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?