a leadership coup with disturbing overtones. The hard-rightist Don Brash has replaced Rodney Hide, suggesting the pressure will be stepped up on the Government to enact more measures designed to benefit the money-men, at the expense of workers and consumers.

The need for vigilance by workers is more necessary than before.

And then there is the continued disturbances in the Arab world - the latest being the growing tide of dissent in Syria. Libya continues to fester in civil war, while Yemen and Bahrain are still twitchy.

But the Middle Eastern ructions are not about "workers' rights", in the left-wing sense; they are not an expression of socialist-tinged or -led outrage at their exploitation by ruthless capitalists. The theme which seems to run through all of the current unrest in the Arab world, is a demand for "freedom" - from oppression by ruling oligarchs as much as from exploitation by capitalists, local or trans-national.

This demand for freedom manifests itself as calls for regime change, or the deposing of ruling elites, and for democratic elections. It is, in other words, more explicitly political than economic.

And yet the two are intrinsically linked.

For underlying both strands is the same human impulse: a need for what academics are now calling "agency". A need, in plain language, to have some control over one's own destiny, and to be treated with respect and dignity. To be paid fairly, to have enough time in one's life to enjoy life's pleasures, to have one's voice heard and views given due weight and consideration.

Those are the shared wishes of people everywhere - New Zealand as much as Libya; the USA as much as Syria; Great Britain as much as Yemen.

If we wish to preserve the gains made thus far, we need to remind ourselves that "Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty." [Wendell Phillips]

And marking May Day is an opportunity to heed Edmund Burke's caution: "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."


And what of the English Royal Wedding?

I'm with Billy Bragg: "The wedding was a just a display of harmless pageantry compared to the pernicious flummery of the Queen's Speech. Wills and Kate offer no real threat to our democracy, but the royal prerogative does, allowing the prime minister to exercise executive power without first consulting parliament. That's where reformers should focus their anger, not on two young people getting married. I wish them well."

The Windsors are the current rump of the oligarchs who ruled England and conquered Scotland, Wales and (parts of) Ireland. While their powers are today curtailed, and ordinary citizens have much greater liberty than they did in the monarch's heyday, that is a matter of degree (and for "eternal vigilance").

The unrest in the Arab world should remind us of the dangers if we are not vigilant.

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