What’s Left, Toronto? Part One

On September 19, 2018, several leftist activists gave a talk about what was to be done in the city of Toronto. It was posted on the Socialist Project website on October 7, 2018 (What’s Left, Toronto? Radical Alternatives for the City Election) Over the next few months, I will be analyzing some or all of the talks from a Marxian perspective.

Before looking at the diverse talks, though, I will reiterate in this post a point that I have already addressed in some other posts since the moderator of the talks, Herman Rosenfeld, brought the issue up again. He mentions “decent, secure jobs with decent pay.” Why any self-declared socialist feels compelled to declare, at this stage of capitalism, to pair the term “decent” with “jobs” and “decent” with “pay” other than fear of alienating his social-reformist allies or due to opportunism is beyond me.

Working for an employer by human beings is indecent–period. The justification for such a view is given in   The Money Circuit of Capital.  The same could be said of pay. Human beings are used as things when working for employers–whether they receive high or low pay, and whether they have a secure or precarious job.

Of course, it would be better to have secure jobs than precarious jobs, and it would of course be better to receive more pay than less pay. To deny that would be foolish. But to use such terms as “decent” is itself absurd when there is a claim to be “radical.” This is not radical–it is social reformism–and nothing more. The implication is that somehow the good life can be achieved within the limits of a society characterized by domination by a class of employers.

For instance, it is likely that the radical left has remained silent while Pam Frache, an organizer for the Workers’ Action Centre in Toronto who has been involved in the fight for the $15 minimum wage and other reforms of employment law, has recently stated the following in reaction to Doug Ford’s legislative attack on Bill 148, which provides for various employment law reforms, including the proposed minimum wage of $15 an hour as of January 1, 2019 in Ontario, a province in Canada:

“The law is the law, and as it stands, nearly 2 million workers are scheduled to get a raise in 11 weeks,” says Pam Frache, Coordinator of Fight for $15 & Fairness Campaign. “Every single day we encounter people who tell us they voted for Premier Ford because they thought his promise to be ‘for the people’ meant standing up to corporate elites, like Galen Weston and Rocco Rossi. Repealing Bill 148 now would be a slap in the face of many workers who voted for Premier Ford,” she added.

The law is the law? Really? Does that mean that the working class is supposed to respect the law? Does that mean that Pam Frache proposes that all workers subject to collective agreements follow orders according to management rights (see  Management Rights, Part One: Private Sector Collective Agreement, British Columbia,   Management Rights, Part Two: Public Sector Collective Agreement, OntarioManagement (Employer) Rights, Part Three: Public Sector Collective Agreement, ManitobaManagement Rights, Part Four: Private Sector Collective Agreement, Ontario) and agree to being treated as things to be used? That they should respect the law?

There are ways of defending workers’ power through law without defending law as such. For example, it could have been said that Bill 148 limits the power of employers to exploit and oppress workers and permits workers some increased freedom and should therefore be defended not because it is law as such but because precisely of what it permits. To claim that “The law is the law” ties workers to employers’ power and is hardly in the interest of the working class since the legal system is geared towards the power of employers as a class. The same reasoning could be used to defend signing a collective agreement (but union reps sometimes idealize union agreements by referring, as did Pam Frache, to the sanctity of the law: “The law is the law,” after all–as if human beings are supposed to exist for the laws and laws are not supposed to exist for human beings.)

The radical left had the opportunity to question Pam Frache’s ideology at a forum on $15 and “Fairness.” She was a member of the audience and had her hand raised and was acknowledged by the chair of the forum, Sean Smith. Pam spoke for perhaps 10 minutes. I raised my hand perhaps four time to ask a question about pairing the fight for $15 with the term “fairness”–and was not acknowledged. However, Herman was present in the audience  (as was Sam Gindin), and he did not raise the issue.

Already, one wonders what is indeed left in Toronto when the moderator introduces such reformist rhetoric into his introduction. On the eve of the Toronto elections, the Toronto “left” are already proving themselves to be afraid to question social-reformist rhetoric.

Next month, I will look at one of the talks in the series.


Social-Reformist Leftist Activists Share Assumptions with the Right

In an earlier post (Basic Income: A Critique of the Social-Reformist Left’s Assumptions and Analysis: Part Two), I argued that the social-reformist leftist activist Mr. Bush used Karl Marx’s theory of surplus value for conservative (reformist purposes). This post will expand on this view by pointing out, in a more theoretical way, how Mr. Bush, undoubtedly like many of his social-reformist comrades, share assumptions with their apparent enemies, the right, such as the conservatives.

Mr. Bush referred to Marx’s theory of surplus value and assumed that this was the primary feature of Marx’s theory. Undoubtedly it is an important aspect of Marx’s theory, but Mr. Bush, by referring to the “messy business of material reality,” including “costs,” crassly assumes that costs are somehow a fixed standard that leftists are somehow not to question. The “messy business of material reality” is assumed, in other words, to be a fixed fact rather than a fluid reality created by human beings and therefore subject to change by them.

Mr. Bush assumes, like Doug Ford and other conservatives, that things (including human beings), have “costs” (the “messy business of material reality)–without inquiring into the nature of those costs or why such things have such costs in the first place.

Let us, however, refer to Marx (and not to the shared assumptions of Mr. Bush and Doug Ford). From Capital, Volume 1, pages 173-175,

Political economy has indeed analysed value and its magnitude, however incompletely, and has uncovered the content concealed within these forms. But it has never once asked the question why this content has assumed that particular form, that is to say, why labour is expressed in value, and why the measurement of labour by its duration is expressed in the magnitude of the product.  These formulas, which bear the unmistakable stamp of value of the belonging to a social formation in which the process of production has mastery over man, instead of the opposite, appear to the political economists’ bourgeois consciousness to be as much a self-evident and nature-imposed necessity as productive labour itself.

The first point is that value and its magnitude (which is related to price, money and “cost”) is an expression of a kind of society in which “process of production has mastery over man [and woman], instead of the opposite.”

The second point is that Marx relates his labour theory of value in order to reveal the social and alienated nature of the labour involved in the development of money and in “costing” things. From Capital, Volume 1, pages 168-169:

Consequently, it was solely the analysis of the prices of commodities which led to the determination of the magnitude of value, and solely the common expression of all commodities in money which led to the establishment of their character as values.
It is however precisely this finished form of the world of commodities – the money form – which conceals the social character of private labour and the social relations between the individual workers, by making those relations appear as relations between material objects, instead of revealing them plainly.

Other authors agree that Marx’s concern is not just with a theory of surplus value but with a theory of surplus value. Thus, John Weeks, in his work Capital, Exploitation and Economic Crisis (New York: Routledge, page 19):

Value acts as a regulator of price once the entire product, all inputs, are monetized;
until this occurs, the product is not a commodity in its entirety and all the
concrete labor time expended on it need not be replaced by money. This occurs
only with the development of capitalist production. It is important not to
become entangled in semantics. “Value” regulates price under capitalist relations
and can be used as a tool of analysis only in capitalist society.

Value regulates cost or the price of what is produced because both the items used to produce something have a price and what is produced with those commodities generally have a price (public services on the produced side excepted). Cost is not some neutral fact in a capitalist society but in an integral aspect that characterizes the very nature of the kind of society in which we live: a capitalist society (modified by public services but not altered fundamentally).

Marx’s theory of value, which Mr. Bush completely ignores, is designed to capture that essential aspect. This is one of the reasons why, before he analyzed capital, he analyzed commodities and money.

Mr. Bush, like Mr. Proudhon, a nineteenth century leftist socialist reformist before him, simply assumes that costs are natural. He refers to these costs as the “messy business of material reality”–as if material reality were somehow by nature characterized by prices and costs. Doug Ford undoubtedly shares the same belief.

In other words, Mr. Bush, a self-avowed social-reformist leftist, shares similar beliefs as Doug Ford about the nature of society despite apparent opposing ideologies. The same could be said of many trade unionists. Do they not believe that costs are natural? That the “messy business of material reality” must necessarily include costs and prices? A social world without costs and prices would be impossible for them.

How can such a shared belief not but fail to have limits in practice? Already Mr. Bush has equated fighting for a $15 minimum wage and other employment law reforms with “fairness.”

What does the radical left do in Toronto (and probably elsewhere)? It is afraid to criticize Mr. Bush’s ideology. After all, Mr. Bush is–doing something. He is “progressive.” Such progress, however, will lead to a backlash since its limits are limits shared by him and Doug Ford. Mr Bush will not seek to go beyond the limits of the power of employers. He will become an apologist for employers, ultimately, since he considers costs and prices to be inevitable–like Doug Ford does. He will, in practice, engage in tactics and strategies that will limit the capacity of workers to free themselves from the power of employers as a class once and for all. He has already begun the process ideologically by claiming that $15 an hour as a minimum wage is somehow fair.

The radical left, then, would do better by criticizing Mr. Bush’s position (and the position of trade unionists similar to that of Mr. Bush). Otherwise, it forms part of the problem rather than part of the solution. By not criticizing such positions as that of Mr. Bush, by remaining silent, it panders after the elite and fails to address the needs of the working class, unionized or non-unionized. Those needs involve exposing the produced conditions of their oppression and exploitation and the proposal of an alternative vision of a society without such oppression and exploitation–which only they can produce.

In other words, the radical left, by failing to develop an independent position and merging with the amorphous “progressive left” (aka, the social-reformist left), has aligned itself with a clique of elitist activists within the labour movement rather than with the working class as a whole.

By doing so, the radical left indirectly aligns itself with the right–such as Doug Ford, since Mr. Bush and Doug Ford share certain assumptions.



Management Rights, Part Four: Private Sector Collective Agreement, Ontario

The social-democratic left typically is incapable of dealing with the issue of the power of management. There is little or no discussion over such issues despite the existence of the power of the class of employers at various levels of society: economic, political, social and cultural. This silence expresses both the power of the class of employers and the poverty of the social-democratic left.

Indeed, the social-reformist left often uses such phrases as a “decent job,” or “decent work”–as if for most people in a capitalist society there is such a thing. Alternatively, the standard used by the left to judge what constitutes decent work and a decent job assumes the legitimacy of the power of employers.

Such a standard is assumed and not justified, of course, by the social-reformist left. Indeed, I even heard one so-called radical leftist in Toronto claim that the phrase “decent work” expressed a defensive maneuver on the part of the left. Such a view is convenient for those who fear alienating unions.

However, is it in the interests of workers to hide the reality of work that is undignified and involves their treatment as things in one way or another?

In the following clause, should not the members of the union have discussed the clause thoroughly? What is the likelihood that they have? My wager is that they have not done so. If not, should not the union be criticized? Should not the radical left who fail to criticize such unions also be criticized?



And those employees
In the service of
As represented by
LOCAL 2002
Contract No. 31
As modified by the Memorandums of Agreement
dated June 13th 2015
Effective: March 1st 2015, to February 28th 2020

pages 2-3:

3.01 Subject to the provisions of this Collective Agreement, the control and direction of the working forces including the right to hire, suspend or discharge for cause, dispense with, to advance or set back in
classification, to reassign, to transfer or lay off because of lack of work or for other legitimate reasons, is vested solely in the Company.
3.02 These enumerations shall not be deemed to exclude other prerogatives not enumerated, and any of the rights, powers or authority of the Company are retained by the Company except those which are subject to the provisions of this Collective Agreement.

Getting Away with Murder and Bodily Assault: Employers and the Law

Steven Bittle, in his doctoral dissertation, Still Dying for a Living: Shaping Corporate Criminal Liability After the Westray Mine Disaster (Kingston, Ontario: Queen’s University argues the following (from page ii):

Overall, the dissertation suggests that the assumptions that animated Canada’s corporate criminal liability legislation and the meanings inscribed in its provisions throw serious doubt on its ability to hold corporations legally accountable for their harmful, anti-social acts. There is little reason to believe that the Westray bill will produce a crackdown on safety crimes, or seriously challenge corporations to address workplace injuries and death. While it will hold some corporations and corporate actors accountable – and thus far it has been the smallest and weakest – the primary causes of workplace injury and death (e.g., the tension between profit maximization and the costs of safety and the relative worth of workers/employees versus owners and investors) will continue.

The typical presentation of what is dangerous in our society is–crime. You merely have to look at the different tv shows (or Netflix shows) that have as their theme murder (one person or serial) compared to the number of shows that show how serious corporate actions lead to death and injury.

However, this focus on individual crime and violence goes hand in hand with a lack of focus on social crime and social violence–the violence of a class of employers and the violence of the social structure that supports that class.

This lack of focus on the violence of the class of employers and the violence of the social structure is reflected in the social democratic left’s general attitude towards “accidents” at work. Undoubtedly, at particular work sites, and with particular union representatives, there is a sustained effort to reduce the possibility of injury and death. However, such efforts are inadequate because they do not address the systemic impact of the pursuit of profit on shifting the burden of danger towards workers (and, it should be said, consumers).

If the labour movement in general and the union movement in particular took seriously the violence perpetrated by the class of employers and the violence of the social structure that supports that class, would they not begin a movement for the abolition of the class of employers and the social structure that supports that class? Is there any such movement in Canada? Perhaps there is, but I am unaware of such a movement.

In a previous post, it was pointed out that about double the number of workers die each year on the job when compared to the number of murders in Canada (The Issue of Health and Safety in the Workplace Dominated by a Class of Employers) . Should this fact not be a constant topic of discussion for workers, for citizens, for permanent residents and for non-status immigrants?

What do you think of the health and safety of workers who work for an employer? Should it be a topic for constant discussion?






A Case of Silent Indoctrination, Part Two: The Ontario History Curriculum and Its Lack of History of Employers and Employees

This post is a continuation of a previous post on the Manitoba history curriculum (see   A Case of Silent Indoctrination, Part One: The Manitoba History Curricula and Its Lack of History of Employers and Employees). The background to the post is provided in that previous post.

But just a reminder: the research question is: Does the history curriculum (or, if not available, the social-studies curriculum) provide much of an opportunity for students to understand how and why employers (and employees arose)?

The Ontario secondary curriculum that pertains to Canadian history consists of two documents: Canadian and World Studies, grades 9 and 10, and Canadian and World Studies, grades 11 and 12. Both include history as a separate section. No relevant hits that would answer the question came up when I used the search term “employ” for the grades 9 and 10 history curriculum. A few hits referred to employment (access of the latter for women, for example or unemployment), but nothing in the way of an exploration of the historical emergence of the employer-employees relation in Canada. The same applies when I used the search term “work.” A few topics came up (such as the impact of the decline of the manufacturing sector on workers), but no explanation of why workers need to sell their capacity to work to an employer and subordinate their will to the employer.

The grades 11 and 12 history curriculum covers more material, including Canadian, American and world history. Like other curricula, the use of the search term “employ” resulted in hits that had nothing to do with explaining why employers emerged and have the power to dictate to workers at work. Hits deal with the employment of children and women in factories, or unemployment. One reference, however, does provide some possibility for exploring the historical emergence of employers and employees. On page 399, students are asked to “analyse interrelationships between specific groups in various societies around the world during this period [1650-1789] (e.g., between slaves and masters, serfs and lords, apprentices and employers….”

Here there is real potential for students to answer the question. However, it is buried in suggestions for analysis of other class relations rather than being a focal point. To be sure, a comparative approach to class relations may help in clarifying the distinctive nature and historical conditions of the employer-employees relation, but if the study of history is to enable us to understand our current situation better, then the historical conditions for the emergence of the employer-employees relation should be the focus, and differences from other class relations could then provide a contrast to further clarify the distinctive nature of the employer-employees relation in order for students to understand how and why most workers are now employees subject to the dictatorship of employers and how this is different from other forms of class relations. The contrast could also form the point of departure for the exploration of the question of whether another form of class relation will arise if the employer-employees relation no longer exists or whether no classes will exist due to the development of substantially changed technological conditions that no longer require class relations at all.

The curriculum designers were probably quite unconscious of the implications of their inclusion of a reference to employers and to other class relations. Nonetheless, the curriculum, however slightly, does provide an opening for students to explore the issue, but that opening should be a central feature of the history curriculum since it is a central feature of modern capitalist life.

Another limitation of this reference to employers is the connection of the latter to apprentices rather than to employees. The apprenticeship system occurred in guilds at first so that subordinates were to become master artisans and not employees. As capitalist relations developed, however, apprentices saw their chances of becoming a master artisan dwindle, and they saw themselves becoming an employee (and resisted accordingly). An historical focus on the transition from apprenticeship status to the status of being an employee should have been included in order to gain a proper appreciation of the world-historical shift from apprenticeship status to the persistent subordinate status of an employee and the emergence of employers as a distinct, controlling class.

Using the search term “work,” I found little of direct relevance in answering the question although there is some indirect relevance—but insufficient to guide the teacher in developing lesson plans that would help students the modern employer-employees relation. For instance, on page 307 it is suggested to have students compare the lives of working-class children working in industrial cities to children working as slaves on a southern plantation and to compare both to the children of wealthy families. Such a comparison is certainly better than much of what is offered in other history curricula, but it remains mainly static. How and why did children become working-class children, children of slaves or children of wealthy parents? Furthermore, if, as the philosopher of education John Dewey argued, the nature of anything includes its transformation into something else, then the nature of slave society and the nature of capitalist society (which included the working class) involves a consideration of what they are changing into: “Every event as such is passing into other things, in such a way that a later occurrence is an integral part of the character or nature of present existence” (Experience and Nature, London: Allen & Unwin, 1929, p. 111). History is not just about the past but about change and the kind of change that is possible—and the kinds of possibilities that were closed as other paths were taken.

Comparative relations are also suggested on page 356 by having students compare what is called traditional, mixed, agricultural, industrialized or free-market capitalist economies. Again, such a comparative view is better than the other curricula, but what is needed is a focus on the dynamic element—from one changing into the other, and how and why that occurs. Often, the dynamic is reduced to technological change—the mass production and mass use of cars, for instance. Furthermore, as already noted, the focus is not on coming to understand the current economic relations—which is indeed what the focus should be if students are to gain an understanding of the social world around them and to gain collective control over their own lives—which forms an essential element of real education.

The implicit bias (through its lack of focus on the question posed at the beginning of this essay) becomes more explicit on page 441 when the authors write: “Why have some groups been critical of the power of unions?” It is certainly true that some groups have been critical of the power of unions—employers. Nowhere in the document can we find a reference to the following question: “Why have some groups been critical of the power of employers?”

I used the search term “capital,” but there was only the occasional reference to capitalism. On page 332 there is a reference to how capitalism was transforming early societies in the fifteenth century, so there does arise some slight possibility for exploring the question, but the nature of capitalism is left unexplored. The role of the state and violence in establishing capitalism is not mentioned, though. Vague references to capitalism, without any reference to the emergence of a class of employers and a class of workers who subordinated their will to the class of employers, leaves the teacher and students without any real guidepost to explore the reasons why and how employers emerged and why there exists a general market for workers emerged.

Using the search term “class,” I did come across the occasional reference to class differences (for example, on page 304), but the question of the modern significance of class relations and the kind of class relations is left unexplored. On page 414, there is a question concerning the significance of wage labour in China during the Ming dynasty, but the dominance of wage labour in modern capitalist relations (wage labour as the dominant mode of production and exchange implies capitalism and a class of employers), is not explored. An opening for the exploration of the existence of wage labour in Canada and throughout the world is closed by the restricted reference to China in the past.

To sum up: There is some openings for an exploration of the nature and origins of employers and employees in Canada, but in general it is unlikely that most teachers are provided sufficiently strong guidelines to make the topic an integral part of the Canadian history curriculum in Ontario.

In other words, Ontario schools provide limited scope for enlightening students on the nature and origin of employers and employees. Hence, they contribute to the indoctrination of students by largely excluding the topic from explicit consideration.

Socialism, Part Two: What It May Look Like

The following is a continuation of an earlier post (Socialism, Part One: What It May Look Like) about the nature of socialism–which is a solution to problems that capitalism, characterized by the domination of a class of employers, cannot solve. Socialism is not something that emerges from a utopian view independently of the nature of capitalism but requires a critical approach to capitalism.

In the following, Tony Smith elaborates on the democratic nature of the workplace, which is subject to control not only by the workers at the particular workplace electing managers but also by certain community organizations that represent specific community interests. From  Globalisation: A Systematic Marxian Account (2006. Boston: Brill), page 303:

(ii) Managers of worker collectives are democratically accountable to those
over whom they exercise authority, either through direct elections or through
appointment by a workers’ council that is itself directly elected. These
enterprises are required to have representatives from a range of social
movements (environmental groups, consumer groups, feminist groups, and
so on) on their boards of directors, accountable to those movements.

What do you think of such proposals? How do they relate to democracy? To the lack of democracy in your life? Do you think that such proposals are worth fighting for?



The Educational Needs of the Labour Movement: A Radical Imagination

The radical left in Toronto (and probably elsewhere) has failed to engage in the radical imagination. When I participated as a facilitator in a few educational workshops for some workers and worker representatives at the Greater Toronto Airport Authority (GTAA), two other leftists  and I created a program that included three sections on capitalism. The first section dealt with the capitalist class (a part of the class of employers), the second section with the working class and the third section with the capitalist state (or capitalist government). It was a two-day session.

The next session, however, was reduced to only one day. The sections on the capitalist class, the working class and the capitalist state or government were omitted. I went along with such an omission–and regretted it afterwards. I should have been more vigorous in my objections.

For over two years, we waited again to give another course!

Finally, this year, the two men gave another course (I had withdrawn from the organization to which they belonged). It would be interesting to find out whether their course focused exclusively on worker activism at the local level and excluded the more general context of an economy dominated by a class of employers and the related social structures that accompany such domination. Did they include content that involved the radical imagination?

Below is a quote from Stanley Aronowitz’s book The Death and Life of American Labor: Toward a New Workers’ Movement. London: Verso, 2014,

near the end of chapter 6 (no page number):

Today, labor education has suffered sharp decline. After World War II, some unions relied primarily on university-based union leadership programs to train their shop-level stewards and officers in contract administration, labor law, and political action; others sent their full-time organizing and service staff to short-term education and training sessions offered by the universities. In the 1970s, worker education entered a new phase when some universities began offering degree programs to union members and their families. There is intellectual training available through the unions today. But it is not radical intellectual training. What has disappeared is the radical imagination.

The times require a radical imagination that goes beyond the clichés that the social-reformist left dish out–like “decent or good jobs,” “fair wages,” “economic justice” and “social justice.” We need labour education that incorporates a different vision of life–a humanized life, a life that respects human life. Such a life is impossible given the power of employers, and hence such a vision requires a vision that seeks to challenge and to go beyond such power. What is needed is a socialist vision.