Economics for Social Democrats–but Not for the Working Class, Part One: Critique of Jim Stanford’s One-Sided View of Job Creation in a Capitalist Society

Introduction

The title of this post–and the series of posts that will follow–comes from the title of Jim Stanford’s book (2008) Economics for Everyone: A Short Guide to the Economics of Capitalism. 

If I remember correctly, perhaps less than a year after I had came to Toronto (in 2013), I heard Mr. Stanford present at a  social-democratic leftist-sponsored workshop. I thought that his presentation assumed the legitimacy of the power of employers as a class. No one else questioned his point of view from the audience.

I was right.

One-Sided Presentation of Working for an Employer in a Purely Positive Light

Mr. Stafford wrote a piece that was published in the business section of the Toronto Star on January 18, 2020. In that piece, he claims that both the quantity and quality of work in 2019 has improved:

The news was undeniably positive….

On the quantity side, employment rose by 390,000 jobs in 2019, compared to 2018. That’s the biggest annual increment 1979. …

But I am more excited about evidence of a broad improvement in the quality of work.

By several indicators, jobs in Canada became better last year: more full-time jobs, less temporary work, growing unionization and rising wages. These improvements in job quality, if sustained, will underpin future improvement in income equality and social well-being.

This point of view is definitely social democratic and reformist.  At the quantitative level, an increase in the number of employed by employers is presented in a purely positive light. Of course, for many workers, working for an employer is better than being unemployed, but to present more jobs that involve working for an employer as purely positive expresses a definite one-sided view of the situation of workers in a society dominated by a class of employers.

Mr. Stanford nowhere shows any idea of just how degrading working for an employer as an employer can be (see for example  Employers as Dictators, Part One   and The Money Circuit of Capital). Furthermore, working full-time for an employer is presented as purely positive rather than as something that involves an increased length of time in which workers must subordinate their will not only  to the will of the immediate employer but to the impersonal and independent system of capitalist relations of production and exchange.

Of course, workers may prefer full-time work, ultimately, to part-time work since they may not be able to make ends meet otherwise. However, they may also find their lives to be worse off in that they have less of their life free from the direct dictates of the employer.

Mr. Stanford also implies that increased unionization will somehow magically make the world of work fulfilling work rather than something that must be endured. Unionized work settings are generally better than non-union work settings, but they do not involve the control of workers’ lives at work (see various management rights clauses on this blog as well as posts that indicate the oppression and exploitation of workers despite the existence of a collective agreement as, for example, in the post The Rate of Exploitation of Workers of Suncor Energy, One of the Largest Private Employers in Canada).

In addition, Mr. Stanford simply focuses on one moment in time in the capitalist economic cycle. Capitalist accumulation may involve a tighter market for workers as demand for such workers increases, but the overaccumulation of capital then throws workers out of work as an economic crisis follows.

It should not be surprising that Mr. Stanford’s article reflects a social-democratic bias. The limitations of Mr. Stanford’s article is linked to the limitations of his own theory.

Nationalist Idealization of Being a Canadian

Mr. Stanford is one among many social-democratic leftist economists who are in one form or another nationalist. He writes in his article (2008) “Radical Economics and Social Change Movements: Strengthening the Links between Academics and Activists,” (pages 205-219), Review of Radical Political Economics, Volume 40, Number. 3, page 206:

This year we will inaugurate a new biennial prize, named after John Kenneth Galbraith. It will be awarded at the CEA meeting to someone whose life work has combined economics with social justice. Many U.S. economists will not know this, but Galbraith was born and initially educated in Canada before coming to America to make his name. That is very Canadian of us. Sure, we Canucks have gone and set up our own little nationalist group of lefty economists. But then we name our prize after someone who only became famous after they moved south of the 49th parallel! As usual for us Canadians, we never let consistency stand in the way of being sanctimonious.

We must live in different countries. I remember living in Canada as: having a number of odd jobs that I quit because I could not stand the alienating conditions under which we worked: for example, a dishwasher at a restaurant at Saskatchewan River Crossing (a resort area in between Lake Louise and Jasper, Alberta, Canada) (I was called useless despite my efforts to work as hard as possible); having work extremely fast by piling up on wooden slats wood on wooden cut from an electric saw (I lasted three days–I was in extreme pain in my lower back from bending up and down–when I was in my early 20s); crushing coal for a steel company (breathing in coal dust despite having a mask, and a lunch room with coal dust on the table and benches–spitting up coal dust after work, in addition, having to dump coal into various kinds of chemicals rapidly in order to determine their quality (with some of the chemicals splashing back onto our legs, burning us momentarily)–lasted three weeks; working for one week before quitting at the Canada Safeway factory in Calgary: could not keep up with the fast pace of having to load loaves of bread onto carts with wired shelves. I finally did find a job that I could tolerate for some time–working at a brewery in Calgary, but when I got off in the morning in the summer and fall (I frequently worked the night shift in order to minimize having management around), the so-called beautiful sunrises held little interest because I was exhausted. Then of course there is my experience of being a Marxist father in Canada (see, for example, A Worker’s Resistance to the Capitalist Government or State and its Representatives, Part One).

I would say that my experiences are just as reflective of the “Canadian” experience as Mr. Stafford’s–but you would not know it from reading Mr. Stanford’s reference to “very Canadian of us.”

But who is Mr. Stanford?

Until 2016 Stanford was economist and policy director for Unifor (and formerly for the Canadian Auto Workers), and a regular economics panelist on CBC-TV’s The National. He is also Harold Innis Industry Professor of Economics at McMaster University, and a contributing columnist for the Toronto Star.

Given the social-democratic nature of Unifor, with its limitations (see, for example, Fair Contracts or Collective Agreements: The Ideological Rhetoric of Canadian Unions, Part Three: Unifor (Largest Private Union in Canada)), it is likely that Mr. Stanford shares some of the limitations of the organization for which he worked for a number of years.

Mr. Stanford, in addition to teaching at McMaster University, according to his biography:

Until 2016 Jim also served as Vice-President and Treasurer of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, Canada’s premiere progressive think tank, and he remains a member of the CCPA’s Members’ Council.  He was the founding chairperson of the Progressive Economics Forum (formed in 1998), Canada’s network of over 150 progressive economists.

The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) is a social-democratic organization that generally assumes the legitimacy of the power of the class of employers–for example, by referring to companies paying “their fair share of taxes,” which implies that, as long as companies do so, they are legitimate and should not be taken over by workers (see my critique in  Co-optation of Students at School Through We Day, Part Two: The Social-Democratic Left Share Some of We Day’s Assumptions).

I doubt that Mr. Stanford’s economics reflects an economics that is relevant for addressing the class interests of workers–although it appears to do so. His economics reflects more a social-democratic view than a view that challenges the class power of employers.

I will pursue the issue in further posts in this series. In particular, in the next post in this series, I will take a critical look at his definition of money as “purchasing power.”  As will be shown, this definition is a far from adequate one in the context of a society where commodities are produced to exchange for money–by workers who work for an employer.

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