Review of Thier’s Book “A People’s Guide to Capitalism,” Part One

I recently participated in a group called No One Is Illegal here in Toronto. The group decided to provide a zoom reading meeting every week to discuss the book A People’s Guide to Capitalism, by Hadas Thier, with many participants not belonging to the group but interested in understanding more about capitalism. We read the book in parts, with each participant taking turns to read out loud a section, with questions to be asked and discussed after each section or difficult part. The group did not finish the book–the number of participants dwindled; it is unlikely that there was much emotional attachment to understanding–despite the participants’ apparent interest in understanding the nature of capitalism. 

I sent along some comments to the group (but not to the other partcipants) in order to provide the group with my understanding of the nature of capitalism–which does not always coincide with Thier’s view. 

The following is what I wrote before the first session: 

Question 1: So far, Ms. Thier, as far as I can tell, has provided a purely negative characterization of capitalism. Is this politically useful, though? If capitalism is so negative, why does it continue to persist and why does it seem so difficult to change into a humane society? Are there no redeeming qualities of capitalism? For example, is there still not innovation and increases in productivity? A cheapening of the prices of certain commodities (despite inflation)? For example, when I worked at a brewery (Carling O’Keefte, which then was bougtht by Molson) in Calgary for around four years, we workers could produce a maximum of 550 bottles of beer per minute, but when I quit we could produce a maximum of 1,400 bottles per minute. What of Marx’s and Engels’ reference to how China was beaten? From the Communist Manifesto: “The cheap prices of its commodities are the heavy artillery with which it [the bourgeoisie] batters down all Chinese walls….”

Why do people buy at Walmart (despite leftist misgivings and critiques)?

If we fail to recognize some redeeming features of capitalism, are we not likely to underestimate the difficulty of overcoming its negative features? Alternatively put, are we not to overestimate the ease with which we can overcome capitalism?

The purely negative characterization of capitalism is related to the next question that I have:

Question 2: Does Ms. Thier provide an adequate characterization of Marx’s theory of labour, commodities and money?

To answer that question will require reading at least until the end of chapter three (Money), but my preliminary answer would be: no. I have particular concerns from the section beginning “The Dual Character of a Commodity” I did not say anything at the time since I wanted others to speak. I prefer to provide a written form of my concerns since they are involved and because the written form provided the opportunity to supply a more coherent form for my concerns (and it also may reflect my own limited understanding of the material).

Historical Materialism and the Indirect Production of Human Life

Before I refer to Thier’s text, I will make a preliminary point through a couple of points. From Marcelo Badaro Mattos (2022), The Working Class from Marx to Our Times, page 4:

The author of this work is among those who see these current uses of the term class, as well as efforts to conceptualize class exclusively from phenomena associated with consumption, income, and market, as reductionist, for they limit the class situation to a strictly economic dimension (and circumscribe economic phenomena to the competition of individuals and groups of individuals for income and consumption in the market). Such reductionism prevents the comprehension of social classes in their articulation to the totality of social dynamics.

For this reason, this book privileges another perspective, which identifies classes based on the relationships that men and women, living in society, establish with each other to produce and reproduce themselves socially. These relationships establish limits and pressure the collective behaviour of the class, which raises the need to understand other dimensions of these fundamental social groups, such as their collective conscience and political action. In this way, one can perceive classes, and the conflicts among them, as historically situated processes and relationships, which are decisive for understanding the broader dynamics of social transformation. The theoretical starting point for such a perspective is historical materialism.

There is undoubtedly room for debate about what historical materialism is, but the following is relevant to the discussion of the nature of abstract labour and value. From The German Ideology (Marx-Engels Collected Works, volume 5), page 31:

Men can be distinguished from animals by consciousness, by religion or anything else you like. They themselves begin to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence, a step which is conditioned by their physical organisation. By producing their means of subsistence men are indirectly producing their material life.

Human beings, unlike other animal species, produce their lives indirectly. This is what practically makes human life different from other animal species. Other animal species may rely on occasion on tools to consume (such as chimpanzees, when they use a stick to eat termites), but other animal species do not rely on indirectly producing their lives as do the human species.

Human beings are both animals and more than animals because they produce indirectly their lives. Think of the issue of climate change. What other species could have such impact? Why only the human species? The quick answer would be the use of fossil fuels. However, could any other species use them? Why only the human species? Obviously, the indirect production of their lives hardly explains climate change—and yet it is a necessary condition for such change to occur. No other species, which much more directly produces its own life or lives, could do so.

This indirect production of their lives is not dependent directly on their wills; in order to live, they must indirectly produce their lives, and this indirect production of their lives involves the production of tools (and much later machines).

This indirect production of their lives is what concerns Marx’s theory of commodities and his so-called labour theory of value. It is a question of a relation among the producers rather than a relation among producer and final consumer (and hence a consumer society), at least for much of Marx’s analysis in Capital.

The Substance and the Magnitude of Value Must Be Distinguished: Thier’s “The Dual Character of a Commodity” Section

Turning now to Thier’s text, in the section entitled “The Dual Character of a Commodity,” we read the following (page 37):

The one property that all commodities have in common, and through which their “value” can be determined, is that each is a product of human labor. In Marx’s words: “Despite their motley appearance,” commodities have a common denominator.” Commodities can exchange according to the relative amount of labor-time that it takes to produce them. This basic idea is the core concept behind what’s known as the LABOR THEORY OF VALUE—explained further below.”

I have some issues with this formulation. Firstly, the reference to “relative amount of labor-time” confuses the magnitude of value with the common denominator of value (what Marx called the substance of value). If we want to compare the sizes of things, we assume that they share the same property of being in space. This common property is prior to talking about “the relative amount of” anything. We do not compare the size of apples and the size of their colour.

The same amount of labour time is irrelevant if the social space is different. Thus, when I and my daughter made supper, our labour produced no value despite being labour.

On page 131 of the Penguin edition of Capital, volume 1, we read the following (which was included in only the first German edition):

(Now we know the substance of value. It is labour. We know the measure of its magnitude. It is labour-time. The form, which stamps value as exchange-value, remains to be analysed.)

Value for Marx thus has three aspects: substance, magnitude and form. These should not be confused. The form of value is particular relevant for the quotation on page 32 of Thier’s book, which reads in part:

It not only stands with its feet on the ground, but, in relation to all other commodities, it stands on its head, and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas, far more wonderful than if it were to begin dancing of its own free will.

The following quote from Marx substantiates this interpretation of the need to distinguish at least the substance of value (abstract or general labour) from its magnitude. From Marx-Engels Collected Works, volume 32, page 330:

If a thing is distant from another, the distance is in fact a relation between the one thing and the other; but at the same time, the distance is something different from this relation between the two things. It is a dimension of space, it is some length which may as well express the distance of two other things besides those compared. But this is not all. If we speak of the distance as a relation between two things, we suppose something “intrinsic”, some “property” of the things themselves, which enables them to be distant from each other. What is the distance between the syllable A and a table? The question would be nonsensical. In speaking of the distance of two things, we speak of their difference in space. Thus we suppose both of them to be contained in space, to be points of space. Thus we equalise them as being both existences of space, and only after having them equalised as aspects of space we distinguish them as different points of space. To belong to space is their unity.

The Substance of Value is Not Just Labour in General, but a Specific Kind of General Labour that Requires an Exchange Process to Be Social Labour

Secondly, it is true that on page 34 Thier writes: “If the defining aspect of commodities is that they are produced for exchange…,” but she does not incorporate the need to exchange in her characterization of the common property of all commodities being products of labour.

Hence, on the one hand, she confuses the determination of the magnitude of the value of commodities with the question of the nature of value as such and, on the other, she fails to incorporate the need for exchange into her characterization of the common property of being labour.

Thier’s Section “Not by Gold or by Silver, but by Labor”

Her quote of David McNally in the section Not by Gold or by Silver, But by Labor on pages 41-42 also is inadequate:

expenditures of the general human capacity to exert muscles, energies and brain cells to create or produce something. Even if all commodities come into being through different acts of concrete labor, they nonetheless all share the property of being products of the generic act of human labor, or what Marx calls abstract labor, i.e., labor as a general power abstracted from all its specific forms.”[emphasis added]

The common property makes it seem as if it was mere human labour that produces value, but this is an inadequate way of putting it.

General or universal labour can be interpreted in a number of ways. One way relates, as we will see, to the nature of money. Human labour as the production of the human species, has the capacity to assume many different forms and is not tied to one particular kind of environment)–unlike other animal species, which lack the general capacity to live in diverse environments. Thomas Hodgskin noted this quality of human laobur in his book (1825) Labour Defended against the Claims of Capital , pages 65-66:

Naturally and individually man is one of the most feeble and destitute of all created animals. His intelligence, however, compensates for his physical inferiority. After he has inherited the knowledge of several generations, and when he lives congregated into great masses, he is enabled by his mental faculties to complete, as it were, the work of nature, and add to his intelligence the physical powers of the lower animals. He directs his course on the waters, he floats in the air, he dives into the bowels of the earth, and all which its surface bears he makes tributary to his use. The gales which threaten at first to blow him from the earth, grind his corn, and waft to him a share in the treasures of the whole world. He creates at his pleasure the devouring element of fire, and checks its progress, so that it destroys only what he has no wish to preserve. He directs the course of the stream, and he sets bounds to the ocean ; in short, he presses all the elements into his service, and makes Nature herself the handmaid to his will. The instruments he uses to do all this, which have been invented by his intelligence to aid his feeble powers, and which are employed by his skill and his hands, ….

A second way of looking at labour at general labour is in terms of the relation of process and product. When we look at the products of human production, all the products are products of human labour, obviously. The products of human labour have the common property of being produced by human beings.

Although abstract labour in some ways captures or includes both of these senses, it is not identical with them, by any means. In other words, even if they both apply or exist, they do not necessarily result in the production of value.

On page 165 of Capital, volume 1, we read the following:

Objects of utility become commodities only because they are the products of the labour of private individuals who work independently of each other.

Labour that operates “independently of each other” is not yet social labour in its operation. Abstract labour is therefore not just general labour or the capacity of the species to produce in various forms and ways, or the common property that simply lies hidden in the beer and other commodities. Rather, abstract labour is labour which is not yet social labour while it is being performed (there are limitations or perhaps complications to this way of putting it, but I leave those aside). Since it is not yet social labour, a further process is required to make it social labour—the exchange process. The exchange process is both internal to the process of producing our lives and external to it. It is internal to it in that labour that is not yet social labour while it is being performed requires as its complement a further process to prove that the labour expended is indeed social labour. This further process, however, occurs outside the production process proper and in that sense is external to the production process.

By the way, at the brewery where I worked in Calgary, the brewery owned the beer store across the street. It was more evident that a further exchange process was required if the beer was to be social labour. (And a further point: some money went missing from the beer store. Two workers were accused of stealing it; they took a lie detector, which they apparently failed. They confessed to having taken the money. They were fired, and the union, despite being a fairly radical union, did nothing about it.)

A Major Omission by Thier: The Double Nature of Labour that Produces Commodities and Its Relevance for the Dynamics of Capitalism

As far as I have read so far, nowhere does Thier mention in a clear way what for Marx was a vital distinction and relation: concrete labour (which produces use values) and abstract labour (which produces value).

I quote from part of one of my published articles (which I also quote on my blog in a post criticizing Jim Stanford’s theory of money as mere purchasing power, in his book Economics for Everyone:

Marx evidently considered that a dual theory of the use of things or a dual theory of labour was central for a critical understanding of capitalist society:

[London], August 24, 1867
The best points in my book are: 1) the two-fold character of labour, according to whether it is expressed in use value or exchange value. (All understanding of the facts depends upon this.) It is emphasised immediately, in the first chapter.

Marx reiterated the importance of the two-fold character of labour for his critique of capitalist society a few months later:

[London], January 8, 1868

It is strange that the fellow [Eugen Duhring] does not sense the three fundamentally
new elements of the book:
. . . 2) That the economists, without exception, have missed the simple point that if the commodity has a double character—use value and exchange value—then the labour represented by the commodity must also have a two-fold character, while the mere analysis of labour as such, as in Smith, Ricardo, etc., is bound to come up everywhere against inexplicable problems. This is, in fact, the whole secret of the critical conception.

It is Marx’s argument that social labour, in the form of abstract human labour, has distinctive characteristics which oppose it to human labour as concrete labour. It is only through being connected to other labours indirectly that it becomes social labour. The concrete labour that is performed has no direct connection to the labour of other people. To put it another way, the material process of life and the social process of life, which form a unity in the case of human beings, since human beings are both material and social beings, is sundered in capitalist society.

This situation can also be expressed in terms of parts and wholes. Each capitalist unit is a part of the total division of labour. However, this part is quite curious. It is a part that does not function as a part qualitatively while human labour is being expended. The labour being performed is not social labour, connected to other human labour and determinate needs. It needs to become a part only after the micro-production process is at an end, if it is to count as a part of the whole.

Since concrete labour is not social labour as it is being performed, and since the latter is not expressed immediately in concrete use-values, the possibility arises that the amount of concrete labour does not translate into the same amount of social labour. This possible non-identity has major implications for the structure of human life: a dynamic quantitative process is built into production. The quantity of labour required to produce output becomes a concern because the mere expenditure of concrete human labour does not necessarily suffice to meet standards set by the general level of productivity in a particular industry. If those standards are not met, the capitalist firm cannot in the long run reproduce itself. For the capitalist firm to survive, an external pressure is brought to bear on producers to meet that standard. The peculiar character of the part of a whole in capitalist production is thus that the quality of functioning as part of total social labour is transformed into a purely quantitative form. The specific quality of social labour in capitalist society is the priority of its quantity over its concrete quality, or abstract labour over concrete labour.

The difference between concrete labour and social labour via the emergence of abstract labour as the substance of value is similar to the splitting of the atom; it releases a lot of energy. When there is a possible divergence between the amount of concrete labour and the amount of social labour expended, then there is a possible pressure to make the concrete labour conform to at least the social average or even be less than the social average—to increase the productivity of labour. Each unit of a commodity produced therefore will have less value (even if the price remains the same due, for example, to higher taxes).

The Form of Value

One of the problems with understanding Marx’s theory is to see that he does one thing in one section of Capital and does something else in another section of Capital, but they are different ways of understanding the same phenomenon.

On page 141 of Capital, volume 1, Marx writes:

If we say that, as values, commodities are simply congealed quantities of human labour, our analysis reduces them, it is true, to the level of abstract value, but does not give them a form of value distinct from their natural forms. It is otherwise in the value relation of one commodity to another.

The idea that produced commodities are “congealed” or objectified general labour relates to the substance of value, or the what or the nature of value without regard to the way in which it is expressed or appears. The form of appearance of value, which forms the third section of the first chapter of Capital, however, analyses how value is expressed or appears, and it is the way value is expressed or appears that constitutes the “grotesque” nature of commodities, at least initially.

That Marx considers it necessary to distinguish the nature or content of value from its form comes out in the following quote from note 17 on the same page, where Marx criticizes the political economist Samuel Bailey:

  1. The few economists, such as S. Bailey, who have concerned themselves with the analysis of the form of value have been unable to arrive at any result, firstly because they confuse the form of value with value itself….

I will not go into too much detail concerning the form of value, partly because it is complicated, and partly for the purposes of the reading, it is unnecessary. I will merely quote from a post on my blog:

Since the concrete labour performed is not social labour directly but only indirectly, its social nature can only be expressed indirectly–through another, different commodity, in the use value of another commodity. However, merely expressing one commodity, say beer, in another commodity, say in steel, would not express the general social nature of the labour that produces value. To express adequately abstract labour and value, it is necessary that the internal opposition of the commodity between the concrete labour and concrete use value, on the one hand, be completely contrasted with abstract labour and value on the other in an external form–ultimately in money as the unique commodity that has the monopoly power of being able to purchase any commodity. This monopoly power of money necessarily excludes such power attaching to the other commodities.

From Capital, Volume 1, page 161: 

Finally, the last form, C [practically, the money form], gives to the world of commodities a general social relative form of value, because, and in so far as, all commodities except one are thereby excluded from the equivalent form. A single commodity … therefore has the form of direct exchangeability with all other commodities, in other words it has a directly social form because, and in so far as, no other commodity is in this situation. 26

26. It is by no means self-evident that the form of direct and universal exchangeability is an antagonistic form, as inseparable from its opposite, the form of non-direct exchangeability, as the positivity of one pole of a magnet is from the negativity of the other pole. This has allowed the illusion to arise that all commodities can simultaneously be imprinted with the stamp of direct exchangeability, in the same way that it might be imagined that all Catholics can be popes.

This opposition between value and its form can lead to economic crises since commodities that are produced may not be able to be sold, or may only be able to be sold below their value.

Thier’s section “Socially Necessary Labor Time”

We read, on page 44:

The labor theory of value—that a commodity’s value in relation to other commodities is determined by how much labor has gone into producing it—was not a controversial point during Marx’s day. For this reason, he actually spent very little time explaining or defining the concept.

Although Thier points out some differences between Smith’s and Ricardo’s labour theory of value and Marx’s theory, her assertion that Marx “spent very little time explaining or defining the concept” is false as I pointed out above. Marx took pains to distinguish his dual theory of labour from Smith’s and Ricardo’s singular—and ahistorical–labour theory of value, which treated labour throughout history as producing value.

Thier’s section “Generations of Labor”

Since Thier fails to refer to Marx’s distinction between concrete and abstract labour, her references in this section fail to capture one aspect of the significance of the distinction for Marx. This section allegedgly deals with the transfer of previously produced commodities to the value of a commodity. For example, in the brewery where I worked, there was, among other machines, a filler, which filled the bottles with beer. It had a value. But note that Thier, in her characterization of the relation between the value of such machinery and the value of the resulting commodity beer, is formulated in the passive voice and never in the active voice. She writes, on page 46:

But these raw materials and machinery are themselves commodities created by labor. As such, theyall carry their own labor-determined value into the production of a new commodity. Essentially, their value simply gets passed into the value of the table, jetliner, or iPhone. [my emphasis]

Again, on page 47:

The raw materials simply pass on their value into a new product—the table.

Again, on the same page:

That means that each year, the machine transfers about a quarter of its value to the tables that it sands. During its lifespan it will (the capitalists hope) pass its full value into the goods it’s used to produce.

By the time we add in the labor passed on from all the other machinery and rent paid for the factory in which it’s manufactured, its value will be greater still. [my emphases]

The importance of the preservation of the value of already produced commodities (such as the filler) in further produced commodities (such as beer) is important because, if there is to be a surplus of value, the value of already produced commodities must be preserved; otherwise, there may well be no surplus value at all.

Let us now read what Marx wrote. From Capital, volume 1, pages 307-309:

The worker adds fresh value to the material of his labour by expending on it a given amount of additional labour, no matter what the specific content, purpose and technical character of that labour may be. On the other hand, the values of the means of production used up in the process are preserved, and present themselves afresh as constituent parts of the value of the product; the values of the cotton and the spindle, for instance, re-appear again in the value of the yarn. The value of the means of production is therefore preserved by being transferred to the product. This transfer takes place during the conversion of those means into a product, in other words during the labour process. It is mediated through labour. But how is this done?

The worker does not perform two pieces of work simultaneously, one in order to add value to the cotton, the other in order to preserve the value of the means of production, or, what amounts to the same thing, to transfer to the yarn, as product, the value of the cotton on which he works, and part of the value of the spindle with which he works. But by the very act of adding new value he preserves their former values. Since however the addition of new value to the material of his labour, and the preservation of its former value, are two entirely distinct results, it is plain that this twofold nature of the result can be explained only by the twofold nature of his labour; it must at the same time create value through one of its properties and preserve or transfer value through another.

Now how does every worker add fresh labour-time and therefore fresh value? Evidently, only by working productively in a particular way. The spinner adds labour-time by spinning, the weaver by weaving, the smith by forging. But although these operations add labour as such, and therefore new values, it is only through the agency of labour directed to a particular purpose, by means of the spinning, the weaving and the forging respectively, that the means of production, the cotton and the spindle, the yam and the loom, and the iron and the anvil, become constituent elements of the product, of a new use-value.1 The old form of the use-value disappears, but it is taken up again in a new form of use value. We saw, when we were considering the process of creating value, that if a use-value is effectively consumed in the production of a new use-value, the quantity of labour expended to produce the article which has been consumed forms a part of the quantity of labour necessary to produce the new use-value; this portion is therefore labour transferred from the means of production to the new product. Hence the worker preserves the values of the already consumed means of production or transfers them to the product as portions of its value, not by virtue of his additional labour as such, but by virtue of the particular useful character of that labour, by virtue of its specific productive form. Therefore, in so far as labour is productive activity directed to a particular purpose, in so far as it is spinning, weaving or forging, etc., it raises the means of production from the dead merely by entering into contact with them, infuses them with life so that they become factors of the labour process, and combines with them to form new products.

the specific productive labour of the worker were not spinning, he could not convert the cotton into yam, and therefore he could not transfer the values of the cotton and spindle to the yarn. Suppose the same worker were to change his trade to that of a joiner, he would still by a day’s labour add value to the material he worked on. We see therefore that the addition of new value takes place not by virtue of his labour being spinning in particular, or joinery in particular, but because it is labour in general, abstract social labour; and we see also that the value added is of a certain definite amount, not because his labour has a particular useful content, but because it lasts for a definite length of time. On the one hand, it is by virtue of its general character as expenditure of human labour power in the abstract that spinning adds new value to the values of the cotton and the spindle; and on the other hand, it is by virtue of its special character as a concrete, useful process that the same labour of spinning both transfers the values of the means of production to the product and preserves them in the product. Hence a twofold result emerges within the same period of time.

By the simple addition of a certain quantity of labour, new value is added, and by the quality of this added labour, the original values of the means of production are preserved in the product. This twofold effect, resulting from the twofold character of labour, appears quite plainly in numerous phenomena.

The transfer of value of already produced value arises through the specific concrete labour and actions of specific, concrete workers. It is they who do this—and not the machinery, and certainly not some passive entity.

Thier’s Section “Money and Fetishism”

Is Thier’s characterization of money and fetishism adequate? I think not.

On page 48,she writes:

If we start from this understanding of value, rather than with a surface appearance of prices, the real character of money loses its mystique. Value—which is just a crystallization of abstract labor—is represented by money.

This tells us nothing about the necessary relationship between the nature of abstract labour and the nature of money. Indeed, she then repeats what many economists who believe in the capitalist system state. She states on the same page:

Thus by being a portable and universal embodiment of value, money simplifies and mediates the process of trading goods.

This presents money as a simple convenient way of engaging in exchange. She repeats the same idea again on the same page:

With money, a producer of bread doesn’t have to go to the marketplace with ten loaves of bread in order to buy a chair. At the same time, a chair maker doesn’t need to exchange her chair for ten loaves of bread if she only wants one today and another loaf later in the week. Money conveniently stores value over time, which its owner can dispense of as he or she sees fit.

She then characterizes money more accurately, but not for the right reason:

Money also conceals the true nature of value, so that when you go to the supermarket, you don’t think you’re trading an equivalent amount of your congealed mass of labor” with someone else’s.

Money does indeed conceal the true nature of value, but this concealment can hardly be reduced only to the lack of understanding that in exchange there is an equivalent amount of congealed labour being exchanged. As I wrote on my blog,

On pages 48 and 49, Thier quotes David Harvey, who presents the relation in exchange between producer and consumer. Why? Is not Marx concerned in the first instance with the relation of producers to each other and only secondarily with the relation between producers and consumers?

On page 49, we read the following:

The process of producing commodities, Marx wrote, “has mastery over man, instead of the opposite.

This is the essence of what Marx dubbed COMMODITY FETISHISM. What other way can you describe the modern worship of every new generation of Apple products than fetishism? We idolize these things that we consider to be outside and external to us, but in fact are our own creations.

Thier confuses two different issues here. Idolization of differnt versions of a specific commodity hardly expresses the essence of commodity fetishism.; this has to do with consumerism (relation of production to consumption) and not a relation of producers to each other. The relation of producers to consumption is a consequence of the kind of relation between producers, but the relation between producers is prior to this logically.

What characterizes more accurately commodity fetishism is, rather, the first sentence .Marx thought that commodity fetishism was linked necessarily to the form of value. From Capital, volume 1, pages 164-165:

Whence, then, arises the enigmatic character of the product of labour, as soon as it assumes the form of a commodity? Clearly, it arises from this form itself. The equality of the kinds of human labour takes on a physical form in the equal objectivity of the products of labour as values; the measure of the expenditure of human labour-power by its duration takes on the form of the magnitude of the value of the products of labour; and finally the relationships between the producers, within which the social characteristics of their labours are manifested, take on the form of a social relation between the products of labour. The mysterious character of the commodity-form consists therefore simply in the fact that the commodity reflects the social characteristics of men’s own labour as objective characteristics of the products of labour themselves, as the socio-natural properties of these things. Hence it also reflects the social relation of the producers to the sum total of labour as a social relation between objects, a relation which exists apart from and outside the producers. … I call this the fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour as soon as they are produced as commodities, and is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities. As the foregoing analysis has already demonstrated, this fetishism of the world of commodities arises from the peculiar social character of the labour which produces them.

Relations between producers assumes the form of a relation between things. A specific kind of human relation—a specific kind of producing our lives—appears as a relation between things, and such a relation appears as something natural, and in that form exceeds our capacities to control it. Commodity fetishism goes way beyond idolizing specific kinds of commodities. By introducing such an idea here, Thier does not capture the very strange way in which our way of producing our lives is organized and the more profound consequences of human relations assuming the form of a relation between things.

Furthermore, she does not link the nature of abstract labour and the production of value, on the one hand, and the power of money (and the power of the owner of money) on the other. If abstract labour is labour that is not social labour as it is being performed, then the exchange process as the complimentary process that is required to complete the social process of producing our lives leads to the emergence of one commodity that is immediately exchangeable (convertible) into any other commodity. The power of money to be convertible into any other commodity has as its complement the opposite of a lack of power in all other commodities in being convertible into other forms immediately. This power of money to be immediately convertible into other commodities arises from the nature of abstract labour as labour that is not social as it is being performed. The lack of labours being connected consciously and socially to each other leads to the emergence of money as possessing this power as if by nature. This is the fetishism of money. From Capital, volume 1, pages 168-169:

It is however precisely this finished form of the world of commodities–the money form – which conceals the social character of private labour and the social relations between the individual workers, by making those relations appear as relations between material objects, instead of revealing them plainly.

Marx elaborates on this further on, on page 187 of Capital, volume 1:

…the thing in which the magnitude of the value of another thing is represented appears to have the equivalent form [the equivalent form is, ultimately, money] independently of this relation, as a social property inherent in its nature. We followed the process by which this false semblance became firmly established, a process which was completed when the universal equivalent form became identified with the natural form of a particular commodity, and thus crystallized into the money-form. What appears to happen is not that a particular commodity becomes money because all other commodities express their values in it, but, on the contrary, that all other commodities universally express their values in a particular commodity because it is money. The movement through which this process has been mediated vanishes in its own result, leaving no trace behind. Without any initiative on their part, the commodities find their own value-configuration ready to hand, in the form of a physical commodity existing outside but also alongside them. This physical object, gold or silver in its crude state, becomes, immediately on its emergence from the bowels of the earth [earlier, as gold or silver and later, immediately as coming from banks or the government], the direct incarnation of all human labour. Hence the magic of money. Men are henceforth related to each other in their social process of production in a purely atomistic way. Their own relations of production therefore assume a material shape which is independent of their control and their conscious individual action. This situation is manifested first by the fact that the products of men’s labour universally take on the form of commodities. The riddle of the money fetish is therefore the riddle of the commodity fetish, now become visible and dazzling to our eyes.

Earlier, on page 161, note 26, as I pointed out above, Marx warned that the power of immediate exchangeability of the universal equivalent (ultimately, money) should not be separated from the lack of that power by all other commodities:

26. It is by no means self-evident that the form of direct and universal exchangeability is an antagonistic form, as inseparable from its opposite, the form of non-direct exchangeability, as the positivity of one pole of a magnet is from the negativity of the other pole. This has allowed the illusion to arise that all commodities can simultaneously be imprinted with the stamp of direct exchangeability, in the same way that it might be imagined that all Catholics can be popes.

By the way, this general power of exchangeability of money has a parallel in the general capacity or power of the human species to engage in various forms of human labour. This species capacity is objectified in a thing—money–and this thing appears to possess this power by nature rather than by the way the production of our lives is organized. Politically, that makes it difficult to conceive of alternative ways of organizing our lives since, on the one hand, the fetishistic way in which we organize our lives in capitalist society appears to be natural and, on the other hand, our own species powers appear and really are not under our control.

Class Harmony and Social Reformism: The United Way as a Reformist Organization, Part One

This is the first of a two-part post. The first post will look at some of the limitations of the United Way (a charitable organization) as expressed on its website. The second post will look at some of the limitations of the United Way as expressed in one of its publications, Rebalancing the Opportunity Equation. The authors are Mihaela Dinca-Panaitescu, Laura McDonough, Dylan Simone, Ben Johnson, Stephanie Procyk, Michelynn Laflèch and Alan Walks. For the purposes of the two posts, I will refer to the publication as United Way’s publication.

According to The United Way website:

UWCs [United Way Centraide] in Canada focus on ensuring people move from a life of poverty, to one of possibility; that communities are built to sustain healthy people; and that kids can be all that they can be.  Together with many agencies and partners, we improve lives, locally.  As part of an international network, UWCC links with the United Way Worldwide to share best practices and build capacity in 44 member countries, investing over $5 Billion US per year.

The United Way is part of an extensive international organization.

In another part of the website, it further says:


United Way is a federated network of over 80 local United Way Centraide offices serving more than 5,000 communities across Canada, each registered as its own non-profit organization and governed by an independent volunteer-led local Board of Directors. Locally and nationally, our goal is the same – to create opportunities for a better life for everyone in our communities.

Who could object to creating “opportunities for a better life for everyone in our communities?”

There is nothing wrong in aiming to improve people’s lives. In fact, it is admirable. The problem is whether such aims are linked, directly or indirectly, with other aims that limit people’s improvement in their lives.

The United Way does just that–it limits people’s improvements in their lives by assuming explicitly and implicitly improvement must occur while leaving the general economic structure (the economy, if you like) intact. In other words, it assumes that social reform is not only possible but is in fact the only possibility.

This can be seen through its donors and through its publications. Let us take a look first at its donors.

At first sight, it would appear that the United Way/Centraide (in French) Canada would be more favourable to workers. On its “Our Partners” web page, it explicitly mentions, in a separate subsection, Labour:

United Way and the Canadian Labour Congress have been partners since 1988 – working together to strengthen communities across Canada. The partnership developed around a common interest: ensuring that workers and working families have the support they need to succeed.

Unions across Canada are longstanding and generous contributors to United Way campaigns, encouraging members to volunteer and give. But the partnership goes much deeper than just financial support. Labour representatives advocate for those in need in their communities. They serve on United Way boards and committees, and offer programs like cooperative housing, childcare and other services.

Each year, United Way partners with unions across the country to improve lives in local communities. In 2016, Canadian Labour Congress President Hassan Yussuff endorsed the national partnership and our continued commitment to working together.

Of course, since the Canadian Labour Congress is essentially a reformist organization that fails to challenge the power of employers as a class (see  The Canadian Labour Congress’s Idealization of the Collective-Bargaining Process), its support of the United Way already indicates a possible limitation on the nature of the United Way (but that issue will be for a later post).

On the same web page, however, there is explicitly an indication that there is a limitation to reformist efforts:


United Way is honoured to work with Canada’s leading corporations, employers and labour organizations in communities across the country. Thanks to their remarkable generosity, and that of their employees and members, we are improving lives locally from coast to coast to coast.

Compromise is undoubtedly necessary even if you do not want to do so; asymmetrical power relations oblige workers and their representatives to make compromises with employers and their representatives all the time. However, making compromises and presenting those compromises as not compromises is often a trick of social reformists or social democrats.

By saying that “United Way is honored [my emphasis] to work with Canada’s leading corporations, employers….,” the United Way already has compromised to the point where it is legitimating the power of employers as a class.

On the same web page, there is a link to those organizations that have donated at least $10 million and $1+ million. The 2018 $10 million donors are:

  1. BMO [Bank of Montreal] Financial Group
  2. Canadian Labour Congress (CLC)
  3. CIBC (Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce)
  4. Government of Canada Workplace Charitable Campaign
  5. Royal Bank of Canada
  6. ScotiaBank
  7. TD Bank Group.

The $1+ million donors forms a list of 80 organizations, some of which are labour unions–and of course many capitalist companies and government employers.

Ten of the twenty most profitable capitalist companies in Canada (see A Short List of the Largest Private Employers in Canada, According to Profit) are on the list of the the $10 million and $1+ million donors:

  1. BCE [Bell Canada Enterprises]
  2. BMO
  3. Canadian Natural Resources
  4. CIBC
  5. Manulife
  6. Power Financial [which appears to be a subsidiary of Power Corporation]
  7. Royal Bank of Canada
  8. ScotiaBank
  9. Sun Life
  10. TD Bank Group

In fact, there are 11 of the largest private employers who have donated at least $1 million to the United Way since the Great West Life Co. is a subsidiary of Power Corporation of Canada.

Given the nature of the donors, how is it an honour to receive such money from such employers and to “work with Canada’s leading corporations, employers….?” Is it an honour to have such corporations treat “their” workers as things to be used for the purpose of obtaining a profit (see The Money Circuit of Capital)? How is this an honour? How is it an honour for the Unite Way to receive money from such companies given that such companies exploit and oppress their workers (see for example  The Rate of Exploitation of Workers at Bell Canada Enterprises (BCE), One of the Largest Private Employers in Toronto, The Rate of Exploitation of the Workers of the Bank of Montreal (BMO), One of the Largest Private Employers in Canada and The Rate of Exploitation of the Workers of the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce (CIBC), One of the Largest Private Employers in Toronto and in Canada).

Not only do such employers use “their” workers as things for the purpose of obtaining as much profit as possible, they also dictate to workers on a daily basis (see, for example, Employers as Dictators, Part One). Such organizations take from workers, use them and then use a small portion of the money as a donation to “help” those in poverty (defined according to the level of income–itself a limited way of defining poverty)–people who are in poverty because of the economic structure in which we live.

How is this honourable?

There are other problems with the social-democratic rhetoric of the United Way’s website, but such problems will be addressed in the next post in this series in relation to one of its publications, as noted above: Rebalancing the Opportunity Equation.

A Missed Opportunity: The Limitations of Trade Unions

This is a very short post.

When I went to the political picket line/strike and rally on November 4, 2022, there were thousands of people present in front of the Ontario legislative buildings. Premier Doug Ford’s ramming through of Bill 28–legislating workers back to work and using the notwithstanding clause of the Charter and Rights to Freedom to prevent any legal challenge–essentially stripped away collective-bargaining rights–including the right to strike. This-galvanized workers, citizens, immigrants, migrants and parents and led to to support for the workers. Even union reps felt their cherished ideal of free collective-bargaining and a fair contract threatened, and thus supported a wildcat strike.

However, as soon as Ford promised to rescind the legislation, unions welcomed this move since their primary concern was to negotiate a collective agreement and not engage in challenges to the existing class power of employers.

After returning to the bargaining table, the two sides have still not been able to come to an agreement; wages as an issue have been settled, but the main issue now is staffing levels and job security. 

The education workers will go on strike again on November 21 unless there is a settlement. In the meantime, there will be a rally in Toronto (among other places) in two locations on November 19 (not in front of the legislature building). My prediction is that there will still be support–but hardly the level of support shown on November 4. The opportunity to force the Conservative Ford government’s hand has been lost. 

Economics for Social Democrats–but not for the Working Class, Part Four: Is There Such a Thing as a Responsible Employer in Relation to the Health of Workers?

The Toronto Star published an article in the Opinion section by the social-democratic reformer here in Toronto, Jim Stanford, on January 8, 2022, which directly relates to a previous post  (Economics for Social Democrats–but not for the Working Class, Part Three: The Health and Safety of Workers and an Economy Dominated by a Class of Employers Are at Loggerheads  )   as well as to other posts in this series critically analyzing Mr. Stanford’s economic theories and assumptions.

I am going to quote verbatim the entire article by Mr. Stanford in order for the reader to see the complete picture which Stanford paints before analyzing it. I will refer to an earlier post to show how Stanford contradicts himself.

When death is a cost of business

Strong rules needed to force employers to do right thing

Throughout COVID-19, there’s been an uncomfortable tension in how political leaders, employers and public opinion have reacted to the challenges of working during a pandemic.

On one hand, many acknowledged the courage and sacrifice of those who kept providing essential services despite the risks. We applauded health care workers and first responders. And we thanked those in more humble, undervalued roles: like grocery clerks, cleaners, and delivery drivers, whose continued labour helped us weather the crisis.

On the other hand, a deeper reflex remained in place among employers and governments. They could quickly revert to a more dollars-and-sense perspective, in which workers are just another productive input: something whose continued supply must be assured and whose cost must be minimized.

Grocery chains offered $2 an hour bonuses during the scary initial weeks of the pandemic, but snatched them away as soon as operationally (and politically) feasible. Pandemic pay was replaced by million-dollar bonuses for CEO amidst a COVID-fueled grocery boom. Premiers [heads of provincial governments in Canada] praised health care workers for their bravery, and then demanded cuts in their pay. And from the outset, the willingness of negligent employers to sacrifice the health and even lives of workers to maintain production–in slaughterhouses, corporate farms and Amazon warehouses–was a frightening reminder of the amorality of the profit motive.

Now, with Omicron out of control, it seems employers and public health officers have thrown in the towel in the fight to limit contagion, protect workers and customers, and support isolation when needed.

The cannon shot signalling this new, grim approach was the relaxation of isolation requirements for workers with COVID. This started in December when the U.S. Centre for Disease Control and Prevention cut the isolation period to just five days (for those infected and close contacts). It was lobbied hard by U.S. employers, who wanted sick workers back on the job faster.

Scientific evidence on this issue is mixed at best. Recent research suggests the average contagious period for vaccinated COVID patients is 5.5 days–and since that’s the average, it’s longer for many patients. But it wasn’t science that ruled the day: it was the complaints of employers that isolation was depriving them of needed workers.

Other jurisdictions rejected the U.S. precedent. And America’s sorry COVID record (it registered more than a million new cases last Monday alone) hardly constitutes a role model. But influenced by similar complaints from Canadian employers, our officials fell in line.

The five-day rule has now been mimicked in several provinces (including Ontario, Alberta and B.C. [British Columbia].

In Quebec, the government even requires some health workers to stay on the job with COVID. Alberta gives individual employers discretion in deciding staff shortages necessitate isolation periods of less than five days. Meanwhile, B.C.’s health officer bluntly stated she is no longer interested in “telling (employers) what to do.” Instead, each business should make its own plan to avoid shutting down because of staff shortages.

Leaving life-and-death decisions to the discretion of individual profit-seeking employers wilfully ignores the power imbalances that shape the day-to-day reality of workplaces. Without clear, strong rules, workers don’t have a chance of forcing their employers to behave responsibly.

Business leaders celebrate this turn to light-touch COVID-regulation. Workers can be forgiven for feeling differently. Now, in addition to fears of catching COVID, accessing testing and protecting loved ones, workers face an added danger: their employer can demand coworkers return to work even if contagious. Most perversely of all, almost no Canadian jurisdictions (outside of federally regulated industries and B.C.) guarantee enough sick pay to cover even this shorter isolation period.

Perhaps more than any recent history, COVID-19 has highlighted the callous logic of capitalism. Bosses need workers to keep working, no matter what: after all, that’s what produces the value added. And if workers must die in the process, so be it. We must keep the wheels of commerce turning–and keep profits (which perversely rose during the pandemic) flowing.

No wonder workers are angry. No wonder there are more strikes, more union drives and more individual acts of resistance (like resignations). When you suddenly realize your boss will tolerate your death as a cost of doing business, your attitude toward them (and your job) changes considerably.

Let us list several facts pointed out in the article:

  1. “Throughout COVID-19, there’s been an uncomfortable tension in how political leaders, employers and public opinion have reacted to the challenges of working during a pandemic.” (It is unclear who the “public” is. Does it include mainly workers? Mainly workers but, in addition, the unemployed (challenges of not working and trying to find a job), children and adolescents in school (children of parents surely “react” to the challenges their parents often have faced during the pandemic), seniors who are not working for an employer, self-employed (they work), and so forth. Probably, but it would have been helpful to have differentiated public opinion somewhat; of course, in a newspaper, there is a limited amount of space for elaboration. In any case, there has been some tension between three “groups.”
  2. This tension was expressed, on the one hand, in the recognition of the heroic sacrifice of essential workers who produced what we needed to both survive and have access at least to some of our normal comforts (such as agricultural workers producing food; factory workers producing toilet paper, hand sanitizer and masks; grocery workers processing the exchange relations that permitted the transfer of property from capitalist corporations to consumers) and health workers who attended to the sick from COVID-19 and, on the other hand, in the priority of the pursuit of profit by employers and reinforced by governments by treating workers as mere inputs to the production and exchange process, an input whose costs need to be minimized in order to maximize profits.Why would anyone who understands even the basic nature of the relations characterized by the class power of employers be surprised by this? If I remember correctly, John Dewey, a philosopher of education, objected to teaching children the fantasy that lions do not kill and eat their prey–teaching children in effect that the nature of lions is other than what it is and that the natural world needs to be interpreted in human terms. (I learned just how lions do really act when I was an adolescent (or younger–I do not really remember how old I was). My mother and I went to the zoo. We were looking at the lions in a cage. A boy was throwing pebbles at the male lion. Suddenly, the male lion jumped towards me–I froze. It was evident that had the cage not been there, the lion would have attacked me. There was no hesitancy in his act–unlike those who let their morals influence their acts to the detriment of acting at all (as the German philosopher Hegel recounted in his account of the “beautiful soul” who is afraid of tainting the moral soul by engaging in any act).Of course, there have been tensions between the well-being of workers and the class interests of employers and governments that, ultimately, represent their interests.Does Stanford think that, all of a sudden, the nature and interests of employers and a  government that, among other reasons, depends on the flow of tax revenues  from the “private economy” for its continued power and existence, would change? Why would anyone who understands the nature of capitalism be surprised by this?One explanation is that Stanford believes that there is such a thing as the “real economy” that is disconnected from the pursuit of profit (the pursuit of ever more money). His theory of money as “purchasing power,” disconnected from production and the nature of the labour that occurs in capitalist workplaces, then enables him to refer to such a world as the “real economy”–under present class power.

    In an earlier post mentioned above, I quoted Stanford: “The economy is not a thing in and of itself. The economy is what we refer to as the work that people do to produce goods and services and then how those goods and services are distributed and used.”

  3. He then implied that this “real economy” was somehow operating independently of the class of employers–an illegitimate assumption. The economy in the kind of society cannot be separated from the pursuit of more money–because that is the nature of the beast (just like a lion’s hunting and killing its prey (when it succeeds) is the nature of lions). The economy is a capitalist economy, and this economy is not the same as “the work that people do to produce goods and services and then how those goods and services are distributed and used”–as if the goal were the mere production of socially useful things and their distribution to others so that they can use them. When I worked at the capitalist brewery, our production of beer was necessarily united with our oppression and exploitation.
  4. In the initial phase of the pandemic, grocery stores increased wages by $2 an hour, but then they eliminated them. Stanford’s reference to snatching away this $2 an hour “as soon as operationally (and politically) feasible” does not explain anything. An increase in $2 an hour was probably tied to two typical reasons in an employer-dominated economy for increasing wages: danger pay and a shortage of workers, as an article by Sylvain Charlebois implies ( The economics of pay increases at retail are always weak, especially in food retailing. With such low margins, these stipends were offered simply to keep enough staff around and not have operations affected by higher absenteeism rates. It worked for a while, but COVID-19 fears are slowly fading away. But so is the need to incentivize employees to show up for work. The COVID-19 fear factor is diminishing. The money will instead be spent on PPEs and other protective shields, which are likely to remain in place for a while. This seems to be where things are going. Disappointing for employees, but not surprising.
  5. Increases in CEO pay. This is nothing new; it has been going on as the class power of employers has assumed a neoliberal form, with shareholder value and short-term profits taking precedence. (But we should never forget that before neoliberalism, even longer-term profit seeking led to economic crises and necessarily involved daily exploitation and oppression of workers.)
  6. Premiers [heads of provincial governments in Canada] praised health care workers for their bravery, and then demanded cuts in their pay.

    Did all premiers advocate cuts in pay? In Alberta and Ontario they certainly did. But for factually accuracy (I am not a fan of the NDP government as anyone who has read certain posts on this blog will know), in British Columbia the NDP government did not. From

    Beginning this fall, the Province will serve notice under the terms of 21 commercial service contracts and start a phased approach to repatriating housekeeping and food-service contracts. The move will improve wages, working conditions, job security and stability for approximately 4,000 workers who rely on their jobs, and the countless patients that they help each day. By promoting a stable and effective workforce, government will be better positioned to offer attractive jobs options to people interested in joining the workforce.

    “Health-care workers rely on a committed and stable workforce to help them with their jobs, and this move also better protects support service workers in their positions,” said Premier John Horgan. “Previous government actions cut health-care wages, took away the jobs they relied on, and created a chain reaction of layoffs that saw women disproportionately affected – the largest such layoffs in Canada’s history. Nearly 20 years later, we are still living with the aftermath of those choices, with workers paid less to do the same work as their colleagues in the public system. It’s time to put a stop to it.”

    This move started with Bill 47 (Health Sector Statutes Repeal Act), which was brought into force through regulation on July 1, 2019. Bill 47 repealed two existing pieces of legislation – the Health and Social Services Delivery Improvement Act (Bill 29) and the Health Sector Partnerships Agreement Act (Bill 94), which facilitated contracting out in the health sector and caused significant labour impacts.

  7. And from the outset, the willingness of negligent employers to sacrifice the health and even lives of workers to maintain production–in slaughterhouses, corporate farms and Amazon warehouses–was a frightening reminder of the amorality of the profit motive.

If the profit motive is amoral, would it not be logical to advocate for the elimination of the class power of employers and the economic, political and social structures that serve to produce that power and that permits the existence and dominance of the priority of the profit motive over the health of workers?

Stanford contradicts himself. If the profit motive is amoral, why does he say the following:

Without clear, strong rules, workers don’t have a chance of forcing their employers to behave responsibly.

However, Stanford nowhere explicitly or even implicitly advocates the abolition of the class power of employers. Why is that? I will let the reader infer the reasons for Mr. Stanford’s silence over the issue. 


Mr. Stanford published a book in 2008 titled Economics for Everyone: A Short Guide to the Economics of Capitalism. It is not really a good guide since it fails to characterize a basic fact of capitalism: the sacrifice of the health of workers for the good of–an economy dominated by a class of employers. If rules were really strong enough to force employers to act responsbly, the rules would involve the self-abolition of the class power of employers.

Rather than waiting for that utopian vision, it would be better for workers to organize to abolish the class power of employers themselves.

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

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 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.