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”). 

 

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