Fixed Social Dogmas and the Special Language of the Social-Reformist Left

Michael Perleman refers to the Procrustean dogma that characterizes much of the discussion about the social world in which we currently live. What better characterization of the social-democratic rhetoric of “fairness,” “decent work,” a “fair wage,” “economic justice” and “social justice?”

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

Where Do We Go from Here?

The Procrustean Language

Presently, two conflicting trends are colliding. On the one hand, those in control are successfully accumulating more power, solidifying the hold of Procrusteanism. On the other hand, the application of these new powers is producing dismal results, except for the most privileged sectors of society. Once people come to recognize the growing gap between economic performance and the potential productivity of society, the destructive nature of Procrusteanism will, hopefully, become self-evident.

Even so, the ideology of the status quo is so thoroughly ingrained that little progress—or even little hope of progress—appears on the horizon. We can only hope that Frederic Jameson was wrong when he observed that within contemporary society “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.” One precondition of moving in a progressive direction is to carefully reframe the imagery of the economy. The problem is that the Procrustean world has created a special language, one that intentionally clouds the harsh reality in which people find themselves, in effect, making the handcuffs invisible and questions of class unthinkable.

The key concepts of this rhetorical façade are freedom and equality.

The special language of the social-reformist left include such key concepts as “fair contracts,” “fair wages,” “fairness,” “decent work,” “a contract you can live with,” “social justice” and “economic justice.” The social-reformist left never get around to discussing what that actually means in the context of a society dominated by employers–they simply assume that what they call “fair,” “decent work,” “a contract you can live,” “economic justice” and other such rhetorical expressions is what is fair, decent, livable and economically just without any further discussion.

Anyone who calls into question their rhetoric is then often  treated as a pariah, insulted or ostracized. Such is the anti-democratic nature of the social-reformist left. Is there really any wonder why the right has gained ground when the so-called left seek to hide the real problems which workers face as members of a class?

Critique of a Social-Reformist Left’s Position in RankandFile.Ca on GM’s Decision to Close the Oshawa auto plant

An article (Buckle Up: GM Declares War on Oshawa)   by Gerard Di Trollo, Dave (or David) Bush and Doug Nesbitt, written for the social-reformist unionist website purports to look critically at GM’s decision to close the Oshawa plant. It is far from critical in this regard.

The title of their article is GM’s supposed declaration of war against Oshawa. One of the authors, Gerard di Trollo, has another article with a similar title: “Ford’s teacher snitch line is a declaration of war.” Apparently, we are in a war now overtly. Let us see whether the proposed solutions to this alleged war situation correspond to the rhetoric of war.

Some of the criticisms that I made in an earlier post concerning the GM situation in Oshawa relating to the statement made by the Socialist Project Steering Committee applies to the post by these three social-reformist leftist activists. Indeed, since the article by Di Trollo, Bush and Nesbitt was published earlier than the statement, it is likely that some of the ideas of the statement are derived in part from this article (such as Unifor’s inadequate response, or the need to shift production into green production). Indeed, there is some similarity of wording: The Di Trollo, Bush and Nesbitt article: “…we need to retool the plants to build mass transportation, electric vehicles, and other green transition infrastructure and equipment.” The Steering Committee statement: “GM could easily retool these plants, and produce both new electric and hybrid vehicles, as well as the SUVs that are dominating current markets.”

There are differences, though. The statement goes into less detail about the inadequacy of Unifor’s bargaining tactics whereas the Di Trollo, Bush and Nesbitt article criticizes–rightly–Unifor’s acceptance of a two-tiered pension system. They also criticize Unifor’s pandering after attracting jobs at all costs–and at the expense of the jobs in other countries.

This, however, is where their proposed solution runs into problems. They claim the following:

The labour movement has little room to protect jobs for workers unless they redouble their efforts to promote a real green transition strategy founded on international workers’ solidarity. It’s the only way to create jobs without succumbing to the elite’s real strategy of race-to-the-bottom.

Part of the solution is similar to the Steering Committee’s statement (“a real green transition strategy”). It is different in proposing that international solidarity as the only possible solution to prevent a “race-to-the-bottom.”

There are two problems with this strategy. Firstly, although international solidarity among workers is certainly to be lauded as a goal, there is no indication of how such solidarity is to be achieved and on what basis. It is, like much of social-reformist leftist rhetoric, vague. How is this to be achieved in the concrete between, say, workers in Canada and workers in Mexico? Forming links without thinking about the kinds of links that promote international solidarity is likely to break down quickly or to end up merely with a general call for solidarity among union leaders without the rank-and-file really forming solid links with other workers across countries.

This leads to a second problem: there are implied terms to the kinds of such linkage required when they write the following: “Our society needs the productive capacity in places like Oshawa, and the skills and job knowledge of the autoworkers. We not only need these good jobs….” They do not go into detail what constitutes “good jobs,” but there is a fact that constitutes evidence of what they mean by good jobs.

I had a debate with Dave Bush on Facebook about the appropriateness of pairing the Fight for $15 in Ontario with the idea of “fairness.” Mr. Bush nowhere explained why it was fair; he simply declared it. The employment laws that expressed that “fairness” were certainly better than before, but their provisions are generally less adequate that many collective agreements. Since I have implied that collective agreements are unfair since they merely limit the capacity of management to dictate to workers what to do, where and when to do their work and how to do it (Management Rights, Part Two: Public Sector Collective Agreement, Ontario), thereby still permitting employers to treat workers as things or objects for the benefit of the employer, employment laws and their provisions by implication are even less fair than the provisions of collective agreements.

Solidarity across borders as a class of workers against the class of employers cannot be expressed in terms of “good jobs” since there is no such thing in the given social relations characterized by a class of employers (see The Money Circuit of Capital). Workers in the Oshawa plant did not have good jobs; they had better jobs than many other workers in terms of pay and benefits and, perhaps, some working conditions, but they did not have good jobs. This is an ideology of employers, repeated ad nauseum by the social-reformist left and union leaders. The standard of what constitutes a “good job” for such people is–the existence of a class of employers with a “humanized face.” This is really liberal rhetoric disguising itself as radical.

In any case, the call for international solidarity at this stage will unlikely have any meaningful impact in terms of whether the Oshawa plant will be shut down. What is required is not just occupation of the plant but an explicit rejection of the claim that such jobs can ever be characterized as good in a context characterized by the dictatorship of an economy by a class of employers.

It would be in the interest of the working class to not only seize the plant and not only shift production to more earth-friendly forms of transportation (certainly not though, SUVs, contrary to the article), but to establish solidarity on a ground characteristic of a lack of bullshit concerning “good jobs” and the like as long as employment is controlled by a class of employers. Solidarity needs to be grounded in rejection of the shared assumption of the right and left concerning the continued need for a class of employers–as expressed in the rhetoric of “good jobs.”

Unfortunately, the bullshit rhetoric of the social-reformist left concerning “good jobs” (and other such rhetoric) prevails among many trade unionists, with the consequence that no such solidarity will likely arise without prolonged struggle against such bullshit. In the meantime, it is likely that the Oshawa GM workers will be thrown out of work and no real solidarity will arise internationally for some time to come.

 Or is this an inaccurate analysis of the situation? What do you think?


Working for an Employer May Be Dangerous to Your Health, Part One

The title is a variation of one of the subsections in chapter two of Jeremy Reiman’s The Rich Get Richer … and the Poor Get Prison.

In a couple of earlier posts, I pointed out that working for an employer involves needless deaths and injuries (The Issue of Health and Safety in the Workplace Dominated by a Class of EmployersGetting Away with Murder and Bodily Assault: Employers and the Law). I have decided to start writing a series of posts on the issue of health and safety in the workplace since it is a key issue for workers.

Consider the following on the Fight for $15 and “Fairness” website (Fight for $15):

We NEED fair labour laws to save lives

On Tuesday, October 23, the Doug Ford government introduced Bill 47. This legislation seeks to impose a real dollar cut in the minimum wage and eliminate most of our new workplace rights, including paid sick days, equal pay for equal work, and more. If passed, this outrageous legislation will force millions into poverty, while putting workers’ health and safety at risk.

The introduction of Bill 47 by the conservative Ford government in Ontario, Canada (and the repeal of Bill 148, which introduced an increase in the minimum wage and a number of needed reforms of employment law) is presented as preventing the institution of “workers’ health and safety.” If Bill 148 had not been repealed and if Bill 47 were not passed (it was), then “workers’ health and safety” would not be “at risk.”  This is the unconscious or implicit assumption and message of the author of the article on that website. It is also the stated or unstated assumption of the social-reformist left.

The social-reformist left must absolutize the reforms which they seek. By absolutize, I mean that they must claim that there is somehow a fair situation that results if what they seek is realized. It is not, for them, a question of something fairer be realized but rather something that is fair.

The article mentions the community and union opposition that emerged against Bill 147, as well it should.

A little further down in the article, the recent death of a temporary worker at Fiera Foods is mentioned, and a vigil is called for. The vigil is to be lauded, and the article emphasizes that this is the fourth temporary worker killed working for the same food-processing plant.

However, the following is then claimed:

We know this heartbreaking death is not an isolated event…. It is what happens – and what will happen in the future – if workers are treated as disposable and if the laws meant to protect us are weakened, or not enforced at all.

Labour laws, like collective agreements, can certainly contribute to the improvement of workers’ lives, but can labour laws really prevent workers from being “treated as disposable?” It is the very nature of a society dominated by a class of employers that workers are disposable; to think otherwise is to not understand the basic nature of such a society (see   The Money Circuit of Capital)  for a characterization of workers as means or things for ends defined by employers).

The article then provides some probable consequences of instituting Bill 47, but it fails to consider whether, even if Bill 47 were withdrawn (it was not, and it passed), whether this would be sufficient to protect workers in an economy structured on the basis of the control of billions of workers throughout the world by a class of employers:

Let’s be clear about the serious implications of Bill 47:

  • When the government says freeze the minimum wage for 33 months, it means a real dollar cut in earnings for the lowest-paid workers in the province. After that wage cut, the minimum wage would only be adjusted in accordance with the previous year’s price increases (Consumer Price Index). It could be 2025 by the time the minimum wage reaches $15, and by then, a $15 wage will, once again, fall below the poverty line. This government wants to reimpose poverty on millions of workers in this province.

  • When the government says it wants to cut paid sick days, it is saying it has no problem forcing workers to work while they are sick or injured. It is saying they have no problem with parents having to send their sick child to school where they might spread illness to other children and education workers. It says this government has a complete disregard for the health and well-being of the people who keep this province functioning.

  • When the government says it wants to re-impose a requirement for Doctors’ notes, it is saying it has no problem forcing sick workers into hospital waiting rooms and risk spreading disease to others. It has no problem clogging up our health care system for visits that the Ontario Medical Association has said are unnecessary, wasteful, and costly. It says this government has no problem imposing red tape on workers and health providers.

  • When this government reduces penalties for employers who openly disregard the law – as Bill 47 seeks to do – this government is telling Ontario’s most unscrupulous employers that it is open season on the most vulnerable workers in this province. Especially those who work in temp agencies.

It is good to expose the extreme business-oriented position of the Conservative government, and the article is to be lauded for that. However, the following undermines this by implying that fair labour laws can somehow be achieved in the context of the present structure of the economy:

We need your help to deliver a message to Premier Doug Ford and his government: Fair labour laws, save lives. Bill 47 has not been passed, and it needs to be withdrawn immediately. Our elected officials must ensure our safety and well-being on the job, not jeopardize it.

Labour laws may increase the workers’ power by limiting further the power of employers as a class, but unless the labour law somehow challenges the principle of the power of employers as a class, it cannot be the sole basis for protecting workers from being used as disposable means for the benefit of employers. Workers should fight for labour laws that can serve as means to protect them from some of the ravages of employer-dominated establishments, but they should also organize initially at the local level on the shop floor as a fighting force that can oppose the power of management to treat them  as things to be used for goals not of their own making. Furthermore, they should realize that no labour law and no local level organization can protect them from the ravages of an economy in which they are economically dependent on employers; labour laws and local organizations can only reduce the likelihood of injury and accident but not eliminate it. The very nature of their economic dependence and their treatment as things includes the very real possibility of workplace injury and accident.

Should we not take seriously the following (from Bob Barnetson, The Political Economy of Workplace Injury in Canada, page 2):

Perspectives on workplace injury

How you react to the vast number of workers injured and killed each year reflects your values and beliefs. Are these injures inevitable? Are they just the cost of doing business? One way to look at workplace injuries is from an economic perspective. This view sees the risk of injury as minimal, unavoidable and, ultimately, acceptable. Is it the price we (or at least workers) must pay for a “healthy” economy? If we are going to lower the risk of injury, we need to ensure the cost is less than the benefit we’ll receive. And the people best positioned to decide that are employers.

This economic perspective dominates the debate about workplace health and safety. It is the lingua franca of employers, bureaucrats, politicians, and most academics. There are, of course, alternative perspectives. An alternative advanced by workers views workplace injuries as the result of choices employers make in order to maximize profitability. Contrary to the slogan “safety pays,” it is usually cheaper for employers to organize work unsafely. This is especially true if employers can (with the tacit consent of government) pass along the cost of occupational injuries and disease to workers.

Should any leftist claim that any possible reform in the context of an economy dominated by a class of employers is fair? We certainly need to fight for reforms, but why bullshit the workers by calling such reforms fair? They are fairer or less fair, to be sure. To have labour laws that enable workers to protect themselves more is better than no labour laws or less effective labour laws. But how does this translate into fairness?

Why does the social-reformist left find it necessary to claim that such reforms express “decent work,” “fair wages,” “a fair contract,” “fairness,” or “economic justice”?

What do you think?