What’s Left, Toronto? Part Three

In two earlier posts, I looked at the introduction and first talk of several leftist activists on September 19, 2018 in the city of Toronto, Ontario, Canada, about what was to be done politically (presented just a little over a month before city elections on October 22). The talks were posted on the Socialist Project website (What’s Left, Toronto? Radical Alternatives for the City Election)  on October 7, 2018 (15 days before city elections).

The second talk was made by Stefan Kipfer, professor of environmental studies at York University. Professor Kipfer talked mainly about the housing issue in Toronto. He indicated that housing has two senses, one narrow and one wider. The wider sense has to do with how people appropriate space and make life livable for themselves within that space. The narrow sense has to do with the provision of housing (its production and distribution presumably). He points out that any solution to housing problems has to be wider than the narrow sense and needs to take into the labour market, for example.

Unfortunately, he then restricts his reference to solutions to two models that address problems in the narrower sense. Both the right and the left agree that there is a housing problem, but they differ in their solutions. The first, right-wing model is the private-market model of housing, or the supply-side model, which requires the market to dictate housing production and distribution. Social regulation is to be minimized. Such a view is characteristic of the Board of Trade of Toronto, and the two mainstream mayoralty candidates John Tory and Jennifer Keesmaat.

The left-wing solution is purely negative–it does not rely on the private market model for solving housing problems. Diverse solutions have this negative quality about them. otherwise, they differ somewhat in their approach. For example, there is a housing struggle over the expansion of shelter space, led by OCAP, and there are struggles over establishing coop housing. Despite the differences, they all suggest an expansion of social, non-profit housing, coop housing or at the least the maintenance of existing housing infrastructure.

The exclusion of such vital issues as the labour market from explicit consideration mars the presentation. Indeed, it distorts the definition of the problem and its solution. Thus, Professor Kipfer argues that housing is not like the production of pies or bicycles since it permits capitalist developers, banks and insurance companies an increasing flow of rent payments. Now, there is certainly a sense in which an increasing flow of rent payments (rather than a steady flow of rental payments) makes the production of housing different from the production of pies and bicycles in a capitalist society; professor Kipfer implies that there is a monopoly in production that permits such an increasing flow of rental payments. Presumably the supply of housing is constantly less than the demand so that the prices of housing do not correspond to their value over the middle term since there is an artificial restriction of the supply due to the monopoly in land. That is, presumably, why housing in Toronto is becoming more and more unaffordable.

Although the production of housing may differ from the production of pies and bicycles in a capitalist system of production and exchange due to the monopoly of land (ultimately a non-produced part of the world), there is also the commonality of the principal purpose of land use, the production of pies and bicycles in such an economy: obtaining more money than initially invested (see The Money Circuit of Capital). Construction of housing is just as much dictated by the logic of capital as the production of pies and bicycles. As Ira Katznelson wrote (Marxism and the City. Oxford: Clarendon Press, page 227):

As capitalism entered the industrial epoch, the concept of the land-rent gradient that pointed toward the highest economic use by introducing a profit motive into land use and housing was already established. With the explos:on in the demand for land for factories as well as for working-class housing, this market logic accelerated the processes oi segregation of both uses and social classes.

Since Kipfer does not elaborate at all on how solutions would differ if the wider context were considered, it is difficult to determine whether his proposed solutions within a wider context would be any different from the social-reformist left. Given his emphasis on how housing is supposedly substantially different from the production of pies and bicycles and given his reference to the nationalization of land (but not the overthrow of the owners of the factories where workers produce pies and bicycles, replacing it with democratic control), his preferences may lie in aligning himself with the social reformist left.

Indeed, the nationalization of land has been proposed by such socialists as Henry George–but not the seizure of the produced means or conditions of production. Similarly, as Meghnad Desai notes (Marxian Economic Theory, 1974, pages 40-41):

A few years before Bohm-Bawerk’s criticism (which had to wait until all the three volumes of Capital were published), Philip Wicksteed in a celebrated debate with Bemard Shaw had demonstrated that relative prices were in fact explained by relative scarcities and therefore by the ratio of marginal utilities which they yielded to a consumer. Wicksteed’s demonstration did not deal in detail with Marx’s theory but showed that an explanation based on Jevons’ theory of utility was a superior logical explanation. If prices are explained by relative scarcity rather than by labour content, then the notion of surplus value ceases to have rational foundation. Profits become a legitimate income as a reward for relative scarcity of capital. (Bernard Shaw was to admit the force of this argument and later in his life concentrated on the Ricardian notion of land rent as unearned surplus. To this day land nationalisation and appropriation of profits in real estate have been a part of the Labour Party’s economic philosophy. Profits in industrial activities are regarded as legitimate).

It is certainly illegitimate to single out housing and rent as somehow substantially different from profits, and yet Kipfer seems to imply this. There may indeed barriers to realizing an equal rate of profit in housing construction due to the monopoly of land, thereby restricting competition and increasing housing prices accordingly (without countermeasures, such as the production of social housing and coops). Even if there were no such barriers, though, the situation cannot by any means be characterized as fair for the workers in the construction industry since they are still treated as things or objects, mere means for employers to obtain more and more money. Reducing housing prices through increased social supply in no way questions the legitimacy of the power of employers as a class.

Nothing in Professor Kipfer’s presentation suggests a “radical alternative.” His proposals for social housing and nationalization of the land do not question the principle of capitalist production and exchange–the use of the produced means of production and consumption to exploit workers on an ever-increasing scale through the accumulation of capital. It is a social-democratic presentation and in no way addresses the class power of the employers as a class.

By the way, although I never produced pies for an employer, I did work in a capitalist bakery in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, producing bread for Safeway Inc. (an American supermarket chain). I lasted about a week since the pace of work and the heat were brutal.

One final point: professor Kipfer does not address the possible conflict of interests between sections of the Toronto working class who possess some form of housing and benefit from rising housing prices and those who do not. I learned about this discrepancy fairly recently. In 2014, I bought a relatively inexpensive condo not too far from Jane and Finch in North York (Toronto) for $86,000 Canadian. A few months ago, a real estate agent came to the building, seeking to buy a condominium for someone. Curious as to how much my condominium would be worth, I had him come to estimate its price. He informed me that it would be worth between $200 000 and $227 000. In a little over four years, the price had more than doubled.

Given this situation for some members of the working class in Toronto, support for housing policies that would limit the rise of prices and expand social housing may be lackluster. Some members of the working class may even oppose such policies.

In any case, so far the moderator’s introduction to the series and the first and second talks do not express any radical policies–unless you define radical as limiting your policies to those that are consistent with the power of employers as a class. This series is looking less and less radical.




Worker Resistance Against Management, Part One

Some among the social-reformist left here in Toronto have accused me of being academic. They paint their activism as real as opposed to my own activities.

I thought it appropriate, then, to provide a story first about my own resistance as a worker. I will do so in order to be able to point to such resistance when I am accused of being an armchair activist (as I was by a community organization here in Toronto, JFAAP, or Jane and Finch Action Against Poverty when I criticized the limitations of their efforts).

I will probably eventually post a separate section on my resistance as a Marxist father.

I am copying (with a few modifications) something that I wrote when I was a member of the Toronto Labour Committee (TLC), headed by Sam Gindin (I withdrew from the Committee because it is an organization that fails to distance itself adequately from the union movement and therefore lacks critical capacity for questioning the class nature of the society in which we live). It was used as part of a course that Herman Rosenfeld (member of the TLC and a former educator for CAW for around a decade and a half) and Jordan House (member of the TLC and also a member of the International Workers’ of the World (IWW)) and I developed and gave for airport workers at Pearson Airport in Toronto.

In the brewery where I worked (at first it was Carling O’Keefe Brewery and then Molson’s Brewery, in Calgary, Alberta, Canada), the pasteurizer (the machine that pasteurized the beer) made the bottling shop very, very hot in the summer and even early fall. The workers had traditionally worn either their own clothes or company-provided coveralls.

Occasionally, there were tours of the bottling shop since there was a catwalk where visitors could see the workers below. One day, the foremen started handing out T-shirts and pants. Workers were given the choice to wear either their own clothes, the T-shirt or the coveralls. On the T-shirt was inscribed “Let’s Just Say OV” (OV stood for Old Vienna beer, one of the kinds of beer producer there).

A few nights later, the two night shift foremen started handing out coveralls to those who were wearing their own clothes, saying that they had to either wear coveralls or the T-shirt and pants from that point on. A few accepted this, but I, who was working in my own clothing, refused to so. The foremen waited until 6:00 a.m.., when the bottling manager started working. At that time (an hour before the end of the shift), I was told to leave the premises–I was being sent home and disciplined for insubordination.

After consulting with the local union president, Bill Flookes, I showed  up for my regular shift that night, wearing my own clothes. An hour into the shift, I was called in the office again. A foreman and the Union steward were waiting when I got there. In the discussion, I was that wearing the coveralls were too hot to work in. I willingly agreed to wear the company-supplied pants, but not the shirt that advertised the product. When asked why, I responded that I had nothing but contempt for capitalists and their representatives. The foreman sent me home once  again.

After I was sent home, unknown to me at the time, another worker was ordered to replace me. That worker also had his own clothes on and refused to change into the  T-shirt and pants or the coveralls after being ordered to do so. He too, was sent home. This occurred with another worker. The same thing happened; he too was sent home. A third worker was also sent home. Eventually, the foremen did not bother to send anyone further home; otherwise, they might not have had enough workers to operate the machines.

The issue was dropped, and the workers could wear their own clothes if they chose–or coveralls. The company withdrew the demand around the T-shirt and pants. A few workers resented what I had started, since they no longer received free T-shirts or pants, but in general there was support for the refusal: As one worker remarked, “The issue was a question of principle.”

There were three questions attached to this scenario (among other scenarios) for the course:

  1. What were some of the plans and decisions that made this action successful?
  2. What were some of the limits of this action–and things that might hold the union local back from moving forward after this action? How might these limits be addressed?
  3. What lessons can be learned from this experience for your own workplace, union and efforts to build the power of workers there?

When this scenario was presented to mainly union representatives at the course for airport workers, interestingly enough, most of the representatives, in their conversations, found that I should have filed a grievance and followed orders.

This experience taught me both the personal difficulty of resistance–my heart was pounding–and the importance of solidarity. It also taught me the limitations of solidarity and militancy at the micro level; despite the support from others workers, none of the workers questioned the legitimacy of the power of the employer to direct our working lives. The workers were in general militant (we organized the sabotaging of machines when a particular foreman tried to intensify our work, for example), but their attitude was general acceptance of the employer-employee relation.

For the course, we did not include the discussion that transpired between the bottling manager and the local union president, Bill Flookes, the morning of the second day that I was sent home. The bottling manager asked Bill if he knew what “that Marxist son-of-a-bitch had said?” Perhaps it should have been included in the course. Any opinions?