The Poverty of Academic Leftism, Part Four: The Myth of Creating Socialist Spaces

Professor Noonan, an academic leftist, argues that the Nemak return to work provides lessons for the left. Indeed, it does–but unfortunately he fails to draw further lessons from the situation.

He says the following:

As regards work, the structural dependence on paid employment is what makes people working class. This structural dependence is what, above all, democratic socialism would overcome. However, it cannot be ended overnight, but until it is ended workers’ short term struggles are always in danger of becoming victims of wars of attrition. The capitalists, with the law typically on their side, can wait workers out or bleed their resources dry (Unifor was facing fines of 25 000 dollars a day and individual officers 1000 dollars per day). Overcoming the dependence requires long term struggle, but dependence means that your ability to survive without the work you are refusing to do is time-sensitive in the extreme.

Given the claim that the capitalists have “the law typically on their side,” should not the conclusion be drawn that the law as such should be criticized? That reference to “fair contracts” and “decent work” which trade union representatives often express, should be criticized? Professor Noonan remains silent about this. Why is that?

Should not union training include, systematically, the bias of law in relation to workers’ interests? Does it? Should that lack of inclusion of a critique of the bias of law be itself criticized?

He further writes:

There are three general sorts of changes. On the one hand, there are concessions which are made in order to return the situation to normal. This sort of concessions appears to be all that Nemak has offered. At the other extreme, there are revolutionary changes which would create completely new social institutions. It is easy to find abstract arguments that contend that no major social contradiction can be resolved without revolutionary changes. It is much more difficult to find concrete arguments that are powerful enough to actually mobilise revolutionary forces. The key problem here is that no one can say with any certainty how a new society would work (beyond general assurances that it would solve everything because it would be the opposite of this society).

Professor Noonan then dismisses both possibilities:

If concessions do not address the problem and a progressive revolution is not in the offing in the foreseeable future, [my emphasis]  hope must be invested in a third possibility: smaller scale structural changes that create space and time for for deeper and wider changes in an unfolding process of transformative social change. How is that to happen if workers cannot survive outside of paid employment (or its social benefit equivalent) for long enough to survive for the long-term? The answer is to struggle for changes to the nature of employment. The Nemak crisis, and the analogous crisis in Oshawa offer opportunities for just these sorts of demands.

The reference to “progressive revolution” is dismissed because it is not possible in the foreseeable future. What does that mean? That substantial changes in class relations will arise in the short-term is undoubtedly unlikely. However, Professor Noonan performs a sleight of hand by shifting the future to some far off horizon. This is the method of social reformers of various persuasions–they shift radical change to the distant future rather than seeing than any radical change will always have to begin in the present. Carl Weathers, in his role as Apollo Creed, told Rocky in the movie Rocky III: “There is no tomorrow.” All progress will always have to begin in the present–but as John Dewey, the educational philosopher and logician pointed out, the present is a moving present.

It may appear that Professor Noonan does indeed include the future in the present by struggling “for changes to the nature of employment.” Let us look at what Professor Noonan has to say on this score.

He says:

GM Workers in Oshawa are being subjected to the same loss of their factory as Nemak workers in Windsor. Like Nemak workers, the GM workers did not meekly accept the GM decision, but instead fought back. They have won a concession (which is nevertheless a victory and another good lesson): the company will consider using a small fraction of the space and workforce to produce parts. But there are other ideas which, while bold, are not impossible within existing institutions. However, if they were realised [my emphasis]  they would point beyond existing institutions towards new models of public ownership and workers’ control incompatible with the logic of capitalism. At the same time, since they are realizable here and now they do not depend upon a “revolutionary break” for which the required social and political forces do not exist.

In response to the Oshawa closing, Sam Gindin urged the CAW leadership to go beyond negotiations to work on the transformation of the plant into a publicly owned and worker-controlled facility for the production of electric vehicles. Markets would be initially guaranteed by government contract. Financing and start up costs would also require government support that is impossible to imagine with a capitalist party in power, but not impossible to imagine with a worker friendly government (an NDP radicalised by the threat of a election drubbing?) Instead of treating capitalism as a fixed and final reality that workers must either accept today or overthrow tomorrow, it works in the spaces created by democratic institutions and norms to find means of inserting an anti-capitalist principle and practice into the heart of the system. It shows that there are real alternatives to survival and creative activity than capitalist labour markets that can be realised right now, creating the time we need to fundamentally transform society by expanding non-capitalist employment spaces. Short term dependence on paid capitalist employment is reduced by people putting themselves to work in a non-capitalist firm. The system is not transformed, but a living alternative is created that serves as a real, not text book example, that another world is possible.

It is certainly necessary to propose ideas that “point beyond existing institutions towards new models of public ownership and workers’ control incompatible with the logic of capitalism.” Are there not, however, conditions for such ideas to be realizable in practice?

In the crisis situation in Oshawa, it may be that workers are more prone to accept solutions that point beyond existing social conditions. However, in a crisis situation, without prior preparation, it may well be that workers will grab at solutions that protect their own immediate interests at the expense of longer-term interests. It may also be that workers’ interests can more easily be divided so that the employer can take advantage of such splits. To counter such possibilities, it is necessary to prepare workers beforehand.

Thus, has their been adequate criticism of the structure of authority at the Oshawa plant? Has there been discussions about democratic control at work? Or have the workers there been constantly indoctrinated with the view that their work is “decent work?” That the collective agreement was a “fair contract?” That they received “fair wages?” That the power of an employer to close a workplace is “fair?” As I argued in another post, was there a critique of collective bargaining beforehand in order to prepare workers for going beyond the collective agreement? Or was there silence over the legitimacy of collective agreements? If so, would that not lead to confusion among many workers? If so, does such confusion not tell against the formulation of any consistent policy towards the large number of workers who will lose their jobs at the GM Oshawa plant?

Another relevant point here is how Professor Noonan speaks of “creating spaces”: the space was not created by the workers but by the employer (the decision to close the Oshawa plant). The workers reacted to this decision. It would have been much more intelligent to criticize the union ideology systematically beforehand rather than feeding into the union ideology of “decent work” and “fair contracts.” Did Mr. Gindin engage in such criticism? Or was he afraid to do so out of fear of alienating union representatives?

Furthermore, Professor Noonan relies on another sleight-of-hand by slipping in the fantasy that the New Democratic Party (NDP) would somehow magically turn into “a worker friendly government (an NDP radicalised by the threat of a election drubbing.” Like Professor Noonan’s logic in relation to the so-called harmonious interests of workers at the University of Windsor where he works and the management of that university, he assumes what he must prove: How the NDP can be converted into a “worker friendly government” under conditions of an economy dominated by a class of employers. The NDP and union representatives may think they are “worker friendly,” but they also share the same beliefs as their center and right-wing counterparts: the legitimacy of the employer-employee relation. The NDP may indeed enable workers to organize more easily and institute certain social reforms that may benefit workers more when compared to other political parties, but that does not make them “worker friendly.” They are more “worker friendly” than the other major political parties, but that is all. This does not magically convert them into a “worker friendly” political party. (Nonetheless, I am seriously thinking of voting for the NDP in the upcoming federal election on October 21, 2019 since their policies–such as a definite 360 hours of working for an employer required in order to be eligible for unemployment insurance as opposed to the current 720 for regular workers and 910 hours for beginning workers–are more specific than the vague guaranteed livable income, for example, proposed by the Green Party. Such vagueness can be transformed into minimal changes in income.)

Finally, it is typical of the academic left (and Sam Gindin falls in that category for, despite not being an academic technically, he shares many of their beliefs) that they avoid “creating spaces” in their own immediate environment. What, for example, did Mr. Gindin do to “create spaces” during his long stint as research director for the Canadian Auto Workers union? Did he try to create spaces that could “point beyond existing institutions towards new models of public ownership and workers’ control incompatible with the logic of capitalism?”

What of Professor Noonan? Does he try to create spaces that could “point beyond existing institutions towards new models of public ownership and workers’ control incompatible with the logic of capitalism” where he works? Might that not threaten his own livelihood?

Middle-class academics who are sympathetic to workers’ situation could provide welcome skills (such as research skills) to workers. However, they often lack the passion and emotions involved in real struggles for power: as Aaron Schutz, in his book Social Class, Social Action,  and Education: The Failure of Progressive Democracy points out:

But then, as Alinsky repeatedly pointed out, middle-class people were
pretty comfortable already. It did not really matter that much to them,
in concrete ways, whether anyone actually listened or not as long as they
had their say—in academic publications, for example. Their children were
unlikely to suffer much as a result. Near the end of his life, however, Alinsky
turned to efforts to organize the middle class, increasingly convinced that
those on the bottom needed allies from the middle if they were ever to generate
enough power to foster the change they needed and that the middle
class would also benefit if they learned to organize.

Middle-class leftists in Toronto and surrounding areas, as far as I can see, not only do not engage in some of the preparatory work necessary to enable workers for struggles that “would point beyond existing institutions towards new models of public ownership and workers’ control incompatible with the logic of capitalism,” but go out of their way to oppose such preparatory work.

Before the announcement by GM of the plant closing in Oshawa, Mr. Gindin met with some workers from the plant. I did not accompany Mr. Gindin to Oshawa , but his preliminary account of a meeting between him (and, I believer, Herman Rosenfeld) and some workers at Oshawa did not go very well; it might have been a problem of logistics or some other problem, but I doubt that there was any real discussion of the limits of the present arrangement of employers controlling the conditions of life (the factory) of the workers in Oshawa (and elsewhere). Mr. Gindin, out of fear of alienating workers, probably did not bring up the systemic issue of the power of the class of employers and how that power plays itself out in various domains.

Furthermore, Professor Noonan fails to justify his assumption that worker cooperatives somehow magically provide “a living alternative is created that serves as a real, not text book example, that another world is possible.” Cooperatives have existed in the past and exist in the present, but to argue that they somehow automatically provide a living example of an alternative is quite debatable. How does Professor Noonan justify his assumption? He does not.

Even if the GM Oshawa plant were nationalized and turned into a worker cooperative, there is no basis for assuming that there would be a magical transformation that would point towards a society within a different logic from the logic of capitalism.

Mondragon, a large set of cooperatives in the Basque region in Spain, may inspire some to seek alternatives–but then again it may not. This requires research. One author certainly questions whether Mondragon provides “a living alternative.” Sharyn Kashmir, in her book The Myth of Mondragon: Cooperatives, Politics, and Working-Class Life in a Basque Town, provides a different assessment of cooperatives. For example, she quotes a worker at Mondragon (page 122):

Begofia was in her late twenties and had been a member of one of the
Fagor co-ops since she was eighteen years old. She had always worked on the
assembly line. Over dinner, she told me that she felt exploited at work, “just
like any worker in any firm . ”

“What about the fact that you share ownership of the firm ?” I asked.
“It means nothing to me” she replied. Begofia also said she felt “apathetic
” about the governance of the cooperative. “I only go to the annual meetings
of the General Assembly because it’s required. Everybody goes because
they have to. If we didn’t have to, we wouldn’t go.” What she resented more
than anything was being told that she was participating in managing the cooperative
and that “it is your firm .”

As Begofia spoke, I began to hear the words “participate,” “cooperate,”
and “your firm” in a new way ; listening to her, they sounded imposing.
Had I gotten the sense that Begofia was alone in her feelings, I would not have
taken her complaints so seriously. However, she continually spoke for her fellow
workers, implying that her experiences of alienation and feeling manipulated
by cooperativist ideology were common . Furthermore, most of those at
dinner had lived their entire lives among cooperators and did not seem surprised
by what she said. To the contrary, they offered anecdotal evidence of instances
of workers’ apathy and frustration that they had heard from friends
and relatives.

This does not mean that there should be no struggle to nationalize the Oshawa plant and to convert it into a worker cooperative. However, such a struggle should explicitly try to link a critique of the power of employers as a class to this particular situation–and to the inadequate solution of nationalization and worker cooperatives in the context of a society dominated by a class of employers.

Worker cooperatives in themselves, as long as they are unconnected to a larger critical movement to supersede the power of a class of employers, will unlikely “point beyond existing institutions towards new models of public ownership and workers’ control incompatible with the logic of capitalism.”

As Minsun Ji points out (‘With or without class: Resolving Marx’s Janus-faced interpretation of worker-owned cooperatives,” Capital & Class, 2019,  page 3):

Among the conditions or factors that might shape the potential of a worker cooperative movement in any given time, the most important for Marx is the manifestation and political mobilization of class consciousness (or the lack thereof ) among cooperative practitioners. In the end, Marx did not so much focus on promoting a certain type of labor organization as being most conducive to transformation (e.g. worker cooperatives or labor unions). Rather, he focused more on the importance of class consciousness within labor organizing, and on the development of radicalized class consciousness among workers, whether through the expansion of labor unions, worker cooperatives, or any other institution of worker empowerment.

In order to become a significant and sustainable challenge to capitalist systems, Marx believed that cooperatives had to grow beyond their small scale and reach capacity to change the mode of production at the national level. To reach this kind of national scale, truly transformational cooperatives would have to become politically natured, and to foster the radical ‘class-consciousness’ of worker members. It is the presence or lack of this focus on developing and mobilizing class consciousness, not the nature of the labor institution itself (i.e. cooperative or union), that Marx believed to most powerfully shape the radical or degenerative tendencies of local forms of labor activism.

Since Mr. Gindin refuses to engage directly with the issue of the power of employers as a class (such as, for example, questioning union rhetoric about “decent jobs,” “fair contracts,” and the like), I predict, as I did before, that the Oshawa plant will not be nationalized and converted into a worker cooperative. Mr. Gindin and company have not done the necessary work to prepare workers to engage in a struggle that seeks to go beyond the class structure.

Even if the Oshawa plant does become worker-owned, it is unlikely to form a space that points “beyond existing institutions towards new models of public ownership and workers’ control incompatible with the logic of capitalism.”

In other words, and contrary to Professor Noonan, for such a strategy to work, it is necessary to start now (and not in some distance future) by querying the class structure. Professor Noonan continually seeks to fly away from the need to question the legitimacy of the class structure from the beginning. Why is that? Perhaps because of his own class situation?

 

 

Socialism, Part Five: What It May Look Like, or Visions of a Better Kind of Society Without Employers

The following is a continuation of previous posts on the possible nature of socialism that excludes the power of employers as a class.

In the following, Tony Smith elaborates on the right of use by workers of the places, machinery and so forth where they work, but with the local community being the owner of local resources (and regional and national communities being the owners of regional and national enterprises of regional or national scope). From Globalisation: A Systematic Marxian Account (2006. Boston: Brill), page 304:

(iv) Workers in enterprises are granted use rights to facilities and other
means of production. But ultimate ownership rights remain with the local
community. Workers cannot use their enterprise as a cash cow and then walk
away; they have a legal duty to maintain the value of the community’s
investments. If sufficient depreciation funds cannot be appropriated from
revenues to maintain the value of these investments, it is the responsibility
of community banks to shut down an enterprise. Once depreciated funds
have been deducted, the remainder of the revenues from public allocations
or sales in consumer/producer markets (apart from the taxes to be considered
below) are then distributed among the members of the collective according
to formulae set by the democratically accountable management

Since the workers are the trustees of the workplaces and not their owners, each year, the workers in the sector that produces either consumer goods for the market or the raw material, machines and so forth required to produce both themselves and consumer goods, have to set aside a certain amount of the proceeds from sales to purchase worn out means of production. The workers must also include in that depreciation fund a fund for repairs.

Workers have a responsibility to the present community and to future communities to maintain the general conditions for the continued livelihood of the community. This means that any cooperative that fails to maintain the value of the means of production must be closed down, and workers in such cooperatives must find work in another, more viable cooperative.

The sales revenue will be distributed generally into three parts: (1) the depreciation fund, (2) a tax on capital assets (which will be explained in another post), and a residual of what is called profits, to be distributed to the members of the cooperative as their personal income according to distribution rules created by themselves. (There also may be income tax and consumption tax, but I will not address that).