A Private Employer’s “Humanism” in Sweden: The Dream of Social Democrats Everywhere

As I pointed out in my critique of Jane McAlevey’s reference to Sweden’s so-called ‘leveling of the playing field for children’s opportunity for success from birth onward,” (see   Review of Jane McAlevey’s “A Collective Bargain: Unions, Organizing, and the Fight for Democracy”: Two Steps Backward and One Step Forward, Part Two), social democrats tend to idealize the Scandinavian countries. I began to more directly debunk this social-democratic myth in the post  A Short List of the Largest Swedish Employers by the Number of Employees, Profits and the Profits per Worker ).

Let us look at the behaviour of one private employer in Sweden, which supposedly instituted humanistic methods for helping workers to become more healthy: the private employer Scania, a multinational capitalist manufacturing firm (from page 140, Christian Maravelias, Torkild Thanem, Mikael Holmqvist. “March Meets Marx: The Politics of Exploitation and Exploration in the Management of Life and Labour”. Published online: 2012; pages 129-159):

Scania is an internationally leading manufacturer of heavy trucks, buses and coaches, and industrial and marine engines. It operates in some 100 countries with approximately 34,000 employees [in another source, it says 45,235].. Scania was founded in the late nineteenth century and has built and delivered more than 1,500,000 trucks, buses and engines.

Scania is well known both for its products and for its stable and long-term strategic focus. It has grown organically, primarily through internal financing, and it has remained in the same product category for more than 80 years. This conservatism has been successful, yielding annual profits for more than seven consecutive decades and helped avoid regular lay-offs since the 1940s. Today Scania is regarded a stable and attractive employer known for combining continuous improvement in production with safe and professionally stimulating working conditions.

Workers in Scania were subject to a scientific management system, with a top-down management style. As a consequence, (page 145):

the previous system was associated with high levels of personnel turnover (30%) and illness absenteeism (25%),

To deal with this problem, the union pressured for the development of a lean production model in the style of Toyota (pages 145-146):

the union was able to exercise considerable bargaining power, almost forcing the firm to accept a version of lean production that was aligned with principles of health and well-being.

However, Scanian management turned the situation to its advantage by coopting the process of a move towards  so-called health and wellness:

Like many lean production initiatives, Scania’s turn to this kind of system in the 1990s implied an emphasis on self-managing teams, continuous improvement and individual responsibility (see, e.g. Adler, 1993; Adler, Goldoftas, & Levine, 1999; Delbridge, 1995; Delbridge, Turnbull, & Wilkinson, 1992). Despite an emerging concern with well-being, the most apparent aspect of this related to the objective dimension of exploiting labour. As new tasks and responsibilities were added to all factory jobs, Scania was able to extract more value from the salary they paid workers. Making workers take individual responsibility for constantly improving the production process intensified work, as it meant that they had to do more for the same salary: in addition to take responsibility for executing predefined tasks, workers in self-managing teams were expected to set goals and find ways of reaching these goals.

This meant that each team member had dual roles: both as an operator and as a reflective practitioner. As operators, team members carried out more or less pre-defined tasks according to standard operating procedures. As reflective practitioners, they stepped out of these same processes and observed them from a distance to identify opportunities for improvement.

As reported through previous studies of lean production (e.g. Delbridge, 1995; Delbridge et al., 1992; Parker & Slaughter, 1990), the enhanced exploitation of labour and consequent work intensification was deeply related to speed, posing production speed in a tight relationship to production error.

The shift from strictly hierarchical managerial structures to more horizontal managerial structures (with, of course, the hierarchical managerial structure still prevailing “in the last instance”) led to the employer engaging in the exploration of new organizational structures to exploit its working force, a feature characteristic of capitalist firms as they are subject to the dual constraint of the need to exploit their working force while being subject to competitive rivalry from other capitalists (page 132):

The basic problem facing firms subject to increasing competitive pressures is to balance exploitation, which is incremental and may facilitate short-term competitiveness, with exploration, which is radical and might enable long-term competitiveness. The reason for this balancing act is that exploitative pursuits tend to undermine explorative pursuits.

This exploration of new ways of exploiting labour led to a focus on managing the health of workers (page 140):

To deal with problems of high costs and accident levels as well as high levels of production error, illness absenteeism and employee turnover, Scania decided to implement a lean production system inspired by the justin- time and total quality management principles of Toyotaism. This was later combined with investments in health promotion, and it is the emphasis on health in particular which makes this case distinct from previous studies of lean production.

The exploration of control over the health of the workers led, on the one hand, to attempts to control their subjectivity (their “mind set” or their “attitude”) (page 142):

Having the right job skills was only seen to constitute one part of this. Perhaps more reminiscent of previous research on service work (e.g. Callaghan & Thompson, 2002), high performance was just as much about having the right mind-set, that is having the motivation to be an active, committed and ambitious employee. It was acknowledged by managers and workers that this was not an easy task, because a partly new type of employee was required for the lean production system to work properly. Since working the production line was hard work, workers needed to be in
good shape. But since this also involved efforts to enhance output and quality, it required a particular person who was motivated and committed to change and improvement.

On the other hand, the attempt to control the subjectivity of the worker also led to attempts to control life after work through what programs that seemed to benefit workers (pages 142-143):

This approach blurred the boundaries between work and life. In the words of one team leader, ‘being active and motivated is not a capacity you can switch on and off, [y] it comes down to who you are and how you live your life’. Hence, workers were expected to go far in adapting to the system. But if Scania was to live up to its goal of being a ‘responsible and caring employer’ as well as a lean firm, this obliged them to make far-reaching adaptations, which go beyond what has been reported in previous studies (e.g. Adler, 1993; Adler et al., 1999; Delbridge, 1995; Delbridge et al., 1992). The mutual responsibilities of employees and employer were expressed through two company programmes known as the Employeeship and the 24 Hour Employee. These programmes were also pinnacles in the firm’s integration of lean production and health promotion, involving anything from safe machinery to helping employees lose weight.

These programs were not just window dressing; workers were conceived as resources in a similar fashion to the machines and buildings that Scania owned; workers were expected to take care of themselves outside work and inside work in order to increase the productivity of the company, and if they did not productivity would suffer (page 143):

Scania’s objective exploration of labour, which was aimed to enhance productivity, improve quality and increase profits, required them to re-socialise workers by subjectively exploring their lives, bodies and personalities and what potential they offered in terms of being exploited as labour. This was expressed in rather explicit expectations and norms concerning employee lifestyle. To be physically, mentally and technologically equipped to handle their work, one nurse emphasised that workers were expected to keep themselves in a ‘healthy workable condition’ and
show competence in ‘health-related things such as physical fitness [and] mental strength’.

Although there was no formal right for Scania to control the workers’ lives outside work, on a practical level the two programs did lead to pressure to conform to the requirements of Scania to exploit the workers (page 144):

Of course, Scania had no formal right to interfere with what workers did in their spare time, but when a worker’s private life started to impact
negatively on their work, the firm was able to intervene in the opposite
direction, subordinating life to labour. As argued by one line manager:

If one of my employees doesn’t get enough sleep because he plays poker all night, it is his own business – as long as it doesn’t affect his ability to work. But if it  does  […] – and most likely it will – it is not just his business but my business as  well.

Workers were somewhat ambivalent about how they experienced this. In the words of an IT specialist:

a couple of years ago I went through a divorce. I started drinking a little bit too            much and somehow my boss found out about this. At first, he didn’t say  anything,  but after some time he did, and he also explained that he had spoken to a counsellor at the Health Office who he wanted me to contact. I did, and the therapy helped. But it was somewhat creepy to see how my family problems  were turned into a work problem.

This worker’s life, then, was subjectively re-socialised and explored to fit the new organisation of production which Scania was objectively exploring in the interest of more intensely exploiting labour.

The far-reaching nature of the employer–employee contract, their shared responsibilities and the blurring of the objective exploration of labour contra the subjective exploration of life was further reflected in the 24 Hour Employee programme. More specifically, this involved a mutual sense of caring, where the programme aimed to show how much the firm cares for its employees, on and off the job, by helping them live healthier. However, this programme also emphasised how workers were expected to take care of themselves during and after working hours. Workers did not necessarily view this contract as consensual, and some workers called it ‘a give-and-take thing’. While Scania promised a safe work environment and helped workers take care of themselves, the firm was seen to expect ‘an awful lot’ in return – that workers ‘live in accordance with its standards’.

Lean production did result in some workers feeling stressed out, but rather than attributing the problem to lean production itself (and the nature of the capitalist firm as capitalist firm), the problem is identified as an individual problem (a similar approach is the current psychological fad called “mindfulness”–a variant of the ancient Stoical philosophy of disregarding the real objective social constraints on our lives); used by management, this led to manipulation (pages 148-149): 

Through a therapeutic and reflective approach, the Health School sought to help workers gain better self-knowledge, set limits and prioritise. Again, this was anchored in an emphasis on individual responsibility, where participants had to accept responsibility for their own life and work. This was important since many participants initially tended to associate stress with outside factors, such as their job being too demanding or managers expecting too much. Hence, the therapeutic process was embedded in a somewhat contested terrain where therapists and participants tried to allocate responsibility and blame in opposite directions. Although therapists sometimes relaxed the responsibilities and performance targets for individual workers in the short term, there was never any doubt that participants were required to adapt to the system should they continue to work for the firm. Indeed, therapy made most participants accept individual responsibility for adapting to the system, who thereby ended up subjectively participating in their own exploitation (cp. e.g. Burawoy, 1979; Delbridge, 1995; Thompson, 1989).

The first step in the therapeutic process was to establish a trustful atmosphere where participants were ready to accept and commit to ‘the fact’ that they have a problem with stress. The second step involved mapping out the daily routines of individual participants and their colleagues. Participants were then taught how to become more aware and reflective about their own behaviour and attitudes, and taught to think in more strategic terms about all parts of their lives. While the integration of lean production and health promotion blurred the work–life boundary, this particular task encouraged participants to make distinctions between work, self and private life, and to define goals for all three areas. According to one health coach, this mindset was pursued in the spirit of helping participants gain control over their lives and ‘feel that their lives were the result of their own conscious and informed choices’ rather than forces beyond their control.

Failing to cope, then, was seen as an outcome of limited self-management skills. Incidentally, life became just a bit more like work. Although this might be seen as an example of skill expansion, we would argue that this chimes less with Adler’s (2007) upgrading thesis than with Thompson’s (2007) argument that multi-skilling does not necessarily lead to up-skilling. Here, the subjective exploration of life did not unequivocally make work more varied, diverse and interesting; it also involved a division, simplification and management of life to make it more appropriate for work.

It should be evident now that working for Scania is a double-edged sword since workers’ health, which involves the whole life of workers and not just the working part of their lives, is used as a means for enhancing the company’s bottom line. Ultimately, Scania follows the same process of subordinating workers’ lives to the pursuit of  more money on an ever increasing scale (see The Money Circuit of Capital).

The idealization of the Scandinavian countries by Ms. McAlevey and other social democrats thus does not stand up to scrutiny. Even on the assumption that children have equal opportunity at birth (as Ms. McAlevey claims–without further evidence), when they grow up many become employees–and as employees, they are used by employers as things for obtaining more and more money.

Working lives may in some ways be better in Sweden but in many ways they also may be worse under the social-democratic approach that co-opts workers’ own subjectivity.

This case also illustrates the importance of ideological struggle since employers have many resources to co-opt workers into their own schemes. Organizational struggle in itself is insufficient; it is necessary to engage in a simultaneous struggle both organizationally and ideologically.

The Pearson Survey of the 50,000 Employees at the Toronto International Airport: A Document Expressing the Ideology of Employers

The following is based on the report Understanding the Pearson workforce: Canada’s first airport workforce survey: Summary report, October 2019. The survey consists of a sample of 3,582 employees at the Toronto Pearson airport from a variety of positions, with the statistical expectation that these employees would be representative of the 50,000 workers who work at the airport.

Of course, since this report was written before COVID, the situation has changed at the airport, but it is still useful to look at the report.

The background to the survey expresses its limitations since it was initiated by the Greater Toronto Airport Authority GTAA).

The Greater Toronto Airports Authority (GTAA) is the operator of Pearson Airport.

The Greater Toronto Airports Authority (GTAA) is the operator of Pearson Airport.

The GTAA undertook a workforce survey—the first survey of its kind at any airport in Canada—to provide a baseline to understand more about the airport’s complex work environment, including who the workers are and how they get to their jobs. The information obtained from the survey will inform future work to identify gaps and support planning and programming to meet the airport’s transit and workforce needs. The survey was undertaken by Northstar Research Partners (Northstar) and developed in consultation with the Toronto Airport Workers Council (TAWC), a collective
of union representatives from across the airport that work together to address issues that impact airport workers.

The report was written with the support of the Peel-Halton Workforce Development Group and Northstar.

The GTAA is itself an employer. According to its Facebook web page, “The Toronto Airport Workers Council is committed to speaking up for workers at YYZ.” According to the Toronto Pearson web page, “The Toronto Airport Workers’ Council (TAWC) is the collective voice of Pearson’s 50,000 workers and its largest unions.”

Since the GTAA is an employer, its consultations, like consultations with union reps, expresses the power of employers to define issues and to express points of view that favour their interests–and not those of the working class. Given the power of the GTAA as a representative of employers as a whole at the Toronto Pearson Airport and its power as a particular employer, it is understandable that TAWC, in order to at least have some of its concerns recognized and perhaps addressed, decided to be a consultant  in the survey.

The report implicitly uses the standard of better paying, (unionized?), stable (permanent) and full-time positions as the basis for determining inadequacies in the employment situation of the workers at the airport. These better paying (unionized?), stable (permanent) and full-time positions are, apparently, the “good jobs” or “decent work” that social democrats refer to when they justify the goals that they pursue.

Consider, for example, the situation of workers at the airport who are part-time or who receive the minimum wage (as the report notes, these two categories of workers often overlap). The report states (page 4):

As noted above, there is an opportunity to identify and support career path development, in this case to less precarious jobs. Moreover, there appears to be some mitigation of the possible impacts of these aspects of employment precarity on these employees at Pearson.

Less precarious jobs (full-time/permanent), with better pay, thus constitute the standard of evaluation in the report.

I have criticized this standard in various posts. It is, of course, better to have a permanent position for most workers. Full-time work is also often preferable for workers than part-time work if they are going to meet their financial obligations and live some kind of enjoyable life outside of work. Receiving higher wages while working the same number of hours, obviously, is also preferable. However, nowhere in the report is their a hint of criticizing this standard.

This standard fails to criticize the fact that workers are Pearson International Airport are things to be used by

400-plus companies—public and private, large and small [pages 1 and 5].

(There are multiple page references to the same passage sometimes since the report includes the executive summary.)

There is not even a hint of the treatment of workers as things in the report (see The Money Circuit of Capital for a description of how workers are mere means to be used by employers, whether private or public.)  There is also not even a hint that the workers at Toronto Pearson are controlled and exploited (see the posts The Rate of Exploitation of Workers at Air Canada, One of the Largest Private Employers in CanadaManagement Rights, Part Four: Private Sector Collective Agreement, Ontario    and   Employers as Dictators, Part One).

The report in fact idealizes the working lives of 50,000 workers at Pearson. Apart from the issue of precarity, there is a lack of critical distancing from the class point of view of employers.

Thus, the report states (pages 1 and 5):

Employers include airport service providers, retail partners, airline and agency partners, to name a few, and all have a role in ensuring Pearson is a great place to work.

I fail to see how working for one or more of the 400+ employers at Pearson can ever result in Pearson being “a great place to work.” How can a workplace be a great place to work when the workers are used as a means to ends that they do not define? How can it be a great place to work when the workers are controlled, oppressed and exploited? The document is more ideology than anything else. Given that Air Canada workers are oppressed and exploited, it is undoubtedly also the case  that the other 400+ employers oppress and exploit their workers. How could it be a great place to work under such conditions?

Consider the workplace survey about workers’ attitudes towards working at Pearson. The report states (pages 2 and 23):

The majority of employees believe that Pearson provides not only a good job today, but also opportunity to grow and advance. This is especially true of younger employees who are early in their careers and see a path forward within the airport employment community.

Since the standard of evaluation for determining what constitutes a “good job” is one where work is permanent, full-time and better paying (unionized?), there is little wonder that “the majority of employees believe that Pearson provides … a good job today.”

Before becoming workers, working-class children in schools have been indoctrinated into believing that working for an employer is natural. Consider my posts concerning indoctrination of students in schools; the school history curriculum fails to provide opportunities for an historical understanding of the emergence of a class of employers and employees in Canada (see, for example, A Case of Silent Indoctrination, Part One: The Manitoba History Curricula and Its Lack of History of Employers and Employees ; this is one of several posts on the silencing of such an understanding in various Canadian provinces and territories). The lack of such an understanding is reflected in the silence concerning the power of employers to dictate to workers in various ways and to exploit them at Pearson International Airport.

Unions, in turn, have not even provided an opportunity for workers to question this dogma. Their reference to “fair contracts” and “decent work” reinforce such standards of evaluation. Is there any wonder that the majority of workers at Pearson use such low standards to determine whether their job is good or not?

Professor Tufts, a geographer professor at York University and spokesman for the Toronto Airport Workers’ Council (TAWC), refers to the “data being in.” Yes, but there is no data that provides for an examination of the extent to which workers at Pearson Airport would consider that they have good jobs by working for an employer on a permanent and full-time basis with a wage somewhat higher than the minimum wage–if they also believed explicitly that they were being oppressed and exploited by the employers at Pearson Airport.

Professor Tufts has some interesting things to say about the purpose of this report. He says the following (Professor Tufts on the Pearson Airport Workforce Survey):

We want to know … how their careers are developing in the future, and how we can better help their careers develop at the airport and make Pearson a place where it’s not just a place to come to work to survive, but it’s a place where you come to build a career and thrive. And this survey is the first stop to getting something to talk about, to come together and talk about how we can better solutions.

Count on Pearson and Toronto Airport Workers’ Council to make the airport a great place to work.

I would not count on that. The Toronto Airport Workers’ Council may stimulate the improvement of working conditions at Pearson, but improved working conditions are hardly the same as “a great place to work.” Of course, workers should struggle to improve their own working conditions. However, Professor Tuft, like most union reps here in Toronto, assumes that it is really possible to create a good workplace environment on the basis of working for a particular employer in the context of the class power of employers so that the workplace is “a great place to work.” I deny that categorically.

Professor Tufts and the authors of the report assume that working for an employer and working at a great place are mutually compatible. As noted above, in referring to the money circuit of capital, workers are ultimately things to be used for the benefit of employers. They are also exploited. These facts limit improvements in working conditions–including workers’ control of their own working lives at work. These facts also means that workers necessarily lack control over a large area of their work at Pearson International Airport–a fact hidden behind the rhetoric of “a great place to work.”

These facts, on the other hand, are expressed in management rights’ clauses (explicitly in collective agreements if present but implicitly otherwise because arbitrators assume that management has dictatorial powers to direct the workforce, with the collective agreement only limiting such power). .

The report–and Professor Tufts’ commentary on it–express at best a social-democratic point of view, where it becomes possible to improve working conditions, but always within the limits of the power of employers as a class that use and exploit workers for their own benefit.

For the authors of the report and for Professor Tufts, improvement of working conditions, while leaving the power of employers generally intact, means the same thing as making Pearson “a great place to work.”

Now, TAWC may have thought that their participation in the consultation process may benefit the Pearson Airport workers’ interests. There is nothing wrong with that; in fact, the attempt to improve workers’ conditions is to be praised. On the other hand, by not engaging in a critique of the report, TAWC simultaneously–although implicitly–justifies the continued oppression and exploitation of Pearson Airport workers.

Do not the workers at Toronto Pearson International Airport deserve more? Do they not deserve a critical analysis of the report? Does TAWC provide such a critical analysis to the workers?

What do you think?

Social-Reformist Leftist Activists Share Assumptions with the Right

In an earlier post (Basic Income: A Critique of the Social-Reformist Left’s Assumptions and Analysis: Part Two), I argued that the social-reformist leftist activist Mr. Bush used Karl Marx’s theory of surplus value for conservative (reformist purposes). This post will expand on this view by pointing out, in a more theoretical way, how Mr. Bush, undoubtedly like many of his social-reformist comrades, share assumptions with their apparent enemies, the right, such as the conservatives.

Mr. Bush referred to Marx’s theory of surplus value and assumed that this was the primary feature of Marx’s theory. Undoubtedly it is an important aspect of Marx’s theory, but Mr. Bush, by referring to the “messy business of material reality,” including “costs,” crassly assumes that costs are somehow a fixed standard that leftists are somehow not to question. The “messy business of material reality” is assumed, in other words, to be a fixed fact rather than a fluid reality created by human beings and therefore subject to change by them.

Mr. Bush assumes, like Doug Ford and other conservatives, that things (including human beings), have “costs” (the “messy business of material reality)–without inquiring into the nature of those costs or why such things have such costs in the first place.

Let us, however, refer to Marx (and not to the shared assumptions of Mr. Bush and Doug Ford). From Capital, Volume 1, pages 173-175,

Political economy has indeed analysed value and its magnitude, however incompletely, and has uncovered the content concealed within these forms. But it has never once asked the question why this content has assumed that particular form, that is to say, why labour is expressed in value, and why the measurement of labour by its duration is expressed in the magnitude of the product.  These formulas, which bear the unmistakable stamp of value of the belonging to a social formation in which the process of production has mastery over man, instead of the opposite, appear to the political economists’ bourgeois consciousness to be as much a self-evident and nature-imposed necessity as productive labour itself.

The first point is that value and its magnitude (which is related to price, money and “cost”) is an expression of a kind of society in which “process of production has mastery over man [and woman], instead of the opposite.”

The second point is that Marx relates his labour theory of value in order to reveal the social and alienated nature of the labour involved in the development of money and in “costing” things. From Capital, Volume 1, pages 168-169:

Consequently, it was solely the analysis of the prices of commodities which led to the determination of the magnitude of value, and solely the common expression of all commodities in money which led to the establishment of their character as values.
It is however precisely this finished form of the world of commodities – the money form – which conceals the social character of private labour and the social relations between the individual workers, by making those relations appear as relations between material objects, instead of revealing them plainly.

Other authors agree that Marx’s concern is not just with a theory of surplus value but with a theory of surplus value. Thus, John Weeks, in his work Capital, Exploitation and Economic Crisis (New York: Routledge, page 19):

Value acts as a regulator of price once the entire product, all inputs, are monetized;
until this occurs, the product is not a commodity in its entirety and all the
concrete labor time expended on it need not be replaced by money. This occurs
only with the development of capitalist production. It is important not to
become entangled in semantics. “Value” regulates price under capitalist relations
and can be used as a tool of analysis only in capitalist society.

Value regulates cost or the price of what is produced because both the items used to produce something have a price and what is produced with those commodities generally have a price (public services on the produced side excepted). Cost is not some neutral fact in a capitalist society but in an integral aspect that characterizes the very nature of the kind of society in which we live: a capitalist society (modified by public services but not altered fundamentally).

Marx’s theory of value, which Mr. Bush completely ignores, is designed to capture that essential aspect. This is one of the reasons why, before he analyzed capital, he analyzed commodities and money.

Mr. Bush, like Mr. Proudhon, a nineteenth century leftist socialist reformist before him, simply assumes that costs are natural. He refers to these costs as the “messy business of material reality”–as if material reality were somehow by nature characterized by prices and costs. Doug Ford undoubtedly shares the same belief.

In other words, Mr. Bush, a self-avowed social-reformist leftist, shares similar beliefs as Doug Ford about the nature of society despite apparent opposing ideologies. The same could be said of many trade unionists. Do they not believe that costs are natural? That the “messy business of material reality” must necessarily include costs and prices? A social world without costs and prices would be impossible for them.

How can such a shared belief not but fail to have limits in practice? Already Mr. Bush has equated fighting for a $15 minimum wage and other employment law reforms with “fairness.”

What does the radical left do in Toronto (and probably elsewhere)? It is afraid to criticize Mr. Bush’s ideology. After all, Mr. Bush is–doing something. He is “progressive.” Such progress, however, will lead to a backlash since its limits are limits shared by him and Doug Ford. Mr Bush will not seek to go beyond the limits of the power of employers. He will become an apologist for employers, ultimately, since he considers costs and prices to be inevitable–like Doug Ford does. He will, in practice, engage in tactics and strategies that will limit the capacity of workers to free themselves from the power of employers as a class once and for all. He has already begun the process ideologically by claiming that $15 an hour as a minimum wage is somehow fair.

The radical left, then, would do better by criticizing Mr. Bush’s position (and the position of trade unionists similar to that of Mr. Bush). Otherwise, it forms part of the problem rather than part of the solution. By not criticizing such positions as that of Mr. Bush, by remaining silent, it panders after the elite and fails to address the needs of the working class, unionized or non-unionized. Those needs involve exposing the produced conditions of their oppression and exploitation and the proposal of an alternative vision of a society without such oppression and exploitation–which only they can produce.

In other words, the radical left, by failing to develop an independent position and merging with the amorphous “progressive left” (aka, the social-reformist left), has aligned itself with a clique of elitist activists within the labour movement rather than with the working class as a whole.

By doing so, the radical left indirectly aligns itself with the right–such as Doug Ford, since Mr. Bush and Doug Ford share certain assumptions.



Basic Income: A Critique of the Social-Reformist Left’s Assumptions and Analysis: Part Two

This is a continuation of my last post. In this post, I will address Mr. Bush’s confused analysis of relations at work and in exchange in a situation dominated by a class of employers, which he confusedly analyzes in his April 26, 2017 article published on the Socialist Project website (Basic Income and the Left: The Political and Economic Problems).

As I noted in my previous post, I will show that Mr. Bush, on the one hand, uses Karl Marx’s theory of surplus value for conservative purposes and, on the other, that he fails to connect Marx’s theory of “costs” to Marx’s theory of surplus value–a connection that has radical implications. Such implications, at the practical level, permit us “to focus on strategies that can help us build the power we need to achieve economic justice and dignity for all”–that really go beyond the class power of employers rather than the pseudo-radicalism offered by Mr. Bush’s “messy business of material reality.”

In the section of that article, entitled “The BI and the Logic of Capitalism,” Mr. Bush has the following to say:

Capitalism operates on the extraction of surplus labour from workers. Workers sell their potential to work on the labour market and employers put them to work, paying them a wage that is less than the value they produce with their labour. This surplus labour is ultimately the source of profits. Capitalism needs workers. Much of the history of capitalism centres around the creation of a working class that is more or less reliant on selling its labour power for a wage in order to live.

If workers in large enough numbers are able to sit outside of the labour market and sustain their basic needs, capitalism would cease to function. BI naively assumes that capitalists and the state would not respond politically and economically to the changing market condition of labour. The logic of capitalism would push capitalists to, at the very least, raise wages and increase prices on goods and services. The ultimate goal would be to compel workers back into the labour market, and make them dependent on selling their labour power in order to live.

It is fascinating to see how a social reformist tries to turn  a radical social theory into a conservative one that agrees with his own reformist conclusions. Let us look more closely at this “analysis.”

Firstly, Mr. Bush simply draws a false conclusion: “BI naively assumes that capitalists and the state would not respond politically and economically to the changing market condition of labour.” Some versions of BI may naively assume that, but certainly not a radical version of basic income (see a previous post  A Radical Basic Income as a Radical Reform). Mr. Bush simply wants to exclude all consideration of radical basic income policies that go beyond the present system of capitalist system consciously. He likely does so because he wants to draw reformist conclusions from Marx’s radical social theory.

Secondly, let us now turn to how capitalism operates. Mr. Bush claims that the essence of capitalism is the extraction of surplus labour from workers that is greater than the wage that the workers receive. For example, if workers at a brewery work for seven hours a day, and they receive a wage of $35 an hour, then if for every hour they produce a value of $70 an hour, they are exploited 100 percent. If they produce a value of $105 an hour they are exploited 150 percent, and so on. The point is that if there is to be a profit, the workers must produce more than the cost of their own wage, or the $35 an hour.

The problem with this view is that it is only a partial truth, or a one-sided view of what Mr. Bush calls “the messy business of material reality.” Mr. Bush evidently prides himself in being practical, and yet he fails to link up his reference to costs (referred to in my previous post) and the theory of surplus value.

Workers are costs to employers, and the worker receives the cost of what is required to produce “their potential to work” as Mr. Bush says. They receive, apparently, their full value, in exchange, for their wage. They certainly do so when considered only in the immediate exchange between the employer and the workers. Mr. Bush, however, excludes from consideration the question of time and prior conditions.

I will provide a long quote from Karl Marx since Mr. Bush, without referencing him, provides Mr. Bush with the theory of surplus value–but Mr. Bush omits any consideration of Marx’s theory of costs  as it relates to wages–conveniently for Mr. Bush. From Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, volume 1, pages 727-728:

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.4 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

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 ofliving 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).

As “costs,” the workers’ previous products are used against them to further exploit them. Mr. Bush entirely ignores this fact. He ignores the wider context. He ignores “the messy business of material reality.” Why is that? Mr. Bush is really quite arrogant. He pretends to be a very practical person, but he is in reality a very impractical person since he disregards the wider context when engaging in practice. Is this not folly?

In a previous post (Intelligent Activity According to John Dewey: Its Political Implications for the Left), I wrote the following:

The lack of such discussion among most workers shows the extent to which those who call for “practice” and believe that they are eminently practical are eminently impractical; they neglect one of the fundamental conditions for practical intelligence: taking into account the social context when acting. To neglect the social context when acting is to act unintelligently.

What exactly is the aim of those who engage in “practice” among the left? Is there any real discussion about the aims? Or is there simply a rush to engage in one “practice” after another without really engaging in any attempt to unify in a consistent fashion the various actions? If so, is that acting intelligently? Or is it acting unintelligently?

Mr. Bush proposes, practically, that the working class engage in unintelligent activity. More colloquially expressed, he proposes (even if he is unaware of this) that the working class act stupidly.

This is hardly in the interests of the working class.

I strongly suggest that Mr. Bush alter radically his theory and practice.

Unfortunately, there is already evidence that he will not do so. On Facebook, he and I engaged in in a short debate over the issue of whether the fight for $15 and an hour (and various employment reforms) should be paired with the concept of fairness (as indeed it was in Ontario). Mr. Bush explicitly stated that it was fair. I argued that such reforms indeed should be defended–while criticizing any concept of fairness.

My prediction for Mr. Bush’s future is that he will end up with a similar attitude to Mr. Urkevitch (see an earlier post,   Comments from John Urkevich, AESES-UM Business Agent, to my Critique of the Grievance and Arbitration Procedure: Letter to the Editor, Inside The Association of Employees Supporting Educational Services (AESES), Vol. 17, No. 4, May 1994). He will become a staunch defender of practice within the status quo of the employer-employee relation–like Mr. Urkevitch and many other union representatives.

It should be remembered that Mr. Bush is seen by many in Toronto, the largest city in Canada, as a practical leftist, a socialist and a good trade-unionist. That his views have not received any critical scrutiny illustrates the dominance of social-reformist leftism in Canada and the need for the creation of a more critical  but also practical leftism in Canada in general and Toronto in particular.


Basic Income: A Critique of the Social-Reformist Left’s Assumptions and Analysis: Part One


I am dividing the post into two parts, with the first part devoted to more concrete concerns, and the second part to more theoretical concerns.

David Bush, in an April 26, 2017 article published on the Socialist Project website (Basic Income and the Left: The Political and Economic Problems), argues that the proposal for a basic income is unrealistic in terms of capitalist relations. Like the later pamphlet by the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) (Basic Income in the Neoliberal Age) (Toronto: 2017), he does not consider the basic income proposal strategically worthwhile since it cannot be realized within capitalist relations.

As I argued in an earlier post (Basic Income: A Critique of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty’s Stance), proposing a basic income that contradicts what even OCAP recognizes is economic coercion is a strategy that calls into question the power of employers as a class and hence economic coercion. David Bush, though, considers that the debate among the left does not take “material reality” into account. He says the following:

Instead of a concrete debate about the economic and political aspects of BI, it is discussed as an ideal separated from the messy business of material reality.

Mr. Bush is going to give the idealist left a lesson in the “messy business of material reality.” What is material reality for Mr. Bush?

Mr. Bush obviously believes that he is a realist–he can deal with “the messy business of material reality”–whereas the radical left are idealists. He says the following:

The strategy of those advocating BI centres on crafting policies in a vacuum and hoping governments enact them.

This romantic idealism has stymied serious analysis of the policy from the Left. Taking a step back and looking at the economic and political logic of BI, I hope to show that however well-meaning the policy is, it is economically flawed and a politically dangerous demand for the Left to adopt.

Mr. Bush is a grass roots organizer and practitioner, and because of this he believes that he has a better grasp of the “messy business of material reality”–whereas the radical left, romantic idealists that they are, are unrealistic.

Let us now look at the beginning of this “serious analysis of the policy from the Left.” But just a point: Some who advocate a basic income have no illusion that governments in their present structure will institute a policy that will eliminate economic coercion; such governments, rather, thrive on economic coercion and will not institute a policy that will undercut their own existence.

Costing Basic Income–An Employer Approach

The title of Mr. Bush’s next section is “Costing BI.”

Mr. Bush then refers to three models of basic income. He then makes the following astounding assertion:

The first question we should ask is, what are the basic costs of these models? Looking at Ontario, Michal Rozworski has pointed out the cost of the universal model, even when set at a low rate, is exorbitant.

This is a good example of Mr. Bush’s way of dealing with the “messy business of material reality.” We are not to question the fact of costs; we are to assume that costs are somehow sacred and propose policies only on the basis of costs within the structure of the power of the employers as a class. Mr. Bush’s “first question” assumes that we are to measure a policy on the basis of money–this is his way of dealing with the “messy business of material reality.”

In other words, Mr. Bush does not inquire into why things in our society have a price and in fact why human beings have a price–they simply do. We are then supposed to be “realistic” by accepting this “fact” (and it is a fact) rather than investigating the conditions and implications of this fact for human life and welfare. See The Money Circuit of Capital for the social implications of measuring human beings and our life process in term of money (costs). I will further criticize this approach in the next section.

This jump into costs is related to the inadequacy of Mr. Bush’s next section (entitled The BI and the Logic of Capitalism). The inadequacy of this section will be addressed in the subsequent post (part two).

However, in relation to  OCAP’s pamphlet on basic income, Mr. Bush’s analysis is inferior: at least OCAP managed to express part of the truth of the fact of measuring human life and human welfare in terms of “costs.” In the OCAP pamphlet, it is written:  “Capitalism needs economic coercion for its job market to function” (page 6). If economic coercion is characteristic of the job market, then the left should adopt a policy that short-circuits this economic coercion–such as a radical basic income policy (see an earlier post,  A Radical Basic Income as a Radical Reform).

By treating human beings as “costs” (purchasable with money), Mr. Bush assumes that economic coercion is inevitable without connecting the dots. By nonchalantly accepting costs as a fact of life and a so-called necessary part of the world–part of the “messy business of material reality” (actually part of the messy business of capitalist reality), Mr. Bush becomes an ideologue of employers without realizing it.

Mr. Bush continues this illogic of treating human beings as costs; the reader will be spared any further reference to this “messy business of material reality.”

In the subsequent post, I will pursue Mr. Bush’s illogic by looking at his next section, entitled “The BI [Basic Income] and the Logic of Capitalism.” It will be shown that Mr. Bush fails to connect up treating people as costs with what he thinks is Karl Marx’s theory of surplus value.

However, I will not wait until the next post to expose Mr. Bush’s real intent.

He gives his own position away when he states the following:

Rather than raising the rates for social assistance, increasing the minimum wage or spending more on social services the government is touting its BI experiment.

These reforms are what Mr, Bush is really after. The basic income experiment as proposed by the Liberal government and even right-wing parties and governments would interfere with these reforms. The real alternative is “raising the rates for social assistance, increasing the minimum wage or spending more on social services.” These reforms are all–within the context of economic coercion and economic blackmail, are they not? There is nothing wrong with fighting for reforms–workers need to improve their lives, but why not improve their lives but not having any illusions about the fairness of such reforms? Why not propose some reforms that do definitely exceed the power of employers and the government to meet them? Mr. Bush is really a social democrat who wants social reform while assuming the eternal nature of the power of employers as a class.

Mr. Bush further gives himself away as a social reformist who accepts the inevitability of the power of employers as a class when he says:

The very same forces that make it difficult to win improvements in current social programs….

That is what Mr. Bush really calls dealing with the “messy business of material reality.” The only viable strategy is–improvements in social programs. Forget about eliminating the economic blackmail characteristic of the power of employers as a class. Forget about trying to develop policies and strategies that address the root of “material reality” characterized by economic coercion and economic blackmail. We need to fight–for social reforms only; everything else is idealistic nonsense. Such is the way in which Mr. Bush deals with the “messy business of material reality.”

Mr. Bush, like other social-democratic reformists, then refers to dignity for all without explaining how this is to be achieved within the context of the class power of employers:

Burying the idea of BI as a viable strategy to respond to inequalities and injustices of capitalism allows us to focus on strategies that can help us build the power we need to achieve economic justice and dignity for all.

Mr. Bush, like other social-reformist leftists, has no intention of really questioning the power of employers as a class. Social reform, and more social reform, and more social reform–that is all they have to offer.

Perhaps Mr. Bush can explain how “economic justice and dignity for all” is possible in conditions characterized by “economic coercion?” By the money circuit of capital? By treating human beings systematically and necessarily as means rather than ends?

I prefer the analysis of Tony Smith, in his book Beyond Liberal Egalitarianism: Marx and Normative Social Theory in the Twenty-First Century (Leiden: Brill, 2017, pages 342-343) to Mr. Bush’s reformist rhetoric:

The abolition of labour markets, that is, the abolition of wage labour as
a social form, would contribute greatly to overcoming the ‘bifurcation of the
political’. It is also required if we are to ever attain a world in which the [sic] ‘all persons are equal, so far as the importance of their basic interests are concerned’.3
To accomplish this, the production and distribution of goods and services could
be undertaken by worker co-operatives, with managers democratically elected
by, and accountable to, those over whom they exercise authority.

Smith refers specifically to a demand for a basic income that goes beyond anything that the class power of employers could satisfy (page 346):

It is not the mere presence of markets that establishes the alien power of
capital. What makes capitalist market societies so different from pre-capitalist
societies with markets is the society-wide compulsion to place the accumulation
of surplus value above all other ends. The democratising of decisions regarding
the levels and priorities of new investments, combined with full employment
and basic income guarantees that are not feasible in capitalism, removes the

Note that Smith does not limit the proposal to only a basic income that is not “feasible in capitalism.” Mr. Bush, by contrast, will always propose policies that are feasible within capitalism. This is his way of dealing with the “messy business of material reality.”

Rather than concluding on a purely negative note, however, it should be recognized that Mr. Bush at least should be commended in putting into writing and publicly his beliefs. How else can errors and hence corrections arise? Many of the social-democratic left here in Toronto (and I suspect elsewhere) hide behind their “practice” and are unwilling to come out publicly to expose their beliefs to criticism. Mr. Bush should be commended for having the courage for publicly declaring his beliefs.

Given the inadequate nature of Mr. Bush’s views, he should modify his beliefs and thereby change his practice. If he (and other social reformers) should, however, persist in their dogmas, both theoretically and practically, then of course they should be thoroughly criticized.

In my next post, I will show that Mr. Bush, on the one hand, uses Karl Marx’s theory of surplus value for conservative purposes and, on the other, that he fails to connect Marx’s theory of “costs” to Marx’s theory of surplus value–a connection that has radical implications. Such implications, at the practical level, permit us “to focus on strategies that can help us build the power we need to achieve economic justice and dignity for all”–that really go beyond the class power of employers rather than the pseudo-radicalism offered by Mr. Bush’s “messy business of material reality.”