Is Oxfam a “Progressive Organization?”–An Abstract Slogan (Rhetoric) of Social Democrats, Part One

Introduction

In an article posted on the Socialist Project’s website (https://socialistproject.ca/2021/12/swords-into-ploughshares/), Simon Black speaks to Sam Gindin, a social democrat or social reformer here in Toronto, Ontario, Canada and author, along with the late Leo Panitch, of the book (2013) The Making of Global Capitalism: The Political Economy of American Empire. 

Mr. Black states the following: 

SB: Canadian arms exports to Saudi Arabia have been opposed by a range of civil society organizations, from Amnesty International to Oxfam. Collectively these organizations have also called for the federal government to work with trade unions representing workers in the arms industry to develop a plan that secures the livelihoods of those who would be impacted by the end of arms exports to Saudi Arabia. And in Labour Against the Arms Trade’s work with these organizations, we’ve always stressed the importance of centring this demand. Why is it important that mainstream, liberal human rights and humanitarian organizations are calling for a just transition for arms industry workers?

Mr. Gindin’s response? 

Progressive organizations like Oxfam and Amnesty [my emphasis] are right to see that this [challenge to profit priorities] is a challenge to capitalist power and capitalism itself and so can be a barrier to convincing people, particularly workers and communities where these arms are manufactured, like the LAVs in London, Ontario. But it’s the only honest – and possible – way forward. The message is not just that there are potential alternatives, but also that they could be introduced only if we could build the kind of social force that’s necessary to [implement them]. Sometimes people want to obscure the fact that our demands are radical, because they feel like [this reality will make it] harder to mobilize. [But] unless we can respect workers enough to address the reality and win them over, we’re left with a progressive demand that is in essence an abstract slogan [my emphases].

This concept of “progressive organizations”–without qualifications or analysis–sounds very much like “an abstract slogan.” Calling such organizations progressive without further ado fails to address the possible limitations of such organizations. It also sounds very much like the use of the term “radical” used by Mr. Gindin’s fellow social democrat, Hermand Rosenfeld, who has used the term “radical” in a merely social-reformist or social-democratic sense (see my series of posts on the topic, such as What’s Left, Toronto? Part Two). 

Let us first look at Oxfam. In a relatively recent publication (September 2020, titled Power, Profits and the Pandemic: From Corporate Extraction for the Few to an Economy that Works for All) (available for download at https://www.oxfam.org/en/research/power-profits-and-pandemic ), Oxfam criticizes, in various ways, how the pandemic has increased inequalities throughout the world. 

Rather than focusing on its critique (which centres mainly on differences in income, excluding consideration of the distribution of wealth that is used to produce both means of production (machinery (including computers), plant or buildings, raw materials, auxiliary materials) and means of consumption (bread, meat, coffee, tea, milk, refrigerators, fans, cars and so forth), let us look at some of its recommendations. 

The recommendations look very much like a social-democratic or social-reformist wish list. In essence, they seek to roll back the clock to the time after the Second-World War–without the conditions that then prevailed (such as a working class that was not only more organized but had experience in fighting a war and a substantial part of the capital owned by employers  being destroyed (thereby reducing the constant part of capital as well as obsolete technology and raising the rate of profit). 

Capitalism with a Humane Face: The End of Neoliberalism

Decent Work

Oxfam on Decent Work

What Oxfam seeks is the elimination of neoliberalism–but not the class power of employers. This is typical of modern-day social democrats. Thus, we read (pages 40-41): 

People: putting people at the center of business

Companies should redesign their business models to center on the wellbeing of people in their operations, supply chains and broader society – and be incentivized to do so. This will require investing in decent jobs, addressing human rights risks and supporting efforts for universal social protection.

It then outlines what it means by “decent jobs” (page 41): 

Decent work
• Governments must require, and companies should pay living wages, provide safe and healthy working conditions, and work with trade unions to increase the negotiating power of workers.
• Governments must require and companies should provide paid leave and ensure women have equal opportunities for advancement.
• Companies should eliminate commercial and trading practices that place undue levels of risk and pressure to cut costs on suppliers.
• Companies should exercise preferential sourcing from suppliers that guarantee a living wage and are unionized.

If there is a market for workers, how can there be such a thing as “decent jobs?” This is the “abstract slogan” of social democrats everywhere. The class power of employers and the general nature of such a society ensures that jobs and the human beings that perform them will be used as means for the pursuit of more money (see The Money Circuit of Capital). (For a critique of the concept of “decent jobs” or “decent work,” see Do Collective Agreements Convert Working for an Employer into Decent Work?).

Mr. Gindin’s Social-Democratic View on Decent Work

Mr. Gindin nowhere engages in a critique of this abstract slogan. On the contrary. When I tried to bring up the issue, here is what Mr. Gindin had to say on the subject (November 24, 2017): 

Debating whether a job is ‘decent‘ is a misdirection.  Everyone pretty much knows, I think, that workers are exploited even if their conditions improve. ‘Decent jobs’ or a ‘good contract’ are a way of expressing defensive gains when radical gains are not even on the table and we – those on this exchange – don’t have the capacity tooter [to offer?] them any kind of alternative jobs. So criticizing them for this hardly seems an effective way to move them to your view – which is not to say you shouldn’t raise it but that you shouldn’t be surprised when they don’t suddenly act on your point. Which brings me back to the point that the problem is not Dealy Sean [Smith,  Unifor Local 2002 Co-Ordinator and Toronto Airport Workers Council (TAWC) activist] or others but OUR Collective inability to provide them with an effective alternative politics…They can be criticized but only if we do so with humility and part of criticizing ourselves.

The reference to Dealy is to Wayne Dealy, the  executive director for Local 3902 of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), called me a “condescending prick” for criticizing another union rep (Tracy McMaster), who claimed that all that striking brewery workers wanted was “fair wages” and “decent jobs.”

Mr. Gindin fails to see how the concept of “decent work” or “decent jobs” has been used by social-democratic organizations as a means of avoiding engaging in debate about whether working for any employer can be considered “decent.” Such a phrase is an “abstract slogan” that unions persistently use without teaching their members just how limited collective bargaining and collective agreements are. Oxfam uses the same abstract slogan as unions. 

Such a debate has to do, among other things, with the standards we use to judge activities as appropriate to our natural characteristics as living human beings, to our historical characteristics as living human beings who socially produce our own lives on the basis of already produced means of production inherited from the  past and to our current situation as living human beings who have created a world of machines (including computers) that we need to produce our lives but that we do not control.

It should not, however, come as a surprise that Mr. Gindin would defend the use of the ideological expression “decent work.” He himself has used such an expression in the past. From  “Rethinking Unions, Registering Socialism,” in pages 26-51, Socialist Register 2013, pages 39-40: 

1. From bargaining to jobs

‘The last 30 years have changed us’, the CEO of Gallup recently noted by way of introducing what he described as one of the firm’s most consistent polling results: ‘The primary will of the world is first and foremost to have a good job. Everything else comes after that’. The implication for unions could not be more profound since unions have traditionally been structured around the conditions and price of workers’ labour power, not whether they have a job in the first place. This inability to address their members’ top priority is a problem in itself and, because of the related insecurity, also undermines the
union capacity to deliver on what they are allegedly structured to do – defend and improve wages, benefits and working conditions. There can be no union renewal without addressing access to decent jobs [my emphasis]. Unions had previously avoided this contradiction by looking to growth and Keynesian stimulus to provide the jobs while the union concerned itself with negotiating labour’s price. Though fiscal stimulus does have currency at this particular moment – even many economists, mainstream commentators and corporate heads have come to see that fixing the banks is not enough to restore growth and save capitalism from itself – Keynesianism is dead and buried as a long-term strategy for addressing worker job security. Capital has made it abundantly clear that its strategies for growth now rest on worker discipline, containing inflation and increasing international competitiveness – all of which militate against worker job and social security. There has been growth in recent decades but, driven by the restoration of profits and weakening of unions, it has brought ever greater inequality while not delivering the levels of private investment that can bring anything close to full employment, never mind well-paying secure jobs.45

Note 45 at the end of the above quote provides further detail about what Mr. Gindin means by “decent jobs” (page 51): 

Even at relatively low unemployment rates, decent jobs are no longer necessarily provided – in 2004, the unemployment rate was down to 4 per cent but workers were no less insecure because restructuring was so intense (the positions were opening up were either inferior or not accessible to workers newly unemployed). The reserve army is no longer just the unemployed but also includes the precarious and low-paid in a context of accelerated restructuring. See Guy Standing, The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class,
London: Bloomsbury, 2011; and John Evans and Euan Gibb, ‘Moving from Precarious Employment to Decent Work’, Discussion Paper 13, Global Union Research Network, Geneva, 2009.

A decent job, then, is a job that is relatively secure. The working class certainly considers job security to be an essential need. However, the level of job security possible within a society dominated by a class of employers is a question of degree; no job–and hence no level of working-class income–is secure from the shifting sands of the accumulation process of capital. Job insecurity has been and is a common feature of working-class experience. For example, I worked at a capitalist brewery until 1983 in Calgary, Alberta, Canada (when I quit.). Eleven years later, in 1994, the employer (Molson) closed the brewery. 

Gindin’s implied view that job security is somehow really possible in the context of a society dominated by a class of employers seemed to be possible in the years following the Second World War (when massive amounts of constant capital–machinery, buildings, raw material, auxiliary material–was destroyed and millions of workers were killed), but the years since the late 1960s has shown that this security has been increasingly a will-o-the-wisp for many workers. To seek job security in such a context is purely reformist–and idealist. Job security will likely be secured if a massive war erupts (with the possible extinction of the human species)–or a socialist society is secured. 

To speak of job security independently of the goal of abolishing the class power of employers is social-democratic rhetoric–an abstract slogan. 

Mr. Gindin’s reference to Oxfam as a progressive organization thus expresses his own lack of critical engagement with social-democratic or social-reformist rhetoric. It reflects a lack of self-criticism. Mr. Gindin fails to criticize his own views about decent jobs or decent work. As I said in a previous post ( The Rate of Exploitation of Workers at Magna International Inc., One of the Largest Private Employers in Toronto, Part Three, Updated, 2020): 

For Mr. Gindin, though, to question the “language” used by union reps, as well as the omission of any criticism of the limitations of collective bargaining and collective agreements, expresses merely “moralizing.”

I will leave Mr. Gindin with his fake humility and his fake self-criticism.

Oxfam on Collective Bargaining

This ideological reference by Oxfam to decent work is coupled with a call for collective bargaining and, implicitly collective agreements, without ever engaging in an analysis of the limits of such bargaining in the context of a society dominated by a class of employers and the associated economic, political and social structures. From page 43: 

Collective bargaining
•Governments must support and companies should respect collective bargaining rights and engage with independent trade unions.
•Governments must support and companies should enable women workers to raise their voices safely and effectively in company operations and supply chains.
•Companies should create robust grievance mechanism for employees and workers across their supply chains.

I have criticized the limitations of collective bargaining and collective agreements in a number of posts (see, for example  Management Rights, Part Nine: Is A Collective Agreement that Involves Management Rights and the Exploitation and Oppression of Workers a Fair Contract? or Fair Contracts (or Fair Collective Agreements): The Ideological Rhetoric of Canadian Unions, Part One ). 

Oxfam on Corporations as Needing to Pay Their “Fair Share of Taxes”

Further evidence that Oxfam is a social-democratic or social-reformist organization that does not aim to challenge the general class power of employers is its recommendation that corporations “pay their fair share of taxes”–another abstract slogan. From Oxfam’s 2020 publication, page 42: 

Governments should ensure large multinational companies pay their fair share of taxes [my emphasis] where economic activity takes place, including through a corporate global minimum tax, applied at a country-by-country level.

The concept of corporations “paying their fair share of taxes” is an abstract slogan. What does it mean? If all corporations exploit the workers they employ, how is it possible for them to pay any taxes that are “fair?” There is the implicit assumption that the profit of corporations is somehow “fair”–but that corporations are not paying a portion of that as taxes that would constitute a fair share. In other words, it is implied that it is fair to exploit and oppress workers–provided that the corporations “pay their fair share of taxes.” 

Oxfam’s Unrealistic Recommendation of Putting People First in the Context of the Class Power of Employers

Just as Oxfam fails to question the abstract slogan of corporations paying their fair share of taxes, it also fails to question the abstract slogan of putting people before profits. Oxfam recommends the following as well:

People: putting people at the center of business
Companies should redesign their business models to center on the wellbeing of people in their operations, supply chains and broader society – and be incentivized to do so. 

People are indeed at the “center” of the operations of businesses: they are means for obtaining more and more profit (see The Money Circuit of Capital). As I wrote in my post on Socialist Action: 

If we take a look at the money circuit of capital (The Money Circuit of Capital), we can see that workers are used as mere means for obtaining more profit (or, in the case of the government, for purposes undefined by workers). For Mr. Thomason, as long as the Irvings pay “their fair share of taxes”–they can continue to exploit workers. Such is the logic of the social-democratic left. How do these social democrats represent the general interests of workers (the class interests of workers)? 

In an article written by Craig Berry and Clive Gabay (2009), Transnational political action and ’global civil society’ in practice: the case of Oxfam, they argue that Oxfam does not oppose globalization nor transnational (or multinational) corporations (TNCs or MNCs), but rather seeks to use them and the consequences that flow from them to “humanize” the world: 

The general argument seems to be that both market forces and technological change have contributed to the development of globalization. The principal implication of globalization, however, is the birth of a global economy operating beyond the confines of nation-states. Crucially, moreover, this is generally a positive development. Even criticism of transnational corporations (TNCs), the apparent targets of the anti-globalization movement, is muted:

Technological change has made globalization possible. Transnational companies have made it happen. Through their investment, production and marketing activities, TNCs bring the world’s economies and people more closely together’ (Oxfam International 2002: 14).

Oxfam therefore merely identifies TNCs as the carriers of the inexorable force of technological development, the logical outcome of which is increased trade. In general, there appears to be no appetite within Oxfam to challenge what they deem the process of
globalization. Two local organizers argued:

The challenge is to make globalization, which is unavoidable in some ways and in some ways very, very desirable, work for people. I think in some ways it has been shown not to work, but in others there have been some very positive outcomes of globalization.

If we take the best aspects of globalization, the best results of globalization… if we can use the forces of globalization to create a baseline around the world so that everyone has a choice, everyone has access to a doctor, a school, these real baseline Millennium
Development Goals-type aspirations, I do think globalization can deliver.

It seems the problem with globalization for Oxfam is that it is not working for enough
people. It is its goal of rectifying this situation that gives Oxfam its identity as a
‘development’ organisation. Yet we see this strange paradox whereby globalization is said to require better management, yet it is deemed in itself positive: Oxfam separates current
governance arrangements, orchestrated by nation-states, from the economic process.

Qualified Support for Oxfam–After Engaging in its Critique

What might a more appropriate leftist political position be in relation to Oxfam? Its limitations need to be pointed out (some of which were specified above). On the other hand, once these limitations have been identified and described, it can certainly be acknowledged that Oxfam has done some good work in certain areas. Its research into the increasing inequality could be used to good advantage, for example, as could its statistics on how profits during Covid evidently were more important for corporations than the interests of their workers–and how government subsidies to corporations did not change corporation’s behaviour. 

Furthermore, its opposition to violence against girls and women is also commendable–see my own efforts in relation to my daughter in such posts as  A Personal Example of the Oppressive Nature of  Public Welfare Services

Nonetheless, for those who oppose the class power of employers, these efforts and this research need to be linked to a critique of the implied standard used by Oxfam and so many other so-called progressive organizations or “material structures”: the standard of a humanized capitalism. 

Conclusions

Mr. Gindin’s claim that

Progressive organizations like Oxfam and Amnesty [my emphasis] are right to see that this [challenge to profit priorities] is a challenge to capitalist power and capitalism itself

rings hollow. Oxfam challenges a particular version of capitalism (neoliberalism) but not the nature of capitalism as such. Oxfam seeks to reform capitalism–not abolish it. Oxfam is like Mr. Gindin’s right-hand man, Herman Rosenfeld, who argues the same in regard to the police:  

Shouldn’t that institution [the police] be thoroughly transformed, by political struggle, into a more humane, limited and less autonomous one?

If we substitute “neoliberal capitalism” for “the police”, we have Oxfam’s views. Decent work under the rule of employers, collective bargaining with the power of employers modified but not eliminated, corporations paying their fair share of taxes while exploiting and oppressing workers and putting people at the center–of exploitation and oppression–this is the contradiction of Oxfam. Mr. Gindin, however, claims the opposite–that “Progressive organizations like Oxfam and Amnesty [my emphasis] are right to see that this [challenge to profit priorities] is a challenge to capitalist power and capitalism itself.” Oxfam aims to modify the profit priorities of employers but not eliminate their power. 

Mr. Gindin implied that it was necessary to create “material structures” first rather than engage in criticizing the ideology of trade-unions (see my critique Fair Contracts or Collective Agreements: The Ideological Rhetoric of Canadian Unions, Part Four: The National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE)). Oxfam certainly has a material structure. Is Oxfam the embodiment of Mr. Gindin’s ideas (since it is “a progressive organization”)? Or is there need to question the implicit assumption by Oxfam that the exploitation and oppression of workers is legitimate? If so, why would Mr. Gindin call it a “progressive organization?” 

Does not Mr. Gindin, like so many social-democrats, engage in abstract slogans by claiming that Oxfam is a progressive organization that somehow threatens capitalism? 

In effect, the social-democratic left often engage in rubber stamping other so-called progressive organizations without engaging in any inquiry into their nature and limitations (see for example another example of rubber stamping by the grassroots organization Social Housing Green Deal here in Toronto  Exposing the Intolerance and Censorship of Social Democracy, Part Two: Critique of the Standard of Canadians and Landed Immigrants Working for an Employer). Indeed, I get the impression that there is lots of rubber stamping among the social-democratic left. 

In a related post, I may take a look in a general way at whether Amnesty International (AI) is a “progressive organization,” and in a follow-up post may look in more detail at AI’s silence  concerning economic coercion, exploitation and oppression, on the one hand, and its contradictory treatment of the capitalist government or state and its limited critique of that institution on the other. 

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