Saturday, May 1, 2010

May Day

It's a rainy first of May here in rural Tennessee. I went to a May Day celebration which took place under the newly covered dome next to the Farm store. There, Farm residents and visitors wove ribbons around the Maypole to celebrate the end of winter and the beginning of new growth and vitality in the spring and summer seasons. Today is the ancient Celtic festival of Bealtaine which sits opposite the autumn commemoration of Samhain which has worked its way into American consciousness in the form of Halloween.

Alayne, one of the ETC staff, started the festivities off by reading the Song of Bealtaine:

I am the calm, I am the quickening,
... I am the intoxication and the force
I am the silence, I am the singer,
... I am the stallion galloping to its source.
I am the bright pavilion and the feasting,
... I am the wedding couple and the bed,
I am the morning chorus and the heartbeat,
... I am the goal to which all paths are led.

After the festivities, I asked her to tell me more about the traditions surrounding this day, and then I asked her if she knew about its political associations. She did not. To her, May Day is entirely wrapped up with the Earth, the ancient traditions, and the changing of the seasons.

I called my fellow podcaster, Doug Lain of the Diet Soap Podcast, and asked him about his associations with this day. He has a different take on the day. Here is a bit of our conversation:

DougMay Day is an interesting holiday that has both elements that I try to highlight on the Diet Soap podcast. It's this spiritual pagan holiday about rebirth, but to me it's the political holiday that comes first.  It has to do with the Haymarket affair... the Haymarket riot, which itself was part of the struggle for the 8-hour work day.  After the riot there was a political kind of show trial where eight anarchists were charged with the murder of a policemen.

Basically, there was a protest. On the third of May there'd been a strike outside a factory in Chicago, and the police had fired into the crowd. Two workers were killed. The organizers called for a rally at Haymarket square to protest the actions of the police and to demand the 8-hour work day.  Someone threw a pipe bomb there, at Haymarket.  When the police marched in formation to disperse the protesters somebody threw a pipe bomb at them.  That's where the idea of a bomb throwing anarchist comes from actually.

I don't know how many people were killed.  I know one policeman was killed, and maybe a dozen workers were killed.

Then they took eight anarchists who were organizers and put them on trial, and I think four or five of the people who were charged with the crime... not really for throwing the bomb. They never made any strong case that there was any connection between the people they put on trial and the bomb thrower, but just for being anarchists really, were eventually hung by the neck until dead.  They executed four people pretty much for having the wrong political ideas.
KMO: And they were protesting for an 8-hour work day? What was standard before that?
Doug: I think anything they could get away with. I don't know. Let me look.

Doug reads from Wikipedia:

The eight-hour day movement or 40-hour week movement, also known as the short-time movement, had its origins in the Industrial Revolution in Britain, where industrial production in large factories transformed working life and imposed long hours and poor working conditions. With working conditions unregulated, the health, welfare and morale of working people suffered. The use of child labour was common. The working day could range from 10 to 16 hours for six days a week.
KMO: Wow.
Doug: Yeah. So, they were struggling for something they really needed; some sort of cap on how many hours a week they could be asked to work by the new bosses of the industrial revolution.

The conversation turned to the topic of population overshoot. I summarized a portion of a conversation that I had recorded the previous day with SF author David Marusek.

David: I do believe that we are, at this point, already over-populated. We've exceeded the carrying capacity of the globe, and it's only a matter of time. (…) I just saw Paul Ehrlich, the author of the Population Bomb on TV the other day. When the book came out in the late sixties, Ehrlich was predicting that by 2010 society would already have collapsed because we wouldn't be able to feed everybody. That hasn't proven to be true... yet. Agriculture as a science has matured quite a bit in the meantime, and we are feeding a lot more people. Not everybody. What is it? A billion people who go to bed hungry every night? But we're doing it. We're feeding people at the expense of the Earth, and I believe that we are living on borrowed time.
So, yes, I believe we must be at Peak Oil, but we're also at the peak use of this planet. We are living not just on borrowed time but on borrowed resources.

I summarized David's comments for Doug, and he responded with:

Doug: When I think about overshoot, I think it's really unfortunate that we've come to this time where so many problems that require the best of us and the most intelligent and humane aspects of us are facing us at the same time the intensification of the current system is happening where we have less and less control and less and less ability to address those problems. So, rather than hunkering down and trying to protect as many people as we can, trying to put as many people in charge of solving technical problems and social problems as we can and dispersing power out and using our best selves, we are seeing more and more power and money going to fewer and fewer people and getting more and more concentrated.
And that process itself has a horrible impact on people's everyday lives, and it's seen as murder in the Third World because people are starving. It's hard to parse out what's real resource depletion and what's just this process of the intensification of private power and wealth. And that's why the story of Haymarket is important even now to remember because if we're going to have any hope of adequately and humanely dealing with overshoot, the principles that you see at work behind the Haymarket riot and it's aftermath and the memory of May Day are going to have to be a part of what we do.

As much as I admire that sentiment, I think that Bealtaine has a much better shot at an enduring place in human consciousness than does Haymarket. The seasons will continue their cycle, and when the Earth starts to stir from its winter torpor, people will perform rituals and ask the source of fertility and renewal for the gift of Her bounty. I hope that humans will remember and honor those of their ancestors who resisted coercion and rebuffed the efforts of the Machine to mine the cantankerous human spirit  like an ore. I don't have any confidence that the names of the fallen will be remembered or that their contributions will be appreciated, but I'm pretty sure that humans will be clued into the change of the seasons for as long as there are humans on this planet.


  1. Nice explication of May Day's multileveled meanings. Previously, I've held a vague understanding of each narrative, on its own, without grokking their coincidence.

    I should express my growing appreciation for Doug Lain's perspective . His "Diet Soap Podcast" has begun to grind away at my long-held shield of indifference to his regular topics of class struggle, power relationships and political precedent. These have long been some of my least favorite subjects. But much as I initially struggled with the "c-realm podcast's" ardent broad-mindedness, Doug's focus on political theory has been a challenge, and a reward. I'm valuing the importance of this outlook, ironically, in working "within" the system, for however long that avenue remains valid.

    In the English band XTC's song "The Wheel and the Maypole," the first half of the song builds on the expected themes of renewal. But then, as perhaps is suggested by the titular "wheel," goes further to reflect on our entropic path:

    Maypole the ties that bind you will unwind to free me one day
    and everything decays

    Yes, everything decays
    Forest tumbles down to make the soil
    Planets fall apart
    Just to feed the stars and stuff their larders

    And what made me think we're any better
    and what made me think we'd last forever
    was I so naive?
    of course it all unweaves"


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