Fixed Social Dogmas and the Special Language of the Social-Reformist Left

Michael Perleman refers to the Procrustean dogma that characterizes much of the discussion about the social world in which we currently live. What better characterization of the social-democratic rhetoric of “fairness,” “decent work,” a “fair wage,” “economic justice” and “social justice?”

From Michael Perleman, The Invisible Handcuffs of Capitalism: How Market Tyranny Stifles the Economy by Stunting Workers (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2011),

CHAPTER TEN
Where Do We Go from Here?

The Procrustean Language

Presently, two conflicting trends are colliding. On the one hand, those in control are successfully accumulating more power, solidifying the hold of Procrusteanism. On the other hand, the application of these new powers is producing dismal results, except for the most privileged sectors of society. Once people come to recognize the growing gap between economic performance and the potential productivity of society, the destructive nature of Procrusteanism will, hopefully, become self-evident.

Even so, the ideology of the status quo is so thoroughly ingrained that little progress—or even little hope of progress—appears on the horizon. We can only hope that Frederic Jameson was wrong when he observed that within contemporary society “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.” One precondition of moving in a progressive direction is to carefully reframe the imagery of the economy. The problem is that the Procrustean world has created a special language, one that intentionally clouds the harsh reality in which people find themselves, in effect, making the handcuffs invisible and questions of class unthinkable.

The key concepts of this rhetorical façade are freedom and equality.

The special language of the social-reformist left include such key concepts as “fair contracts,” “fair wages,” “fairness,” “decent work,” “a contract you can live with,” “social justice” and “economic justice.” The social-reformist left never get around to discussing what that actually means in the context of a society dominated by employers–they simply assume that what they call “fair,” “decent work,” “a contract you can live,” “economic justice” and other such rhetorical expressions is what is fair, decent, livable and economically just without any further discussion.

Anyone who calls into question their rhetoric is then often  treated as a pariah, insulted or ostracized. Such is the anti-democratic nature of the social-reformist left. Is there really any wonder why the right has gained ground when the so-called left seek to hide the real problems which workers face as members of a class?

The Poverty of Academic Leftism, Part One

I had a short debate with the academic philosopher Jeff Noonan on his blog. I am pasting it here since there was no further reply to my criticisms on his post.

[Jeff’s reply] Hi Fred,
Thanks for the detailed and thoughtful comments. Some brief replies:

[My initial reply]: Some of the above post is dead on, but there are some points that are debatable.

[Jeff’s initial post] “If another equally well-paying job could immediately replace the one they lost, then change would just be that: change, neither better nor worse. But as manufacturing jobs in old plants and industries disappear, they are not replaced with equally good manufacturing jobs in new industries that locate in historical working class communities. Workers suffer.”

[My initial reply] Undoubtedly workers suffer, but it would be more accurate to say that they suffer more. Relatively high-paying jobs do not mean that they do not suffer. Having worked at a brewery for around four years, where the wage was relatively high, I certainly suffered by being treated as a thing for the benefit of employers.

[Jeff’s reply] True enough, I did not intend to supply a complete critique of the problems of work under capitalism, but to speak to the immediate situation on the ground when well-paying jobs are lost.

[Jeff’s initial post] “Localised struggles, on the other hand, while they are demanded by the dignity of the affected workers, cannot succeed. So long as investment decisions are driven by calculations of profitability, and profitability depends on competitive forces, workers in older industries will eventually have to pay the price that creative destruction demands: unemployment and then re-employment in lower paying service industry work.”

[My initial reply] Localised struggles are part and parcel of global struggle.

[Jeff’s reply] Yes, true again: I should have said: isolated and reactive local struggles.
Where else do struggles take place except “locally.” The issue is how such local struggles are handled. If workers consciously link such struggles to a struggle against the class of employers and attempt to link with other workers across industries (and across the private/public divide), then they cannot succeed immediately but do have a better capacity to succeed globally and in the longer term.

[Jeff’s initial post] ” part of the problem with capitalism is that there really is not any one to blame.”

[My initial reply] True in an abstract sense since no particular individuals are responsible for structural conditions that exceed particular individuals. However, three points can be made against such a view. Employers, although they cannot be identified with the structural conditions of capitalism (eliminate all employers and workers themselves still may perform that role structurally) are the immediate set of persons who can be considered responsible agents for those structural conditions.

[Jeff’s reply] True, but changing them does not change anything: case in point: the obsession in the US liberal left today with the gnder and coloiur of the boss: it does not matter to their function as bosses).

[My initial reply] Then there are the direct and obvious ideologues and representatives of the interests of employers. There is also the social-reformist left, who categorically refuse to consider any changes to the present social structure except those that are consistent with the general structure.

[Jeff’s reply] I think we need to forget about revolution/reform as a fundamental and meaningful political difference today and start to think about working out a common agenda of structural change that can take us from where we are to a democratic life-economy (where we need to be) The social-reformist left has problems, but the ‘revolutionary’ left suffers from the problem of not existing as in any sense a meaningful political force, and has no model (save archaic Leninist ideas) about how to build. If nineteenth and early twentieth century ideas about revolution were going to work they would have worked 100 years ago. Historical materialism requires new political thinking in new times. The organizational forms that will attract and unify people have yet to be found. Most times I worry they never will be.

“Reducing that dependence means reducing the social and personal costs of plant closures and job losses.”

[My reply] This statement is consistent with social-reformist positions. See above.

When I was younger, unemployment insurance was 66% of wages and there was no issue of eligibility if you quit or were fired. We workers were less dependent economically on employers in general. That does not mean that we lived in a socialist society.

Admittedly, the context seems to be a socialist economy, but given the predominance of social-reformist thinking among the left these days, to prevent any misinterpretation, it would be necessary to make more explicit the distinction between reducing economic dependence as part and parcel of a larger project of eliminating capitalist relations and reducing economic dependence as the goal of the social-reformist left.

[Jeff’s initial post] “Sadly, imagination does not pay the bills. Hence the political paradox that bedevils all efforts to solve the underlying structural problems that manifest themselves as local tragedies. In order to survive, people are forced to think short term. Desperate times make some prey to the illusions spun by right-wing populists that their problems are due to political enemies or other (foreign) workers. In order to free themselves from the capricious destructiveness of capitalism, people must think long term about how to build new economic values and institutions rooted in and growing up from our shared fundamental needs. But then those needs call out, from the stomach and the head, and people have to shelve their imaginations and find another job.”

[My initial reply] From a political point of view, it is hardly accurate. The social-reformist left goes out of its way to focus on short-term goals, thus contributing to the need to focus on immediate bread-and-butter issues. The pairing of the Fight for $15 with the idea of fairness expresses such a limitation. It ideologically implies that working for an employer, with the changes corresponding to Bill 148, somehow constitutes a fair system. The social-reformist left constantly contributes to short-sightedness by becoming ideologues for the present system.

[Jeff’s reply] But calling for radical change in a political vacuum without any coherent organization will not mobilise anyone.

[My initial reply] But then again, I am a condescending prick according to Wayne Dealy, union rep for CUPE 3902. All the above should be discounted. Unions and union reps know best.

My response to Jeff’s intervention (to which Jeff did not reply. References like “Jeff’s reply” refer to his reply, to my initial reply and not to any further reply by Jeff to my intervention]:
Fred Harris on December 4, 2018 at 4:24 pm said:
[Jeff’s reply] “Yes, true again: I should have said: isolated and reactive local struggles.”
[My reply] This is related to further arguments provided below:

[Jeff’s reply] “I think we need to forget about revolution/reform as a fundamental and meaningful political difference today and start to think about working out a common agenda of structural change that can take us from where we are to a democratic life-economy (where we need to be) The social-reformist left has problems, but the ‘revolutionary’ left suffers from the problem of not existing as in any sense a meaningful political force, and has no model (save archaic Leninist ideas) about how to build. If nineteenth and early twentieth century ideas about revolution were going to work they would have worked 100 years ago. Historical materialism requires new political thinking in new times. The organizational forms that will attract and unify people have yet to be found. Most times I worry they never will be.”

[My reply] ] I do not think that the reform/revolution divide is archaic. I see no point in even referring to revolution as a term–it puts workers off and is a distraction from real tasks. However, the idea of radical change as opposed to reformism is certainly relevant.

[Jeff’s reply] “think about working out a common agenda of structural change that can take us from where we are to a democratic life-economy (where we need to be) The social-reformist left has problems”

[Fred] My view is that there is no common agenda of structural change since most so-called leftists have simply thrown in the towel and, at a practical level, believe in the TINA syndrome. When, for example, the Fight for $15 and “Fairness” campaign was introduced, was there any discussion of the appropriateness of pairing the fight with the concept of fairness? How democratic was such discussion? The social-reformist left really do not want to discuss structural change but prefer to pat themselves on the back and think they are progressive and righteous.

Are there not conditions for structural change? Are the social-reformist left willing to take seriously the requirements for structural change? Why did OCAP, in arguing against basic income, point out that capitalism is characterized by economic coercion and then, in the same breath, ignore this fact throughout its pamphlet? Why did David Bush, an activist in Toronto, argue that the fight for $15 was fair and yet provided no argument for such fairness? Why did Jane McAlevey, in her most recent book, constantly refer to “a good contract?” On ideological and practical grounds, many who identify as the left act as if there was such a thing as fairness within capitalism.

If that is so, then are they really not an impediment to structural change? Do they not share some of the same assumptions as the right?

What should one do when an activist refers to “decent work” and “fair wages,” as Tracy McMaster did when calling out support for striking brewery workers? Not bring up the issue at all?

There is little discussion among the so-called left in Canada about such issues–and that is part of the problem.

So, I fail to see how the reform/structural change issue is irrelevant. If it were irrelevant, I would still be attending the Toronto Labour Committee, headed by Sam Gindin, Herman Rosenfeld and Paul Gray. However, the reaction of these and others within the committee when I called into question Tracy McMaster’s use of the concepts of “decent work” and “fair wages” reflected, as far as I can see, an attitude that does not reflect my experiences in this world and my attitude towards employers. They reacted as if it did not matter.

It certainly matters to me. How can any socialist not object to the use of such terms? And yet there is a decided lack of discussion about such terms and what they mean in the context of the power of a class of employers.

So, the social-reformist left not only have problems–they are one of the problems. They categorically refuse to take seriously the need for addressing the issue of structural change now, not as somehow immediately capable of being addressed, but at least of making the issue public and out in the open.

As John Dewey pointed out, a goal or aim in view, if it is a real goal, is used in the present as a means of organizing present activity in order to achieve the goal in the first place. A goal that is divorced from organizing the present is a fantasy.

Does the social-reformist left really organize its activities with the goal of “working out a common agenda of structural change that can take us from where we are to a democratic life-economy (where we need to be)?”

I withdrew from the Toronto Labour Committee because it became clear to me that its members are too closely tied to unions and fear alienating them. Structures are somehow going to be created from within without calling into question from the beginning exploitative and oppressive social structures. And yet, just as change can only occur spatially initially at the local level, it can also only occur in the present and not in some distant future.

“but the ‘revolutionary’ left suffers from the problem of not existing as in any sense a meaningful political force, and has no model (save archaic Leninist ideas) about how to build. If nineteenth and early twnetieth centiury ideas about revolution were going to work they would have worked 100 years ago. Historical materialism requires new political thinking in new times. The organizational forms that will attract and unify people have yet to be found. Most times I worry they never will be.”

To be a meaningful political force in a structural sense at least requires an attempt to aim at addressing structural conditions of oppression and exploitation in the present and to transform them into something else. The first thing to be done is to recognize that it is necessary to stop justifying those very structures with such platitudes as “fairness” and so forth. The issue of fairness, etc. is hardly irrelevant, and yet the social-reformist left act as if it either does not matter, or that the issue has already been settled.

This romanticism of the concept of “revolution” sounds realistic, but for anyone who works for an employer and hates it, the issue is not about “revolution” but how to stop being treated as a thing. Does the social-reformist left really address this issue? Why did not the so-called social-reformist left criticize Pam Frache and others for pairing the Fight for $15 with “fairness”? I tried to at a meeting (chaired by Sean Smith), raised my hand maybe four times (I was going to ask that very question) and was never recognized by the chair.

The issue is not “revolution.” The issue is–not bullshitting workers with such rhetoric as “fairness.” It is to treat their suffering and their class hatred as real (if hidden) and to address their being subjects who are simultaneously treated as objects (who may not want to admit that fact to themselves but who experience degradation of themselves in various ways. What of Tim Horton’s workers not having the right to sit down on the job? Why not? What of the many, many other ways in which the daily oppression and exploitation of workers was simply ignored? All the focus on Bill 148 left the entire structural power of employers out of the discussion–by pairing that Bill with fairness? Or what of JFAAP and unions using the slogan “Fair Labour Laws Save Lives.”

And so forth.

Structural change is not on the agenda for most of the so-called left in Toronto–and structural change is revolutionary, even if the word is not used. The reformist left reject any real organization and practice in the present with the end-in-view of realizing structural change that results in a movement “that can take us from where we are to a democratic life-economy (where we need to be).”

The first requirement, as far as I can see, is to openly discuss what regular workers who work for employers experience (and not what union reps claim they experience) and why they experience it with the purpose of doing something about ending such experience. Openly discussing such issues itself requires struggle–for the social-reformist left does not engage in such discussion nor does it seem to want to do so. In fact, its attitude is that openly discussing such issues is a waste of time and is generally hostile to such open discussion. What is required is pure practice–out on the streets for whatever reason–or pure rhetoric, without really addressing the vast gap between such rhetoric and the daily experiences of regular working people. One of the reasons that the so-called left is no political force, as I maintained, is because it itself does not call into question its own assumptions.

As for the “revolutionary” left: again, the idea of revolution is unimportant, but the idea of structural change–is that not revolutionary? But structural change must address the conditions that impede structural change and overcome them. Is that not–revolutionary?

End of my response on Jeff’s blog]

Since Jeff did not bother responding to my second response, it can be assumed that he agrees with the social-reformist left. He would probably then have remained silent when Tracy McMaster referred to “decent work” and “fair wages” in relation to the goals of striking brewery workers and a call for support. He would remain silent when he read Jane McAlevey’s new book, No Shortcuts: Organizing Power in the New Gilded Age although he noted many times her reference to good contracts. He would have remained silent when the Fight for $15 in Ontario was paired with the concept of “Fairness.”

Perhaps he has the same attitude as Tim Heffernan, a member of the Toronto Labour Committee and a member of the political organization, Socialist Alternative. I quote from part of a debate I had with him as a member of the Toronto Labour Committee:

Fred raises some interesting points. However, I think he’s confusing social-democratic/reformist demands with transitional demands. There’s a difference which I can elaborate on if needed but the practical contrast between them can be seen in Seattle itself where I would argue that Rosenblum encapsulated an honest and militant social democratic approach while Kshama Sawant & Socialist Alternative (also militant and honest) pushed the movement to its limits by raising the demand for 15/taxing the rich to the need for a socialist transformation of society. But I will concede that there are some in the US left who label SA as reformist too.

Also, we need to look at the concrete not the abstract. The “15 movement” in North America has seen different manifestations and the slogans/demands put forward have varied in time and place. So in Seattle in 2013-14, it was “15 Now”, in other parts of the US it became “15 and a union” and in Ontario it was ” 15 & Fairness”. Fred objects to the term “fairness” presumably because of its association with the old trade union demand of “a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay”. Engels dealt with this demand back in 1881 where he recognized the usefulness of it in the early stages of developing class consciousness of the British working class, in the first half of the 19th Century, but saw it as an impediment at the time he was writing.

To today and “15 and Fairness”. I think the addition of “fairness” to the straight “15” demand was an excellent move. Fairness wasn’t understood as an airy fairy, feel good notion but came to be seen as shorthand for a series of extra and linked demands that could mobilise low paid and exploited workers:
– paid sick days
– equal pay for equal work (full time vs part time)
– the right to a union
– the fight against racism and discrimination
and more

If the above be bullshit, so be it. I like to think that Engels, were he alive today, would have his criticisms of the limitations of 15 & Fairness but would be overwhelmingly positive about what it has achieved so far.

Tim

To which I responded:

Hello all,

Tim’s justification for “fairness” is that it is–somehow–a transitional demand. Let him elaborate on how it is in any way a “transitional” demand. I believe that that is simply bullshit.

He further argues the following:

“Fairness wasn’t understood as an airy fairy, feel good notion but came to be seen as shorthand for a series of extra and linked demands that could mobilise low paid and exploited workers:
– paid sick days
– equal pay for equal work (full time vs part time)
– the right to a union
– the fight against racism and discrimination
and more”

How does Tim draw such conclusions? It is a tautology (repetition of what is assumed to be true) to say that it is fair if “paid sick days, equal pay for equal work (full time vs part time), etc. is considered “fair.”

Why should these goals be tied to “fairness”? I had paid sick days at the brewery, I belonged to a union (there was, however, evident racism among some of the brewery workers and there was also a probationary six-month period before obtaining a full union-wage). Was that then a “fair” situation? I guess so–according to Tim’s logic. Why not then shut my mouth and not complain since I lived a “fair” life at the brewery? But, of course, I did not shut my mouth.

But does Tim believe that merely gaining “paid sick days, equal pay for equal work (full time vs part time), the right to a union, the fight against racism and discrimination and more” is fair? If he did, he would then presumably cease being a member of Socialist Alternative since he would have achieved his goals. However, he likely does not believe that it is fair. What he proposes, then, is to lie (bullshit) to workers by not revealing what he really believes as a “transitional” demand. He does not really believe that it is fair, but he believes that such rhetoric is a useful tool in developing a movement. Frankly, I believe that such a view is both dishonest and opportunistic. Workers deserve better–it is they who continue to be exploited despite “paid sick days,” etc. Receiving paid sick days is better than not receiving paid sick days, but all the demands obtained cannot constitute “fairness.” And yet workers who buy into the rhetoric (bullshit) of fairness may believe this fairy tale (it is, after all, a fairy tale presented by social democrats often enough, among others). Rather than enlightening the workers about their situation, such rhetoric serves to obscure it and to confuse workers–support for the Donald Trump’s of the world in the making.

Such low standards. Rather than calling into question the power of employers to direct their lives by control over the products of their own labour, it implicitly assumes the legitimacy of such power. Ask many of those who refer to the fight for $15 and Fairness–are they opposed in any way to the power of employers as a class? Not just verbally, but practically? Or do they believe that we need employers? That we need to have our work directed by them? That working for an employer is an inevitable part of daily life? That there is no alternative? That working for an employer is not really all that bad?

When working at the brewery, I took a course at the University of Calgary. The professor was interested in doing solidarity work for the Polish organization Solidarity at the time. I told him that I felt like I was being raped at the brewery. He looked at me with disgust–how could I equate being raped (sexually assaulted) with working for an employer? I find that radicals these days really do not seem to consider working for an employer to be all that bad. If they did, they probably would use the same logic as their opposition to sexual assault. Sexual assault in itself is bad, but there are, of course, different degrees of sexual assault. Those who sexually assault a person may do so more violently or less violently; in that sense, those who sexually assault a person less violently are “better” than those who are more violent. However, sexual assault is in itself bad, so any talk of “fairness” in sexually assaulting someone is absurd. Similarly, any talk of fairness in exploiting someone is absurd. But not for the “radical” left these days, it would seem.

Fred

Since Jeff chose not to indicate how he would respond to concrete developments within the labour movement, it is of course impossible to know whether he would simply accept Tim’s argument. On a practical level, the Toronto Labour Committee did.

Just one final point. Jeff identifies the splitting of reform and “revolution” with Lenin. Was Rosa Luxemburg then a Leninist?She wrote on the issue as well, criticizing the reformism of Eduard Bernstein, among others. So did Bebel and Parvus, etc.

By referring to Lenin, Jeff is in fact red-baiting. The typical red baiter tries to, implicitly or explicitly, link sweeping rejections of the radical left by linking them to Stalin and other dictators. Since Lenin and Stalin are linked historically (Stalin ultimately succeeded Lenin as leader of the Bolshevik party), then referring to Lenin without further ado is a red-baiting method of simply dismissing the opponent without providing any further argument.

I will leave Professor Noonan with his call for structural change since he, apparently, refuses to make any distinction between changes that challenge the structure of the system and those that do not. I predict that his view will not address the problems the working class face at this time. He, like Sam Gindin, speak of structural change–within the confines of capitalist relations of production and exchange–despite rhetoric to the contrary. The left, according to this view, is just one happy family that involves no internal conflicts and no divisions. It is, to paraphrase the German philosophy Hegel, a left where all cows are black (or, alternatively, all white).

In a later post, the issue of Professor Noonan’s position on collective bargaining will be addressed.