The Poverty of Academic Leftism, Part Four: The Myth of Creating Socialist Spaces

Professor Noonan, an academic leftist, argues that the Nemak return to work provides lessons for the left. Indeed, it does–but unfortunately he fails to draw further lessons from the situation.

He says the following:

As regards work, the structural dependence on paid employment is what makes people working class. This structural dependence is what, above all, democratic socialism would overcome. However, it cannot be ended overnight, but until it is ended workers’ short term struggles are always in danger of becoming victims of wars of attrition. The capitalists, with the law typically on their side, can wait workers out or bleed their resources dry (Unifor was facing fines of 25 000 dollars a day and individual officers 1000 dollars per day). Overcoming the dependence requires long term struggle, but dependence means that your ability to survive without the work you are refusing to do is time-sensitive in the extreme.

Given the claim that the capitalists have “the law typically on their side,” should not the conclusion be drawn that the law as such should be criticized? That reference to “fair contracts” and “decent work” which trade union representatives often express, should be criticized? Professor Noonan remains silent about this. Why is that?

Should not union training include, systematically, the bias of law in relation to workers’ interests? Does it? Should that lack of inclusion of a critique of the bias of law be itself criticized?

He further writes:

There are three general sorts of changes. On the one hand, there are concessions which are made in order to return the situation to normal. This sort of concessions appears to be all that Nemak has offered. At the other extreme, there are revolutionary changes which would create completely new social institutions. It is easy to find abstract arguments that contend that no major social contradiction can be resolved without revolutionary changes. It is much more difficult to find concrete arguments that are powerful enough to actually mobilise revolutionary forces. The key problem here is that no one can say with any certainty how a new society would work (beyond general assurances that it would solve everything because it would be the opposite of this society).

Professor Noonan then dismisses both possibilities:

If concessions do not address the problem and a progressive revolution is not in the offing in the foreseeable future, [my emphasis]  hope must be invested in a third possibility: smaller scale structural changes that create space and time for for deeper and wider changes in an unfolding process of transformative social change. How is that to happen if workers cannot survive outside of paid employment (or its social benefit equivalent) for long enough to survive for the long-term? The answer is to struggle for changes to the nature of employment. The Nemak crisis, and the analogous crisis in Oshawa offer opportunities for just these sorts of demands.

The reference to “progressive revolution” is dismissed because it is not possible in the foreseeable future. What does that mean? That substantial changes in class relations will arise in the short-term is undoubtedly unlikely. However, Professor Noonan performs a sleight of hand by shifting the future to some far off horizon. This is the method of social reformers of various persuasions–they shift radical change to the distant future rather than seeing than any radical change will always have to begin in the present. Carl Weathers, in his role as Apollo Creed, told Rocky in the movie Rocky III: “There is no tomorrow.” All progress will always have to begin in the present–but as John Dewey, the educational philosopher and logician pointed out, the present is a moving present.

It may appear that Professor Noonan does indeed include the future in the present by struggling “for changes to the nature of employment.” Let us look at what Professor Noonan has to say on this score.

He says:

GM Workers in Oshawa are being subjected to the same loss of their factory as Nemak workers in Windsor. Like Nemak workers, the GM workers did not meekly accept the GM decision, but instead fought back. They have won a concession (which is nevertheless a victory and another good lesson): the company will consider using a small fraction of the space and workforce to produce parts. But there are other ideas which, while bold, are not impossible within existing institutions. However, if they were realised [my emphasis]  they would point beyond existing institutions towards new models of public ownership and workers’ control incompatible with the logic of capitalism. At the same time, since they are realizable here and now they do not depend upon a “revolutionary break” for which the required social and political forces do not exist.

In response to the Oshawa closing, Sam Gindin urged the CAW leadership to go beyond negotiations to work on the transformation of the plant into a publicly owned and worker-controlled facility for the production of electric vehicles. Markets would be initially guaranteed by government contract. Financing and start up costs would also require government support that is impossible to imagine with a capitalist party in power, but not impossible to imagine with a worker friendly government (an NDP radicalised by the threat of a election drubbing?) Instead of treating capitalism as a fixed and final reality that workers must either accept today or overthrow tomorrow, it works in the spaces created by democratic institutions and norms to find means of inserting an anti-capitalist principle and practice into the heart of the system. It shows that there are real alternatives to survival and creative activity than capitalist labour markets that can be realised right now, creating the time we need to fundamentally transform society by expanding non-capitalist employment spaces. Short term dependence on paid capitalist employment is reduced by people putting themselves to work in a non-capitalist firm. The system is not transformed, but a living alternative is created that serves as a real, not text book example, that another world is possible.

It is certainly necessary to propose ideas that “point beyond existing institutions towards new models of public ownership and workers’ control incompatible with the logic of capitalism.” Are there not, however, conditions for such ideas to be realizable in practice?

In the crisis situation in Oshawa, it may be that workers are more prone to accept solutions that point beyond existing social conditions. However, in a crisis situation, without prior preparation, it may well be that workers will grab at solutions that protect their own immediate interests at the expense of longer-term interests. It may also be that workers’ interests can more easily be divided so that the employer can take advantage of such splits. To counter such possibilities, it is necessary to prepare workers beforehand.

Thus, has their been adequate criticism of the structure of authority at the Oshawa plant? Has there been discussions about democratic control at work? Or have the workers there been constantly indoctrinated with the view that their work is “decent work?” That the collective agreement was a “fair contract?” That they received “fair wages?” That the power of an employer to close a workplace is “fair?” As I argued in another post, was there a critique of collective bargaining beforehand in order to prepare workers for going beyond the collective agreement? Or was there silence over the legitimacy of collective agreements? If so, would that not lead to confusion among many workers? If so, does such confusion not tell against the formulation of any consistent policy towards the large number of workers who will lose their jobs at the GM Oshawa plant?

Another relevant point here is how Professor Noonan speaks of “creating spaces”: the space was not created by the workers but by the employer (the decision to close the Oshawa plant). The workers reacted to this decision. It would have been much more intelligent to criticize the union ideology systematically beforehand rather than feeding into the union ideology of “decent work” and “fair contracts.” Did Mr. Gindin engage in such criticism? Or was he afraid to do so out of fear of alienating union representatives?

Furthermore, Professor Noonan relies on another sleight-of-hand by slipping in the fantasy that the New Democratic Party (NDP) would somehow magically turn into “a worker friendly government (an NDP radicalised by the threat of a election drubbing.” Like Professor Noonan’s logic in relation to the so-called harmonious interests of workers at the University of Windsor where he works and the management of that university, he assumes what he must prove: How the NDP can be converted into a “worker friendly government” under conditions of an economy dominated by a class of employers. The NDP and union representatives may think they are “worker friendly,” but they also share the same beliefs as their center and right-wing counterparts: the legitimacy of the employer-employee relation. The NDP may indeed enable workers to organize more easily and institute certain social reforms that may benefit workers more when compared to other political parties, but that does not make them “worker friendly.” They are more “worker friendly” than the other major political parties, but that is all. This does not magically convert them into a “worker friendly” political party. (Nonetheless, I am seriously thinking of voting for the NDP in the upcoming federal election on October 21, 2019 since their policies–such as a definite 360 hours of working for an employer required in order to be eligible for unemployment insurance as opposed to the current 720 for regular workers and 910 hours for beginning workers–are more specific than the vague guaranteed livable income, for example, proposed by the Green Party. Such vagueness can be transformed into minimal changes in income.)

Finally, it is typical of the academic left (and Sam Gindin falls in that category for, despite not being an academic technically, he shares many of their beliefs) that they avoid “creating spaces” in their own immediate environment. What, for example, did Mr. Gindin do to “create spaces” during his long stint as research director for the Canadian Auto Workers union? Did he try to create spaces that could “point beyond existing institutions towards new models of public ownership and workers’ control incompatible with the logic of capitalism?”

What of Professor Noonan? Does he try to create spaces that could “point beyond existing institutions towards new models of public ownership and workers’ control incompatible with the logic of capitalism” where he works? Might that not threaten his own livelihood?

Middle-class academics who are sympathetic to workers’ situation could provide welcome skills (such as research skills) to workers. However, they often lack the passion and emotions involved in real struggles for power: as Aaron Schutz, in his book Social Class, Social Action,  and Education: The Failure of Progressive Democracy points out:

But then, as Alinsky repeatedly pointed out, middle-class people were
pretty comfortable already. It did not really matter that much to them,
in concrete ways, whether anyone actually listened or not as long as they
had their say—in academic publications, for example. Their children were
unlikely to suffer much as a result. Near the end of his life, however, Alinsky
turned to efforts to organize the middle class, increasingly convinced that
those on the bottom needed allies from the middle if they were ever to generate
enough power to foster the change they needed and that the middle
class would also benefit if they learned to organize.

Middle-class leftists in Toronto and surrounding areas, as far as I can see, not only do not engage in some of the preparatory work necessary to enable workers for struggles that “would point beyond existing institutions towards new models of public ownership and workers’ control incompatible with the logic of capitalism,” but go out of their way to oppose such preparatory work.

Before the announcement by GM of the plant closing in Oshawa, Mr. Gindin met with some workers from the plant. I did not accompany Mr. Gindin to Oshawa , but his preliminary account of a meeting between him (and, I believer, Herman Rosenfeld) and some workers at Oshawa did not go very well; it might have been a problem of logistics or some other problem, but I doubt that there was any real discussion of the limits of the present arrangement of employers controlling the conditions of life (the factory) of the workers in Oshawa (and elsewhere). Mr. Gindin, out of fear of alienating workers, probably did not bring up the systemic issue of the power of the class of employers and how that power plays itself out in various domains.

Furthermore, Professor Noonan fails to justify his assumption that worker cooperatives somehow magically provide “a living alternative is created that serves as a real, not text book example, that another world is possible.” Cooperatives have existed in the past and exist in the present, but to argue that they somehow automatically provide a living example of an alternative is quite debatable. How does Professor Noonan justify his assumption? He does not.

Even if the GM Oshawa plant were nationalized and turned into a worker cooperative, there is no basis for assuming that there would be a magical transformation that would point towards a society within a different logic from the logic of capitalism.

Mondragon, a large set of cooperatives in the Basque region in Spain, may inspire some to seek alternatives–but then again it may not. This requires research. One author certainly questions whether Mondragon provides “a living alternative.” Sharyn Kashmir, in her book The Myth of Mondragon: Cooperatives, Politics, and Working-Class Life in a Basque Town, provides a different assessment of cooperatives. For example, she quotes a worker at Mondragon (page 122):

Begofia was in her late twenties and had been a member of one of the
Fagor co-ops since she was eighteen years old. She had always worked on the
assembly line. Over dinner, she told me that she felt exploited at work, “just
like any worker in any firm . ”

“What about the fact that you share ownership of the firm ?” I asked.
“It means nothing to me” she replied. Begofia also said she felt “apathetic
” about the governance of the cooperative. “I only go to the annual meetings
of the General Assembly because it’s required. Everybody goes because
they have to. If we didn’t have to, we wouldn’t go.” What she resented more
than anything was being told that she was participating in managing the cooperative
and that “it is your firm .”

As Begofia spoke, I began to hear the words “participate,” “cooperate,”
and “your firm” in a new way ; listening to her, they sounded imposing.
Had I gotten the sense that Begofia was alone in her feelings, I would not have
taken her complaints so seriously. However, she continually spoke for her fellow
workers, implying that her experiences of alienation and feeling manipulated
by cooperativist ideology were common . Furthermore, most of those at
dinner had lived their entire lives among cooperators and did not seem surprised
by what she said. To the contrary, they offered anecdotal evidence of instances
of workers’ apathy and frustration that they had heard from friends
and relatives.

This does not mean that there should be no struggle to nationalize the Oshawa plant and to convert it into a worker cooperative. However, such a struggle should explicitly try to link a critique of the power of employers as a class to this particular situation–and to the inadequate solution of nationalization and worker cooperatives in the context of a society dominated by a class of employers.

Worker cooperatives in themselves, as long as they are unconnected to a larger critical movement to supersede the power of a class of employers, will unlikely “point beyond existing institutions towards new models of public ownership and workers’ control incompatible with the logic of capitalism.”

As Minsun Ji points out (‘With or without class: Resolving Marx’s Janus-faced interpretation of worker-owned cooperatives,” Capital & Class, 2019,  page 3):

Among the conditions or factors that might shape the potential of a worker cooperative movement in any given time, the most important for Marx is the manifestation and political mobilization of class consciousness (or the lack thereof ) among cooperative practitioners. In the end, Marx did not so much focus on promoting a certain type of labor organization as being most conducive to transformation (e.g. worker cooperatives or labor unions). Rather, he focused more on the importance of class consciousness within labor organizing, and on the development of radicalized class consciousness among workers, whether through the expansion of labor unions, worker cooperatives, or any other institution of worker empowerment.

In order to become a significant and sustainable challenge to capitalist systems, Marx believed that cooperatives had to grow beyond their small scale and reach capacity to change the mode of production at the national level. To reach this kind of national scale, truly transformational cooperatives would have to become politically natured, and to foster the radical ‘class-consciousness’ of worker members. It is the presence or lack of this focus on developing and mobilizing class consciousness, not the nature of the labor institution itself (i.e. cooperative or union), that Marx believed to most powerfully shape the radical or degenerative tendencies of local forms of labor activism.

Since Mr. Gindin refuses to engage directly with the issue of the power of employers as a class (such as, for example, questioning union rhetoric about “decent jobs,” “fair contracts,” and the like), I predict, as I did before, that the Oshawa plant will not be nationalized and converted into a worker cooperative. Mr. Gindin and company have not done the necessary work to prepare workers to engage in a struggle that seeks to go beyond the class structure.

Even if the Oshawa plant does become worker-owned, it is unlikely to form a space that points “beyond existing institutions towards new models of public ownership and workers’ control incompatible with the logic of capitalism.”

In other words, and contrary to Professor Noonan, for such a strategy to work, it is necessary to start now (and not in some distance future) by querying the class structure. Professor Noonan continually seeks to fly away from the need to question the legitimacy of the class structure from the beginning. Why is that? Perhaps because of his own class situation?

 

 

The Poverty of Academic Leftism, Part Three: Collective Bargaining and the Interests of the Working Class

This is a continuation of a critique of an academic leftist (aka academic historical materialist), the philosopher Jeff Noonan.

Another example of the limitations of Professor Noonan’s analysis is the following
(from Thinkings 4Collected Interventions, Readings, Evocations, 2014-2015,page 10):

And sometimes it is necessary to struggle to protect or extend our rights as workers to help determine our conditions of work.

The context for the statement is Professor Noonan’s defense of workers’ right to strike. The problem with this argument is located in his use of the word “sometimes.” Since order-in-council 1003, enacted in 1944 during the Second World War, workers have not had the right to strike during the terms of a collective agreement in Canada. What happens during the terms of a collective agreement? Workers are generally expected to grieve an order, a procedure and so forth by management but continue to work. Is this something with which Professor Noonan agrees? His use of the word “sometimes” seems to imply that as well as his defense of the right to strike–a right that legally arises only after the expiration of a collective agreement.

But what of the need to struggle during the terms of a collective agreement? It may appear that Professor Noonan is sympathetic to the working class and to socialism, and yet his silence concerning, on the one hand, the general legitimacy of collective agreements in the context of the power of a class of employers and, on the other, his silence concerning the need to engage in struggle during the terms of a collective agreement demonstrate the limitations of his approach.Indeed, the International Workers of the World (IWW) have recognized the need to engage in struggle in various forms, with escalating consequences rather than just the strike; the strike, rather, is a high-end pressure tactic and not generally the first form of tactic to engage in in order to achieve workers’ own ends.

This does not mean that workers will engage in struggle continuously; workers of course need to pick and choose their struggles. However, the defense of the right to strike without any mention of the need to struggle against employers during the term of a collective agreement (and not just in the form of grievances) is a very limited defense of the interests of the working class.

It may seem that Professor Noonan recognizes the limitations of collective bargaining. He says the following (page 11):

Collective bargaining is a difficult process. At its best, it is a rare opportunity for workers to participate in the determination of their conditions of work, rather than simply accept whatever conditions are offered. Collective bargaining allows workers to deliberate together as a democratic body about how they think their work should be organized and compensated and to make their case to the employer. Despite what employers publicly maintain, there is no equality of power. Since employers retain ultimate legal control over the workplace, since they continue to draw full salary during any work stoppage, and since the legislative deck is stacked in their favour, without solidarity, both between members of the bargaining unity and between the bargaining unit and the wider community of labour and concerned citizens, the employer is typically in an advantaged position.

How does “solidarity, both between members of the bargaining unity [unit?] and between the bargaining unit and the wider community of labour and concerned citizens” overcome the power of employers as a class? A particular employer may have to concede relative defeat due to certain favourable conditions of a particular section of the working class, but the fact that workers still have to work for an employer involves “an advantaged position” of employers as a class–including the relatively “disadvantaged” employer.

Further evidence of the inadequacy of Professor Noonan’s position can be seen from the following (page 11):

We have only taken strike votes in the face of protracted impasses at the bargaining table over issues of fundamental importance to the membership.

Professor Noonan is trying to present the Windsor University Faculty Association as being reasonable; it does not engage in needless strike votes but only “over issues of fundamental importance of the membership.” This seems eminently reasonable–except it neglects the management rights clause, implicit or explicit, in collective agreements. What if an issue arises “of fundamental importance” to “the membership” during the term of a collective agreement that is not grievable?

Professor Noonan, further, argues the following (page 12):

Why, then, has bargaining often stretched into the fall? The answer is that both sides have too often brought so many items to the table that it took that long to work through them all in a responsible manner.

Perhaps university professors, who have greater control over what they do, how they do their work, and when they do their work than most other employees, need not bring “so many items to the table,” but the implicit or explicit management rights clause for most employees involves the general power of employers and their representatives, managers, to determine what to do, how to do it and when to do it. It is quite understandable why there are many items on the negotiating table from employees’ point of view–the collective agreement is a limiting document, restricting the power of management to exercise its right as management.

In fact, when I was a member of a negotiating team for Operating Engineers Local 858, Prince George, British Columbia, Canada, I consciously tried to show the workers how many items on the table we had to remove in order to obtain what we obtained by presenting all items desired on the left-hand side of the bargaining bulletin and either an x or check mark on the right-hand side. The union business manager had to present this format to a ratification meeting for those in Prince George (because she had asked me to draft it), but since the bargaining unit extended beyond Prince George, ratification also assumed the form of mail-in ballots. The union business manager changed the format to show only what we won before sending out an information bulletin.

Professor Noonan says, further (page 12):

Nevertheless, despite the nightmares of right-wing pundits, university faculties are not full of rabid leftists chomping at the bit to prosecute the class struggle (there are a few of us still left, but I can assure everyone we are in a small minority). Most faculty members care most about their research and their teaching, they do not want either interrupted by either lockouts or strikes, and most are loath to engage in struggles that might harm the reputation of the institutions in which their own reputations as academics are forged. You really have to push academics hard to anger them enough as a collective to make them want to strike (or a strongly resist an imposed lockout).

Although some or even many or even most university professors may find doing research and teaching meaningful in itself, as you go down the line of jobs, with less and less control and more precarious work, the extent of a job being meaningful probably decreases correspondingly. Even jobs in schools, with some control over pedagogy can be less important than other aspects of the job (such as pay and vacation). Although workers try to find meaning in their work in various ways (in the brewery, for example, some workers would play “ball” with beer bottles when the foremen were not looking), many workers have families and find the work more a means to an end rather than an end in itself. (This is the “decent work” that social democrats and reformers persistently talk about–without discussion–such clichés).

In the context in which Professor Noonan is speaking–a union of university professors–it may make sense to speak of striking as a last ditch effort by them to avoid a strike if at all possible–it makes less sense as the work becomes less and less meaningful. Workers in various sectors (whether public or private) may not like to strike–it interrupts their own lives and makes life difficult in various ways–but even when a collective agreement is signed, they are more prone to strike and engage in covert (and, if necessary, overt) actions that express their treatment as things to be used by employers.

Professor Noonan’s neglect of the relatively privileged status of university professors in relation to other workers leads him to assert the following:

Whether or not it was ever practiced in reality, the principle of collegial self-governance is the goal to which universities should aspire. Unlike for profit businesses, universities do not have owners whose goal is to maximise profits. Instead, all members of the institution– faculty, librarians, learning specialists, lab technicians, students, support workers, and administration have the same goal—the advance of human knowledge and creativity in the widest and most comprehensive sense. If that claim is true, then it should follow that all the groups who together make up the university ought to cooperate (not without respectful disagreement) in the determination of the budgets, policies, rules, and goals that guide the institution’s mission. The best ideas emerge through deliberative and democratic argument—no one group knows best just because of the position they occupy in the hierarchy.

This view is ideology in the worst sense of the term. In a society dominated by employers–including public-sector employers like universities, it is highly unlikely that such workers as “lab technicians, students and support workers” have the same goal–“the advance of human knowledge and creativity in the widest and most comprehensive sense.” Such a view may apply in a socialist organization, but to assume such a situation in universities, which function in a capitalist context, is bound to lead to inadequate policies and theories.

Consider support workers. I worked twice at a university library, once doing my practicum to obtain a library and information technology diploma from the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT) at the University of Calgary main library, in the cataloguing department. At the University of Calgary, I noted that the work situation was characterized by a very hierarchical, top-down power structure. One worker commented that she would prefer a benevolent dictator to a mean one; of course, but why have a dictator at all? At least this worker recognized that there was a dictator–unlike Professor Noonan.

At the University of Manitoba Dafoe Library, the same hierarchy existed, but there was even more repression (including racist oppression). Was “the left” at the University even aware of this? Not that I could see. Has Professor Noonan even inquired about the working conditions of subordinates at the University of Windsor? Has he tried to criticize trade unionists who adopt an ideology of “decent work?”

It is much easier to criticize from afar than near at hand–much less dangerous. Talk of “democracy” that does not threaten one’s own work position is pure rhetoric.

As I wrote in my previous post:

Furthermore, a few privileged sets of workers (such as tenured university professors) may seem to have “decent jobs,” but even that situation has eroded over time. It should not be forgotten that such relatively privileged workers exist in a sea of workers, whether unionized or not, who are things to be used by employers systematically and legally. University professors cannot engage in research, teaching and administrative activities unless there are other workers who produce their food, clothing, cars and so forth.

This division of labour is implied in a poem by one of the most famous poets of Gutemala, Otto Rene Castillo (from Apolitical Intellectuals):

Apolitical Intellectuals

One day
the apolitical
intellectuals
of my country
will be interrogated
by the simplest
of our people.

They will be asked
what they did
when their nation died out
slowly,
like a sweet fire
small and alone.

No one will ask them
about their dress,
their long siestas
after lunch,
no one will want to know
about their sterile combats
with “the idea
of the nothing”
no one will care about
their higher financial learning.

They won’t be questioned
on Greek mythology,
or regarding their self-disgust
when someone within them
begins to die
the coward’s death.

They’ll be asked nothing
about their absurd
justifications,
born in the shadow
of the total lie.

On that day
the simple men will come.

Those who had no place
in the books and poems
of the apolitical intellectuals,
but daily delivered
their bread and milk,
their tortillas and eggs,
those who drove their cars,
who cared for their dogs and gardens
and worked for them,
and they’ll ask:

“What did you do when the poor
suffered, when tenderness
and life
burned out of them?”

Apolitical intellectuals
of my sweet country,
you will not be able to answer.

A vulture of silence
will eat your gut.

Your own misery
will pick at your soul.

And you will be mute in your shame.”

Collective agreements do not exist in a vacuum but form part of interrelated social relations; to exclude such relations when considering the nature and legitimacy of collective agreements is to empty collective agreements of the background conditions which give them meaning in the first place.

The Poverty of Academic Leftism, Part One

I had a short debate with the academic philosopher Jeff Noonan on his blog. I am pasting it here since there was no further reply to my criticisms on his post.

[Jeff’s reply] Hi Fred,
Thanks for the detailed and thoughtful comments. Some brief replies:

[My initial reply]: Some of the above post is dead on, but there are some points that are debatable.

[Jeff’s initial post] “If another equally well-paying job could immediately replace the one they lost, then change would just be that: change, neither better nor worse. But as manufacturing jobs in old plants and industries disappear, they are not replaced with equally good manufacturing jobs in new industries that locate in historical working class communities. Workers suffer.”

[My initial reply] Undoubtedly workers suffer, but it would be more accurate to say that they suffer more. Relatively high-paying jobs do not mean that they do not suffer. Having worked at a brewery for around four years, where the wage was relatively high, I certainly suffered by being treated as a thing for the benefit of employers.

[Jeff’s reply] True enough, I did not intend to supply a complete critique of the problems of work under capitalism, but to speak to the immediate situation on the ground when well-paying jobs are lost.

[Jeff’s initial post] “Localised struggles, on the other hand, while they are demanded by the dignity of the affected workers, cannot succeed. So long as investment decisions are driven by calculations of profitability, and profitability depends on competitive forces, workers in older industries will eventually have to pay the price that creative destruction demands: unemployment and then re-employment in lower paying service industry work.”

[My initial reply] Localised struggles are part and parcel of global struggle.

[Jeff’s reply] Yes, true again: I should have said: isolated and reactive local struggles.
Where else do struggles take place except “locally.” The issue is how such local struggles are handled. If workers consciously link such struggles to a struggle against the class of employers and attempt to link with other workers across industries (and across the private/public divide), then they cannot succeed immediately but do have a better capacity to succeed globally and in the longer term.

[Jeff’s initial post] ” part of the problem with capitalism is that there really is not any one to blame.”

[My initial reply] True in an abstract sense since no particular individuals are responsible for structural conditions that exceed particular individuals. However, three points can be made against such a view. Employers, although they cannot be identified with the structural conditions of capitalism (eliminate all employers and workers themselves still may perform that role structurally) are the immediate set of persons who can be considered responsible agents for those structural conditions.

[Jeff’s reply] True, but changing them does not change anything: case in point: the obsession in the US liberal left today with the gnder and coloiur of the boss: it does not matter to their function as bosses).

[My initial reply] Then there are the direct and obvious ideologues and representatives of the interests of employers. There is also the social-reformist left, who categorically refuse to consider any changes to the present social structure except those that are consistent with the general structure.

[Jeff’s reply] I think we need to forget about revolution/reform as a fundamental and meaningful political difference today and start to think about working out a common agenda of structural change that can take us from where we are to a democratic life-economy (where we need to be) The social-reformist left has problems, but the ‘revolutionary’ left suffers from the problem of not existing as in any sense a meaningful political force, and has no model (save archaic Leninist ideas) about how to build. If nineteenth and early twentieth century ideas about revolution were going to work they would have worked 100 years ago. Historical materialism requires new political thinking in new times. The organizational forms that will attract and unify people have yet to be found. Most times I worry they never will be.

“Reducing that dependence means reducing the social and personal costs of plant closures and job losses.”

[My reply] This statement is consistent with social-reformist positions. See above.

When I was younger, unemployment insurance was 66% of wages and there was no issue of eligibility if you quit or were fired. We workers were less dependent economically on employers in general. That does not mean that we lived in a socialist society.

Admittedly, the context seems to be a socialist economy, but given the predominance of social-reformist thinking among the left these days, to prevent any misinterpretation, it would be necessary to make more explicit the distinction between reducing economic dependence as part and parcel of a larger project of eliminating capitalist relations and reducing economic dependence as the goal of the social-reformist left.

[Jeff’s initial post] “Sadly, imagination does not pay the bills. Hence the political paradox that bedevils all efforts to solve the underlying structural problems that manifest themselves as local tragedies. In order to survive, people are forced to think short term. Desperate times make some prey to the illusions spun by right-wing populists that their problems are due to political enemies or other (foreign) workers. In order to free themselves from the capricious destructiveness of capitalism, people must think long term about how to build new economic values and institutions rooted in and growing up from our shared fundamental needs. But then those needs call out, from the stomach and the head, and people have to shelve their imaginations and find another job.”

[My initial reply] From a political point of view, it is hardly accurate. The social-reformist left goes out of its way to focus on short-term goals, thus contributing to the need to focus on immediate bread-and-butter issues. The pairing of the Fight for $15 with the idea of fairness expresses such a limitation. It ideologically implies that working for an employer, with the changes corresponding to Bill 148, somehow constitutes a fair system. The social-reformist left constantly contributes to short-sightedness by becoming ideologues for the present system.

[Jeff’s reply] But calling for radical change in a political vacuum without any coherent organization will not mobilise anyone.

[My initial reply] But then again, I am a condescending prick according to Wayne Dealy, union rep for CUPE 3902. All the above should be discounted. Unions and union reps know best.

My response to Jeff’s intervention (to which Jeff did not reply. References like “Jeff’s reply” refer to his reply, to my initial reply and not to any further reply by Jeff to my intervention]:
Fred Harris on December 4, 2018 at 4:24 pm said:
[Jeff’s reply] “Yes, true again: I should have said: isolated and reactive local struggles.”
[My reply] This is related to further arguments provided below:

[Jeff’s reply] “I think we need to forget about revolution/reform as a fundamental and meaningful political difference today and start to think about working out a common agenda of structural change that can take us from where we are to a democratic life-economy (where we need to be) The social-reformist left has problems, but the ‘revolutionary’ left suffers from the problem of not existing as in any sense a meaningful political force, and has no model (save archaic Leninist ideas) about how to build. If nineteenth and early twentieth century ideas about revolution were going to work they would have worked 100 years ago. Historical materialism requires new political thinking in new times. The organizational forms that will attract and unify people have yet to be found. Most times I worry they never will be.”

[My reply] ] I do not think that the reform/revolution divide is archaic. I see no point in even referring to revolution as a term–it puts workers off and is a distraction from real tasks. However, the idea of radical change as opposed to reformism is certainly relevant.

[Jeff’s reply] “think about working out a common agenda of structural change that can take us from where we are to a democratic life-economy (where we need to be) The social-reformist left has problems”

[Fred] My view is that there is no common agenda of structural change since most so-called leftists have simply thrown in the towel and, at a practical level, believe in the TINA syndrome. When, for example, the Fight for $15 and “Fairness” campaign was introduced, was there any discussion of the appropriateness of pairing the fight with the concept of fairness? How democratic was such discussion? The social-reformist left really do not want to discuss structural change but prefer to pat themselves on the back and think they are progressive and righteous.

Are there not conditions for structural change? Are the social-reformist left willing to take seriously the requirements for structural change? Why did OCAP, in arguing against basic income, point out that capitalism is characterized by economic coercion and then, in the same breath, ignore this fact throughout its pamphlet? Why did David Bush, an activist in Toronto, argue that the fight for $15 was fair and yet provided no argument for such fairness? Why did Jane McAlevey, in her most recent book, constantly refer to “a good contract?” On ideological and practical grounds, many who identify as the left act as if there was such a thing as fairness within capitalism.

If that is so, then are they really not an impediment to structural change? Do they not share some of the same assumptions as the right?

What should one do when an activist refers to “decent work” and “fair wages,” as Tracy McMaster did when calling out support for striking brewery workers? Not bring up the issue at all?

There is little discussion among the so-called left in Canada about such issues–and that is part of the problem.

So, I fail to see how the reform/structural change issue is irrelevant. If it were irrelevant, I would still be attending the Toronto Labour Committee, headed by Sam Gindin, Herman Rosenfeld and Paul Gray. However, the reaction of these and others within the committee when I called into question Tracy McMaster’s use of the concepts of “decent work” and “fair wages” reflected, as far as I can see, an attitude that does not reflect my experiences in this world and my attitude towards employers. They reacted as if it did not matter.

It certainly matters to me. How can any socialist not object to the use of such terms? And yet there is a decided lack of discussion about such terms and what they mean in the context of the power of a class of employers.

So, the social-reformist left not only have problems–they are one of the problems. They categorically refuse to take seriously the need for addressing the issue of structural change now, not as somehow immediately capable of being addressed, but at least of making the issue public and out in the open.

As John Dewey pointed out, a goal or aim in view, if it is a real goal, is used in the present as a means of organizing present activity in order to achieve the goal in the first place. A goal that is divorced from organizing the present is a fantasy.

Does the social-reformist left really organize its activities with the goal of “working out a common agenda of structural change that can take us from where we are to a democratic life-economy (where we need to be)?”

I withdrew from the Toronto Labour Committee because it became clear to me that its members are too closely tied to unions and fear alienating them. Structures are somehow going to be created from within without calling into question from the beginning exploitative and oppressive social structures. And yet, just as change can only occur spatially initially at the local level, it can also only occur in the present and not in some distant future.

“but the ‘revolutionary’ left suffers from the problem of not existing as in any sense a meaningful political force, and has no model (save archaic Leninist ideas) about how to build. If nineteenth and early twnetieth centiury ideas about revolution were going to work they would have worked 100 years ago. Historical materialism requires new political thinking in new times. The organizational forms that will attract and unify people have yet to be found. Most times I worry they never will be.”

To be a meaningful political force in a structural sense at least requires an attempt to aim at addressing structural conditions of oppression and exploitation in the present and to transform them into something else. The first thing to be done is to recognize that it is necessary to stop justifying those very structures with such platitudes as “fairness” and so forth. The issue of fairness, etc. is hardly irrelevant, and yet the social-reformist left act as if it either does not matter, or that the issue has already been settled.

This romanticism of the concept of “revolution” sounds realistic, but for anyone who works for an employer and hates it, the issue is not about “revolution” but how to stop being treated as a thing. Does the social-reformist left really address this issue? Why did not the so-called social-reformist left criticize Pam Frache and others for pairing the Fight for $15 with “fairness”? I tried to at a meeting (chaired by Sean Smith), raised my hand maybe four times (I was going to ask that very question) and was never recognized by the chair.

The issue is not “revolution.” The issue is–not bullshitting workers with such rhetoric as “fairness.” It is to treat their suffering and their class hatred as real (if hidden) and to address their being subjects who are simultaneously treated as objects (who may not want to admit that fact to themselves but who experience degradation of themselves in various ways. What of Tim Horton’s workers not having the right to sit down on the job? Why not? What of the many, many other ways in which the daily oppression and exploitation of workers was simply ignored? All the focus on Bill 148 left the entire structural power of employers out of the discussion–by pairing that Bill with fairness? Or what of JFAAP and unions using the slogan “Fair Labour Laws Save Lives.”

And so forth.

Structural change is not on the agenda for most of the so-called left in Toronto–and structural change is revolutionary, even if the word is not used. The reformist left reject any real organization and practice in the present with the end-in-view of realizing structural change that results in a movement “that can take us from where we are to a democratic life-economy (where we need to be).”

The first requirement, as far as I can see, is to openly discuss what regular workers who work for employers experience (and not what union reps claim they experience) and why they experience it with the purpose of doing something about ending such experience. Openly discussing such issues itself requires struggle–for the social-reformist left does not engage in such discussion nor does it seem to want to do so. In fact, its attitude is that openly discussing such issues is a waste of time and is generally hostile to such open discussion. What is required is pure practice–out on the streets for whatever reason–or pure rhetoric, without really addressing the vast gap between such rhetoric and the daily experiences of regular working people. One of the reasons that the so-called left is no political force, as I maintained, is because it itself does not call into question its own assumptions.

As for the “revolutionary” left: again, the idea of revolution is unimportant, but the idea of structural change–is that not revolutionary? But structural change must address the conditions that impede structural change and overcome them. Is that not–revolutionary?

End of my response on Jeff’s blog]

Since Jeff did not bother responding to my second response, it can be assumed that he agrees with the social-reformist left. He would probably then have remained silent when Tracy McMaster referred to “decent work” and “fair wages” in relation to the goals of striking brewery workers and a call for support. He would remain silent when he read Jane McAlevey’s new book, No Shortcuts: Organizing Power in the New Gilded Age although he noted many times her reference to good contracts. He would have remained silent when the Fight for $15 in Ontario was paired with the concept of “Fairness.”

Perhaps he has the same attitude as Tim Heffernan, a member of the Toronto Labour Committee and a member of the political organization, Socialist Alternative. I quote from part of a debate I had with him as a member of the Toronto Labour Committee:

Fred raises some interesting points. However, I think he’s confusing social-democratic/reformist demands with transitional demands. There’s a difference which I can elaborate on if needed but the practical contrast between them can be seen in Seattle itself where I would argue that Rosenblum encapsulated an honest and militant social democratic approach while Kshama Sawant & Socialist Alternative (also militant and honest) pushed the movement to its limits by raising the demand for 15/taxing the rich to the need for a socialist transformation of society. But I will concede that there are some in the US left who label SA as reformist too.

Also, we need to look at the concrete not the abstract. The “15 movement” in North America has seen different manifestations and the slogans/demands put forward have varied in time and place. So in Seattle in 2013-14, it was “15 Now”, in other parts of the US it became “15 and a union” and in Ontario it was ” 15 & Fairness”. Fred objects to the term “fairness” presumably because of its association with the old trade union demand of “a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay”. Engels dealt with this demand back in 1881 where he recognized the usefulness of it in the early stages of developing class consciousness of the British working class, in the first half of the 19th Century, but saw it as an impediment at the time he was writing.

To today and “15 and Fairness”. I think the addition of “fairness” to the straight “15” demand was an excellent move. Fairness wasn’t understood as an airy fairy, feel good notion but came to be seen as shorthand for a series of extra and linked demands that could mobilise low paid and exploited workers:
– paid sick days
– equal pay for equal work (full time vs part time)
– the right to a union
– the fight against racism and discrimination
and more

If the above be bullshit, so be it. I like to think that Engels, were he alive today, would have his criticisms of the limitations of 15 & Fairness but would be overwhelmingly positive about what it has achieved so far.

Tim

To which I responded:

Hello all,

Tim’s justification for “fairness” is that it is–somehow–a transitional demand. Let him elaborate on how it is in any way a “transitional” demand. I believe that that is simply bullshit.

He further argues the following:

“Fairness wasn’t understood as an airy fairy, feel good notion but came to be seen as shorthand for a series of extra and linked demands that could mobilise low paid and exploited workers:
– paid sick days
– equal pay for equal work (full time vs part time)
– the right to a union
– the fight against racism and discrimination
and more”

How does Tim draw such conclusions? It is a tautology (repetition of what is assumed to be true) to say that it is fair if “paid sick days, equal pay for equal work (full time vs part time), etc. is considered “fair.”

Why should these goals be tied to “fairness”? I had paid sick days at the brewery, I belonged to a union (there was, however, evident racism among some of the brewery workers and there was also a probationary six-month period before obtaining a full union-wage). Was that then a “fair” situation? I guess so–according to Tim’s logic. Why not then shut my mouth and not complain since I lived a “fair” life at the brewery? But, of course, I did not shut my mouth.

But does Tim believe that merely gaining “paid sick days, equal pay for equal work (full time vs part time), the right to a union, the fight against racism and discrimination and more” is fair? If he did, he would then presumably cease being a member of Socialist Alternative since he would have achieved his goals. However, he likely does not believe that it is fair. What he proposes, then, is to lie (bullshit) to workers by not revealing what he really believes as a “transitional” demand. He does not really believe that it is fair, but he believes that such rhetoric is a useful tool in developing a movement. Frankly, I believe that such a view is both dishonest and opportunistic. Workers deserve better–it is they who continue to be exploited despite “paid sick days,” etc. Receiving paid sick days is better than not receiving paid sick days, but all the demands obtained cannot constitute “fairness.” And yet workers who buy into the rhetoric (bullshit) of fairness may believe this fairy tale (it is, after all, a fairy tale presented by social democrats often enough, among others). Rather than enlightening the workers about their situation, such rhetoric serves to obscure it and to confuse workers–support for the Donald Trump’s of the world in the making.

Such low standards. Rather than calling into question the power of employers to direct their lives by control over the products of their own labour, it implicitly assumes the legitimacy of such power. Ask many of those who refer to the fight for $15 and Fairness–are they opposed in any way to the power of employers as a class? Not just verbally, but practically? Or do they believe that we need employers? That we need to have our work directed by them? That working for an employer is an inevitable part of daily life? That there is no alternative? That working for an employer is not really all that bad?

When working at the brewery, I took a course at the University of Calgary. The professor was interested in doing solidarity work for the Polish organization Solidarity at the time. I told him that I felt like I was being raped at the brewery. He looked at me with disgust–how could I equate being raped (sexually assaulted) with working for an employer? I find that radicals these days really do not seem to consider working for an employer to be all that bad. If they did, they probably would use the same logic as their opposition to sexual assault. Sexual assault in itself is bad, but there are, of course, different degrees of sexual assault. Those who sexually assault a person may do so more violently or less violently; in that sense, those who sexually assault a person less violently are “better” than those who are more violent. However, sexual assault is in itself bad, so any talk of “fairness” in sexually assaulting someone is absurd. Similarly, any talk of fairness in exploiting someone is absurd. But not for the “radical” left these days, it would seem.

Fred

Since Jeff chose not to indicate how he would respond to concrete developments within the labour movement, it is of course impossible to know whether he would simply accept Tim’s argument. On a practical level, the Toronto Labour Committee did.

Just one final point. Jeff identifies the splitting of reform and “revolution” with Lenin. Was Rosa Luxemburg then a Leninist?She wrote on the issue as well, criticizing the reformism of Eduard Bernstein, among others. So did Bebel and Parvus, etc.

By referring to Lenin, Jeff is in fact red-baiting. The typical red baiter tries to, implicitly or explicitly, link sweeping rejections of the radical left by linking them to Stalin and other dictators. Since Lenin and Stalin are linked historically (Stalin ultimately succeeded Lenin as leader of the Bolshevik party), then referring to Lenin without further ado is a red-baiting method of simply dismissing the opponent without providing any further argument.

I will leave Professor Noonan with his call for structural change since he, apparently, refuses to make any distinction between changes that challenge the structure of the system and those that do not. I predict that his view will not address the problems the working class face at this time. He, like Sam Gindin, speak of structural change–within the confines of capitalist relations of production and exchange–despite rhetoric to the contrary. The left, according to this view, is just one happy family that involves no internal conflicts and no divisions. It is, to paraphrase the German philosophy Hegel, a left where all cows are black (or, alternatively, all white).

In a later post, the issue of Professor Noonan’s position on collective bargaining will be addressed.