The Poverty of Academic Leftism, Part Six: The Idealization of the Nation State or the National Government in the Wake of the Coronavirus Pandemic, Part One

Professor Noonan, a self-declared historical materialist and teacher of Marxism, continues to argue a political position that ignores the reality of capitalist society. In his post Back to the Magic Mountain, he argues the following:

No one should fetishize the nation state, but it remains the dominant form of political society and, when it chooses to, it can marshal the power to override capitalist market forces. The dependence of human life on market forces has been suspended in large parts of the world during this crisis. The state has effectively taken over the direction of economic activity and positioned itself as the guarantor of people’s income. We have been re-acquainted with a truth that capitalism works hard to suppress: our lives depend upon collective labour and nature, not market forces. This truth has to become the basis for post-pandemic reconstruction.

Professor Noonan’s opening part of the first sentence, “No one should fetishize the nation state,” is supposed to prevent any criticism of what follows. Professor Noonan, he implies, does not fetishize the nation-state.” The use of the conjunction “but” then is used to do just that.

In a Canadian context, Professor Noonan, in his statement: “The dependence of human life on market forces has been suspended in large parts of the world during this crisis. The state has effectively taken over the direction of economic activity and positioned itself as the guarantor of people’s income,” can refer to the provisions for workers to receive $500 a week for up to sixteen weeks through the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), a federal program. From workers’ point of view, such economic relief is of course welcome–if they qualify (they must have worked a certain number of hours, for example–although some of the gaps are being addressed).

Professor Noonan forgets that workers are means to employers’ ends (see The Money Circuit of Capital). Consider things that you own, use and need. Do you take care for them in some way? They are means to the end of your goals, but you do care about preserving their existence in order to achieve your goals. Professor Noonan idealizes (and fetishizes) the modern state. The Canadian federal government, like other governments, instituted income policies because the workers could not temporarily work for employers–and because they lack their own independent means by which to produce and hence to live.

Employers need employees in one way or another if they are going to continue to be employers. The modern state intervenes in the capitalist market, if necessary, because that market needs the continued existence of workers as employees. The dependence of employers on employees can be seen from the following issue that arose in the 1860s in England in relation to the possible emigration of skilled English workers (from Karl Marx, Marx-Engels Collected Works, volume 35, Capital:

The reproduction of the working class carries with it the accumulation of skill, that is handed down from one generation to another.1′ To what extent the capitalist reckons the existence of such a skilled class among the factors of production that belong to him by right, and to what extent he actually regards it as the reality of his variable capital, is seen so soon as a crisis threatens him with its loss. In consequence of the civil war in the United States and of the accompanying cotton famine, the majority of the cotton operatives in Lancashire were, as is well known, thrown out of work. 471 Both from the working class itself, and from other ranks of society, there arose a cry for State aid, or for voluntary national subscriptions, in order to enable the “superfluous” hands to emigrate to the colonies or to the United States. Thereupon, The Times published on the 24th March, 1863 [p. 12, col. 2-4], a letter from Edmund Potter, a former president of the Manchester Chamber of Commerce. This letter was rightly called in the House of Commons, the manufacturers’ manifesto.2′ We cull here a few characteristic passages, in which the proprietary rights of capital over labour power are unblushingly asserted.

“He” (the man out of work) “may be told the supply of cotton workers is too large … and … must … in fact be reduced by a third, perhaps, and that then there will be a healthy demand for the remaining two-thirds…. Public opinion … urges emigration….The master cannot willingly see his labour supply being removed; he may think, and perhaps justly, that it is both wrong and unsound…. But if the public funds are to be devoted to assist emigration, he has a right to be heard, and perhaps to protest.”

… He [Mr. Potter] then continues:

“Some time …, one, two, or three years, it may be, will produce the quantity…. The question I would put then is this — Is the trade worth retaining? Is it worth while to keep the machinery (he means the living labour machines) in order, and is it not the greatest folly to think of parting with that? I think it is. I allow that the workers are not a property, not the property of Lancashire and the masters; but they arc the strength of both; they are the mental and trained power which cannot be replaced for a generation; the mere machinery which they work might much of it be beneficially replaced, nay improved, in a twelvemonth.’: Encourage or allow (!) the working power to emigrate, and what of the capitalist?”a “…Take away the cream of the workers, and fixed capital will depreciate in a great degree, and the floating will not subject itself to a struggle with the short supply of inferior labour…. We are told the workers wish it” (emigration). “Very natural it is that they should do so…. Reduce, compress the cotton trade by taking away its working power and reducing their wages expenditure, say one-fifth, or five millions, and what then would happen to the class above, the small shopkeepers; and what of the rents, the cottage rents…. Trace out the effects upwards to the small farmer, the better householder, and … the landowner, and say if there could be any suggestion more suicidal to all classes of the country than by enfeebling a nation by exporting the best of its manufacturing population, and destroying the value of some of its most productive capital and enrichment…. I advise a loan (of five or six millions sterling), … extending it may be over two or three years, administered by special commissioners added to the Boards of Guardians in the cotton districts, under special legislative regulations, enforcing some occupation or labour, as a means of keeping up at least the moral standard of the recipients of the loan … can anything be worse for landowners
or masters than parting with the best of the workers, and demoralising and disappointing the rest by an extended depletive emigration, a depletion of capital and value in an entire province?”

Potter, the chosen mouthpiece of the manufacturers, distinguishes two sorts of “machinery”, each of which belongs to the capitalist, and of which one stands in his factory, the other at night time and on Sundays is housed outside the factory, in cottages. The one is inanimate, the other living. The inanimate machinery not only wears out and depreciates from day to day, but a great part of it becomes so quickly
superannuated, by constant technical progress, that it can be replaced with advantage by new machinery after a few months. The living machinery, on the contrary, gets better the longer it lasts, and in proportion as the skill, handed from one generation to another, accumulates.

…the factory operatives are part of the movable fittings of a factory. Their emigration was prevented.1; They were locked up in that “moral workhouse”, the
cotton districts, and they form, as before, “the strength” of the cotton manufacturers of Lancashire.

With millions of workers being sent home in order to prevent damage to human beings as employees–a necessary part of the process of capitalist production and exchange as well as governmental processes– the government’s intervention in being “the guarantor of people’s income” looks much less positive. The government or state (here the distinction is not important) is not the benevolent, neutral institution that Professor Noonan makes it out to be. It is providing income as a stop-gap measure until the capitalist and governmental processes can once again operate normally.

Indeed, Professor Noonan implies as much when he writes:

The danger, of course, is that the state is currently acting under emergency powers, but will revert to its standard function of enframing and protecting capital, if we let it.

Professor Noonan sees the provision of income by the state that is supposedly independent of market forces as something positive–but as we have already seen, the preservation of workers independent of the market in the sense that they can obtain money without having to work for an employer–is only a temporary measure that in no way is in opposition to the interests of the class of employers.

As the pandemic recedes in intensity, at least two issues will arise concerning the opposition of the working class to the nation-state. Firstly, there will be increased intensification of calls for workers to go back to work for employers despite the health risks. After all, around 1000 workers die and 600,000 workers are injured every year in Canada; health and safety are not a priority for the Canadian state.

Secondly, the issue of who will pay for the temporary income of workers and the subsidies for employers during the pandemic will arise. Although calls for cutbacks in health care will undoubtedly be more difficult to justify, cuts in other areas (such as education) will probably intensify.

Without a movement that expressly or consciously opposes the treatment of workers as things to be used by employers, the temporary measure taken by the Canadian (and other capitalist) government(s) is just that–a temporary measure. There will likely be opposition from the labour movement and from communities to the treatment of such measures as temporary, but since the labour movement and communities, for the most part, share Professor Noonan’s view that the state can somehow overcome its own nature as a capitalist state, the tasks required for converting such temporary measures into permanent measures cannot be addressed.

Professor Noonan refers to “we.” But who is this “we?” The “we” is a figment of his social-democratic imagination. In order for there to be a “we,” there would have had to have been much prior preparation. Has Professor Noonan engaged in such preparation? Not at all. He has engaged in the idealization of the collective-bargaining process and promoted class harmony (see earlier posts, such as  The Poverty of Academic Leftism, Part Five: Middle-Class Delusions).

Surely an essential part of the process of our preparing for a society where we all have our biological, social, intellectual, emotional and aesthetic needs met is a negative process–a process of coming to understand that the present social relations inside and outside work are in opposition to our interests and nature and that we therefore need to organize to change the situation by abolishing all class relations and relations of oppression.

However, my experience here in Toronto has been that most of the so-called left simply do not want to deal with the issue and attack those who do, such as calling them “a condescending prick,” ridiculing them and so forth. Alternatively, they ignore the issue by remaining silent over the issue. For example, John Clarke and other so-called radicals here in Toronto opposed calling for a basic income; I called for a radical basic income in opposition to Mr. Clarke’s rejection of any consideration of a basic income (see Basic Income: A Critique of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty’s Stance). It has been largely ignored by the left here in Toronto; there has been no real discussion or movement for establishing a radical basic income here in Toronto.

Professor Noonan’s reference to “if we let them” is, therefore, utopian thinking. My prediction is that at best there will be some pressure from the organized social-democratic left for the maintenance of some kind of improvements in the welfare state, but that is all. Of course, there will be counter-pressure by the government or state and the class of employers to such improvements.

Professor Noonan’s further utopian social-democratic thinking can be seen in the following:

The alternative is to use this crisis as a basis of legitimacy for the state– under the control of democratic political forces acting in our shared life-interest– to assume control over the productive basis of society and re-orient production to serving life-needs.

I certainly share the goal of having “the productive basis of society…serving life-needs,” , but Professor Noonan has not shown how he or other members of the so-called progressive left have engaged in the preparatory work necessary to take advantage of a crisis.

Professor Noonan’s reference to using

“this crisis as a basis of legitimacy for the state–under the control of democratic political forces acting in our shared life-interest–to assume control over the productive basis of society and re-orient production to serving life-needs”

follows in the footsteps of another post by Professor Noonan, a post that assumes the present existence of certain social relations that are required if other social relations are to arise. In the previous post already referred to above, I pointed out how contradictory Professor Noonan’s theoretical position is with respect to the interests of most workers at universities; Professor Noonan assumed that there was already democracy at universities and thereby assumed what in fact needs to be accomplished.

The same logic applies here. If we already have democratic control of forces “acting in our shared life-interest,” then we already have “control over the productive basis of society” and have already “reoriented production to serve life-needs.” The reconstruction of the economy is democratic control. We need to reconstruct the political and the economic simultaneously and not the so-called political seizure of power occurring before and then democratic control of the economy somehow following afterwards.

Professor Noonan’s call for nationalization by the present state ignores this problem altogether by assuming that nationalization by the modern state will somehow magically lead to control over our own life process and life needs:

 Nationalization can pre-figure democratic socialization, and democratic socialization can re-focus economic life on collective work to provide each and all that which we really need, and freeing our time for the– real-life, multidimensional– experiences, actions, and interactions that make life worth fighting for, protecting, and living.

The call for nationalization as a prelude to socialism is typical of social democrats; they idealize and fetishize the modern state–contrary to Professor Noonan’s disclaimer–and thereby short-circuit what needs to be done–expose the anti-democratic and alienated nature of the modern state–a nature that has its parallel in the modern economy dominated by a class of employers or what some call civil society (see Employers as Dictators, Part One).

This issue, however, is somewhat complicated and will be dealt with in the next post. Professor Noonan’s position, ironically, is similar in some ways to the Leninist view of the modern state–a view that Professor Noonan supposedly finds unsatisfactory.

 

 

What’s Left, Toronto? Part Six

As I indicated in an earlier post, on September 19, 2018, several leftist activists gave a talk about what was to be done in the city of Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The talks were posted on the Socialist Project website on October 7, 2018 (also posted on YouTube) (What’s Left, Toronto? Radical Alternatives for the City Election). As I indicated in my earlier post, over the next few months, I will be analyzing some or all of the talks from a Marxian perspective.

The fifth talk was made by Mercedes Lee, who is a member of the organization No One Is Illegal (Toronto), which is a group of immigrants, refugees and allies who fight for the rights of all immigrants to live with dignity and respect.

The problem right away with this approach is that what is meant by dignity and respect is never elaborated. Does that mean with a standard typical of left-reformists and social democrats–a “decent” job (unionized) and treatment according to human rights codes?

Ms. Lee indicated that the group believes that granting citizenship to a privileged few is part of a racist policy that is designed to exploit and marginalize immigrants.

What does this mean? To be sure, the use of the lack of status as a citizen to exploit more intensely or more extensively certain kinds of workers needs to be resisted. But this seems to imply that, if you have citizenship, then you are not marginalized. There are of course degrees of marginalization, and immigrants and refugees certainly often experience more oppression and exploitation than citizens. However, it is also necessary to see if citizens who are members of the working class are in many ways marginalized in order to consider critically whether being a citizen should be a standard for evaluating whether human beings are treated “with dignity and respect.” As this blog has persistently argued, workers who are obliged, due to their economic circumstances, to work for an employer, do not “live with dignity and respect.”

Ms. Lee does raise her criticism to a higher level by contending that it is necessary to criticize the international economic systems that lead to war and to the creation of a flood of immigrants and refugees in the first place. However, this high level of criticism needs to be brought down to earth in the form of a criticism of such platitudes among union reps and the social-democratic left that refer to “decent work,” “economic justice,” “fairness,” “a fair contract,” and the like. To be radical requires such a move to a more concrete level in order to ensure that the daily lives and experiences of workers as exploited and oppressed are recognized and measures can thus be taken to fight explicitly against them in the locals where they exist–including the country where one lives, such as Canada.

Ms. Lee seems to move in this direction by arguing that it is necessary to recognize indigenous sovereignty rights. But why limit the criticism to this level? Why not the sovereign rights of workers to control their own lives? How can they do that (and how can indigenous peoples do that) unless they control the conditions required for their continued living (such as machines, buildings, raw materials and so forth)? There is no mention of this need for this general form or kind sovereignty here–which is what is required if a radical program is to be developed that does not limit itself to sovereignty in particular forms while failing to criticize the general lack of sovereignty of citizens over their own lives as they produce those lives on a daily basis.

She considers it to be a radical principle for people to move freely, to return freely and to stay in one place freely (presumably, not be deported). This freedom in Canada is apparent–when Trudeau for example engages in photo-ops to welcome refugees, but in reality, for a country of its size and resources, Canada accepts a miniscule amount of immigrants and refugees.

There have been struggles over the issue of immigrant detention, which has involved hunger strikes for sixty days, and this has led to victories. There are now less people detained, and those who are detained are detained for less time. On the other hand, the Trudeau government has, as a result of this organization, allocated $138 million to expand immigration centres (where immigrant detainees are incarcerated). It has also expanded the forms of detention and used so-called more humane forms of detention in order to appear to institute more progressive immigration policies. The Trudeau Liberal government is astute in that it tries to appear to be progressive, and this approach contrasts with the former federal Canadian government under Stephen Harper (Conservative), which simply did not hide its indifference (or indeed its hostility) towards immigrant detainees. Under the Trudeau government, immigrant detainees may not be physically detained, but they are subject to ankle-bracelet monitoring and voice-recognition phone check-ins.

Ms. Mercedes attempts to unite the Trudeau federal government’s more subtle approach to controlling immigrants to the more explicit anti-immigration position of such politicians as Doug Ford (premier of Ontario). She also provides a concrete example of how, in 2004, the Canadian Border and Services Agency arrested and dragged some immigrant students (Kimberly and Gerald) from classroom and placed them in a van, along with their mother, grandmother and Canadian-born babysitter. No One Is Illegal found out about this through some students informing them, and No One Is Illegal, with the support of parents, teachers and students, organized a rally in front of the Immigration Detention Center at Rexdale (a community in Toronto).

The issue became national as the media got wind of what had happened. The students were released, and they and others went to the Toronto District School Board to demand a policy that undocumented students would have access to schools without fear and that immigration enforcement officials would not be allowed to enter the schools.

The Toronto District School Board initially resisted this campaign, arguing persistently that they could not order its staff to break laws. No One Is Illegal explained persistently as well that it was the Board’s job to educate students and not to enforce immigration laws. The Board refused to listen. Kimberly and Gerald organized a rally of around 5,000 along Bloor Street, calling for immigration justice. The Board would still not budge. Parents, teachers, students and other supporters and allies began protesting weekly at the Board office. The Board finally agreed to debate the issue. The room was packed with organizers and supporters, who wore pins with the label “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” The Board voted unanimously to make schools accessible to undocumented students and to refuse access to immigration enforcement officers in schools. Immigration Enforcement, which initially defended its actions, also indicated that it would not enter schools.

In terms of organizing lessons, Ms. Lee argues that it is only mass mobilization and direct action that is effective and that the success of No One Is Illegal has been based on addressing specific incidents and hence specific needs, with some of those directly affected taking a leading role (along with other activists not directly affected, presumably). The success of the actions depended on having an immediate positive impact on community members. Government policy that is not backed up by organizing strength at the community level will always face the real threat of the government backtracking on its policy. Policy ultimately is about solidarity, which ensures that everyone has the right of access to basic services without fear and with dignity.

Ms. Lee argues that it is necessary to build safe zones that permit the right of access to such basic services without fear and with dignity, shutting out immigration enforcement. The work of No One Is Illegal is thus about creating a world where immigrants and migrants are no longer dehumanized.

This presentation, as noted above, has limitations in that the standard of what constitutes human dignity is left unspecified, which the reader can then fill in as s/he sees fit. Leaving such a conception of human dignity unspecified then allows the typical standard of a life characterized by working for an employer to fill in as the standard. This limitation definitely needs to be overcome if No One Is Illegal is to become truly radical.

Compared to all the presentations so far, though, it is indeed the most radical since it, potentially, does call into question capitalist society by calling into question an essential aspect of that society: the capitalist state. The capitalist state requires, among other things, two components in order to protect the monopoly of control over the means of production by a minority called employers: the monopoly by the capitalist state of the means of force in order to protect the monopoly of control over the means of production by a minority called employers, and a way of identifying those individuals who are subject to its power and those who are not.

Passports and other similar kinds of documents have been an administrative way in which to identify those who are legitimately in its borders (and overseas to a certain extent) and those who are not so that it can legitimately demand services from such individuals (such as taxes) and–simultaneously–those who are subject to such power can also demand services from the specific capitalist state. (See John Torpey, The Invention of the Passport: Surveillance, Citizenship and the State; also see the view that the capitalist state is increasingly characterized by administrative law in order to control workers: Mark Neocleous, Administering Civil Society: Towards a Theory of State Power). In Canada, for example, landed immigrants and Canadian citizens have the obligation to pay taxes if they work for an employer (after earning a certain level of income), and they also have the right of access to health care (regardless of the level of their income).

No One Is Illegal, by contravening the nature of the capitalist state as controller of who legitimately has access to services of the Canadian capitalist state, potentially questions one of the linchpins of the power of the Canadian capitalist class.

However, this potentiality needs to be nurtured to the point that it becomes a reality by making an explicit criticism of the standard characteristic of most leftists–decent work, a fair contract, and so forth. If such leftist clichés are left standing, then the potentiality of No One Is Illegal to be radical will be wasted, and it will become just another reformist organization, demanding that all immigrants be treated in the same way as landed immigrants and Canadian citizens. Such a demand is both progressive and regressive since it is certainly better to have immigrants, whether documented or not, to be on the same footing as others within a capitalist state (thereby limiting the ruling class tactic of divide-and-conquer); on the other hand, it is regressive because the inadequate standard of being treated the same as other residents (mainly members of the working class, although there is also definitely a section of small employers) in a capitalist context.

To answer whether No One Is Illegal (Toronto) is more than a social-reformist or social-democratic organization, I sent an email to them twice. I sent them the following:

Hello again, 


It has been two weeks since I contacted you. I have not received a reply. Would you please clarify your position since I am debating whether to join your organization or not. 


Thank you. 


Fred Harris, Ph. D




From: Frederick Harris
Sent: May 19, 2019 10:16 AM
To: No One Is Illegal – Toronto
Subject: Non-exploitation of temporary immigrants
 
Hello,

I have looked at your website and was wondering about two points. It is claimed that No One Is Illegal is anti-capitalist and opposed to the exploitation of temporary workers.

My understanding of anti-capitalism is that it is the opposition to the power of employers as a class since they, by their very nature, exploit workers (in the private sector) and oppress them (in both the public and private sector) by using them as means (things) for purposes foreign to the workers themselves. 

Is No One Is Illegal opposed to the power of all employers as a class? 

The second point–about opposition to the exploitation of temporary workers–implies either that No One Is Illegal against the exploitation of all workers (including temporary workers), or it is opposed exclusively with the disadvantages which temporary workers experience relative to non-temporary workers in Canada (in which case the standard is the worker who is a landed immigrant or Canadian citizen so that temporary workers should be put on a par with such workers). This needs clarification.

Would you please clarify what these two points.

Thank you.

Fred Harris

I did eventually receive a response, to which I replied in Spanish and English since, on the one hand, I knew the person to whom I was replying knew Spanish and, on the other hand, to show that despite my linguistic abilities my services were not considered to be useful for the organization “at this time”:

 

Re: Non-exploitation of temporary immigrants

Frederick Harris

Mon 2019-06-10 4:00 PM

Stuart Schussler

Buenos dias,

Gracias por la respuesta. Me acuerdo de ti. Discutimos, brevemente, de la idea de oponerse al poder de los empleadores como clase cuando trabajabamos en un proyecto con Justin Panos . Me diste la impresion de que no era posible.

Cuando no se integra la oposicion a la clase empleadora en su trabajo cotidiano, es uno en contra del capitalismo en realidad? Lo dudo. Es facil decirlo–pero mucho mas dificil integrar tal punto de vista en su practica cotidiana.

No me soprende de que yo no pueda participar en tal organizacion.

Incluire tu respuesta en mi blog algun dia. Practico la politica de exponer.

Fred

Good day,

Thank you for replying. I remember you. We discussed, briefly, the idea of opposing the power of employers as a class when we worked on a project with Justin Panos. I got the impression that for you this was not possible. You gave me the impression that this was not possible.

When opposition to the class of employers is not integrated into one’s daily work, is one really against capitalism in reality? I doubt it. It is easy to say it–but much more difficult to integrate such a point of view into one’s daily practice.

It does not surprise me that I cannot participate in such an organization.

I will include your answer in my blog one day. I practice the politics of exposure.

Fred

From: Stuart Schussler sschussler@gmail.com

Sent: June 10, 2019 12:21 PM

To: arbeit67@hotmail.com

Subject: Re: Non-exploitation of temporary immigrants

Hi Frederick,

To respond to your questions, yes, we are opposed to the fact that there is a class of people who profit from the work of others, to the exploitation of labour by capital. In practice, opposing capitalism is a more complicated question and we frequently work in coalition with NGOs (for example), which are also employers. Since we’re a migrant justice organization we’re looking for practical ways to oppose the systemic exploitation of temporary workers and non-status workers.

With your second question, we’re opposed to any exploitation of workers but we recognize that temporary workers are especially exploited, so we focus our attention on their issues.

We are not bringing in new members to the group right now, but we appreciate that you’re learning about our work. All the best,

Stuart, on behalf of NOII- Toronto

I will let you draw your own conclusions concerning the issue of the extent to which No One Is Illegal (Toronto) is really anti-capitalist or whether it is just rhetoric–whether it is realizing its potential for being radical through questioning the very foundations of the employer-employee relation or diverting its potentiality by restricting its actions within the confines of the employer-employee relation in general.