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

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

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

Where Do We Go from Here?

The Procrustean Language

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

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

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

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

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

Once Again on the GM Plant Closure in Oshawa and the Limitations of the Social-Reformist Left

Sam Gindin published an article on the Socialist Project website entitled  GM Oshawa: Making Hope Possible. The following is a continuation of two previous posts on the closure and the inadequate nature of the social-reformist left in dealing with such closures (see Management Rights and the Crisis in Oshawa, Ontario, Canada: Limitations of the Reformist Left, Part One and  Management Rights and the Crisis in Oshawa, Ontario, Canada: Limitations of the Reformist Left, Part Two).

He divides his article into seven sections: 1. an introduction, 2. Workers as Collateral Damage; 3. Lame Politicians 4. The Union 5. Searching for Alternatives 6. Plan B. 7. Conclusion: Is This Really Feasible?

An implicit common thread throughout the various sections is the unfairness of GM’s actions and what to do about them. If the GM closure were not considered unfair, why would there be any concern at all? However, there is no explicit discussion about why it is unfair. This is characteristic of Mr. Gindin’s approach to working-class politics.

1. Introduction

Mr. Gindin claims that the typical measures to address such closures, such as traditional protests, simply will not work. What may work is, rather, democratic control through “community and national planning.” Before elaborating on this in section 6, , Mr. Gindin looks at the probable causes and consequences of the closure and the responses by politicians, the union and possible alternative solutions.

2. Workers as Collateral Damage

Mr. Gindin correctly points out that no matter what concessions workers make to employers, employers will try to find ways to move to places where it is more profitable. Despite the Oshawa plant being  productive materially and profitable in the production of cars and trucks, profitability is located more in truck production than in car production. Since GM has excess capacity in truck production, and the Oshawa plant only assembled trucks when the US plants could not keep up to demand, the decision to close the GM Oshawa plant makes sense from the perspective of GM.

The irony of a materially productive plant being closed down can be explained in Marxian terms (for further details, see my article, Dewey’s Materialist Philosophy of Education: A Resource for Critical Pedagogues? , page 278).

The purpose wealth in a capitalist society is hardly to serve the needs of workers and the community but to serve the needs of the accumulation of capital or more and more money as its own end. Given the need to accumulate capital constantly, it is hardly surprising to find closures occurring in various parts of the world as capital moves from one place to another in search of more surplus value (and profit).

It is interesting to note that the title of this section implies that workers are really mere means for the benefit of the class of employers, as outlined in The Money Circuit of Capital. Unfortunately, Mr. Gindin did not consider this to be characteristic of the experiences of workers on a daily basis in his practice in Toronto. For example, as one of the heads of the Toronto Labour Committee (an organization to which I belonged and from which I withdrew), Mr. Gindin did not find it useful to question the pairing of the Fight for $15 (a fight for the establishment of a minimum wage of $15 and changes in employment law beneficial to the working class, especially the poorer sections) with the idea of “fairness.” Indeed, he seemed opposed to bringing up the issue at a public forum. Moreover, when I questioned Tracy McMaster’s reference to “decent work” and “fair wages” in the context of a call for supporting striking brewery workers,  Mr. Gindin did not support my criticism of such terms. Quite to the contrary. He became quite apologetic of the term “decent work,” arguing that workers were using it as a defensive maneuver in these difficult times. Frankly, I think that that is bullshit–and I said so explicitly.

Mr. Gindin claimed that the Toronto Labour Committee should have a discussion some time about the nature of decent work and what it means–but I doubt that there has been much discussion about this. He himself indicated that he was afraid to become isolated–which meant being afraid of alienating too much trade-union representatives.

Now, Mr. Gindin sings a different tune, implying that workers are expendable no matter what they do.

In any case, Mr. Gindin’s rejection of my argument that we need to bring out into the open and discuss the idea that working for employers is somehow decent, or that employment laws and labour laws are somehow fair undermines his own claim that workers are “collateral damage”–even when there is a collective agreement. By rejecting democratic discussion of such ideology, workers are less likely to be prepared to address the problems that they now face in an adequate manner.

The third section of Mr. Gindin’s article, entitled Lame Politicians, should be aimed at Mr. Gindin, the Toronto Labour Committee and the social-reformist left characteristic of Toronto (and probably in other cities in Ontario and in Canada).

I will skip over that section since Mr. Gindin shares in the politicians’ lame response to the power of employers as a class.

4. The Union

Mr. Gindin rightly criticizes the union for making concessions in hope that jobs would be somehow guaranteed. However, as noted above, it is not just the particular union strategy of bending over backward to retain jobs but the whole union view of claiming that collective agreements somehow convert working for an employer into decent work despite the employer-employee relationship inherently making workers “collateral damage” even during the terms of the collective agreement. I have not seen Mr. Gindin once criticize explicitly the collective-bargaining process and its result, collective agreements. He and the Toronto Labour Committee have been too afraid of isolating themselves from the trade-union leadership–but that is surely what is necessary if typical trade-union rhetoric is going to be challenged.

5. Searching for Alternatives

Mr. Gindin outlines some possible alternative strategies open to Unifor (the union that represents the Oshawa workers at GM) in order to achieve the goal of maintaining the status quo (retention of jobs according to the signed collective agreement). Such strategies, such as boycotts or placing high tariffs on the import of cars from Mexico are unlikely to arise under the given circumstances. He mentions an occupation of the plant, but as he points out, an occupation without a plan is merely only a protest and not a solution to the problem facing the Oshawa workers.

This leads to his own preferred solution.

6. Plan B

Mr. Gindin claims that the only practical alternative is radical or revolutionary: it must break with previous models and focus on production for need and not for profit and competition. This would ignite the working-class imagination across the country, constituting a rallying point for working-class unity.

He correctly points out that GM will likely try to buy off some of the Oshawa workers through “pension top-ups and buyouts.” Unfortunately, he underestimates what would be required to counter such a strategy. My prediction is that such a strategy will work because of the lack of any effort to counter union rhetoric about “decent work,” “fair contracts,” “fairness,” “economic justice” and “fair labour laws.”

As already pointed out in various posts as well as this post, union leaders have generally become ideologists of employers by claiming that collective agreements, labour law and employment law are somehow fair. Workers have been spoon-fed the pabulum of “decent work,” “fairness” and “fair wages” for decades. Now, all of a sudden, they are supposed to shift gear and practically treat GM as unfair, their former jobs as indecent? They are supposed to become class conscious and act as a class despite the indoctrination that they experienced at school (see A Case of Silent Indoctrination, Part Two: The Ontario History Curriculum and Its Lack of History of Employers and Employees)?Similarly, they are supposed to envision all of a sudden a radical alternative without any discussion whatsoever of the nature of such a radical vision (see Socialism, Part One: What It May Look Like   , Socialism, Part Two: What It May Look LikeThe Canadian Left’s Lack of a Vision of the Good Life Beyond a Class of Employers  , Socialism, Part Three: What It May Look Like, or Visions of a Better Kind of Society Without Employers)?

It is certainly an occasion to reflect on a possible alternative vision of production based on need and not on profit, but to be effective it is required to combine such a vision with a critique of the present structure of production, distribution, exchange and consumption–and with that the union rhetoric of “decent work/jobs,” “fair wages,” “fairness,” “fair labour laws,” or “economic justice.” Workers would need to prepare themselves ideologically for taking such measures and for a battle along class lines. Mr. Gindin has done nothing to prepare them for such a shift.

So, my prediction is that Mr. Gindin’s alternative vision of production in Oshawa shifting to production for need will falter because it is utopian. On the one hand, it would be necessary to criticize the current union leadership much more thoroughly than Mr. Gindin’s is willing to do. On the other hand, it lacks any plan for shifting the attitude of workers to a class attitude, grounded in an explicit understanding that they are mere means for the purposes of obtaining more and more money and that process is unfair to the core and needs to be rejected.

One final point. Mr. Gindin recommends that the Oshawa plant be seized without compensation. That sounds fair since GM received a substantial bailout without repayment. However, is it realistic? Mr. Gindin does not even consider how the US government would react to such a move. One historical incident illustrates the problem. The democratically elected government of Jacobo Arbenz, in Guatemala (a country just south of Mexico), in 1954, nationalized the United Fruit Company’s land (the United Fruit Company (UFC) was an American multinational). He offered compensation according to the value of the land claimed by the UFC on its taxes–around $600,000 according to some. UFC wanted $25 000 000. Arbenz refused to pay the sum. The United States government, through the CIA, overthrew Arbenz and installed a military dictatorship through Castillo Armas.

Why did Mr. Gindin not take into account the possible reaction of the United States government? Furthermore, given the ideological paablum of “decent work,” etc. across the country as well as economic indoctrination across the country (see  A Case of Silent Indoctrination, Part One: The Manitoba History Curricula and Its Lack of History of Employers and EmployeesA Case of Silent Indoctrination, Part Two: The Ontario History Curriculum and Its Lack of History of Employers and Employees), would other workers support such a seizure without compensation? This does not mean that there should be no seizure without compensation, but it is necessary to take into account the possible reaction of the United States government in proceeding with seizure with no compensation. Mr. Gindin fails to provide any consideration of this in his article.

So, Mr. Gindin’s conclusion that it is impossible to determine whether his proposed alternative is feasible is incorrect. It is likely utopian since it fails to break definitively with a one-sided union model that continues to justify the power of employers as a class. It also fails to realistically assess the level of support needed to protect the seizure of assets without compensation.

The title of Mr. Gindin’s article should read: GM Oshawa: Making False Hopes.












Management Rights and the Crisis in Oshawa, Ontario, Canada: Limitations of the Reformist Left, Part One

The Socialist Project Steering Committee wrote the following on its website (Taking on the GM Shutdown: Unifor, Oshawa and Community Control) :

General Motor’s plan to end production at its Oshawa plant at the end of 2019 is a callous, cynical act by the U.S.-based multinational auto giant that needs to be challenged. After accepting $13.7-billion bailout offered by the Canadian public to the big automakers back in 2008 to keep GM and Chrysler alive (one third of which will never be recovered), the company plans will leave 2500 workers at the plant out of work, with perhaps further spinoff losses of jobs and taxes. This is a brutal blow for the home of industrial unionism in Canada and one of the long-time centres of Canadian auto production.

This view implies that GM’s decision to close the plant is somehow unfair. Why else would such a decision be called callous and cynical?

Why is it unfair? There seem to be several reasons for providing such a judgement. Firstly, GM, like many other capitalist employers, were bailed out by the so-called Canadian public (actually, the Canadian government–hardly the same thing). Secondly, “one third” of the bailout “will never be recovered.” So, you lend someone a hand–and they not only fail to appreciate your aid but bite the hand that helps him. These are two the moral objections to the closing of the Oshawa plant provided by the Socialist Project Steering Committee.

The negative consequences of the closure seem to be a further objection, but that would only be so if there was an argument against closing plants by employers in general. If the Canadian government had not bailed out GM and no funds had been lost, then GM could legitimately “leave 2500 workers at the plant out of work, with perhaps further spinoff losses of jobs and taxes.” (Just as an aside–there is little doubt that there would be substantial spinoff losses of jobs and taxes. Why the Socialist Project Steering Committee decided to add the qualifier “perhaps” is a mystery. For one description of what happens, at an experiential level, to workers’ lives when coal mines and steel plants close down, see Simon J. Charlesworth, A Phenomenology of Working-class Experience).

The article, however, does not limit itself to only two reasons for considering the decision to be unfair:

From the point of view of the workers and communities surrounding Oshawa and, indeed, the needs and concerns of the working class across the country, there is no understanding why a place so productive can be shut down. Besides directly attacking the livelihoods and economic futures of workers, the shutdown would eliminate a key component of productive capacities in Canada.

Two further reasons are thus provided: the Oshawa plant is productive, and its closing would result in a reduction in the productive capacities in Canada.

Presumably what the Committee means by productive is in terms of material production. It may also mean value added as a whole. However, as the Committee undoubtedly understands, what is productive in those terms need not transfer to productivity for capital since the issue for capital is aggregate profit, and that usually in relation to total investment (rate of profit). What is productive materially and value added need not necessarily translate into higher profits and a higher rate of profit. For example, the same value added can be distributed differently between profits and wages. And the same level of profits, if related to different aggregate costs, will result in a different rate of profit.

It seems that the Committee is using a different definition of what constitute productivity from what GM considers productivity; why else would GM decide to close the Oshawa plant? It has decided, according to its own definition of productivity, what is productive–profitability and the rate of profit.

That the Committee and GM are using different definitions of productivity becomes clearer in what follows:

There is no reason to close down the facility in Oshawa which has consistently ranked as one of the top plants in the world (and similar doubts could be raised for the four U.S. plants also slated for closure). GM could easily retool these plants, and produce both new electric and hybrid vehicles, as well as the SUVs that are dominating current markets. These plants have rested on the community and labour resources of their communities; if GM doesn’t use this productive capacity, it should be seized as community property and put to other uses.

Brutal Corporate Strategy

From the point of view of GM, and the financial markets that back GM up, the closures are part of a brutal corporate strategy to: cut overall costs; to concentrate production in hot selling profit-making trucks and SUVs; and to finance later moves to offshore production of electric vehicles (quite possibly in China as the key growth market for e-vehicles).

In what way has Oshawa consistently “ranked as one of the top plants in the world?” Perhaps it has done so in terms of level of material productivity, value added, profitability and rate of profit–or perhaps it has not. Without a further explanation of what the standards are that are being used to make such a judgement, it is impossible to say what is being claimed here. However, in the above quotation, the Committee itself recognizes that its standards and those of GM are not the same. GM has decided to close certain plants “to cut overall costs.” If overall costs are cut, with profit remaining the same, then the rate of profit increases. “From the point of view of GM,” the productivity of capital will have increased. Furthermore, a shift from production in Oshawa and other plants to “hot-selling profit-making trucks and SUVs.” Not only did GM makes its decision based on the input sides (costs), but it also made its decision on the output side (level of demand). Furthermore, there is implied an already proven profit-making market, with relatively secure profits since demand is apparently quite high for output.
Is this not what capitalist employers do? How is GM any different from other employers in this regard?

The unfairness arises from an implied critique of capitalism as such as unfair without explicitly making it so; it is couched in terms of a bailout and non-recoverable funds. However, the article confuses the two issues and does not argue against GM as such as unfair.

If the only actions that are unfair is the bailout and nonrecoverable funds, then the solution would be to seize the Oshawa plant and have GM pay back the lost funds, after which GM would be free to close down the plant.

If, on the other hand, an economy dominated by a class of employers is unfair as such, then GM’s actions are unfair and seizing the plant without compensation would be only a prelude to seizing other plants since the ownership of such plants by employers would be illegitimate.

Since the Steering Committee fails to criticize explicitly the power of employers as a class to decide what to produce where and when it wants, its criticism of GM’s “brutal corporate strategy” rings hollow.

Why, for example, did it not criticize the following?:

Local No. 199 St. Catharines Local No. 222 Oshawa Local No. 636 Woodstock
September 20, 2016
(Effective: September 26, 2016)
Page 5:
(4) The Union recognizes the right of the Company to hire, promote, transfer, demote and lay off employees and to suspend, discharge or otherwise discipline employees for just cause subject to the right of any employee to lodge a grievance in the manner and to the extent as herein provided.

The Union further recognizes the right of the Company to operate and manage its business in all respects, to maintain order and efficiency in its plants, and to determine the location of its plants, the products to be manufactured, the scheduling of its production and its methods, processes, and means of manufacturing. The
Union further acknowledges that the Company has the right to make and alter, from time to time, rules and regulations to be observed by employees, which rules and regulations shall not be inconsistent with the provisions of this Agreement.

(This blog has criticized management rights on principle on a number of occasions. See    (Management Rights, Part One: Private Sector Collective Agreement, British Columbia, Management Rights, Part Two: Public Sector Collective Agreement, Ontario,  Management (Employer) Rights, Part Three: Public Sector Collective Agreement, Manitoba,   Management Rights, Part Four: Private Sector Collective Agreement, Ontario).

The limitation of the social-reformist left are further exposed in the following:

Workers in Canada, the USA or Mexico for that matter, have no democratic control over what is being produced in our countries, or the fate of the productive facilities that produce them. Current governments of all stripes accept the free movement of capital and the domination of large investors in making key economic decisions. Trudeau, Ford and NDP governments are so committed to free trade and the wisdom of the private marketplace, that it is breathtaking to see how they fall over themselves to accept the right of GM to close down Oshawa, and limit themselves to providing Employment Insurance (EI), retraining and such.

This call for democratic control comes from out of the blue. Such a call is pure rhetoric and is not at all linked with the critique of concrete social structures that workers and community members experience on a daily basis. It is “breathtaking to see how they fall over themselves” in failing to criticize the various social structures that support the power of employers in general. Seizing the plant and managing it on democratic principles hardly need to coincide. Seizing the plant may be just an immediate reaction to the perceived threat to jobs–jobs that are hardly decent since they involve treating human beings as things (see The Money Circuit of Capital) but, nonetheless, are needed by workers if they are going to live in a society dominated by a class of employers.

A call for democratic control requires preparation. Why is there no definite critique of management rights? Why is there no definite critique of the right of employers to use workers as things legally? Why is there no definite critique of the economic dependence which characterizes so much of the lives of the working class? A critique of these structures is a necessary prelude to real democratic control by workers over the economic conditions of their own lives.

Actually, what they probably mean by “democratic control” is the regulations of employers and not the actual democratic control by workers over their own lives. Why else do they use the term “no democratic control.” They seem to object, not to the power of employers to dictate to workers in general, but to a particular form of that dictatorship–neoliberalism, where the welfare state is reduced in scope for the benefit of the class of employers.

The Committee then proceeds to criticize the weakness of Unifor’s response in the face of the announced closure of the Oshawa plant. The criticism is accurate as far as it goes, but the Committee does not bother to look at the weakness of the left and its role in feeding into that response. As already mentioned, the left does not generally criticize management rights as such. Quite to the contrary. It uses rhetoric and euphemisms, such as “decent work,” “fair wages,” (Tracy McMaster), “a fair contract” (Wayne Dealy). It fails to criticize the pairing of the Fight for $15 with the concept of “fairness,” implying that fairness can be achieved within the employer-employee relation. It fails to criticize the rhetoric of “Fair Labour Laws Save Lives.” It fails to criticize the rhetoric of “economic justice” (John Cartwright).

Were the jobs at the Oshawa plant before the announcement “decent jobs?” Was the collective agreement a “fair contract” and the wages a “fair wage?” But then magically, after the announcement, they are no longer “decent jobs?” There is no longer a “fair contract?” There is no longer a “fair wage?”

Were the labour laws fair before the announcement of the closure of the Oshawa plant fair? If so, how did they remain fair afterwards? Or did they magically become unfair?

So many questions, but the article by the Steering Committee fails to provide any answers.

A later post will look in more detail at the proposed solutions by the Steering Committee.