“Capitalism needs economic coercion for its job market to function” (Ontario Coalition Against Poverty: OCAP)

In a previous post, I pointed out that the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) explicitly indicated that economic coercion or force is a basic condition for capitalism to continue to exist (Basic Income: A Critique of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty’s Stance ).  The following quote agrees with OCAP in so far as economic coercion or economic blackmail characterizes modern capitalist society, but Kay implies that, as a consequence, it is necessary to redefine the nature of poverty. Many social-reformist organizations define poverty exclusively in terms of the level of income, with the poverty line (defined according to a certain level of income) separating those who are defined as poor by the social-reformist left and the rest, who are supposedly the middle class. Such a definition, according to OCAP’s own recognition of the economic coercion required in the job market, is inadequate.

Consequently, OCAP should, in accordance with its own recognition of the economic blackmail characteristic of capitalism, start to organize for the purpose of eliminating poverty conditions that require such economic blackmail. It should, in other words, start to engage in the formation of a movement for the abolition of the power of employers as a class and the corresponding economic, social and political structures.

From Geoffrey Kay, The Economic Theory of the Working Class. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1979, pages 2-3:

The absolute poverty of the working class is visibly present in the conditions of work where everything the worker touches belongs to another. The means of production he uses, that is, the machines, buildings, materials, etc. all belong to the employer, who also owns the output. The only thing the worker owns is his capacity to work, and his economic welfare depends upon his being able to sell this at the best possible price. In the course of this [the twentieth) century, particularly during the period of the post-war boom, this price measured in terms of the commodities it can purchase, the real wage, has risen to unprecedented heights, at least in the advanced industrial countries of the west.

As a result of this and the maintenance of full or near full employment backed up by social welfare, the working class has enjoyed greater prosperity and security than at any time in history. In these circumstances it appears strange to talk of absolute poverty, and the old socialist claim that the working class has nothing to lose but its chains seems and archaic relic of the past when the working class did indeed live in dire poverty. Yet the fact remains that the working class today has no greater economic autonomy than its forbears a hundred years ago.

Consider the situation of a contemporary worker who loses his job. This has happened to several million workers in the industrialized world since the long boom faltered in 1973 not counting the other millions of young people who have never found jobs at all. Many of the workers who have recently suffered unemployment for the first time, earned wages that allowed them to enjoy all the trappings of ‘affluency’—decent housing, cars, television, refrigerators and so on. But the loss of the job puts the standard of living immediately in jeopardy, particularly if unemployment lasts for anything more than a few weeks. In the unlikely event of a working class family having a large private income, its initial response to unemployment is to cut back spending on marginal items, and attempt to maintain its lifestyle intact in the hope that new work will be found shortly. As the period of unemployment lengthens, it begins to eat into savings, but this does not hold out much hope.

Working class savings are notoriously low, and often take the form of insurance policies that can only be cashed in at a considerable loss. If the family decides to sell of its consumer durables, apart from reducing its standard of living immediately, it will invariably make further losses as second-hand prices are always far below prices for new articles. Moreover, many working class purchases are financial by hire purchase where the interest element makes the actual price higher than the market price, and the family that sells off relatively new times bought in this way often finds that, far from releasing cash, it lands itself in further debt. Working class affluence is entirely dependent upon wages: remove these—i.e., unemployment—and the absolute poverty of its social situation shows through very quickly. In the nineteenth century unemployment meant immediate destitution; the modern worker is clearly much better off than his forbears—for him and his family poverty is a few weeks, maybe even a few months away.

The social-reformist left, however, will probably not acknowledge the need for a redefinition of poverty that includes the economic coercion of the vast majority of workers. They prefer to deal in platitudes, such as calling the work characteristic of economic coercion “decent work,” or reforms in employment standards and increases in the minimum wages (all necessary, of course) “fair,” or claiming that they are fighting for “economic justice” (while not engaging in any activity that moves towards abolishing the economic coercion characteristic of the capitalist job market dominated by a class of employers).

Another post will briefly refer to a proposal of a radical basic income that may form part of a movement that does indeed question economic coercion and an economy dominated by a class of employers.

 

Basic Income: A Critique of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty’s Stance

In the pamphlet published on the Socialist Project website, Basic Income in the Neoliberal Age (Toronto, 2017), the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) implies that only a social-reformist vision–maintaining the welfare-state–is a viable option; it implicitly assumes that going beyond it is not viable. Its argument combines both a realistic assessment of the impossibility of an adequate universal basic income for all as long as the power of the class of employers exists, and an implied conservative call for maintaining the existing welfare state rather than going  beyond it.

It–correctly–argues that we should be very skeptical of proposals for basic income originating from liberals and conservatives (and, it should be added, the social-reformist left). Those who believe in an economic system characterized by a class of employers are hardly going to break the link between having to work for an employer and receiving an income. Indeed, as OCAP argues, the current benefits that the government does offer would probably be substantially reduced or eliminated and replaced by a basic income that was even more inadequate than current welfare and other social assistance rates.

However, the skepticism about implementing a basic income scheme that is acceptable to the class of employers is illegitimately extended to skepticism about its viability for a movement that seeks to go beyond a society dominated by the power of the class of employers. They write,

page 6:

These kinds of left advocates are easily able to show how providing a
universal adequate payment, while maintaining other elements of social
provision, would weaken or even eliminate the basis for exploitation of the
working class under capitalism. However, where they uniformly fail is in
the not unimportant area of showing how this is all possible. Capitalism
needs economic coercion for its job market to function and decades of
neoliberal austerity have intensified that coercion considerably. With
trade unions weakened and powerful social movements conspicuous by
their absence, it is doubtful that a major social reform, such as the
proponents of progressive and transformative BI advance, is likely.

At least this paragraph realistically argues that “Capitalism needs economic coercion for its job market to function.” Let us stop at this sentence. If capitalism indeed requires economic coercion if the job market is to function, then should not OCAP be advocating for the abolition of such coercion?  That such a process requires a movement with substantial organizational power goes without saying, and that will take time, energy and much organizing and debating. Of course, this requires a desire to orient social movements towards abolishing the power to coerce, but OCAP is silent about what to do about this coercion that many experience on a daily basis at work (which, of course, spills into situations outside the workplace). Should not OCAP address what it itself admits is characteristic of a society dominated by a class of employers?

OCAP excludes any discussion at all in the document about what is to be done about economic coercion (aka economic blackmail). Its critique of basic income presumes that economic coercion is the order of the day–that there is no alternative–except to maintain the current welfare system, flawed though it may be.

OCAP uses the fact of the weakness of trade unions as a reason for opposing the principle of basic income. Surely one of the reasons why trade unions have become weaker is because they have failed to question the coercive power of employers as a class. For example, John Cartwright, president of the Toronto & York Region Labour Council, in his open letter of January 30, 2018 ( An open letter to our movement) , wrote the following: “We need to fight for labour law reform including broader based bargaining so that precarious workers can have a vehicle in which to achieve dignity and economic justice.”

If, however, economic coercion or economic blackmail is required in the kind of society in which we live, how is it possible to “achieve dignity and economic justice”? If such rhetoric has contributed to the current situation, then should not its criticism form part of the solution? Does OCAP take a stand by taking seriously its own assertion that economic coercion is a necessary feature of the power of employers as a class by criticizing union representatives who talk of economic justice under such dictatorial circumstances?

Throughout the whole document, there is nothing that links this requirement of capitalism–needing “economic coercion for its job market to function”–to the need for a movement that goes beyond such economic coercion.

Ultimately, as noted above, this document is a social-reformist document–a document that has no better solution to “economic coercion” than implicitly proposing that we return to the so-called golden age of capitalism, where employers had accepted, within limits, the need for a mor generous welfare state. OCAP does not explicitly state this, but it implies it.

Would it not be possible to propose a basic income that cannot be satisfied within a structure defined by economic coercion or economic blackmail? The document does not even refer to such a possibility.

Logically, if OCAP takes seriously the view that “Capitalism needs economic coercion for its job market to function,” should it not redefine the nature of poverty? Should not the definition of poverty include taking into account this economic coercion? Does OCAP do so?

In another post, I will refer to an author who does indeed take seriously OCAP’s view that “Capitalism needs economic coercion for its job market to function” and proposes a redefinition of poverty. In that post or another post I will also refer to a proposal for a radical basic income as part of a movement for a different kind of economic, social and political life–a life not characterized by economic, social and political coercion.

 

The Limitations of the Social-Reformist Left

Introduction

I used to belong to a leftist organization in Toronto. I started, slowly, to realize that it really has little to do with challenging the power of employers as a class despite the rhetoric concerning class issues being a priority. This view was confirmed when a movement for the reform of employment standards developed in Ontario in general and in Toronto in particular, and the Ontario Liberal government (Canada is divided into provinces, with Ontario as one of the provinces) agreed to such reforms.

The reform of employment standards was certainly needed, and the reforms are indeed useful to the working class. Among the reforms was included an increase in minimum wages to $15 an hour (in two phases). However, the problem is not the reforms but the pairing of these reforms with “fairness.” T-shirts with the slogan “Fight for $15 and Fairness” were produced, and rallies were announced with the same slogan. I found such a pairing objectionable, to say the least.

The Social-Reformist Left

This is a “selling point” typical of the social-reformist left. They try to get others to agree to the reforms that they propose by claiming that it is fair or just in some way; this is also often the tactic of union negotiating teams (as will be seen in another post).

Logically, the social-reformist left would never dare to pair a law that reduced the number of times a husband could hit his wife legally from 25 times a year to 10 times a year with the concept of fairness. Of course, receiving 10 hits a year is, in general, better than receiving 25 hits a year (all other circumstances being the same, such as the force of the hit, the hit not resulting in death and so forth). But they would object to the very idea of calling even the 10 hits a year fair.

Logically, though, the social-reformist  left do dare to pair $15 an hour (and other labour law reforms) with the concept of fairness. They “forget” that workers still are treated as means for purposes over which they have little or no control (see The Money Circuit of Capital)

This forgetfulness is actually agreement with the continued existence of the power of employers as a class.

Indeed, David Bush, a labour and community organizer (and doctoral student) in Toronto specifically claimed that the reforms were fair. They are certainly fairer, but to claim that they are fair assumes that the relationship between the class of employers and the class of workers is fair. The social-reformist left rely on the acceptance of the fairness of the employer-employee relation in order to justify its own position. The money circuit of capital shows that such a relationship is decidedly unfair. (I will address Mr. Bush’s reformist ideology in another post).

The social-reformist left, therefore, conveniently forget about the class relation between employers and employees as the background for any reform movement, and then boldly claims that the Fight for $15 is fair. They have no intention of challenging the power of employers as a class.

The social-reformist left may, of course, try to argue that there is a large difference between arguing that a reduction from 25 hits to 10 hits is fair to arguing that an increase in the minimum wages to $15 is fair. A reduction in the number of hits is negative whereas the increase in the minimum wage is positive. If, however, we look at the logic of both, they are the same. Both narrow the focus to what has been gained. In the case of a reduction in the number of hits, the focus is exclusively on the number of hits, without taking into consideration the remaining hits. In the case of an increase in the minimum wage (and other labour law reforms), consideration of the remaining power of employers–a power that is abusive in itself–is simply ignored. How otherwise could the social-reformist left then call the increase in the minimum wage fair (rather than fairer)?

Both logics exclude consideration of the wider context, and both present certain changes exclusively in a positive light (a favourite tactic of the social-reformist left). In another post, it will be pointed out that acting intelligently requires taking into consideration the context; if we do not, we likely will act unintelligently. The social-reformist left, ultimately, propose that we act unintelligently.

The Radical Left

The organization to which I belonged found the pairing of $15 and fairness to be irrelevant. There was no objection to such a linking of the reform movement and the issue of fairness. I found this lack of criticism to be appalling and, as a consequence, withdrew from the organization.

The silence of the so-called radical left in Toronto (and undoubtedly in other cities and countries) over such issues shows just how dominate the social-reformist point of view has become at a practical level. Such a view assumes TINA: there is no alternative.

We need to start discussing how to challenge the power of employers as a class. The so-called radical left, however, creates all sorts of excuses for not adopting a class point of view and for putting off any discussion about such issues. Reform is all that is on the agenda for them–like the social-reformist left.

The radical left in Toronto, by remaining silent over the issue, practically are on the same level as the social-reformist left. By remaining silent, they foster the continued illusion that the existence of the class of employers and the class of employees are somehow natural and eternal. This illusion needs to be constantly criticized.

By remaining silent, the radical left in Toronto fosters actions that are unintelligent. By remaining silent, the radical left contributes to the continued oppression and exploitation of the billions of workers who experience the daily grind of being treated as things at work.

Some among the radical left, of course, will justify such silence in many ways. Some may say that it is necessary to create structures (such as TAWC–the Toronto Airport Workers Council) that cut across unions. Somehow, by magic, such structures are going to address the power of employers as a class–in the far distant future. Such a vague future is a fairy tale. The radical left, in practice, do nothing different from the social-reformist left.

I attended one TAWC meeting; I did not hear any conversation that related to the power of employers as a class. It was more like an extended union meeting than anything else.

Others may claim that we need to engage in a “war of position” (based on the Italian Marxist Gramsci). Practically, this “war of position” turns out to be no different than the social-reformist left’s position. Why else was there silence over the issue of the fairness of $15 an hour? Or is such silence an expression of a “war of position”?

Ultimately, the radical left in Toronto lost an opportunity for bringing up the class issue–and that is what is needed in these trying times of ours–and not more social-reformist rhetoric.