Socialism and Central Planning: Mr. Gindin’s Analysis of The Political Situation of Workers in General, Part One

The following is a two-part series on Bill Resnick’s interview with Sam Gindin, in accordance with the two-part presentation of the interview. I put my summary of Mr. Gindin’s talk in italics; my comments are in regular print. I also use italics when quoting others.

One of Mr. Gindin’s key criticisms of both GM and the union that represented the workers at Oshawa is that GM promised jobs if the union would make concessions. The union made concessions–and GM reneged on the deal and eliminated the jobs. The union did not adequately respond to the repeated down scaling of the workforce but only succeeded in “managing” the down scaling.

Mr. Gindin then argues that an adequate union response requires thinking beyond GM since GM cannot solve this problem. Being militant in bargaining may get you some things, but jobs are not something that bargaining can guarantee. Retaining jobs involves a larger issue and is political. Ultimately, you are arguing on the company’s terms since it holds the trump card of maintaining the facilities open or closing shop.

Let us stop there. There is an implicit critique of the whole union model that has existed in Canada since 1944, when the federal government obliged employers to recognize unions of workers’ choice. If collective  bargaining cannot guarantee jobs, then should not Mr. Gindin criticize the union rhetoric of “fair contracts,”  “economic justice,” and “fairness” (all stock-in-trade phrases of the left here in Toronto)? And yet when the opportunity arose of criticizing the pairing of a struggle for $15 an hour minimum wage (and needed employment law reforms) with the concept of “fairness,” Mr. Gindin remained silent. Why is that? Mr. Gindin claimed that we should be humble, and yet is it not the height of arrogance on his part to presume that such pairing is unimportant? I found the equation of $15 an hour minimum wage with the concept of “fairness” to be politically conservative, and Mr. Gindin’s silence over the matter to be an example of the repeated pandering after popular opinion rather than a needed ideological struggle over what is indeed fair and not fair in our society.

How does Mr. Gindin suppose people operate? If they personally find that something is fair, and no one even addresses the issue, they eventually become cynical and reduce their activities to self-interest. Why bother, they ask themselves? Nothing will change. After all, the so-called progressives in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, think that if I work for a minimum wage of $15, have a few extra rights at work, then everything is fine–it is fair. And yet I have to drag myself out of bed to go to work that is largely determined by others. I have to accept the daily abuse experienced at work if not directly and personally by having a supervisor criticize me but indirectly and impersonally by having my work procedures, work load and so forth determined beforehand by others.  I then have to struggle to return home either by standing in packed subway cars and buses or driving  a car during rush hour to get home and find some kind of relaxation by either partying or watching TV. The rhetoric of fairness feeds into the development of a cynical attitude since most people that the lives they lead in various ways is not fair. To bullshit them by using such words and various phrases does them a great disservice.

What of workers covered by collective agreements? Mr. Gindin is silent on this score. It is not just a question of the impotence of unions to stop employers from closing shop, but he only refers to the impossibility of collective bargaining addressing the issue of jobs. Collective bargaining, however, more generally cannot address the issue of jobs because collective bargaining presupposes the legitimacy of management rights. Why does Mr. Gindin not explicitly criticize the rhetoric surrounding collective bargaining and collective agreements in general? Is this not necessary if we are to overcome the limitations of the union movement? But if criticizing the rhetoric surrounding collective bargaining and collective agreements is necessary in order to free us of the illusion of the fairness of unionized work environments, and if freeing ourselves of such an illusion is a necessary condition for fighting for a socialist society, then a socialist would engage in such criticism.

If, however, doing what is necessary to achieve a socialist society is to abandon our illusions concerning what is fair, and Mr. Gindin refuses to do what is necessary, is he not engaging in unrealistic actions? If questioning the limitations of collective bargaining and collective agreements forms a necessary component of a socialist movement, and Mr. Gindin refuses to engage in such criticism, then how effective will Mr. Gindin’s actions be in the long run?

Where is the humbleness in Mr. Gindin’s actions?

The second point is that we have to deal with the larger issue of economic reconstructing because the present system is not working for the benefit of working people. Workers are no longer getting security or decent wages. The larger issue is how do you deal with economic reconstructing generally and not just GM.

Yes, there is a larger issue, but economic reconstruction is not the only thing that is involved. Mr. Gindin talks a lot about class, but surely a socialist society would involve the abolition of a class society–a radical qualitative change in our lives.  Mr. Gindin, being a “realist,” ignores this dimension of the problem. Economic reconstruction has existed in the past; capitalist emerged through economic (and political and social) reconstruction. However, in a socialist society, the reconstruction would involve the abolition of classes–and Mr. Gindin ignores the radical qualitative change in such reconstruction.

The third point is that radical demands that go beyond GM must be able to connect to the larger community and gain its support by addressing some of its needs. Mr.Gindin then asserts that the obvious issue that connects the two is the environment.

It is hardly obvious to me. As I argued in another post (The British Labour Party’s 2019 Manifesto: More Social Democracy and More Social Reformism, Part One), the focus on climate change is presently a fad (Bill Resnick refers to climate change often enough, outlining a possible apocalyptic life). Not that environmental problems are unreal; however, if people are unmotivated to face the power of employers as a class despite the daily experience of oppression and exploitation, why does Mr. Gindin think the issue of environmental problems will somehow motivate them and have lasting power?

Let us look at the concept of “environment” for a moment. The philosopher John Dewey analyzed the nature of the environment, and it is not something which is somehow “external” to living beings (from Logic: The Theory of Inquiry, pages 33-34):

There is, of course, a natural world that exists independently of the organism, but this world is environment only as it enters directly and indirectly into life-functions. The organism is itself a part of the larger natural world and exists as organism only in active connections with its environment.

The natural world is an environment only in relation to the life process. From John Dewey, Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education, pages 12-13:

In brief, the environment consists of those conditions that promote or hinder, stimulate or inhibit, the characteristic activities of a living being. Water is the environment of a fish because it is necessary to the fish’s activities—to its life. The north pole is a significant element in the environment of an arctic explorer, whether he succeeds in reaching it or not, because it defines his activities, makes them what they distinctively are. Just because life signifies not bare passive existence (supposing there is such a thing), but a way of acting environment or medium signifies what enters into this activity as a sustaining or frustrating condition.

The environment is not something external to workers but forms the conditions within which they live both biologically and socially. Some environmental conditions are distant, others close at hand physically. Such an environment in the case of human beings is also social since we are a species that depend on each other (grounded in the relatively long period before an infant can become a productive member of the world).

What are the environmental conditions that will most likely and immediately grip the interests of workers and community members? The priority should be developing opposition to the power of employers as a class, and community issues should be linked to that issue–such as housing, health, education, social services, the police and the oppressive forms in which such community services are provided. and, yes, the environment in a wider sense, but only in conjunction with the other issues. The view that the “environment” is something independent of us is nonsense. The environment as an isolated area of our lives will  unlikely have lasting power to engage workers and community members interests; it must be linked to these more immediate interests if it is to have lasting power rather than be just a fad.

He then summarizes these three points: the left must address the problem of the corporations not solving our problems, of how to deal with economic (and political) restructuring) and how to address the first two in relation to problems associated with the environment. Unions must thus become something other than what they have been since they have lost focus and direction under the sway of globalization and neoliberalism. Mr. Gindin, however, refers to the private-sector unions and leaves open the question of the nature and efficacy of public-sector unions.

I have already addressed the issues above-except Mr. Gindin’s backhanded idealization of public services and public-sector unions. This should come as no surprise. Mr. Gindin’s conception of socialism involves an expansion of public services via nationalization–as if the current form of public services did not require thorough reconstruction due to their oppressive nature. See my brief criticism The Contradictions of Social Democracy: Mr. Gindin’s Musings on the Closure of GM’s Oshawa Plant  and a more in-depth criticism of nationalization (and, indirectly, the idealization of public services) in the post The Poverty of Academic Leftism, Part Seven: The Idealization of the Nation State or the National Government and Nationalization in the Wake of the Coronavirus Pandemic, Part Two; see also The Money Circuit of Capital ).

Mr. Gindin then outlines his alternative plan. We should take over the GM plant, put it under public ownership and converting the plant and having the now unemployed workers use their diverse skills in the assembly facilities, the paint shop, the stamp shop and coordinating it with components plants in the surrounding area.

Such a plan needs to be linked to the environment for at least two reasons. In the first place, Mr. Gindin implies, the problem of the environment is urgent and needs to be addressed now. In the second place, the planned alternative facility should not face the constraints placed on it by competition from other capitalists in China and other parts of the world.

The appeal to the urgency of problems associated with the “environment” reminds me of some Marxists’ appeal to the urgency of transitioning to socialism because of the inevitable breakdown of capitalism. This hype about the urgency of environmental problems is unlikely to grip the interests of most workers and community members; they have more pressing immediate problems, like getting to work on time, enduring their work life without suffering too much humiliation, finding some meaning in their work life, going home and not suffering further problems.

It does make sense to seek areas of  production where competition is limited in order to prevent competition from leading to cuts in wages, benefits and deteriorating working conditions.

To kill two birds with one stone, it is necessary to engage in planning, and this planning requires not only the state becoming engaged in the process but in a more aggressive state that improves environmental standards by obliging people to move away from an economy based on fossil fuels. Furthermore, the state could also function as consumer by purchasing electrical vehicles. In addition, the state could use some of what it purchases for the expansion of public transport, thereby reducing the use of private vehicles and decreasing dependence on fossil fuels. Mr. Gindin calls the state planning to this end democratic planning. Democratic planning is impossible if key economic decisions are made by private companies.

I am dealing with Mr. Gindin’s inadequate treatment of socialism in other posts (see,  for example, Socialism, Part Nine: Market Socialism as an Initially Necessary but Inadequate Social Model). In relation to democratic planning, though, I will add that the idea that the total planning of society is to arise through the state was not an idea proposed by Marx: the state may own the means of production in the sense of preventing private individuals from denying workers to collectively use them, but the control over those means of production would be in the hand of workers themselves and not the state. From Rob Bryer, Accounting for History in Marx’s Capital: The Missing Link, page 277:

The section rejects the dominant interpretation that he advocated central planning. Marx’s mature concept of socialism abolishes markets for capital and labor power, but the section argues it requires competitive markets for products and services, cooperative enterprises, and accounting to hold enterprise management accountable to workers, and workers accountable to society.

(Bryer’s view of socialism has its own limitations in that he sees that Marx distinguished a socialist society that emerges from capitalism and a society that maintains itself on its own basis, but he then eternalizes markets.)

Mr. Gindin is an advocate of central planning, as is evident from the following:

Environmental change involves radical change since it involves change throughout society–including both production and consumption. We need to begin to create the capacity to convert to an environmentally friendly economy in every community by creating from research centers (peopled by young engineers) that inquire into what capacities, skills and equipment we currently have and what we are going to need to make the transition to an environmentally friendly economy. At the same time, the state needs to restructure the economy through, for example, raising environmental standards that require such environmentally friendly restructuring.

Mr. Gindin then contends that for this to work, several components must work together: planning, decentralisation and calling into question the private power of employers.

He then returns to the issue of environmental problems and the large-scale nature of the problem and the urgency of the problem. The problem cannot be addressed through the fragmented market nor can it be addressed through general phrases about the environmental crisis; if we stay at that level, workers will simply ignore the issue since they lack control over their lives and cannot address the issue when it is posed in general terms.

He then argues that since planning is required, it is necessary to control what you are planning. This involves changing property relations at work, which requires real struggle with workers to oppose the closing of plants not just in Oshawa but in many other communities.

Mr. Gindin admits that for now there is no base for such an approach; it would be necessary to organize for such an end. He also points out that the modern state is a capitalist state, which manages discontent by controlling and managing labour; the capitalist state has not developed planning capacities. What is required is a transformation of the capitalist state so that the state can plan democratically.

He argues that the capitalist market is failing in various ways in meeting our needs, from security to equality, environment and a rich personal life. Business is very vulnerable in these areas since it does not really meet these needs.

We need to develop the capacities of the working class to represent these needs, and it will not be easy. The working class must be reconstructed into a social force with the confidence to address these needs.

Mr. Gindin then claims that, during the Second World War, planning did indeed occur within the state, but the planning was performed mainly by businessmen becoming state officials. With the end of the war, they exited the state because they did not want the state to become autonomous. To be sure, the state has developed the capacity for planning in various departments, but it has not developed the capacity to engage in overall planning at the national level during normal periods (not exceptional periods, like wartime). Furthermore, the state does not know how to plan democratically. It is necessary to transform the state, and that will not be easy.

There are several problems with the above. Firstly, the reference to “decentralisation” is left hanging in the air. Where does decentralisation come into play in Mr. Gindin’s view of the nature of socialism. It remains a mystery. Secondly, it is not only necessary to call in question the private power of employers but the public power of state employers over employees. Thirdly, he talks about how workers need to oppose the closing of factories in various communities. Since the police protect the right of employers to close factories, Mr. Gindin should have indicated some kind of strategy about how to deal with the violent means used to protect the closing of factories and workplaces. Fourthly, even if he did propose such a strategy, it would probably involve workers having to jeopardize, if not their lives, at least their livelihood as the capitalist state through the courts fined them or threw them in jail. Would Mr. Gindin engage in such needed opposition personally? Fifthly, Mr. Gindin merely repeats the well-worn idea that central planning is socialist. This is hardly so. A common plan need not be a central plan formulated by some separate entity called the state. From Bryer, page 283:

Second, while Marx often wrote, for example in Volume 1 of Capital, that socialism would function according to a “definite social plan” (1976a, 171), there are two meanings of the word “plan” we need to keep separate. The dominant interpretation is that by “plan” Marx meant, “A table or programme indicating the relations of some set of objects,” “a detailed formulation of a plan of action,” in his case a production and consumption program or plan of action for society.3 The chapter, however, argues he meant a “scheme,” “of arrangement” or “of action,” a “Method, way of proceeding,” “a method for achieving an end,’ a way of organizing society. As Jossa (2005, 11) puts it, “while Marx and Engels certainly conceived of the plan as an antidote to the anarchical nature of the capitalistic market, they were thinking of a plan for abolishing the production of commodities and so not based on the law of value,” a scheme or way of organizing society for abolishing value.

Marx’s way of organizing socialist society, his concept of its relations of production, the chapter argues, is not the supervision or action controls implied by the central planning interpretation, but results control by workers.

Mr. Gindin’s reference to the state (which is not to wither away according to Mr. Gindin but is to expand) and implied central planning, on the one hand, and a democratic state, on the other, contradict each other. Marx, by contrast, was more consistent:

For Lavoie (1985) the ‘procedure’ or ‘process’ must be central planning. However, Marx and Engels consistently argued for a democratically elected and accountable workers’ state, for control by workers, which is what they meant by their occasional uses of ‘dictatorship of the proletariat,’ not ‘dictatorship of the Party’ or their leaders (Draper 1986). Against Lassalle’s fetishism of the state, the theoretical side of his pervasive authoritarianism” (Draper 1986, 304), as Marx put it, “freedom consists in converting the state from an organ superimposed upon society into one completely subordinate to it” (1989, 94), that is, in making the state fully accountable to workers. To provide the economic basis for democracy on Day 1 of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat,’ to transcend capitalism’s profit and loss system of accounting control that Marx had explained in Capital (Bryer 2017), it implements a system of cooperative enterprise and social accounts, not central planning, a conclusion that Engels accepted, and Lenin eventually drew (see Bryer 2019a).

It is workers who will have to learn how to coordinate their own work and not the state as a separate entity. That such a learning process may take years or decades does not mean that the principle should be abandoned since coordination by workers (and communities) must begin from the beginning. With the elimination of capital markets and a market for workers, worker cooperatives (and community organizations) could emerge and serve as the learning organizations for such planning. From Bryer, page 277:

Fourth, the chapter analyses Marx’s criticisms of the draft Programme of the Socialist Workers’ Party of Germany, the Critique of the Gotha Programme (1875). …  He re-emphasized his long-standing vision of socialism based on a universal system of worker cooperatives that, transcending capitalist accounting control, must be accountable to workers and society for the production of value on Day 1.

Planning can emerge inductively through a federation of cooperatives, as Bryer argues (page 276):

To make this change the proletarian state takes all means of production into its hands, thereby abolishing the capital market, and abolishes the market for labor power, replacing ‘free’ wage workers with free social agents by replacing joint stock companies with a universal system of worker cooperatives, accountable to their worker-shareholders and to society.

It is through this “inductive” process rather than the “deductive” (top-down) process of planning that workers and the community will at last begin to control their own life process–and not through some form of central plan divorced from the workers and the community. Mr. Gindin may claim that he agrees with this, but his argument implies the divorce of the planning process from those who experience the consequences of this process–hence, his claim, in another writing, that the state is not to wither away but to expand.

I will continue in another post with critical commentary on the second part of the interview of Mr. Gindin. I suspect, though, that it will probably contain the similar arguments as above.

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