Basic Income, Decent Wages and John Clarke’s Radicalism: A Tale of Social-Democratic or Social-Reformist Deja Vu

I have criticized Mr. Clarke’s views of basic income on a number of occasions, the most recent one being An Inadequate Critique of a Radical Basic Income: The Case of the Toronto Radical John Clarke, Part Three: Basic Income), so i will simply quote a couple of his relatively recent posts on Facebook. The first post is dated May 17, 2022, and the second is dated August 4, 2022.. I will also briefly quote from an article he published on August 6, 2022, in Counterfire ( https://www.counterfire.org/articles/opinion/23380-the-false-promise-of-basic-income-in-wales ) and make a few additional comments. I refer the reader to the above-mentioned post for more detailed criticism.

“With a basic income program, recipients would be motivated to participate in the labour market and feel empowered to discover the most fulfilling way to work without fearing for their financial security.”

That quote leaps out at you as the clearest expression of the basic income delusion. What is proposed here is the provision of a level of income to millions of people that would utterly shift the balance between workers and employers in this society.

The article completely fails to understand that the capitalist job market rests on economic coercion and the seller’s market it envisages here would represent a devastating defeat for the capitalists. Yet this enormous retreat by that class is supposed to happen on the basis of a social policy redesign.

In reality, however, the measure that is being proposed here would work in a way that would actually worsen the situation of working class people because the payment would function as a subsidy to employers and as a cash replacement for existing public services.
Mr. Clarke simply repeats himself in a contradictory manner. Of course, if a minimum basic income is all that workers, citizens, immigrants and migrant workers can expect, then it would probably be better to leave the current welfare system as it is (although Mr. Clarke does not really provide any convincing arguments to the contrary). 
 
Mr. Clarke continues to assume that only a minimum basic income would be the aim of a movement to free workers from the dictates of the market for workers. He continues to contradict himself since he assumes, on the other hand, that adequate housing, free university tuition and so forth will arise with a struggle (see  Critique of the Limited Aim (Solution)–Decent Wages–of a Radical Social Democrat: The Case of the Toronto Radical, John Clarke: Part One). Struggle for a radical basic income is not something in the cards, for him–but a struggle for various welfare reforms are. Why does he persist in assuming that those who advocate a radical basic income would presume that it would not require much struggle, indeed, a major struggle between workers, citizens, immigrants and migrants, on the one hand, and the class of employers and the government on the other?
 
Let us assume, however, that he is right. What proposals does he have from moving from the present welfare system to a society freed from the power of a class of employers? His proposals boil down to a refurbished welfare state, with various public services provided by the capitalist state. Of course, even if a refurbished welfare state arose, there would always be the threat of a return to some form of neoliberalism–which is what I argue in another post (see Anti-Neoliberalism Need Not Be Anti-Capitalist: The Case of the Toronto Radical John Clarke, Part Four: The Welfare State and Neoliberalism, or The Infinite Back and Forth Movement of Capitalism).
 
Mr. Clarke accuses those who propose a radical basic income of being delusional. I will let the reader draw her/his own conclusion conerning the clarity of Mr. Clarke’s own vision of the nature of the real world, its problems and solutions to those problems. 
 
From August 4, 2022, Facebook:
 
“A Universal Basic Income would require a rethink of the values attached to different types of work, as workers would not be forced to accept just any job.”

I just saw this on Twitter and want to draw attention to it because it so perfectly captures the essence of the sadly pervasive basic income delusion. The problem is a failure to understand the nature and present condition of the society that we live in. What is being proposed is to take from the capitalist class their capacity to exploit workers by ending the economic coercion the job market rests on. This isn’t just about ‘values’ but a proposal to fundamentally challenge capitalism. I’m in favour of such a challenge but that’s a job for the mass action of the working class and not a social policy enactment.

You notice that the tweet pays no attention whatever to the means by which this shattering course of action might be achieved. There’s no proposal for the massive social action to completely change the balance of power in this society that would begin to make this proposal coherent. It is simply assumed that UBI has about it a rationality and fairness that can prevail regardless of social reality. Yet, because the political level is so low in this society, it is possible to write something like this and be taken seriously. If someone were to tweet out that “Staying young means never getting old,” the absurdity would immediately be apparent because those who read it would pass from the desirability of eternal youth to considering how likely it is to happen. Yet, the notion that governments that have worked for decades to intensify the exploitation of the working class are going to suddenly enact a measure that will overturn the very basis for capitalism is taken quite seriously.
At a time when what we demand and how we fight for it are critical issues, the faith based basic income delusion is a preposterous diversion that we must outgrow.
 
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Daphne L. Hunt

UBI = Universal Bandaid Income. Over the past 40 years or so, the corporate sector has contributed less and less to the tax “burden” and more of it is shouldered by individuals. These individuals don’t seem to get that that’s why their taxes are so “high” and they are getting less from them and yet they are yakking on about “personal responsibility” without reference to corporate responsibility. One tells them about the co-operative sector as a means of alleviating poverty and they sniff at it and say “fairy tales” or “granola” sector unaware of the $billions it contributes to GDP and tax revenue, helping people stay employed, and making a healthier economy. But John, you already know all that. I just needed to vent. Thank you.
 
Daniele Colajacomo

I agree with you. Whole policy changes do happen, but if the capitalist class retains its pivotal influence in law making and market manipulation, it will attempt, and likely succeed, in neutering the effects of basic income, likely by bankrupting the state as they try to do with every institution that works against their insatiable interest, then pointing the finger at ubi as the culprit.

Of course, if there is no class struggle, then any universal basic income that threatens the availability of workers for exploitation by employers would be successfully resisted. A social policy that is not backed up by organized power of the working class would be whittled away for the benefit of employers. 

The pilot program initiated in Wales certainly would not become universal. From the article by John Clarke in Counterfire

Following in the footsteps of a sizable number of their international counterparts, the Welsh government has launched a pilot project to study the possibilities of basic income. As it unfolds, ‘more than 500 people leaving care in Wales will be offered £1600 each month (before tax) for two years to support them as they make the transition to adult life.’

Mr. Clarke is certainly correct to question whether such a program would be generalized (become universal) since it would probably threaten the job market, as he himself argues: 

In a capitalist society, the job market rests on economic coercion and, if workers or potential workers have an alternative source of income that meets their needs, their bargaining power is massively increased. For that reason, social benefit levels are set high enough to control social unrest but great care is taken to ensure that they are not adequate enough to discourage people from taking low paid jobs.

So, since such a policy would increase the bargaining power of workers. Mr. Clarke, however, does not mention that to aim for such a goal would also threaten the class power of employers. Such a goal could serve as an organizing tool and a rallying point to increase not just “the bargaining power of workers” but their class consciousness and their class power by having workers coming to understand that employers need to have persistent economic coercion in place if they are to control workers in the first place and that the workers need to organize to counterpose such economic coercion by aiming to formulate policies that negate such economic coercion.

What does Mr. Clarke propose as an alternative to a radical basic income? A refurbished welfare system (as I argued in my posts above. He also repeats his social-reformist rhetoric of “decent wages” in his published article: 

The great problem with basic income is that, precisely when there is such an acute need for a major fight back, it seeks a non-existent detour around the class struggle. If precarious, low-wage work has proliferated, rather than fight for decent wages and workers’ rights, it lets the exploiters keep their profits and asks only for wage tops up, paid for out of the taxes of other workers. In its response to technological displacement, instead of fighting for reduced hours of work at no loss of pay, it again lets the capitalists off the hook. [my emphasis]

Mr. Clarke nowhere justifies his assumption that radicals who propose a radical basic income “seek a non-existent detour around the class struggle.” My view (subject to change since a radical basic income policy is a means to an end of aiming to challenge the class power of employers and not an end in itself) is that such a policy likely has greater scope for challenging the class power of employers than a refurbished welfare state. It also has greater scope for challenging the class power of employers than the aim of “decent wages”–a figment of Mr. Clarke’s social-reformist or social-democratic imagination since there exists no such thing as decent wages in a society dominated by a class of employers. As I wrote in one of my posts cited above: 

Let me make a categorical statement: There is no such thing as a decent wage. To work for an employer is in itself degrading, exploitative and oppressive. The concept of a decent wage serves to hide this exploitative situation (see The Money Circuit of Capital). 

Mr. Clarke, apparently, only aims at refurbishing the welfare state rather than abolishing exploitation. Like Mr. Bush’s own references to exploitation, Mr. Clarke uses the concept as a rhetorical flourish (in his case, to criticize a radical policy of basic income) while conveniently “forgetting” the concept when it comes to the issue of whether wages can ever be decent.

Furthermore, there is no logical basis for counteposing a struggle for a radical basic income and 
“fighting for reduced hours of work at no loss of pay.” They are not mutually exclusive. Mr. Clarke fails to justify his implicit claim that the struggle for a radical basic income cannot include a struggle for reduced hours of work at no loss of pay.

The fact that economic coercion exists is used by this social refomer to oppose a policy that possibly challenges such economic coercion–because of the fact itself of economic coercion! It is like saying that because economic exploitation of workers by employers is a fact that therefore workers should not struggle to abolish economic exploitation. 

An Inadequate Critique of a Radical Basic Income: The Case of the Toronto Radical John Clarke, Part Three: Basic Income

Introduction

In two earlier posts, I criticized the views of the  radical activist here in Toronto, John Clarke (see  Critique of the Limited Aim (Solution)–Decent Wages–of a Radical Social Democrat: The Case of the Toronto Radical, John Clarke: Part One and   Critique of a Limited Definition of the Problem: The Case of the Toronto Radical John Clarke, Part Two). In particular, I criticized his proposed solution or aim in the first post (decent wages) and his identification of the problem in the second post (unequal distribution of produced consumer commodities). I now address his criticism of the proposal of a basic income. 

Let me add that, in the second post, I added an addendum, in which Mr. Clarke proposed engaging in radical practice to replace capitalism (a.k.a., the class power of employers). Mr. Clarke continues to advocate for more radical solutions. Thus, he wrote on Facebook (May 3, 2022): 

The murder of Rosa Luxemburg by social democratic leaders points to something about reformism. If you think capitalism can be incrementally transformed, you need it to function well. This means, at a time of crisis, you have to be prepared to defend it against the very working class you claim your political project will liberate.

In time, the logic of the reformist approach produces representatives who dispense with any polite fictions of socialism in the cloudy future and whose loyalty to capitalism is beyond question. They then go about breaking strikes, imposing austerity, degrading the environment and dropping bombs on oppressed countries with every bit as much enthusiasm as any openly declared representative of the capitalist class.

The problem with the above is not what it states, but in what it omits. Before Mr. Clarke’s more explicit radical turn, he advocated such reformist policies as “decent wages” and a reformed welfare state (despite acknowledging that economic coercion formed a necessary aspect of a society characterized by the class power of employers). Indeed, as I wrote in another post: 

I have already criticized, briefly, his apparent recognition of economic coercion and his subsequent ignoring of this recognition in a pamphlet with several articles written by him (see  Basic Income: A Critique of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty’s Stance  and “Capitalism needs economic coercion for its job market to function” (Ontario Coalition Against Poverty: OCAP)). I have, however, now come to the conclusion that Mr. Clarke recognizes the existence of economic coercion only in order to criticize neoliberalism and not the class power of employers and hence not capitalism as such. 

Mr. Clarke, if he has indeed taken a more radical turn, would do well to engage in critical inquiry into his former beliefs. He should also rethink the thrust of his criticism of basic income in light of his more explicit rejection of capitalism. Of course, if he comes to the conclusion that basic income should still be rejected, but has an alternative proposal that would link immediate needs of workers, citizens, immigrants and migrant workers with the long-term need to abolish the class power of employers and the associated economic, political and social structures, and he provides valid reasons for his rejection, I would agree with him. Basic income as a policy is really only a tool or means to the end of economic coercion, and if there are better alternatives that will link immediate and long-term needs, then I would support them and reject basic income. 

Let us turn to Mr. Clarke’s views on basic income–at least before his more radical turn.

Mr. Clarke’s Critique of Basic Income

Mr. Clarke has this to say about basic income (see his post, dated June 21, 2021 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r40D6fU760s&t=4s) (The following is practically verbatim):

Part 2: Basic Income

Those among the left who support basic income make a fundamental mistake in that they don’t take into account the necessity of economic coercion that was outlined above. They imagine that basic income has some magic quality that would make it exempt from the factors that constitute economic coercion and that would prevent basic income from being realized. Furthermore, they believe that existing income-support systems fail to meet people’s needs because of some design flaw; they believe that only if income-support systems could be reorganized in a better way, it would meet people’s needs. But that is not what is driving the process that is making them inadequate.

The left make an unwarranted assumption that basic income would be more adequate–that it is somehow going to meet people’s needs that existing programs do not. It will somehow be exempt from the limitations that other income-support programs are not.

Some among the left point to the pilot project of basic income instituted by the former Liberal government in Ontario. It is true that the project provided levels of income significantly higher than current social assistance levels, but to assume that such a project, if generalized throughout Ontario, would maintain such levels, is unwarranted.

Another unwarranted assumption is that basic income would be better because it would be universal. Those among the left who advance this view are filled with false hopes since no program of basic income actually being considered in the real world has universal scope; it will be targeted, with only some people qualifying.

It is also suggested that the stigma attached to existing income-support systems would be reduced if basic income were introduced and therefore would be more popular and it would be harder for governments to cut it. Mr. Clarke disagree with this. If a basic income were introduced, it would be attacked and questioned in exactly the same way as existing programs. In addition, popularity even if it existed would not save it. Public health-care programs have been under attack and faced massive austerity cutbacks despite being vital, necessary and popular.

Another suggestion is that basic income would be an unconditional benefit. In practice, that is unlikely to be the case. Mr. Clarke, on the other hand, does agree that existing income-support programs are bureaucratically intrusive. They are fused with elements of moral policing. And these things do indeed need to be challenged.

It has also been suggested that basic income will happen and will save us from the workless future based on robots. This view that we are on the cusp of an automated life is exaggerated, and the real situation is much more nuanced than that. On the other hand, Mr. Clarke does not deny that technological displacement is not a real issue. What he does question is that basic income is the magic solution to that problem. Capitalism does not function by allocating a certain adequate fund owned by billionaires in Silicon Valley so that people can receive an adequate standard of living. Since the industrial revolution, capitalists have used the introduction of new machinery to gain a competitive edge over their rivals, to displace workers and to create a greater climate of desperation and to try to drive down wages and that’s the fight that we are going to be in. We are going to have to fight in this situation as workers have always fought against technological displacement. We are going to have to fight for reduced hours of work. We are going to have to take up a whole series of important struggles.

It must be said that only under an irrational, profit-driven greedy system is this an issue. The idea that technological gains, which increase the productivity of human labour, should be something that we should be alarmed about, is confined to this system. Why should not those productive gains be used to benefit everyone? Why do we not take the machines away from the capitalists and use them to everyone’s advantage?

Mr. Clarke then refers to the various pilot projects on basic income because this is a big selling point for people who promote basic income. In Ontario, as mentioned above, a pilot project in basic income was initiated under the Liberal government for 2000 people. It provided a higher level of income than social assistance, it was relatively secure until the Tories cut it. They did intensive studies to show that people were better off. The studies prove nothing. They were not studying basic income but rather poor people. Of course, it is obvious that if you increase the level of income, people’s health is better and, in general, people’s lives are better.

The question that needs to be posed is: What effect basic income would have if it were implemented across a larger area of a capitalist economy. Basic income takes us in directions that are very dangerous–directions that we should be fighting rather than embracing. Basic income is essentially a proposal for a massive extension of social provision by way of the cash benefit. Seventy percent of the people in the pilot project in Ontario were not on social assistance. What they were primarily looking at was a wage top-up system. So the idea of basic income is to extend the benefit to a wider proportion of the working population.

This situation entails the commodification of social provisions, and such commodification is enormously dangerous. What it does is have you accept the low-wage, precarious workforce. But you then allegedly take away the worst effects of it by taking tax revenues paid by other working-class people not just a wage top up to those workers but what is in effect a wage subsidy to low wage employers. This has the effect of removing pressure on such employers to increase wages. It undermines the efforts to raise minimum wages. It simply accepts the low-wage precarious workforce but tries to provide a kind of limited sedative. This is a major mistake.

Mr. Clarke also believes that by providing so much more in the form of a cash benefit, you would facilitate the agenda of austerity and privatization. This cash benefit would be used, in practice, to justify the further gutting of public services. This is why the right is so enamored with the idea of basic income. Both eff Bezos and Milton Friedman favoured a basic income, and the Canadian Chamber of Commerce favours a national pilot project on basic income. Friedman n particular argued that unions, minimum wages and social programs were all monstrous totalitarian interferences in the freedom of the marketplace. On the other hand, he recognized that pure capitalism without limits could be counterproductive. Consequently, what was necessary was the provision of a basic income at a minimum level, without any other social support system in place. The American right-winger Charles Murray has developed this further as has the Canadian right-wing institute the Fraser Institute. Murray advocates providing a minimum basic income that does not interfere with the flow of low-wage workers but that at the same time prevents social breakdown. Basic income for Murray is not to supplement and augment existing social provisions but rather replaces them.

Focusing on basic income enables the right to divert attention from the gross inadequacy of existing income-support systems. Basic income as a social policy would thus take us to playing the game of the right in the context of a capitalist economy and especially at this time, with the present balance of forces in society.

The counterargument by progressives on the left, of course, is that that is not their vision–that that is not the kind of basic income that they want. They want other systems to be strengthened; they want good minimum wages. The problem with that is that it does not take into account the prevailing situation. It does not take into account the present balance of forces. It does not take into account the agenda of capitalism. It assumes somehow that a wish will get you there. The kind of basic income that comes into existence would be shaped by the prevailing situation. If you assume that what you want or imagine can be realized, then you can create any number of utopias. Some people claim that universal basic income could be provided at such a level that they can literally decide whether they can participate in the job market or not. Where the money is to come from, and who is to provide it is unclear.

But as Pam Frache, from Toronto’s Workers Action Centre put it so well, to expect the capitalist state to provide the working class with an unlimited strike fund is an absurdity. And to suggest at this point in time, after forty years of defeat at the hands of neoliberal attack, that we’re in a position to win even a fraction of that is preposterous. Someone the other day stated that Mr. Clarke’s arguments were wrong because his version of basic income would be universal; it must be adequate; and it must be financed entirely by attacks on wealth. Of course, you can demand that the sky rain whiskey, but it’s just not going to happen. It is not realistic. Philippe van Parijs, Belgian advocate of basic income, has even suggested that basic income could even transform, could transform society, could abolish capitalism. Of course, if wishes were horses we could bet on basic income. However, we have to deal with reality. At the moment, it constitutes a very dangerous and distracting leftist illusion.

The New Democratic Party (NDP) [the social-democratic party here in Canada) are making a lot of effort in trying to win a basic income. Mr. Clarke is sad to say that some union leaders are buying into the idea. Social movements are backing it. Even a section of the anti-capitalist left is embracing basic income in this situation. It poses sometimes as a very transformative, radical bold proposal, but Mr. Clarke believes that it makes its peace with the capitalist marketplace and the neoliberal order. It says: wages will remain low, but it will be topped up by the tax revenues. This is a mistaken direction.

The Potentiality of Radical Proposals, Such as a Robust Basic Income, to Point Beyond a Society Dominated by a Class of Employers

It should be noticed that Mr. Clarke’s soul reference to what could be considered a radical aim that points beyond a society dominated by a class of employers is an isolated reference that Mr. Clarke fails to integrate in any way with his proposal for an enhanced welfare state. Thus, he states above: 

Why do we not take the machines away from the capitalists and use them to everyone’s advantage?

Yes, indeed, why do we not do that? How would we do that? By only enhancing the welfare state? How does only enhancing the welfare state contribute to that goal or aim? Mr. Clarke’s question is actually purely rhetorical. It serves no purpose that would enable workers to organize themselves in the present to realize that goal–an internal aim. Mr. Clarke’s aim of enhancing the welfare state is the primary focus; the reference to taking “the machines away from the capitalists and using them to everyone’s advantage” is not linked in any way to that focus. 

Could proposing a radical basic income that points beyond a market for workers by involving  a robust or enhanced or thick basic income that increases the freedom of workers from economic coercion be a stepping stone to the goal of taking “the machines away from the capitalists and using the to everyone’s advantage?” 

Of course, I fully admit that a basic income can be used for conservative purposes, for social-democratic purposes or for socialist purposes–just as can a proposal for welfare reform. It is to what basic income is linked that determines its conservative, social-democratic or socialist nature and not the proposal itself. Mr. Clarke, however, cannot admit that because his goal is decidedly reformist despite his radical rhetoric to the contrary. 

Consider Philippe Van Parijs and Yannick Vanderborgh’s (2017) view in Basic Income: A Radical Proposal for a Free Society and a Sane Economy, page 124: 

There is, however, no reason why one should wait until full abundance to start realizing partially the distributive principle that defines communism. Indeed, if it turns out—in light of historical experience and for deep-seated reasons to which Marx paid insufficient attention—that capitalism does better than socialism at developing the forces of production, this gradual transition to communism could happen in the context of a capitalist economy. The proposal of an unconditional basic income makes a lot of sense in this perspective. While not yet in a state of abundance, our society may plausibly be regarded as affluent in the sense that it could cover everyone’s fundamental needs unconditionally with a basic income, topped up in some cases to address special needs such as disabilities

This sounds fine, but I agree with Mr. Clarke that it is likely utopian–but not for Mr. Clarke’s reason that it is unrealizable. A robust basic income would interfere in the market for workers. Even if the resistance of employers were overcome–a big if–the working of the capitalist economy would be distorted substantially, leading to breakdowns in the accumulation process of capital and could be a threat to other workers–unless further measures were introduced. Thus, if a robust basic income were in place, it is likely that productivity of labour would initially decrease as economic coercion became less effective; absenteeism and other measures that entail the avoidance of work (understandable given the dictatorial nature of such work–see for example my post  Employers as Dictators, Part One) would also likely rise. For example, resistance by workers to work certainly characterized some sections of the working class during Michael Seidman (1991), Workers Against Work: Labor in Paris and Barcelona During the Popular Fronts, page 9: 

Furthermore, I wish to bring out the utopian dimension of resistance, a word which I have chosen because of its positive connotations. The importance of resistance in two major European cities in the fourth decade of the twentieth century indicates that refusals of work should not be dismissed as the behavior of “backward” or “primitive” working classes. Certainly, resisters did not articulate any clear future vision of the workplace or of society. Unlike the Marxists, they did not fight to take state power or, in contrast to the anarchosyndicalists, abolish or minimize the role of the state. I do not wish to
ignore the fact that workers’ refusals to work harmed the fight against Franco and weakened French defenses in a period of Nazi rearmament. Yet one might interpret resistance itself as suggesting a working-class utopia in which wage labor would be reduced to a minimum. Resistance was also a conjunctural and cyclical phenomenon, but refusals remained an intrinsic part of working-class culture and manifested themselves in different periods with various divisions of labor. During the Popular Fronts, workers revolted against a variety of disciplines, including that imposed by working-class organizations. Wage earners certainly wished to control their workplaces but generally in order to work less. One may speculate that the way to eliminate resistance is not by workers’ control of the means of production but rather by the abolition of wage labor itself.

The idealization of work in its present form meets the resistance of workers in various ways. Marx recognized this. From Marx-Engels Collected Works, 1843-1844, “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, Estranged Labour,” page 274: 

What, then, constitutes the alienation of labour? First, the fact that labour is external to the worker, i.e., it does not belong to his intrinsic nature; that in his work, therefore, he does not affirm himself but denies himself, does not feel content but unhappy, does not develop freely his physical and mental energy but mortifies his body and ruins his mind. The worker therefore only feels himself outside his work, and in his work feels outside himself. He feels at home when he is not working, and when he is working he does not feel at home. His labour is therefore not voluntary, but coerced; it is forced labour. It is therefore not the satisfaction of a need; it is merely a means to satisfy needs external to it. Its alien character emerges clearly in the fact that as soon as no physical or other compulsion exists, labour is shunned like the plague. External labour, labour in which man alienates himself, is a labour of self-sacrifice, of mortification. Lastly, the external character of labour for the worker appears in the fact that it is not his own, but someone else’s, that it does not belong to him, that in it he belongs, not to himself, but to another.

If a robust basic income were implemented, it would interfere with the accumulation of capital, leading to the emergence of problems that would require further measures that would involve further interference in the process of the accumulation of capital. It would be better to be conscious of such a possibility and the need for a conscious movement that aimed to abolish wage labour–rather than enhancing the welfare state (itself still grounded on wage labour) or in a reversion to a neoliberal paradise.

Mr. Clarke’s implicit assumption that it is utopian to propose a robust or enhanced basic income, given economic coercion, is a conservative stance. It uses a radical view–that economic coercion is a fact of life in a society dominated by a class of employers–to draw conservative (social-reformist) conclusions. The same method was used by Mr. Bush in his one-sided use of Marx’s theory of surplus value (see Basic Income: A Critique of the Social-Reformist Left’s Assumptions and Analysis: Part Two and  Social-Reformist Leftist Activists Share Assumptions with the Right).

Mr. Clarke’s Inconsistent Call for Class Struggle

Mr. Clarke often calls for struggle (including class struggle) to achieve reformist aims. Of course, we should struggle to obtain higher wages, more secure employment, safer workplaces, expanded and better social housing, expanded universal healthcare, childcare and so forth. But why does he include struggle for an enhanced welfare state and exclude it from the process by which basic income arises? Mr. Clarke provides no reason for his exclusion of struggle for a basic income. He simply assumes that the class of employers will automatically achieve a minimal form of basic income–and simultaneously assumes that, if we struggle, we can achieve an enhanced welfare state despite the resistance of the class of employers.

I will simply quote from previous posts as well as from above Mr. Clarke’s many references to the need for struggle in order to substantiate my claim that he emphasizes struggle for enhanced welfare reforms, on the one hand, while ignoring the possibility and the need for struggle to achieve a robust basic income that threatens the existence of the market for workers on the other; such a collection of quotes provide a concentrated form of proof of my claim (rather than just being scattered). The quotes are sometimes overlapping since Mr. sometimes simultaneously argues for the need to fight for enhanced welfare reform while ignoring such need in the case of a robust radical basic income: 

Mr. Clarke’s Call for Class Struggle in the Case of an Enhanced Form of Welfare Capitalism

The alternative is to rejuvenate our unions and fight for decent wages, to fight to increase minimum wages, to fight for workers’ rights–rather than extend the cash benefits and extend the reach of the marketplace. It is far better to put considerable effort into the struggle for public services. … 

We need a fight to ensure that disability benefits are adequate and meet people’s needs and that they are secure. We need to challenge the intrusion and moral policing that goes on within these systems.

Again: 

But to extend the cash benefit widely out into the workforce is a huge mistake. And we could do so much better. Rather than try to get what in practice would be a meager cash benefit, it would be so much better to struggle to challenge the commodification of housing, the neoliberal city, the blighting of urban space with this agenda of greed by fighting for a massive extension of social housing. So that’s a benefit that goes to working-class people and does not go into the pocket of landlords. There’s a need to fight for increases in the adequacy of healthcare. The pandemic has made that absolutely clear. We need pharmacare, dental care, a unviersal childcare program that is not an empty perennial liberal promise. We need post-secondary education to be free; we need free public transport systems. On all of these fronts, we need to take up a fight.

But people will say: We have suffered defeats. We cannot win these things. Mr. Clarke argues that the left has for a very long time been forced on the defensive. The class struggle has not gone in our favour for a considerable period of time. But there is no alternative but to rebuild and to fight back and to win what we can. And to challenge this society but to fight for a different society. That’s absolutely indispensable. There in fact is not some social policy ruse that can just put things right.

Again: 

During the pandemic, struggles have broken out across the world, from Minneapolis to New Delhi to East Jerusalem. As the global health crisis subsides, there will be a strong determination to fight for something better. As we challenge, not just the ‘economic scarring’ left by the pandemic, but the impact of decades of austerity, we shouldn’t settle for a commodified form of social provision that makes its peace with the neoliberal order. We need to fight employers to win decent wages and to take to the streets to demand massively expanded social housing, greatly improved public healthcare, free public transit, universal child care and much else beside.

Mr. Clarke’s Lack of Reference for the Need to Engage in Class Struggle in the Case of the Proposal for Basic Income

Let us now see how Mr. Clarke presents basic income: 

Basic income is not going to solve the problem. Our lack of strength, our lack of ability to fight in the way we need to fight is the problem we have to address. We need to build that movement now more than ever. In this situation of global crisis we need more than ever to fight back, and we can do so much better in focusing our struggles than to fight for the commodification of social provision and basic income.

Again:

I wish I could convince more BI supporters to consider the foundations before they try to put the roof on. One such supporter told me a few months ago that my arguments on the role of income support in this society constituted ‘an irrelevant history lesson’ but I beg to differ. To provide nothing at all to people who are unemployed or otherwise outside of the paid workforce has proven impossible so income support emerged to contain social unrest. However, it is always provided reluctantly and to the least degree possible because it limits the economic coercion the job market rests on.

Conclusion

This inconsistency is explained by Mr. Clarke’s reformist aims. Despite Mr. Clarke’s references to exploitation  and economic coercion, he assumes that they are somehow fixed and permanent. Rather than directly trying to develop a movement for abolishing exploitation and economic coercion (with a struggle for both enhanced welfare reforms and a robust basic income being linked to such an aim), Mr. Clarke proposes reformist measures that do not address at all the issue of exploitation or economic coercion as such. Somehow, the movement for welfare reform is supposed to lead to taking over the machines owned by employers. This is utopian in the bad sense of the term as being unrealistic. 

Rather, a proposal for a robust basic income that questions the premises of the class power of employers and the associated economic, social and political relations would point the way out of both the current situation and the class situation that we constantly face. 

In a future post, I may will inquire into a possible explanation hinted at above: Mr. Clarke’s real aim is not the elimination of capitalism but of neoliberalism. 

Critique of the Limited Aim (Solution)–Decent Wages–of a Radical Social Democrat: The Case of the Toronto Radical, John Clarke: Part One

Introduction

There are some people among the social-democratic left whom I can respect more than others. John Clarke, former leader of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP), is one of them. Here is what one reads on Wikipedia about him:

John Clarke is an anti-poverty activist who lives in TorontoOntarioCanada. As of 2019, he was teaching at York University.

Activism

A native of Britain, he moved to Toronto, Ontario and became an organizer there.[1] He was a leading figure of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) group until he retired from it in January 2019.[2] The Globe and Mail reported in the year 2000 that Clarke’s “guerrilla activism has pitted him against police countless times during the past decade.”[3]

Clarke was arrested with three other activists and charged with inciting a riot for his role in an OCAP protest at Queen’s park in June 2000. Clarke appealed his restrictive bail conditions in August 2000.[3] In 2003, a judge stayed the charges and Clarke walked free.[4]

The Sudbury Star described Clarke in 2016 as “a 25-year veteran of activism.”[1] In 2019, he announced an online fundraiser asking people to contribute $25,000 for his retirement.[5]

Teaching

In 2019, Clarke took on the post of Packer Visitor in Social Justice in the faculty of Liberal Arts and Professional Studies at York University. The position is for two years.[2]

References

  1. Jump up to:ab Keenan Kusan, Workers being held down, activist says in SudburySudbury Star (March 26, 2016).
  2. Jump up to:ab Levy, Sue-Ann (26 November 2019). “Poverty warrior teaching Activism 101 at York University”Toronto Sun. Retrieved 21 March 2020.
  3. Jump up to:ab Margaret Philp, Activist to fight bail termsGlobe & Mail (August 10, 2000).
  4. ^ Clarke, John (28 October 2003). “RIOT CHARGES AGAINST OCAP ORGANIZER STAYED BY TRIAL JUDGE – Statement by John Clarke, OCAP Organizer”OCAP. Archived from the original on 1 June 2005. Retrieved 21 March 2020.
  5. ^ Levy, Sue-Ann (28 January 2019). “Poverty activist John Clarke wants help funding retirement”Toronto Sun. Retrieved 21 March 2020.

Although I can admire not only Mr. Clarke’s activist stance but his willingness to engage in civil disobedience despite the possible consequences for himself, his writings persistently fall short of a socialist stance. This limitation is evident in his aims (which are, generally, solutions to specific problems). 

The Aim or Goal of His Intervention 

What is the aim or goal of his intervention? What is he seeking to achieve?

On Mr. Clarke’s blog, on June 15, 2021, he has written a post titled “A Basic Income in Waiting?” (https://johnclarkeblog.com/node/65). 

Surprisingly, Mr. Clarke’s goals are very similar if not identical to those of  Simran Dhunna and David Bush’s views.  He writes:

During the pandemic, struggles have broken out across the world, from Minneapolis to New Delhi to East Jerusalem. As the global health crisis subsides, there will be a strong determination to fight for something better. As we challenge, not just the ‘economic scarring’ left by the pandemic, but the impact of decades of austerity, we shouldn’t settle for a commodified form of social provision that makes its peace with the neoliberal order. We need to fight employers to win decent wages and to take to the streets to demand massively expanded social housing, greatly improved public healthcare, free public transit, universal child care and much else beside.

His reference to “much else beside” is in reference to an article written by Ms. Dhunna and Mr. Bush (if you click on the the “else beside,” you will be taken to their article). The “much else beside” probably refers to the following list (the social-democratic or reformist left frequently have a grocery list of demands that rarely if ever are realized in practice since they lack the power to realize them):

  1. free dental care
  2. strengthening and regularizing the new changes to EI (employment insurance–which I still call unemployment insurance)
  3. raising social assistance rates
  4. status for all (meaning presumably that immigrants and “illegal” migrants would have the same legal rights as Canadian citizens)
  5. paid sick days
  6. improving tenants’ rights
  7. universal public services.

Of course, I support such efforts, but such efforts hardly make a socialist society since they are likely compatible with some form of capitalism and not with its abolition and with the abolition of all classes; they seek to humanize capitalism and not abolish it. Those who advocate such policies are anti-neoliberal but not necessarily anti-capitalist. To be anti-capitalist, such policies would have to be linked to other policies that push beyond what is acceptable to a capitalist society–such as a radical or robust basic income–which Mr. Clarke opposes. 

I have criticized Dhunna and Bush’s article in several posts on this blog (see for example A Basic Income Versus the Expansion of Public Services? Part One: Critique of the Social-democratic Idea that the Expansion of Public Services is SocialistThe Strawman of a Minimal Universal Basic Income by the Social-democratic Left in Toronto or  A Robust or Ambitious Universal Basic Income: An Impossible Dream for Some Among the Social-democratic Left), and Mr. Clarke’s uncritical reference to it is indicative of Mr. Clarke’s lack of critical distancing from his social-democratic compatriots; his rubber stamping of other social democrats’ position is quite typical of social democrats in general, it would seem (see Exposing the Intolerance and Censorship of Social Democracy, Part Two: Critique of the Standard of Canadians and Landed Immigrants Working for an Employer). 

The way in which Ms. Dhunna and Mr. Bush refer to articles written by others on the subject of basic income, for instance, gives the impression that the authors of some of the articles to which they refer find basic income to be impractical–whereas it is often the case that it is only certain forms of basic income that such authors find impractical; other forms they find feasible–but Ms. Dhunna and Mr. Bush (and Mr Clarke) neglect to acknowledge this. By referring to the article Dhunna and Bush wrote without further ado, Mr. Clarke in effect rubber stamps uncritically their own distortion of the views of others. This is hardly what the working class needs today. Mr. Clarke, despite his apparent anti-capitalist rhetoric, is anti-neoliberal but not anti-capitalist. 

Let us, however, see what Mr. Clarke himself actually proposes as an alternative–what his aims are.  The following is almost a verbatim report of the third section of Mr. Clarke’s presentation on YouTube, presented on June 21, 2021, titled Basic Income Is a Neoliberal Trap  (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r40D6fU760s&t=4s):

Alternative Directions

The alternative is to rejuvenate our unions and fight for decent wages, to fight to increase minimum wages, to fight for workers’ rights–rather than extend the cash benefits and extend the reach of the marketplace. It is far better to put considerable effort into the struggle for public services.

Now, Mr. Clarke fully acknowledges that there are income-support programs that are vital and needed, and we cannot let these supports become a kind of poor cousin. We need unemployment insurance that provides adequate coverage and secure coverage. We need the disgusting attack on injured workers that has taken place to be reversed and decent benefits be provided. We need a fight to ensure that disability benefits are adequate and meet people’s needs and that they are secure. We need to challenge the intrusion and moral policing that goes on within these systems.

But to extend the cash benefit widely out into the workforce is a huge mistake. And we could do so much better. Rather than try to get what in practice would be a meager cash benefit, it would be so much better to struggle to challenge the commodification of housing, the neoliberal city, the blighting of urban space with this agenda of greed by fighting for a massive extension of social housing. So that’s a benefit that goes to working-class people and does not go into the pocket of landlords. There’s a need to fight for increases in the adequacy of healthcare. The pandemic has made that absolutely clear. We need pharmacare, dental care, a unviersal childcare program that is not an empty perennial liberal promise. We need post-secondary education to be free; we need free public transport systems. On all of these fronts, we need to take up a fight.

But people will say: We have suffered defeats. We cannot win these things. Mr. Clarke argues that the left has for a very long time forced on the defensive. The class struggle has not gone in our favour for a considerable period of time. But there is no alternative but to rebuild and to fight back and to win what we can. And to challenge this society but to fight for a different society. That’s absolutely indispensable. There in fact is not some social policy ruse that can just put things right.

Basic income is not going to solve the problem. Our lack of strength, our lack of ability to fight in the way we need to fight is the problem we have to address. We need to build that movement now more than ever. In this situation of global crisis we need more than ever to fight back, and we can do so much better in focusing our struggles than to fight for the commodification of social provision and basic income.

There is little difference between Dhunna and Bush’s call for a refurbished welfare state and Mr. Clarke’s vision of a “different society.” The society he envisions is an improved version of the welfare state established after the Second World War; it is hardly a vision of a society without classes, without exploitation and without oppression. 

I will, however, restrict my criticism of Mr. Clarke’s position in this post to his reference to decent wages–and will continue with my criticism of Mr. Clarke’s views on economic coercion–the first part of his presentation in the YouTube video in another post by referring to his apparent acknowledgement that economic coercion forms an essential element of a capitalist society–all the while ignoring the significance of that for formulating policies to counter such economic coercion.  

Decent Wages and Exploitation 

Mr. Clarke does not subject the concept of decent wages to any critical scrutiny. Ironically, Mr. Clarke often refers to exploitation as an essential aspect of a society dominated by a class of employers (and I agree with him on this view), as a basis for criticizing the impracticality of a proposal for universal basic income (see his Youtube presentation)–which I will address in relation to basic income in another post), but he isolates the concept of “decent wages” from any consideration of exploitation. 

The concept of “decent wages” in effect justifies the exploitation of workers and their continued economic coercion. That does not mean, of course, that I would criticize workers for seeking to increase their wages–increasing the standard of living does have the potentiality of improving the quality of life for those who work for employers, and I also have sought to increase my wages or salary to improve my quality of life. However, seeking to increase wages does not make the wages “decent”–given exploitation. 

By referring to “decent wages,” Mr. Clarke, despite his references to exploitation, implicitly uses the standard of working for an employer as a standard for determining what is decent work. This limitation of the left has been noted by others. Kathleen Millar (2017) has argued just that in her critique of the isolation of a set of individuals as the “precariat”. From “Toward a critical Politics of Precarity,” Sociology Compass, Volume 11,  pages 6-7: 

At the same time, translating the concept of precarity to different parts of the world has also meant recognizing that precarity is originary to capitalism. The very condition of having to depend on a wage to sustain one’s life is what makes a worker precarious—not just the specific structures of this or that job (Barchiesi, 2012a; Denning, 2010). From this perspective, precarity is capitalism’s norm, not its exception, and is shared by all workers whether employed or unemployed. We usually think of the worker with a stable, full‐time job as the model of capitalist labor—against which the numerous unemployed, informal, or wageless workers (largely in the global South) are compared. But the latter
reveal the latent precarity of all workers who must sell their labor‐power for a living. This means that the precarity of labor, far from being the exception in capitalism, is the necessary condition for the creation of capital.

To see insecurity at the heart of wage labor (rather than a condition of its absence) is to complicate the current denunciatory discourse of precarity. Critiques of precarity—whether explicitly or as another element of what Thorkelson (2016) describes as its political unconscious—uphold full‐time, wage‐labor employment as an ideal. One problem with this politics of precarity is that it ignores how wage labor can itself be an experience of insecurity, degradation, exploitation, and abuse. For example, Franco Barchiesi (2011) makes this argument through his study of wage labor as a technique of governance in both colonial and postcolonial South Africa. He shows how colonial administrators emphasized the “dignity of work” as a way to use wage labor to discipline African populations seen as “uncivilized” and “unruly.” Many African workers refused waged employment, instead opting for various forms of
subsistence labor or self‐employment that, while insecure, allowed them to avoid the discipline and indignity experienced when working in factories and mines. In this historical context, Barchiesi argues, “precarious employment was not a condition of disadvantage but enabled opposition to the labor‐centered citizenship of Western modernity” (15). Barchiesi goes on to show how today, the continued emphasis on “decent jobs” and “job creation” in postapartheid South Africa fuels the precariousness of workers by continuing to link social citizenship to full‐time wage labor at
the same time that stable employment is increasingly scarce (see also Barchiesi, 2012b). The emphasis on decent jobs also reinforces forms of masculinity, nationalism, and inequality that a social order structured around wage labor produced. In short, the demand for decent jobs, as a solution to precarity, generates a conservative politics attached to the valorization of wage labor. It also precludes the “political potentials of precarity” (Barchiesi, 2012b, 248) or what I have described elsewhere as the possibility that forms of work beyond wage labor might open up other ways of fashioning work and life (Millar, 2014).

This brings me back to the question that began this article: what are we holding onto through the ubiquitous, denunciatory discourse of precarity? One answer to this question is certainly wage labor. Or more precisely, many critiques of precarity remain attached to what Kathi Weeks (2011) has described as the taken‐for‐granted valorization of waged work as an economic necessity, social duty, and moral practice. This attachment to waged work is part of a broader response to precarity that has reaffirmed normative modes of life. For example, Lauren Berlant (2011) argues that conditions of precarity have led to deepened aspirations for and reinvestments in the normative good life—a
stable job, middle‐class home, guaranteed rewards for hard work, and the promise of upward mobility. These forms of attachment, she suggests, paradoxically become obstacles to fulfilling the very desires that are wrapped up with the aspiration for a good life. This produces what Berlant calls a “relation of cruel optimism” (170).

Alternatively, we could see the denunciation of precarity through the lens of “left melancholy.” Drawing on Walter Benjamin’s use of this term, Wendy Brown (1999) reflects on the ways leftist politics remains mournfully committed to ideals, categories, and movements that have been lost, preventing the possibility of radical change in the here and now.4 To cling to the ideal of full employment and decent jobs, rather than to question waged work as a social and economic requirement, could certainly be an example of left melancholy. But Brown is less interested in specifying the objects of attachment than in showing how the very state of melancholia replaces a political commitment to disruption with an unacknowledged pernicious traditionalism. In other words, perhaps it matters less what one is holding onto, just that one is holding on. Or as Dorothy Day (1952) insisted in her decades‐old article on precarity, “The thing to do is not to hold on to anything.”

Mr. Clarke, like so many social-democratic or social-reformist leftists, implicitly clings to working for an employer as the standard for his own goals. 

This implicit standard is kept separate from Mr. Clarke’s rhetorical references to exploitation, which serve to hide his social-democratic or social-reformist political position. 

Let me make a categorical statement: There is no such thing as a decent wage. To work for an employer is in itself degrading, exploitative and oppressive. The concept of a decent wage serves to hide this exploitative situation (see The Money Circuit of Capital). 

Mr. Clarke, apparently, only aims at refurbishing the welfare state rather than abolishing exploitation. Like Mr. Bush’s own references to exploitation, Mr. Clarke uses the concept as a rhetorical flourish (in his case, to criticize a radical policy of basic income) while conveniently “forgetting” the concept when it comes to the issue of whether wages can ever be decent.

Thus, on Mr. Clarke’s blog, on March 7, 2021, in a post titled http://WHEN YOUR ENEMY’S ENEMY IS NOT A FRIEND we read: 

  In a world based on exploitation and oppression, resistance is ever present. … 

 The US and its junior partners compete with their major rivals and pose a terrible threat to the poor and oppressed countries they seek to dominate and exploit. However, we can’t forget that those countries are themselves class divided societies and that not all the exploitation and oppression that their populations face comes out of Washington. Domestic capitalists are also the enemy and the governments of those countries, even where they clash with US objectives, still represent the interests of these home grown exploiters. [my emphases]

Despite his reference to exploitation, Mr. Clarke conveniently forgets the concept when it comes to referring to a “decent wage.” Nowhere does Mr. Clarke justify his view that there is such a thing as a decent wage. There are undoubtedly better wages and worse wages, but how any wage is decent is something that Mr. Clarke merely assumes rather than demonstrates.

The reference to “decent wages” is a social-democratic trick to hide the fact that there is no such thing as “decent wages” in a society dominated by a class of employers. How can any wage be decent when it involves at a minimum economic coercion and oppression of workers by treating them as things or means for purposes not defined by them (see The Money Circuit of Capital  and  Employers as Dictators, Part One)  but by a minority and, in addition, exploitation that involves producing a surplus (see for example  The Rate of Exploitation of Workers at Magna International Inc., One of the Largest Private Employers in Toronto, Part One )?

Furthermore, in the case of workers in the private sector, in the case of both oppression and exploitation, the results of the previous labour of workers is used to further oppress and exploit the workers by means of previous acts of oppression and exploitation–an intensified form of oppression and exploitation (something Mr. Clarke entirely ignores). Mr. Clarke simply ignores this additional feature of exploitation and oppression.

Mr. Clarke thus uses the concept of exploitation for social-democratic purposes–an anti-neoliberal purpose and not an anti-capitalist purpose. Advocating for decent wages while using the word “exploitation” is contradictory–but exploitation is really just a word for Mr. Clarke. Alternatively, Mr. Clarke believes that workers are exploited–but that such exploitation cannot be abolished. He certainly never advocates the abolition of exploitation, and his aim of achieving decent wages simply ignores the issue. 

What I wrote in another post relation to Ms. Dhunna and Mr. Bush’s political position applies as much to Mr. Clarke:

Dhunna and Bush’s first aim–to “meaningfully improve the material realities of working class and oppressed people”–sounds both practical and radical. It is actually conservative since its focus is entirely on distributional struggles rather than struggles over control of working conditions at both the micro and macro levels. Indeed, since this is their primary goal, they practically define a socialist society as an enhanced welfare state–capitalism with a more human face.

By focusing on distributional struggles, they imply, without ever saying it, that wider struggles to control working conditions are impractical and utopian. They, the realists, know what “bread and butter issues” are relevant for the working class, and such “bread and butter issues” are purely distributional struggles. Such a stance is conservative–its aim is not to end class rule, but to perpetuate it–though in a more humanized form than at present.

Wages, Exploitation and the Accumulation of Capital 

This  becomes even more evident when we consider, not only the immediate exchange between workers and employers and the subsequent exploitation but also the antecedent processes of exploitation. When we consider the process of exploitation and oppression of workers as a process, the immediate exchange between workers and employers (whether through collective or individual bargaining) is actually the use of surplus value (symbolized by “s” produced by workers in earlier rounds of exploitation to further exploit them. I referred to this process in my critique of Dhunna and Bush’s conservative use of Marx’s theory of exploitation. From Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, volume 1, pages 727-730:

Let us now return to our example. It is the old story: Abraham begat Isaac, Isaac begat Jacob and so on. The original capital of £10,000 brings in a surplus-value of £2,000, which is capitalized. The new capital of £2,000 brings in a surplus-value of £400, and this too is capitalized, transformed into a second additional capital, which in its turn produces a further surplus-value of £80. And the process continues in this way.

We leave out of account here the portion of the surplus-value consumed by the capitalist. We are also not interested, for the moment, in whether the additional capital is joined on to the original capital, or separated from it so that it can valorize itself independently. Nor are we concerned whether the same capitalist employs it who originally accumulated it, or whether he hands it over to others. All we must remember is this: by the side of the newly formed capital, the original capital continues to reproduce itself and to produce surplus-value, and this is true of all accumulated capital in relation to the additional capital engendered by it.

The original capital was formed by the advance of £10,000. Where did its owner get it from? ‘From his own labour and that of his forefathers’, is the unanimous answer of the spokesmen of political economy. And, in fact, their assumption appears to be the only one consonant with the laws of commodity production.

But it is quite otherwise with regard to the additional capital of £2,000. We know perfectly well how that originated. There is not one single atom of its value that does not owe its existence to unpaid labour. The means of production with which the additional labour-power is incorporated, as well as the necessaries with which the workers are sustained, are nothing but component parts of the surplus product, parts of the tribute annually exacted from the working class by the capitalist class. Even if the latter uses a portion of that tribute to purchase the additional labour-power at its full price, so that equivalent is exchanged for equivalent, the whole thing still remains the age-old activity of the conqueror, who buys commodities from the conquered with the money he has stolen from them.

If the additional capital employs the person who produced it, this producer must not only continue to valorize the value of the original capital, but must buy back the fruits of his previous labour with more labour than they cost. If we view this as a transaction between the capitalist class and the working class, it makes no difference that additional workers are employed by means of the unpaid labour of the previously employed workers. The capitalist may even convert the additional capital into a machine that throws the producers of that capital out of work, and replaces them with a few children. In every case, the working class creates by the surplus labour of one year the capital destined to employ additional labour in the following year.5 And this is what is called creating capital out of capital.

The accumulation of the first additional capital of £2,000 presupposes that a value of £10,000 exists, advanced by the capitalist, and belonging to him by virtue of his ‘original labour’. The second additional capital of £400 presupposes, on the contrary, only the prior accumulation of the £2,000, of which the £400 is the capitalized surplus-value. The ownership of past unpaid labour is thenceforth the sole condition for the appropriation of living unpaid labour on a constantly increasing scale. The more the capitalist has accumulated, the more is he able to accumulate.

The surplus-value that makes up additional capital no. 1 is the result of the purchase of labour-power with part of the original capital, a purchase which conformed to the laws of commodity exchange and which, from a legal standpoint, presupposes nothing beyond the worker’s power to dispose freely of his own capacities, and the money-owner’s or commodity-owner’s power to dispose freely of the values that belong to him; equally, additional capital no. 2 is merely the result of additional capital no. 1, and is therefore a consequence of the relations described above; hence each individual transaction continues to conform to the laws of commodity exchange, with the capitalist always buying labour power and the worker always selling it at what we shall assume is its real value. It is quite evident from this that the laws of appropriation or of private property, laws based on the production and circulation of commodities, become changed into their direct opposite through their own internal and inexorable dialectic. The exchange of equivalents, the original operation with which we started, is now turned round in such a way that there is only an apparent exchange, since, firstly, the capital which is exchanged for labour-power is itself merely a portion of the product of the labour of others which has been appropriated without an equivalent; and, secondly, this capital must not only be replaced by its producer, the worker, but replaced together with an added surplus. The relation of exchange between capitalist and worker becomes a mere semblance belonging only to the process of circulation, it becomes a mere form, which is alien to the content of the transaction itself, and merely mystifies it. The constant sale and purchase of labour power is the form; the content is the constant appropriation by the capitalist, without equivalent, of a portion of the labour of others which has already been objectified, and his repeated exchange of this labour for a greater quantity of the living labour of others.

The immediate exchange between workers and employers is an exchange of equivalents, so that workers receive the value of their cost of production. However, when considering the larger context of previous production, then the immediate exchange between employer and workers is a semblance . The employer uses a part of the surplus produced by the workers in a previous round as means of production (machines, raw material, buildings, etc.) and another part (socially as money and physically as means of consumption, such as food, clothing, shelter) to further employ them (in addition to the initial investment). 

If this is the case, how can anyone who believes in the existence of class exploitation refer to wages as decent wages? There is no such thing. Wages used to control the working class and to exploit them in the present, when conceived in the continuous process of production and exchange, are derived from surplus value produced in antecedent rounds of production so that the wage they receive today is the result of past exploitation and oppression.

The present domination of workers at work by employers is a consequence of past accumulation of surplus value and its investment in the further exploitation of workers.  How anyone who is anti-capitalist could refer to wages as “decent” is beyond me–unless they are really only anti-neoliberal (a particular form of capitalism but not capitalism as such) and not anti-capitalist, despite the rhetoric to the contrary. 

Again, the issues of exploitation and the accumulation of capital need to be linked together when determining whether there is such a thing as a decent wage. The following couple of long quotes by  Teinosuke Otani (2018) points to this need –a need that Mr. Clarke ignores by referring to decent wages as a primary aim without even engaging into inquiry into the nature of capitalist relations of production and exchange.

The first long quote has to do with what is called simple reproduction, where the private employer exploits workers by obliging them to work for more time than they themselves cost to produce, thereby enabling the private employer or capitalist to appropriate and then consume the entire surplus value (profit) produced. Since the entire surplus value (profit) is consumed, each year the same level of investment arises–simple reproduction. 

From  Teinosuke Otani (2018),  A Guide to Marxian Political Economy: What Kind of a Social System Is Capitalism?, pages 218-224 ( emphases in the original):   

8.4 Capital as the Materialisation of Unpaid Labour of Others

Under simple reproduction, it is assumed that the capitalist consumes the entirety of the surplus-value appropriated from the worker year after year. Now let’s assume that during a period of 5 years, a capital value of 1000 brings the capitalist a surplus-value of 200 every year and that the capitalist consumes this entire amount. At the end of the 5 years, he still has the 1000 in capital value that he possessed at the outset, but over the 5 years, he has appropriated 1000 in surplus-value from the worker and consumed this 1000 in value.

The capitalist would likely say: «It is precisely because I initially possessed 1000 in value, as the fruit of my own labour, that I was able to appropriate and consume 200 in value every year. The 1000 in value that I advance each year—no matter how many years this is repeated—is the initial value created by my labour».

The situation appears quite different, however, if we carefully observe the process as repeated reproduction.

Let’s take our capitalist at his word here and assume that the 1000 in value he started off with was appropriated through his own labour, so that it is the materialisation of his own labour.

During the 5-year period, the capitalist consumes a sum of value equal to the value he initially possessed. Yet after the 5 years, he is still in possession of a sum of value equal to what he started off with. Why? What is clear is that it is precisely because the capitalist has received the 1000 in surplus value for free that he can still have 1000 in value despite having consumed that amount. The 1000 that he holds after 5 years is thus the result of the 1000 in surplus-value appropriated during the 5 years, merely representing the total sum of 1000 in surplus-value obtained for free. This point can be well understood if we consider what would happen to the capitalist, who consumes 200 in value every year, if he did not appropriate any surplus-value during those years. In such a case, even if he had 1000 the first year, he would have no alternative but to consume 200 every year, reducing by that amount the sum of money that could be advanced as capital. After 5 years, the sum would reach zero and he would cease to be a capitalist. The fact that he is able to still exist as a capitalist at the end of 5 years, with 1000 in capital, is clearly the outcome of appropriating 200 surplus-value every year over the course of that period.

The capitalist in our example has appropriated the materialisation of 1000 in value from another person’s labour during a 5-year period. Since the capitalist is still in possession of 1000 in value after 5 years, having lived by consuming 200 per year, his 1000 is nothing but the materialisation of the labour of others. Even if the capital value the capitalist initially possessed was the materialisation of his own labour, the capital value he is now in possession of after 5 years is the materialisation of the worker’s surplus-value, which is to say, thematerialisation of the labour of others. Starting from the sixth year, the capitalist appropriates further surplus-value that is the materialisation of others’ labour by means of capital value that is also purely the materialisation of the labour of others. 

8.5 Reproduction of Capital-ownership Through Appropriating the Labour
of Others

At first glance, the capital relation, which is the relation of production between capitalists and workers, seems to continue to exist, as is, year after year. In particular, it seems that the pivot of this continuity is the capitalist’s continued possession of capital, which he owned from the outset. In fact, however, as noted in the previous section, the capital relation is not an inorganic entity like a cornerstone, which cannot collapse once put in place unless some outside force is applied, but rather is maintained by being constantly reproduced and formed through the labour of labouring individuals within the production process. This is similar to how the human body is maintained by the infinite number of cells that compose it being replaced every day by newly created ones.

… 

Now let’s imagine that a person with no money borrows 1000 in value from someone (assuming that the loan is free of interest) and makes it function as capital for a 5-year period, during which he appropriates 200 in surplus-value every year and that after 5 years he repays the 1000. Once the loan had been repaid, he would return to his penniless state and cease to be a capitalist. In this case, the fact that he was able to exist as a capitalist for 5 years was not because he held on to 1000 in value during the 5 years. Indeed, if the 1000 had not functioned as capital, he would have consumed the 1000 during the 5 years, leaving him with nothing but the debt for that amount. The reason the capitalist is instead able to still have 1000, and was able to consume 200 in value every year, is that during those 5 years, he made the 1000 in value function as capital and was thus able to appropriate 200 in surplus-value from workers each year. It is precisely because of appropriating this unpaid labour that the capitalist is able to exist as a capitalist for a period of 5 years.

Even if, during the 5-year period, he had been able to live without consuming the 200 of surplus-value or had somehow been able to procure a separate consumption fund to last the 5 years, so that even after repaying the 1000 by the end of that period he would have a total of 1000 in value appropriated from workers, it would still be clear that this value is the mass of surplus-value appropriated from the workers.

In short, the capital value owned by the capitalist must sooner or later, through the progression of reproduction, be transformed into the materialisation of the appropriated labour of others, so that the ownership of capital value by the capitalist (even if initially the result of his own labour) is transformed into the outcome of the appropriation of others’ labour, i.e. transformed into the outcome of exploitation carried out in the production process.

In simple reproduction, it is assumed that the original investment came from the labour of the purchaser of the labour power of workers and of the means of production (machinery (such as computers), buildings, raw material, and other such products), but on the basis of that assumption the preservation of the same initial investment arises through the constant exploitation of workers.

In simple reproduction the preservation of the original value of the investment year after year, therefore, is due to the continued exploitation of workers year after year. Can the wages the workers receive then be considered in any way decent under such circumstances? Let Mr. Clarke and other social democrats explain this. 

When we consider the real accumulation of capital, where part of the surplus value (profit) produced for free by workers and appropriated by private employers (capitalists) for no equivalent is not consumed but ploughed back into further investments, not only is the original value of original capital preserved through the continued exploitation of workers but the relation between the original capital invested and the new capital invested due to the exploitation of workers increasingly becomes smaller and smaller relatively as the accumulation of capital and the continuous exploitation of workers proceed. From Otani, pages 228-234:  

Our assumption here again will be that a capitalist has advanced 1000 in value and then appropriates 200 in surplus-value, all of which is subsequently advanced as additional capital.

Where does the capitalist get this 1000 in capital? The capitalists and the economists who defend their interests respond in unison that this capital was the fruit of the capitalists’ own labour or that of their forbearers. But we have already seen that, even seen from the perspective of simple reproduction, all capital is transformed into a mass of unpaid labour of others through the recurrence of reproduction and that capital-ownership is also reproduced through the appropriation of unpaid labour. But, for now, let us accept the capitalist’s view of the situation.

… commodity holders in the sphere of commodity exchange recognise each other as private owners, but in so doing, they do not concern themselves with how the other person came to possess his commodity. Instead, they can only assume that this other person obtained it through his own labour. This socially accepted assumption that a private owner’s property title stems from own labour is the property laws of commodity production.

When the capitalist initially appears on the market with 1000 and purchases means of production and labour-power at their value, those involved in the commodity and labour markets do not care how he came into possession of the 1000 in value, provided he is the proper owner of that sum. Those involved in the transaction all assume with regard to each other that commodities and money were obtained through their own labour, with each quite content to declare: «I worked to save up this 1000» or «It was obtained through my parents’ hard work». And it seems that this is the only assumption that could be made, according to the property laws of commodity production.

The situation is completely different, however, in the case of the 200 that the capitalist seeks to advance as additional capital. We are perfectly familiar with the process that generates this sum of value, knowing that it was originally surplus-value. This means that the 200 in its entirety is the objectification [materialisation] of the unpaid labour of others. The additional means of production and additional labour power purchased with this sum are nothing more than a new form taken by this value qua [as] objectification of unpaid labour.

Viewed as a transaction between the capitalist class and working class, we have a situation where the working class, through its surplus-labour in the current year, creates the new capital that becomes the additional means of production and additional labour-power the following year.

Now let us assume that the 200 is advanced in the second year as additional capital and yields 40 in surplus-value [the same rate of profit as the initial investment of 1000 with a surplus value of 200: 200/1000=40/200=1/5=20 percent]. Since the original capital also generates 200 in surplus-value in the second year, by the third year, there is 440 (in addition to the 1000) that can be advanced as capital [First year: 200s from the initial exploitation of workers+ second year, an additional 200s  from the 1000 again invested and used to exploit the workers +the 40s produced in the second year by the workers and used for further investment in the third year=440]. Not only is 400 unmistakably the objectification of unpaid labour, 40 is the objectification of unpaid labour appropriated through the additional capital, which itself is the objectification of unpaid labour. If this process of accumulating all the surplus-value is repeated for the subsequent 4 years, by the end of that period the capitalist will have—in addition to his original capital of 1000, which we could call the «parent»—the surplus-value appropriated through the parent capital during the 4 years… Together this forms an «offspring» of 1074. So if the capitalist advances the aggregate capital in the fifth year, there will be 2074 of capital («parent» and «offspring») in operation that year. [The capitalist is assumed to exploit workers to the extent of 20 percent per unit. At the end of the first year, 1000×1.2=1,200; this is invested in the second year, and at the end of the second year, 1,200×1.2=1,440; this is invested at the beginning of the third year, and at the end of the third year, 1,440×1.2=1,728; this is invested at the beginning of the fourth year, and at the end of the fourth year, 1,728×1.2=2074, which again can be invested at the beginning of the fifth year…]. 

Even if we assume that the capitalist possessed the 1000 of the 2074 to begin with, he certainly cannot claim that the remaining 1074 in value was created through his own labour. As long as it is recognised that the 200 in surplus-value appropriated every year from the 1000 in capital is the objectification
of surplus-labour, then this 1074 in value is, from top to bottom, the surplus-value transformed back into capital and thus the objectification of labour of others. … In other words, we are dealing with a mass of surplus-labour appropriated through a mass of surplus-labour.

The more the reproduction of capital is repeated, the smaller the original capital advanced, until it becomes an infinitesimal amount. The surplus-value transformed back into capital, whether it is made to function as capital in the hands of the person who accumulated it or in the hands of someone else, comes to represent the overwhelming part of the capital that currently exists.

The capitalist every year buys the means of production and labour-power on the commodity market and labour market in accordance with the property laws of commodity production in order to repeatedly carry out production. The result of this is that the capitalist appropriates unpaid living
labour on an increasingly large scale by making the unpaid surplus-labour of others function as capital. Marx refers to the capitalist’s appropriation of unpaid labour in this manner as the laws of capitalist appropriation.

In the market, which is the surface layer of capitalist production, the property law of commodity production operates. But if we consider the production of capital that underlies this in terms of social reproduction, it becomes clear that the law of capitalist appropriation is in operation. Where the capital relation exists, the law of capitalist appropriation is the necessary consequence of the property laws of commodity production. Marx expresses this reality by referring to the inversion of the property laws of commodity production in the laws of capitalist appropriation.

The surplus-value qua ]as] objectification of the surplus-labour of another person, which the capitalist appropriates in the production process, is turned into capital; and the ownership of this capital value is thus the result of the appropriation of surplus-value in the production process. The capitalist’s
appropriation of surplus-value in the production process precedes, and brings about, his ownership of capital. Here it is precisely the production of surplus-value by the labouring individuals first. Rather, it is precisely the behaviour of the labouring individuals within the production process that is always generating the ownership of the means of production by the capitalist within the production process that generates capital ownership.

At first glance, there seemed to be a vicious circle with regard to capitalist ownership of the means of production by the capitalist and his appropriation of surplus-value, wherein the latter is only possible through the former, but the latter always generates the former. However, within this relation,
the active determining moment that continues capitalist production as such is the constant reproduction of products within the production process by the labouring individuals and the constant production of surplus-value. Labouring individuals are the active subject of continual production,
regardless of the form of society, but under capitalist production, we have a situation where labouring individuals completely separated from the conditions of labour come into contact with the means of production in the production process as things belonging to others, which means that the resulting
surplus-labour always belongs to others as well, and through this there is the continual reproduction of capital and wage-labour and the relation between them. Thus, in terms of the
capitalist ownership of the means of production, and the capitalists’ appropriation of surplus-value, it cannot be said that the former is the immovable premise or even that it is a vicious circle where it cannot be said which of the two comes first. Rather, it is precisely the behaviour of the labouring individuals within the production process that is always generating the ownership of the means of production by the capitalist.

When conceived as a continuous process of exploitation and accumulation of capital, the idea of “decent wages” sounds and is hollow. The idea of “decent wages” completely ignores the whole process of exploitation founded on previous exploitation. Mr. Clarke, practically, by referring to “decent wages,” converts his references to exploitation into mere words, emptied of content. 

What is necessary is to criticize the claims of capitalist society’s own ideologues. From Elena Lange (2021),  Value without Fetish: Uno Kōzō’s Theory of ‘Pure Capitalism’ in Light of Marx’s Critique of Political Economy, page 33: 

… Marx was less interested in contrasting the capitalist mode of production with the utopias of socialism, but in contrasting the bourgeois mode of production with its own claims.

Mr. Clarke, despite his nod towards Marx’s theory of exploitation, seems to have little interest in critiquing the claims of the ideologues of employers when he refers to decent wages. 

The Parallel of Decent Work and Decent Wages: The Case of the Social-Democratic International Labour Organization (ILO) 

Mr. Clarke has more in common with the social-democratic rhetoric of the International Labour Organization (ILO) than with any Marxian critique of capitalist society. The ILO talks about “decent work” and the like, and it claims that labour should not be treated as a commodity–but workers need to treat themselves necessarily as commodities, and euphemisms about “decent wages” and “decent work” serve to hide that fact. From Gerry Rodgers, Eddy Lee, Lee Swepston and Jasmien Van Daele (2009),  The International Labour Organization and the Quest for Social Justice, 1919–2009, page 7: 

Key passages from these documents are reproduced in Appendix II. Together, they identify the principles, issues and means of governance that lie at the heart of the ILO ’s work.

Five basic principles can be distinguished in these texts.

  • Lasting peace cannot be achieved unless it is based on social justice, grounded in freedom, dignity, economic security and equal opportunity.
  • Labour should not be regarded merely as a commodity or an article of commerce.
  • There should be freedom of association, for both workers and employers, along with freedom of expression, and the right to collective bargaining.
  • These principles are fully applicable to all human beings, irrespective of race, creed or sex.
  • Poverty anywhere constitutes a danger to prosperity everywhere, and must be addressed through both national and international action.

These moral and political principles guide the action of the ILO , and provide the cognitive framework for its work – the spectacles through which the ILO sees the world. The first of these, that peace must be based on social justice, has been considered above. It lays out the overriding reason for the existence of the Organization. The second provides the fundamental principle guiding its action. It expresses the dignity of labour and the recognition of its value, in contrast to the Marxian notion that, under capitalism, labour becomes a commodity. In the ILO ’s vision, all forms of work can, if they are adequately regulated and organized, be a source of personal well-being and social integration. Of course, labour is bought and sold, but market mechanisms are subordinate to higher goals. The original 1919 Constitution states that “labour should not be regarded merely as a commodity”. By the time of the Declaration of Philadelphia, the same idea is expressed more strongly: “Labour is not a commodity.”

Labour in Marxian economics is certainly not a commodity, but labour power is–the capacity to work or to use means of production to produce a product. The ILO simply denies that it labour (power) should be a commodity–all the while denying the reality that it is in fact a commodity and must be a commodity if capitalist society is to emerge and to continue to exist. (Of course, unfree forms of labour (so that workers cannot freely choose a particular employer) can exist side by side with free labour–but the existence of free labour power as a commodity is still necessary. It may not be very pleasant to think about the social implications of the necessary existence of labour power as a commodity, but it is necessary to do in order to enable the working class to formulate policies that will more likely enable them to control their own lives by abolishing all class relations. 

Just as the ILO places a veil over the eyes of workers by arguing that labour (power) should not be a commodity–whereas it is necessarily a commodity in a society dominated by a class of employers, with the associated economic, social and political structures–so too do Mr. Clarke’s references to decent wages place a veil over our eyes by implicitly denying that workers are necessarily and continuously exploited. 

I would like to know what Mr. Clarke means by decent wages. Are the wages received by the unionized workers for Magna International, Air Canada, Rogers Communication, Suncor Energy or Telus decent wages? (see various posts that attempt to calculate the rate of exploitation for these unionized workers). If so, how does Mr. Clarke square such a view with the fact of exploitation? If not, then the concept of decent wages has no relevance for workers other than as an ideological cloak for their continued exploitation.

Or are the wages that I received as a brewery worker in the early 1980s decent wages? For example, at the brewery where I worked in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, in the collective agreement between the Brewery Employers Industrial Relations Association (BEIRA) (for Carling O’Keefe) and the Western Union of Brewery, Beverage, Winery and Distillery Workers, Local 287, dated April 1, 1980 to March 31, 1983, bottling operators received a base wage of $13.20 on April 1, 1982. Sick pay was 12 days per year, a guaranteed wage plan, life insurance up to $20,000, a long-term disability plan, paid basic Alberta Health Care Insurance Plan, hospital expenses to a maximum, major medical expenses (with a yearly deductible of $10 for an individual and $20 for a family)), a dental plan, etc. In fact, many of the benefits specified by Mr. Clarke in his reference to Dhunna and Bush’s article (“much else beside”) are included in the collective agreement. ,

(I ended up operating a machine, at first part of the soaker from the end where the cleaned bottles come out of the soaker as well as the EBI (electric bottle inspector), and then when there was technological change, just the EBI unit (and maintaining the line going into the filler free of glass).

Did I receive a decent wage? What of the surplus value that had been used in previous rounds of accumulation that were used to further exploit us? Should not these facts be  taken into account when judging whether there is anything like a decent wage? Apparently not. 

Conclusion

Mr. Clarke refers to exploitation and capitalism often enough, but he then conveniently forgets about it when he refers to “decent wages.” Mr. Clarke is anti-neoliberal but not really anti-capitalist–despite the rhetoric to the contrary. A real anti-capitalist perspective would never refer to any wage as decent–or for that matter any work that involves working for an employer as decent work. 

In a follow-up post, I will critically analyze Mr. Clarke’s references to “economic coercion.” I may or may not integrate such  an analysis with a critique of Mr. Clarke’s criticisms of a basic income.