Socialism, Part Three: What It May Look Like, or Visions of a Better Kind of Society Without Employers

The following is a continuation of an earlier post (Socialism, Part Two: What It May Look Like) about the nature of socialism–which is a solution to problems that capitalism, characterized by the domination of a class of employers, cannot solve. Socialism is not something that emerges from a utopian view independently of the nature of capitalism but requires a critical approach to capitalism.

In the following, Michael Perelman contrasts what many people experience in their lives: their own contrast between an activity which they enjoy doing and their experience working for an employer, which they often enough find to be draining.

From Michael Perelman, The Invisible Handcuffs of Capitalism: How Market Tyranny Stifles the Economy by Stunting Workers (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2011),

Just What Is Work?

To understand the potential for transforming the economy, consider a simple example that does not require much of a stretch of the imagination. Just think of the enormous contrast between farm work for wages and gardening as a hobby. Farm work is considered to be so abhorrent in the United States that we regularly hear that only foreign-born workers are willing to perform it. Supposedly, upstanding citizens of the United States would never subject themselves to the life of a farm worker for poverty wages.

While farm labor may be among the hardest, most dangerous work in our society, many people regard gardening as a pleasant diversion. While the United Farm Workers Union represents mostly downtrodden workers, a good number of wealthy people are proud affiliates of their blue-blood garden clubs. Over and above the time they spend in their gardens, many gardeners enthusiastically devote considerable leisure time to conversing or reading in order to become better gardeners. In addition, many gardeners also willingly spend substantial sums for equipment and supplies to use in their gardens.

What, then, is the underlying difference between farm work and gardening? Farm work typically entails hard physical labor, but many gardeners also exert themselves in their gardens. The difference lies in the context of gardening. Gardeners, unlike farm workers, freely choose to be gardeners. During the time they work in their gardens, they want to be gardening. Nobody tells them what to do. Gardeners are producing for themselves rather than for someone else who will benefit from their work.

As the psychologist John Neulinger says: “Everyone knows the difference between doing something because one has to and doing something because one wants to.”43 We should also keep in mind that society respects gardeners. Our newspapers regularly print features of interest to gardeners. Some even have special sections to appeal to their affluent gardening readers. All the while, the lives of farm workers pass virtually unnoticed. In our society, farm work is never “respectable” work; well-to-do families would not approve of their children becoming farm workers.
Of course, gardeners are not entirely free to follow their whims. The rhythms of the seasons and the sudden shifts in the weather dictate some of what the gardeners do, but gardeners generally accept these demands beforehand. …

As suggested earlier, the key to the Procrustean trap is not the threat of physical force but rather the inability to imagine anything outside of the constrained present circumstances. The willingness to take seriously Margaret Thatcher’s preposterous claim—“There is no alternative”—perfectly sums up this state of mind.

A writer for Bloomberg.com reminisced about Thatcher’s Procrustean destructive success:

Of course, it’s possible to change a society and to drag it into the global economic monoculture. Mrs. Thatcher showed how: Break up collectives and make people feel a little bit more alone in the world. Cut a few holes in the social safety net. Raise the status of money-making, and lower the status of every other activity. Stop giving knighthoods to artists and start giving them to department-store moguls. Stop listening to intellectuals and start listening to entrepreneurs and financiers.
Stick to the plan long enough and the people who are good at making money acquire huge sums and, along with them, power. In time, they become the culture’s dominant voice. And they love you for it.46

Thatcher’s scheme actually worked. Her acolytes were so convinced that the mere utterance of Thatcher’s acronym TINA seemed sufficient to cut off any debate with skeptics.

The social-democratic or social-reformist left in Toronto certainly has reinforced the TINA principle. The so-called radical left, by keeping silent out of fear of becoming isolated, themselves becomes part of the social-democratic left. They, like the social-reformist left, provide no real alternative vision to the oppressive and exploitative nature of work characteristic of the power of employers as a class.

In fact, through their silence and their lack of criticism, they contribute to the perpetuation of class rule. They are, practically, social reformists who will never go beyond the existing class system despite their rhetoric of class struggle and struggle from below.

 

 

The Canadian Left’s Lack of a Vision of the Good Life Beyond a Class of Employers

Stanley Aronowitz, in his book The Death and Life of American Labor: Toward a New Workers’ Movement (New York: Verso, page 162) , points out how the left has in effect abandoned any real intention of developing a movement powerful enough to challenge a system dominated by the class of employers:

Professional intellectuals need not be the only formulators of a new vision of the good life, but they may be needed to boldly put the questions associated with the good life back on the table. As we have seen, even political groups motivated by the promise of new social arrangements refrain from openly discussing their transformative views in their trade unions or in public forums, for fear they will be labeled as sectarians and lose access to the rank and file.

This self-censorship among U.S. radicals is nothing new. It dates from two closely related developments: Samuel Gompers’s refusal to link the labor movement to an ideological flag, a stance that led more radical thinkers to form the rival IWW; and the Socialist Party’s entry, with both feet, into the electoral arena, where the terms of engagement implied acceptance of the capitalist system as the given framework within which the struggles for social reform were to be conducted.

The Canadian left, probably like much of the left, refuse to try to open up debate about where the labour movement is really going. Rhetoric, such as “decent work,” “a good job,” “fair wages,” ‘economic justice” and indeed “fairness” in general are thrown around without the left ever bothering explaining what they mean by such terms.

The Toronto left, for example, is certainly afraid of trying to oblige union representatives to justify their platitudes such as “decent work.” Thus, in Toronto there was a call for supporting the striking brewery workers here. Such a call is certainly to be supported. However, to justify such a call, it was claimed that the brewery workers wanted decent jobs and a fair wage. The call went was sent over a list serve through an organization to which I belonged (the Toronto Labour Committee), headed by Sam Gindin, Herman Rosenfeld and Paul Gray. I decided to criticize the use of such expressions while also indicating the need for supporting the striking brewery workers (I had worked as a brewery worker in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, for about four years, and I knew about wages and working conditions from personal experience).

Eventually, I was called a “condescending prick” by a union representative, and the only defense of my action came from Herman Rosenfeld, who claimed that both I and the union representative were both right (it is nice to be able to have your cake and eat it too).

The point of all this is–there is a decided lack of discussion within the union movement and in the public sphere here in Toronto (and, I suspect, elsewhere in North America)–due to such intimidation tactics. The rhetoric of democracy within the left is just that–it is rhetoric.

There is no real discussion about the obvious dictatorship which billions of workers experience daily in their lives. There is no discussion of any alternative vision of what kind of life we humans really deserve. There is rhetoric of social justice, but there is no real substantial discussion of what that means and no movement towards building a society worthy of our nature as human beings.

There is much talk of resistance–but to what end? Resistance for resistance sake? To hold on to what we have? Not to dare think of anything beyond $15 and fairness or the idea of decent work? The hostility I met from the union reps and the so-called radical left when I questioned such ideas evidently expresses a lack of vision of the good life. For the so-called progressive left, there have been employers, there are employers, and there will always be employers. Such is the nature of the “progressive” left these days. They lack any vision of the good life beyond the class of employers.

 

Confessions of a Union Representative Concerning the Real Power of Employers

In the context of the process of passing legislation related to the Westray mining disaster (ultimately diluted to satisfy the interests of employers), a union representative explicitly expressed the reality that workers face when they work for employers. The problem with this explicit admission of the power of employers is that it does not play any real role in the education of the working class. Compare what is said below with union rhetoric about “decent jobs” or a “fair wage.” From Steven Bittle, Still Dying for a Living:
Shaping Corporate Criminal Liability After the Westray Mine Disaster,
doctoral dissertation, page 202:

Another union representative expressed concern [with the proposed government legislation] that unions can be held responsible for workplace accidents, noting that unions and employees have little decision-making control with the organization:

“…basically we wanted the legislation to go after corporate bosses, basically, because
they’re the ones that make the decisions. At the end of the day any decision that’s
made on anything to do with the business comes about as a result of management’s
decision. It doesn’t come about because of a union decision. We wish, but it doesn’t.
They have the ultimate authority to manage, and that authority is only restricted by
terms of a collective agreement, and in very few cases, maybe in terms of regulations or legislation. So we were hoping that it would focus more on criminal liability for those that have the power to make decisions. But in reality what it does is that it will hold anybody accountable if the investigation shows there was any part played in any particular incident by anybody from the janitor right up to the CEO. Now some people will argue, why not? Well normally, in my experience in almost forty years, is that any decision made by the janitor is usually something that is usually handed down from above, right. And there are very few cases where you could actually cite where somebody at that level had any type of malicious intent to do anything to cause harm “(Union representative, Interview 12).

One of the distinguishing features of human beings is our capacity to choose–our capacity to be free, to make decisions. The union representative openly admits that in the context of businesses, it is management that mainly decides and that all that a collective agreement does is restrict the authority of management to decide. Regulation and legislation, in a few cases, also limit that authority. Other than that, management has dictatorial powers at work. In other words, workers are treated as things at work–as objects to be used; they are thing-like objects, without the power to participate equally in decisions that affect their lives.

And the social-reformist left repeatedly refer to “decent jobs” and “fairness.” Even the so-called radical left (see the previous post, Social-Reformist Leftist Activists Share Assumptions with the Right) engage in such rhetoric. How being treated as things can be magically converted into decent jobs and fair wages is beyond me. The religious nature of this rhetoric (most frequently expressed by trade unionists) is obvious by the lack of any critical discussion concerning whether it reflects the experience of the millions (and indeed billions) of workers worldwide.

What do you think of the above honest statement of the reality or situation of even the more privileged section of the working class (for, generally, unionized workers are more privileged) when compared to the rhetoric of “decent work” and “fair wages” or “fairness” as expressed by the social-reformist left (and even the radical left)?

Should we not start discussing these issues openly and honestly? Are we? If we are not, why are we not doing so?

Unions and Safety on Jobs Controlled by Employers

The following tries to explain why unions do not adequately address the safety concerns of rank-and-file workers who work for an employer. Of course, safety conditions in non-unionized settings may be even worse, but we should not idealize unionized settings either. They are better than non-unionized settings, generally, but they remain inadequate since workers’ safety and well-being are sacrificed for the benefit of the particular employer as well as for the benefit of the class of employers.

From Tom Dwyer (1991), Life and Death at Work: Industrial Accidents as a Case of Socially Produced Error. (New York: Springer Science+Business Media), page 77:

Continue reading “Unions and Safety on Jobs Controlled by Employers”

What’s Left, Toronto? Part One

On September 19, 2018, several leftist activists gave a talk about what was to be done in the city of Toronto. It was posted on the Socialist Project website on October 7, 2018 (What’s Left, Toronto? Radical Alternatives for the City Election) Over the next few months, I will be analyzing some or all of the talks from a Marxian perspective.

Before looking at the diverse talks, though, I will reiterate in this post a point that I have already addressed in some other posts since the moderator of the talks, Herman Rosenfeld, brought the issue up again. He mentions “decent, secure jobs with decent pay.” Why any self-declared socialist feels compelled to declare, at this stage of capitalism, to pair the term “decent” with “jobs” and “decent” with “pay” other than fear of alienating his social-reformist allies or due to opportunism is beyond me.

Working for an employer by human beings is indecent–period. The justification for such a view is given in   The Money Circuit of Capital.  The same could be said of pay. Human beings are used as things when working for employers–whether they receive high or low pay, and whether they have a secure or precarious job.

Of course, it would be better to have secure jobs than precarious jobs, and it would of course be better to receive more pay than less pay. To deny that would be foolish. But to use such terms as “decent” is itself absurd when there is a claim to be “radical.” This is not radical–it is social reformism–and nothing more. The implication is that somehow the good life can be achieved within the limits of a society characterized by domination by a class of employers.

For instance, it is likely that the radical left has remained silent while Pam Frache, an organizer for the Workers’ Action Centre in Toronto who has been involved in the fight for the $15 minimum wage and other reforms of employment law, has recently stated the following in reaction to Doug Ford’s legislative attack on Bill 148, which provides for various employment law reforms, including the proposed minimum wage of $15 an hour as of January 1, 2019 in Ontario, a province in Canada:

“The law is the law, and as it stands, nearly 2 million workers are scheduled to get a raise in 11 weeks,” says Pam Frache, Coordinator of Fight for $15 & Fairness Campaign. “Every single day we encounter people who tell us they voted for Premier Ford because they thought his promise to be ‘for the people’ meant standing up to corporate elites, like Galen Weston and Rocco Rossi. Repealing Bill 148 now would be a slap in the face of many workers who voted for Premier Ford,” she added.

The law is the law? Really? Does that mean that the working class is supposed to respect the law? Does that mean that Pam Frache proposes that all workers subject to collective agreements follow orders according to management rights (see  Management Rights, Part One: Private Sector Collective Agreement, British Columbia,   Management Rights, Part Two: Public Sector Collective Agreement, OntarioManagement (Employer) Rights, Part Three: Public Sector Collective Agreement, ManitobaManagement Rights, Part Four: Private Sector Collective Agreement, Ontario) and agree to being treated as things to be used? That they should respect the law?

There are ways of defending workers’ power through law without defending law as such. For example, it could have been said that Bill 148 limits the power of employers to exploit and oppress workers and permits workers some increased freedom and should therefore be defended not because it is law as such but because precisely of what it permits. To claim that “The law is the law” ties workers to employers’ power and is hardly in the interest of the working class since the legal system is geared towards the power of employers as a class. The same reasoning could be used to defend signing a collective agreement (but union reps sometimes idealize union agreements by referring, as did Pam Frache, to the sanctity of the law: “The law is the law,” after all–as if human beings are supposed to exist for the laws and laws are not supposed to exist for human beings.)

The radical left had the opportunity to question Pam Frache’s ideology at a forum on $15 and “Fairness.” She was a member of the audience and had her hand raised and was acknowledged by the chair of the forum, Sean Smith. Pam spoke for perhaps 10 minutes. I raised my hand perhaps four time to ask a question about pairing the fight for $15 with the term “fairness”–and was not acknowledged. However, Herman was present in the audience  (as was Sam Gindin), and he did not raise the issue.

Already, one wonders what is indeed left in Toronto when the moderator introduces such reformist rhetoric into his introduction. On the eve of the Toronto elections, the Toronto “left” are already proving themselves to be afraid to question social-reformist rhetoric.

Next month, I will look at one of the talks in the series.

 

Social-Reformist Leftist Activists Share Assumptions with the Right

In an earlier post (Basic Income: A Critique of the Social-Reformist Left’s Assumptions and Analysis: Part Two), I argued that the social-reformist leftist activist Mr. Bush used Karl Marx’s theory of surplus value for conservative (reformist purposes). This post will expand on this view by pointing out, in a more theoretical way, how Mr. Bush, undoubtedly like many of his social-reformist comrades, share assumptions with their apparent enemies, the right, such as the conservatives.

Mr. Bush referred to Marx’s theory of surplus value and assumed that this was the primary feature of Marx’s theory. Undoubtedly it is an important aspect of Marx’s theory, but Mr. Bush, by referring to the “messy business of material reality,” including “costs,” crassly assumes that costs are somehow a fixed standard that leftists are somehow not to question. The “messy business of material reality” is assumed, in other words, to be a fixed fact rather than a fluid reality created by human beings and therefore subject to change by them.

Mr. Bush assumes, like Doug Ford and other conservatives, that things (including human beings), have “costs” (the “messy business of material reality)–without inquiring into the nature of those costs or why such things have such costs in the first place.

Let us, however, refer to Marx (and not to the shared assumptions of Mr. Bush and Doug Ford). From Capital, Volume 1, pages 173-175,

Political economy has indeed analysed value and its magnitude, however incompletely, and has uncovered the content concealed within these forms. But it has never once asked the question why this content has assumed that particular form, that is to say, why labour is expressed in value, and why the measurement of labour by its duration is expressed in the magnitude of the product.  These formulas, which bear the unmistakable stamp of value of the belonging to a social formation in which the process of production has mastery over man, instead of the opposite, appear to the political economists’ bourgeois consciousness to be as much a self-evident and nature-imposed necessity as productive labour itself.

The first point is that value and its magnitude (which is related to price, money and “cost”) is an expression of a kind of society in which “process of production has mastery over man [and woman], instead of the opposite.”

The second point is that Marx relates his labour theory of value in order to reveal the social and alienated nature of the labour involved in the development of money and in “costing” things. From Capital, Volume 1, pages 168-169:

Consequently, it was solely the analysis of the prices of commodities which led to the determination of the magnitude of value, and solely the common expression of all commodities in money which led to the establishment of their character as values.
It is however precisely this finished form of the world of commodities – the money form – which conceals the social character of private labour and the social relations between the individual workers, by making those relations appear as relations between material objects, instead of revealing them plainly.

Other authors agree that Marx’s concern is not just with a theory of surplus value but with a theory of surplus value. Thus, John Weeks, in his work Capital, Exploitation and Economic Crisis (New York: Routledge, page 19):

Value acts as a regulator of price once the entire product, all inputs, are monetized;
until this occurs, the product is not a commodity in its entirety and all the
concrete labor time expended on it need not be replaced by money. This occurs
only with the development of capitalist production. It is important not to
become entangled in semantics. “Value” regulates price under capitalist relations
and can be used as a tool of analysis only in capitalist society.

Value regulates cost or the price of what is produced because both the items used to produce something have a price and what is produced with those commodities generally have a price (public services on the produced side excepted). Cost is not some neutral fact in a capitalist society but in an integral aspect that characterizes the very nature of the kind of society in which we live: a capitalist society (modified by public services but not altered fundamentally).

Marx’s theory of value, which Mr. Bush completely ignores, is designed to capture that essential aspect. This is one of the reasons why, before he analyzed capital, he analyzed commodities and money.

Mr. Bush, like Mr. Proudhon, a nineteenth century leftist socialist reformist before him, simply assumes that costs are natural. He refers to these costs as the “messy business of material reality”–as if material reality were somehow by nature characterized by prices and costs. Doug Ford undoubtedly shares the same belief.

In other words, Mr. Bush, a self-avowed social-reformist leftist, shares similar beliefs as Doug Ford about the nature of society despite apparent opposing ideologies. The same could be said of many trade unionists. Do they not believe that costs are natural? That the “messy business of material reality” must necessarily include costs and prices? A social world without costs and prices would be impossible for them.

How can such a shared belief not but fail to have limits in practice? Already Mr. Bush has equated fighting for a $15 minimum wage and other employment law reforms with “fairness.”

What does the radical left do in Toronto (and probably elsewhere)? It is afraid to criticize Mr. Bush’s ideology. After all, Mr. Bush is–doing something. He is “progressive.” Such progress, however, will lead to a backlash since its limits are limits shared by him and Doug Ford. Mr Bush will not seek to go beyond the limits of the power of employers. He will become an apologist for employers, ultimately, since he considers costs and prices to be inevitable–like Doug Ford does. He will, in practice, engage in tactics and strategies that will limit the capacity of workers to free themselves from the power of employers as a class once and for all. He has already begun the process ideologically by claiming that $15 an hour as a minimum wage is somehow fair.

The radical left, then, would do better by criticizing Mr. Bush’s position (and the position of trade unionists similar to that of Mr. Bush). Otherwise, it forms part of the problem rather than part of the solution. By not criticizing such positions as that of Mr. Bush, by remaining silent, it panders after the elite and fails to address the needs of the working class, unionized or non-unionized. Those needs involve exposing the produced conditions of their oppression and exploitation and the proposal of an alternative vision of a society without such oppression and exploitation–which only they can produce.

In other words, the radical left, by failing to develop an independent position and merging with the amorphous “progressive left” (aka, the social-reformist left), has aligned itself with a clique of elitist activists within the labour movement rather than with the working class as a whole.

By doing so, the radical left indirectly aligns itself with the right–such as Doug Ford, since Mr. Bush and Doug Ford share certain assumptions.

 

 

Management Rights, Part Four: Private Sector Collective Agreement, Ontario

The social-democratic left typically is incapable of dealing with the issue of the power of management. There is little or no discussion over such issues despite the existence of the power of the class of employers at various levels of society: economic, political, social and cultural. This silence expresses both the power of the class of employers and the poverty of the social-democratic left.

Indeed, the social-reformist left often uses such phrases as a “decent job,” or “decent work”–as if for most people in a capitalist society there is such a thing. Alternatively, the standard used by the left to judge what constitutes decent work and a decent job assumes the legitimacy of the power of employers.

Such a standard is assumed and not justified, of course, by the social-reformist left. Indeed, I even heard one so-called radical leftist in Toronto claim that the phrase “decent work” expressed a defensive maneuver on the part of the left. Such a view is convenient for those who fear alienating unions.

However, is it in the interests of workers to hide the reality of work that is undignified and involves their treatment as things in one way or another?

In the following clause, should not the members of the union have discussed the clause thoroughly? What is the likelihood that they have? My wager is that they have not done so. If not, should not the union be criticized? Should not the radical left who fail to criticize such unions also be criticized?

 

From

COLLECTIVE AGREEMENT
between
AIR CANADA
And those employees
In the service of
AIR CANADA
As represented by
UNIFOR
LOCAL 2002
Contract No. 31
As modified by the Memorandums of Agreement
dated June 13th 2015
Effective: March 1st 2015, to February 28th 2020

pages 2-3:

ARTICLE 3 RESERVATIONS OF MANAGEMENT
3.01 Subject to the provisions of this Collective Agreement, the control and direction of the working forces including the right to hire, suspend or discharge for cause, dispense with, to advance or set back in
3
classification, to reassign, to transfer or lay off because of lack of work or for other legitimate reasons, is vested solely in the Company.
3.02 These enumerations shall not be deemed to exclude other prerogatives not enumerated, and any of the rights, powers or authority of the Company are retained by the Company except those which are subject to the provisions of this Collective Agreement.