An Example of the Oppressive Nature of  Public Welfare Services

Introduction

As I wrote in another post A Worker’s Resistance to the Capitalist Government or State and Its Representatives, Part Eight):

I sent, among other things, a table that contained some of Francesca’s and my experiences with the WCFS [Winnipeg Child and Family Services] (I will be posting a modified version of this table (the updated version is more inclusive) on this blog, much of which I have included in this series of posts. I also sent the material to the  Manitoba Minister of Justice and to the Manitoba Minister of Education. I also began to send the material to government institutions outside the province of Manitoba. 

The social-democratic or reformist left rarely address the many oppressive experiences that workers experience on a daily or weekly or monthly basis. Indeed, they often idealize public services and, thereby, do a disservice to workers. By not recognizing the often oppressive nature of many social-service agencies (government or state institutions), the social-democratic or reformist left contribute to the move among workers to the right. Of course, the self-righteous social democratic or socialist left then criticize such a move. The social-democratic or reformist left should look at their own practices and engage in self-criticism–but they rarely do.

Indeed, given the level of public (government) oppression experienced by the poorer sections of Canadian citizens, immigrants and migrant workers (measured this time in terms of level of income), it is hardly surprising that many of them would support tax cuts and a reduction in “public services.” Support for austerity has at least some basis in the oppressive public service–and the disregard for such oppression by the social-democratic or reformist left.

The table below is the modified version. It should be read from the right-side downward, chronologically, and then the left-side.

I refer to myself as “Dr. Harris” since I have a doctorate (a Ph. D). I referred to myself like that since workers as social-service agencies, in my experience, treat less educated persons in a more oppressive manner (I only obtained the doctorate in 2009).

The table below should be read in the context of points 1-4 on the right-hand side of the table (before the court-ordered assessment), and from point 5 onward on the right-hand side of the table.

Apprehension of Francesca, Dr. Harris’s daughter, by the WCFS, March 10, 2010Non-apprehension of Francesca, Dr. Harris’ daughter, by the Winnipeg Child and Family Services (WCFS):
1. Claims that Dr. Harris blocked his daughter’s path;1. False accusation of sexual abuse by mother at the suggestion of the Winnipeg Child and Family Services (WCFS) during mediation, 1996;
2. Claims that Dr. Harris frightened his daughter;2. January, 1997: Francesca begins to complain to Dr. Harris that her mother is using a wooden stick and a belt on her buttocks (she would say, “nalgas,” (buttocks) “cincho” (belt), “cama” (bed) in Spanish.
3. Claims that Dr. Harris indicated in a letter that he had choked Francesca at an earlier date; there was no mention of throwing tea (that came later—probably a fishing expedition to find any reason to justify the CFS’ actions in apprehending Francesca. To what extent Francesca was manipulated by CFS, the RCMP or other authorities remains unclear.3. False accusation of sexual abuse by mother once again through the WCFS, 1997;
4. Claims that Dr. Harris indicated in a letter that he had thrown Francesca to the ground;4. July 1998, perhaps: Beginning of formal complaints by Dr. Harris about use of a belt and a wooden object to discipline Francesca by mother to WCFS. He decided to do so after discussing the issue with a friend. The friend pointed out that if Dr. Harris did not inform the “authorities,” he could be accused of hiding the child abuse.
5. Claims that Dr. Harris has mental health problems (by the WCFS lawyer in front of a judge).5. Claim by Dr. Harris’ lawyer that the court-ordered assessor, a social worker, was sympathetic to Dr. Harris’ views (probably so that Dr. Harris would openly express his views).
6. Dr. Harris is forbidden to see his daughter—with the threat that he would face legal consequences.6. Dr. Harris did not see the court-ordered assessment by the social worker until the day of the pretrial hearing—contrary to procedure, which required him to have access to such an assessment before the pretrial hearing in front of Judge Diamond. When Dr. Harris tried to talk to his lawyer about the contents of the assessment (full of lies and inaccuracies), his lawyer replied, “Don’t talk politics to your daughter.”
7. Dr. Harris at first fights against these falsehoods.7. Claim by the court-ordered assessor (and consultant to the WCFS), in his 1998 assessment that Dr. Harris’ claim of physical abuse was “somewhat ridiculous.”
8. When a judge, during a pre-hearing trial indicates that even if the court judged in Dr. Harris’ favour, there would be no recourse except to have Francesca be released in the custody of one of the parents (and since neither Francesca nor Dr. Harris wanted to live with each other), Dr. Harris acquiesces. However, he then drafts a table and sends it to Premier Sellinger, the Minister of Education and the Minister of Justice, among others, with the subject heading “J’accuse.”8. Claim by the court-ordered assessor (and consultant to the WCFS), that Dr. Harris was indoctrinating Francesca in “the evils of capitalism”
9. Sometime after September 10 but perhaps before October 6, Dr. Harris believes, he contacted the Manitoba Human Rights Commission in order to file a complaint against the CFS. The Commission informed Dr. Harris that the time for filing a complaint had expired.9. February, 1999: Beginning of Francesca’s physical hostility towards him: punching, after mother found in contempt of court and did not permit daughter to see him. Francesca wanted to know why he did not want to see her and punched him often because of it.
10. October 6, 2010: Darrell Shorting, worker for Anishinaabe Child and Family Services in Ashern, Manitoba, calls the school where Dr. Harris is working and says that he knows what Dr. Harris has done, namely, choked his daughter and threw her to the ground. Mr. Shorting obliges Dr. Harris to tell the principal at the time (Mr. Chartrand) that Dr. Harris is under investigation.10. April 1999: During the civil trial, there were only two issues: whether Dr. Harris sexually abused Francesca, and whether he was continuing to indoctrinate—supposedly—her in Marxism. The issue of Francesca’s physical abuse by the mother was simply buried and did not form part of the trial. The judge considered the mother’s accusation of sexual abuse to be unfounded—especially when she made another accusation that Dr. Harris had sexually abused Francesca the night before.
11. Dr. Harris is put on administrative leave for perhaps one week. The staff, he believes, are told that it is medical, so Dr. Harris feels obliged to leave Ashern every day early from Ashern.11. The social worker who wrote the court-ordered assessment testified under oath that he would search for material that would indicate that Dr. Harris’ “indoctrination” of Francesca was harmful to Francesca (he implied that he had no proof at the time). By chance, Dr. Harris met this social worker about a week later. The social worker claimed that he was still searching for material. The social worker provided no such material to Dr. Harris—ever.
12. Lakeshore School Division decides to have Dr. Harris placed in the clinical supervision model for the year. Dr. Harris passes this assessment.12. Dr. Harris files a complaint against his former lawyer; the Law Society of Manitoba rejects it out of hand.
13. March 31, 2011: Dr. Harris files a complaint with the Manitoba Human Rights Commission against Child and Family Services.13. Letter to WCFS, January 20, 2000: mother used wooden object on Francesca because Francesca used the computer.
14. April 4, 2011: Dr. Harris is placed under arrest by Ashern RCMP and that he had been under investigation since September of last year. There were three charges: that Dr. Harris choked Francesca, that he pinned her arms violently and that he threw tea at Francesca and hit her with the tea (the latter charge was a new accusation that had never been made before).14. Dr. Harris files about a sixty-page complaint against the social worker who wrote the court-ordered assessment to the Manitoba Institute of Registered Social Workers now that the mother was once again physically abusing Francesca. The only issue for them was whether Mr. Ashley displayed any open hostility towards Dr. Harris (shouting, for example). They dismiss Dr. Harris’ complaint without any explanation.
15. April 9 (Saturday), 2011: Dr. Harris had the custom since he arrived in Ashern of going to “Just My Kind of Bakery” on Saturdays at 12:15 p.m. For the first time ever, several RCMP officers (some in street clothes) sit opposite Dr.Harris at “Just My Kind of Bakery” in Ashern.15. Letter to WCFS, January 28, 2000: (occurred on January, 2000): mother used a wooden stick to discipline Francesca near her hips for not eating her vegetables. Another occasion: her mother pulled her hair for not eating her cereal.
16. April 16, 2011: Several RCMP officers once again do the same thing.16.February 15, 2000: to WCFS: mother slapped or hit Francesca on the mouth
17. May 2011: Dr. Harris is informed by the new principal that he will no longer be teaching high-school French.17.Various threats by mother: Not sure when: mother told his daughter not to tell anyone about her so-called discipline because the police would take Francesca away. Not sure when: mother told Francesca that she would rip her face off. Consequence: Francesca refused to talk about the physical actions of her mother.
18. September 2011: Dr. Harris is assigned to one special needs student for the morning—a glorified educational assistant. Dr. Harris’ heart starts pounding due a rapidly increasing stressful situation.18.May 4, 2000: Discipline with wooden object and belt.
19. October 26, 2011: The new principal, the superintendent, a representative from Manitoba Teachers’ Society and Dr. Harris have a meeting. At the meeting, Dr. Harris is informed that he will once again be placed on clinical supervision. The MTS rep states, in private, that the school is the principal’s school and implies that Dr. Harris would need the principal’s approval to place articles in the staff lounge critical of schools.19.September, 2000: Mother told Francesca that she would smash Francesa’s teeth if she gave her father food from her lunch bag.
20. November 16, 2011: The charges against Dr. Harris are dropped—without explanation.20.October 10, 2000: mother slapped Francesca in the face; her lower tooth was bleeding
21. December, 2011: The new principal provides Dr. Harris with a copy of his clinical supervision. Dr. Harris replies with a 43-page rebuttal, which MTS rep reduces to 30 pages. The MTS rep indicates that the new principal’s assessment report does not reflect very well—on the principal.21.November, 2000: mother hit Francesca with a belt buckle.
22. .Late January or early Feburary, 2012: Another meeting with the new principal,.the superintendent, the MTS rep and Dr. Harris. The superintendent mentions the fact that Dr. Harris had cancer and the arrest. The MTS rep says nothing about this. She places him on “intensive clinical supervision,” which is to begin on February 16, which means that he would be directly under the supervision of the superintendent.22.January, 2001: Francesca indicates that she will no longer tell Dr. Harris that her mother is hitting her since she was afraid that her mother would find out that she had told him.
23. Dr. Harris goes on sick leave as of February 16, 2012.23. February, 2001: Mother slapped Francesca in the head—Francesca cried.
24. Dr. Harris resigns from Lakeshore School Division, June 2012. 24. February, 2001: Mother pulled Francesca’s ear so hard that Francesca cried. Dr. Harris had to promise Francesca that he would not tell the WCFS about this as well as the slap in the head.
25. Before Dr. Harris leaves for Toronto in 2013, he reads an earlier version of the table in front of the Manitoba legislature during a protest against the CFS (mainly aboriginal women protesting the apprehension of their children).25. Mother hit Francesca in the head with a book several times: not sure exactly when: before March, 2001.

26. The mother pushed Francesca to the ground: not sure exactly when: Before March, 2001

27. Mother slapped Francesca in the head several times, not sure when: before March, 2001

28. March 15, 2001: Letter from WCFS: no need for protection, Karen McDonald

29. January 13, 2003: Letter from Rhonda Warren, Assistant Program Manager, stating: “Whether we agree or not regarding the issue of corporal punishment, it is not illegal for a parent to use such practice and in absence of injury Child and Family Services does not have the authority to demand change. It appears from your lengthy correspondence that you and … [the] mother have very different childrearing practices.” This implies that the mother was using corporal punishment.

30. Francesca becomes violent toward Dr. Harris toward the end of August 2003. He takes her to her mother’s residence and refuses to see her until she can promise to refrain from punching him.
.31. September, 2003: According to Francesca, the mother proceeds to rip up the swimming goggles Dr. Harris bought for her swimming lessons; the mother smashes the watch that Mr. Harris gave his daughter; she rips up a doll that Dr. Harris had gave her and throws it into the garbage can.

32. October, 2003: The mother’s nephews from Guatemala visit for a few months. Dr. Harris resumed seeing Francesca. Despite the court-order clearly indicating that Francesca was to be with him until 7:00 p.m., the mother orders Francesca to be home by 12:00 noon for her skating lessons—at 2:30—or, she tells Francesca, she will phone the police. Dr. Harris refuses to acquiesce; he would take Francesca home, he tells Francesca, at 1:00, like last time. Francesca begins poking him in the face with wooden sticks from a kit that he had bought her. He takes Francesca back to the mother’s place, indicating once again that he would not see Francescauntil she learns to control her violent behaviour. He also indicates to the mother that she has no legal right to interfere in his access rights.

33. January 22, 2004 : Letter from Mr. Berg, Assistant Program manager, threatening to consult its legal counsel and to phone the police. “We as a Branch, will not be investigating your most recent disclosure regarding your daughter and your ex-wife. I will instruct our Crisis Response Unit to screen all calls from yourself from this date forward particularly if they reference your wife and the quality of care your daughter Francesca Harris is receiving. As a Branch responsible for child welfare matters in the city, we will respond to legitimate calls. If in the future our Branch staff follow up on a referral call from yourself and we determine that the call is unfounded and malicious in nature, we will be consulting our legal counsel and the police to consider legal action.” The year before, the letter dated January 13, 2003, from Rhonda Warren, implied that his daughter’s mother was using corporal punishment. This year, Mr. Berg implies that Dr. Harris was making false claims. The issue was not just between Francesca’s mother and Dr. Harris; it was between my Francesca’s mother, the WCFS and Dr. Harris—as it has been from the beginning.
Subsequent to a complaint against the WCFS to the Ombudsman’s Office made by Dr. Harris concerning this letter , the Ombusdman’s Office wrote the following (May 12, 2005): “Our office has investigated the concerns you raised and have concluded that the position taken by WCFS as outlined in their letters of January 13, 2003 and January 22, 2004 is not clearly wrong or unreasonable. Accordingly there is no recommendation that can be made on your behalf.”
Subsequent to a meeting in June 2005, the Ombudsman’s Office wrote a letter, dated January 9, 2006, which contained, among other things, the following:
“It was agreed that our office would send you a further report after we had the opportunity to pursue one of the issues which remained outstanding. This issue related to the tone/wording of the letter addressed to you from WCFS dated January 22, 2004 which in part stated:
If in the future our Branch staff follow up on a referral call from yourself and we determine that the call is unfounded and malicious in nature, we will be consulting our legal counsel and the police to consider legal action.’
You advised us that not only did this paragraph leave you confused as to what you should do in the future should there be further incidents about which you were concerned involving your daughter’s care, but you felt this paragraph implicitly threatened you with police action.” …
WCFS is now aware that the tone and choice of wording of the letter in question gave you the impression that they felt your complaints were not legitimate and that you would be subjected to police involvement. We have confirmed that WCFS will respond to you as specified in The Child and Family Services Act.”
Dr. Harris replied to the Ombudsman’s Office that he was little concerned about the tone of the letter but about the real threat to use the police.

34. June 28, 2004: Mother hits Francesca in the nose, causing it to bleed as well as the mother throwing a wooden stick near Francesca’s face. On July 5, 2004, Dr. Harris take Francesca to the Children’s Advocate office, where Francesca is interviewed. The person who interviews her, Janet Minwald, then talks to Dr. Harris. She indicates that there has been a disclosure this time about physical abuse. Apparently, it took the WCFS several months before it interviewed my daughter.

35. After this time, Dr. Harris generally tried to limit his connections with the WCFS since the WCFS was clearly not doing its duty to protect Francesca (probably because he is a Marxist). Francesca was afraid to call the CFS from her mother’s home for obvious reasons and, according to Francesca, the school refused to let her call Child and Family Services. Dr. Harris therefore bought Francesca a cell phone so that she could call the WCFS herself. She had the number programmed into the phone. She had to hide in the washroom to call them.

36. 2007-2008: Francesca, lacking sufficient attendance in grade 8 for the school year 2007-2008, had to repeat it. Dr. Harris purchases distance education courses for Francesca for the summer. Francesca takes them with her for her holidays during the summer—and does not work on them.

37. Francesca begins to live with Dr. Harris in Ashern, Manitoba, in late August, 2008.

38. Dr. Harris decides to home school Francesca, creating a plan of studies.

39. Francesca falls behind in her studies.

40. When Dr. Harris confronts Francesca about her lack of studying, she becomes increasingly violent by, for example, digging her elbow in his ribs when he tries to teach her.

41. Around November, 2008, Francesca throws a metal lid at him, barely missing his head. Dr. Harris puts her in a headlock and force her to the ground, refusing to let her go until she promises not to throw anything.

42. Probably in December, Francesca punches Dr. Harris in the face. He reacts by pinning her arms.

43. During Christmas holidays, while his daughter was visiting her mother, Dr. Harris visits the doctor since he is not feeling very well, and there is an increased amount of blood in his urine (he had had traces of blood before, but not to that amount). The doctor prescribes some medication.

44. He starts to bleed more and more profusely when urinating. He begins to have pains in his right kidney. He contacts the doctor, and the doctor contacts a urologist (Dr. Bard) to have a CT scan.

45. When his daughter returns in January, Dr. Harris and Francesca continue to argue because of her lack of studying.

46. Since Dr. Harris did not have his permanent contract as a teacher yet, he tried to hide the fact that he was urinating blood by cleaning up any blood that splashed on the floor in the school washroom

47. Dr. Harris, while trying to teach Francesca, tried to show her that he was sick by showing her that the toilet bowl was full of blood. This had no effect on Francesca’s violent behavior.

48. While he tries to teach Francesca, she continues to act violently towards him. While drinking some tea, Francesca, digs her elbows into his side; he flings the tea, some of which hits his daughter in the face (fortunately, the tea is not so hot that it physically hurt her).

49. Dr. Harris takes Francesca back to her mother’s place on approximately January 28, 2009 and gives her mother a letter, indicating that he did not ever want to see Francesca again.

50. February, 2009: CT scan reveals that Dr. Harris has a large tumor in his bladder. Dr. Harris still does not want to see his daughter.

51. March 2009: Dr. Harris is diagnosed with invasive bladder cancer and has partial surgery to remove part of the tumor (it is too big for surgery to remove all of it). Dr. Harris informs Francesca that he has cancer, and they start to see each other again—although Francesca does not want to talk about the cancer and the possibility of her father dying.

52. June, 2009: The intern for the chemotherapy oncologist informs Dr. Harris that there is a 60 percent chance that he will die within the next five years.

53. June-August, 2009: Dr. Harris undergoes chemotherapy. It seems to work.

54. February or March, 2010: Dr. Harris opts for radiation therapy as suggested by his urologist Dr. Bard instead of removal of the bladder. Radiation oncologist refuses to perform the radiation because the bladder is too close to the lower intestine. Dr. Harris opts for surgery to move the lower intestine out of the way by means of a mesh so that radiation can occur.

55. March 10, 2010: The surgeon provides Dr. Harris with a note that indicates that he will have surgery on April 19.

56. March 10, 2010: Dr. Harris gives his daughter a copy of the note (and a book on evolution in order to try to have her read something that contradicts the Bible).

Reimagining the Same-Old-Same-Old: Lakeshore School Division’s Reforms as an Example of School Rhetoric, Part One

The following is a critical look at the reforms proposed and implemented in Lakeshore School Division, in the province of Manitoba (I worked for this Division as a French teacher from 2008 until 2012). Such reforms illustrate the extent to which school rhetoric is rampant in schools these days. You would not, however, know it if you read social-democratic or social reformist articles–most of the authors talk about defending “public education this” and “public education that” without ever engaging into inquiry about the adequacy of such public education.

On December 9, 2014, in EdCan Network, Leanne Peters, Janet Martell and Sheila Giesbrecht published an article titled “Re-imagine Lakeshore: Design, Education and Systems Change” (see https://www.edcan.ca/articles/re-imagine-lakeshore/). At the time, Leanne Peters was assistant superintendent of Lakeshore School Division, Janet Martell was the superintendent and Sheila Giesbrecht was Student Success Consultant, Manitoba Education. In essence, they were all unelected (appointed) school bureaucrats.

It is full of school rhetoric that the left should criticize.

School Rhetoric of Representatives of a Public Employer

In December 2012, Superintendent Janet Martell laid out a challenge to the school division. She told staff and board that “we were no longer meeting the needs of the students in our classrooms and we need to do something dramatically different.” Teachers were working hard and they wanted the best for the students, but we just weren’t having success.

School Rhetoric, or Putting Words into Teachers’ Mouths: Ignoring the Employee Status of Teachers

The teachers agreed and we embarked on the process of “Re-imagine Lakeshore.”

Teachers are employees and thus subject to the economic pressure and influence of their employer. Did they really “agree” with this, or did they comply with this assessment? If people are coerced economically, is their “agreement” really agreement? (See my post   “Capitalism needs economic coercion for its job market to function” (Ontario Coalition Against Poverty: OCAP)  for the view that employees are economically coerced. See also Employers as Dictators, Part One).

The Re-imagine Lakeshore process was designed to examine current practice and imagine new ways to improve practice. The division collaborated with one of our co-authors, Dr. Sheila Giesbrecht of Manitoba Education, who laid out a design-based school improvement process to help guide Lakeshore’s work. Teachers listened with extreme interest as the design process unfolded.

What evidence that the teachers listened with “extreme interest?” Ms. Martell provides no evidence We are supposed to just believe–on faith–that such extreme interest existed.

Phase 1: Understand (December 2012 – January 2013)

To begin this work, teachers came together to understand their divisional context.

As employees, teachers “come together” by means of an external contractual process of employment, with the unity of the workers not being due to their coming together and willing a common goal, but through the will of the employer defining the goal independently of them. From Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. Volume 1, page 451:

They [the workers] enter into relations with the capitalist [or public employer], but not with each other. Their co-operation only begins with the labour process, but by then they have ceased to belong to themselves. On entering the labour process they are incorporated into capital [or the public employer]. As co-operators, as members of a working organism, they merely form a particular mode of existence of capital [or a public employer]. Hence the productive power developed by the worker socially is the productive power of capital [or public employer].

Belonging to a union may modify this situation (depending on the unity of the workers in their wills to achieve common  objectives or goal), but it does not by any means radically change such a situation. For instance, Lakeshore Teachers’ Association, the union for the teachers, pursued certain goals (such as obtaining two paid personal days in their collective agreement), but the establishment of the general goals of Lakeshore School Division does not form part of the voluntary deliberative process of the teachers and other workers.

One specific goal–defined by the school bureaucracy and not by teachers and other workers–was evidently the integration of computer technology into teaching practices:

Teachers responded to surveys about their ability to integrate technology into their lessons and provided data around the teaching strategies they regularly employed in their classrooms.

Who determined that the integration of technology was vital (really meaning “computers”–as if technology and computers were synonymous)? Further, did the teachers voluntarily provide data? If they provided no data, would they face any negative consequences?

One general goal of Lakeshore School Division is “student success.” What does Ms.Martell mean by success? We await with enthusiasm what that may be.

School Rhetoric of Success Defined According to Quantitative Graduation Rates–Nothing Else

Teachers worked through their school and catchment area data, graduation rates.

It is, of course, necessary to determine the present situation if you are going to specify the problem and offer relevant solutions. However, we see here an implicit assumption of what “success” means–graduation rates. Presumably, if all students graduated, then there would be substantial success. If they all graduated within four years (grades 9 to 12), then there would be 100 percent success, presumably.

We can compare such a goal with the goal of having every individual student developing their potentialities in diverse ways (physical, emotional, aesthetic (capacity to enjoy art), artistic (capacity to produce art), kinesthetic, mathematical, scientific, empathetic and so forth) to the maximum of their abilities. From John Dewey (1916/2004), Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education, pages 186-187:

If what was said earlier about originality of thought seemed overstrained, demanding more of education than the capacities of average human nature permit, the difficulty is that we lie under the incubus of a superstition. We have set up the notion of mind at large, of intellectual method that is the same for all. Then we regard individuals as differing in the quantity of mind with which they are charged. Ordinary persons are then expected to be ordinary. Only the exceptional are allowed to have originality. The measure of difference between the average student and the genius is a measure of
the absence of originality in the former. But this notion of mind in general is a fiction. How one person’s abilities compare in quantity with those of another is none of the teacher’s business. It is irrelevant to his work. What is required is that every individual shall have opportunities to employ his own powers in activities that have meaning. Mind, individual method, originality (these are convertible terms) signify the quality of purposive or directed action. If we act upon this conviction, we shall secure more originality even by the conventional standard than now develops. Imposing an
alleged uniform general method upon everybody breeds mediocrity in all but the very exceptional. And measuring originality by deviation from the mass breeds eccentricity in them. Thus we stifle the distinctive quality of the many, and save in rare instances (like, say, that of Darwin) infect the rare
genius with an unwholesome quality.

Graduation rates are quantitative in the first instance and, in addition, are quantitative in a second instance since in order for a student to graduate, the student must have–comparatively–received a passing (quantitative) grade. For a critique of the assessment of students according to grades or marks, see  The Expansion of Public Services Versus a Basic Income, Part Two: How the Social-democratic Left Ignore the Oppressive Nature of Public Services: Part One: Oppressive Educational Services.

The power to define “student success” is hidden by the use of apparently scientific words, such as “explore”:

They explored divisional successes and examined ways in which the teachers modeled exemplary practice. Finally, the community responded to a student success survey and helped to further define the “successful student” and the “successful school.” Teachers, administrators, students and the community collaborated to develop common understanding around the character of Lakeshore School Division.

Exploration requires the freedom to explore–to search, think and define problems freely. Being employees, where is there evidence that teachers freely explored issues? Further, who defined “divisional successes?” If the school bureaucracy define it in one way and teachers in another way, how is the conflict resolved?

Who defined what “student success is?” And how? There is the claim that “teachers, administrators, students and the community collaborated to develop common understanding”–but under the dictatorship, of course, of the school bureaucracy, which represents the employer. Participation is hardly equal among the different “partners” (for the idea that employers are dictators, see  Employers as Dictators, Part One).

Defining Success at the Micro Level But Ignoring Problems at the Macro Level

Phase 2: Problemate (February – March 2013)

During the second phase, teachers worked to describe the specific challenges faced within their school. Using the narrative and quantitative data collected during the Understand Phase, schools created a “problemate statement” to define what they wanted to improve within their own school. For example, one school’s statement was: “To raise the bar and close the gap for every child.” The process of understanding and creating a problem statement was difficult. Developing a problem statement meant that both successes and challenges had to be faced head-on. Schools continued to dig deeper during this phase and were challenged to work with open mindsets. Each school worked to create a focused design challenge that they wished to address through this school improvement process.

There are undoubtedly always problems that any school will face that are unique to that school: hence “teachers worked to describe the specific challenges faced within their school.” However, are such problems to be solved by a school, or must larger social structures be changed to address certain problems? For example, Ashern Central School can be characterized as similar to many inner-city schools in Winnipeg: the level of income of many parents is limited. Defining improvement in any school is purely reformist and will never address many of the problems in schools–ranging from an alienating curriculum that focuses on “academic learning” at the expense of the lived bodily experience of many students–to defining success purely in terms of “graduation rates” that involves quantitative measurement of “success” through grading practices (marks or grades).

Phase 3: Ideate (April – June 2013)

During the third phase teachers worked to develop new ways of approaching the design challenges they developed in the second phase. Working in cross-divisional cohorts, they identified 14 common themes and challenges based on the schools’ problem statements. These included technology integration, instructional strategies, whole student approaches, relationships, parental involvement, and facilities. Teachers gathered on their own time to conduct research, share ideas and look at ways to enhance their own and divisional practices. During this phase teachers worked to extend their professional knowledge base, skills and ideas. They also worked to explore new ideas and strategies.

It is interesting that there is no mention of the curriculum being a common problem (for a critique of the oppressive nature of school curriculums, see The Expansion of Public Services Versus a Basic Income, Part Two: How the Social-democratic Left Ignore the Oppressive Nature of Public Services: Part One: Oppressive Educational Services). It is probably assumed as something fixed over which teachers have no control. They thus probably focused on problems that they could immediately control at the micro level. Their own activity was already likely delimited to defining and searching for problems as defined by the school hierarchy (bureaucracy). That the school system might itself be a problem never arises here, of course.

As for teachers meeting on their own time–probably true–teachers do work a lot, in general. However, some of this is due to the nature of the work–and some due to implicit hierarchical pressure to do so. It is difficult to separate what is freely done outside school time and what is done out of fear of retaliation by management. See the above section “School Rhetoric, or Putting Words into Teachers’ Mouths: Ignoring the Employee Status of Teachers.”

School Rhetoric and Educational Research

During this time, Lakeshore School Division became part of Brandon University’s VOICES Project and with that came additional support and funding to expand Lakeshore’s school improvement work. Several teachers participated with learning tours and additional professional learning around the 14 themes. Teachers shared their new understandings both informally and formally across the division. Prior to this process, this level of research and conversation had been unseen. One teacher remarked, “I haven’t read so much educational research since I graduated from university years ago!” The cultural shift was deepening.

The reference to “educational research” expresses a lack of critical thinking. Most educational research, assumes that the present school system constitutes the standard. It goes around in circles by engaging in educational research while assuming that its object of analysis is the only possible one (with minor changes only possible). Such an approach is of course conservative. As I wrote in one publication (see in the Publications and Writings section of this blog, on the homepage, “A Deweyan Review of the Chicago Teachers’ Union Publication The Schools Chicago Students Deserve: Research-Based Proposals to Strengthen Elementary and Secondary Education in the Chicago Public Schools (2012):

The basis of the research—both the document itself and the sources used–however, is the present school system, so the structure of the present school system constitutes the standard for determining what good education is. Since the modern school system emphasizes academics, research based on that system is bound to do so as well—in a vicious circle. The research, based on a school system that emphasizes academics to the exclusion of the human body (or the latter as an afterthought or add on), then reinforces a school system that emphasizes academics to the exclusion of the human body and so forth. There is really no alternative vision to the present school system but merely a variation on an old theme despite the good intention of being critical.

For further criticism of educational research, see the post  Much Educational Research Assumes the Legitimacy of the Current School Structure.

There is a lesson to be drawn from the above: the social democrats or the social reformers underestimate vastly the extent to which future workers (students) are indoctrinated into accepting the present social system. There is so much rhetoric thrown around in schools (and elsewhere, such as social-service agencies and organizations) that there is little wonder that workers become cynical of the possibility for real change. And what do social democrats do? They, for the most part, remain silent–rather than engaging in constant critique of such rhetoric. Or they themselves participate in such rhetoric by referring to “social justice in schools,” “fair contracts,” “decent work,”  and so forth.

Let us now look at Phase 4:

Phase 4: Experiment (September 2013 – June 2014)

During the fourth phase of the process, Lakeshore teachers and administrators focused on trying out some of the skills and strategies they had explored during the Ideate Phase. This involved enhancing existing practices and innovating and trying new approaches. Experiments included using class iPad sets within various settings, developing interdisciplinary classrooms, reimagining learning spaces, experimenting with flipped classrooms and developing project-based approaches. One of the most powerful moments in the process came when trustee Jim Cooper stood up in front of the teachers and said, “The board is behind you. We want you to try some things in your classrooms; if those don’t work, try some other things. It’s OK to fail.” This attitude of openness and acceptance allowed teachers to imagine, innovate and experiment with new educational strategies and ideas. The divisional culture shifted to allow teachers to adopt new mindsets around what it means to teach and learn.

Experiments involved using a particular form of computer technology in various contexts–but evidently within the framework of the existing bias of a curriculum focused on literacy and numeracy at the elementary level and academic learning at the junior and senior high-school levels. As I wrote in my article “Is the Teaching of Symbolic
Learning in the School System Educational?” (in the Publications and Writings section of this blog, found on the home page):

Evidently, then, symbolic learning forms the core of the modern school curriculum at the elementary level and continues to form a central aspect in middle and high school curricula with their emphasis on academic learning.

Experiments also involved using interdisciplinary classrooms. Presumably, such subjects as language arts and social studies could be combined–as was the case for English language arts and social studies in grade 9. However, as I have pointed out in another post, the Canadian social studies curriculum is biased and indoctrinates students by not teaching them how and why employers exist (see, for example,  A Case of Silent Indoctrination, Part One: The Manitoba History Curricula and Its Lack of History of Employers and Employees). Combining curricula will not change this fact. Nor will it change the focus on academic learning and symbolic learning.

“Reimagine Lakeshore” was really not very innovative. It was a top-down initiated process that lacked any real critical thinking. Its reimagination–was to imagine a rehashed school system that merely modifies a few “variables” (such as integrating a few subjects within a predominately symbolic and academic curriculum that itself is biased).

A critical look at this “reimagining process” will continue in a second post by looking at some “analyses” of this process as well as one source that such analyses rely on to justify their views.

Critique of a Limited Definition of the Problem: The Case of the Toronto Radical John Clarke, Part Two

Introduction

In a previous post, I criticized  John Clarke’s social-democratic views on exploitation and decent wages. In this post I will extend such a criticism to his views on economic coercion and basic income. 

Economic Coercion 

Parallel to Mr. Clarke’s reference to exploitation as a rhetorical addition to his social-democratic or social-reformist position of advocating “decent wages” (see my post Critique of the Limited Aim (Solution)–Decent Wages–of a Radical Social Democrat: The Case of the Toronto Radical, John Clarke: Part One) is his rhetorical references to “economic coercion.” Mr. Clarke seems to recognize the fact that workers are coerced, economically, into working, not for a particular employer, but to the class of employers. They are not forced to work for one and only one employer but are allowed to choose between employers (if they can find an employer who will hire them), but they are not free, as a class, to work for no employer.

I have already criticized, briefly, his apparent recognition of economic coercion and his subsequent ignoring of this recognition in a pamphlet with several articles written by him (see  Basic Income: A Critique of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty’s Stance  and “Capitalism needs economic coercion for its job market to function” (Ontario Coalition Against Poverty: OCAP)). I have, however, now come to the conclusion that Mr. Clarke recognizes the existence of economic coercion only in order to criticize neoliberalism and not the class power of employers and hence not capitalism as such. 

The document that I criticized has as its title: Basic Income in the Neoliberal Age. The title itself expresses the limitations: it assumes that the target of opposition is neoliberalism and not capitalism. In my earlier post, I wrote the following, which still stands: 

Throughout the whole document, there is nothing that links this requirement of capitalism–needing “economic coercion for its job market to function”–to the need for a movement that goes beyond such economic coercion.

Ultimately, as noted above, this document is a social-reformist document–a document that has no better solution to “economic coercion” than implicitly proposing that we return to the so-called golden age of capitalism, where employers had accepted, within limits, the need for a more generous welfare state. OCAP does not explicitly state this, but it implies it.

But first I need to establish, in addition to the references in earlier posts, that Mr. Clarke claims that economic coercion is an essential feature of capitalist society. 

On Mr. Clarke’s blog, on June 15, 2021, he has written a post titled “A Basic Income in Waiting?” (https://johnclarkeblog.com/node/65).

Characteristic of Mr. Clarke is his recognition that economic coercion is a necessary component of a society dominated by a class of employers. Thus, he writes:

I wish I could convince more BI supporters to consider the foundations before they try to put the roof on. One such supporter told me a few months ago that my arguments on the role of income support in this society constituted ‘an irrelevant history lesson’ but I beg to differ. To provide nothing at all to people who are unemployed or otherwise outside of the paid workforce has proven impossible so income support emerged to contain social unrest. However, it is always provided reluctantly and to the least degree possible because it limits the economic coercion the job market rests on. The adequacy of income support will increase if there are high levels of unrest, particularly in the form of social movement struggles. It will tend to decrease if governments feel they are strong enough to make cuts or if falling rates of profit require increased levels of exploitation, more economic coercion and less adequate social provision. [my emphases]

Again: 

This adaption to a global health crisis conformed completely to the governing principle of state provided income support, which, as I have suggested, is to grant as much as necessary but as little as possible. It’s just that the pandemic necessitated an unprecedented but very temporary change of direction. Income support is always provided at levels that contain social crisis but on a scale that doesn’t undermine the economic coercion the job market rests on [my emphasis.]

In a lecture on basic income and neoliberalism, dated June 21, 2021 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r40D6fU760s ), Mr. Clarke has the following to say about economic coercion: (The following is largely a verbatim report):

Part 1: Economic Coercion

Most people are or seek to be waged workers. The look for work on the capitalist job market and, if successful, they find a job and perform labour. That labour creates the value, part of which is returned to them in the form of wages and part of it goes in the capitalist’s pocket as profits. Capitalism is fundamentally exploitative. This feature capitalism shares with other kinds of societies, but it has some features which separate it from other kinds of societies. Firstly, it is characterized by the production of commodities, and that includes workers themselves. Workers enter the job market and they attempt to sell their ability to work–their labour power.

This forces workers to compete for jobs. This necessarily competitive nature of capitalist society has great significance. In feudal society, by contrast, where peasant communities were exploited by a lord of the manor, the peasants could organize the community in various ways, taking into account differences in age, ability, disability, and so forth.

The capitalist, however, buys the individual worker’s labour power, and as buyer he looks for very productive workers, workers who are job ready–able-bodied workers counter-posed to the disabled person is produced under capitalism. So workers enter the competitive job market with relative advantages and disadvantages.

Capitalists also attempt to create and preserve a buyer’s market. This means that they like the situation where there are more workers looking for work than there are jobs available.

The capitalist system, unlike earlier forms of exploitation, rests primarily (though not exclusively) on economic coercion. Workers seek work and stay at work due to economic coercion. Workers are not tied to the particular member of the exploiting class; workers can and often do leave their particular employment. What keeps workers in their place is the power of economic coercion. [my emphasis]

For that economic coercion to be created and maintained, it is absolutely essential that workers do not have a viable alternative. They cannot have another readily available source of income outside of the job market. That situation is essential to the creation and preservation of the capitalist system.

Mr. Clarke then outlines the nature of a pure capitalist system, where all individuals, regardless of age, gender, health status or any other quality must enter the job market to compete for the available jobs. Those who fail to obtain a job, from the capitalists’ point of view, serve a positive function by contributing to the desperation of workers to find a job, to intensify exploitation and to reduce the effectiveness or the effort to organize workers to win better wages and working conditions.

But such a system of brutal exploitation can become problematic. Firstly, it can compromise, on a large scale, the health–and hence the job-readiness–of the workforce. Secondly, it can contribute to massive organized protests and even rebellions. Consequently, the capitalist state steps in to save the capitalists from themselves by ensuring a certain level of services; these services form the basis for income-support systems.

The general rule of income-support systems within a capitalist system is that they will provide as much as is necessary but also as little as possible. There are two opposite factors working in that regard. The first is the needs of capital: the need to maximize profitability and to remove barriers to exploitation. For the capitalist class, the need is to minimize expenditures for income-support systems. Indeed, if profitability becomes more difficult, there will be intensified pressure to increase exploitation and to minimize expenditures on income-support systems. The second is the needs of the working class and its level of organized power within capitalist society as well as how resistant are poor and unemployed people.

Historically, there has been a class struggle over the amount and form of income support, with the levels and forms not really intended by the authorities but needed to quell working-class tendencies towards rebellion. On the other hand, with changes in the capitalist system, the capitalist class, via the capitalist state, has pushed back and changed the forms and levels of income support over the centuries. The working class, both during the Great Depression but especially after the Second World War, in turn fought back by organizing the unemployed and workers into mass unions, with the result that income supports and standards of living increased substantially. Gains were really made because of working-class resistance.

As a result, there is a need for the capitalist class to engage in a counter-offensive since increased working-class living standards had reduced capitalist profits. This counter-offensive, begun in the 1970s, is known as neoliberalism. In order to increase exploitation, it became essential to gut income-support systems. The adequacy of programs was reduced, and eligibility for the reduced level of income supports became more difficulty in various areas: for single parents, for injured workers, for disabled people, among others.

As a result, there has emerged a global, low-wage and precarious section of the working class. Unions and social movements have not been able to stop that agenda; they themselves have been weakened.

This situation can also be seen with the emergence of the pandemic. In Canada, many workers lost their jobs temporarily, and the capitalist governments stepped in to provide relatively adequate temporary income supports, such as CERB (Canada Emergency Response Benefit). However, once the economy started to open up, you saw an immediate outcry by the media and the political establishment that CERB is outrageously generous and that it is creating idleness and the refusal of workers to go back to work. You start to see the immediate and rapid erosion of CERB. CERB is replaced by CRB (Canada Recovery Benefit), which is subject to cuts.

Hence, the deterioration of income supports from the 1970s until the present needs to be understood as emerging from the needs of capital and from the relative weakness of the working class in terms of resistance and fighting back.

For Mr. Clarke, quite correctly, economic coercion is a fact of life in a capitalist society. In my previous post, it was pointed out that he correctly argues that exploitation is essential to a capitalist society. It is interesting to note, however, that like his inconsistent references to both exploitation and decent wages (see my critique in the previous post already referenced above), he now has an additional inconsistency: economic coercion and decent wages.  If the condition for receiving a wage is the subordination of our lives and our wills to the power of employers (economic coercion) , then the process through which we obtain the wage needs to be investigated and taken into consideration before automatically referring to any level of wages as “decent.” Mr. Clarke fails to do so. 

Inconsistency of Recognition of Economic Coercion and Decent Wages: An Implicit Assumption of the  Permanence of Economic Coercion 

Unfortunately, Mr. Clarke implicitly assumes that economic coercion is a fact of life. Nowhere does he advocate for beginning a movement for the abolition of such coercion. By failing to address the issue of economic coercion head on by asking whether we should aspire to abolish such economic coercion, he seems to think that such a beginning is utopian. In practice, then, his policy solutions are designed to function well within economic coercion–although some of the policies, such as greater decommodification of public services, would undoubtedly permit a reduction in economic coercion. However, a reduction in the level of commodification does not mean that the aim is to abolish economic coercion; reformist measures can involve such an aim–but they may also not do so. By remaining silent on the issue of whether we should be aiming to abolish economic coercion and, if so, how to initiate such a process, Mr. Clarke in effect aims merely for the reform of capitalist relations of production and exchange and not for their abolition.

Mr. Clarke, although he recognizes economic coercion as an essential feature of a society dominated by a class of employers, does the same thing again as he did in the pamphlet that contained several articles written by him (see the link referred to above). Mr. Clarke’s reference to economic coercion sounds progressive, but his aim is not to abolish such economic coercion but to reduce such coercion; for him, practically, economic coercion of some form or other by the capitalist system–despite his rhetoric to the contrary–is something fixed or permanent, or its abolition is to be looked for in the far-off future. The abolition of economic coercion is not to begin in the living present as a means of organizing our activities.

An Explicit Recognition of the Variability (and Non-Permanence) of Distributional Struggles: The Variability of the Standard of Living and Levels of Income

Unlike Mr. Clarke’s implicit assumption that aiming for the abolition of economic coercion is not on today’s political agenda, he does seem to operate often on the basis of the variability of the determination of the standard of living measured by level of income rather than on the basis of level exploitation and oppression. In his YouTube talk posted on June 21, 2021, referenced above, he refers to basic income as supposedly designed to reduce poverty and to create a more equal society.

Since a radical proposal for basic income is not meant to only address limited levels of income or unequal levels of income but rather to push for a basic income that contradicts the basic nature of a market for workers (while still accepting any immediate gains in a robust basic income that enables them to loosen their ties to employers in the short time by providing them with a robust guaranteed income independently of having to work for an employer) (see Basic Income as A Radical Reform That Points Beyond Capitalism and Towards Socialism), Mr. Clarke’s reference to poverty and different and unfair levels of income fails to address the issue of the dependence of the working class on the need to subordinate themselves to the class of employers (economic coercion)–even if poverty were abolished (as defined by a certain level of the poverty line). Indeed, Mr. Clarke is simply silent on the way in which workers obtain their income. He is not really concerned with how they obtain it but rather with the magnitude of their income so that they can somehow obtain a “decent wage” (see my previous post in this series).

Mr. Clarke goes further in opposing the idea of a universal basic income because he claims that it would facilitate further privatization, austerity and exploitation. However, his prime concern is really with “privatization and austerity” and not with exploitation and economic coercion.

Ironically, Mr. Clarke claims that to properly assess a proposal for universal basic income–whether it would work or how it would work–you must understand the basic factors underlying the kind of society in which we live and what might limit system of social provision. In my earlier post, I already showed that Mr. Clarke’s reference to a “decent wage” indicates his lack of understanding of the basic factors that underly the kind of society in which we live.

Conclusions

Mr. Clarke, like so many social democrats, focuses his efforts exclusively on distributional struggles and neglects struggles centered on production relations. Much of my critique of Dhunna and Bush’s article applies to Mr. Clarke’s political position. I conclude this post by copying part of a post that criticized their article on that score: 

Dhunna and Bush, like Cartwright, only look, one-sidedly, at the problem since their focus is on poverty rates, standard of living (defined by consumption) and level of income. Their implied emphasis on distribution and consumption as opposed to production and employment fails to consider that production, distribution and consumption are interrelated since human beings produce their own social lives. Distribution and consumption are two aspects of this process, but they are part of a process of socially reproducing our live through the use of means of production (machines, buildings, tools, land, raw material, auxiliary material and so forth). There is no reference to employers and their power at work in their article at all, however.

Indeed, their focus is exclusively on issues of distribution of income and consumption; they neglect to include in the concept of “the Material Realities of Working-Class and Oppressed People” material interests of workers in controlling their own lives as they produce those lives over time. The “material realities” or workers include being oppressed and being exploited–which they never address (see for example The Rate of Exploitation of Workers at Magna International Inc., One of the Largest Private Employers in Toronto, Part One and The Rate of Exploitation of Magna International Inc., One of the Largest Private Employers in Toronto, Part Two, Or: Intensified Oppression and Exploitation).

Their article reflects Marx’s characterization of the liberal reformist John Stuart Mill. From Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy, page 87: 

The aim is, rather, to present production – see e.g. Mill – as distinct from distribution etc., as encased in eternal natural laws independent of history, at which opportunity bourgeois relations are then quietly smuggled in as the inviolable natural laws on which society in the abstract is founded.

Here is what the reformist John Stuart Mill wrote (quoted from Judith Janoska, Martin Bondeli, Konrad Kindle and Marc Hofer, page 104, The Chapter on Method of Karl Marx: An Historical and Systematic Commentary (in German, but the quote is in English):

The laws and conditions of the production of wealth partake of the character of physical truths [they cannot be changed–they are natural and eternal]. There is nothing optional or arbitrary in them. … It is not so with the Distribution of wealth. That is a matter of human institutions solely.

I have criticized the definition of poverty mainly according to level of income (the poverty rate) (and the corresponding standard of living) in another post since the definition fails to capture the continuing lack of freedom characteristic of work relations characterized by a market for workers (see “Capitalism needs economic coercion for its job market to function” (Ontario Coalition Against Poverty: OCAP)). I also criticized, in two other posts, Mr Bush’s inconsistent views (see Basic Income: A Critique of the Social-Reformist Left’s Assumptions and Analysis: Part One and Basic Income: A Critique of the Social-Reformist Left’s Assumptions and Analysis: Part Two). At least in his earlier writing, he tried to link production to distribution (though inadequately). Now he has abandoned all pretense of being concerned about the working lives of worker–despite the rhetoric of “class struggle.”

The push for a shift of many services from the private sector to the public sector will meet substantial opposition when it begins to affect the market for workers since the market for workers is a basic condition for the continued power and existence of employers as a class. Of course, the fact that there will be determined resistance and violence by employers and the government to ensure a ready supply of workers does not mean that such a policy should not be pursued. The authors do indeed imply that class struggle will be necessary to achieve their limited aims, but their form of class struggle works well within the limits of the continued existence of the class power of employers. However ironic it may sound, their form of class struggle is a reformist class struggle. Its aim is not the abolition of classes and therefore the class struggle, but rather the permanence of class struggle.

Their aim, in other words, is to humanize the class power of employers through class struggle rather than abolishing that class power. Their concept of socialism is really an enhanced welfare state–not the abolition of the class power of employers.

Mr. Clarke’s aim of an enhanced welfare state is consistent with his neglect of economic coercion as a variable; his implicit assumption is that economic coercion is permanent and that what can be changed is the level of distribution between classes–John Stuart Mill’s reformist position. On the other hand, his simultaneous references to economic coercion and decent wages indicate his inconsistency: If economic coercion exists, then there is no such thing as decent wages.

His inadequate characterization of the problem–focusing on relations of distribution of commodities rather than on the interrelations of production and distribution–limits his aim or solution (an enhanced welfare state), just as his aim or solution of an enhanced welfare state limits his definition of the problem.

In a future post, I will address Mr. Clarke’s critique of basic income.

Addendum 

Recently, on a post on Facebook on November 3, 2021, Mr. Clarke has indicated that it is necessary to engage in radical practice to replace capitalist relations: 

I just got this book and plan to make it a priority. Ever since I was asked to review Roberts’ book on Engels, my sense of the insoluble contradictions within capitalism that drive its recurring and worsening crises has been strengthened. (Not that it was altogether weak before). I’m always ready to make common cause, on particular shared goals, with those who hope for more incremental approaches and less drastic solutions. However, at this time of multi-layered crisis, the perspective of revolutionary social transformation must be clearly advanced and it has to be rooted in an understanding of just how impossible it is to adjust or reshape the present system.
Clarke then refers to the Marxian economist Michael Roberts and his book World in Crisis: A Global Analysis of Marx’s Law of Profitability.
 
Whether Mr. Clarke can really shift to a more radical position remains to be seen. I hope, of course, that he will, but his inconsistencies concerning exploitation and economic coercion, on the one hand, and his reference to “decent wages,” on the other side, points to a split in his political aims. Furthermore, his own practices indicate that he will probably have difficulty in developing a more consistent political position. His reference to “common cause” with social democrats on “particular issues” is vague and fails to address how he will now address reformists who defend the continued existence of the class power of employers: “I’m always ready to make common cause, on particular shared goals, with those who hope for more incremental approaches and less drastic solutions.” It sounds easy, but I predict that Mr. Clarke will either have break with those who advocate “incremental approaches and less drastic solutions,” or he will capitulate to such reformists and continue his earlier reformist practices and fail to criticize the rhetoric of “decent wages,” “decent jobs,” “fair contracts” and so forth while engaging in empty rhetoric (such as “economic coercion” and “exploitation”). 

 

The Radical Left Underestimate the Ideological Power of Employers and Overestimate Their Own Ideological Struggle

Leftists frequently refer to themselves and others as the left. This is vague to the point of being useless. Often, what is meant by being left is being paying lip-service to being anti-capitalist–without in reality doing anything to oppose the power of the class of employers as such, either ideologically or in practice.

A good example is an article written by Tim Heffernan, Simon Schweitzer, and Bill Hopwood on July 8, 2020, in the social-democratic journal Canadian Dimension (COVID-19 and Mass Unemployment: the NDP and Beyond).   In that article, the writers make the following statement in relation to what kind of organizing efforts could be achieved in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic in Canada by the New Democratic Party (the social-democratic party in Canada):

Events like well-publicized video town halls, car caravans, or carefully marshalled physical protests/pickets would do a lot to shine a light on the shortcomings of the Liberal government and the capitalist system [my emphasis]. The NDP could be pushing now for public ownership of all long-term care homes, waiving of rent and mortgages during the pandemic, an end to evictions or foreclosures, and a universal public health system.

Trudeau may be popular, but he is also vulnerable, especially from the left. The NDP could start now building support for a jobs program to reconstruct the Canadian economy and society after the devastation of COVID-19 and a world economic depression. This program could combine tackling the climate crisis with providing jobs and building affordable homes–all vital for Canadians’ well-being. Restarting the economy will take major public investment–workers are short of money, and big business is continuing its refusal to invest just as before COVID-19.

There is almost a mystical quality about the claim that “the shortcomings of the capitalist system” will become evident by such short-term efforts. This overestimates vastly the efficacy of such efforts in driving home to working people and community members “the shortcomings of the capitalist system,” and vastly underestimates the staying power of the capitalist system despite such “shortcomings.”

This does not mean that there should be no efforts to address problems associated with the capitalist system or with specific problems that have emerged due to the pandemic in the context of a capitalist system characterized by the domination of a class of employers. However, let us not underestimate the tasks required to ensure that people do indeed believe that the capitalist system has shortcomings that require the elimination of the power of the class of employers and the economic, political and social structures and relations associated with that power.

The overestimation of what people actually believe can also be seen from the following:

An indication of the leftward shift in public attitudes is shown by the results of a recent survey conducted by Abacus Data in late May. Three-quarters of Canadians said they either strongly support (44 percent) or support (31 percent) a tax of one to two percent on the assets of Canada’s wealthiest to help pay for the country’s recovery. The survey also touched on the issue of government aid to corporations. Four-fifths of respondents (81 percent) said that companies receiving government assistance should be prohibited from using foreign tax havens or using the funds to pay for excessive executive salaries, to buy back shares, or hike dividends.

Belief in heavier taxation of the wealthy, or more strings attached to corporations that receive government assistance is hardly the same thing as a belief in the shortcomings of the capitalist system. Social democrats or leftist social reformers often talk of the need for corporations to pay their fair share of taxes, for example (see   Co-optation of Students at School Through We Day, Part Two: The Social-Democratic Left Share Some of We Day’s Assumptions). The concept of corporations paying their fair share of taxes does not express opposition to the class power of employer.

At the provincial level, the writers refer to the British Columbia NDP (British Columbia is the most western province in Canada) and its lack of criticism of the failings of the capitalist system:

BC’s New Democrats have acted as a moderate and competent government, better than is the case in several provinces, but they have not shown a commitment to working people and have propped up capitalism rather than challenging it. The NDP is missing an opportunity to show to the rest of Canada a bold alternative to the present failing system.

The NDP, federally and provincially, do not aim to end capitalism. Has it ever really done so? It is a social-democratic or social reformist party; that is its nature. The NDP would have to be a very different kind of party to be able to offer “a bold alternative to the present failing system.” Furthermore, most working people and community members do not really believe that the capitalist system is a failing system. Where is there evidence to the contrary?

Let us listen to one of the writer’s own lack of taking seriously the need to engage in sustained ideological struggles in order to ensure that workers and community members really believe that capitalism is a failing system: Tim Heffernan is a member of Socialist Alternative, the same political party as Kshama Sawant, an elected representative to the Seattle City Council. I had a debate with Mr. Heffernan sometime ago:

Fred raises some interesting points. However, I think he’s confusing social-democratic/reformist demands with transitional demands. There’s a difference which I can elaborate on if needed but the practical contrast between them can be seen in Seattle itself where I would argue that Rosenblum encapsulated an honest and militant social democratic approach while Kshama Sawant & Socialist Alternative (also militant and honest) pushed the movement to its limits by raising the demand for 15/taxing the rich to the need for a socialist transformation of society. But I will concede that there are some in the US left who label SA as reformist too.

Also, we need to look at the concrete not the abstract. The “15 movement” in North America has seen different manifestations and the slogans/demands put forward have varied in time and place. So in Seattle in 2013-14, it was “15 Now”, in other parts of the US it became “15 and a union” and in Ontario it was ” 15 & Fairness”. Fred objects to the term “fairness” presumably because of its association with the old trade union demand of “a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay”. Engels dealt with this demand back in 1881 where he recognized the usefulness of it in the early stages of developing class consciousness of the British working class, in the first half of the 19th Century, but saw it as an impediment at the time he was writing.

To today and “15 and Fairness”. I think the addition of “fairness” to the straight “15” demand was an excellent move. Fairness wasn’t understood as an airy fairy, feel good notion but came to be seen as shorthand for a series of extra and linked demands that could mobilise low paid and exploited workers:
– paid sick days
– equal pay for equal work (full time vs part time)
– the right to a union
– the fight against racism and discrimination
and more

If the above be bullshit, so be it. I like to think that Engels, were he alive today, would have his criticisms of the limitations of 15 & Fairness but would be overwhelmingly positive about what it has achieved so far.

Tim

To which I responded:

Hello all,

Tim’s justification for “fairness” is that it is–somehow–a transitional demand. Let him elaborate on how it is in any way a “transitional” demand. I believe that that is simply bullshit.

He further argues the following:

“Fairness wasn’t understood as an airy fairy, feel good notion but came to be seen as shorthand for a series of extra and linked demands that could mobilise low paid and exploited workers:
– paid sick days
– equal pay for equal work (full time vs part time)
– the right to a union
– the fight against racism and discrimination
and more”

How does Tim draw such conclusions? It is a tautology (repetition of what is assumed to be true) to say that it is fair if “paid sick days, equal pay for equal work (full time vs part time), etc. is considered “fair.”

Why should these goals be tied to “fairness”? I had paid sick days at the brewery, I belonged to a union (there was, however, evident racism among some of the brewery workers and there was also a probationary six-month period before obtaining a full union-wage). Was that then a “fair” situation? I guess so–according to Tim’s logic. Why not then shut my mouth and not complain since I lived a “fair” life at the brewery? But, of course, I did not shut my mouth.

But does Tim believe that merely gaining “paid sick days, equal pay for equal work (full time vs part time), the right to a union, the fight against racism and discrimination and more” is fair? If he did, he would then presumably cease being a member of Socialist Alternative since he would have achieved his goals. However, he likely does not believe that it is fair. What he proposes, then, is to lie (bullshit) to workers by not revealing what he really believes as a “transitional” demand. He does not really believe that it is fair, but he believes that such rhetoric is a useful tool in developing a movement. Frankly, I believe that such a view is both dishonest and opportunistic. Workers deserve better–it is they who continue to be exploited despite “paid sick days,” etc. Receiving paid sick days is better than not receiving paid sick days, but all the demands obtained cannot constitute “fairness.” And yet workers who buy into the rhetoric (bullshit) of fairness may believe this fairy tale (it is, after all, a fairy tale presented by social democrats often enough, among others). Rather than enlightening the workers about their situation, such rhetoric serves to obscure it and to confuse workers–support for the Donald Trump’s of the world in the making.

Such low standards. Rather than calling into question the power of employers to direct their lives by control over the products of their own labour, it implicitly assumes the legitimacy of such power. Ask many of those who refer to the fight for $15 and Fairness–are they opposed in any way to the power of employers as a class? Not just verbally, but practically? Or do they believe that we need employers? That we need to have our work directed by them? That working for an employer is an inevitable part of daily life? That there is no alternative? That working for an employer is not really all that bad?

When working at the brewery, I took a course at the University of Calgary. The professor was interested in doing solidarity work for the Polish organization Solidarity at the time. I told him that I felt like I was being raped at the brewery. He looked at me with disgust–how could I equate being raped (sexually assaulted) with working for an employer? I find that radicals these days really do not seem to consider working for an employer to be all that bad. If they did, they probably would use the same logic as their opposition to sexual assault. Sexual assault in itself is bad, but there are, of course, different degrees of sexual assault. Those who sexually assault a person may do so more violently or less violently; in that sense, those who sexually assault a person less violently are “better” than those who are more violent. However, sexual assault is in itself bad, so any talk of “fairness” in sexually assaulting someone is absurd. Similarly, any talk of fairness in exploiting someone is absurd. But not for the “radical” left these days, it would seem.

Fred

Engels, Marx’s best friend and political ally, criticized the opportunist sacrifice of the long-term interests of workers for possibly short-term gains–and this is what the so-called radical left do often enough (and Mr. Heffernan’s defense of linking the fight for improved wages and working conditions with “fairness” . Quoted from From Christoph Henning (2014), Philosophy After Marx: 100 Years of Misreadings and the Normative Turn in Political Philosophy, page 37, note 86:

This forgetting of the great, the principal considerations for the momentary interests of the day, this struggling and striving for the success of the moment regardless of later consequences, this sacrifice of the future of the movement for its present, may be “honestly” meant, but it is and remains opportunism, and “honest” opportunism is perhaps the most dangerous of all!

Let us now discuss Mr. Heffernan’s acceptance of the slogan “Fairness” alongside the fight for a minimum wage of $15 an hour, on the one hand, and the reference to shedding light on the “shortcomings of the capitalist system” on the other. Surely one of the shortcomings of the capitalist system is its unfairness. Having millions of workers working every day for an unelected manager or managers (as representatives of employers) is unfair. Losing your job through no fault of your own (because management decides it is best for the company or department) is unfair. Being treated as a means for the benefit of employers is unfair (see The Money Circuit of Capital).

There is an apparent clash here between the acceptance of the slogan “$15 and Fairness”  and the apparent claim that it is necessary to shed light “on the shortcomings of the capitalist system.” This contradiction is, however, merely apparent. Mr. Heffernan does not take seriously the need to engage, systematically and persistently, in pointing out “the shortcomings of the capitalist system.”

Or does he? He claims that the slogan “Fight for $15 and Fairness” is a transitional demand. Does he have evidence that it indeed has served to change the aims of workers from fighting for reforms within a system characterized by a class of employers to an aim of fighting to abolish their class power? I am still waiting for Mr. Heffernan to provide such evidence.

In fact, it is very difficult to shed light “on the shortcomings of the capitalist system” in such a way that working people and community members will take seriously such shortcomings and act upon such a belief. Frequently, what happens is that one aspect of the capitalist system is criticized whereas the system as such is simply assumed to be unchangeable. This is in fact the assumption of the slogan “Fight for $15 and Fairness.”

Mr.Heffernan’s evident acceptance of the ideology of “Fight for $15 Fairness and Fairness” goes hand in hand with substantial underestimation of the need for and difficulty of sustained ideological criticism of the “shortcomings of the capitalist system.”

Imagine a substantial number of of Canadian believing that the capitalist system has such short comings that they are willing to organize and struggle to overcome such a system. In other words, they would have to have similar aims. How far are we from achieving such common aims among millions of workers and community members? The distance between where we are and where we need to be is great, and Mr. Heffernan’s acceptance of the slogan “Fight for $15 and Fairness” does nothing to bridge the gap; to the contrary, it contributes to the maintenance of such a gap. References to shedding light on “the shortcomings of the capitalist system” ring hollow.

Mr. Heffernan, like many other self-styled radical leftists, does not really aim to shed light on “the shortcomings of the capitalist system.” If they did, they would persistently engage in exposing such shortcomings. Furthermore, they would distinguish shortcomings that arise from shortcomings of the capitalist system as such and shortcomings that arise from a specific form of capitalism. Shortcomings arising from capitalism as such cannot be reformed whereas shortcomings arising from a specific form of capitalism can be reformed without changing the basic nature of capitalism. Admittedly, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish the two, but we need to make an effort at distinguishing them so that we can distinguish between actions that question the very foundation of the class power of employers and actions which that class power can co-opt.

We need to realize that aiming for a socialist society will require much ideological struggle in order to clarify our aims and to move, collectively, towards the common aim of abolishing the class power of employers and its associated economic, political and social structures.

There is no such movement here in Toronto. It needs to be created. I suspect the creation of such a movement is also required in many parts of the world since it is mainly social democrats who dominate the left these days–despite their radical-sounding phrases.