Economics for Social Democrats–but Not for the Working Class, Part One: Critique of Jim Stanford’s One-Sided View of Job Creation in a Capitalist Society

Introduction

The title of this post–and the series of posts that will follow–comes from the title of Jim Stanford’s book (2008) Economics for Everyone: A Short Guide to the Economics of Capitalism. 

If I remember correctly, perhaps less than a year after I had came to Toronto (in 2013), I heard Mr. Stanford present at a  social-democratic leftist-sponsored workshop. I thought that his presentation assumed the legitimacy of the power of employers as a class. No one else questioned his point of view from the audience.

I was right.

One-Sided Presentation of Working for an Employer in a Purely Positive Light

Mr. Stafford wrote a piece that was published in the business section of the Toronto Star on January 18, 2020. In that piece, he claims that both the quantity and quality of work in 2019 has improved:

The news was undeniably positive….

On the quantity side, employment rose by 390,000 jobs in 2019, compared to 2018. That’s the biggest annual increment 1979. …

But I am more excited about evidence of a broad improvement in the quality of work.

By several indicators, jobs in Canada became better last year: more full-time jobs, less temporary work, growing unionization and rising wages. These improvements in job quality, if sustained, will underpin future improvement in income equality and social well-being.

This point of view is definitely social democratic and reformist.  At the quantitative level, an increase in the number of employed by employers is presented in a purely positive light. Of course, for many workers, working for an employer is better than being unemployed, but to present more jobs that involve working for an employer as purely positive expresses a definite one-sided view of the situation of workers in a society dominated by a class of employers.

Mr. Stanford nowhere shows any idea of just how degrading working for an employer as an employer can be (see for example  Employers as Dictators, Part One   and The Money Circuit of Capital). Furthermore, working full-time for an employer is presented as purely positive rather than as something that involves an increased length of time in which workers must subordinate their will not only  to the will of the immediate employer but to the impersonal and independent system of capitalist relations of production and exchange.

Of course, workers may prefer full-time work, ultimately, to part-time work since they may not be able to make ends meet otherwise. However, they may also find their lives to be worse off in that they have less of their life free from the direct dictates of the employer.

Mr. Stanford also implies that increased unionization will somehow magically make the world of work fulfilling work rather than something that must be endured. Unionized work settings are generally better than non-union work settings, but they do not involve the control of workers’ lives at work (see various management rights clauses on this blog as well as posts that indicate the oppression and exploitation of workers despite the existence of a collective agreement as, for example, in the post The Rate of Exploitation of Workers of Suncor Energy, One of the Largest Private Employers in Canada).

In addition, Mr. Stanford simply focuses on one moment in time in the capitalist economic cycle. Capitalist accumulation may involve a tighter market for workers as demand for such workers increases, but the overaccumulation of capital then throws workers out of work as an economic crisis follows.

It should not be surprising that Mr. Stanford’s article reflects a social-democratic bias. The limitations of Mr. Stanford’s article is linked to the limitations of his own theory.

Nationalist Idealization of Being a Canadian

Mr. Stanford is one among many social-democratic leftist economists who are in one form or another nationalist. He writes in his article (2008) “Radical Economics and Social Change Movements: Strengthening the Links between Academics and Activists,” (pages 205-219), Review of Radical Political Economics, Volume 40, Number. 3, page 206:

This year we will inaugurate a new biennial prize, named after John Kenneth Galbraith. It will be awarded at the CEA meeting to someone whose life work has combined economics with social justice. Many U.S. economists will not know this, but Galbraith was born and initially educated in Canada before coming to America to make his name. That is very Canadian of us. Sure, we Canucks have gone and set up our own little nationalist group of lefty economists. But then we name our prize after someone who only became famous after they moved south of the 49th parallel! As usual for us Canadians, we never let consistency stand in the way of being sanctimonious.

We must live in different countries. I remember living in Canada as: having a number of odd jobs that I quit because I could not stand the alienating conditions under which we worked: for example, a dishwasher at a restaurant at Saskatchewan River Crossing (a resort area in between Lake Louise and Jasper, Alberta, Canada) (I was called useless despite my efforts to work as hard as possible); having work extremely fast by piling up on wooden slats wood on wooden cut from an electric saw (I lasted three days–I was in extreme pain in my lower back from bending up and down–when I was in my early 20s); crushing coal for a steel company (breathing in coal dust despite having a mask, and a lunch room with coal dust on the table and benches–spitting up coal dust after work, in addition, having to dump coal into various kinds of chemicals rapidly in order to determine their quality (with some of the chemicals splashing back onto our legs, burning us momentarily)–lasted three weeks; working for one week before quitting at the Canada Safeway factory in Calgary: could not keep up with the fast pace of having to load loaves of bread onto carts with wired shelves. I finally did find a job that I could tolerate for some time–working at a brewery in Calgary, but when I got off in the morning in the summer and fall (I frequently worked the night shift in order to minimize having management around), the so-called beautiful sunrises held little interest because I was exhausted. Then of course there is my experience of being a Marxist father in Canada (see, for example, A Worker’s Resistance to the Capitalist Government or State and its Representatives, Part One).

I would say that my experiences are just as reflective of the “Canadian” experience as Mr. Stafford’s–but you would not know it from reading Mr. Stanford’s reference to “very Canadian of us.”

But who is Mr. Stanford?

Until 2016 Stanford was economist and policy director for Unifor (and formerly for the Canadian Auto Workers), and a regular economics panelist on CBC-TV’s The National. He is also Harold Innis Industry Professor of Economics at McMaster University, and a contributing columnist for the Toronto Star.

Given the social-democratic nature of Unifor, with its limitations (see, for example, Fair Contracts or Collective Agreements: The Ideological Rhetoric of Canadian Unions, Part Three: Unifor (Largest Private Union in Canada)), it is likely that Mr. Stanford shares some of the limitations of the organization for which he worked for a number of years.

Mr. Stanford, in addition to teaching at McMaster University, according to his biography:

Until 2016 Jim also served as Vice-President and Treasurer of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, Canada’s premiere progressive think tank, and he remains a member of the CCPA’s Members’ Council.  He was the founding chairperson of the Progressive Economics Forum (formed in 1998), Canada’s network of over 150 progressive economists.

The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) is a social-democratic organization that generally assumes the legitimacy of the power of the class of employers–for example, by referring to companies paying “their fair share of taxes,” which implies that, as long as companies do so, they are legitimate and should not be taken over by workers (see my critique in  Co-optation of Students at School Through We Day, Part Two: The Social-Democratic Left Share Some of We Day’s Assumptions).

I doubt that Mr. Stanford’s economics reflects an economics that is relevant for addressing the class interests of workers–although it appears to do so. His economics reflects more a social-democratic view than a view that challenges the class power of employers.

I will pursue the issue in further posts in this series. In particular, in the next post in this series, I will take a critical look at his definition of money as “purchasing power.”  As will be shown, this definition is a far from adequate one in the context of a society where commodities are produced to exchange for money–by workers who work for an employer.

Much Educational Research Assumes the Legitimacy of the Current School Structure

When we read educational research, what is striking is how certain common assumptions run through such research. In particular, there is the assumption–hidden from view–that the curriculum or content and organization of studies taught at school–is sacred.

For example, in a short paper written by Jon Young and Brian O’Leary, “Public Funding for Education in Manitoba,” (August 31, 2017), and published by the social-reformist organization Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives (CCPA), they argue that we should not create a two-tier public school system, where some schools receive an unjustified amount of resources relative to other schools due, on the one hand, to increased expenses for field trips, the need for student ownership of computer technology and so forth and, on the other, to unequal funds arising through increased dependence on, for example, fundraising within economically unequal communities and unequal property taxes across school divisions. Differences in revenue from property taxes across school divisions can be as high as a 4 to 1 ratio per student.

One solution has been to shift funding from the local school board level to provincial and territorial funding (provinces and territories are the next largest administrative political unit in Canada) and coupling this with an equity formula to allow for different needs across. The problem with this solution is that it eliminates the democratic accountability that school boards provide by linking professional concerns in schools to the wider public interest, participation and accountability. Indeed, public schools presuppose democratic accountability (page 1):

 At the heart of this in Manitoba has been the commitment to public schooling as a public good – the belief that a strong public school system is the cornerstone of a democratic society that promotes well-being and citizenship for all – and not simply a private good, or commodity that can be differentially purchased by individual consumers. Everything flows from this. Public schooling as a public good involves the commitment to: public funding – that the full costs of public schooling are shared fairly across all sectors of society; public access and equity – that all students should have the opportunity to benefit fully from high quality schooling regardless of geographic location, local economic factors, or family circumstances; and, public participation and accountability – that decisions about public schooling are made in a democratic manner, which in Manitoba has meant a level of local autonomy, including taxing authority, for locally elected school boards.

Young and O’Leary then propose a compromise solution: 80 percent provincial funding and 20 percent funding from local property taxes; this combination would be linked to “a more robust provincial equalization formula” (page 3).

They then imply that this or any other model must involve focusing the expenditure of money on where it most matters: teaching and teachers. This view sounds progressive since school is supposed to exist for student learning: (page 3):

… that the most effective use of resources are those directed to the improvement
of teaching. This is echoed by the highly influential Organization for Economic
Cooperation and Development (OECD) that concluded:

The quality of a school cannot exceed the quality of its teachers and principals…. PISA results show that among countries and economics whose per capita GDP is more that USD 20,000 high performing school systems tend to pay more to teachers relative to their national income per capita (OECD, 2013, p. 26)

Any discussion of money and funding need to be broadly cast as about resources and making resources matter – with teachers as our most valuable resource.

Teaching and pedagogy certainly matter in schools, but the authors are silent about the influence of the curriculum (the overt curriculum, or the structure or organization and content of studies) on student learning. This silence is typical of many discussions on schools and education.

Given that the modern Canadian history curriculum indoctrinates students by means of its silences concerning the nature and origin of the employer-employee relation (see the series, beginning with A Case of Silent Indoctrination, Part One: The Manitoba History Curricula and Its Lack of History of Employers and Employees), teachers can have all the resources they like, but it is unlikely that they will overcome such indoctrination since it is built into the school system.

Furthermore, the bias in the curriculum towards academics over vocational aspects of the curriculum follows the same pattern: it is built into the present curriculum. John Dewey long ago questioned the democratic nature of such a biased curriculum. From (Neil Hopkins (2018)., “Dewey, Democracy and Education, and the School Curriculum,” Education 3-13: International Journal of Primary, Elementary and Early Years Education, Volume 46, number 4, pages 433-440), pages 437-438:

A critical area where Dewey’s Democracy and Education [Dewey’s main book on his philosophy of education] challenged contemporary assumptions on the curriculum was the idea that children and knowledge could be categorised as ‘academic’ and ‘vocational’. Such divisions have straitjacketed British education for the last 150 years, both institutionally (e.g. grammar and second modern schools; sixth-forms and FE colleges) and in terms of qualifications (e.g. O Level/CSE; A Level/BTEC). These divisions have often replicated class divisions within society-at-large to the extent that schools have often been seen as the nurseries of inequality and social injustice.

Dewey attacked the academic/vocational divide in terms of both knowledge and education. As a philosophical pragmatist, he was skeptical of purely abstract knowledge, stating that ‘the separation of “mind” from direct occupation with things throws emphasis on things at the expense of relations or connections’ (Dewey 2007, 109). These relations and connections are vital – once mind is separated from body, we lose the vital thread that ties ideas with standard notions of reality. Knowledge is an interaction of key concepts with the world as we know it. It is this sense of application and practicality that distinguishes Dewey’s work from some of his contemporaries. He was critical of

intellectualism [where] [p]ractice was not so much so much subordinated to knowledge as treated as a kind of tag-end or aftermath of knowledge. The educational result was only to confirm the exclusion of active pursuits  from school, save that they might be brought in for purely utilitarian ends – the acquisition by drill of certain habits. (Dewey 2007, 197)

This separation of intellect and practice, mind and body is often mirrored within the education system itself…

To this extent, education replicates and prepares children for the division of labour that exists within a capitalist society. This state of affairs deeply concerned Dewey in two ways. Firstly, as I have alluded to above, the partition of learning into academic and vocational gives a false depiction of how knowledge is conceptualised and transmitted. Secondly, the use of academic and vocational routes for students does not allow each to develop their faculties to the fullest extent.

This lack of critical distance from the present school system, with its biased curriculum structure,  is characteristic of much educational research. There are schools that have tried to overcome this bias. The University Laboratory School (also known as the Dewey School) in Chicago between 1896 and 1904. In this curriculum, the focus was on the common needs of most human beings for food, clothing and shelter throughout history. The children reproduced, intellectually, socially and on a miniature scale, different historical epochs (such as fishing, hunting, agriculture and industrial). Reading, writing and arithmetic were functions of the human life process and not the center of learning as they now are in elementary schools.

A more recent approach is Kingsholm Primary School in Gloucester, England (page 439):

Kingsholm Primary made a strategic decision to move from a subject-based to a thematic curriculum to meet the perceived needs of the pupils at the school. The curriculum has been envisaged as a set of interconnecting circles to incorporate aspects of the child’s world, specific themes/curriculum areas, the geographical location and what the school has termed ‘the wider curriculum’.

One particular theme that was concentrated on in the video was ‘Earth and Beyond’. This was a Year 5 and 6 project that uses the idea of space to explore different elements of the primary curriculum. The theme included transforming the learning environment itself alongside work on the creation of a space poem using ‘word stones’ and a collaborative dance interpreting the concept of space in the form of bodily movement (as well as other activities).

It has to be acknowledged that such examples already build upon the excellent work on themes and projects undertaken by schools throughout England. These examples offer interesting opportunities to challenge the academic/vocational divide in the school curriculum. It allows children to see and create the connections between different aspects of knowledge so that concepts and their application become concrete. As we have already seen, this dynamic between concept and application was important in Dewey’s theory of knowledge. However, such innovations are likely to be easier to undertake in Early Years and Key Stage 1 – the requirements of programmes of study in Key Stage 2 and beyond make such thematic work more challenging (although not necessarily impossible). It will be interesting to see if the development of academies and free schools that can operate outside the parameters of the National Curriculum will lead to radical curriculum experiments in primary and secondary schools. For Dewey, such curricular innovation needed to take [the] statement below as its starting point:

In just the degree in which connections are established between what happens to a person and what he [sic] does in response, and between what he does to his [sic] environment and what it does in response to him, his acts and the things about him acquire meaning. He learns to understand both himself [sic] and the world of men [sic] and things. (Dewey 2007, 202)

Not only do Young and O’Leary neglect the importance of the curriculum, they also neglect the importance of marks and competition between students as an aspect that generates inequality. This situation contrasts with a more democratic form of schooling, one that attempts to avoid competition among students by eliminating marks altogether. Again, there were no marks used to evaluate students in the University Laboratory School (the Dewey School). A more recent example is from the 1950s: St. George-in-the-
East Secondary Modern School in Stepney, East London, with a much more democratic school structure (page 436):

Alongside this democratic decision-making structure were what Fielding terms as ‘existential frameworks for democratic living’ (‘Our Pattern’). These include values and principles that underpin the work of the school. As part of ‘Our Pattern’, a far-reaching set of beliefs and attitudes were formulated within the school body:

No streaming/setting→heterogeneous, sometimes mixed-age grouping
No punishment→restorative response
No competition→emulation
No marks or prizes→communal recognition
(Taken from Fielding 2007, 550)

The idealization of the modern public school system, by neglecting  the divided curriculum and the fetish for marks and competition, is typical of social democrats and social reformers. The call for the expansion of public services (without inquiring into the nature and adequacy of such public services) is also typical of the social-democratic left.

This lack of critical distancing from modern social reality by the social-democratic left feeds into the emergence of the far right and strengthens the right in general. Many working-class adults have experienced the modern public school system as in many ways oppressive. The social-democratic left, by failing to acknowledge such experiences, aid in reproducing the oppression characterized by the academic/vocational divide and the oppression of the assignment and competition of marks.

Should not the radical left distance itself from modern oppressive social reality and critically expose such oppression and possible, more radical alternatives?

Co-optation of Students at School Through We Day, Part Two: The Social-Democratic Left Share Some of We Day’s Assumptions

In a previous post, I outlined how We Day is a form of indoctrination and that schools form vehicles for such indoctrination. What is the social-democratic left’s position in relation to  this indoctrination and its incorporation into schools?

I already mentioned the Manitoba Teachers’ Society (MTS) decision not to promote We Day since some of the corporations that sponsor the event act in contradiction to some of We Day’s professed principles (perhaps, by way of example, Cadbury’s use of cocoa produced with child labour from Ghana). MTS writes:

MTS Bows Out of We Day

The Manitoba Teachers’ Society will no longer be involved in promoting or participating in We Day events.

Delegates to annual meeting agreed with a recommendation from the organization’s Equity and Social Justice Committee and provincial executive.

“The Manitoba Teachers’ Society model of social justice is not reflected in We Day,” the resolution said. “We Day doesn’t promote, support or include a model of social justice that the Society identifies as effective in advancing social change. We Day is more of a charity model that doesn’t address the roots for systemic inequity.”

We Day is a yearly concert and speaker series attended by tens of thousands of students in Canada, the U.S. and Britain.

In recent years it has attracted controversy because of the number of corporate sponsors involved in the events. Some of those sponsors have been accused of actions in other countries that run counter to the messages on which We Day is based.

The decision by delegates does not extend to the involvement of schools and students. In the past, both MTS staff and elected officials have promoted and been participants in We Day.

Would MTS, however, have decided to not support We Day if all the sponsors were consistent with the professed principles of the creators of We Charity, Craig and Marc Kielburger? It is difficult to say, but since they consider a charity model to be insufficient to address the problem of systemic inequity, they would presumably still oppose the model characteristic of We Day. When I searched for the meaning of “systemic inequity” on their website, the only hit that came up with that term was–the item on We Day. (Replacing “equity” by “equality” resulted in zero hits.) Hence, the reader of their site cannot determine why specifically they do not support We Day. This vagueness prevents a reader from determining whether MTS’s position is reasonable in diverse social contexts, such as systemic racism, systemic sexism, systemic ignoring of the power of employers as a class, and so forth.

When I searched The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) website for “We Day,” I found zero hits. Nonetheless, I did find some hits when I searched using “Kielburger”–the surname of the founders of WE Charity and organizers of We Day held annually at many schools throughout Canada, the United States and elsewhere. Some of the material refers to Craig Kielburger as a model “hero,” as an example of a person who has made a difference, and a “high” recommendation of the book Take Action! A Guide to Active Citizenship by Marc and Craig Kielburger for activism advocacy.

For the many students who attend We Day, the vague reference to “systemic inequity” and the idealization of the Kielburgers as persons and as activists will probably confuse more than enlighten.

Lisa Howell, in an article written in 2015 “A parent & teacher’s reflections on “WE DAY”
how can a social movement feel so meaningless,” expresses her contradictory experience of expecting an inspirational day while attending We Day in Ottawa and experiencing a consumerist and anti-environmental day.

This contradiction between rhetoric and reality should not, however, surprise anyone who understands the nature of capitalist relations at work. In The Money Circuit of Capital, the end of the process of obtaining more money (the goal of private employers) results in more money in relation to the initial process but in itself it is merely a sum of money. To become capital, both the principal and some of the profit must be invested if the employer is to continue to function as an employer (since otherwise competition from other employers will result in being undercut and eventually going bankrupt). This whole process is infinite and can never be reached–it is a goal that can never be satisfied–the infinite process of the accumulation of capital.  How much money is enough? Never enough.

To state it differently: the birth of capital is simultaneously its death; consequently, the being of capital is a process that is only through it always reaching beyond itself.

In a finite world characteristic of the environment, capital is contradictory. There must be a contradiction between the environment and the nature of capitalist social relations. To resolve this problem requires surpassing this infinite process of capital accumulation. It requires a socialist society.

The Kielburgers, as seen in the first part of this two-part series of posts, do not question the legitimacy of this infinite process. They revel in it when they refer to “corporate and social responsibility.” The solutions which they offer, at best, a slight reduction in the impact that this accumulation process has on human beings, on human life and on the environment. Since they fail to question the legitimacy of the process of the process of capital accumulation, their solution actually diverts attention away from the pressing need to go beyond this accumulation process if the problems of child labour, poverty and environmental destruction are to be resolved.

The social-democratic left do seem to object to We Day on occasion. Thus, Molly McCracken, Manitoba director of the social-democratic Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, wrote a short article published online at Rabble.ca (We Day Sidesteps the Real Issues of Child Poverty). She points out the bias of We Day of pandering to corporations, who get free publicity and appear to be socially responsible. The problem of child poverty, she points out, is not addressed in such a forum.

However, let us look at some of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives’ own attitude towards corporations. I did a search, using the terms “fair share taxes.” Several hits came up, with such titles (and dates) as:

  • Demanding a Fair Share (July 20, 2017)
  • Replacing MSP with fair taxes would mean savings for most BC families: economist (July 6, 2016)
  • Change in direction on tax policy needed to escape budget crunch, ensure high-income British Columbians and corporations pay fair share: study (January 29, 2013)
  • A decade of eroding tax fairness in BC (June 30, 2011)
  • Fair Shares (April 27, 2011)
  • Canada’s rich not contributing fair share in taxes: study (November 8, 2007)

The criticism of corporations is restricted to the level of taxes that they pay. Neoliberal governments have reduced corporate taxes and taxes on the rich unfairly whereas the rest of the Canadian population has to pay a disproportionate (and unfair) level of taxes relative to the corporations and the rich.

The implication is that if progressive taxes are re-instituted, then fairness will be realized. This is a social-democratic  point of view, of course. One of the strategies of he social-democratic point of view is to focus on distribution after it has been produced and to disregard the process by which it has been produced (and, when it does focus on the process of production, it neglects the issue of the whether workers are free or not by using such cliches as “good jobs,” “decent work,” “fair contracts” and the like).

This does not mean that the left should not criticize skewed tax policies–but why do they simultaneously do so by implying that a change in tax policies will somehow magically convert the social world into a fair world? If corporations were to pay their “fair share,” then they should have the right to dictate to workers what to do, when to do it and how to do it, should they not? Would child labour, poverty and environmental destruction end if corporations paid their “fair share.”

This idea of “fair share” forms another cliche that the social-democratic left use to hide the reality of the social dictatorship that prevails when working for an employer.

What does the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives mean by “fair share” of taxes? Presumably the following (from the above 2007 article):

The study finds the top 1 percent of families in 2005 paid a lower total tax rate than the bottom 10 percent of families.

“Canada’s tax system now fails a basic test of fairness,” says Marc Lee, senior economist with the CCPA’s B.C. office and author of the study. “Tax cuts have contributed to a slow and steady shift to a less progressive tax system in Canada.”

Paying a fair share of taxes would then mean that the bottom 10 percent of families would pay a lower tax rate than the top 1 percent of families. As long as this is the case, then We Day promoters would then be justified in having corporate sponsors for the event. Of course, some may object that some sponsors may still contradict the principles of We day, but assuming that no corporation exploited child labour (for example), would the social democrats then criticize We Day? Presumably not. They believe, implicitly, that there can be such a thing as corporate fairness and corporate responsibility–just like the Kielburgers. Social democrats and neoliberals share certain assumptions together.

The social-democratic left cannot deal with the contradictory nature of the society in which we live; their inadequate way of dealing with We Day illustrate their inadequate capacity for dealing with this contradictory society.  They either vaguely refer to “systemic inequity,” or they find their expectation and reality contradictory, or they imply that as long as corporations pay their “fair share” of taxes, then We Day should be supported.

Since the social-democratic left cannot deal adequately with the nature of We Day, it is necessary to go beyond their point of view–to a socialist point of view, where the intent is to overcome the infinite process of the accumulation of capital and its corresponding conflicts, struggles and contradictions.

What of the radical left? As far as I can tell, they are, at least in Toronto (and probably elsewhere) oblivious to We Day and the extent to which students in schools are bombarded with employer ideology through such events. The radical left here in Toronto does not even bother to engage in ideological struggle; it accepts such ideologically loaded phrases as “decent work,” “a fair contract,” “fair labour laws,” and so forth.

What is the social-democratic left like where you live? The radical left?