The following is a critical look at a leftist conference held on April 26, 2014 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, entitled Building Solidarity Against Austerity. Session 3. Fighting Austerity Today. Specifically, it looks critically at the presentation by Dave Bush, a leftist activist in Toronto, who argues that it is necessary to create an organization for the long-term struggle.
Mr. Bush implies that we need something beyond the New Democratic Party (NDP), which is a social-reformist political party, but he does not explicitly explain why we need something beyond it. Implicitly, though, he argues that a new organization is needed to fight against the neoliberal austerity program.
The new organization required seems to be a purely negative organization since its main purpose is to fight against austerity. Fighting against austerity, however, is not necessarily the same as abolishing the class relation between employers and employees.
Indeed, fighting against austerity is perfectly consistent with the stated aims of the NDP and other social democratic organizations. On the federal NDP website , it states:
Canada’s NDP has a proud history of fighting for ordinary Canadians and delivering results. Over the last 50 years, New Democrats have helped ensure the introduction of universal medical care, public pensions, and the expansion of Canada’s social safety net.
New Democrats are champions for people – not corporations or the ultra-rich. We believe in building a society that is more equal and more just for everybody. We are determined to fight for solutions people urgently need right now. From skyrocketing housing prices to soaring out-of-pocket healthcare costs – Canadians haven’t received the help they need.
Mr. Bush perhaps advocates for a new organization because the NDP does not, in practice, live up to its own claims. This interpretation is justified since Mr. Bush points out that we need to think about what is needed to the left of the NDP. Yes, we do. Unfortunately, his references to “ripping apart our collective services” seems to assume that public services are our services. Public services are hardly democratic, as he undoubtedly knows, and yet his vocabulary leads to a false image of the public sector as a collectivity of some sort. Workers in the public sector are employees just as much as employees in the private sector. How being “public services” magically converts being a public employee into a collective organization that provides “our collective services” is never explained.
Mr. Bush also refers to “making gains beyond a specific campaign” as being strategic. In what sense is it strategic? One campaign to which he refers in Halifax was to fight for converting hydro from a private corporation and monopoly into a public one. I certainly agree that privatization should be fought against, but the left then tends to limit its demands to its opposite–make it public, which is exactly what Solidarity Halifax advocated. Nationalizing utilities, however, is hardly a socialist measure if by a socialist measure you mean increased control over our lives at work and in life generally.
Nationalizing hydro does not even take it to the same level as education (at the public school level) and health services in that, at least theoretically, the use of the services do not require money. To use hydro that is publicly run by the capitalist state still requires that the users have money. How is that a major socialist gain? From the point of view of public workers, how is it a gain? Do they not have “jobs” working for an employer (the capitalist state)? Is that what is meant by socialism? How is that a enriching life, to have to work for the capitalist state as your employer?
Mr. Bush argues that advocating for the nationalization (or rather provincialization) of hydro was strategic for two additional reasons than just the need to protect public services as public: firstly the private corporation would raise rates whenever it wanted to do so, so there was a potential large opposition to it and hence for conversion to a public corporation. Secondly, none of the regular political parties, including the NDP, were making it an issue. Hence, Solidarity Halifax could distinguish itself by focusing on a large potential need.
However, It could in fact be said that Mr. Bush and the rest of the left is now in fact a purely anti-austerity movement. It considers, practically, that fighting against austerity is the only practical thing to do. To challenge the power of employers as a class is off the agenda forever for the left here in Toronto and indeed in most parts of Canada. At best, Mr. Bush illustrates the limits of the social-reformist left, which cannot envision a world beyond the power of employers as a class.
Mr. Bush also says that we need to engage in coalition building. On what basis? There was little discussion about what the goals of such coalition building would be,
Coalition building perhaps was supposed to be centered around the fight against privatization in general and the privatization of Canadian postal services in particular. This seems to be some of what Mr. Bush is aiming to achieve. However, having services performed by state employees rather than the private sector may be preferable in that, on the one hand, more employees are proportionately unionized in the public sector than in the private sector and, on the other, at least on the side of consumption workers who receive services do not need to pay directly out of their pocket; consumption is socialized and made available to all (in theory if not always in practice).
Although these two reasons form a basis for fighting against austerity, they hardly question the principle recognized theoretically but not practically by the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) (a leftist organization that resists policies that lead to “immiseration and destitution”): that economic coercion forms the necessary base of class relations in a capitalist society. State employees are subject to economic coercion like their private-sector counterparts (see The Money Circuit of Capital).
Fighting against austerity through nationalization and other measures should be a means towards the end of abolishing the power of employers as a class; fighting austerity should not be an end in itself–which is what Mr. Bush seems to seek.
Mr. Bush further argues that the community’s role is mainly one of support. Admittedly, he makes this assertion in the context of the potential privatization of postal services, but is that the major role of the community? Is the community merely to be a reflective support for “labour” (actually, unionized workers), or can it not be both supportive and critical? Or can it be supportive by being critical? The view that the community’s main role is to be supportive assumes that the union movement represents a standard that is sufficiently robust and powerful to justify subordinating the community to it.
Why should we accept that assumption? The open letter by John Cartwright, president of the Toronto & York Region Labour Council to the union movement on January 30, 2018, refers to economic justice, and yet in another post (see Basic Income: A Critique of the Social-Reformist Left’s Assumptions and Analysis: Part Two), it was pointed out just how inadequate is Cartwright’s implicit claim that the union movement has as its goal economic justice when the power of employers as a class is not questioned.
It can be further added that the nationalization of hydro involves its own set of problems that the social-democratic left do not seem to want to address. For example, public sector workers are employees. Being employees, they lack freedom in various ways. How does the fact that public sector workers are employees relate to socialism? Is socialism consistent with the existence of employees? If so, then it is consistent with using human beings as things, is it not? Is that then socialism or capitalism?
What is more likely meant by socialism is what existed before the emergence of what is called neoliberalism: a truce between unions, employers and government and the resurgence of the old welfare state.
What I call socialism would include the abolition of the employer-employee relation–period. It is not about nationalizing utilities and converting institutions merely from private to public government; it would involve the democratization of the economy (see Socialism, Part One: What It May Look Like, Socialism, Part Two: What It May Look Like, Socialism, Part Three: What It May Look Like, or Visions of a Better Kind of Society Without Employers).
Despite these many limitations of Mr. Bush’s presentation of what an anti-capitalist movement needs to become, his idea of having an organization as a membership based organization does have merit. The idea is that membership will determine what is feasible in terms of human capacity. If there are only four members, then only four-member actions should be taken. If 400 members, then larger actions, or more coordinated actions, can emerge. Mr. Bush’s recognition of some of the limitations placed on leftist organizations, unfortunately, does not extend to any recognition of his own views on leftist organization.
Mr. Bush claims that it is necessary to build a non-sectarian left, but what that means he fails to spell out. His own brand of anti-capitalism is really only anti-austerity and is itself sectarian.