Reform or Abolition of the Police, Part One

In at least two posts, I will explore the issue of reforming the police versus its abolition. Conveniently, there are a couple of articles that address the issue.

Mr. Rosenfeld, a self-declared radical and Marxist living in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, in an article published in the social-democratic magazine Canadian Dimension on April 20, 2020, Reform and Transform: Police Abolitionism and Sloppy Thinking), responded to another article published on April 12 in the same magazine, written by James Wilt,  Abolishing the police is the only reasonable response to Winnipeg Police killings. Wilt argues that the police cannot be reformed but must be abolished since their function is essentially repressive, and that essential function is sufficient for demanding its abolition:

Unlike what many liberals claim, police cannot be reformed with better training, oversight, or diversity. Nor can police violence be eliminated by following the victim-blaming advice from (mostly) white social media users like “improved parenting” or “better decision-making.” Both of these supposed solutions reflect deeply naive and ahistorical understandings of what it is that police do—and how police actively harm communities, especially those of Indigenous peoples and racialized minorities.

The left’s response to the police killings of Eishia Hudson and Jason Collins must be to recommit to the only just solution: abolishing the police and reallocating the massive resources currently committed to policing to measures that actually keep our communities safe, like housing, harm reduction, strong public services, non-carceral crisis response, food security, income supports, returning land to Indigenous peoples by acknowledging existing sovereignty, and a whole lot more. At the root of this demand is resistance to the call for a “better balance” of policing and social services. On the contrary, policing must be dispensed with entirely.

Mr. Rosenfeld argues against abolition. Mr. Rosenfeld, however, not only argues against abolition; he finds the idea of the abolition of the police absurd–as his subtitle says. Indeed, Mr. Rosenfeld’s subtitle: “Police Abolitionism and Sloppy Thinking,” reflects the hostility that I faced here in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, when I questioned the ideology of “fair contracts,” “fair wages,” and “decent work” expressed by some trade unionists and social democrats.

I will try to show, in at least two posts if not more, that Mr. Rosenfeld’s view that the proposal of the abolition of the police is not absurd and that the proposal of the reform of the police as the rational solution–is absurd.

But let us first listen to Mr. Rosenfeld:

Having heard some of the younger activists with whom I work in the free transit movement muse about getting rid of the police force, I often found that most were not really serious about it as an immediate demand but were expressing their vision of how we might do things differently in an imagined future [my emphasis]. There are other activists, many of whom are passionate defenders of the rights of the homeless, the poorest and those most targeted by the system and its repressive apparatus, who argue that police budgets need to be radically trimmed in order to pay for the kinds of social programs and services that could contribute to addressing some of the most glaring forms of inequality and injustice. Few of them seriously demand the complete elimination of policing, but some do.

The issue of the reform of the police versus its abolition has become a focal point of controversy  since the murder of George Floyd has now come to light. Mr. Rosenfeld’s social-democratic casual dismissal of the abolition of police has been challenged practically as millions protested against the police throughout the world. Mr. Rosenfeld’s claim that the proposal that the abolition of the police involves sloppy thinking has been practically refuted as some who protested did propose abolishing the police.

Indeed, even before the mass protests against the murder of George Floyd, there have arisen movements for the abolition of the police in the light of systemic racism among the police. Why does Mr. Rosenfeld not refer to such movements?

For example, Meghan McDowell and Luis Fernandez published an article in 2018 about the movement for police abolition, titled “Disband, Disempower, and Disarm’: Amplifying the Theory and Practice of Police Abolition,” in the journal Criminal Criminology: 

In July of 2016, the popular Fox News program “Kelly File,” hosted by conservative T.V. personality Megan Kelly, held a town hall style forum to discuss race and law enforcement. The forum brought together what Fox News considers a diverse cross-section of the U.S. public: former FBI agents, retired NYPD officers, conservative Black pastors, community organizers, and “regular” Americans whose views spanned the ideological spectrum. The recent deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile at the hands of law enforcement, uprisings in Ferguson, Baltimore, Milwaukee, and Charlotte in the past year, and Micah Johnson’s targeted assassination of five Dallas police officers earlier in July, not only formed the backdrop for the conversation, but also set the conditions of possibility for such
a conversation to air on a mainstream media outlet in the first place.

At one point the conversation turned toward an indictment of the Black Lives Matter
(BLM) movement. Many forum attendees began to condemn BLM, reiterating racial tropes [a figurative or metaphorical use of a word or expression] about Black-on-Black crime and “personal responsibility.” In a clip that has now gone viral, Jessica Disu, a Chicago-based community organizer and artist, tried to reframe the conversation: “Here’s a solution,” Disu interjected with conviction, “we need to abolish the police.” The Chicago Reader, a weekly alternative newspaper, described the ensuing reactions  to Disu’s comment:

“Abolish the police?” came [host Megan] Kelly’s incredulous response, as a clamor of boos and protests rose from the forum. “Demilitarize the police, disarm the police,” Disu pushed on, undeterred by the yelling. “We need to come up with community solutions for transformative justice. Can we all agree that a loss of a life is tragic?” [Disu] asked the forum, attempting to explain her vision. “Who’s gonna protect the community if we abolish the police?” Kelly asked, a this-must-be-a-joke smile spreading across her face. “The police in this country began as a slave patrol,” Disu managed to squeeze in before being engulfed by the noise.

I suppose Mr. Rosenfeld would also consider Disu’s view of the need  for abolishing the police to be “sloppy thinking” and “absurd.” Mr. Rosenfeld shares the same view–and attitude-towards the abolishing of the police as do those who defend the status quo. Not a very good beginning for a person who considers himself to be “a 70 year-old Marxist and democratic socialist.”

McDoowell and Fernandez continue:

In her call for police abolition, on Fox News no less, Disu challenged the hegemonic idea that the police are an inevitable fixture in society, and moreover, that the police are analogous to community safety. Disu’s presence on a national mainstream talk show illustrates that crises are also opportunities (Gilmore 2007). The uprisings, and corresponding organizing that expanded alongside or formed as a result of the rebellions, enabled Disu, and others, to publicly challenge law enforcement’s right to exist. That is, activist and movement organizers had already been pushing toward police abolition, but the difference is that this time there was an audience more willing to accept the challenge. In this article, we examine abolitionist claims aimed at law enforcement institutions in the aftermath of Ferguson and other subsequent rebellions. [In Ferguson, Missouri, Michael Brown Jr. was murdered by the policeman Darren Wilson on August 9, 2014].

Mr. Rosenfeld’s evidently lacks a  concern with researching the issue in at least a preliminary manner.

McDowell and Fernandez note that the movement towards the abolition of the police gained ground after the Ferguson murder:

Under the headline “the problem”, the anonymous collective For a World Without the Police (2016) argues, “The police force was created to repress the growing numbers of poor people that accompanied the rise of industrial capitalism,
while on plantations and in agricultural colonies, [the police] formed in response
to the threat of slave revolt.” Their analysis outlines the core functions of policing under racial capitalism [my emphasis]: protect the property of the capitalist class; maintain stable conditions for capital accumulation; and defend against any threats to these unequal conditions of rule (For a World Without Police 2016; see also Williams 2015; Whitehouse 2014). [see the website For a World Without Police].

The police undoubtedly has other functions, but its core function is to maintain the power of employers as a class so that they can continue to use human beings as means for obtaining more and more money (see  The Money Circuit of Capital).

The abolitionist movement against the police, as McDowell and Fernandez indicate,  involves the slogan “disband, disempower and disarm the police”:

The call for police abolition gained national traction soon after the 2014 Ferguson rebellion and is encapsulated by the slogan: “disband, disempower, and disarm the police!”8 This is more than a slogan however. The over-arching strategy is to eliminate the institution of policing, while disarmament and disempowerment are two inter-related tactics used to achieve this goal (Vitale 2017).

The recent call for defunding the police, therefore, can express a reformist position or an abolitionist position. The reformist position does not aim to “disband” the police but rather only to decrease funding for the police and, often, increase funding for social programs. The following question posed by Mr. Rosenfeld expresses this reformist view:

Shouldn’t that institution be thoroughly transformed, by political struggle, into a more humane, limited and less autonomous one?

The abolitionist stance, by contrast, sees defunding (disempowering and disarming) as means to the end of abolishing the police institution altogether–along with a society characterized by the dominance of a class of employers. Social reformers like Mr. Rosenfeld, on the other hand, at best see disempowering and disarming as ends in themselves–while preserving the existence of the police as a repressive institution and hence preserving its core function.

Historically, the abolitionist movement has a long history that was not restricted to the abolition of the police. The idea of abolition includes the movement for the abolition of slavery in the United States and elsewhere, the abolition of child labour, the abolition of prisons and the abolition of capitalism.

In relation to capitalism, I first became aware of the idea of proposing the abolition of prisons when I read Thomas Mathiesen’s works The Politics of Abolition and Law, Society and Political action: Towards a Strategy Under Late Capitalism. Mathiesen argues that the capitalist state has become particularly adept at co-opting or neutralizing more radical movements so that it is necessary to emphasis the abolition of structures rather than their reform in order not to contribute to the continuation of repressive structures. From page 73:

In the fourth place, we have seen that legislation which breaks with dominating interests, legislation which in this sense is radical, is easily shaped in such a way during the legislative process that the final legislation does not after all break significantly with dominating interests, as the examples from political practice of trimming, stripping down, the creation of pseudo alternatives, and co-optive co-operation, show.

I have referred, in another post, to the whittling down of the criminalization of employer actions following the murder of the Westray miners in Nova Scotia, Canada, in 1992 (see  Working for an Employer May Be Dangerous to Your Health, Part Three). Co-optation is a real danger for the left–and Mr. Rosenfeld minimizes the power of the capitalist state to co-opt movements through reforms. This minimization of the danger of co-optation can be seen from the following:

In reality, though, bourgeois democratic institutions are not simply a façade for a bloody and murderous dictatorship over the poor and colonized. Yes, there are instances of state acts of murder and even terrorism. The liberal democratic state and institutions facilitate private capital accumulation and are structured in ways which seek to repress, diffuse and co-opt alternative political and social movements, but these are mediated by the necessities of legitimating capitalism [my emphasis] The relative power, political ideology and organization of the working class and colonized Indigenous peoples also affect the character of liberal democracy (and in the subordinate strata, there are forms of class differences and other contradictions that also matter). We don’t live in a fascist dictatorship.”’

I will address in another post Mr. Rosenfeld’s trivialization of the brutality and terrorism of the American government in other countries (“instances” makes it look like American murder and terrorism is an isolated event).

Let us limit ourselves to the question of the relevance of Mr. Rosenfeld’s reference to the need for the capitalist state to legitimate the rule of  employers over the daily working lives at work. He separates the diffusion and co-optation of alternative political and social movements from the need for “legitimating capitalism.” However, one of the major ways of “legitimating capitalism” is through diffusing and co-opting alternative political and social movements.

Mathiesen saw this danger to which Mr. Rosenfeld is blind. He calls the state absorbent when it has a refined capacity for neutralizing radical and revolutionary movements and demands. Mathiesen calls being co-opted “being defined in” and being shuffled to the side as irrelevant extremists “being defined out.” He calls “finished” the impossibility of contributing to the overcoming of the economic, political and social structures that characterize the dominance of the class of employers. Page 252:

The strongly absorbent late capitalist society has in fact managed, by the process of defining in, to absorb large parts of the Left into political work of a structure maintaining kind, while at the same time, through the process of defining out, it has managed to neutralize the remaining part of the Left as so-called extremists. By an interchange of the forces which define in and define out, on the one hand, and internal organizational reactions to these forces on the other, the parties of the Left have to a large degree either become ossified organizations which are defined in, or ossified organizations which are defined out. In any case they are, in our sense, finished.

Mr. Rosenfeld, however, fails to distinguish between reforms that form part of a movement to abolish a social institution and specific social relations and reforms that emerge as co-opted and that do not lead to questioning the oppressive and exploitative social institutions and social relations characteristic of the society in which we live.

Thus, Mr. Rosenfeld accuses Mr. Wilt of advocating immediate revolution–as if that is the only alternative:

Is he saying that reforms do not matter and that short of an immediate social revolution, nothing can change?

Abolitionists will take any reform that improves the lives of working-class communities–but there is a condition attached to such a view. Reforms that limit the capacities of workers and community members to think and act critically to oppressive and exploitative social relations and social institutions, without any positive change, are regressive. But most reforms can be simultaneously defended and criticized if some aspects are positive, while other aspects are regressive., such as the movement for a $15 minimum wage, which in Canada is coupled with the concept of fairness. Let us indeed fight for a minimum wage of $15 an hour (and other reforms associated with the movement, such as paid sick leave), but we should never link such a movement with the idea that there is “fairness: in receiving the minimum wage and other needed reforms. Coupling the fight for a minimum wage of $15 with “fairness” freezes the movement–rather than indicating that the achievement of the $15 minimum wage is a temporary resting place (given the balance of class power) that is inherently unfair since the wage system is itself inherently unfair and needs to be abolished. No “minimum wage” that involves the need for workers to work for employers is fair–and the idea of coupling the fight for the $15 minimum wage with the idea of “fairness” must be criticized constantly if any gained reforms are to go beyond contributing to the maintenance of the power of the class of employers.

Thus, Mr. Rosenfeld did not raise any objection to the pairing of a fight for an increase in the minimum wage to $15 an hour with the term “fairness.” I have raised that issue often enough on this blog, and Mr. Rosenfeld had ample opportunity to criticize my position–but he chose not to do so. Why is that? I certainly support an increase in the minimum wage and other “reforms,” but they should never limit the capacities of workers and community members in their critical questioning of the system characterized by the class of employers.

Mr. Rosenfeld creates a straw person when he asks whether there should be reform or immediate revolution. Calling for abolition does not mean immediate revolution: it means making explicit the need to aim for abolition of an oppressive or exploitative institution from the very beginning. If we do not have the power–for now–to abolish a repressive or exploitative situation, that does not mean that we should not aim to do so  when we have more power. It also does not mean that we should reject all reforms out of hand merely because we cannot, for the moment, abolish the repressive or exploitative institution or social structure.

A further, personal example. I worked as a bilingual library technician at the District Resource Center for School District No. 57 in Prince George, British Columbia, Canada,from 1990-1992 (before I moved to Winnipeg). We had a collective agreement between support staff and the district that was coming up for negotiations. I volunteered to be part of the negotiating team because I wanted to learn about the process first hand (I was also the union steward for the board office). We bargained in the usual way, with a small group of union negotiators engaging in demands in the context of meetings with the negotiating team of the employer.

When our bargaining team was ready to present the results of negotiations to the members, I volunteered to draft the list of demands that we had made in a two-column set of papers, with an x beside the demands that we did not get and a check beside the ones that we did get. The union business manager was obliged to read this out during a public ratification meeting (she, however, noted that my presentation was very negative). When she sent out the ballots for voting to those who were not able to attend (School District No. 57 is a large school district geographically), she only sent out the demands that we obtained. The agreement was ratified.

The point is that I wanted to demonstrate the limitations of collective bargaining (and the corresponding collective agreement) while not rejecting any changes in the collective agreement. Furthermore, the demonstration of the limitation of reforms–or the politics of exposure as Mathiesen calls it–forms an essential element of the politics of abolition. From The Politics of Abolition Revisited, page 143:

Here lies the significance of the exposing or unmasking policy which the
above-mentioned sequence of events illustrates. Let me repeat: By unmasking
the ideology and the myths with which the penal system disguises itself – for
example through political work of the kind described here – a necessary basis
for the abolition of unnecessary and dangerous systems of control is created. The
example illustrates the struggle involved in such a work of exposure. The system
continually tries to adopt new disguises. We must continually try to unveil them.

Given the predominance of social democrats or social reformers–among the left here in Toronto–my prediction is that, unfortunately, the movement for the abolition of the police will be overshadowed by the movement for merely defunding the police. This will, in turn, result in further watering down of such a movement to a form acceptable to economic and political conditions dominated by the class of employers.

However, at least we can expose the limitations of the political position of the social-democratic left or the social-reformist left so that, when further murders by the police arise, we can point out the limitations of their political position and prepare the way for a more adequate politics–a politics of abolition.

I will continue the issue of reform versus abolition of the police in another, later post.

 

 

 

 

 

The Contradictions of Social Democracy: Mr. Gindin’s Musings on the Closure of GM’s Oshawa Plant

The following is a critique of an article written by Sam Gindin before the coronavirus pandemic emerged. It is relevant to the current situation because of the current call for public ownership as a solution to the problems that we face.

 

Mr. Gindin published an article on February 3, 2020, titled Realizing ‘Just Transitions’: The Struggle for Plant Conversion at GM Oshawa. Here Mr. Gindin attempts to criticize, on the one hand, what happened at GM Oshawa (elimination of around 2200 direct jobs when GM closed the auto plant), and on the other to suggest what should be done to prevent such a situation to arise in the future. However, his own social-democratic position, with its implicit assumption of not challenging the power of the class of employers, shines through in the article.

Mr. Gindin claims that GM’s decision to close, among other plants, the GM Oshawa plant left the recently elected Conservative government of Doug Ford “red-faced”:

The response of the federal government, which had used the preservation of jobs to justify giving GM billions in public funds during the financial crisis, was a tepid ‘disappointment’. The provincial government, which had been plastering the province with the slogan ‘Ontario is open for business’ was left red-faced when, as its billboards were going up, GM announced the closing of one of the largest workplaces in the province.

Where is there evidence that the Ford government was embarrassed at all? The idea of “open for business” includes the idea that, in the competitive struggle for survival, corporations will sometimes close down. The obverse side of “open for business” is–“closed for business.” Corporations are free to decide to open and close doors as they see fit–such is the nature of neoliberalism. Or is that not so?

Mr. Gindin then criticizes Ms. Dias, head of Unifor (which represented the workers at GM Oshawa):

Nor did the autoworkers’ union, Unifor, escape its own share of discomfort. Less than two years earlier, its leadership had negotiated lower wages and pensions at GM for new (essentially younger) workers in spite of those workers doing exactly the same job as those beside them. This betrayal of union solidarity was sold to the members as a victory because of its promised retention of jobs. When the closure exposed the job ‘guarantees’ as a sham, the national president reacted with predictable bluster and launched a public relations campaign to shame the corporation into reversing its decision.

Undoubtedly, Mr. Dias would have preferred for the plant not to close. To prevent such an action, Mr. Dias negotiated a collective agreement that involved “lower wages and pensions at GM for new (essentially younger) workers in spite of those workers doing exactly the same job as those beside them.” Mr. Gindin objects to such a negotiated agreement on the basis of “union solidarity.” The principle of union solidarity, it would seem, involves attempting to have all union members who are doing the same job to be treated in the same way. (Note that Mr. Gindin does not refer to “labour solidarity” or “worker solidarity” but “union solidarity.” Mr. Gindin is a friend of–unions. As I argued in another post, he is too close to unions to adequately criticize them. But that just as an aside).

Mr. Gindin then refers to how this “betrayal to union solidarity was sold to the members of a victory because of its promised retention of jobs.” It is of course possible to criticize Mr. Dias and others for sacrificing some workers in exchange for an impossibly guaranteed retention of jobs. However, Mr. Gindin does not explicitly question the power of employers to make decisions that involve closing down plants. Such power forms part of management rights and is often embodied in a management rights clause, implicitly if not explicitly. Why does Mr. Gindin not criticize this fundamental right?

And why does he not criticize the attempt by many unions to “sell” negotiated collective agreements on the basis of “fairness,” “decent work” and so forth? He certainly criticizes Mr. Dias’ attempt to “sell” the betrayal to union solidarity” in relation to the creation of a two-tiered collective agreement–but he nowhere criticizes the implicit or explicit acceptance of unions and negotiating committees to the legitimacy of collective agreements. Union reps often “sell” negotiated collective agreements that need to be ratified to their members by referring to them as “fair contracts”

“We have been trying to negotiate a fair contract for seven months,” said James Nugent, the bargaining team’s chief spokesperson [for CUPE Local 3902, or the Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 3902]. “We’ve been fighting for better learning conditions for our students and better working conditions for our members. Last night, our members sent us back to the bargaining table to keep fighting for those things, and that’s what we intend to do.”

Union reps often try to “sell” this ideology of “fair contracts” to their members. Why does not Mr. Gindin criticize this ideology and not just the ideology of two-tiered contracts? What happens if a collective agreement does not have a two-tiered provision? Does that then make it a “fair contract?” Mr. Gindin is silent over the issue–as are union reps. Why this silence?

Mr. Gindin then has a section that outlines an alternative:

Toward an Alternative

A small group of rank and file Oshawa workers and retirees understood that far more was needed; both logic and history suggested that appealing to GM to rethink their cold calculations was naïve. They joined with other community allies, including the Durham Labour Council and supporters from the Toronto-based Socialist Project, to establish Green Jobs Oshawa. Its mandate was to explore and organize around other possibilities for the Oshawa facility.

A problem already arises. I am ignorant of the specific nature of the Durham Labour Council, but the Toronto and York Region Labour Council does not call into question the legitimacy of the power of employers as a class; rather, it presupposes such legitimacy (John CartWright, president of the Council, refers to “economic justice”–implicitly referring to collective agreements. See my post  Ontario Looks Right–With Some Help From the “Left” ). I have criticized  as well some of the views expressed by the Steering Committee of the Socialist Project (see The Socialist Project’s Critique of Doug Ford’s Attack on Local Democracy Falls Short).

But let us proceed:

Four perspectives drove their ambitious proposal. First, GM was the problem, not the solution.

Yes, GM is a problem and not the solution–but it is not just GM that is the problem but the power of employers as a class, of which GM is only one example. Defining the problem only in terms of a particular employer is a typical social-democratic trick of focusing on one “bad” employer rather than the class of employers. Already, looking at alternatives seems limited.

Let us continue:

Second, expecting to compete in the market with China, Mexico or plants in the American south was no answer. It would only reproduce past pressures on wages and working conditions, past insecurities and past failures. Third, any alternative would need to introduce a product with special social significance. And fourth, the issue was not just jobs but retaining Canada’s manufacturing capacities.

Seeking an alternative product that would prevent competition with other workers in the same kind of market is certainly to be preferred. As for “a product with special social significance,” this issue is connected to the following:

The Oshawa facility could then be converted to assembling fleets of electric vehicles. The sale of these vehicles was to depend not on market competition, but a social plan based on direct government purchases of the products the government had invested in. The fleet vehicles involved would range from electric post office vans (as recommended earlier by the Canadian Union of Postal Workers) to hydro-electric vans, newly designed school buses, ambulances and police cars. With that base, the plant could also produce electric cars for individual consumers and, depending on how much space remained available, add other environmentally-related products.

The government would provide the bulk of demand for the output, with individual consumers making up any needed demand so that the Oshawa facility could be fully utilized (GM had identified under-utilization of the capacity of the plant as a major reason for its closing).

The government as the major consumer would also be the major owner:

In line with this outlook, Green Jobs Oshawa called on the federal government – or the municipal government with substantial financial and technical support from the feds – to take over the land and equipment idled by GM.

The government would then become both the employer and the major consumer. This solution may certainly have retained the jobs–but would not have changed the use of workers as things by government. Merely because the government is the employer does not prevent workers from being exploited and oppressed (see The Money Circuit of Capital).

Why did Green Jobs Oshawa not call on the government to take over the plant while concentrating decision-making power over the plant with the workers who worked there? Why did it not call into question the power of employers to make decisions at all that can affect the lives of many workers and the community–investment decisions? Why not use the GM shut down as an example of the dictatorial power of employers? Why this focus on the government as the saviour rather than the workers and the community?

Green Jobs Oshawa, rather, tried to evade this central issue:

The message was that jobs, the environment, and the industrial capacities for conversion and restructuring are inseparable. From that perspective, saving Oshawa was not an end point but a beginning and an example to build on.

Jobs, the environment and the industrial capacities for conversion are not just inseparable. To adequately address them, it is necessary to address the power of employers as a class, the infinite movement of capital (see  The British Labour Party’s 2019 Manifesto: More Social Democracy and More Social Reformism, Part One) and the social and political structures that go with them.

The next section of the article is titled “Frustration and Persistence.” Mr. Gindin outlines what he believes is the cause of workers’ skepticism concerning such an alternative:

Frustration and Persistence

Green Jobs Oshawa developed a website, distributed leaflets to workers, held educationals and public forums in Oshawa and Toronto, organized petitions, commissioned a widely respected professional feasibility study confirming its case, received sympathetic attention in the press and gave numerous media interviews. Yet the committee couldn’t generate the necessary level of support, starting with the workers themselves.

The workers in Oshawa were frustrated and angry, but anger doesn’t necessarily translate into activism. Having experienced the steady drip-drip decline of the Oshawa complex, having recently suffered demoralizing defeats after defeats in bargaining, and now seeing the final end of vehicle assembly in the city, workers had shifted to survival mode. In that state of mind, most workers, it seemed, had simply stopped even thinking about possibilities. Nor was it unusual for workers to guard against hope creeping into their consciousness; risking the pain of once more seeing hopes dashed made even hope something to willfully avoid.

Though workers contacted by Green Jobs Oshawa generally considered the proposals on conversion as sensible, this was trumped by their skepticism of ‘sensible’ driving economic and political decisions. Critical here was the role of the union. As frustrated as workers were with the union, they still looked to its structures and resources for leadership, especially given the radical nature of the alternative proposed. But with both the national and local leadership not interested in and even hostile to an alternative, it was no surprise that workers were lukewarm to committing to a fight for a long-shot alternative.

Important here, as well, were the limits of the environmental movement. Environmentalists have most impressively raised public awareness of the looming environmental catastrophe. Yet they have been far less successful in getting the mass of working people on side. Two inter-related problems stand out. First, the promise of a ‘just transition’ is well-meaning but unconvincing to workers; workers rightly ask how such a commitment could be met in a society driven by competition and private profits. Second, with the environmental movement generally absent from workers struggles, developing ‘awareness’ could only go so far.

Workers have been indoctrinated from school to accept the power of employers to make decisions over their lives (as I show in a series of posts on indoctrination in schools via the silence of the Canadian history curriculum over the historical emergence of employers and employees. See, for example,     ). Various organizations and activities reinforce such indoctrination (union ideology of “fair contracts,” “decent work,” social organizations that deal with oppressing people in various ways (child and family services, social assistance, collection agencies, courts and the like). To counteract such indoctrination, it would be necessary to engage systematically in a critique of such indoctrination–but Mr. Gindin does not believe that such a systematic and engaged critique is necessary (otherwise, he would have engaged in such criticism when the opportunity presented itself in relation to pairing the fight for a minimum wage of $15 an hour with the idea of “fairness”).

The skeptical attitude of workers in relation to their own capacities for controlling their lives in the face of multiple forms of indoctrination and oppression is understandable, but Mr. Gindin ignores such indoctrination and oppression in practice.

The final section is called “Green Jobs Oshawa Lives On.” Mr. Gindin states what he thinks has and has not been accomplished in the Green Jobs Oshawa” campaign and what should be done:

Green Jobs Oshawa Lives On

Measured by its ability to keep the Oshawa facility humming, Green Jobs Oshawa was not successful; today, no more vehicles are being assembled in Oshawa. But measured by their work in placing a vital but largely ignored issue on the agenda – the steady loss of the productive capacity we will need to reconstitute the environment – brings a more encouraging conclusion.

 

Though the Oshawa facility is now quiet, the battle to revive it, with all its noise and productive bustle, continues. The facility still has waiting assembly lines, a body shop, a paint shop, and 10 million square feet of space. In Oshawa and nearby, there is no shortage of workers anxious to apply their too often underestimated skills, suppliers with flexible tooling capacities, and young engineers leaving university anxious to apply their knowledge to developing socially useful products. Green Jobs Oshawa continues to send out material and speak at events, making connections and spreading the urgent discussion of possibilities.

Workers – with the support of their union leadership where possible, on their own if that leadership is not sympathetic – should be setting up committees to consider the future of their workplaces and holding meetings to discuss the plant occupations, nationalizations and conversions in other cities facing major manufacturing shutdowns.

The Canadian Labour Congress should be supporting and coordinating such initiatives with its own research and also joining with the environmental movement to take the initiatives further. A significant step would be to lobby for a National Conversion Agency with the authority and financial and technical resources to intervene when plant closures occur or seem imminent.

Provincial federations of labour could focus on the environmental particularities of their own regions as, for example, the Alberta Federation of Labour has started to do in addressing how the inevitable transition away from oil could be economically and socially managed. This could include lobbying to establish local tech-enviro centers populated by the hundreds of young engineers mentioned above. Alongside coming up with possibilities for local conversion and development, they could contribute to spreading understanding to the community of what we face and what needs to be done.

For private sector workers, the crucial fact is that environmental pressures will require transforming everything about how we live, work, travel, and use our leisure time. Such a massive and unprecedented undertaking (the conversions entering and exiting World War II come closest) can, if done right, mean not a loss of jobs but a shortage of workers trying to meet society’s ‘regular’ needs and the demands of environmental reconstruction.

As for the public sector, the growing acceptance that environmental limits translate into limiting individual consumption in the developed countries leads to a greater emphasis on collective consumption. We are on the cusp of having to urgently redefine what we mean by ‘abundance’ and to place greater value on retrieving our time, leisure, social services (health, education), collective goods (public transit, libraries), and public spaces (sports, music, arts, parks) – a reorientation, that is, to the expansion of the public sector and public sector jobs.

Finally, for environmentalists, truly addressing the scale of what must be done means moving from a vague anti-capitalism to an aggressive – and confident – call for democratic planning and its corollary of fundamentally challenging corporate property rights. And addressing how to implement such policies, requires bringing the mass of workers on side to both the environmental necessities and to the overcoming of capitalism. This can only begin with actively supporting the defensive struggles of workers with the goal of linking them, as Green Jobs Oshawa has tried to do, to those larger issues of conversion and democratic planning in the shaping of the world to come.

In short, the issue is not simply a matter of bringing the environmental movement and the labour movement together; each must be transformed if the sum is to be more than the currently limited parts. The environmental movement must raise itself to a new level by concretely engaging the working class, and the labour movement must escape what, for it, has become an existential crisis. The threats and opportunities of the environmental crisis offer a chance for labour revival, but only if this incorporates a renewed approach to organizing, struggle, radical politics, and the maximization of informed membership participation. •

Mr. Gindin follows the British Labour Party, in its Manifesto, by jumping on the bandwagon of environmentalism–rather than focusing on criticizing the power of employers as a class (which would involve criticizing union ideology of “fair contracts,” “decent work,” “fair collective bargaining,” and the like) , first, and then linking that issue to environmental issues (see my post  The British Labour Party’s 2019 Manifesto: More Social Democracy and More Social Reformism, Part One). Mr. Gindin only near the end of this section does Mr. Gindin address this issue:

Finally, for environmentalists, truly addressing the scale of what must be done means moving from a vague anti-capitalism to an aggressive – and confident – call for democratic planning and its corollary of fundamentally challenging corporate property rights.

But earlier, Mr. Gindin claims the following is the key issue:

But measured by their work in placing a vital but largely ignored issue on the agenda – the steady loss of the productive capacity we will need to reconstitute the environment

The deindustrialization of the advanced capitalist countries–is that really more important than another issue that has been “largely ignored”–the power of employers as a class? Which should the left focus on? And if we focus on the power of employers as a class, should we not criticize the ideology of many unions, which often try to sell the results of collective bargaining as a “fair contract?”

Frankly, Mr. Gindin’s approach fails to see the need for a rigorous and persistent struggle against those who justify collective agreements with such phrases. The same applies to other social movements who refer to “fairness” and the like. We need to use every opportunity to oppose such indoctrination.

Mr.Gindin, however, argues only for the positive side in the following:

Workers – with the support of their union leadership where possible, on their own if that leadership is not sympathetic – should be setting up committees to consider the future of their workplaces and holding meetings to discuss the plant occupations, nationalizations and conversions in other cities facing major manufacturing shutdowns.

To set up committees that are more than paper committees, it would be necessary to deal with the limitations of unions, collective bargaining and collective agreements while recognizing that collective agreements do provide some real protection for workers. If workers merely set up committees without engaging seriously in debate over the pros and cons of collective bargaining and collective agreements, then such committees will likely be isolated from the needs and interests of workers.

It is interesting that Mr. Gindin engages in abstract moralizing when referring to what the Canadian Labour Congress (an organization of affiliated unions that represent over three million Canadian workers) ‘ought or should do’:

The Canadian Labour Congress should be supporting and coordinating such initiatives with its own research and also joining with the environmental movement to take the initiatives further.

Another inadequacy of Mr. Gindin’s approach can also be seen from the above quote. Hegel, a German philosopher, saw through such empty phrases as “ought to” or “should” long ago (from the Encyclopedia Logic, page 30):

… the understanding, which regards its dreams (L e., its abstractions) as something genuine, and is puffed up about the “ought” that it likes to prescribe, especially in the political field-as if the world had had to wait for it, in order to learn how it ought to be, but is not. If the world were the way it ought to be, what then would become of the pedantic wisdom of the understanding’s “ought to be”?

This does not mean that we should not engage in wishing for what ought to be, but that what ought to be should be grounded in what is the case. What is the nature of the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC)? Is it realistic to believe that the CLC would ‘support and coordinate’ such initiatives? See my criticism of the position of the president of the CLC, Hassan Yussuff, in The Canadian Labour Congress’s Idealization of the Collective-Bargaining Process.  Would it not be better to engage in criticism of the CLC–what it is, how it operates and so forth?

There are other problems with this last section. Reference to “democratic planning” clashes with the call for the government (a capitalist government) to operate as employer. How is there democratic planning when the government is the employer? This is to idealize the government and the public sector. This idealization also is expressed in the following:

As for the public sector, the growing acceptance that environmental limits translate into limiting individual consumption in the developed countries leads to a greater emphasis on collective consumption. We are on the cusp of having to urgently redefine what we mean by ‘abundance’ and to place greater value on retrieving our time, leisure, social services (health, education), collective goods (public transit, libraries), and public spaces (sports, music, arts, parks) – a reorientation, that is, to the expansion of the public sector and public sector jobs.

This uncritical reference to the “public sector”–as if working for the government were somehow not subject to exploitation and oppression–is typical of social democrats. So too is Mr. Gindin’s one-sided reference to challenging “corporate property rights” without challenging the power of the state as a capitalist state, on the one hand, and as an employer, on the other. Again, see the money circuit of capital link above for a critique of this view.

 

 

 

 

What’s Left, Toronto? Part Two

As I indicated in an earlier post, on September 19, 2018, several leftist activists gave a talk about what was to be done in the city of Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The talks were posted on the Socialist Project website on October 7, 2018 (What’s Left, Toronto? Radical Alternatives for the City Election). As I indicated in my earlier post,  over the next few months, I will be analyzing some or all of the talks from a Marxian perspective.

The first talk is by Dan Karasik, an activist in the movement for the fight for $15. He claims that the goal now is to hold on to the gains that have been made through the passing of Bill 148 (reform of employment law, which introduced a number of employment laws beneficial to unorganized workers and increased the minimum wage to $14 an hour as of January 1, 2018 and was scheduled to increase as of January 1, 2019). In the short term, such a goal is of course realistic; organized opposition to the class of employers will not occur overnight.

However, Dan likely overestimates, like much of the social-reformist left, the immediate potentiality for radicalizing sections of the working class in terms of the immediate conditions prior to an election. He claims that a radicalization of working-class politics can occur because of the elections. Alternatively, his definition of radical politics is social-reformist and is radical only in relation to Doug Ford’s immediate political position. Both likely share similar positions concerning the necessity of the class of employers (see my earlier post about a social reformist who claims that the fight for $15 is indeed fair, Social-Reformist Leftist Activists Share Assumptions with the Right).

Dan argues that Doug Ford is a populist who was elected the premier of Ontario, Canada, in June 2018 in part to represent “the people,” with a substantial part of the people, according to Dan, expecting Doug Ford to maintain the provisions set out in Bill 148. With the Ontario Chamber of Commerce calling on the Ontario government to completely repeal the Bill, the mood among the social-reformist left has shifted from being celebratory to a mood characterized by a mood characterized by increasing jitters Nevertheless, there is now a space for radicalization since the fight for $15 and what Dan still calls “fairness” potentially has done is to open up a struggle amongst racialized and gendered sections of the working class since minimum wage jobs in Toronto are predominantly filled by racialized and gendered members of the working class–should Ford ultimately decide to follow the recommendations of the Ontario Chamber of Commerce.

Although there may indeed may be some space for organizing along these lines, Dan at no time indicated what he meant by radical politics. Somehow the false promise of Doug Ford to represent “the people” is to magically transform racialized and gendered working-class members into radicals.

Dan never gets around to indicating what he means by “radical politics,” let alone “radical working-class politics.” Since he never does question pairing the term “Fight for $15” with the term “fairness,” his radical politics probably is defined entirely within the limits of the social-reformist left’s definition of radical politics–social reforms that in no way question the power of employers as a class. The questioning of such power is implicitly “off the agenda.”  See several of my posts for criticisms of the positions of politics of the social-reformist left.

Dan briefly referred to the situation of capital and labour in Toronto–without stating anything further. What is the situation of capital and labour in Toronto? When I was a member of the Toronto Labour Committee (with Sam Gindin, Herman Rosenfeld and Paul Gray practically being the leaders), I proposed  a class analysis of Toronto (but indicated that I did not really know how to go about doing that–although I was willing to learn–I was involved in another project in gathering data pertaining to the ruling class analysis in Toronto, but it could not really be considered directly related to the ruling class, but perhaps to the class of self-employed and small to middle-sized employers–but that would have required more refined tools than those used). The response was–silence.

So, what is the situation of capital and labour in Toronto? You would not be able to tell at all from anything Dan had to say. (Perhaps someone can refer me to recent articles and books on the subject? I would definitely appreciate it.)

In general, Dan’s talk refers to a radical politics, but it really contains very little in the way of specifying what that may mean. The audience is left to “fill in” what that may mean. Since the moderator already filled in part of it by referring to “decent work,” (see an earlier post), it is highly probable that Dan’s radical politics really means more of the same social-reformist politics that has been circulating since the employer class went on the offensive in the 1970s. In essence, this radicalism wants to return to a renewed welfare state, with social housing, enhanced unemployment benefits, improved welfare benefits, reductions in austerity, reformed employment laws and so forth. Such a politics, however, has no intention, though, of questioning the legitimacy of the power of employers to dictate to workers. That is not on the agenda.

It certainly was not mentioned by Dan at all. Such is the radical space left untouched in the first talk in the series.

What’s left, Toronto? So far, social-reformism and the acceptance of the power of employers as a class.

 

What’s Left, Toronto? Part One

On September 19, 2018, several leftist activists gave a talk about what was to be done in the city of Toronto. It was posted on the Socialist Project website on October 7, 2018 (What’s Left, Toronto? Radical Alternatives for the City Election) Over the next few months, I will be analyzing some or all of the talks from a Marxian perspective.

Before looking at the diverse talks, though, I will reiterate in this post a point that I have already addressed in some other posts since the moderator of the talks, Herman Rosenfeld, brought the issue up again. He mentions “decent, secure jobs with decent pay.” Why any self-declared socialist feels compelled to declare, at this stage of capitalism, to pair the term “decent” with “jobs” and “decent” with “pay” other than fear of alienating his social-reformist allies or due to opportunism is beyond me.

Working for an employer by human beings is indecent–period. The justification for such a view is given in   The Money Circuit of Capital.  The same could be said of pay. Human beings are used as things when working for employers–whether they receive high or low pay, and whether they have a secure or precarious job.

Of course, it would be better to have secure jobs than precarious jobs, and it would of course be better to receive more pay than less pay. To deny that would be foolish. But to use such terms as “decent” is itself absurd when there is a claim to be “radical.” This is not radical–it is social reformism–and nothing more. The implication is that somehow the good life can be achieved within the limits of a society characterized by domination by a class of employers.

For instance, it is likely that the radical left has remained silent while Pam Frache, an organizer for the Workers’ Action Centre in Toronto who has been involved in the fight for the $15 minimum wage and other reforms of employment law, has recently stated the following in reaction to Doug Ford’s legislative attack on Bill 148, which provides for various employment law reforms, including the proposed minimum wage of $15 an hour as of January 1, 2019 in Ontario, a province in Canada:

“The law is the law, and as it stands, nearly 2 million workers are scheduled to get a raise in 11 weeks,” says Pam Frache, Coordinator of Fight for $15 & Fairness Campaign. “Every single day we encounter people who tell us they voted for Premier Ford because they thought his promise to be ‘for the people’ meant standing up to corporate elites, like Galen Weston and Rocco Rossi. Repealing Bill 148 now would be a slap in the face of many workers who voted for Premier Ford,” she added.

The law is the law? Really? Does that mean that the working class is supposed to respect the law? Does that mean that Pam Frache proposes that all workers subject to collective agreements follow orders according to management rights (see  Management Rights, Part One: Private Sector Collective Agreement, British Columbia,   Management Rights, Part Two: Public Sector Collective Agreement, OntarioManagement (Employer) Rights, Part Three: Public Sector Collective Agreement, ManitobaManagement Rights, Part Four: Private Sector Collective Agreement, Ontario) and agree to being treated as things to be used? That they should respect the law?

There are ways of defending workers’ power through law without defending law as such. For example, it could have been said that Bill 148 limits the power of employers to exploit and oppress workers and permits workers some increased freedom and should therefore be defended not because it is law as such but because precisely of what it permits. To claim that “The law is the law” ties workers to employers’ power and is hardly in the interest of the working class since the legal system is geared towards the power of employers as a class. The same reasoning could be used to defend signing a collective agreement (but union reps sometimes idealize union agreements by referring, as did Pam Frache, to the sanctity of the law: “The law is the law,” after all–as if human beings are supposed to exist for the laws and laws are not supposed to exist for human beings.)

The radical left had the opportunity to question Pam Frache’s ideology at a forum on $15 and “Fairness.” She was a member of the audience and had her hand raised and was acknowledged by the chair of the forum, Sean Smith. Pam spoke for perhaps 10 minutes. I raised my hand perhaps four time to ask a question about pairing the fight for $15 with the term “fairness”–and was not acknowledged. However, Herman was present in the audience  (as was Sam Gindin), and he did not raise the issue.

Already, one wonders what is indeed left in Toronto when the moderator introduces such reformist rhetoric into his introduction. On the eve of the Toronto elections, the Toronto “left” are already proving themselves to be afraid to question social-reformist rhetoric.

Next month, I will look at one of the talks in the series.