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

The following is a continuation of an earlier post (Socialism, Part Two: What It May Look Like) about the nature of socialism–which is a solution to problems that capitalism, characterized by the domination of a class of employers, cannot solve. Socialism is not something that emerges from a utopian view independently of the nature of capitalism but requires a critical approach to capitalism.

In the following, Michael Perelman contrasts what many people experience in their lives: their own contrast between an activity which they enjoy doing and their experience working for an employer, which they often enough find to be draining.

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

Just What Is Work?

To understand the potential for transforming the economy, consider a simple example that does not require much of a stretch of the imagination. Just think of the enormous contrast between farm work for wages and gardening as a hobby. Farm work is considered to be so abhorrent in the United States that we regularly hear that only foreign-born workers are willing to perform it. Supposedly, upstanding citizens of the United States would never subject themselves to the life of a farm worker for poverty wages.

While farm labor may be among the hardest, most dangerous work in our society, many people regard gardening as a pleasant diversion. While the United Farm Workers Union represents mostly downtrodden workers, a good number of wealthy people are proud affiliates of their blue-blood garden clubs. Over and above the time they spend in their gardens, many gardeners enthusiastically devote considerable leisure time to conversing or reading in order to become better gardeners. In addition, many gardeners also willingly spend substantial sums for equipment and supplies to use in their gardens.

What, then, is the underlying difference between farm work and gardening? Farm work typically entails hard physical labor, but many gardeners also exert themselves in their gardens. The difference lies in the context of gardening. Gardeners, unlike farm workers, freely choose to be gardeners. During the time they work in their gardens, they want to be gardening. Nobody tells them what to do. Gardeners are producing for themselves rather than for someone else who will benefit from their work.

As the psychologist John Neulinger says: “Everyone knows the difference between doing something because one has to and doing something because one wants to.”43 We should also keep in mind that society respects gardeners. Our newspapers regularly print features of interest to gardeners. Some even have special sections to appeal to their affluent gardening readers. All the while, the lives of farm workers pass virtually unnoticed. In our society, farm work is never “respectable” work; well-to-do families would not approve of their children becoming farm workers.
Of course, gardeners are not entirely free to follow their whims. The rhythms of the seasons and the sudden shifts in the weather dictate some of what the gardeners do, but gardeners generally accept these demands beforehand. …

As suggested earlier, the key to the Procrustean trap is not the threat of physical force but rather the inability to imagine anything outside of the constrained present circumstances. The willingness to take seriously Margaret Thatcher’s preposterous claim—“There is no alternative”—perfectly sums up this state of mind.

A writer for Bloomberg.com reminisced about Thatcher’s Procrustean destructive success:

Of course, it’s possible to change a society and to drag it into the global economic monoculture. Mrs. Thatcher showed how: Break up collectives and make people feel a little bit more alone in the world. Cut a few holes in the social safety net. Raise the status of money-making, and lower the status of every other activity. Stop giving knighthoods to artists and start giving them to department-store moguls. Stop listening to intellectuals and start listening to entrepreneurs and financiers.
Stick to the plan long enough and the people who are good at making money acquire huge sums and, along with them, power. In time, they become the culture’s dominant voice. And they love you for it.46

Thatcher’s scheme actually worked. Her acolytes were so convinced that the mere utterance of Thatcher’s acronym TINA seemed sufficient to cut off any debate with skeptics.

The social-democratic or social-reformist left in Toronto certainly has reinforced the TINA principle. The so-called radical left, by keeping silent out of fear of becoming isolated, themselves becomes part of the social-democratic left. They, like the social-reformist left, provide no real alternative vision to the oppressive and exploitative nature of work characteristic of the power of employers as a class.

In fact, through their silence and their lack of criticism, they contribute to the perpetuation of class rule. They are, practically, social reformists who will never go beyond the existing class system despite their rhetoric of class struggle and struggle from below.

 

 

Ontario Election of Conservatives: Will the Social-Reformist Left Learn?

Now that the “Progessive” Conservatives have won a clear majority of seats in the provincial legislature, should not the social-reformist left reflect on the extent to which they are responsible for this disaster?

The social-reformist left does not question the legitimacy of the class of employers to exist; it assumes that they will continue to exist and that all that is necessary is to struggle to institute reforms of the power of employers in order to arrive at a fair economy.

David Bush, an organizer, writer for Rank-and-File.ca and a doctoral student, for instance, has the following to say just before the election, under the caption “Clear Class Choices”:

The choice is between Ford and his folksie factory owner rhetoric of “for the little guy” or an NDP that, while flawed, is still seen as representing the interests of workers. The former will assuredly be a boon for bosses and blow for workers, while the latter will raise expectations of workers across the province.

Over the next three days the political fight for ideas in the workplace, on the streets, at the kitchen table will set-up the struggle for the next four years. With the class choices at the ballot box clearer than they have been in a long-time, the stakes for Ontario’s workers are sky high. •

The argument that the NDP, “while flawed is still seen as representing the interests of workers” is typical of the social-reformist left.

I voted for the NDP this election–mainly because their election would at least permit a more organized and effective struggle against the class of employers.

To say that the NDP is flawed and is seen as representing the interests of workers–flawed in what way? Seen by whom? That the NDP is seen by many unionists as representing the interests of workers is probably true–but unionists hardly represent the class interests of workers unless they oppose the power of employers as a class. Where is there evidence that they do so?

For example, John Cartwright, president of the Toronto & York Region Labour Council, in his open letter of January 30, 2018 (An open letter to our movement) , wrote the following:

“We need to fight for labour law reform including broader based bargaining so that precarious workers can have a vehicle in which to achieve dignity and economic justice.”

Does Mr. Cartwright mean by “economic justice” the abolition of the power of employers as a class? Or does he mean the signing of a collective agreement, which still involves the subordination of workers to the power of employers and their treatment as things? I suspect that Mr. Cartwright equates economic justice with collective agreements. In other words, the representation of the interests of workers for social reformists involves belonging to a union but not opposing the power of employers as a class.

And the NDP represents, in part, unions.

The NDP does not represent the interests of workers as a class. However, by implying that it does, the social-reformist left fail to capture the anger of workers (among others) over their lack of control over their own lives.

The social-reformist left is itself partially responsible for the electoral fiasco in Ontario. It does not question the power of employers as a class, but only wants to humanize that power–an impossible task. It opposes, not the power of employers as a class, but neoliberalism. It wants to return to the “golden age” of the welfare state.

David  Bush, for instance, has indicated on Facebook that the fight for a $15 minimum wage and various necessary changes in employment standards are fair. This view is hardly in the interests of the working class as a whole. Such changes are better than no changes, but they are short-term gains. By claiming that they are fair, the social-reformist left sacrifice the long-term interests of workers to control their own working lives by eliminating the power of employers as a class for short-term gains.

The social-reformist left often claims to be anti-capitalist whereas in fact it is anti-neoliberal. It is not opposed to the power of employers as a class but only to the neoliberal brand of such power.

If the NDP had won the election in Ontario with a clear majority, would it have opposed the power of employers as a class? Of course not.

The social-reformist left: Will it learn that by not explicitly opposing the power of employers as a class it contributes to its own defeat? That by not explicitly opposing the power of employers as a class, it comes to share the same beliefs as its own supposed enemies? The “Progressive” Conservatives certainly believe in the sanctity of the power of employers. But so too do the reformist left.

Will the social-reformist left learn to begin to challenge the power of employers as a class? Or will it continue to share the same beliefs as its supposed enemies, the “Progressive” Conservatives?

 

Basic Income: A Critique of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty’s Stance

In the pamphlet published on the Socialist Project website, Basic Income in the Neoliberal Age (Toronto, 2017), the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) implies that only a social-reformist vision–maintaining the welfare-state–is a viable option; it implicitly assumes that going beyond it is not viable. Its argument combines both a realistic assessment of the impossibility of an adequate universal basic income for all as long as the power of the class of employers exists, and an implied conservative call for maintaining the existing welfare state rather than going  beyond it.

It–correctly–argues that we should be very skeptical of proposals for basic income originating from liberals and conservatives (and, it should be added, the social-reformist left). Those who believe in an economic system characterized by a class of employers are hardly going to break the link between having to work for an employer and receiving an income. Indeed, as OCAP argues, the current benefits that the government does offer would probably be substantially reduced or eliminated and replaced by a basic income that was even more inadequate than current welfare and other social assistance rates.

However, the skepticism about implementing a basic income scheme that is acceptable to the class of employers is illegitimately extended to skepticism about its viability for a movement that seeks to go beyond a society dominated by the power of the class of employers. They write,

page 6:

These kinds of left advocates are easily able to show how providing a
universal adequate payment, while maintaining other elements of social
provision, would weaken or even eliminate the basis for exploitation of the
working class under capitalism. However, where they uniformly fail is in
the not unimportant area of showing how this is all possible. Capitalism
needs economic coercion for its job market to function and decades of
neoliberal austerity have intensified that coercion considerably. With
trade unions weakened and powerful social movements conspicuous by
their absence, it is doubtful that a major social reform, such as the
proponents of progressive and transformative BI advance, is likely.

At least this paragraph realistically argues that “Capitalism needs economic coercion for its job market to function.” Let us stop at this sentence. If capitalism indeed requires economic coercion if the job market is to function, then should not OCAP be advocating for the abolition of such coercion?  That such a process requires a movement with substantial organizational power goes without saying, and that will take time, energy and much organizing and debating. Of course, this requires a desire to orient social movements towards abolishing the power to coerce, but OCAP is silent about what to do about this coercion that many experience on a daily basis at work (which, of course, spills into situations outside the workplace). Should not OCAP address what it itself admits is characteristic of a society dominated by a class of employers?

OCAP excludes any discussion at all in the document about what is to be done about economic coercion (aka economic blackmail). Its critique of basic income presumes that economic coercion is the order of the day–that there is no alternative–except to maintain the current welfare system, flawed though it may be.

OCAP uses the fact of the weakness of trade unions as a reason for opposing the principle of basic income. Surely one of the reasons why trade unions have become weaker is because they have failed to question the coercive power of employers as a class. For example, John Cartwright, president of the Toronto & York Region Labour Council, in his open letter of January 30, 2018 ( An open letter to our movement) , wrote the following: “We need to fight for labour law reform including broader based bargaining so that precarious workers can have a vehicle in which to achieve dignity and economic justice.”

If, however, economic coercion or economic blackmail is required in the kind of society in which we live, how is it possible to “achieve dignity and economic justice”? If such rhetoric has contributed to the current situation, then should not its criticism form part of the solution? Does OCAP take a stand by taking seriously its own assertion that economic coercion is a necessary feature of the power of employers as a class by criticizing union representatives who talk of economic justice under such dictatorial circumstances?

Throughout the whole document, there is nothing that links this requirement of capitalism–needing “economic coercion for its job market to function”–to the need for a movement that goes beyond such economic coercion.

Ultimately, as noted above, this document is a social-reformist document–a document that has no better solution to “economic coercion” than implicitly proposing that we return to the so-called golden age of capitalism, where employers had accepted, within limits, the need for a mor generous welfare state. OCAP does not explicitly state this, but it implies it.

Would it not be possible to propose a basic income that cannot be satisfied within a structure defined by economic coercion or economic blackmail? The document does not even refer to such a possibility.

Logically, if OCAP takes seriously the view that “Capitalism needs economic coercion for its job market to function,” should it not redefine the nature of poverty? Should not the definition of poverty include taking into account this economic coercion? Does OCAP do so?

In another post, I will refer to an author who does indeed take seriously OCAP’s view that “Capitalism needs economic coercion for its job market to function” and proposes a redefinition of poverty. In that post or another post I will also refer to a proposal for a radical basic income as part of a movement for a different kind of economic, social and political life–a life not characterized by economic, social and political coercion.

 

The Limitations of the Social-Reformist Left

Introduction

I used to belong to a leftist organization in Toronto. I started, slowly, to realize that it really has little to do with challenging the power of employers as a class despite the rhetoric concerning class issues being a priority. This view was confirmed when a movement for the reform of employment standards developed in Ontario in general and in Toronto in particular, and the Ontario Liberal government (Canada is divided into provinces, with Ontario as one of the provinces) agreed to such reforms.

The reform of employment standards was certainly needed, and the reforms are indeed useful to the working class. Among the reforms was included an increase in minimum wages to $15 an hour (in two phases). However, the problem is not the reforms but the pairing of these reforms with “fairness.” T-shirts with the slogan “Fight for $15 and Fairness” were produced, and rallies were announced with the same slogan. I found such a pairing objectionable, to say the least.

The Social-Reformist Left

This is a “selling point” typical of the social-reformist left. They try to get others to agree to the reforms that they propose by claiming that it is fair or just in some way; this is also often the tactic of union negotiating teams (as will be seen in another post).

Logically, the social-reformist left would never dare to pair a law that reduced the number of times a husband could hit his wife legally from 25 times a year to 10 times a year with the concept of fairness. Of course, receiving 10 hits a year is, in general, better than receiving 25 hits a year (all other circumstances being the same, such as the force of the hit, the hit not resulting in death and so forth). But they would object to the very idea of calling even the 10 hits a year fair.

Logically, though, the social-reformist  left do dare to pair $15 an hour (and other labour law reforms) with the concept of fairness. They “forget” that workers still are treated as means for purposes over which they have little or no control (see The Money Circuit of Capital)

This forgetfulness is actually agreement with the continued existence of the power of employers as a class.

Indeed, David Bush, a labour and community organizer (and doctoral student) in Toronto specifically claimed that the reforms were fair. They are certainly fairer, but to claim that they are fair assumes that the relationship between the class of employers and the class of workers is fair. The social-reformist left rely on the acceptance of the fairness of the employer-employee relation in order to justify its own position. The money circuit of capital shows that such a relationship is decidedly unfair. (I will address Mr. Bush’s reformist ideology in another post).

The social-reformist left, therefore, conveniently forget about the class relation between employers and employees as the background for any reform movement, and then boldly claims that the Fight for $15 is fair. They have no intention of challenging the power of employers as a class.

The social-reformist left may, of course, try to argue that there is a large difference between arguing that a reduction from 25 hits to 10 hits is fair to arguing that an increase in the minimum wages to $15 is fair. A reduction in the number of hits is negative whereas the increase in the minimum wage is positive. If, however, we look at the logic of both, they are the same. Both narrow the focus to what has been gained. In the case of a reduction in the number of hits, the focus is exclusively on the number of hits, without taking into consideration the remaining hits. In the case of an increase in the minimum wage (and other labour law reforms), consideration of the remaining power of employers–a power that is abusive in itself–is simply ignored. How otherwise could the social-reformist left then call the increase in the minimum wage fair (rather than fairer)?

Both logics exclude consideration of the wider context, and both present certain changes exclusively in a positive light (a favourite tactic of the social-reformist left). In another post, it will be pointed out that acting intelligently requires taking into consideration the context; if we do not, we likely will act unintelligently. The social-reformist left, ultimately, propose that we act unintelligently.

The Radical Left

The organization to which I belonged found the pairing of $15 and fairness to be irrelevant. There was no objection to such a linking of the reform movement and the issue of fairness. I found this lack of criticism to be appalling and, as a consequence, withdrew from the organization.

The silence of the so-called radical left in Toronto (and undoubtedly in other cities and countries) over such issues shows just how dominate the social-reformist point of view has become at a practical level. Such a view assumes TINA: there is no alternative.

We need to start discussing how to challenge the power of employers as a class. The so-called radical left, however, creates all sorts of excuses for not adopting a class point of view and for putting off any discussion about such issues. Reform is all that is on the agenda for them–like the social-reformist left.

The radical left in Toronto, by remaining silent over the issue, practically are on the same level as the social-reformist left. By remaining silent, they foster the continued illusion that the existence of the class of employers and the class of employees are somehow natural and eternal. This illusion needs to be constantly criticized.

By remaining silent, the radical left in Toronto fosters actions that are unintelligent. By remaining silent, the radical left contributes to the continued oppression and exploitation of the billions of workers who experience the daily grind of being treated as things at work.

Some among the radical left, of course, will justify such silence in many ways. Some may say that it is necessary to create structures (such as TAWC–the Toronto Airport Workers Council) that cut across unions. Somehow, by magic, such structures are going to address the power of employers as a class–in the far distant future. Such a vague future is a fairy tale. The radical left, in practice, do nothing different from the social-reformist left.

I attended one TAWC meeting; I did not hear any conversation that related to the power of employers as a class. It was more like an extended union meeting than anything else.

Others may claim that we need to engage in a “war of position” (based on the Italian Marxist Gramsci). Practically, this “war of position” turns out to be no different than the social-reformist left’s position. Why else was there silence over the issue of the fairness of $15 an hour? Or is such silence an expression of a “war of position”?

Ultimately, the radical left in Toronto lost an opportunity for bringing up the class issue–and that is what is needed in these trying times of ours–and not more social-reformist rhetoric.