The Nature of the Social-Democratic or Social-Reformist Left, Or How to Aim for Socialism Without Aiming for It

The above title is a take on a scene in the movie Enter the Dragon, where Bruce Lee says: “My style is the art of fighting without fighting.” See the end of this post for a description. 

This is a more colloquial or informal way of expressing my point about the need to include the goal or the aim in present actions if we are going to go beyond a society characterized by a class of employers (capitalism) and live a socialist life (see Reform Versus Abolition of Police, Part Three). It does so by briefly looking at what I mean and then looking at a concrete example of this by a self-declared socialist feminist, Sue Ferguson (or what she calls a social-reproduction feminist).

To start with a conclusion: aiming for a socialist society is just that–incorporating the goal, consciously, of overcoming the class power of employers, including the economic, political and social relations and structures connected to that power and the creation of a society free of class relations and relations of oppression.

Social democrats and reformers (including self-proclaimed Marxists who practically do the same thing), on the other hand, believe (even if they are not conscious of this belief) that it is possible to achieve a socialist society without aiming for it.

The movie Rocky III illustrates what I mean. Rocky Balboa (played by Sylvester Stallone), who had lost his title of world heavyweight champion to James “Clubber” Lang (played by Mr. T), was being trained by former heavy-weight boxing champion Apollo Creed (played by Carl Weathers, who won the first match against Balboa in the first movie and lost in the second movie). (There are undoubtedly racist overtones in the movie–see  Siobhan Carter’s  master’s thesis  Projecting a White Savior, the Body, and Policy).

At one point in his training, Rocky said that he would train later. Apollo answers: “There is no tomorrow.” The basis idea is that if you want to accomplish anything in life, you had better not procrastinate–putting off tomorrow what needs to be done today. Social democrats (and the radical left here in Toronto) act like Rocky Balboa did before Apollo Creed criticized him–they believe that socialism can arise in some distant future without explicitly incorporating the aim in the present, just as Balboa believed that he could regain the heavyweight title without incorporating that goal into his present actions. In other words, he believed that he could engage in procrastination.

The social-democratic or reformist left do the same thing. They shift the fight for socialism to some distant future and content themselves with fighting for reforms that fail to challenge the class structure. Their socialism is always pushed into the future as an ought that never meets the present conditions and circumstances; future and present (and past conditions) are severed. 

They may indeed achieve social reforms–as they have in the past, but the claim that they are aiming for socialism is untrue–as was Rocky Balboa’s efforts at training to regain the heavyweight championship of the world until Apollo Creed criticized him.

The social-democratic left (and, practically, much of the radical left here in Toronto and undoubtedly elsewhere) consider that it is impossible to aim for socialism by incorporating it into our daily lives. They believe in magic; an aim can be realized without the aim organizing our activities in the present. 

John Dewey, one of the greatest philosophers of education, saw the distinction clearly in relation to schools. Most of those reading this post merely have to reflect on their own experiences in schools and how schools have often severed their interest in the present and forced an external future upon them. As Dewey noted, in chapter five of one of his two major works in the philosophy of education, Democracy and Education (2004), pages 58-59):

Chapter 5

Preparation, Unfolding, and Formal Discipline

Education as Preparation

We have laid it down that the educative process is a continuous process of growth, having as its aim at every stage an added capacity of growth. This conception contrasts sharply with other ideas which have influenced practice. By making the contrast explicit, the meaning of the conception will be brought more clearly to light. The first contrast is with the idea that education is a process of preparation or getting ready. What is to be prepared for is, of course, the responsibilities and privileges of adult life. Children are not regarded as social members in full and regular standing. They are looked upon as candidates; they are placed on the waiting list. The conception is only carried a little farther when the life of adults is considered as not having meaning on its own account, but as a preparatory probation for “another life”. The idea is but another form of the notion of the negative and privative character of growth already criticized; hence we shall not repeat the criticisms, but pass on to the evil consequences which flow from putting education on this basis.

In the first place, it involves loss of impetus. Motive power is not utilized. Children proverbially live in the present; that is not only a fact not to be evaded, but it is an excellence. The future just as future lacks urgency and body. To get ready for something, one knows not what nor why, is to throw away the leverage that exists, and to seek for motive power in a vague chance. Under such circumstances, there is, in the second place, a premium put on shilly-shallying and procrastination. The future prepared for is a long way off; plenty of time will intervene before it becomes a present. Why be in a hurry about getting ready for it?

We have already seen this severance of the future struggle for socialism and the present struggle for socialism by Herman Rosenfeld, a self-styled Marxist who refers vaguely to socialism a hundred years from now (see Reform Versus Abolition of Police, Part Three and, more generally, Reform Versus Abolition of the Police, Part Five: More Philosophical Considerations). The focus on reforms above all else and the denigration of the need for incorporating an explicit aim in the present of abolishing the class of employers and the associated economic, political and social relations will at best lead to capitalism with a human face–and not its abolition. 

There are two typical tendencies that express this attitude of severing the present from the future and the future from the present. Treating reforms as if they were, in themselves, somehow leading to a socialist society is a typical trick among the left; they treat the future (socialist society) as already present rather than the present being in need of radical reconstruction. The second tendency denigrates the need for aiming explicitly or consciously at radical transformation of class, economic, political and social structure in the present (which in effect is a revolution–although I believe that politically it is a waste of time to call for revolution–as the sectarian radical left frequently do

The treatment of the present as if it were already the future via current experiences and reforms is reflected by Sue Ferguson, a self-proclaimed socialist, who claims the following  (Women and Work: An Interview with Sue Ferguson):

As I argue in Women and Work, social reproduction feminism provides a strategic focus and direction that avoids the contradictions of equality feminism. Because, in this view, oppression is built into the very ways we reproduce ourselves, overcoming oppression requires reorganizing the processes and institutions of life-making. This cannot happen in boardrooms or by electing more women into state office. It can happen only when people are encouraged to mobilize with others to resist the priorities of the current social reproduction regime, and learn together how to reorganize and take collective, responsible control of the resources of life-making. And in a small way, this is what education worker strikes do: they assert the need for and possibility of expanding and democratizing our life-making powers and resources, of deploying them in ways that prioritize meeting human needs [my emphasis]. 

Do “education worker strikes” really “assert the need for and possibility of expanding and democratizing our life-making powers and resources, of deploying them in ways that prioritize meeting human needs?” Perhaps they do–“in a small way”–but that is not the same as aiming for “expanding and democratizing our life-making powers and resources” at more than a local level. That teachers who go out on strike may well aim to improve their working lives and the lives of their students is not in question. The issue is whether the aim of such actions is of the same nature as aiming for a socialist society. I deny that such is the case in most cases since there is no explicit aim to overcome a society characterized by the class of employers; improvements in working lives and lives of children does not necessarily involve aiming for a socialist society.

By claiming “in a small way,” that education workers somehow, is the same as the “democratizing our life-making powers and resources” is a social-democratic trick. It equates reformist changes at the local level with radical changes in  social structures and relations.

This social-democratic trick is reiterated in her book (she goes by Susan in the book), Women and Work: Feminism, Labour, and Social Reproduction, pages 135-136:

That is, strikes do not have to be exercises in revolutionary commons to model alternative ways of organizing life-making. The potential to unleash creative energies and ideas about how to build a better world and engender social bonds to counter the alienation and isolation of capitalist subjectivity is inherent in the very act of organizing with others to improve control over the conditions of work and life. Perhaps the most vivid recent example of this come from the 2018 wave of education worker strikes to hit the United States. Eric Blanc’s interviews with more than a hundred people involved in the West Virginia, Arizona, and Oklahoma strike movements lead him to conclude that strikers were “profoundly transformed” [my emphasis] by their participation. They connected in new ways with co-workers they had barely known and had little in common with culturally and ideologically; they strategized, waved placards, shared meals, chanted, sang, and camped out on the state legislative grounds together; they jointly endured moments of disappointment, debate and defeat, and even bigger moments of celebration. And they connected in new ways with the communities they worked in as passersby honked and waved in support, as strangers identifying them by their distinctive red T-shirts approached them in grocery stores to thank them for their job action, and as students and parents stood on their lines and rallied in support. In the words of Arizona teacher Noah Karvelis, interviewed by Blanc:

Since the strike, there’s a definite sense of solidarity that wasn’t there before. When you go into school and see all of your coworkers in red, it’s like they’re saying, “I’m with you, I got you.” It’s hard to even sum up that feeling. You used to go in to school, do your thing, and go home. Now if there’s a struggle, we go do something about it because we’re in it together. It’s not just that there are a lot more personal friendships—we saw that we had power.

Such solidarity did not magically appear. It had to be built. The strikers were divided by all the usual social cleavages. Not all teachers were in the union and most were white. They differed in political allegiance, religious affiliation, and income (in West Virginia bus drivers, cafeteria cooks, custodians, and other support staff walked out as well). Moreover, as social reproductive workers in the public sector, the walkout risked creating a wedge between themselves and the community they served. Rather than deny these divisions, organizers and strikers consciously addressed them—figuring out imaginative ways of addressing needs and drawing people in: bilingual signs and chants, GoFundMe sites to help lower-income strikers make ends meet, soliciting food donations, and delivering care packages for families who otherwise rely on school lunches. As Kate Doyle Griffiths observes, strikers temporarily and partially reorganized the relations of social reproductive labour “on the basis of workers control for the benefit of the wider working class” while also fostering solidarity with community members. And although strikers did not generally politicize around racial issues, Blanc notes, they were self-consciously inclusive and won the support of the majority black and brown student base and their families through their calls for increased school funding and (in Arizona) opposition to cuts to Medicaid and services for those with disabilities.37 These are not-so-small and incredibly important examples of how strikers organize new ways of life-making, ways that defy the alienating, individualizing experiences of everyday life under capitalism.

Of course, such struggles and organizing should be supported, and they do indeed form a possible bridge between the conscious aim of struggling in the present for a socialist society and the creation of such a future society. However, let us not idealize them. They are not necessarily expressions of a conscious aim to overcome the class power of employers. As I have shown elsewhere (see for example The West-Virginia Teachers’ Strike and a Socialist Movement  and   Review of Jane McAlevey’s “A Collective Bargain: Unions, Organizing, and the Fight for Democracy”: Two Steps Backward and One Step Forward, Part One), such movements do not necessarily involve such an aim. By equating such struggles with the conscious aim to overcome such class power, social democrats in effect claim that we should not struggle to aim for such a goal in the present by, among other things, criticizing the limitations of the aims of such strikes and movements.

To not question whether there has indeed been “profound transformations” is to be blind to the force of habit in working-class and community behaviour. Not just decades but centuries of indoctrination, of exploitation, subordination and oppression are not going to magically be transformed through such efforts. To overcome such situations will take years if not decades of internal struggle in order for a conscious movement aiming to overcome the class power of employers to arise in the present and not vanish because of superficial adherence to “social justice” and similar general terms. The present leftist movement must aim for a socialist society in diverse domains and integrate such domains in as coherent a fashion as possible.

The other tendency of splitting the present from the future and the future from the present by denigrating the need for radical transformation of economic, political and social structures. frequently by casting the term “revolution” in a purely negative light. As I noted above, I do agree that using the term “revolution” is a waste of time politically; workers and community members will likely look upon such talk as akin to religion. Nonetheless, their attitude of avoiding the term “revolution” often leads to reformism by being unable to offer anything other than reform and more reform–as if many reforms will not be absorbed by the capitalist economic, political and social structure. The class power of employers and the capitalist state have many resources to engage in reformist politics if there is sufficient organization and power to threaten the power of the class of employers.

I have referred to Jeffrey Noonan’s opposition to “revolution”–but he has little to offer but more reforms within the present class structure (see The Poverty of Academic Leftism, Part Four: The Myth of Creating Socialist Spaces). Another example is the article written by Richard Sandbrook and posted on the Toronto-based Socialist Project website (Racism, Class Solidarity and Systemic Change). Here is what he claims:

Non-Reformist Reformism

But what strategy would horizontal unity serve? Any viable strategy would be gradualist. Compromises would need to be made to build a majority coalition in a (quasi)democratic process. But gradualism does not signify mere reformism or cosmetic changes. The widespread disaffection and the challenge posed by invigorated populist-nativists demand genuine structural changes. Policies to de-commodify labour, money, health care, knowledge, and education; to democratize the economy by promoting cooperative production; and to deepen political democracy must be pressed at the local, national and, eventually, global level. But there would not be a “big bang”, in which society is irrevocably transformed; instead, we would have non-reformist reformism.

The problem with the above view is that Mr. Sandbrook does not discuss how such reformism in the present can be prevented from leading–as it so often has in the past–to incorporation into the class structure and to the continued control of our lives by a class of employers. I seriously now question the real intent of those who claim that they aim for a socialist society and yet not only accept compromises that need to be accepted because of the present limited power but freeze such compromises into an ideology of the left (such as the terms “fair contract,” “fair or free collective bargaining,” “fair wages,” “decent work,” or the pairing of the term “Fairness” with the movement for the fight of a minimum wage of $15.

Mr. Sandbrook appears to see the need for avoiding both reformism characteristic of the social-democratic left and the sectarianism of the radical left:

If this is the only viable and morally justifiable path, the progressive movements would need to steer clear of two pitfalls that have ensnared earlier experiments: Third-Wayism and revolutionism. The first represents compromise to the point of co-optation, leading to renewed hegemony; the second, an unwillingness to compromise in order to preserve the ideal, leading to irrelevance.

Avoiding Two Pitfalls

The Third Way, as it developed in the early 1990s, reflected the attitude “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” …

The lesson is clear. Reformism that, in the longer term, reinforces the hegemony of neoliberalism and plutocracy is self-defeating. When times get hard, voters dessert “socialist” parties that lack an alternative vision.

The opposite pitfall is a purist approach that, positing a narrow choice between capitalism and socialism (or “barbarism or socialism”), refuses to compromise with the former. In the academy, this approach is often associated with a scholasticism that is strong on abstract theorization but weak in developing concepts with any popular appeal. The purists are also prone to an irritating smugness, as though moral superiority is more important than winning power.

Starkly casting the alternatives as binary is problematical for two reasons. It strikes many people as unrealistic. How, for example, do we totally transform society and economy to replace markets with participatory planning at all levels? And secondly, it essentializes capitalism. The latter comes in a myriad of forms. If its essence is private ownership and free labour, there are many degrees.

Capitalisms are not all the same. The Anglo-American model differs from the Scandinavian model, which differs from Chinese authoritarian state capitalism. The Keynesian accord introduced what many have called the golden age of capitalism, which neoliberalism ended. A gradualist program of decommodification, democratization, and equal freedom is a voyage that begins within capitalism; however, we may not even be aware of the precise point at which we traverse the boundary.

There are indeed variations in the kind of capitalism, and some forms are definitely preferable to other forms. This hardly addresses the issue of how any “gradualist” approach is going to maintain the aim of eliminating the general class power of employers over our lives in the present without being co-opted. (The Scandinavian model is, in any case, itself in retreat because of general changes in capitalist class structures and the idealization of such models in the past and present). Mr. Sandbrook does not address what workers and community members who live in any form of capitalism (as depicted in The Money Circuit of Capital, for example), are supposed to do to overcome the general nature of capital. Or is the general nature of capital somehow just or fair?

Decommodification, for example. of health services, does not mean that those who fight for such decommodication or those who implement it or those who use such decommodified services aim to achieve a socialist society. (See A Basic Income Versus the Expansion of Public Services? Part One: Critique of the Social-democratic Idea that the Expansion of Public Services is Socialist). Decommodification or the conversion from gaining access to commodities (including services) by means of purchase and sale to direct access or use without the mediation of purchase and sale may or may not express the aim of achieving a socialist society.

My experiences in Toronto and elsewhere is that we need to aim consciously and persistently in the present for radical changes in various domains (with the focus on the work relations dominated by a class of employers). We indeed will have to make compromises because we lack the necessary power to do otherwise–but that also should form part of our own consciousness–and not the acceptance of such compromises through such social-democratic phrases as “decent work” or “fair contracts.” To achieve such deep-seated consciousness and aim will require years if not decades of internal struggle within working-class communities and workplaces.

We need to use the aim for a future socialist society in the present to realize such a future society while all the time modifying specific goals within that general aim based on current conditions and circumstances.

As I indicated at the beginning, the title of this post is a take on a statement made by Bruce Lee in the movie Enter the Dragon. The following is a description of the scene by Brian Freer: 

There is a scene in the 1973 kung fu classic “Enter the Dragon” where a man (Peter Archer, who plays Parsons] walks around a boat bullying passengers. When the man accosts Bruce Lee by throwing air strikes near his face, Lee unflinchingly looks at him and replies, “don’t waste yourself.”

“What’s your style?” the bullying man asks.

“The art of fighting without fighting,” says Lee.

“Show me some of it.”

Lee tries to walk off, but the bullying man insists he show him what the “art of fighting without fighting” looks like. Since the boat was crowded, Lee suggests that they take a dingy to a nearby beach for more space. As the bully boards the dingy, Lee releases slack from the rope, watching the dingy with the bully inside drift away. Lee then releases the rope to the bully’s onetime victims who laugh heartily as the dingy takes on water from the crashing waves.

Although this isn’t the most exhilarating fight scene in “Enter the Dragon,” it is clearly the most complete victory in the film. Lee uses wit to overcome his opponent without ever raising his fists. He is without fear and clear of mind. The bullying man wanted to fight so badly that he was willing to ride a dingy to a remote island to do so.

Freer then philosophizes: 

There are many reasons to fight. It’s deep within our nature. And yes, sometimes we have no choice. Ideologues tell us the world is a scary place. They attempt to influence our interpretation of the world to reinforce our fears. And fear is the real bully in the boat. You see, Bruce Lee’s character mastered his fear. He liberated his mind from it. Fear is a tarp that covers our understanding. It stifles our self-control. You have to look it right in the eye, because when you must finally resort to violence, you’ve clearly run out of ideas.

I take something different from the scene. Firstly, Lee did not directly engage in a fight with the bully at the time, but enabled those who were bullied to hold the power to let go of the rope attached to the dinghy. 

Freer fails to ask, however, the following obvious question: What happened to Lee and the bully once they landed? Would not the bully try to fight Lee? The art of fighting without fighting might have been a short-term tactic, but the goal of avoiding a fight would might not have been achieved. The fight might have occurred on the island where they landed. The aim of avoiding a fight was put off to a not-so-distant future. The aim was perhaps to, avoid a fight under existing conditions of riding the boat

Freer simply ignores this aspect. Lee would undoubtedly have known that there would exist the possibility of a fight in the near-future. Or perhaps Lee would  hope that, having arrived on the island, the rules of the tournament would convince Parsons to not engage in a fight?  We could speculate forever, of course.

In the case of the social-democratic left, the art of aiming for socialism without aiming for it, ignore the need to aim explicitly for a socialist society–a society without classes. The social-democratic or social-reformist left do not aim to achieve a classless society but rather a humanized capitalist society. Their view, explicitly or explicitly, is that aiming for such a society is idealist or utopian at present (and will, practically, forever, be the case). 

The Poverty of Academic Leftism, Part Five: Middle-Class Delusions

This is a continuation of a critique of an academic leftist (aka academic historical materialist), the philosopher Jeff Noonan.

As noted in a previous post, Professor Noonan makes the following statement in relation to employees at a university (from Thinkings 4Collected Interventions, Readings, Evocations, 2014-2015, page 13):

Instead, all members of the institution– faculty, librarians, learning specialists, lab technicians, students, support workers, and administration have the same goal—the advance of human knowledge and creativity in the widest and most comprehensive sense. If that claim is true

Professor Noonan may respond that he wrote the above in hypothetical form–“if that claim is true”–rather than stating “That claim is true.” By not inquiring into whether the claim is in fact true, though, and proceeding on the basis as if it were true, he practically makes the claim that it is true.

Professor Noonan fails to consider the hierarchy at work as illegitimate; democracy for him, it seems, maintains a hierarchical division of labour; the difference is one where (page 13):

all the groups who together make up the university ought to cooperate (not without respectful disagreement) in the determination of the budgets, policies, rules, and goals that guide the institution’s mission. The best ideas emerge through deliberative and democratic argument—no one group knows best just because of the position they occupy in the hierarchy.

Given the employer-employee relation, Professor Noonan’s position is contradictory. If there is an unelected hierarchy, then how is their democratic argument? Does not an unelected hierarchy necessarily prevent democratic argument since democratic argument requires relative equality of power? In other words, Professor Noonan assumes a socialist organization in the first place, but in the context of an unelected hierarchy, which involves unequal power relations. Or does Professor Noonan consider that an unelected hierarchy does not involve unequal power relations?

Furthermore, given the unelected hierarchy, who will be at an advantage in “the determination of budgets, policies, rules, and goals that guide the institution’s mission?” Of course, academics and the upper echelons of administration. This situation is hardly democratic (although it is certainly to the advantage of tenured academics and the upper echelons of administration).

What is more, Professor Noonan’s implicit acceptance of the current structure of the division of labour hardly reflects a just society. as James Furner has argued, in order for there to be a free society, it is necessary to abolish occupational confinement and occupational identity (see ).

In addition, to claim that all workers at a university should have the same goal, where the economic relation of employer-employee is dominant, is to perceive the world from the upper echelons. Why should all workers at a university have the same goal when they are treated as things by the unelected hierarchy? Or are they not treated as things? How is it possible to not be treated as a thing when there exists an employer-employee relation? Perhaps Professor Noonan can explain how this is possible.

Finally, Professor Noonan advocates class collaboration, implicitly if not explicitly. His use of the verb “cooperate” indicates that he believes that all the diverse kinds of employees working at a university should get along in a collegial fashion in order to pursue the same goal. A Marxist, by contrast, would see that although workers have a certain interest in maintaining the university as an institution in the short-run because they need money in order to live, they are used as means for the benefit of the upper echelons’ purposes and are excluded in fact from doing so (see Calls for cooperation in such a context work against their own long-term interest of abolishing such a situation. Rather, calls for the intensification of conflict would be more appropriate since there is already an antagonistic relation between workers as employees and management at universities.

Professor Noonan’s position, is, therefore half-hearted. Rather than seeking the elimination of the power of employers as a class, he opts for the illusion of democracy in the public sector–as if that were possible given the dominance of the power of employers as a class in both the public and private sectors.

Such is the poverty of academic leftists, social democracy and reformist leftism these days.

The Toronto Airport Workers’ Council (TAWC): One Step Forward and Two Steps Backward?

I thought it appropriate, on May 1, the International Workers’ Day, to refer to something that disturbed me on Facebook yesterday–a post by the Toronto Airport Workers’ Council (TAWC), which included some remarks (and a video) by Howard Eng.
Howard Eng is the CEO of the Greater Toronto Airport Authority, the operator and manager of Toronto Pearson International Airport, the largest airport in Canada, with between 40,000 and 50,000 workers.

The step forward is the effort and success by some union members at the airport in creating a workers’ organization that not only cuts across union jurisdictions–the Toronto Airport Workers’ Council–but also makes efforts to create solidarity among airport workers across countries.

The two steps backward is the obvious reliance on representatives of employers in achieving goals of the TAWC. It is not that any workers’ organization should not make compromises; it is how such compromises are dealt with internally within the union membership which determines whether such compromise is worthwhile.

Compromise with management needs to be explained as a tactical necessity for the time being because of the superior forces of management at the time–and not justified in somehow expressing common interests. Workers, ultimately, do not have common interests with employers (unless it is argued that it is in the interests of workers to be treated as things for purposes which they themselves do not define. See for an explanation of how workers are necessarily treated as things by employers, whether in the private or public sector.)

A video featuring a short speech by him was posted, without comment, on the Facebook page for the Toronto Airport Workers’ Council (TAWC). There was also a picture of Mr. Eng and a woman (presumably a union rep) in front of a YYZ solidarity banner (YYZ is the city airport code for Toronto Pearson International Airport).

On the Facebook page, it is stated (and Mr. Eng is quoted. See’%20council&epa=SEARCH_BOX ):

The GTAA and the TAWC have been working to collect data on the makeup of our workforce, on best practices used by other airport when dealing with labour issues, and on safety initiatives. He was glad he “has the support of the unions, working collaboratively together to move forward, not just for our airport but for everyone that works here.”

Howard didn’t shy away from speaking about the difficult times we have had over the years and the challenges that have come. He asked for patience and to keep bringing forward our issues so that we can do our best to come up with solutions to address them.

Howard finished by stating: “change takes time. Let’s work together to make this a better place to work for the 50,000 that work here.”

This statement by Mr. Eng is typical employer rhetoric: workers and management are, ultimately, one big family, and need to cooperate to achieve a common goal. There is no comment by union representatives on the Facebook page to counter this rhetoric.

I did make some comments concerning this.

My first comment:

Did any of the workshops aim to counter the ideology expressed by this representative of employers? Or was there silence over the issue?

There was one reply:

Alex Ceric Change does not take time. I’s a very simple decision to improve the live of the workers. And when that decision is made the change is instantaneous. What takes time is for them do drop off a cookie crumb here and a cookie crumb there until it amounts to one single improvement.

I just wrote a reply:

This is pure rhetoric. The bottom line is profit at the airport, is it not? Safety comes second to that bottom line. Or does it not?

Besides, it is not just a question of change but what kind of change but also who makes the decision to change and how that decision is made.

Mr. Eng has power to make change, within limits. Who gave him that power? Why does he have it? Does his possession of power imply that a majority of workers have less power?

And on a technical note: change always takes time. No change is “instantaneous.” Please explain how any change is instantaneous.

Finally, the issue of Mr. Eng’s rhetoric that implies that management and workers have ultimately the same interest. What is TAWC’s position on such rhetoric? What is it doing to counteract such rhetoric, if anything?

My second comment:

I wonder how it is possible to address the problem of health and safety at a workplace when those who actually do the work are treated as things at work. To address health and safety requires democratic control over the workplace–for regular workers to be the “decision makers,” including determining who are the decision makers.

To refer to “opportunity to speak with the decision makers” sounds very anti-democratic, does it not? Who is the majority at the airport? The workers or the decision makers? If the decision makers are a minority and are not elected–would we not call that a dictatorship at the political level? And yet there is utter silence about the issue when it comes to the economic level.

Why is that?

No one has responded.

I have little doubt that many union reps at the airport, if they read this, will consider the writer to be a “condescending prick” (as CUPE local 3902 rep Wayne Dealy once called me). (CUPE is the Canadian Union of Public Employees). I would prefer to be called that and bring up issues which they hide rather than not be called that and remain silent over such issues. We workers deserve far more than the rhetoric of Howard Eng.

Do we workers not deserve more than such rhetoric?

The West-Virginia Teachers’ Strike and a Socialist Movement

The social-reformist left like to claim that what they are interested in is class struggle from below–the self-organization of the working class that opposes the power of the class of employers. In a podcast, David Camfield’s analysis of the West Virginia teachers strike is an example of such a claim by the social-reformist left (This Is How to Fight!, recorded on March 29, 2018).

There were undoubtedly innovations in the strike that make it different from other strikes. Firstly, the context is different from most other teachers’ strikes. West Virginia teachers do not have a typical collective-bargaining system since West Virginia is a “right-to-work” state, with no legal right to collective bargaining. Secondly, the degree of solidarity among teachers that was shown during the events leading up to the strike and during the strike is much deeper than normal  (such as throughthe Facebook coordination of more than 20,000 . Thirdly, the degree of solidarity between teachers and other school staff was also much deeper than normal. Fourthly, the degree of solidarity displayed by both teachers and other workers in the public sector was much deeper (by, for example, the refusal to end the strike unless all public-sector workers received the same pay raise). Finally, the recognition of the needs of the poorest sections of their students for continued provision of breakfast and lunch programs through the continued provision of food during the strike indicated a consciousness of addressing the needs of a vulnerable section of the community while they were on strike.

Undoubtedly there are other notable features of the strike that make it stand out from the typical strike.

These distinctive features of the strike should, of course, not be downplayed. In the face of a difficult situation (facing the reactionary billionaire Governor Justice, on the one hand, and a lack of collective bargaining rights on the other), the teachers and support staff stood fast and forced through an agreement that goes beyond what they would have achieved if they had engaged in collective bargaining separately and legally.

However, David Camfield, as a social-reformist leftist, idealizes this situation. Firstly, the results of the strike were mixed. The across-the-board five percent increase for all public-sector workers was certainly a win for solidarity at one level, but at another level it indicated uneven wage and salary increases since five percent for those near the top of the wage and salary schedule means a greater absolute gain than those at the bottom. A demand for an across-the-board increase for all public-sector employees, with the total amount distributed controlled by workers democratically, would have been a demand more consistent with a socialist vision. That there is no reference to such a demand in Camfield’s presentation indicates one of the limitations of Camfield’s analysis.

Secondly, the issue of adequate health-care insurance paid by the employer rather than the workers remained unresolved and was shuffled off to a “task force.” This is a typical stalling tactic by management and employers in order to diffuse a situation and often does not resolve an issue for workers, or the solution becomes watered-down and more acceptable to management.

Thirdly, although there may have been some socialists who aimed at the abolition of the power of employers as a class in the movement, there has been, as far as I am aware, no indication of any explicit expression of a rejection of the power of employers as a class by Virginia teachers. The social-reformist left do not do so, and even the radical left often fear doing so out of fear of isolation from the working class.

Mr. Camfield claims that this form of class-struggle from below makes such workers more susceptible to socialist ideas. That may or may not be the case. It would require investigation to determine whether that is true. Camfield does not investigate whether that is true, so his assertion is pure speculation. It may, however, be a convenient ideology, since it may then be used to divert attention from the need to fight against current social-reformist ideology (such as “decent jobs,” “fair wages,” “economic justice”) and other such rhetoric in the here and now. That would require opposing union ideology in its various forms consistently and more assertively.

Mr. Camfield also does not refer to and hence does not take into account the specific situation of teachers in general in relation to other members of the working class nor the specific situation of the teachers in West Virginia (and in some other states). In relation to the first point–the specific nature of teachers in relation to other members of the working class–teachers’ jobs, as Beverly Silver, in her work Forces of Labor: Workers’ Movements and Globalization since 1870, argues (pages 116-117), are not interdependent in their work like autoworkers technically; on the other hand, they are linked to the social division of labour via the disruptive impact of strikes on the routines of workers as parents, which in turn can have an impact on other employers. Furthermore, unlike the auto industry, it is difficult to increase productivity through changes in technology; teaching is still relatively labour-intensive. In addition, the labour of teachers is difficult to export geographically (unlike, for example, jobs in the auto industry); Consequently, teachers have, potentially, a certain kind of economic power–a spatial fix–lacking in other industries (although workers in other industries may have different forms of economic power–a technical fix in the case of auto workers, for instance).

Mr. Camfield also fails to provide any details at all concerning the specific nature of the West Virginia teachers strike. Firstly, the strikers themselves recognized that there was an imbalance between teacher demand and teacher supply: teacher demand exceeded teacher supply. Secondly, the West-Virginia teachers, as Hakan Yilmaz argues (Public Education, the State and the Crisis, 2018), there has been at least a two-pronged attack against the working class since the early 1970s, when economic crises became more prevalent. One prong has been an attack on unions, wages and benefits to shore up profit and the profit rate (the practical measurement for capitalists of how well they are doing in the economy–it is measured variously, but in general it is after-tax profit divided by total invested).

Another prong has been the shift in the tax rate. At the federal level, in the U.S. from 1981 to the end of the 1980s, the tax rate decreased from 70% to 33%. This shift in the tax rate was not that relevant directly for educational financing (since such financing occurs more at the state and local levels), but it provided the overall ideological climate for such shifts at those levels later on. The federal public debt skyrocketed, which provided the justification for federal neoliberal austerity measures (reduction of federal social services, for example).

When the great economic crisis of 2007-2008 arose, there were further attacks on the working class, including public-sector workers. As investment decreased following the crisis, tax revenues were also hit. In West Virginia, during the last quarter of 2017, for instance, state revenue was still 7% below the pre-crisis level; the state funding formula for West Virginia decreased by 11.4% between 2008 and 2018. Simultaneously, the cost of Medicare and Medicaid increased, and the costs of health care for public employees were being increased directly paid out by teachers, among others: “patient costs” increased from “zero in 1988 to over four hundred dollars a month today” (Kate Doyle Griffiths, March 13, 2018: Crossroads and Country Roads: Wildcat West Virginia and the Possibilities of a Working Class Offensive), page 2.

As Yilmaz points out, “lower state revenues and higher state costs have led to significant declines in teachers’ salaries and benefits” (page 22). This has often had implications for teachers salaries. In the case of West Virginia, teacher salaries declined “from $49,999 to $45,701” between 2003 and 2016 (page 23). With rising health costs and absolutely decreasing salaries, the pressure on teachers’ own livelihoods was increasing. Undoubtedly the movement gained momentum and reached the level of solidarity it did in part because of these circumstances These circumstances, although they may aid in developing class consciousness, a rejection of capitalism and the power of employers as a class and for socialism, need not do so. To do so requires sustained criticism of the power of employers as a class, criticisms of justifications of that power (such as “fair wages,” “decent work,” “a fair contract,” and similar clichés, and a vision of an alternative kind of society.

However, I remember Mr. Camfield being the keynote speaker at one of the Manitoba Teachers’ Society’s meetings (the Manitoba Teachers Society is an organization, according to its own website, that “is the collective bargaining and professional development organization for all of Manitoba’s 15,000 public school teachers”). What Mr. Camfield said was hardly radical. This is not surprising given not only the reformist nature of the Manitoba Teachers’ Society but also its conservative nature. When I was attending the French university in Winnipeg (College universitaire de Saint-Boniface) to obtain a bachelor of education degree, the Manitoba Teachers’ Society presented its services to teacher candidates. It provided scenarios to show what teachers should do in various situations. In one scenario, a teacher could have criticized its employers, but the presenter indicated that under no circumstances should teachers do so.

All in all, Mr. Camfield’s podcast presentation is an example of idealizing the struggle of workers and claiming that such struggles are somehow socialist. He nowhere indicates the need for socialists to make explicit and to challenge those in the labour movement in general and the union movement in particular concerning their persistent justification of the power of employers as a class.

Although such struggles undoubtedly need to be supported, they are insufficient. Such struggles need to become more explicitly aimed at ending the power of employers as a class. Struggles against a particular employer, in other words, need to be generalized and become indeed a class struggle explicitly. Such struggles need to become radicalized through the goal of ending of the power of employers as a class being made explicit and using that goal in the present to organize for the goal of overthrowing that power.

Such a goal requires that socialists–including academics–risk being oppressed in various ways by the diverse powers of the class of employers and their representatives inside and outside the state. It demands that socialists be thoroughly critical, challenging the power of employers any way they can–including their ideology–and that includes challenging the ideology of union representatives. What kind of a socialist is that who does not do that but demands that workers risk their lives? To refer to class struggle from below without risk is hypocritical because it demands that workers risk their lives–but not socialists.

Or are there not objective and subjective conditions required for challenging the power of employers as a class?

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.


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.




Socialism, Part One: What It May Look Like

My wife asked me what other kind of society could we live than the one we are living now. I suspect that most people have the same kind of question. It is difficult to imagine another kind of life than the life that we have experienced all our lives.

There are, of course, no magic answers. The answers will be experimental, with some failures and some successes, and not in ideal circumstances, of course.

However, some ideas can still be provided about some possible ways of living that provide an alternative vision–a vision so obviously lacking among the so-called left these days.

Tony Smith, in his book Globalisation: A Systematic Marxian Account (2006. Boston: Brill), provides a description of some aspects of a possible future kind of society. He borrows his model largely from David Schweichart’s model of economic democracy in After Capitalism (2002) (which I have not read). He adds three modifications of his own.

I will cut and paste short pieces from this work. He paints various aspects of a socialist society that need to be incorporated into a socialist society. There are undoubtedly other aspects, and his own account may have to be modified.

I will not pursue the topic week after week after week until the topic is exhausted since there are other topics which I consider relevant–above all a critique of the power of the class of employers, but also a critique of the social-reformist left and the so-called radical left that do not question the power of employers as a class.

From Smith’s book, page 303:

The model Schweickart defends has the following essential elements:

(i) Production and distribution are primarily undertaken within worker
collectives. Workers are not hired as wage-labourers by capital; they instead
join worker collectives as fellow members. There is a basic right to employment,
with state enterprises providing jobs for those unable to find positions in

This condition is to initiate a reduction in economic coercion as an essential move towards an increase in economic and individual freedom.

There is, of course, a possible problem of increased inefficiency, but Smith addresses this issue in further democratic socialist measures.


Ontario Looks Right–With Some Help From the “Left”

Herman Rosenfeld recently wrote an article on the election of the right-wing government of Doug Ford in Ontario, Canada (Ontario Looks Right). I would like to take issue with some of his analysis, specifically in relation to unions (and, to a less extent, to community organizations).

He writes:


Still, noticeably weak in the campaign was the labor movement. Three different unions waged competing anti-privatization campaigns in the year leading up to the election and were in no position to wage a sustained anti-Ford campaign with its own agenda. They did little or no education in most unions with their members, let alone in their communities, about the underlying issues, other than official appeals to vote for the NDP. Without any socialist political party or movement with roots in working-class communities or institutions, this is not surprising. …

There are several lessons that one can quickly draw from the experience of the Days of Action and the fightback against right-wing populist regimes elsewhere. Clearly, without engaging the working class as a whole, in unions as well as communities, you can’t build a movement that can confront both employers and the government. Simply taking verbal pot shots at the obvious buffoonery of Ford (or Trump for that matter) doesn’t change anything. It simply emboldens their base.

There has be a series of alternative policies and approaches popularized across the working class that can address many of the workers who supported Ford and his party. Mass democratic movements of workers, women, indigenous, LGBTQ people, tenants, and more need to be ready to disrupt the workings of the system that Ford looks to impose. This won’t be easy.

The NDP (like the Democrats in the US) will include elements that can be part of any resistance movement. Some of the newly elected MPPs have excellent activist histories that have placed them decidedly to the left of the party’s leadership. They should be welcomed as allies.

On the other hand, the NDP has a history of limiting the space for left critiques and activism within its caucus. Leader Horwath has already made moves to limit the party’s role to being an official parliamentary opposition and a government-in-waiting. This doesn’t bode well for the NDP’s potential role in any movement.
But it is critical not to subordinate any movement’s autonomy or leadership to that of a moderate, electoral political party like the NDP. It is important to keep in mind that the latter only became the center of electoral opposition to Ford because of the collapse of the Liberals and the lack of any real left alternative.

Most important is to build what was completely lacking in the last major popular push against the Harris years: socialists have to work with allies to change the opinions and understanding of working people who look to the false solutions of Ford. This can’t be done in isolation, but as part of building an alternative resistance in unions, communities, and other working-class spaces and institutions.

It means combining socialist principles with deeper education about the causes and solutions to challenges posed by neoliberalism, along with learning about right-wing populism and its agenda. Socialists need to argue that a clear analysis of the conjuncture and of the nature of our forces and those on the other side is essential in building solid resistance. This has to be done inside and alongside unions and working-class institutions and spaces and social movements, around all kinds of issues that have a class component: housing, transportation, education, workplace issues, jobs, social programs, racism, sexism, homophobia, and more.
Upcoming municipal elections across Ontario in October provide a potential space to mobilize resistance across the province if the left can build sectoral networks around the above issues, in alliance with elected officials, candidates, and community and labor activists.

Socialist organizations and individuals are small and isolated. We can’t control the larger course of events, but we can contribute towards building a countermovement against Ford and the broader right-wing populist push he represents — a movement that can ultimately move from playing defense against these forces to offense.

He rightly points out that the NDP limits leftist criticism and activism, but he does not extend this to the unions in any detailed way. Why not? General criticisms of unions are hardly what is needed at this point.

For example, John Cartwright, president of the Toronto & York Region Labour Council, speaks of economic justice, in his open letter of January 30, 2018 (an open letter to our movement):

 We need to fight for labour law reform including broader based bargaining so that precarious workers can have a vehicle in which to achieve dignity and economic justice.

It is unlikely that he means by economic justice the creation of a working-class movement organized to abolish the treatment of workers as a class. He probably means the signing of a collective agreement, with its management rights clause. (For an example of a management rights clause.  Management Rights: Private Sector Collective Agreement, British Columbia

Compare this with the money circuit of capital (The Money Circuit of Capital) to determine whether workers experience economic justice even in the best-case scenario of a collective agreement. Or do not socialist principles include opposing treating human beings as things, as mere means for others’ purposes?

What are these socialist principles of which Herman speaks? Do they not contradict many of the principles of what union leaders and representatives express these days? Does not resistance against the right include criticizing the rhetoric that many union leaders and representatives express?

As for issues that have a class component: Where was this component when the wisdom of the social-reformist left linked the fight for a minimum $15 with the idea of “fairness”? As I argued in another post, the radical left abandoned any class view and simply jumped on the bandwagon of “Fight for $15 and Fairness.” (The Limitations of the Social-Reformist Left).

What of CUPE 3902 and its reference to a fair contract (CUPE 3902)? Do socialist principles indicate that there can be such a thing as a fair contract given the power of employers as a class? Should socialist then remain silent over the issue?

As for the right-wing drift in many countries, one contributing factor may be the acceptance of social-reformist rhetoric, that is to say, the lack of criticism of the so-called progressive left.

It would be necessary to develop a socialist organization that is willing to criticize both unions, with their persistent vague references of social justice, and community organizations that do the same (see for example my criticism of OCAP, the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty). Basic Income: A Critique of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty’s Stance). 

What is needed is—a more specific idea of what socialist principles mean. I thought I tried to live socialist principles by criticizing union rhetoric—and was abused because of it.

What, then, are these socialist principles? How do they relate to collective agreements? How do they relate to unions? How do they relate to ideas like the Fight for $15 and Fairness? How do they relate to working for employers as a class?

So many questions—but no answers to be found in Herman’s article. A pity.