Economics for Social Democrats–but Not for the Working Class, Part Two: Critique of the Social Democrat Jim Stanford’s Theory of Money, Part One

Introduction

In an earlier post, I indicated that Jim Stanford’s view concerning the creation of jobs reflects a social-democratic or social reformist position (see Economics for Social Democrats–but Not for the Working Class, Part One: Critique of Jim Stanford’s One-Sided View of Job Creation in a Capitalist Society). In this post and subsequent posts, I will begin to look in more depth at Mr. Stanford’s economic views. It is all the more necessary since the main title of his major book is Economics for Everyone. His book is most definitely not for everyone since, although it appears to be for the working class, it ultimately opposes their interest as a class to struggle for the abolition of capitalism. Furthermore, despite the subtitle of his book, A Short Guide to the Economics of Capitalism, it certainly does not express the nature of capitalist society adequately. 

For example, Mr. Stanford’s definition of money has little to recommend it since it fails to explain to workers how money (and hence prices) confers upon employers the power to direct workers’ lives. Marx’s theory of money, by contrast, is designed to do just that.

The following necessarily involves a theory of money, and it is not easy.

Stanford’s Inadequate Definition of Money Has a Historical Antecedent

Let us look at one of Mr. Stanford’s references to money (related to prices) in his book. Page 189:

Very broadly, money is anything that allows its holder to purchase other goods and services. In other words, money is purchasing power.

Mr. Stanford’s identification of money with “purchasing power,” interestingly enough, already had been expressed by a nineteenth-century author, Samuel Bailey, whose theory Karl Marx criticized. From Elena Lange (2021), Value without Fetish Uno Kōzō’s Theory of ‘Pure Capitalism’ in Light of Marx’s Critique of Political Economy, pages 225-226:

… this position echoes Bailey’s identification of money with ‘power of purchase.’  [Quoting Bailey] ‘If the value of an object is its power of purchasing, there must be something to purchase. Value denotes, consequently, nothing positive or intrinsic, but merely the relation in which two objects stand to each other as exchangeable commodities’. Although we will return to this, Marx’s critique of the notion of money as ‘power of purchase’ presents a useful summary of the previous discussion, namely the inability of a formal, functionalist and nominalist theory of money to explain money’s function of general social exchangeability, or, which is the same, the measure of value. ‘Power of purchasing’
hence does not explain the logical significance of money, but presents a tautology. It is well worth quoting the passage at length: [from Marx]

[Bailey’s] entire wisdom is, in fact, contained in this passage. ‘If value is nothing but power of purchasing’ (a very fine definition since ‘purchasing’ presupposes not only value, but the representation of value as ‘money’), ‘it denotes’, etc. However let us first clear away from Bailey’s proposition the absurdities which have been smuggled in. ‘PURCHASING’ means transforming money into commodities. Money already presupposes VALUE and the development OF VALUE. Consequently, out with the expression ‘PURCHASING’ first of all. Otherwise we are explaining
VALUE by VALUE. Accurately expressed it would read as follows: ‘If the value of an object is the relation in which it exchanges with other objects, value denotes, consequently’ (viz., in consequence of the ‘if’) nothing, but merely the relation in which two objects stand to each other as exchangeable objects’ (I.e., [pp.] 4–5). Nobody will contest this tautology. What follows from it, by the way, is that the ‘VALUE’ OF AN OBJECT ‘DENOTES NOTHING’. For example, 1lb. of COFFEE = 4 lbs of COTTON. What is then the value of 1lb. of COFFEE? 4 lbs of COTTON. And of 4 lbs of COTTON? 1lb. of COFFEE. Since the value of 1lb. of coffee is 4 lbs of COTTON, and, on the other hand, the value of 4 lbs of COTTON = 1lb. of COFFEE, then it is clear that the value of 1lb. of COFFEE= 1lb. of COFFEE (since 4 lbs of COTTON = 1lb. of COFFEE), a = b, b = a, HENCE a = a. What arises from this explanation is, therefore, that the value of a use value = a [certain] quantity of the same use value.

The problem with Bailey’s and Stanford’s characterization of money is that nowhere do they explain why a specific thing called money has this power to purchase at all, and how this power to purchase is different from (and yet related to) other things that are on the market (call them commodities–products of labour that are produced for sale). Other commodities do not have “purchasing power” directly–whereas money does. Why is that? Is there a connection with the purchasing power of money and the lack of purchasing power of all other commodities? 

If money is the power to purchase, then what it purchases, by implication, is not money and lacks purchasing power. Hence, money has a monopoly of power over purchasing, and all other commodities lack this direct power of purchasing.

At one pole, there is money, with its monopoly power of purchasing commodities directly, and at the other pole are commodities that lack this power of direct purchasing power. What explains this situation? Mr. Stanford does not address the issue since he is undoubtedly unaware of the problem. For him, the purchasing power of money is simply given rather than something to be explained. 

[As an aside, this definition is obviously inadequate even from the point of view of workers’ everyday experience. For instance, I use my Royal Bank Westjet Master Card to purchase almost everything (in order to accumulate Westjet dollars to be used to see my daughter, Francesca. 

Although my credit card has purchasing power and thus falls under Stanford’s definition of money, obviously the day of reckoning will arise if I do not transfer my deposit funds to pay off my credit card. From this point of view, the deposit funds are money, but not my credit card.)

Stanford’s Distortion of Marx’s Labour Theory of Value Related to Ignoring Marx’s Theory of the Commodity, Value Form, Money and Prices 

This lack of an explanation of the unique monopoly power of money goes hand in hand with a distortion of Karl Marx’s theory of value and commodities. Mr. Stanford reduces Marx’s theory to the so-called theory that labour in general, and only labour, produces value. From his book (2008) Economics for Everyone: A Short Guide to the Economics of Capitalism, page 54:

An economic underpinning for this fightback was provided by Karl Marx. Like the classical economists, he focused on the dynamic evolution of capitalism as a system, and the turbulent relationships between different classes. He argued that the payment of profit on private investments did not reflect any particular economic function, but was only a social relationship. Profit represented a new, more subtle form of EXPLOITATION: an indirect, effective way of capturing economic surplus from those (the workers) who truly do the work. Marx tried (unsuccessfully) to explain how prices in capitalism (which include the payment of profit) could still be based on the underlying labour values of different commodities. [my emphasis] 

Mr. Stanford’s evident distortion of Marx’s theory comes out even more clearly from the following passage (page 71): 

For simplicity, the classical economists adopted a labour theory of value. In this theory, the prices of producible commodities reflect the total amount of labour required to produce them (including both direct labour and the indirect labour required to produce machines and raw materials used in production – a complication we’ll discuss in the next chapter). Marx realized this simplified theory was wrong: prices under capitalism must also reflect the payment of profit. But he was politically committed to explaining prices on the basis of their “underlying” labour values, so he undertook a complicated (and ultimately unsuccessful) attempt to explain prices on the basis of labour values  [my emphasis]. Neoclassical economists, responding to Marx, tried to provide an intellectual and moral justification for the fact that profits are paid on capital investments by attempting to show that capital itself is actually productive. These efforts, too, were unsuccessful.

In the end, the relevance of this long controversy is not entirely clear. Productive human effort (“work,” broadly defined) is clearly the only way to transform the things we harvest from our natural environment into useful goods and services. In this sense, work is the source of all value added. For society as a whole, just as for that lazy teenager, if we don’t work, we don’t eat. Nothing else – not alien landings, not divine intervention, and not some mystical property of “capital” – is genuinely productive. Under capitalism, profits are paid on capital investments. These profits reflect a social institution called “private ownership,” not any real productive activity or function. (In fact, as we’ll see, it’s not even possible to clearly measure capital, let alone to prove that it is productive.) Because of this institution of private ownership of capital, profits are reflected in the prices of various goods and services (and hence also in GDP).

We can accept that human work is the sole driving force of production while simultaneously recognizing that prices (and things that depend on prices, like GDP) depend on other factors, too – namely, under capitalism, profit.

There are a couple of points worthy of notice in this passage. Firstly, Mr. Stanford’s view that labour is a primary but not exclusive determinant of value (and price–for him there is really no difference between them since he reduces money to purchasing power) is somewhat similar to David Ricardo’s nineteenth century theoretical position, which held a 90 percent labour theory of value, so to speak since Ricardo argued that it was labour mainly but not exclusively that formed the value (and price) of commodities. . Ricardo (1821/2004)  wrote in his On the Principles of Political Economy and Taxation (page 30):

SECTION IV

The principle that the quantity of labour bestowed on the production of commodities regulates their relative value, considerably modified by the employment of machinery and other fixed and
durable capital.

In the former section we have supposed the implements and weapons necessary to kill the deer and salmon, to be equally durable, and to be the result of the same quantity of labour, and we have seen that the variations in the relative value of deer and salmon depended solely on the varying quantities of labour necessary to obtain them,—but in every state of society, the tools, implements, buildings, and machinery employed in different trades may be of various degrees of durability, and may require different portions of labour to produce them. The proportions, too, in which the capital that is to support labour, and the capital that is invested in tools, machinery and buildings, may be variously combined. This difference in the degree of durability of fixed capital, and this variety in the proportions in which the two sorts of capital may be combined, introduce another cause, besides the greater or less quantity of labour necessary to produce commodities, for the variations in their relative value—this cause is the rise or fall in the value of labour.

Secondly, like many reformists (as well as some self-proclaimed Marxists), Mr. Stanford identifies Marx’s labour theory of value as either identical to or merely a variant of Ricardo’s labour theory of value. Ricardo identified labour as such or general labour (which was performed in prehistoric times, in ancient Greece, in feudal Europe, etc.) as the main determinant of the value of commodities. Labour as such is what Mr. Stanford calls “human work is the sole driving force of production.”  Mr. Stanford implies that this is supposedly Marx’s position. Such a view is a complete distortion of Marx’s theory–since it lacks any relation to Marx’s theory of commodities, value, use value, money (and hence prices).

It should be pointed out immediately that Ricardo had a labour theory of value but failed to connect his labour theory of value to the existence of money and its monopoly power of immediate purchasing power. The same applies to Mr. Stanford’s own reference to the purchasing power of money, on the one hand, and his attempt to partially dissociate prices from labour on the other (we cannot even talk of “value” in relation to Stanford’s theory since for him there is really only prices). 

If money is purchasing power, or the capacity to immediately be exchangeable with other commodities (with the other commodities lacking this power), then a theory should be able to explain how and why and through what means money has this power. From Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. Volume 1:  page 186: 

The difficulty lies not in comprehending that money is a commodity, but in discovering how, why and by what means a commodity becomes money.

In terms of the structure of the first two chapters of volume one of Capital, Samezo Kuruma (2018), in his Marx’s Theory of the Genesis of Money How, Why, and Through What is a Commodity Money? has this to say (pages 54-55): 

Marx analyses the how of money in the theory of the value form, and the why of money in the theory of the fetish character, whereas in the theory of the exchange process he examines the question of through what. …  Marx’s indication of these three difficulties clearly suggests that he managed to brilliantly overcome them, but no hint is provided as to where this is carried out. My view is that Marx answered the questions of how, why, and through what, respectively, in Section Three [of chapter one of Volume 1 of Capital], Section Four [of chapter one of Volume 1 of Capital], and Chapter Two [of Volume 1 of Capital]. So the three problems in the sentence are listed in the order that Marx solves them in Capital.

Incidentally, Marx does not pose these three problems as a sort of logical schema or in some frivolous manner; they are realistic problems. Without solving each, an adequate understanding of money is not possible. Indeed, earlier political economy slipped into a variety of errors by failing to solve those problems.

Marx’s explanation of the purchasing power of money lies, on the one hand, in the specific nature of the labour that results in the existence of money as a monopoly power–abstract labour or general human labour or universal labour without distinction. This general social labour, unlike earlier societies, does not find its expression in the immediate results of the production process (the process of producing our lives as human beings).

The reference to the immediate results of a labour process that does not result in a social product directly means that it can only be expressed indirectly or through a process of mediation–the exchange process. Contrary to Stanford’s characterization of Marx’s theory of value, the kind of labour is therefore historically specific and not some general social labour that exists and acts as or functions exclusively as social labour regardless of  the kind of society. Stanford, however, presents Marx’s labour theory of value as just that: as ahistorical. 

Abstract labour is a kind of negative labour–it is not social labour as workers work concretely or materially, and it is this labour which produces the value of a commodity, say beer, and not the labour which produces the beer as beer concretely.

On the other hand, a definite kind of labour, concrete labour, produces a definite kind of  use value, say beer. But the result of this concrete labour, since it is linked to abstract labour, is a commodity that is not yet social in its concrete form of beer. A further process–the exchange process–is required to convert the beer into a form where it can function as “purchasing power”–by being able to be converted into any form of commodity–money. 

At one pole is the commodity, beer, which lacks “purchasing power,” and at the other pole is money, which monopolizes purchasing power. 

I will elaborate on this in the next section.

Mr. Stanford, therefore, does not have a theory of money that links money to a specific kind of production. His theory of money as purchasing power, like Bailey’s theory, is an exchange theory of money. Marx, on the other hand, had a production theory of money that referred to a specific kind of society. That theory, however, cannot be characterized as merely a labour theory of value; Marx in fact had a dual or twofold theory of labour.

Marx’s Dual or Twofold Theory of Labour and Commodities

This labour that is connected to the monopoly purchasing power of money is not general labour that human beings have performed throughout history, but labour that is organized in a specific way–as I pointed out in one of my published articles, Dewey’s Materialist Philosophy of Education: A Resource for Critical Pedagogues? In pages 259-288, The European Legacy, Volume 11, Issue 3, pages 274-275: 

Marx provided a systematic logical critique of present capitalist society (the contextual basis for the functioning of schools), on the basis of a dual theory of use or a dual theory of labour. It is this theory which provides the ground for his analysis and critique of capital as well as his subsequent account of the history of the emergence of capital. It is an understanding of capital logically via the twin concepts of concrete and abstract labour, and their further development, which constitutes his critique; an understanding of the coming into being of capital presupposes this logical determination.

Marx relied on Aristotle’s distinction between the use of shoes as shoes and the use of shoes as a means for obtaining another commodity (as a means of exchange):

Take for example, a shoe—there is its wear as a shoe and there is its use as an article of exchange; for both are ways of using a shoe, inasmuch as even he that exchanges a shoe for money or food with the customer that wants a shoe uses it as a shoe, though not for the use peculiar to a shoe, since shoes have not come into existence for the purpose of exchange.

Both are uses of shoes, but they are not the same kind of use. Marx expanded the idea of the dual use of things to include labour in capitalist society. Labour in capitalist society has a dual use which constitutes a contradictory dynamic that develops the material production process, while also tending to undermine the material production process through crises. Marx evidently considered that a dual theory of the use of things or a dual theory of labour was central for a critical understanding of capitalist society:

[London], August 24, 1867
The best points in my book are: 1) the two-fold character of labour, according to whether it is expressed in use value or exchange value. (All understanding of the facts depends upon this.) It is emphasised immediately, in the first chapter.

Marx reiterated the importance of the two-fold character of labour for his critique of capitalist society a few months later:

[London], January 8, 1868

It is strange that the fellow [Eugen Duhring] does not sense the three fundamentally
new elements of the book:
. . . 2) That the economists, without exception, have missed the simple point that if the commodity has a double character—use value and exchange value—then the labour represented by the commodity must also have a two-fold character, while the mere analysis of labour as such, as in Smith, Ricardo, etc., is bound to come up everywhere against inexplicable problems. This is, in fact, the whole secret of the critical conception.

It is Marx’s argument that social labour, in the form of abstract human labour, has distinctive characteristics which oppose it to human labour as concrete labour. It is only through being connected to other labours indirectly that it becomes social labour. The concrete labour that is performed has no direct connection to the labour of other people. To put it another way, the material process of life and the social process of life, which form a unity in the case of human beings, since human beings are both material and social beings, is sundered in capitalist society.

This situation can also be expressed in terms of parts and wholes. Each capitalist unit is a part of the total division of labour. However, this part is quite curious. It is a part that does not function as a part qualitatively while human labour is being expended. The labour being performed is not social labour, connected to other human labour and determinate needs. It needs to become a part only after the micro-production process is at an end, if it is to count as a part of the whole.

Since concrete labour is not social labour as it is being performed, and since the latter is not expressed immediately in concrete use-values, the possibility arises that the amount of concrete labour does not translate into the same amount of social labour. This possible non-identity has major implications for the structure of human life: a dynamic quantitative process is built into production. The quantity of labour required to produce output becomes a concern because the mere expenditure of concrete human labour does not necessarily suffice to meet standards set by the general level of productivity in a particular industry. If those standards are not met, the capitalist firm cannot in the long run reproduce itself. For the capitalist firm to survive, an external pressure is brought to bear on producers to meet that standard. The peculiar character of the part of a whole in capitalist production is thus that the quality of functioning as part of total social labour is transformed into a purely quantitative form. The specific quality of social labour in capitalist society is the priority of its quantity over its concrete quality, or abstract labour over concrete labour.

There is further evidence that Marx considered the twofold character of labour to be of major importance. Ironically, Marx explicitly underlines its importance by providing a separate heading for it in the first chapter and emphasizing its importance for his critique of political economy (Capital, Volume 1: pages 131-132):  

2. THE DUAL CHARACTER OF THE LABOUR EMBODIED IN COMMODITIES

Initially the commodity appeared to us as an object with a dual character, possessing both use-value and exchange-value. Later on it was seen that labour, too, has a dual character: in so far as it finds its expression in value, it no longer possesses the same characteristics as when it is the creator of use-values. I was the first to point out and examine critically this twofold nature of the labour contained in commodities. As this point is crucial to an understanding of political economy, it requires further elucidation.

This dual character of labour produces a commodity–a contradictory unity of use value and value, and this is linked to the nature of money.

The Dual or Twofold Character of Labour and Commodities, on the One Hand, and the Nature of Money (or the Form of Value) on the Other: Or How a Commodity Becomes Money 

Marx’s dual theory of labour is related to Marx’s dual theory of commodities. Commodities have two essential aspects to them: they are both use values and values, and concrete labour produces use values whereas abstract labour produces the value of the commodity. 

This nature of commodities as involving two essential aspects is not, however, immediately expressed in the commodities themselves. It is only concrete labour that is expressed in the use value of the commodity as the specific kind of labour that produces the specific kind of commodity, such as beer. The concrete labour which we performed in the Calgary brewery where I worked, for example, resulted in the concrete beer as beer. Simultaneously, the social nature of the labour performed, as forming part of the total labour of society within a division of labour, is not social labour in its immediate form as beer.

Since a social process emerged that resulted in the performance of labour that is not immediately social in nature (a negative process, if you like), another process is required to express the social nature of the labour performed–a process of exchange. 

From Capital, Volume 1, page 165:

Objects of utility become commodities only because they are the products of the labour of private individuals who work independently of each other. The sum total of the labour of all these private individuals forms the aggregate labour of society. Since the producers do not come into social contact until they exchange the products of their labour, the specific social characteristics of their private labours appear only within this exchange. In other words, the labour of the private individual manifests itself as an element of the total labour of society only through the relations which the act of exchange establishes between the products, and, through their mediation, between the producers. 

Since the concrete labour performed is not social labour directly but only indirectly, its social nature can only be expressed indirectly–through another, different commodity, in the use value of another commodity. However, merely expressing one commodity, say beer, in another commodity, say in steel, would not express the general social nature of the labour that produces value. To express adequately abstract labour and value, it is necessary that the internal opposition between the concrete labour and concrete use value, on the one hand, of the commodity be completely contrasted with abstract labour and value on the other in an external form–ultimately in money as the unique commodity that has the monopoly power of being able to purchase any commodity. This monopoly power of money necessarily excludes such power attaching to the other commodities. Capital, Volume 1, page 161:

Finally, the last form, C [practically, the money form], gives to the world of commodities a general social relative form of value, because, and in so far as, all commodities except one are thereby excluded from the equivalent form. A single commodity, the linen, therefore has the form of direct exchangeability with all other commodities, in other words it has a directly social form because, and in so far as, no other commodity is in this situation. 26

26. It is by no means self-evident that the form of direct and universal exchangeability is an antagonistic form, as inseparable from its opposite, the form of non-direct exchangeability, as the positivity of one pole of a magnet is from the negativity of the other pole. This has allowed the illusion to arise that all commodities can simultaneously be imprinted with the stamp of direct exchangeability, in the same way that it might be imagined that all Catholics can be popes. It is, of course, highly desirable in the eyes of the petty bourgeois, who views the production of commodities as the absolute summit of human freedom and individual independence, that the inconveniences resulting from the impossibility of exchanging commodities directly, which are inherent in this form, should be removed.

Money is the form of value–the expression of value, or the expression of the general nature of the labour that is not directly social. The internal opposition of abstract labour and concrete labour, and value and use value, finds expression through the external opposition of all commodities on the one side expressing their value in one commodity–money.

Stanford’s definition of money as “purchasing power” simply fails to address “how, why and through what means” something can serve as money or purchasing power of commodities. 

Obviously, not all social labour is expressed in this form; when I cooked for my daughter, my cooking was social in nature but it did not assume a form different from the concrete result. In a capitalist society, by contrast, the social nature of labour assumes–and must assume–a form external to the concrete use value produced by concrete labour. 

Political Implications of the Monopoly of the Purchasing Power of Money

The connection between a specific character of social labour and money has political implications since such a connection expresses a kind of society that necessarily escapes the control of the workers and in fact leads, ultimately, to the control over them of their own products. 

Elena Lange(2019) has addressed this issue by noting that Marx’s theory is a theory of fetishism and not just a labour theory of value in her article “The Transformation Problem as a Problem of Fetishism,” pages 51-70, in Filosofski Vestnik, Volume 40, issue Number 3, page 52: 

To treat Marx’s theory as purely an economic theory without any political implications, of course, is useful for both academics–and for the class of employers. 

For Marx, lacking in the classics, and strangely ignored in Marx‘s modern interpreters, the distinction between abstract and concrete labour is the crucial critical heuristic to clear the path to a thoroughgoing critique of the capitalist relations of production and its inverted self-representations. This distinction is directly reflected in the formulation of the labour theory of value, by determining the social substance of value as abstract-general human labour and distinguishing it from concrete labour as manifested in the commodity’s use-value.  This conceptualisation equally allowed Marx to pierce the problem of form and content – the problem of fetishism.

Mr. Stanford, by assuming as a fact the direct purchasing power of money rather than explaining it, misses the connection between the monopoly of the purchasing power of money and the lack of social power of all other commodities–including workers (after all, there is a market for workers, is there not?). 

The nature and implications of this connection between the production of commodities (a contradictory unity of use value and value) via abstract and concrete labour, the expression of the value of a commodity in money and the fetishism of commodities will be addressed in another post in this series, however. The next post in this series will look at how the exchange process escapes the control of the participants in the exchange process 

Conclusion

Mr. Stanford’s definition of money as purchasing power is definitely an inadequate definition of the nature of money since it excludes the conditions for something to be money: concrete labour cannot be directly social labour. His interpretation of Marx’s so-called labour theory of value is also definitely inadequate since it excludes any consideration of the dual nature of labour and commodities in a capitalist society; in effect, he treats Marx’s theory to be a variant of Ricardo’s ahistorical theory of all labour throughout history somehow producing (exchange) value. Ricardo’s labour theory of value has little connection with the necessity for money to arise, on the one hand, and the monopoly nature of money (and the simultaneous exclusion of other commodities) on the other.   

Mr. Stanford’s definition of money as “purchasing power” has also a parallel in Ricardo’s theory in that both fail to connect their theory of money to capitalist production. 

Stanford’s view, similar to Ricardo’s view, that somehow labour is more or less the primary cause of the quantitative price of commodities but not the exclusive cause once “capital” (meaning machinery and other means of production that last longer than one year) fails to engage in any inquiry into the peculiar kind of labour (really a kind of organizing social labour) that needs to be expressed in something other than the immediate use value (such as beer) which is produced. 

 His reduction of Marx’s theory to Ricardo’s theory leaves Mr. Stanford’s theory of money without any connection to the purchasing power that money has–a power that ultimately is exercised over the working class. The twofold or dual nature of labour necessarily involves the expression of the nature of abstract labour as value in the form of money, which excludes all other commodities from being money; purchasing power on one side necessarily involves a lack of such a power on the other side. 

Mr. Stanford’s economics for everyone–is it really for the working class? 

The connection between a specific character of social labour and money has political implications since such a connection expresses a kind of society that necessarily escapes the control of the workers and in fact leads, ultimately, to the control over them of their own products. That connection will be explored in another post. 

 

Critique of the Limited Aim (Solution)–Decent Wages–of a Radical Social Democrat: The Case of the Toronto Radical, John Clarke: Part One

Introduction

There are some people among the social-democratic left whom I can respect more than others. John Clarke, former leader of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP), is one of them. Here is what one reads on Wikipedia about him:

John Clarke is an anti-poverty activist who lives in TorontoOntarioCanada. As of 2019, he was teaching at York University.

Activism

A native of Britain, he moved to Toronto, Ontario and became an organizer there.[1] He was a leading figure of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) group until he retired from it in January 2019.[2] The Globe and Mail reported in the year 2000 that Clarke’s “guerrilla activism has pitted him against police countless times during the past decade.”[3]

Clarke was arrested with three other activists and charged with inciting a riot for his role in an OCAP protest at Queen’s park in June 2000. Clarke appealed his restrictive bail conditions in August 2000.[3] In 2003, a judge stayed the charges and Clarke walked free.[4]

The Sudbury Star described Clarke in 2016 as “a 25-year veteran of activism.”[1] In 2019, he announced an online fundraiser asking people to contribute $25,000 for his retirement.[5]

Teaching

In 2019, Clarke took on the post of Packer Visitor in Social Justice in the faculty of Liberal Arts and Professional Studies at York University. The position is for two years.[2]

References

  1. Jump up to:ab Keenan Kusan, Workers being held down, activist says in SudburySudbury Star (March 26, 2016).
  2. Jump up to:ab Levy, Sue-Ann (26 November 2019). “Poverty warrior teaching Activism 101 at York University”Toronto Sun. Retrieved 21 March 2020.
  3. Jump up to:ab Margaret Philp, Activist to fight bail termsGlobe & Mail (August 10, 2000).
  4. ^ Clarke, John (28 October 2003). “RIOT CHARGES AGAINST OCAP ORGANIZER STAYED BY TRIAL JUDGE – Statement by John Clarke, OCAP Organizer”OCAP. Archived from the original on 1 June 2005. Retrieved 21 March 2020.
  5. ^ Levy, Sue-Ann (28 January 2019). “Poverty activist John Clarke wants help funding retirement”Toronto Sun. Retrieved 21 March 2020.

Although I can admire not only Mr. Clarke’s activist stance but his willingness to engage in civil disobedience despite the possible consequences for himself, his writings persistently fall short of a socialist stance. This limitation is evident in his aims (which are, generally, solutions to specific problems). 

The Aim or Goal of His Intervention 

What is the aim or goal of his intervention? What is he seeking to achieve?

On Mr. Clarke’s blog, on June 15, 2021, he has written a post titled “A Basic Income in Waiting?” (https://johnclarkeblog.com/node/65). 

Surprisingly, Mr. Clarke’s goals are very similar if not identical to those of  Simran Dhunna and David Bush’s views.  He writes:

During the pandemic, struggles have broken out across the world, from Minneapolis to New Delhi to East Jerusalem. As the global health crisis subsides, there will be a strong determination to fight for something better. As we challenge, not just the ‘economic scarring’ left by the pandemic, but the impact of decades of austerity, we shouldn’t settle for a commodified form of social provision that makes its peace with the neoliberal order. We need to fight employers to win decent wages and to take to the streets to demand massively expanded social housing, greatly improved public healthcare, free public transit, universal child care and much else beside.

His reference to “much else beside” is in reference to an article written by Ms. Dhunna and Mr. Bush (if you click on the the “else beside,” you will be taken to their article). The “much else beside” probably refers to the following list (the social-democratic or reformist left frequently have a grocery list of demands that rarely if ever are realized in practice since they lack the power to realize them):

  1. free dental care
  2. strengthening and regularizing the new changes to EI (employment insurance–which I still call unemployment insurance)
  3. raising social assistance rates
  4. status for all (meaning presumably that immigrants and “illegal” migrants would have the same legal rights as Canadian citizens)
  5. paid sick days
  6. improving tenants’ rights
  7. universal public services.

Of course, I support such efforts, but such efforts hardly make a socialist society since they are likely compatible with some form of capitalism and not with its abolition and with the abolition of all classes; they seek to humanize capitalism and not abolish it. Those who advocate such policies are anti-neoliberal but not necessarily anti-capitalist. To be anti-capitalist, such policies would have to be linked to other policies that push beyond what is acceptable to a capitalist society–such as a radical or robust basic income–which Mr. Clarke opposes. 

I have criticized Dhunna and Bush’s article in several posts on this blog (see for example A Basic Income Versus the Expansion of Public Services? Part One: Critique of the Social-democratic Idea that the Expansion of Public Services is SocialistThe Strawman of a Minimal Universal Basic Income by the Social-democratic Left in Toronto or  A Robust or Ambitious Universal Basic Income: An Impossible Dream for Some Among the Social-democratic Left), and Mr. Clarke’s uncritical reference to it is indicative of Mr. Clarke’s lack of critical distancing from his social-democratic compatriots; his rubber stamping of other social democrats’ position is quite typical of social democrats in general, it would seem (see Exposing the Intolerance and Censorship of Social Democracy, Part Two: Critique of the Standard of Canadians and Landed Immigrants Working for an Employer). 

The way in which Ms. Dhunna and Mr. Bush refer to articles written by others on the subject of basic income, for instance, gives the impression that the authors of some of the articles to which they refer find basic income to be impractical–whereas it is often the case that it is only certain forms of basic income that such authors find impractical; other forms they find feasible–but Ms. Dhunna and Mr. Bush (and Mr Clarke) neglect to acknowledge this. By referring to the article Dhunna and Bush wrote without further ado, Mr. Clarke in effect rubber stamps uncritically their own distortion of the views of others. This is hardly what the working class needs today. Mr. Clarke, despite his apparent anti-capitalist rhetoric, is anti-neoliberal but not anti-capitalist. 

Let us, however, see what Mr. Clarke himself actually proposes as an alternative–what his aims are.  The following is almost a verbatim report of the third section of Mr. Clarke’s presentation on YouTube, presented on June 21, 2021, titled Basic Income Is a Neoliberal Trap  (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r40D6fU760s&t=4s):

Alternative Directions

The alternative is to rejuvenate our unions and fight for decent wages, to fight to increase minimum wages, to fight for workers’ rights–rather than extend the cash benefits and extend the reach of the marketplace. It is far better to put considerable effort into the struggle for public services.

Now, Mr. Clarke fully acknowledges that there are income-support programs that are vital and needed, and we cannot let these supports become a kind of poor cousin. We need unemployment insurance that provides adequate coverage and secure coverage. We need the disgusting attack on injured workers that has taken place to be reversed and decent benefits be provided. We need a fight to ensure that disability benefits are adequate and meet people’s needs and that they are secure. We need to challenge the intrusion and moral policing that goes on within these systems.

But to extend the cash benefit widely out into the workforce is a huge mistake. And we could do so much better. Rather than try to get what in practice would be a meager cash benefit, it would be so much better to struggle to challenge the commodification of housing, the neoliberal city, the blighting of urban space with this agenda of greed by fighting for a massive extension of social housing. So that’s a benefit that goes to working-class people and does not go into the pocket of landlords. There’s a need to fight for increases in the adequacy of healthcare. The pandemic has made that absolutely clear. We need pharmacare, dental care, a unviersal childcare program that is not an empty perennial liberal promise. We need post-secondary education to be free; we need free public transport systems. On all of these fronts, we need to take up a fight.

But people will say: We have suffered defeats. We cannot win these things. Mr. Clarke argues that the left has for a very long time forced on the defensive. The class struggle has not gone in our favour for a considerable period of time. But there is no alternative but to rebuild and to fight back and to win what we can. And to challenge this society but to fight for a different society. That’s absolutely indispensable. There in fact is not some social policy ruse that can just put things right.

Basic income is not going to solve the problem. Our lack of strength, our lack of ability to fight in the way we need to fight is the problem we have to address. We need to build that movement now more than ever. In this situation of global crisis we need more than ever to fight back, and we can do so much better in focusing our struggles than to fight for the commodification of social provision and basic income.

There is little difference between Dhunna and Bush’s call for a refurbished welfare state and Mr. Clarke’s vision of a “different society.” The society he envisions is an improved version of the welfare state established after the Second World War; it is hardly a vision of a society without classes, without exploitation and without oppression. 

I will, however, restrict my criticism of Mr. Clarke’s position in this post to his reference to decent wages–and will continue with my criticism of Mr. Clarke’s views on economic coercion–the first part of his presentation in the YouTube video in another post by referring to his apparent acknowledgement that economic coercion forms an essential element of a capitalist society–all the while ignoring the significance of that for formulating policies to counter such economic coercion.  

Decent Wages and Exploitation 

Mr. Clarke does not subject the concept of decent wages to any critical scrutiny. Ironically, Mr. Clarke often refers to exploitation as an essential aspect of a society dominated by a class of employers (and I agree with him on this view), as a basis for criticizing the impracticality of a proposal for universal basic income (see his Youtube presentation)–which I will address in relation to basic income in another post), but he isolates the concept of “decent wages” from any consideration of exploitation. 

The concept of “decent wages” in effect justifies the exploitation of workers and their continued economic coercion. That does not mean, of course, that I would criticize workers for seeking to increase their wages–increasing the standard of living does have the potentiality of improving the quality of life for those who work for employers, and I also have sought to increase my wages or salary to improve my quality of life. However, seeking to increase wages does not make the wages “decent”–given exploitation. 

By referring to “decent wages,” Mr. Clarke, despite his references to exploitation, implicitly uses the standard of working for an employer as a standard for determining what is decent work. This limitation of the left has been noted by others. Kathleen Millar (2017) has argued just that in her critique of the isolation of a set of individuals as the “precariat”. From “Toward a critical Politics of Precarity,” Sociology Compass, Volume 11,  pages 6-7: 

At the same time, translating the concept of precarity to different parts of the world has also meant recognizing that precarity is originary to capitalism. The very condition of having to depend on a wage to sustain one’s life is what makes a worker precarious—not just the specific structures of this or that job (Barchiesi, 2012a; Denning, 2010). From this perspective, precarity is capitalism’s norm, not its exception, and is shared by all workers whether employed or unemployed. We usually think of the worker with a stable, full‐time job as the model of capitalist labor—against which the numerous unemployed, informal, or wageless workers (largely in the global South) are compared. But the latter
reveal the latent precarity of all workers who must sell their labor‐power for a living. This means that the precarity of labor, far from being the exception in capitalism, is the necessary condition for the creation of capital.

To see insecurity at the heart of wage labor (rather than a condition of its absence) is to complicate the current denunciatory discourse of precarity. Critiques of precarity—whether explicitly or as another element of what Thorkelson (2016) describes as its political unconscious—uphold full‐time, wage‐labor employment as an ideal. One problem with this politics of precarity is that it ignores how wage labor can itself be an experience of insecurity, degradation, exploitation, and abuse. For example, Franco Barchiesi (2011) makes this argument through his study of wage labor as a technique of governance in both colonial and postcolonial South Africa. He shows how colonial administrators emphasized the “dignity of work” as a way to use wage labor to discipline African populations seen as “uncivilized” and “unruly.” Many African workers refused waged employment, instead opting for various forms of
subsistence labor or self‐employment that, while insecure, allowed them to avoid the discipline and indignity experienced when working in factories and mines. In this historical context, Barchiesi argues, “precarious employment was not a condition of disadvantage but enabled opposition to the labor‐centered citizenship of Western modernity” (15). Barchiesi goes on to show how today, the continued emphasis on “decent jobs” and “job creation” in postapartheid South Africa fuels the precariousness of workers by continuing to link social citizenship to full‐time wage labor at
the same time that stable employment is increasingly scarce (see also Barchiesi, 2012b). The emphasis on decent jobs also reinforces forms of masculinity, nationalism, and inequality that a social order structured around wage labor produced. In short, the demand for decent jobs, as a solution to precarity, generates a conservative politics attached to the valorization of wage labor. It also precludes the “political potentials of precarity” (Barchiesi, 2012b, 248) or what I have described elsewhere as the possibility that forms of work beyond wage labor might open up other ways of fashioning work and life (Millar, 2014).

This brings me back to the question that began this article: what are we holding onto through the ubiquitous, denunciatory discourse of precarity? One answer to this question is certainly wage labor. Or more precisely, many critiques of precarity remain attached to what Kathi Weeks (2011) has described as the taken‐for‐granted valorization of waged work as an economic necessity, social duty, and moral practice. This attachment to waged work is part of a broader response to precarity that has reaffirmed normative modes of life. For example, Lauren Berlant (2011) argues that conditions of precarity have led to deepened aspirations for and reinvestments in the normative good life—a
stable job, middle‐class home, guaranteed rewards for hard work, and the promise of upward mobility. These forms of attachment, she suggests, paradoxically become obstacles to fulfilling the very desires that are wrapped up with the aspiration for a good life. This produces what Berlant calls a “relation of cruel optimism” (170).

Alternatively, we could see the denunciation of precarity through the lens of “left melancholy.” Drawing on Walter Benjamin’s use of this term, Wendy Brown (1999) reflects on the ways leftist politics remains mournfully committed to ideals, categories, and movements that have been lost, preventing the possibility of radical change in the here and now.4 To cling to the ideal of full employment and decent jobs, rather than to question waged work as a social and economic requirement, could certainly be an example of left melancholy. But Brown is less interested in specifying the objects of attachment than in showing how the very state of melancholia replaces a political commitment to disruption with an unacknowledged pernicious traditionalism. In other words, perhaps it matters less what one is holding onto, just that one is holding on. Or as Dorothy Day (1952) insisted in her decades‐old article on precarity, “The thing to do is not to hold on to anything.”

Mr. Clarke, like so many social-democratic or social-reformist leftists, implicitly clings to working for an employer as the standard for his own goals. 

This implicit standard is kept separate from Mr. Clarke’s rhetorical references to exploitation, which serve to hide his social-democratic or social-reformist political position. 

Let me make a categorical statement: There is no such thing as a decent wage. To work for an employer is in itself degrading, exploitative and oppressive. The concept of a decent wage serves to hide this exploitative situation (see The Money Circuit of Capital). 

Mr. Clarke, apparently, only aims at refurbishing the welfare state rather than abolishing exploitation. Like Mr. Bush’s own references to exploitation, Mr. Clarke uses the concept as a rhetorical flourish (in his case, to criticize a radical policy of basic income) while conveniently “forgetting” the concept when it comes to the issue of whether wages can ever be decent.

Thus, on Mr. Clarke’s blog, on March 7, 2021, in a post titled http://WHEN YOUR ENEMY’S ENEMY IS NOT A FRIEND we read: 

  In a world based on exploitation and oppression, resistance is ever present. … 

 The US and its junior partners compete with their major rivals and pose a terrible threat to the poor and oppressed countries they seek to dominate and exploit. However, we can’t forget that those countries are themselves class divided societies and that not all the exploitation and oppression that their populations face comes out of Washington. Domestic capitalists are also the enemy and the governments of those countries, even where they clash with US objectives, still represent the interests of these home grown exploiters. [my emphases]

Despite his reference to exploitation, Mr. Clarke conveniently forgets the concept when it comes to referring to a “decent wage.” Nowhere does Mr. Clarke justify his view that there is such a thing as a decent wage. There are undoubtedly better wages and worse wages, but how any wage is decent is something that Mr. Clarke merely assumes rather than demonstrates.

The reference to “decent wages” is a social-democratic trick to hide the fact that there is no such thing as “decent wages” in a society dominated by a class of employers. How can any wage be decent when it involves at a minimum economic coercion and oppression of workers by treating them as things or means for purposes not defined by them (see The Money Circuit of Capital  and  Employers as Dictators, Part One)  but by a minority and, in addition, exploitation that involves producing a surplus (see for example  The Rate of Exploitation of Workers at Magna International Inc., One of the Largest Private Employers in Toronto, Part One )?

Furthermore, in the case of workers in the private sector, in the case of both oppression and exploitation, the results of the previous labour of workers is used to further oppress and exploit the workers by means of previous acts of oppression and exploitation–an intensified form of oppression and exploitation (something Mr. Clarke entirely ignores). Mr. Clarke simply ignores this additional feature of exploitation and oppression.

Mr. Clarke thus uses the concept of exploitation for social-democratic purposes–an anti-neoliberal purpose and not an anti-capitalist purpose. Advocating for decent wages while using the word “exploitation” is contradictory–but exploitation is really just a word for Mr. Clarke. Alternatively, Mr. Clarke believes that workers are exploited–but that such exploitation cannot be abolished. He certainly never advocates the abolition of exploitation, and his aim of achieving decent wages simply ignores the issue. 

What I wrote in another post relation to Ms. Dhunna and Mr. Bush’s political position applies as much to Mr. Clarke:

Dhunna and Bush’s first aim–to “meaningfully improve the material realities of working class and oppressed people”–sounds both practical and radical. It is actually conservative since its focus is entirely on distributional struggles rather than struggles over control of working conditions at both the micro and macro levels. Indeed, since this is their primary goal, they practically define a socialist society as an enhanced welfare state–capitalism with a more human face.

By focusing on distributional struggles, they imply, without ever saying it, that wider struggles to control working conditions are impractical and utopian. They, the realists, know what “bread and butter issues” are relevant for the working class, and such “bread and butter issues” are purely distributional struggles. Such a stance is conservative–its aim is not to end class rule, but to perpetuate it–though in a more humanized form than at present.

Wages, Exploitation and the Accumulation of Capital 

This  becomes even more evident when we consider, not only the immediate exchange between workers and employers and the subsequent exploitation but also the antecedent processes of exploitation. When we consider the process of exploitation and oppression of workers as a process, the immediate exchange between workers and employers (whether through collective or individual bargaining) is actually the use of surplus value (symbolized by “s” produced by workers in earlier rounds of exploitation to further exploit them. I referred to this process in my critique of Dhunna and Bush’s conservative use of Marx’s theory of exploitation. From Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, volume 1, pages 727-730:

Let us now return to our example. It is the old story: Abraham begat Isaac, Isaac begat Jacob and so on. The original capital of £10,000 brings in a surplus-value of £2,000, which is capitalized. The new capital of £2,000 brings in a surplus-value of £400, and this too is capitalized, transformed into a second additional capital, which in its turn produces a further surplus-value of £80. And the process continues in this way.

We leave out of account here the portion of the surplus-value consumed by the capitalist. We are also not interested, for the moment, in whether the additional capital is joined on to the original capital, or separated from it so that it can valorize itself independently. Nor are we concerned whether the same capitalist employs it who originally accumulated it, or whether he hands it over to others. All we must remember is this: by the side of the newly formed capital, the original capital continues to reproduce itself and to produce surplus-value, and this is true of all accumulated capital in relation to the additional capital engendered by it.

The original capital was formed by the advance of £10,000. Where did its owner get it from? ‘From his own labour and that of his forefathers’, is the unanimous answer of the spokesmen of political economy. And, in fact, their assumption appears to be the only one consonant with the laws of commodity production.

But it is quite otherwise with regard to the additional capital of £2,000. We know perfectly well how that originated. There is not one single atom of its value that does not owe its existence to unpaid labour. The means of production with which the additional labour-power is incorporated, as well as the necessaries with which the workers are sustained, are nothing but component parts of the surplus product, parts of the tribute annually exacted from the working class by the capitalist class. Even if the latter uses a portion of that tribute to purchase the additional labour-power at its full price, so that equivalent is exchanged for equivalent, the whole thing still remains the age-old activity of the conqueror, who buys commodities from the conquered with the money he has stolen from them.

If the additional capital employs the person who produced it, this producer must not only continue to valorize the value of the original capital, but must buy back the fruits of his previous labour with more labour than they cost. If we view this as a transaction between the capitalist class and the working class, it makes no difference that additional workers are employed by means of the unpaid labour of the previously employed workers. The capitalist may even convert the additional capital into a machine that throws the producers of that capital out of work, and replaces them with a few children. In every case, the working class creates by the surplus labour of one year the capital destined to employ additional labour in the following year.5 And this is what is called creating capital out of capital.

The accumulation of the first additional capital of £2,000 presupposes that a value of £10,000 exists, advanced by the capitalist, and belonging to him by virtue of his ‘original labour’. The second additional capital of £400 presupposes, on the contrary, only the prior accumulation of the £2,000, of which the £400 is the capitalized surplus-value. The ownership of past unpaid labour is thenceforth the sole condition for the appropriation of living unpaid labour on a constantly increasing scale. The more the capitalist has accumulated, the more is he able to accumulate.

The surplus-value that makes up additional capital no. 1 is the result of the purchase of labour-power with part of the original capital, a purchase which conformed to the laws of commodity exchange and which, from a legal standpoint, presupposes nothing beyond the worker’s power to dispose freely of his own capacities, and the money-owner’s or commodity-owner’s power to dispose freely of the values that belong to him; equally, additional capital no. 2 is merely the result of additional capital no. 1, and is therefore a consequence of the relations described above; hence each individual transaction continues to conform to the laws of commodity exchange, with the capitalist always buying labour power and the worker always selling it at what we shall assume is its real value. It is quite evident from this that the laws of appropriation or of private property, laws based on the production and circulation of commodities, become changed into their direct opposite through their own internal and inexorable dialectic. The exchange of equivalents, the original operation with which we started, is now turned round in such a way that there is only an apparent exchange, since, firstly, the capital which is exchanged for labour-power is itself merely a portion of the product of the labour of others which has been appropriated without an equivalent; and, secondly, this capital must not only be replaced by its producer, the worker, but replaced together with an added surplus. The relation of exchange between capitalist and worker becomes a mere semblance belonging only to the process of circulation, it becomes a mere form, which is alien to the content of the transaction itself, and merely mystifies it. The constant sale and purchase of labour power is the form; the content is the constant appropriation by the capitalist, without equivalent, of a portion of the labour of others which has already been objectified, and his repeated exchange of this labour for a greater quantity of the living labour of others.

The immediate exchange between workers and employers is an exchange of equivalents, so that workers receive the value of their cost of production. However, when considering the larger context of previous production, then the immediate exchange between employer and workers is a semblance . The employer uses a part of the surplus produced by the workers in a previous round as means of production (machines, raw material, buildings, etc.) and another part (socially as money and physically as means of consumption, such as food, clothing, shelter) to further employ them (in addition to the initial investment). 

If this is the case, how can anyone who believes in the existence of class exploitation refer to wages as decent wages? There is no such thing. Wages used to control the working class and to exploit them in the present, when conceived in the continuous process of production and exchange, are derived from surplus value produced in antecedent rounds of production so that the wage they receive today is the result of past exploitation and oppression.

The present domination of workers at work by employers is a consequence of past accumulation of surplus value and its investment in the further exploitation of workers.  How anyone who is anti-capitalist could refer to wages as “decent” is beyond me–unless they are really only anti-neoliberal (a particular form of capitalism but not capitalism as such) and not anti-capitalist, despite the rhetoric to the contrary. 

Again, the issues of exploitation and the accumulation of capital need to be linked together when determining whether there is such a thing as a decent wage. The following couple of long quotes by  Teinosuke Otani (2018) points to this need –a need that Mr. Clarke ignores by referring to decent wages as a primary aim without even engaging into inquiry into the nature of capitalist relations of production and exchange.

The first long quote has to do with what is called simple reproduction, where the private employer exploits workers by obliging them to work for more time than they themselves cost to produce, thereby enabling the private employer or capitalist to appropriate and then consume the entire surplus value (profit) produced. Since the entire surplus value (profit) is consumed, each year the same level of investment arises–simple reproduction. 

From  Teinosuke Otani (2018),  A Guide to Marxian Political Economy: What Kind of a Social System Is Capitalism?, pages 218-224 ( emphases in the original):   

8.4 Capital as the Materialisation of Unpaid Labour of Others

Under simple reproduction, it is assumed that the capitalist consumes the entirety of the surplus-value appropriated from the worker year after year. Now let’s assume that during a period of 5 years, a capital value of 1000 brings the capitalist a surplus-value of 200 every year and that the capitalist consumes this entire amount. At the end of the 5 years, he still has the 1000 in capital value that he possessed at the outset, but over the 5 years, he has appropriated 1000 in surplus-value from the worker and consumed this 1000 in value.

The capitalist would likely say: «It is precisely because I initially possessed 1000 in value, as the fruit of my own labour, that I was able to appropriate and consume 200 in value every year. The 1000 in value that I advance each year—no matter how many years this is repeated—is the initial value created by my labour».

The situation appears quite different, however, if we carefully observe the process as repeated reproduction.

Let’s take our capitalist at his word here and assume that the 1000 in value he started off with was appropriated through his own labour, so that it is the materialisation of his own labour.

During the 5-year period, the capitalist consumes a sum of value equal to the value he initially possessed. Yet after the 5 years, he is still in possession of a sum of value equal to what he started off with. Why? What is clear is that it is precisely because the capitalist has received the 1000 in surplus value for free that he can still have 1000 in value despite having consumed that amount. The 1000 that he holds after 5 years is thus the result of the 1000 in surplus-value appropriated during the 5 years, merely representing the total sum of 1000 in surplus-value obtained for free. This point can be well understood if we consider what would happen to the capitalist, who consumes 200 in value every year, if he did not appropriate any surplus-value during those years. In such a case, even if he had 1000 the first year, he would have no alternative but to consume 200 every year, reducing by that amount the sum of money that could be advanced as capital. After 5 years, the sum would reach zero and he would cease to be a capitalist. The fact that he is able to still exist as a capitalist at the end of 5 years, with 1000 in capital, is clearly the outcome of appropriating 200 surplus-value every year over the course of that period.

The capitalist in our example has appropriated the materialisation of 1000 in value from another person’s labour during a 5-year period. Since the capitalist is still in possession of 1000 in value after 5 years, having lived by consuming 200 per year, his 1000 is nothing but the materialisation of the labour of others. Even if the capital value the capitalist initially possessed was the materialisation of his own labour, the capital value he is now in possession of after 5 years is the materialisation of the worker’s surplus-value, which is to say, thematerialisation of the labour of others. Starting from the sixth year, the capitalist appropriates further surplus-value that is the materialisation of others’ labour by means of capital value that is also purely the materialisation of the labour of others. 

8.5 Reproduction of Capital-ownership Through Appropriating the Labour
of Others

At first glance, the capital relation, which is the relation of production between capitalists and workers, seems to continue to exist, as is, year after year. In particular, it seems that the pivot of this continuity is the capitalist’s continued possession of capital, which he owned from the outset. In fact, however, as noted in the previous section, the capital relation is not an inorganic entity like a cornerstone, which cannot collapse once put in place unless some outside force is applied, but rather is maintained by being constantly reproduced and formed through the labour of labouring individuals within the production process. This is similar to how the human body is maintained by the infinite number of cells that compose it being replaced every day by newly created ones.

… 

Now let’s imagine that a person with no money borrows 1000 in value from someone (assuming that the loan is free of interest) and makes it function as capital for a 5-year period, during which he appropriates 200 in surplus-value every year and that after 5 years he repays the 1000. Once the loan had been repaid, he would return to his penniless state and cease to be a capitalist. In this case, the fact that he was able to exist as a capitalist for 5 years was not because he held on to 1000 in value during the 5 years. Indeed, if the 1000 had not functioned as capital, he would have consumed the 1000 during the 5 years, leaving him with nothing but the debt for that amount. The reason the capitalist is instead able to still have 1000, and was able to consume 200 in value every year, is that during those 5 years, he made the 1000 in value function as capital and was thus able to appropriate 200 in surplus-value from workers each year. It is precisely because of appropriating this unpaid labour that the capitalist is able to exist as a capitalist for a period of 5 years.

Even if, during the 5-year period, he had been able to live without consuming the 200 of surplus-value or had somehow been able to procure a separate consumption fund to last the 5 years, so that even after repaying the 1000 by the end of that period he would have a total of 1000 in value appropriated from workers, it would still be clear that this value is the mass of surplus-value appropriated from the workers.

In short, the capital value owned by the capitalist must sooner or later, through the progression of reproduction, be transformed into the materialisation of the appropriated labour of others, so that the ownership of capital value by the capitalist (even if initially the result of his own labour) is transformed into the outcome of the appropriation of others’ labour, i.e. transformed into the outcome of exploitation carried out in the production process.

In simple reproduction, it is assumed that the original investment came from the labour of the purchaser of the labour power of workers and of the means of production (machinery (such as computers), buildings, raw material, and other such products), but on the basis of that assumption the preservation of the same initial investment arises through the constant exploitation of workers.

In simple reproduction the preservation of the original value of the investment year after year, therefore, is due to the continued exploitation of workers year after year. Can the wages the workers receive then be considered in any way decent under such circumstances? Let Mr. Clarke and other social democrats explain this. 

When we consider the real accumulation of capital, where part of the surplus value (profit) produced for free by workers and appropriated by private employers (capitalists) for no equivalent is not consumed but ploughed back into further investments, not only is the original value of original capital preserved through the continued exploitation of workers but the relation between the original capital invested and the new capital invested due to the exploitation of workers increasingly becomes smaller and smaller relatively as the accumulation of capital and the continuous exploitation of workers proceed. From Otani, pages 228-234:  

Our assumption here again will be that a capitalist has advanced 1000 in value and then appropriates 200 in surplus-value, all of which is subsequently advanced as additional capital.

Where does the capitalist get this 1000 in capital? The capitalists and the economists who defend their interests respond in unison that this capital was the fruit of the capitalists’ own labour or that of their forbearers. But we have already seen that, even seen from the perspective of simple reproduction, all capital is transformed into a mass of unpaid labour of others through the recurrence of reproduction and that capital-ownership is also reproduced through the appropriation of unpaid labour. But, for now, let us accept the capitalist’s view of the situation.

… commodity holders in the sphere of commodity exchange recognise each other as private owners, but in so doing, they do not concern themselves with how the other person came to possess his commodity. Instead, they can only assume that this other person obtained it through his own labour. This socially accepted assumption that a private owner’s property title stems from own labour is the property laws of commodity production.

When the capitalist initially appears on the market with 1000 and purchases means of production and labour-power at their value, those involved in the commodity and labour markets do not care how he came into possession of the 1000 in value, provided he is the proper owner of that sum. Those involved in the transaction all assume with regard to each other that commodities and money were obtained through their own labour, with each quite content to declare: «I worked to save up this 1000» or «It was obtained through my parents’ hard work». And it seems that this is the only assumption that could be made, according to the property laws of commodity production.

The situation is completely different, however, in the case of the 200 that the capitalist seeks to advance as additional capital. We are perfectly familiar with the process that generates this sum of value, knowing that it was originally surplus-value. This means that the 200 in its entirety is the objectification [materialisation] of the unpaid labour of others. The additional means of production and additional labour power purchased with this sum are nothing more than a new form taken by this value qua [as] objectification of unpaid labour.

Viewed as a transaction between the capitalist class and working class, we have a situation where the working class, through its surplus-labour in the current year, creates the new capital that becomes the additional means of production and additional labour-power the following year.

Now let us assume that the 200 is advanced in the second year as additional capital and yields 40 in surplus-value [the same rate of profit as the initial investment of 1000 with a surplus value of 200: 200/1000=40/200=1/5=20 percent]. Since the original capital also generates 200 in surplus-value in the second year, by the third year, there is 440 (in addition to the 1000) that can be advanced as capital [First year: 200s from the initial exploitation of workers+ second year, an additional 200s  from the 1000 again invested and used to exploit the workers +the 40s produced in the second year by the workers and used for further investment in the third year=440]. Not only is 400 unmistakably the objectification of unpaid labour, 40 is the objectification of unpaid labour appropriated through the additional capital, which itself is the objectification of unpaid labour. If this process of accumulating all the surplus-value is repeated for the subsequent 4 years, by the end of that period the capitalist will have—in addition to his original capital of 1000, which we could call the «parent»—the surplus-value appropriated through the parent capital during the 4 years… Together this forms an «offspring» of 1074. So if the capitalist advances the aggregate capital in the fifth year, there will be 2074 of capital («parent» and «offspring») in operation that year. [The capitalist is assumed to exploit workers to the extent of 20 percent per unit. At the end of the first year, 1000×1.2=1,200; this is invested in the second year, and at the end of the second year, 1,200×1.2=1,440; this is invested at the beginning of the third year, and at the end of the third year, 1,440×1.2=1,728; this is invested at the beginning of the fourth year, and at the end of the fourth year, 1,728×1.2=2074, which again can be invested at the beginning of the fifth year…]. 

Even if we assume that the capitalist possessed the 1000 of the 2074 to begin with, he certainly cannot claim that the remaining 1074 in value was created through his own labour. As long as it is recognised that the 200 in surplus-value appropriated every year from the 1000 in capital is the objectification
of surplus-labour, then this 1074 in value is, from top to bottom, the surplus-value transformed back into capital and thus the objectification of labour of others. … In other words, we are dealing with a mass of surplus-labour appropriated through a mass of surplus-labour.

The more the reproduction of capital is repeated, the smaller the original capital advanced, until it becomes an infinitesimal amount. The surplus-value transformed back into capital, whether it is made to function as capital in the hands of the person who accumulated it or in the hands of someone else, comes to represent the overwhelming part of the capital that currently exists.

The capitalist every year buys the means of production and labour-power on the commodity market and labour market in accordance with the property laws of commodity production in order to repeatedly carry out production. The result of this is that the capitalist appropriates unpaid living
labour on an increasingly large scale by making the unpaid surplus-labour of others function as capital. Marx refers to the capitalist’s appropriation of unpaid labour in this manner as the laws of capitalist appropriation.

In the market, which is the surface layer of capitalist production, the property law of commodity production operates. But if we consider the production of capital that underlies this in terms of social reproduction, it becomes clear that the law of capitalist appropriation is in operation. Where the capital relation exists, the law of capitalist appropriation is the necessary consequence of the property laws of commodity production. Marx expresses this reality by referring to the inversion of the property laws of commodity production in the laws of capitalist appropriation.

The surplus-value qua ]as] objectification of the surplus-labour of another person, which the capitalist appropriates in the production process, is turned into capital; and the ownership of this capital value is thus the result of the appropriation of surplus-value in the production process. The capitalist’s
appropriation of surplus-value in the production process precedes, and brings about, his ownership of capital. Here it is precisely the production of surplus-value by the labouring individuals first. Rather, it is precisely the behaviour of the labouring individuals within the production process that is always generating the ownership of the means of production by the capitalist within the production process that generates capital ownership.

At first glance, there seemed to be a vicious circle with regard to capitalist ownership of the means of production by the capitalist and his appropriation of surplus-value, wherein the latter is only possible through the former, but the latter always generates the former. However, within this relation,
the active determining moment that continues capitalist production as such is the constant reproduction of products within the production process by the labouring individuals and the constant production of surplus-value. Labouring individuals are the active subject of continual production,
regardless of the form of society, but under capitalist production, we have a situation where labouring individuals completely separated from the conditions of labour come into contact with the means of production in the production process as things belonging to others, which means that the resulting
surplus-labour always belongs to others as well, and through this there is the continual reproduction of capital and wage-labour and the relation between them. Thus, in terms of the
capitalist ownership of the means of production, and the capitalists’ appropriation of surplus-value, it cannot be said that the former is the immovable premise or even that it is a vicious circle where it cannot be said which of the two comes first. Rather, it is precisely the behaviour of the labouring individuals within the production process that is always generating the ownership of the means of production by the capitalist.

When conceived as a continuous process of exploitation and accumulation of capital, the idea of “decent wages” sounds and is hollow. The idea of “decent wages” completely ignores the whole process of exploitation founded on previous exploitation. Mr. Clarke, practically, by referring to “decent wages,” converts his references to exploitation into mere words, emptied of content. 

What is necessary is to criticize the claims of capitalist society’s own ideologues. From Elena Lange (2021),  Value without Fetish: Uno Kōzō’s Theory of ‘Pure Capitalism’ in Light of Marx’s Critique of Political Economy, page 33: 

… Marx was less interested in contrasting the capitalist mode of production with the utopias of socialism, but in contrasting the bourgeois mode of production with its own claims.

Mr. Clarke, despite his nod towards Marx’s theory of exploitation, seems to have little interest in critiquing the claims of the ideologues of employers when he refers to decent wages. 

The Parallel of Decent Work and Decent Wages: The Case of the Social-Democratic International Labour Organization (ILO) 

Mr. Clarke has more in common with the social-democratic rhetoric of the International Labour Organization (ILO) than with any Marxian critique of capitalist society. The ILO talks about “decent work” and the like, and it claims that labour should not be treated as a commodity–but workers need to treat themselves necessarily as commodities, and euphemisms about “decent wages” and “decent work” serve to hide that fact. From Gerry Rodgers, Eddy Lee, Lee Swepston and Jasmien Van Daele (2009),  The International Labour Organization and the Quest for Social Justice, 1919–2009, page 7: 

Key passages from these documents are reproduced in Appendix II. Together, they identify the principles, issues and means of governance that lie at the heart of the ILO ’s work.

Five basic principles can be distinguished in these texts.

  • Lasting peace cannot be achieved unless it is based on social justice, grounded in freedom, dignity, economic security and equal opportunity.
  • Labour should not be regarded merely as a commodity or an article of commerce.
  • There should be freedom of association, for both workers and employers, along with freedom of expression, and the right to collective bargaining.
  • These principles are fully applicable to all human beings, irrespective of race, creed or sex.
  • Poverty anywhere constitutes a danger to prosperity everywhere, and must be addressed through both national and international action.

These moral and political principles guide the action of the ILO , and provide the cognitive framework for its work – the spectacles through which the ILO sees the world. The first of these, that peace must be based on social justice, has been considered above. It lays out the overriding reason for the existence of the Organization. The second provides the fundamental principle guiding its action. It expresses the dignity of labour and the recognition of its value, in contrast to the Marxian notion that, under capitalism, labour becomes a commodity. In the ILO ’s vision, all forms of work can, if they are adequately regulated and organized, be a source of personal well-being and social integration. Of course, labour is bought and sold, but market mechanisms are subordinate to higher goals. The original 1919 Constitution states that “labour should not be regarded merely as a commodity”. By the time of the Declaration of Philadelphia, the same idea is expressed more strongly: “Labour is not a commodity.”

Labour in Marxian economics is certainly not a commodity, but labour power is–the capacity to work or to use means of production to produce a product. The ILO simply denies that it labour (power) should be a commodity–all the while denying the reality that it is in fact a commodity and must be a commodity if capitalist society is to emerge and to continue to exist. (Of course, unfree forms of labour (so that workers cannot freely choose a particular employer) can exist side by side with free labour–but the existence of free labour power as a commodity is still necessary. It may not be very pleasant to think about the social implications of the necessary existence of labour power as a commodity, but it is necessary to do in order to enable the working class to formulate policies that will more likely enable them to control their own lives by abolishing all class relations. 

Just as the ILO places a veil over the eyes of workers by arguing that labour (power) should not be a commodity–whereas it is necessarily a commodity in a society dominated by a class of employers, with the associated economic, social and political structures–so too do Mr. Clarke’s references to decent wages place a veil over our eyes by implicitly denying that workers are necessarily and continuously exploited. 

I would like to know what Mr. Clarke means by decent wages. Are the wages received by the unionized workers for Magna International, Air Canada, Rogers Communication, Suncor Energy or Telus decent wages? (see various posts that attempt to calculate the rate of exploitation for these unionized workers). If so, how does Mr. Clarke square such a view with the fact of exploitation? If not, then the concept of decent wages has no relevance for workers other than as an ideological cloak for their continued exploitation.

Or are the wages that I received as a brewery worker in the early 1980s decent wages? For example, at the brewery where I worked in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, in the collective agreement between the Brewery Employers Industrial Relations Association (BEIRA) (for Carling O’Keefe) and the Western Union of Brewery, Beverage, Winery and Distillery Workers, Local 287, dated April 1, 1980 to March 31, 1983, bottling operators received a base wage of $13.20 on April 1, 1982. Sick pay was 12 days per year, a guaranteed wage plan, life insurance up to $20,000, a long-term disability plan, paid basic Alberta Health Care Insurance Plan, hospital expenses to a maximum, major medical expenses (with a yearly deductible of $10 for an individual and $20 for a family)), a dental plan, etc. In fact, many of the benefits specified by Mr. Clarke in his reference to Dhunna and Bush’s article (“much else beside”) are included in the collective agreement. ,

(I ended up operating a machine, at first part of the soaker from the end where the cleaned bottles come out of the soaker as well as the EBI (electric bottle inspector), and then when there was technological change, just the EBI unit (and maintaining the line going into the filler free of glass).

Did I receive a decent wage? What of the surplus value that had been used in previous rounds of accumulation that were used to further exploit us? Should not these facts be  taken into account when judging whether there is anything like a decent wage? Apparently not. 

Conclusion

Mr. Clarke refers to exploitation and capitalism often enough, but he then conveniently forgets about it when he refers to “decent wages.” Mr. Clarke is anti-neoliberal but not really anti-capitalist–despite the rhetoric to the contrary. A real anti-capitalist perspective would never refer to any wage as decent–or for that matter any work that involves working for an employer as decent work. 

In a follow-up post, I will critically analyze Mr. Clarke’s references to “economic coercion.” I may or may not integrate such  an analysis with a critique of Mr. Clarke’s criticisms of a basic income. 

 

A Basic Income Versus the Expansion of Public Services? Part One: Critique of the Social-democratic Idea that the Expansion of Public Services is Socialist

Introduction

Simran Dhunna and David Bush have written an article that criticizes moves towards a universal basic income (see https://springmag.ca/against-the-market-we-can-do-better-than-basic-income).

The Aim or Goal of Their Intervention

The first question to ask is: What is the aim or goal of their intervention? What are they seeking to achieve?

They write:

But those committed to principled class struggle should strive for the decommodification of public services. Compared with universal basic income, universal basic services cost less, meaningfully improve the material realities of working class and oppressed people, and affirm the power of publicly owned and operated infrastructure. That’s our bread and butter.

They seek to achieve three things, it seems:

  1. “meaningfully improve the material realities of working-class and oppressed people”
  2. affirm the power of publicly owned and operated infrastructure
  3. achieve points 1 ad 2 at minimal cost.

In this post, I will critically look at the first point.

In another post, I will look at the second point, and in a final post I will address the issue of costs–and how they create a strawman of a minimal basic income.

Meaningfully Improving the Material Realities of Working-Class and Oppressed People

Part of the title of their article claims that they are against the market–apparently against the market providing certain services; their alternative is having the government provide those services (hence the term “decommodification”–the conversion of services from services or commodities that are purchased on the market via money to the offering of such services without the direct mediation of money). This idea of supporting the working class by means of state services rather than through the capitalist market is supposed to “meaningfully improve the material realities of working-class and oppressed people.”

They write:

At the cost of $29 billion annually, we could have free transit in major cities ($10 billion), clean drinking water for every First Nation ($4.5 billion), eliminate tuition fees at all universities ($11 billion), and end homelessness ($4.5 billion). If we are spending $177 billion dollars a year (the cost of a negative income tax model to raise people to $21,810), we could have all of the above plus a universal pharmacare program, universal childcare, universal dental care, and begin to implement a robust public housing policy.  

It may not appear that they are social democrats since they evidently state that class struggle from below will be necessary to realize the provision of such services:

But those committed to principled class struggle should strive for the decommodification of public services.

The state is supposed to be forced to provide such services through class struggle (I will address the adequacy of the term “decommodification” later in this post). Now, I certainly agree with the need to engage in class struggle in order to provide as many services as possible without the direct mediation of the market. The realization of free tuition, for example, would have saved me the need to work for an employer in order to pay off students loans that I had needed three times in my adult life. Struggles to achieve such services furnished by the state rather than directly through the market should therefore be supported.

One of the questions to be asked is: What is the purpose or aim of shift from the provision of services provided by the market to the provision of services provided by the state or public services? Is it to move towards the elimination of the power of employers as a class? Towards the elimination of corresponding oppressive and exploitation structures at work in the private sector (see for example a general outline of such oppressive and exploitative structures in Employers as Dictators, Part One)? Towards the elimination of oppressive structures of the government as a public power (the oppressive structures of the government in relation to citizens and residents internally and military structures externally)? Towards the oppressive and exploitative relations of the government as an employer? (See the post referenced above as well as The Money Circuit of Capital). It would seem not.

Rather, the main aim is to “meaningfully improve the material realities of working-class and oppressed people” in order, ultimately, to eliminate “the level of poverty and inequality”–presumably measured according to the level of income. The focus is on the elimination of poverty and inequality (defined according to level of income):

Some of the appeal of UBI comes from the wishful idea that it can solve all of our problems at once, lifting people out of poverty and making education and public services accessible. But the basic costs show that UBI is, by any measure, a terrible use of resources to address inequality and poverty. As the CCPA’s David MacDonald noted in his study, the $29 billion spent on such a UBI scheme would achieve — at best — less than a 2 percent reduction in the poverty rate, which would “be quite wasteful” when considering the amount of money spent.

The first aim of the authors, then, is limited to an enhanced welfare state–something like what John Cartwright, president of Toronto and York Labour District Council, called for (see my critique in The Limitations of Social-Democracy in the Face of the Coronavirus). Mr. Cartwright wrote:

Reinvestment in our public services and social safety net is the right thing to do – not only now, during COVID-19, but permanently in Canadian society.

The Feasibility of Their Goal

Are such reforms feasible? There is evidence that their proposals could indeed be achievable within the existing social structure and social relations, and such reforms should be supported–all the while criticizing any attempt to limit the class struggle to such goals.

I have pointed out in another post how free transit has already been implemented in various capitalist countries (see What’s Left, Toronto? Part Four). Free tuition at the undergraduate level is available in Germany.

Homelessness has been addressed without changing the basic class structure by combining the aim of eliminating it with other measures that facilitate achieving that aim. In the northern Italian city of Trieste, for example, homelessness was reduced by providing supports for those with mental health problems since around half of those homeless have mental health issues (https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2019/dec/10/homelessness-is-not-inevitable-and-can-be-solved-these-cities-show-us-how). Helsinki, the capital of Finland, by contrast, addressed the issue of homelessness by providing access to housing while providing other social supports through the Housing First program. From https://borgenproject.org/homelessness-in-helsinki/:

In Helsinki, homelessness decreased to 35 percent, with 1,345 people now off the streets. Rough sleeping is almost non-existent, and there is only one 50-bed night shelter remaining. This is good news for street sleepers who have endured deadly winter temperatures as low as -7C° (19F°). “If you’re sleeping outside [in the middle of winter], you might die,” said Thomas Salmi, a tenant at a housing facility in Helsinki. Deputy Mayor Sanna Vesikansa, who witnessed a large number of homeless people in Helsinki as a child, said, “We hardly have that any more [sic]. Street sleeping is very rare now.”

Since 2008, Housing First has spent over 250 million euros in creating new homes and hiring staff. Meanwhile, Helsinki has seen savings upward of 15,000 euros a year in emergency healthcare, social services and the justice system. In 2018, some tenants moved out of Rukilla, able to live independent lives. The benefits outweigh the cost.

Eradicating homelessness in Helsinki is far from complete. However, the major reduction in long-term homelessness must be applauded. Helsinki has proven when authorities are fully committed, positive change can occur.

There is therefore room for reform in various social domains within societies dominated by the class of employers. Such reforms undoubtedly improve the lives of some of the workers and community members, and as a consequence they should be praised and fought for.

Limitations of Their Goal

I fail to see anything wrong with aiming to improve the material well being of workers and oppressed peoples. The problem arises when the advocates of such proposals simultaneously limit the goals of workers and oppressed peoples by ignoring their problems or by criticizing alternative proposals that address such problems.

It is my contention that their opposition to basic income does just that: it limits the aspirations of workers and oppressed peoples to a society that continues to be dominated by a class of employers despite calls for class struggle and material well-being. They oppose a policy of basic income in part because it might free workers from the need to work for an employer–which they implicitly identify falsely with the need to work:

Basic income would have the effect of distancing workers’ labour from their wages. Instead of being paid directly for their work, part of the wage of workers would come from their own tax dollars in the form of basic income. 

Dhunna and Bush object to aiming for the goal of “distancing workers labour from their wages.” There is, however, a tradition of aiming for the goal of separating or distancing labour from the needs of workers and others.

Distancing workers’ labour from their wages” is itself a worthy socialist goal. From Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Programme:

In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labor, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labor, has vanished; after labor has become not only a means of life but life’s prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-round development of the individual, and all the springs of cooperative wealth flow more abundantly- only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.

By focusing mainly on consumption, income level, the standard of living and poverty rates as defined by the level of income, Dhunnah’s and Bush’s goal, ultimately, is social democratic despite the reference to class struggle; many social democrats in the past have referred to class struggle without really aiming for the abolition of the power of the class of employer nor the abolition of classes–such as the German Social Democratic Party in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century (see Reform Versus Abolition of Police, Part Three).

From Moritz Muller (2019), “Of (Anti-)Capitalism, Countermovements, and Social-democratic Bedtime Stories. A Review of Recent Literature on Polanyi,” pages 135-148, Culture, Practice & Europeanization, Volume 4, Number 1, page 136:

social democracy’s concept of socialism centers around the idea that private ownership should be replaced by public and/or cooperative ownership, together with the state’s acceptance of its role as the responsible institution for social welfare.

Dhunna and Bush, like Cartwright, only look, one-sidedly, at the problem since their focus is on poverty rates, standard of living (defined by consumption) and level of income. Their implied emphasis on distribution and consumption as opposed to production and employment fails to consider that production, distribution and consumption are interrelated since human beings produce their own social lives. Distribution and consumption are two aspects of this process, but they are part of a process of socially reproducing our live through the use of means of production (machines, buildings, tools, land, raw material, auxiliary material and so forth). There is no reference to employers and their power at work in their article at all, however.

Indeed, their focus is exclusively on issues of distribution of income and consumption; they neglect to include in the concept of “the Material Realities of Working-Class and Oppressed People” material interests of workers in controlling their own lives as they produce those lives over time. The “material realities” or workers include being oppressed and being exploited–which they never address (see for example The Rate of Exploitation of Workers at Magna International Inc., One of the Largest Private Employers in Toronto, Part One and The Rate of Exploitation of Magna International Inc., One of the Largest Private Employers in Toronto, Part Two, Or: Intensified Oppression and Exploitation).

Their article reflects Marx’s characterization of the liberal reformist John Stuart Mill. From Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy, page 87:

The aim is, rather, to present production – see e.g. Mill – as distinct from distribution etc., as encased in eternal natural laws independent of history, at which opportunity bourgeois relations are then quietly smuggled in as the inviolable natural laws on which society in the abstract is founded.

Here is what the reformist John Stuart Mill wrote (quoted from Judith Janoska, Martin Bondeli, Konrad Kindle and Marc Hofer, page 104, The Chapter on Method of Karl Marx: An Historical and Systematic Commentary (in German, but the quote is in English):

The laws and conditions of the production of wealth partake of the character of physical truths [they cannot be changed–they are natural and eternal]. There is nothing optional or arbitrary in them. … It is not so with the Distribution of wealth. That is a matter of human institutions solely.

I have criticized the definition of poverty mainly according to level of income (the poverty rate) (and the corresponding standard of living) in another post since the definition fails to capture the continuing lack of freedom characteristic of work relations characterized by a market for workers (see “Capitalism needs economic coercion for its job market to function” (Ontario Coalition Against Poverty: OCAP)). I also criticized, in two other posts, Mr Bush’s inconsistent views (see Basic Income: A Critique of the Social-Reformist Left’s Assumptions and Analysis: Part One and Basic Income: A Critique of the Social-Reformist Left’s Assumptions and Analysis: Part Two). At least in his earlier writing, he tried to link production to distribution (though inadequately). Now he has abandoned all pretense of being concerned about the working lives of worker–despite the rhetoric of “class struggle.”

The push for a shift of many services from the private sector to the public sector will meet substantial opposition when it begins to affect the market for workers since the market for workers is a basic condition for the continued power and existence of employers as a class. Of course, the fact that there will be determined resistance and violence by employers and the government to ensure a ready supply of workers does not mean that such a policy should not be pursued. The authors do indeed imply that class struggle will be necessary to achieve their limited aims, but their form of class struggle works well within the limits of the continued existence of the class power of employers. However ironic it may sound, their form of class struggle is a reformist class struggle. Its aim is not the abolition of classes and therefore the class struggle, but rather the permanence of class struggle.

Their aim, in other words, is to humanize the class power of employers through class struggle rather than abolishing that class power. Their concept of socialism is really an enhanced welfare state–not the abolition of the class power of employers.

Struggles for an Expansion of Public Services and Socialism

There is no necessary connection between struggles for the expansion of free public services (free in terms of the consumer of such services not having to pay personally for such services and everyone having access to such services) and socialism. Should socialists, though, ignore such struggles? Of course not. The expansion of free public services can indeed enhance the life of workers and oppressed peoples, and it can, perhaps, permit a great possibility for the creation of a socialist society (I say perhaps for all the reasons above–the expansion of free public services often becomes a substitute for the creation of a socialist society–a society without the existence of a class of employers).

Socialists should support the expansion of free public services while simultaneously criticizing the limitations of such proposals. As Daniel Ankarloo (2009) writes, “The Swedish Welfare Model: A Road Ahead? A Road to Socialism? Or a Dead End?,” Rethinking Marxism Conference:

the first presupposition for the Left of coming out of this impasse in welfare policies is the abandonment of ‘the social policy road to socialism’ [the kind of socialism advocated by Dhunna and Bush]. And in its place embrace the seeming paradox – that even if the welfare state model in Sweden is not socialism, not even a road to socialism, as a precondition for socialism, it is vital to fight for.

Socialists must strive to integrate the present and future rather than separating them–which is typical of both social democrats and the extreme left:

as regards the welfare state, the Left in Sweden has for the most part … been unable to deal adequately with the relation of ‘welfare’ to socialism. Some in the Left – having found out that ‘welfare’ is not socialism – have denounced previous welfare achievements and current popular welfare struggles in Sweden altogether. This has left the playing field open for social democrats to
lead the movement on issues of ‘welfare’ and subsequently ‘the social policy road to
socialism’ has largely remained unchallenged. More prevalent, however, has been to try to
overcome this impasse by balancing the ‘reformist’ policies of ‘welfare’ with the
‘revolutionary’ goal of ‘socialism’ as the overthrow of capitalist relations.

Unfortunately within the Swedish Left this has almost exclusively led to a de-habilitating
gap between theory and practice, between today and tomorrow. Just as historical social
democracy in Sweden in the 1940s tried to overcome its contradictions between the Marxian
vision of socialism and ‘Functional Socialism’, … by ‘pushing socialism ahead in time’, the Left in Sweden has inherited the same problematic. Hence, for this Left, socialism is always something that happens ‘in the future’ or ‘somewhere else’ – but it is never something existing in Sweden here and now. From this perspective, at best, all we can do is to support the ‘reformist’ Swedish welfare
model, in wait for socialism. In theory the Left has adhered to ‘revolutionary socialism’, but
since this is never an immediate presence, and only happens ‘tomorrow’, in practice one is at
best ‘reformist’ in welfare issues, i.e. exponents of ‘the social policy road to socialism’.

But, the challenge of the Left today is to break with ‘the social policy road to socialism’,
with the realization that although the Swedish welfare model is not socialism, not even a road
to socialism, there is indeed an alternative way to connect welfare struggles to socialism.

We have seen the issue of how the social-democratic or reformist left break the link between the present and future before (see Reform Versus Abolition of Police, Part Three and Reform Versus Abolition of the Police, Part Five: More Philosophical Considerations).

Fighting for welfare reforms that enhance the immediate lives of workers and oppressed peoples–the “bread and butter issues” to which Dhunna and Bush refer–while striving for socialism in the present–this is what is needed (and this is what this blog is for).

Returning to the issue of basic income–there is no reason for socialists to see welfare reforms that enhance the lives of workers and oppressed peoples and the proposal for a robust basic income as mutually exclusive; we should struggle for both. However, the struggle for a robust basic income is more fundamental since it has greater potentiality for questioning the power of employers as a class at work than the distributional struggles over what is produced.

Both a robust basic income and the expansion of public services, however, are means to the end of the creation of a socialist society and not ends in themselves.

Conclusion

Dhunna and Bush’s first aim–to “meaningfully improve the material realities of working class and oppressed people”–sounds both practical and radical. It is actually conservative since its focus is entirely on distributional struggles rather than struggles over control of working conditions at both the micro and macro levels. Indeed, since this is their primary goal, they practically define a socialist society as an enhanced welfare state–capitalism with a more human face.

By focusing on distributional struggles, they imply, without ever saying it, that wider struggles to control working conditions are impractical and utopian. They, the realists, know what “bread and butter issues” are relevant for the working class, and such “bread and butter issues” are purely distributional struggles. Such a stance is conservative–its aim is not to end class rule, but to perpetuate it–though in a more humanized form than at present.

So much for Dhunna’s and Bush’s first aim. In a second post, I will address the second aim, probably more briefly–the aim of affirming the power of publicly owned and operated infrastructure.

The issue of basic income and costs and how Dhunna and Bush present mainly a straw basic income model, however, will be addressed only in the last post of this series.

Socialism and Central Planning: Mr. Gindin’s Analysis of The Political Situation of Workers in General, Part One

The following is a two-part series on Bill Resnick’s interview with Sam Gindin, in accordance with the two-part presentation of the interview. I put my summary of Mr. Gindin’s talk in italics; my comments are in regular print. I also use italics when quoting others.

One of Mr. Gindin’s key criticisms of both GM and the union that represented the workers at Oshawa is that GM promised jobs if the union would make concessions. The union made concessions–and GM reneged on the deal and eliminated the jobs. The union did not adequately respond to the repeated down scaling of the workforce but only succeeded in “managing” the down scaling.

Mr. Gindin then argues that an adequate union response requires thinking beyond GM since GM cannot solve this problem. Being militant in bargaining may get you some things, but jobs are not something that bargaining can guarantee. Retaining jobs involves a larger issue and is political. Ultimately, you are arguing on the company’s terms since it holds the trump card of maintaining the facilities open or closing shop.

Let us stop there. There is an implicit critique of the whole union model that has existed in Canada since 1944, when the federal government obliged employers to recognize unions of workers’ choice. If collective  bargaining cannot guarantee jobs, then should not Mr. Gindin criticize the union rhetoric of “fair contracts,”  “economic justice,” and “fairness” (all stock-in-trade phrases of the left here in Toronto)? And yet when the opportunity arose of criticizing the pairing of a struggle for $15 an hour minimum wage (and needed employment law reforms) with the concept of “fairness,” Mr. Gindin remained silent. Why is that? Mr. Gindin claimed that we should be humble, and yet is it not the height of arrogance on his part to presume that such pairing is unimportant? I found the equation of $15 an hour minimum wage with the concept of “fairness” to be politically conservative, and Mr. Gindin’s silence over the matter to be an example of the repeated pandering after popular opinion rather than a needed ideological struggle over what is indeed fair and not fair in our society.

How does Mr. Gindin suppose people operate? If they personally find that something is fair, and no one even addresses the issue, they eventually become cynical and reduce their activities to self-interest. Why bother, they ask themselves? Nothing will change. After all, the so-called progressives in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, think that if I work for a minimum wage of $15, have a few extra rights at work, then everything is fine–it is fair. And yet I have to drag myself out of bed to go to work that is largely determined by others. I have to accept the daily abuse experienced at work if not directly and personally by having a supervisor criticize me but indirectly and impersonally by having my work procedures, work load and so forth determined beforehand by others.  I then have to struggle to return home either by standing in packed subway cars and buses or driving  a car during rush hour to get home and find some kind of relaxation by either partying or watching TV. The rhetoric of fairness feeds into the development of a cynical attitude since most people that the lives they lead in various ways is not fair. To bullshit them by using such words and various phrases does them a great disservice.

What of workers covered by collective agreements? Mr. Gindin is silent on this score. It is not just a question of the impotence of unions to stop employers from closing shop, but he only refers to the impossibility of collective bargaining addressing the issue of jobs. Collective bargaining, however, more generally cannot address the issue of jobs because collective bargaining presupposes the legitimacy of management rights. Why does Mr. Gindin not explicitly criticize the rhetoric surrounding collective bargaining and collective agreements in general? Is this not necessary if we are to overcome the limitations of the union movement? But if criticizing the rhetoric surrounding collective bargaining and collective agreements is necessary in order to free us of the illusion of the fairness of unionized work environments, and if freeing ourselves of such an illusion is a necessary condition for fighting for a socialist society, then a socialist would engage in such criticism.

If, however, doing what is necessary to achieve a socialist society is to abandon our illusions concerning what is fair, and Mr. Gindin refuses to do what is necessary, is he not engaging in unrealistic actions? If questioning the limitations of collective bargaining and collective agreements forms a necessary component of a socialist movement, and Mr. Gindin refuses to engage in such criticism, then how effective will Mr. Gindin’s actions be in the long run?

Where is the humbleness in Mr. Gindin’s actions?

The second point is that we have to deal with the larger issue of economic reconstructing because the present system is not working for the benefit of working people. Workers are no longer getting security or decent wages. The larger issue is how do you deal with economic reconstructing generally and not just GM.

Yes, there is a larger issue, but economic reconstruction is not the only thing that is involved. Mr. Gindin talks a lot about class, but surely a socialist society would involve the abolition of a class society–a radical qualitative change in our lives.  Mr. Gindin, being a “realist,” ignores this dimension of the problem. Economic reconstruction has existed in the past; capitalist emerged through economic (and political and social) reconstruction. However, in a socialist society, the reconstruction would involve the abolition of classes–and Mr. Gindin ignores the radical qualitative change in such reconstruction.

The third point is that radical demands that go beyond GM must be able to connect to the larger community and gain its support by addressing some of its needs. Mr.Gindin then asserts that the obvious issue that connects the two is the environment.

It is hardly obvious to me. As I argued in another post (The British Labour Party’s 2019 Manifesto: More Social Democracy and More Social Reformism, Part One), the focus on climate change is presently a fad (Bill Resnick refers to climate change often enough, outlining a possible apocalyptic life). Not that environmental problems are unreal; however, if people are unmotivated to face the power of employers as a class despite the daily experience of oppression and exploitation, why does Mr. Gindin think the issue of environmental problems will somehow motivate them and have lasting power?

Let us look at the concept of “environment” for a moment. The philosopher John Dewey analyzed the nature of the environment, and it is not something which is somehow “external” to living beings (from Logic: The Theory of Inquiry, pages 33-34):

There is, of course, a natural world that exists independently of the organism, but this world is environment only as it enters directly and indirectly into life-functions. The organism is itself a part of the larger natural world and exists as organism only in active connections with its environment.

The natural world is an environment only in relation to the life process. From John Dewey, Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education, pages 12-13:

In brief, the environment consists of those conditions that promote or hinder, stimulate or inhibit, the characteristic activities of a living being. Water is the environment of a fish because it is necessary to the fish’s activities—to its life. The north pole is a significant element in the environment of an arctic explorer, whether he succeeds in reaching it or not, because it defines his activities, makes them what they distinctively are. Just because life signifies not bare passive existence (supposing there is such a thing), but a way of acting environment or medium signifies what enters into this activity as a sustaining or frustrating condition.

The environment is not something external to workers but forms the conditions within which they live both biologically and socially. Some environmental conditions are distant, others close at hand physically. Such an environment in the case of human beings is also social since we are a species that depend on each other (grounded in the relatively long period before an infant can become a productive member of the world).

What are the environmental conditions that will most likely and immediately grip the interests of workers and community members? The priority should be developing opposition to the power of employers as a class, and community issues should be linked to that issue–such as housing, health, education, social services, the police and the oppressive forms in which such community services are provided. and, yes, the environment in a wider sense, but only in conjunction with the other issues. The view that the “environment” is something independent of us is nonsense. The environment as an isolated area of our lives will  unlikely have lasting power to engage workers and community members interests; it must be linked to these more immediate interests if it is to have lasting power rather than be just a fad.

He then summarizes these three points: the left must address the problem of the corporations not solving our problems, of how to deal with economic (and political) restructuring) and how to address the first two in relation to problems associated with the environment. Unions must thus become something other than what they have been since they have lost focus and direction under the sway of globalization and neoliberalism. Mr. Gindin, however, refers to the private-sector unions and leaves open the question of the nature and efficacy of public-sector unions.

I have already addressed the issues above-except Mr. Gindin’s backhanded idealization of public services and public-sector unions. This should come as no surprise. Mr. Gindin’s conception of socialism involves an expansion of public services via nationalization–as if the current form of public services did not require thorough reconstruction due to their oppressive nature. See my brief criticism The Contradictions of Social Democracy: Mr. Gindin’s Musings on the Closure of GM’s Oshawa Plant  and a more in-depth criticism of nationalization (and, indirectly, the idealization of public services) in the post The Poverty of Academic Leftism, Part Seven: The Idealization of the Nation State or the National Government and Nationalization in the Wake of the Coronavirus Pandemic, Part Two; see also The Money Circuit of Capital ).

Mr. Gindin then outlines his alternative plan. We should take over the GM plant, put it under public ownership and converting the plant and having the now unemployed workers use their diverse skills in the assembly facilities, the paint shop, the stamp shop and coordinating it with components plants in the surrounding area.

Such a plan needs to be linked to the environment for at least two reasons. In the first place, Mr. Gindin implies, the problem of the environment is urgent and needs to be addressed now. In the second place, the planned alternative facility should not face the constraints placed on it by competition from other capitalists in China and other parts of the world.

The appeal to the urgency of problems associated with the “environment” reminds me of some Marxists’ appeal to the urgency of transitioning to socialism because of the inevitable breakdown of capitalism. This hype about the urgency of environmental problems is unlikely to grip the interests of most workers and community members; they have more pressing immediate problems, like getting to work on time, enduring their work life without suffering too much humiliation, finding some meaning in their work life, going home and not suffering further problems.

It does make sense to seek areas of  production where competition is limited in order to prevent competition from leading to cuts in wages, benefits and deteriorating working conditions.

To kill two birds with one stone, it is necessary to engage in planning, and this planning requires not only the state becoming engaged in the process but in a more aggressive state that improves environmental standards by obliging people to move away from an economy based on fossil fuels. Furthermore, the state could also function as consumer by purchasing electrical vehicles. In addition, the state could use some of what it purchases for the expansion of public transport, thereby reducing the use of private vehicles and decreasing dependence on fossil fuels. Mr. Gindin calls the state planning to this end democratic planning. Democratic planning is impossible if key economic decisions are made by private companies.

I am dealing with Mr. Gindin’s inadequate treatment of socialism in other posts (see,  for example, Socialism, Part Nine: Market Socialism as an Initially Necessary but Inadequate Social Model). In relation to democratic planning, though, I will add that the idea that the total planning of society is to arise through the state was not an idea proposed by Marx: the state may own the means of production in the sense of preventing private individuals from denying workers to collectively use them, but the control over those means of production would be in the hand of workers themselves and not the state. From Rob Bryer, Accounting for History in Marx’s Capital: The Missing Link, page 277:

The section rejects the dominant interpretation that he advocated central planning. Marx’s mature concept of socialism abolishes markets for capital and labor power, but the section argues it requires competitive markets for products and services, cooperative enterprises, and accounting to hold enterprise management accountable to workers, and workers accountable to society.

(Bryer’s view of socialism has its own limitations in that he sees that Marx distinguished a socialist society that emerges from capitalism and a society that maintains itself on its own basis, but he then eternalizes markets.)

Mr. Gindin is an advocate of central planning, as is evident from the following:

Environmental change involves radical change since it involves change throughout society–including both production and consumption. We need to begin to create the capacity to convert to an environmentally friendly economy in every community by creating from research centers (peopled by young engineers) that inquire into what capacities, skills and equipment we currently have and what we are going to need to make the transition to an environmentally friendly economy. At the same time, the state needs to restructure the economy through, for example, raising environmental standards that require such environmentally friendly restructuring.

Mr. Gindin then contends that for this to work, several components must work together: planning, decentralisation and calling into question the private power of employers.

He then returns to the issue of environmental problems and the large-scale nature of the problem and the urgency of the problem. The problem cannot be addressed through the fragmented market nor can it be addressed through general phrases about the environmental crisis; if we stay at that level, workers will simply ignore the issue since they lack control over their lives and cannot address the issue when it is posed in general terms.

He then argues that since planning is required, it is necessary to control what you are planning. This involves changing property relations at work, which requires real struggle with workers to oppose the closing of plants not just in Oshawa but in many other communities.

Mr. Gindin admits that for now there is no base for such an approach; it would be necessary to organize for such an end. He also points out that the modern state is a capitalist state, which manages discontent by controlling and managing labour; the capitalist state has not developed planning capacities. What is required is a transformation of the capitalist state so that the state can plan democratically.

He argues that the capitalist market is failing in various ways in meeting our needs, from security to equality, environment and a rich personal life. Business is very vulnerable in these areas since it does not really meet these needs.

We need to develop the capacities of the working class to represent these needs, and it will not be easy. The working class must be reconstructed into a social force with the confidence to address these needs.

Mr. Gindin then claims that, during the Second World War, planning did indeed occur within the state, but the planning was performed mainly by businessmen becoming state officials. With the end of the war, they exited the state because they did not want the state to become autonomous. To be sure, the state has developed the capacity for planning in various departments, but it has not developed the capacity to engage in overall planning at the national level during normal periods (not exceptional periods, like wartime). Furthermore, the state does not know how to plan democratically. It is necessary to transform the state, and that will not be easy.

There are several problems with the above. Firstly, the reference to “decentralisation” is left hanging in the air. Where does decentralisation come into play in Mr. Gindin’s view of the nature of socialism. It remains a mystery. Secondly, it is not only necessary to call in question the private power of employers but the public power of state employers over employees. Thirdly, he talks about how workers need to oppose the closing of factories in various communities. Since the police protect the right of employers to close factories, Mr. Gindin should have indicated some kind of strategy about how to deal with the violent means used to protect the closing of factories and workplaces. Fourthly, even if he did propose such a strategy, it would probably involve workers having to jeopardize, if not their lives, at least their livelihood as the capitalist state through the courts fined them or threw them in jail. Would Mr. Gindin engage in such needed opposition personally? Fifthly, Mr. Gindin merely repeats the well-worn idea that central planning is socialist. This is hardly so. A common plan need not be a central plan formulated by some separate entity called the state. From Bryer, page 283:

Second, while Marx often wrote, for example in Volume 1 of Capital, that socialism would function according to a “definite social plan” (1976a, 171), there are two meanings of the word “plan” we need to keep separate. The dominant interpretation is that by “plan” Marx meant, “A table or programme indicating the relations of some set of objects,” “a detailed formulation of a plan of action,” in his case a production and consumption program or plan of action for society.3 The chapter, however, argues he meant a “scheme,” “of arrangement” or “of action,” a “Method, way of proceeding,” “a method for achieving an end,’ a way of organizing society. As Jossa (2005, 11) puts it, “while Marx and Engels certainly conceived of the plan as an antidote to the anarchical nature of the capitalistic market, they were thinking of a plan for abolishing the production of commodities and so not based on the law of value,” a scheme or way of organizing society for abolishing value.

Marx’s way of organizing socialist society, his concept of its relations of production, the chapter argues, is not the supervision or action controls implied by the central planning interpretation, but results control by workers.

Mr. Gindin’s reference to the state (which is not to wither away according to Mr. Gindin but is to expand) and implied central planning, on the one hand, and a democratic state, on the other, contradict each other. Marx, by contrast, was more consistent:

For Lavoie (1985) the ‘procedure’ or ‘process’ must be central planning. However, Marx and Engels consistently argued for a democratically elected and accountable workers’ state, for control by workers, which is what they meant by their occasional uses of ‘dictatorship of the proletariat,’ not ‘dictatorship of the Party’ or their leaders (Draper 1986). Against Lassalle’s fetishism of the state, the theoretical side of his pervasive authoritarianism” (Draper 1986, 304), as Marx put it, “freedom consists in converting the state from an organ superimposed upon society into one completely subordinate to it” (1989, 94), that is, in making the state fully accountable to workers. To provide the economic basis for democracy on Day 1 of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat,’ to transcend capitalism’s profit and loss system of accounting control that Marx had explained in Capital (Bryer 2017), it implements a system of cooperative enterprise and social accounts, not central planning, a conclusion that Engels accepted, and Lenin eventually drew (see Bryer 2019a).

It is workers who will have to learn how to coordinate their own work and not the state as a separate entity. That such a learning process may take years or decades does not mean that the principle should be abandoned since coordination by workers (and communities) must begin from the beginning. With the elimination of capital markets and a market for workers, worker cooperatives (and community organizations) could emerge and serve as the learning organizations for such planning. From Bryer, page 277:

Fourth, the chapter analyses Marx’s criticisms of the draft Programme of the Socialist Workers’ Party of Germany, the Critique of the Gotha Programme (1875). …  He re-emphasized his long-standing vision of socialism based on a universal system of worker cooperatives that, transcending capitalist accounting control, must be accountable to workers and society for the production of value on Day 1.

Planning can emerge inductively through a federation of cooperatives, as Bryer argues (page 276):

To make this change the proletarian state takes all means of production into its hands, thereby abolishing the capital market, and abolishes the market for labor power, replacing ‘free’ wage workers with free social agents by replacing joint stock companies with a universal system of worker cooperatives, accountable to their worker-shareholders and to society.

It is through this “inductive” process rather than the “deductive” (top-down) process of planning that workers and the community will at last begin to control their own life process–and not through some form of central plan divorced from the workers and the community. Mr. Gindin may claim that he agrees with this, but his argument implies the divorce of the planning process from those who experience the consequences of this process–hence, his claim, in another writing, that the state is not to wither away but to expand.

I will continue in another post with critical commentary on the second part of the interview of Mr. Gindin. I suspect, though, that it will probably contain the similar arguments as above.

Socialism, Part Ten: An Inadequate Conception of the Nature of Freedom and Necessity, or Free Time and Necessary Time, Part One

The class formal principle of employers–that workers receive from society what they contribute (contradicted at a practical level through systematic exploitation of workers necessarily in a capitalist context–that is why it is a formal principle that contradicts reality–see  for example The Rate of Exploitation of Workers at Magna International Inc., One of the Largest Private Employers in Toronto, Part One) would be realized in a socialist society on average since exploitation of one class by another would be eliminated. However, the principle of relating individual life to labour is still a bourgeois or capitalist principle that needs to targeted because it still reduces human beings to merely one criterion–labour. From  Karl Marx, Critique of the Gotha Programme, pages 86-87 of Marx-Engels Collected Works, volume 24):

Hence, equal right here is still in principle bourgeois right, although principle and practice are no longer at loggerheads, while the exchange of equivalents in commodity exchange only exists on the average and not in the individual case.

In spite of this advance, this equal right is still constantly encumbered by a bourgeois limitation. The right of the producers is proportional to the labour they supply; the equality consists in the fact that measurement is made with an equal standard, labour. But one man is superior to another physically or mentally and so supplies more labour in the same time, or can work for a longer time; and labour, to serve as a measure, must be defined by its duration or intensity, otherwise it ceases to be a standard of measurement. This equal right is an unequal right for unequal
 abour. It recognises no class distinctions, because everyone is only a worker like everyone else; but it tacitly recognises the unequal individual endowment and thus productive capacity of the workers as natural privileges. It is, therefore, a right of inequality, in its content, like every right. Right by its nature can exist only as the
application of an equal standard; but unequal individuals (and they would not be different individuals if they were not unequal) are measurable by an equal standard only insofar as they are made subject to an equal criterion, are taken from a certain side only, for instance, in the present case, are regarded only as workers and nothing more is seen in them, everything else being ignored. Besides, one worker is married, another not; one has more children than another, etc., etc. Thus, given an equal amount of work done, and hence an equal share in the social consumption fund, one will in fact receive more than another, one will be richer than another, etc. To avoid all these defects, right would have to be unequal rather than equal.

But these defects are inevitable in the first phase of communist society as it is when it has just emerged after prolonged birthpangs from capitalist society. Right can never be higher than the economic structure of society and its cultural development which this determines.

Neither Tony Smith nor Schweickart, both advocates of market socialism, refer to this. For Schweickart at least, any elimination of the market economy will lead to various negative effects, such as authoritarian conditions. Sam Gindin, similarly, does not take into consideration the inadequacy of markets as an expression of human freedom.

This model so far is a market-socialist model. Rather than conceiving it as a definitive model of how future society will work, however, we should consider it as a transition society that may last for longer than Marx thought but, nonetheless, is itself inadequate.

This inadequacy can be seen in the omission by Smith and Schweickart of any consideration of the need to transform the division of labour. In Schweickart’s book, for example, there is no discussion at all of the division of labour. If we are to live in a full life, though, we need to reduce or eliminate the gap between labour that is predominantly physical and labour that is predominantly intellectual.

Another aspect over which both Smith and Schweickart are silent is the implication for human beings if prices are to continue to exist. Schweickart does not directly address the question, but his assumption that prices will always exist fails to address the problem of the continued valuation of objects ultimately in terms of labour. Marx’s theory of exploitation is not just a critique of exploitation but a critique of the form of exploitation–through the mediation of relations between objects instead of a conscious connection with other human beings. Human beings, via ultimately money, are related to each other via objectified labour measured externally as money.

Market socialism may well be needed for some time, but it is inadequate as a form of society for human beings. At first, it is necessary to create a society where the reality of labour time being the measure of human wealth corresponds to the principle of determination by labour time: what workers contribute to society and what they receive from it do not differ quantitatively (workers are not exploited).

However, the principle of the life process is still based on one principle–labour and its measure, time. The human life process, however, is much more than this process, and the need for human beings will be to surpass this principle and to break the link between contribution and the flow of goods and services based on that contribution.

Now, let us listen to a person who claims to aim at realistic socialism–Sam Gindin, head of the Toronto Labour Committee (and former research director for the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) (now Unifor). Mr. Gindin implies that, due to what he calls scarcity, we will always need a market form of socialism:

Scarcity — the need to make choices between alternative uses of labor time and resources — is unlikely to end outside of utopian fantasies because popular demands, even when transformed into collective/socialist demands, are remarkably elastic: they can continue to grow. Think especially of better health care, more and richer education, greater care for the aged, the expansion of art and of cultural spaces — all of which require labor time and generally also complementary material goods. That is, they demand choices.

Furthermore, the calculation of scarcity can in particular not ignore leisure, with leisure representing the “realm of freedom.” Even if we produced enough of what we wanted, as long as some of that labor isn’t completely voluntary but instrumental, then effective scarcity of either labor time or the good/service remains. Workers may even like their jobs and see them as a source of creative expression and satisfaction, but as long as they’d periodically prefer to not show up or leave early, some further inducement is needed to offset the sacrifice of providing those labor hours. That inducement is a measure of the persistence of effective scarcity. And once scarcity is acknowledged as an inherent and essentially permanent frame in the restructuring of society, the question of structured incentives becomes paramount. This is not just a matter of motivating adequate hours of work, but of affecting its intensity and quality, and influencing where that work is best applied (i.e., determining society’s overall division of labor).

Mr. Gindin, it is clear, identifies the need to make choices of “labour time and resources” with scarcity. There is an identity between the need to make choices in the realm of labour and the continued existence of scarcity. 

The counterpart of this is the implicit denial of the need to make choices in “leisure,” which is identified with the “realm of freedom.” Mr. Gindin, of course, fails to justify this identity and fails as well to explore the nature of “leisure.” 

Mr. Gindin follows neoclassical economics (which justifies capitalism in various ways) by arguing that “scarcity” in the abstract (eternally or forever, without qualification) characterizes human life. Consider the following quotation from a typical textbook on neoclassical (or capitalist) economics (Steven A. Greenlaw, Timothy Taylor, Principles of Microeconomics, page 8:

Economics is the study of how humans make decisions in the face of scarcity. These can be individual decisions, family decisions, business decisions or societal decisions. If you look around carefully, you will see that scarcity is a fact of life. Scarcity means that human wants for goods, services and resources exceed what is available. Resources, such as labor, tools, land, and raw materials are necessary to produce the goods and services we want but they exist in limited supply. Of course, the ultimate scarce resource is time- everyone, rich or poor, has just 24 hours in the day to try to acquire the goods they want. At any point in time, there is only a finite amount of resources available.

People live in a world of scarcity: that is, they can’t have all the time, money, possessions, and experiences they wish.

Mr. Gindin argues, then, that scarcity arises objectively when there are alternative possibilities that exist for the use of resources and labour time. Choices must be made, and the choices necessarily involve the realization of some projects and the exclusion of others. We can never have our cake and eat it simultaneously.

This idea seems valid, and yet it is really superficial. Mr. Gindin practically wants to ridicule those who believe that work can be itself a realm of freedom–despite the need to make choices and despite the need to engage in the production of food, shelter, clothing, health care, education and so forth. To be realistic for Mr. Gindin is to believe in the necessity of drudgery throughout human history. What else does he mean when he writes “And once scarcity is acknowledged as an inherent and essentially permanent frame in the restructuring of society, the question of incentives becomes paramount.”

Mr. Gindin’s implicit assumption is that all incentives are external or instrumental in nature. There is, for this social democrat, no such thing as an intrinsic incentive (or motivation). Such an assumption needs to be questioned.

Rather than addressing the issue of scarcity (pure necessity for Mr. Gindin) directly, let us look at the so-called opposite realm of leisure (pure freedom for Mr. Gindin).

He claims that leisure is somehow the “realm of freedom.” What leisure is that? Leisure is a concept that is purely non-instrumental, it would seem, for Mr. Gindin. All leisure.

As an aside: Mr. Gindin borrows his concepts from current experiences and then generalizes them throughout history. Thus, leisure in the current context of work life characterized by the power of employers using people as things for their own ends is often a compensation for the drudgery of such daily life. Such an uncritical use of the concept of leisure will be addressed in another post.

Thus, Mr. Gindin separates completely labour and leisure. Leisure is purely non-instrumental, and labour can be to a certain extent enjoyable but, ultimately, is tainted with instrumentality by its very nature. Since leisure is identified with the “realm of freedom” and non-instrumentality, and labour is tainted with instrumentality by its very nature, scarcity must arise by necessity since workers by their very nature would prefer leisure (freedom) over work (necessity and instrumentality). To engage in work, workers must be externally motivated to do so (since their default mode is to prefer leisure (pure freedom) over work (pure necessity).

Mr. Gindin’s assumption concerning the so-called identity of leisure with the realm of freedom and a lack of instrumentality is questionable. Many so-called leisure activities have an instrumental aspect to them. For example, I “leisurely” drove my daughter, Francesca, to the Royal Tyrrell Museum summer camp in Alberta some time ago, from Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada (about a distance of 1,300 kilometers). It took a “leisurely” time of around 18 hours (stopping along the way for lunch and supper). For me, the activity was stressful though enjoyable (when compared to working for an employer) since Francesca was with me. The leisure activity of driving, though, was instrumental since it was a means to the end of developing my daughter’s capacities–that was the real end.

I had a choice to make in whether I was going to ask Francesca whether she wanted to go to the camp at all and, given that choice, what means I would use to achieve that goal. 

It cannot be said that the act of driving the car was secondary to the end of developing her capacities in a certain direction since she could not do so without attending the camp. The act of driving the car, though instrumental, was an essential condition for achieving that end (of course, it was not the only means by which to achieve that end–taking a plane, bus or train were possible alternatives). Furthermore, the end of developing Francesca’s capacities motivated me to drive for long periods of time in the first place, so the end itself formed an instrumental aspect of my activity of driving the car–it formed an ideal or motivating aspect of the physical aspect of driving the car.

My drive to Drumheller was thus instrumental for Francesca, my daughter, despite being a leisure activity. I had to make choices, of course. I could have taken a bus with her. We could have flown. The goal of the trip, for me, though constrained by certain means, was non-instrumental as an ultimately intrinsic end and yet was instrumental, ideally, in guiding my own activity in the present (driving the car towards Drumheller, Alberta, where the Royal Tyrrell Museum is located). I had an internal incentive or intrinsic incentive.

Of course, human life is finite, but who would deny that? However, Mr. Gindin draws false conclusions from that fact not only in relation to leisure but also to “education” and “art.” These issues will be dealt with in another post or posts.

Mr. Gindin’s assumption, then, that leisure is the pure realm of freedom is simple nonsense. Mr. Gindin’s hidden assumption of the mutual exclusion of instrumentality and intrinsic ends–that they are separate–remains an unproven assumption.

But some may say that this is an example from the realm of leisure (which does not exclude the realm of necessity despite Mr. Gindin’s implicit assertion to the contrary). What of the realm of work? Does it need external incentives because alternatives arise and choices must be made?

In a follow-up post, I will shift to Mr. Gindin’s opposite view concerning work. Since leisure is supposedly the pure realm of freedom that lacks instrumentality, work, according to Mr. Gindin, if in any way instrumental (which it must be for Mr. Gindin), involves a lack of freedom, which is expressed in the concept of scarcity and thus requires external or extrinsic motivation. Just as leisure is supposed to be the pure realm of freedom, so too the realm of work is supposed to be always tainted by the realm of necessity. 

This issue has to do with the two main divisions of labour: academic or intellectual and practical (or manual or physical). I referred briefly to such a division when I provided a critique of such a division in schools and the school curriculum (see Critical Education Articles Placed in the Teacher Staff Lounge While I Was a Teacher, Part Three). 

(As an aside: Mr. Gindin probably follows his colleague, Leo Panitch (they wrote a book together), in rejecting (without understanding) Marx’s so-called labour theory of value (really a theory of commodities and capital). (I attended Mr. Panitch’s class on globalization in the winter of 2014. Mr. Panitch explicitly stated that he considered Marx to have taken a wrong turn in Capital, especially Marx’s use of some of the dialectic of the German philosopher, G.W.F. Hegel, who, among other things, argued for the need to reconcile opposite relations, such as freedom and necessity).) 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Call for the Conversion of the GM Oshawa Plant to a Facility for the Production of Medical Equipment in the Wake of the Coronavirus Pandemic

On April 19, 2020, on the Socialist Project website–Retool Oshawa GM Complex to Combat Covid19–there is a press conference by five individuals–Tony Leah (facilitator), Michael Hurley, Rebecca Keetch, Patty Coates and James Hutt–calling on the Canadian government (and the Ontario provincial government) to take over the GM Oshawa plant, which closed on December 19, 2019, in order to facilitate the production of medical equipment, including masks, ventilators, gloves and tests–all of which are in short supply due to the international competition for such equipment as well as the Trump government’s ban on exporting medical equipment into Canada.

Some of the following is taken verbatim from the five presenters without quotes in order to facilitate reading whereas some of it is paraphrased. After a description of what they say, I make some critical comments in relation to the call for public ownership and other issues.

Mr. Hurley, president of the Hospital Division of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), emphasizes the urgency of the need for medical equipment for front-line workers. Medical equipment is in short supply to deal with the coronavirus pandemic,  and such equipment is vital if front-line workers are not to succumb to the virus themselves, as many paramedics did in New York.

Ms. Keetch, a former autoworker at GM Oshawa, calls on the Canadian and provincial governments to convert the closed-down GM Oshawa assembly plant into a publicly-owned site in order to use it to produce much needed medical equipment. She points out that other countries and companies have converted car factories into plants for producing medical equipment: the Chinese capitalist company BYD producing masks and hand sanitizers; GM having its workers produce ventilators at its Kokomo Indiana plant; and Ford Canada having its workers produce face masks at its Windsor Ontario plant. She justifies taking over the plant on the basis of putting social need in general before the interest of profit and the particular health and safety needs of workers who have been declared essential, such as hospital workers and grocery workers. There already exists a skilled workforce available to produce the needed medical equipment–the workforce of the former GM plant and the workers of its former suppliers.

Ms. Coates, president of the Ontario Federation of Labour (representing 54 unions and a million workers) indicates her support for the initiative and points out how the Conservative government of Doug Ford had reduced the health-care budget before the pandemic. Health-care workers, patients and community members need vital medical equipment that are currently lacking. She also supports a proposal for workers having 21 paid sick days so that they can stay home if sick without financial hardship and free healthcare for all regardless of immigration status. Workers themselves are calling for such protective measures.

Mr. Hutt does climate and labour justice with the Leap. On the Leap website, it says:

Mission

The Leap’s mission is to advance a radically hopeful vision for how we can address climate change by building a more just world, while building movement power and popular support to transform it into a lived reality.

Since our launch, we’ve drawn heavily on the ideas and networks of our co-founders, Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis.

Mr. Hutt notes that Justin Trudeau, the Canadian prime minister, called for manufacturing companies to retool to produce medical equipment, but it is not enough to rely on the goodwill of CEOs and manufacturers to produce what is needed at this time. There is a textile manufacturer, Novo Textile Co, based in Coquitlam, British Columbia, that has ordered machinery from China in order to produce masks, but it has not yet received the equipment. What we need now is fast production of medical equipment.

This shows that we need the government to play a strong role in ensuring that we increase production of medical equipment in order to meet the demand for medical supplies in Canada. This is where GM Oshawa can play a role. The auto assembly plant is one of the largest plants in North America, and yet 90 percent of its capacity is currently going to waste. Furthermore, there are available 5,000 workers who lost their jobs directly through the closing of the factory and 10,000 more workers who, indirectly, became unemployed.

The workers should be hired back in good, well-paying unionized jobs. After all, it is they who produce the value and services needed  by society.

What we need is a people’s bailout, which includes both workers and the environment, instead of a bailout of corporations and banks. The people’s bailout contains three components. Firstly, it responds to the immediate life-and-death needs of front-line workers and by all those whose lives have been turned inside out by the pandemic. Secondly, it helps to recover our lives, but in a new way, through government stimulus in creating a zero-carbon and full employment economy. Thirdly, it helps to reimagine our society. The economy must be transformed to ensure that safety and stability are the priorities for all and not just the 1%.

Nationalizing the plant, or converting it into public ownership, would create 13,000 unionized, well-paying jobs to produce the things that we need, initially in the first component or phase of producing medical equipment and, in the second phase, the production of electric vehicles for, for example, Canada Post, the single largest user of vehicles in Canada, and electric buses across Canada.

The third component or phase would involve the creation of a more just society for all, which entails public ownership of the plant, the provision of production facilities in Canada that would involve internal production of medical equipment throughout Canada.

Mr. Leah then points out that there is a petition that viewers of the Conference can sign, which will be sent to Premier Ford of Ontario and Prime Minister Trudeau (Petition–Order GM to Make Needed PPE).

There was then a question and answer session, with Valerie McDonald (? unsure if this is the name) asking the question of how quickly could the Oshawa plant fully employ the former workforce, whether directly or indirectly, and use the plant to capacity. Another question by Kate (I could not make out her last name) was who would paid for the retooling, the federal or provincial governments, and how much would it cost and how long it would take. Mr. Hurley pointed out that China set up factories within two weeks for the production of fiber masks. Given that the Canadian governments have adopted emergency powers, they could start producing almost immediately. As for the cost, currently Canada is paying almost three times the normal price for medical supplies on the open market; consequently, there would actually be considerable savings by shifting to local production. Ms. Leetch added that in the United States, in Warren, it took about two weeks to be converted and a total of a month for thousands of masks to be produced. She also points that, in relation to costs, it would be necessary for the government to provide aid for retooling. Ms. Coates adds that we need to think about the future beyond this pandemic: we need to have the capacity to produce ventilators and other medical equipment. As for the cost, the issue of cost has little to do with the issue since lives are priceless, and the cost of retooling to save lives not just now but also for the foreseeable future–since there will still be demand for personal protective equipment for some time to come even in the case of the current pandemic. We need a permanent solution to the problem and not a temporary one.

Another couple of questions were: The federal government had no problem purchasing a U.S. owned pipeline company, but now that such a company will be idled, why would the federal government not step in and purchase the plant from GM and retool it? A follow-up question is: Is the plant too large, and can it be adapted to produce medical equipment and other things [unclear if this is the exact question]. Another question is whether the machinery already exists in the plant or must it be imported?

Mr. Hurley indicated that neither the provincial Ontario government nor the federal government has responded in an urgent fashion to the pandemic by forcing employers to retool to produce medical equipment despite hundreds and even thousands of Canadians dying due to the pandemic. It is time that the Trudeau government institute wartime measures to force employers to retool in order to save lives by producing tests, ventilators and other medical equipment that are fundamental to the protection of workers.

Ms. Coates added that not only healthcare workers do not have sufficient protection but also grocery workers, bus drivers and municipal workers are still working and need to be protected during this pandemic.

Ms. Keetch points out that what they are demanding is that the government order production because that will then allocate resources that permit things to happen. As for the plant being too big: not really. We can use whatever space is necessary at the plant right now to address immediate needs. In relation to parallels between the federal government purchasing a pipeline company and purchasing the GM Oshawa plant, but the issue now is to prioritize what needs to be done, and the priority should be to protect Canadian citizens, and both money and the political will need to be found to do that. She does not know whether the machinery is on site, but she does know that Ontarians are experts in manufacturing and have been for decades.

For closing remarks, Ms. Keetch pointed out that the pandemic is an interdependent phenomena, with both the public coming into contact with workers and workers coming into contact with the public, so that both need to protect each other through the use of protective equipment. The use of present resources to meet this need is a common-sense approach.

Tony Leah stated that what happened in the United States in Kokomo and other places in the United States, when the government ordered production, shows that medical equipment can be relatively quickly produced, within a week or two, depending on the complexity of the equipment. He judges GM’s inaction to be shameful, especially since GM took $11 billion in Canadian bailout money during the last economic crisis.

As an emergency measure, it makes sense to convert the idle GM Oshawa plant into a plant where workers could produce much needed medical equipment. As a longer-term measure, it also makes sense to convert the idle plant into a permanent facility for the production of medical equipment in order to prevent any future shortage of medical supplies. Alternatively, once the pandemic has past, it could make sense to convert the plant  into an electric-vehicle factory as originally planned.

From the point of view of the workers who lost their jobs when GM Oshawa closed the plant, it also makes sense to try to be employed again; they could resume the same kind of life that they used to live rather than joining the unemployed.

I did sign the petition, but mainly because it makes sense to pressure the governments to convert the plant into a factory to deal with the pandemic crisis. Given the urgency of the situation, however, there could at least have been reference to seizing the plant by the workers. Seizing the plant could easily have been justified as necessary in order to save lives.

Such seizure, it seems, is probably impractical for a number of reasons. Firstly, the workers themselves have probably been demobilized (moved on to other jobs if they can find them), or they may have abandoned any hope of working at the plant again; others may have accepted a retirement package. Secondly, even if they seized the plant, financing for retooling seems to be beyond their collective means–hence, the need to rely on the government for funding.

However, at least the possibility of seizing the plant and the legitimacy of doing so should have been raised in order to highlight the discrepancy between the real needs of people, the lack of action by the governments and the class power of employers. After all, in normal times, the needs of those who cannot pay are neglected, and the needs of workers for safe working conditions are often neglected as well. Focusing exclusively on what is practical in the situation resulted in another lost opportunity to open up a conversation about the legitimacy of the current economic and political structures.Rather than using the situation as an opportunity to at least point out the legitimacy of seizing the plant–they focus exclusively what is immediately practical. Such “realism” is hardly in the best interests of the working class and of the community.

Mr. Hurley is the person who comes closest to showing such discrepancy, but he limits his criticism to the present governments of Ontario and Canada rather than to the limits of an economy characterized by a dictatorial structure and a modern state characterized, on the one hand, by merely formal equality between “citizens” that often assumes a repressive form (by the police and the courts, for example) and, on the other, a hierarchical dictatorship characteristic of the employer and employee relation within government or the modern state.

The presenters did not use the situation as an opportunity to link the particular–and urgent–problem of a society capable of producing needed medical equipment–to the general problem of a society that excludes not only the needs of people for various goods and services–but also the needs of workers to control their own working lives.

It is true that Mr. Hutt does refer to a third component of a people’s bailout–a reimagined society–but it is more like a social-democratic reimagining more than anything else–and it is utopian. To call for a society that is safe would require the elimination of the power of employers as a class. After all, workers are means for the benefit of employers, and as means their safety is always in jeopardy (for the necessary treatment of workers as means for the benefit of the class of employers, see The Money Circuit of Capital; for the issue of safety, see for example Working for an Employer May Be Dangerous to Your Health, Part One).

As for Mr. Hutt’s call for stability, that too would require the elimination of the power of the class of employers since investment decisions are made for the purpose of accumulating more profitable capital, and such an accumulation process often leads to crises in production and exchange (through overproduction and hence unemployment. Employers also introduce machinery into workplaces, reducing the demand for workers. Since workers are the basis for profit, though, the situation is again ripe for an economic crisis since the production of such a profit requires increasing the exploitation of workers who do work while keeping down their wages through increasing unemployment–overwork for those who work and little work for the unemployed.

Furthermore, given the repressive nature of the employers (see, for example, Employers as Dictators, Part One) and the government (see for example Socialism, Police and the Government or State, Part Two), many peoples’ lives are hardly experienced as stable.  Mr. Hutt’s reference to stability rings hollow.

Does Mr. Hutt really believe in the elimination of a class of employers? The elimination of classes would be what is needed to live a safe and stable life within the limits of the natural world and the limits of our own created world, He nowhere says so. In fact, it is probable that Mr. Hutt believes in the reconstruction of a welfare state–capitalism with a human face. His reference to “good, well-paying unionized jobs” is what is probably the aim–“decent work,” “a fair contract,” and “free collective bargaining.” I have criticized these ideas in earlier posts, so readers can refer to them in order to see their limitations.

Mr. Hutt’s reference to a zero-carbon economy also fails to meet the problem of the infinite nature of the nature of the capitalist economy and the limited earth on which we live. Even if the capitalist economy moves to a zero-carbon economy (free of the use of fossil fuels), the infinite nature of capitalist accumulation would undoubtedly continue to rape the planet (see The British Labour Party’s 2019 Manifesto: More Social Democracy and More Social Reformism, Part One).

One final point to reinforce the previous post: nationalization and reliance on the modern government and state, typical of the social-democratic left, are hardly democratic. For real democracy and not just formal democracy to arise, it would be necessary to dismantle the repressive nature of the modern government or state. As George McCarthy (2018) remarks, in his book Marx and Social Justice Ethics and Natural Law in the Critique of Political Economy, page 279:

Following closely the military and political events surrounding the [Paris] Commune, Marx recognised very quickly that some of his earlier ideas about the socialist state contained in the Communist Manifesto (1848) were no longer relevant: ‘[T]he working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes’.18 The state is not an independent and neutral political organisation capable of yielding power for one class and then another; it is not simply an issue of gaining control over the state and then implementing economic and social reforms. Rather, the republican state, utilising its political and legal apparatus, is an oppressive mechanism of social control preserving the class interests of the bourgeois economic system, and this, too, would also have to be restructured. Continuing arguments from On the Jewish Question (1843), Marx contends that the role of the French state was to maintain the economic and political power of the propertied class: ‘[T]he state power assumed more and more the character of the national power of capital over labour, of a public force organised for social enslavement, of an engine of class despotism’. Therefore, with this in mind, the Commune’s first actions were to dismantle the various component parts of the French state, including the army, police, bureaucracy, clergy, and the judiciary. Thus an entirely new form of government would have to be constructed that conformed to the socialist ideals of human emancipation and political freedom.

To talk of “democratic public ownership” in the context of a sea of economic dictatorship both within and outside the modern government or state stimulates high expectations that are bound to be dashed in the real world.

The earlier call by Green Jobs Oshawa was to nationalize the plant and to produce electric vehicles may seem also to make sense, but I will address this issue in another post in reference to the Socialist Project’s pamphlet Take the Plant–Save the Planet: The Struggle for Community Control and Plant Conversion at GM Oshawa. 

Addendum:

The above post was posted at 1:00 a.m., Friday, April 24. In the afternoon, it was announced that the GM Oshawa plant would indeed be retooled to produce a million masks a month for essential workers (see GM Oshawa plant will now produce millions of masks following worker mobilization: CUPE Ontario). The federal Trudeau government and GM signed a letter of intent to that effect. The response from one of the unions that represent front-line hospital workers–the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE):

 “We mobilized our community through a petition and public events and it goes to show that collective action works. This unprecedented victory is now an opportunity to push the Ford Conservatives to also retool private companies to produce what Ontarians need.”

To produce what Ontario needs: What does that mean? They are probably  referring to the production of needed medical equipment:

“The Ford Conservatives need to learn from this example and order the private sector to ramp up production of these supplies – or retool factories if necessary,” said Fred Hahn, President of CUPE Ontario, highlighting feeder plants and other manufacturing facilities across the province. “They’ve had no problem unilaterally issuing orders that override the freely-negotiated collective agreements of front-line workers. They now need to use their power to order the immediate production of PPE for everyone who needs it.”

The use of the abandoned GM Oshawa plant for the production of medical equipment is indeed a victory–this is vital if frontline workers are to be protected from the coronavirus.

It should be noted, though, that this victory is probably a short-term victory. The urgent need for masks for frontline workers, as I pointed out above, could have been used to justify at least theoretically the seizure of the GM Oshawa plant by the workers who used to work there. Since the call for using the GM Oshawa plant and the retooling needed are separated from any reference to the legitimate right of the workers to seize the plant, when the need for the production of masks no longer exists, the plant will probably revert to its former status as an abandoned capitalist factory. The workers will have a difficult time justifying the continued maintenance of production at the plant given their short-term victory. Indeed, given that the form of the announcement is a letter of intent between the federal government and GM, shifting production to masks, in the eyes of many, will probably be viewed as a result of actions by government and employer rather than by workers and unions.

Another problem is that it is unclear who will be rehired to produce the masks, and how many will be rehired.

The urgency of the need for medical equipment is short-term–but it should have been used for long-term gains. Instead, an opportunity for shifting public opinion towards the legitimization of the seizure of workplaces by workers has been squandered.

The Poverty of Academic Leftism, Part Seven: The Idealization of the Nation State or the National Government and Nationalization in the Wake of the Coronavirus Pandemic, Part Two

In a previous post, I pointed out how Professor Noonan idealized the nation state. This post will expand on this view by showing that Professor Noonan’s proposal to nationalize  the economy by means of the modern state does the same thing–idealizes the modern state.

Professor Noonan makes the following claim:

The alternative is to use this crisis as a basis of legitimacy for the state– under the control of democratic political forces acting in our shared life-interest– to assume control over the productive basis of society and re-orient production to serving life-needs. Nationalization can prefigure democratic socialization, and democratic socialization can re-focus economic life on collective work to provide each and all that which we really need, and freeing our time for the– real-life, multidimensional– experiences, actions, and interactions that make life worth fighting for, protecting, and living.

The call for nationalization of industry by means of the modern state has been typical of many leftists for at least a century and a half. Marx, before, during and a couple of years after the 1848 revolutions, called for the centralization or the appropriation of the conditions of life (factories and other productive facilities, banks, utilities and so forth) by the modern state. Ironically, Professor Noonan, who considers that his view is superior to the Leninist view of the modern state, follows in Leninist footsteps. From Paul Thomas (1994), Alien Politics: Marxist State Theory Retrieved (New York: Routledge), pages ix-x:

Since the 1960s, fierce but turgid [pretentious or windy or laboured or strained] have raged among scholars about Marxist state theory. Participants in these debates were in some respects bitterly opposed. Yet they tended, by and large, to agree on one basic assumption: that the state, or the state as Marx thought of it, is class determined or shaped by the play of class forces outside its boundaries. Disagreements duly proceeded about what this ruling class theory means. (It might mean, for instance, that the state is the instrument of the capitalist class, or that it is an agency structurally tied to ruling class interests or imperatives.) But the theory, in the main, was itself accepted–accepted, in my view, rather too readily and uncritically.

But what did its acceptance involve? It involved, in practice, the often impatient conflation or running-together of understandings of the state that are, in principle, separable: that of the state as being class-determined, and that of the state as an “object,” an instrument, a “finished thing” that is capable of being “seized” and turned to good account once it is seized by the right hands. Theorists–among them Marx himself, for a while, as well as Lenin–can be seen to be given to such impatience under the impress of revolutionary urgency.

But by now, such impatience can be seen to have invited dangerous illusions about what can be accomplished by seizing the state. Seizure of the state can be seen, for that matter, as a dangerous illusion in its own right.

The modern state, as a separate institution, is itself characteristic of the nature of a society dominated by a class of employers and is hardly something external to it. From Thomas, page x:

Because common action and democratic potential find no place in civil society, these are alienated and represented away from its orbit.  Common action and collective concern, which in civil society are subsumed beneath self-assertion and the play of competing self-interests, are fused and concentrated at the level of the state, which arrogates them to itself.

The modern state is similar in some respects to modern money. Modern money emerges as a monopolizer by being the only social object that is immediately exchangeable. The modern state is a monopolizer of the so-called public sphere by being the only social object that immediately constitutes political subjects (citizens). From Geoffrey Kay and James Mott (1982), Political Order and the Law of Labour, page 6:

The political nature of money is evident in its appearance —it always bears the head of the prince, or some other emblem of state. On the side of subjectivity the same applies: just as money is immediately exchangeable as a universal object whose credentials do not have to be chocked, so every individual is accepted at face value as a persona bona fide. Money is accepted because it is a universal objcct on account of its being political: the individual is universally recognised because he is a political subject – a citizen.

Just as money is a production relation despite being external to the production process, so too is the modern state a production relation despite being external to the production process.

The call for nationalization and state centralization independently of working-class consciousness of its own general interests may be merely the expression of the immediate interests of workers under specific circumstances without leading anywhere except the absorption of such nationalization into the folds of the capitalist system itself; in other words, such nationalization may be co-opted by the modern state and by certain sections of the class of employers.

Isabelle Garo (2000), Marx: Une Critique de la Philosophie  argues that Marx did oppose, at least later in life, state centralization as a socialist measure (I give my rather freely translated version, followed by the original French. If anyone has a better translation, feel free to make a comment), pages 233-234:

Marx insists on the fact that the Commune [the Paris Commune, an organization that arose in 1871 in the face of, on the one hand, the defeat of France by Prussia during the Prussian-French war and, on the other, the attempt by the French class of employers to take away the arms held by the National Guard in Paris] aims in the first place the emancipation of work. It is the established unity between political tasks and economic organization, “the political form finally found that permitted the realization of the economic emancipation of work.” From this point of view, the idea of a separated political instance is indeed an illusion that masks the functional subordination of the State to the mode of production to its criteria and to its needs. The overthrow of this logic is not the temporary reuse of the State, followed by its suppression: as functional representation, it [the State] concentrates in itself the nature and contradictions of the economic and social formation in general. The withering away of the State is a radical redefinition of politics, its reappropriation by the associated producers as an instance of democratic decision-making and rationalization of a production that cannot possess in itself its own ends. Said in another way, the valorization of value [the increase of money for the sake of the increase of money by way of using human beings and their conditions of life as means to that end–see The Money Circuit of Capital)  and its absurd spiral must cede place to the redefinition of social and individual activity. Political representation, modified in its definition, is turned upside down in its function: far from being a means for dispossession that makes universal suffrage the right to designate who are to be our  “masters,” is the occasion of a specifically political action precisely because it concerns local tasks of organization.

Marx insiste sur le fait que la Commune vise en premier lieu l’émancipation du travail. Elle est l’unité instaurée entre tâches politiques et organisation économique,
« la forme politique enfin trouvée qui permettait de réaliser l’émancipation économique du travail79». De ce point de vue, l’idée d’une instance politique séparée est bien une illusion qui masque la subordination fonctionnelle de l’État au mode de production à ses critères et à ses urgences. Le renversement de cette logique n’est pas la réutilisation momentanée de l’État, suivie de sa suppression: en tant que représentation fonctionnelle, il concentre en lui la nature et les contradictions de la formation économique et sociale dans son ensemble. Le dépérissement de l’État est une redéfinition radicale de la politique, sa réappropriation par les producteurs associés comme instance de décision démocratique et de rationalisation d’une production qui ne saurait posséder en elle même ses propres finalités. Autrement dit, la valorisation de la valeur et sa spirale absurde doivent céder la place à la redéfinition de l’activité sociale et individuelle. La représentation politique, modifiée dans sa définition, est retournée dans sa fonction : loin d’être le moyen d’une
dépossession qui fait du suffrage universel le droit de désigner ses «maîtres3», elle est l’occasion d’une action spécifiquement politique, précisément parce qu’elle
concerne des tâches locales d’organisation.

This does not mean that there would be merely local cooperatives; there could be a federation of cooperatives that united not just economic functions but political functions, under the rule of the producers and the local communities and, at the same time, connected to each other in a cooperative national structure initially (see  the description of a possible scenario in the series Socialism, for example,  Socialism, Part Six: What It May Look Like, or Visions of a Better Kind of Society Without Employers). Universal suffrage would be preserved and control of the executive (state personnel, election of the judicature and other changes in the nature of the state would be required. From Richard Hunt, The Political Ideas of Marx and Engels: Classical Marxism, 1850-1895, volume 2, page 133:

By way of contrast Marx emphasized that “nothing could be more foreign to the spirit of the Commune than to supersede universal suffrage by hierarchic investiture.”18 Not only were judges to be elected but, most of all, administrators at all levels. Marx had always made executive power his prime concern and set forth its radical democratization as the foremost political objective of any popular movement. Thus in the First Draft he declared that the Communards had adapted universal suffrage “to its real purposes” when they used it to choose “their own functionaries of administration and initiation.”19 Such functionaries and indeed all the elected public servants of the Commune would also work under much closer control by their electors, because of the additional safeguards encountered but infrequently in bourgeois democracies–…the right of recall, and open executive proceedings with subsequently published transcripts. Marx had no patience with any institutional devices, checks, or balances whose purpose was to curtail popular influence; he favored a maximum of mass participation in and control over all branches of government. “Freedom,” he would write four years later, perhaps thinking of the Paris Commune, “consists in converting the state from an organ superimposed upon society into one completely subordinate to it, and today, too, the forms of state are more or less free to the extent that they restrict the ‘freedom of the state.”’20 Just as bourgeois democracy could be judged much freer, by this yardstick, than Bonapartist despotism, so the Commune could be judged much freer than bourgeois democracy.

Professor Noonan’s implicit assumption that nationalization is somehow socialist definitely needs to be criticized. From Hunt, volume 2, pages 226-227:

Marx made it clear that such leisure included at least the following: (1) time to be idle (rest, etc.); (2) time for artistic endeavor; and (3) time for scientific pursuits. Most science was done in leisure time during Marx’s day, including the social “science” he did himself. A continuing development of scientific knowledge would have obvious return benefits in rationalizing the processes of production. The growth of leisure time in general would produce a more knowledgeable and versatile work force: “Free time- which is both idle time and time for higher activity- has naturally transformed its possessor into a different subject, and he then enters into the direct production process as this different subject. ” 34 Marx’s last commentary on these matters is to be found in the Critique of the Gotha Program, written in 1875, a decade after the third volume of Capital. Here we find the striking passage which confirms that the radical vision of The German Ideology remained consistent in Marx’s mind to the end-under communism work will be attractive (“life’s prime want”), and the division of labor will be totally overcome:

In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labor, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labor, has vanished; after labor has become not only a means of life but life’s prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-round development of the individual, and all the springs of cooperative wealth flow more abundantly- only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.

For Marx and Engels, then, communism was never equated simply with nationalization of the means of production. From beginning to end, their writings stress the transcendence of the division of labor as integral to the classless society. It was not some queer, extraneous, or easily discardable part of their system of ideas. It was the division of labor, after all, that first created private property- not vice versa- along with social classes, the state, the antagonism between the sexes, alienated labor, and the separation of town and country. If the dividing of labor was original sin, its Aufhebung [its elimination and the simultaneous nurturing of the positive aspects that have emerged on its basis–such as increased productivity of labour] alone would mark the redemption of mankind. Nationalization of the means of production, in and of itself, overcomes none of the aforementioned evils, but only enhances the power of the state, making it a single giant monopoly corporation. Later generations of Marx’s followers, Communists and social democrats alike, increasingly misunderstood, trivialized, or simply forgot this aspect of the masters’ teaching, surrounded as they were by a world in which occupational specialization gained ground every day in every sphere, quite regardless whether the local economic system was communist, socialist, or capitalist. The relentless dividing of labor tasks seemed as inevitable as death and taxes. Only quite recently have some radicals begun to reconsider this whole issue seriously.

If we inquire where Marx got the idea of transcending the division of labor, at one level it appears to be his reinterpretation of the general liberal call for “the free development of the individual personality,” especially in its specifically German incarnation as the ideal of Bildung [education in the widest sense]– maximum cultivation of the talents of the individual, especially the “higher” faculties and sensibilities, into a well-proportioned whole. Marx reinterpreted this ideal first by reminding the liberals that the free development of the individual personality does not occur on a desert island: “Only within the community has each individual the means of cultivating his gifts in all directions; hence personal freedom becomes possible only within the community.” But mainly he democratized the liberal ideal which had always tacitly presupposed the existence of “lower orders” to look after the “lower” needs of each free personality. By transcending the division of labor in society at large, “the genuine and free development
of individuals ceases to be a mere phrase. ” In the renowned words of the Manifesto, “the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all. ” 38 Of course the Bildung ideal itself was based on Renaissance models and above all on the Greek ideal of personal well-roundedness, suggesting once again the extent of Marx’s underlying debt to the values of classical antiquity [ancient Greece and Rome].

This does not mean that there may be no role for parliamentary institutions in some form. Universal suffrage and some form of central national institution would probably be necessary, and nationalization of key industries may make some sense–but in order for universal suffrage to be an expression of working-class democracy, the working-class itself would have to engage, consciously, in opposing the class of employers. From Hunt, volume 2, page 70:

In 1852 Marx wrote of universal suffrage, as Engels had done so often before, as the very touchstone of proletarian victory in Britain:

Universal Suffrage is the equivalent for political power for the working class of England, where the proletariat forms the large majority of the population, where, in a long, though underground civil war, it has gained a clear consciousness of its position as a class [my emphasis], and where even the rural districts know no longer any peasants, but only landlords, industrial capitalists (farmers) and hired laborers. The carrying of Universal Suffrage in England would, therefore, be a far more socialistic measure than anything which has been honored with that name on the Continent. Its inevitable result, here, is the political supremacy of the working class.

It is possible that a dual movement of the working class, becoming conscious of itself as a class, could institute nationalization of key industries while simultaneously engaging in the restructuring of the modern state to link political and economic change that expresses its own interests.

Such a situation, though, requires that the working-class becomes conscious of itself as a class. Professor Noonan provides no evidence that this is the case. In fact, part of the purpose of this blog is to demonstrate in many ways that this is not the case–ranging from the silent indoctrination that working-class students receive for at least 12 years in schools (see, for example,  A Case of Silent Indoctrination, Part One: The Manitoba History Curricula and Its Lack of History of Employers and Employees) to the claim by the social-democratic left that there is such a thing, within an economic, political and social system characterized by the class of employers, as “fairness, a “fair share” or “fair contract” for workers (see, for example, The Canadian Labour Congress’s Idealization of the Collective-Bargaining Process.

What is ironic in Professor Noonan’s position is that he accuses some leftists of being Leninists, which he implies is out-of-date. I had a debate–if you can call it that–some time ago. In his reply, he stated:

“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.

Professor Noonan, as a self-proclaimed member of the social-reformist or social-democratic left, has more in common with the Leninist view of the modern state than he realizes. (I leave it open whether Lenin in theory advocated a centralized socialist state. Thomas argues that he did whereas Kay and Mott seem more sympathetic to his views of the modern state.)

Instead of preparing the working-class for real control over its own lives by criticizing the inadequacies of the modern state, Professor Noonan engages in utopian fantasies about the magical world of nationalization.

The immediate question is what can workers and their representatives do to prevent the capitalist state from obliging them to return to work for employers when it is still unsafe to do so. The next question is, once the coronavirus pandemic recedes, what can be done to prevent a rush by the class of employers and the modern state or modern government–a purely political state that arises with the ripping of the conditions of life of workers from the control of the workers themselves–from foisting payment of the crisis on the backs of workers, the unemployed, immigrants and the disabled. These diverse groups of civil society, if they are to resist this and to win more than just temporary gains, need to begin to organize for the overthrow of the alienated, exploitative, oppressive and coercive state or government, along with the alienated, exploitative, oppressive and coercive class of employers–a movement which Professor Noonan considers to be outdated. After all, the magic words “democratic” and “nationalization” take the place of real democracy, with a class conscious working-class explicitly fighting to end the alien power of the modern state and the alien power of the class of employers.

which is will be criticized in a further post

but of course  there is an opportunity for

The claim that the nation state can “override capitalist market forces” fetishizes the nation state by treating the nation state as somehow external to those market forces. But how does the nation state override market forces? By, force? The nation state as a focal point of political power is hardly independent of capitalist market forces. Just as money  is money only because commodities do not have the capacity of being exchangeable in their immediate form, so the nation state has the power that it does because citizens do not have the capacity to represent their own interests except in an alienated form, via the alienated state, a state that is representative in an atomized fashion that dissolves class relations into the homogenous situation of being a “citizen.”

Professor Noonan makes the further following claim:

As powerful as capital is, it has proven no match for the virus, on the one hand, and state power, on the other. The danger, of course, is that the state is currently acting under emergency powers, but will revert to its standard function of enframing and protecting capital, if we let it. The alternative is to use this crisis as a basis of legitimacy for the state– under the control of democratic political forces acting in our shared life-interest– to assume control over the productive basis of society and re-orient production to serving life-needs.

Professor Noonan’s analysis is rather vague. Firstly, Professor Noonan does not specify how “capital … has proven no match for state power.” Perhaps he means closing borders to non-citizens and non-permanent residents. Such a situation, however, has existed for a long time, and control of “foreigners” became more systematic with the emergence of passports (which did not exist in any systematic way for some time despite the existence of the capitalist state and a class of employers)–and such a move is hardly independent of the power of capital or of employers; passports are a means of control over workers throughout the world (see an earlier post What’s Left, Toronto? Part Six).

to achieve their goals (in the case of private corporations, profit, and in the case of government organizations, their mission statement and the overall operations of government). If employees start dying on mass, the interests of employers are jeopardized. Professor Noonan simply ignores this basic fact of “capitalism.”

His theory of the state (some may find this term confusing. You might prefer to substitute “government” for it in order to make more sense of the following) is contradictory when we compare the above with some of his former writings.

Above, Professor Noonan presents the state as neutral and somehow independent of

without Professor Noonan simply ignores  for example, in Canada, providing $2000 a month for four months via the

Garo, page 231:

The Poverty of Academic Leftism, Part Six: The Idealization of the Nation State or the National Government in the Wake of the Coronavirus Pandemic, Part One

Professor Noonan, a self-declared historical materialist and teacher of Marxism, continues to argue a political position that ignores the reality of capitalist society. In his post Back to the Magic Mountain, he argues the following:

No one should fetishize the nation state, but it remains the dominant form of political society and, when it chooses to, it can marshal the power to override capitalist market forces. The dependence of human life on market forces has been suspended in large parts of the world during this crisis. The state has effectively taken over the direction of economic activity and positioned itself as the guarantor of people’s income. We have been re-acquainted with a truth that capitalism works hard to suppress: our lives depend upon collective labour and nature, not market forces. This truth has to become the basis for post-pandemic reconstruction.

Professor Noonan’s opening part of the first sentence, “No one should fetishize the nation state,” is supposed to prevent any criticism of what follows. Professor Noonan, he implies, does not fetishize the nation-state.” The use of the conjunction “but” then is used to do just that.

In a Canadian context, Professor Noonan, in his statement: “The dependence of human life on market forces has been suspended in large parts of the world during this crisis. The state has effectively taken over the direction of economic activity and positioned itself as the guarantor of people’s income,” can refer to the provisions for workers to receive $500 a week for up to sixteen weeks through the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), a federal program. From workers’ point of view, such economic relief is of course welcome–if they qualify (they must have worked a certain number of hours, for example–although some of the gaps are being addressed).

Professor Noonan forgets that workers are means to employers’ ends (see The Money Circuit of Capital). Consider things that you own, use and need. Do you take care for them in some way? They are means to the end of your goals, but you do care about preserving their existence in order to achieve your goals. Professor Noonan idealizes (and fetishizes) the modern state. The Canadian federal government, like other governments, instituted income policies because the workers could not temporarily work for employers–and because they lack their own independent means by which to produce and hence to live.

Employers need employees in one way or another if they are going to continue to be employers. The modern state intervenes in the capitalist market, if necessary, because that market needs the continued existence of workers as employees. The dependence of employers on employees can be seen from the following issue that arose in the 1860s in England in relation to the possible emigration of skilled English workers (from Karl Marx, Marx-Engels Collected Works, volume 35, Capital:

The reproduction of the working class carries with it the accumulation of skill, that is handed down from one generation to another.1′ To what extent the capitalist reckons the existence of such a skilled class among the factors of production that belong to him by right, and to what extent he actually regards it as the reality of his variable capital, is seen so soon as a crisis threatens him with its loss. In consequence of the civil war in the United States and of the accompanying cotton famine, the majority of the cotton operatives in Lancashire were, as is well known, thrown out of work. 471 Both from the working class itself, and from other ranks of society, there arose a cry for State aid, or for voluntary national subscriptions, in order to enable the “superfluous” hands to emigrate to the colonies or to the United States. Thereupon, The Times published on the 24th March, 1863 [p. 12, col. 2-4], a letter from Edmund Potter, a former president of the Manchester Chamber of Commerce. This letter was rightly called in the House of Commons, the manufacturers’ manifesto.2′ We cull here a few characteristic passages, in which the proprietary rights of capital over labour power are unblushingly asserted.

“He” (the man out of work) “may be told the supply of cotton workers is too large … and … must … in fact be reduced by a third, perhaps, and that then there will be a healthy demand for the remaining two-thirds…. Public opinion … urges emigration….The master cannot willingly see his labour supply being removed; he may think, and perhaps justly, that it is both wrong and unsound…. But if the public funds are to be devoted to assist emigration, he has a right to be heard, and perhaps to protest.”

… He [Mr. Potter] then continues:

“Some time …, one, two, or three years, it may be, will produce the quantity…. The question I would put then is this — Is the trade worth retaining? Is it worth while to keep the machinery (he means the living labour machines) in order, and is it not the greatest folly to think of parting with that? I think it is. I allow that the workers are not a property, not the property of Lancashire and the masters; but they arc the strength of both; they are the mental and trained power which cannot be replaced for a generation; the mere machinery which they work might much of it be beneficially replaced, nay improved, in a twelvemonth.’: Encourage or allow (!) the working power to emigrate, and what of the capitalist?”a “…Take away the cream of the workers, and fixed capital will depreciate in a great degree, and the floating will not subject itself to a struggle with the short supply of inferior labour…. We are told the workers wish it” (emigration). “Very natural it is that they should do so…. Reduce, compress the cotton trade by taking away its working power and reducing their wages expenditure, say one-fifth, or five millions, and what then would happen to the class above, the small shopkeepers; and what of the rents, the cottage rents…. Trace out the effects upwards to the small farmer, the better householder, and … the landowner, and say if there could be any suggestion more suicidal to all classes of the country than by enfeebling a nation by exporting the best of its manufacturing population, and destroying the value of some of its most productive capital and enrichment…. I advise a loan (of five or six millions sterling), … extending it may be over two or three years, administered by special commissioners added to the Boards of Guardians in the cotton districts, under special legislative regulations, enforcing some occupation or labour, as a means of keeping up at least the moral standard of the recipients of the loan … can anything be worse for landowners
or masters than parting with the best of the workers, and demoralising and disappointing the rest by an extended depletive emigration, a depletion of capital and value in an entire province?”

Potter, the chosen mouthpiece of the manufacturers, distinguishes two sorts of “machinery”, each of which belongs to the capitalist, and of which one stands in his factory, the other at night time and on Sundays is housed outside the factory, in cottages. The one is inanimate, the other living. The inanimate machinery not only wears out and depreciates from day to day, but a great part of it becomes so quickly
superannuated, by constant technical progress, that it can be replaced with advantage by new machinery after a few months. The living machinery, on the contrary, gets better the longer it lasts, and in proportion as the skill, handed from one generation to another, accumulates.

…the factory operatives are part of the movable fittings of a factory. Their emigration was prevented.1; They were locked up in that “moral workhouse”, the
cotton districts, and they form, as before, “the strength” of the cotton manufacturers of Lancashire.

With millions of workers being sent home in order to prevent damage to human beings as employees–a necessary part of the process of capitalist production and exchange as well as governmental processes– the government’s intervention in being “the guarantor of people’s income” looks much less positive. The government or state (here the distinction is not important) is not the benevolent, neutral institution that Professor Noonan makes it out to be. It is providing income as a stop-gap measure until the capitalist and governmental processes can once again operate normally.

Indeed, Professor Noonan implies as much when he writes:

The danger, of course, is that the state is currently acting under emergency powers, but will revert to its standard function of enframing and protecting capital, if we let it.

Professor Noonan sees the provision of income by the state that is supposedly independent of market forces as something positive–but as we have already seen, the preservation of workers independent of the market in the sense that they can obtain money without having to work for an employer–is only a temporary measure that in no way is in opposition to the interests of the class of employers.

As the pandemic recedes in intensity, at least two issues will arise concerning the opposition of the working class to the nation-state. Firstly, there will be increased intensification of calls for workers to go back to work for employers despite the health risks. After all, around 1000 workers die and 600,000 workers are injured every year in Canada; health and safety are not a priority for the Canadian state.

Secondly, the issue of who will pay for the temporary income of workers and the subsidies for employers during the pandemic will arise. Although calls for cutbacks in health care will undoubtedly be more difficult to justify, cuts in other areas (such as education) will probably intensify.

Without a movement that expressly or consciously opposes the treatment of workers as things to be used by employers, the temporary measure taken by the Canadian (and other capitalist) government(s) is just that–a temporary measure. There will likely be opposition from the labour movement and from communities to the treatment of such measures as temporary, but since the labour movement and communities, for the most part, share Professor Noonan’s view that the state can somehow overcome its own nature as a capitalist state, the tasks required for converting such temporary measures into permanent measures cannot be addressed.

Professor Noonan refers to “we.” But who is this “we?” The “we” is a figment of his social-democratic imagination. In order for there to be a “we,” there would have had to have been much prior preparation. Has Professor Noonan engaged in such preparation? Not at all. He has engaged in the idealization of the collective-bargaining process and promoted class harmony (see earlier posts, such as  The Poverty of Academic Leftism, Part Five: Middle-Class Delusions).

Surely an essential part of the process of our preparing for a society where we all have our biological, social, intellectual, emotional and aesthetic needs met is a negative process–a process of coming to understand that the present social relations inside and outside work are in opposition to our interests and nature and that we therefore need to organize to change the situation by abolishing all class relations and relations of oppression.

However, my experience here in Toronto has been that most of the so-called left simply do not want to deal with the issue and attack those who do, such as calling them “a condescending prick,” ridiculing them and so forth. Alternatively, they ignore the issue by remaining silent over the issue. For example, John Clarke and other so-called radicals here in Toronto opposed calling for a basic income; I called for a radical basic income in opposition to Mr. Clarke’s rejection of any consideration of a basic income (see Basic Income: A Critique of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty’s Stance). It has been largely ignored by the left here in Toronto; there has been no real discussion or movement for establishing a radical basic income here in Toronto.

Professor Noonan’s reference to “if we let them” is, therefore, utopian thinking. My prediction is that at best there will be some pressure from the organized social-democratic left for the maintenance of some kind of improvements in the welfare state, but that is all. Of course, there will be counter-pressure by the government or state and the class of employers to such improvements.

Professor Noonan’s further utopian social-democratic thinking can be seen in the following:

The alternative is to use this crisis as a basis of legitimacy for the state– under the control of democratic political forces acting in our shared life-interest– to assume control over the productive basis of society and re-orient production to serving life-needs.

I certainly share the goal of having “the productive basis of society…serving life-needs,” , but Professor Noonan has not shown how he or other members of the so-called progressive left have engaged in the preparatory work necessary to take advantage of a crisis.

Professor Noonan’s reference to using

“this crisis as a basis of legitimacy for the state–under the control of democratic political forces acting in our shared life-interest–to assume control over the productive basis of society and re-orient production to serving life-needs”

follows in the footsteps of another post by Professor Noonan, a post that assumes the present existence of certain social relations that are required if other social relations are to arise. In the previous post already referred to above, I pointed out how contradictory Professor Noonan’s theoretical position is with respect to the interests of most workers at universities; Professor Noonan assumed that there was already democracy at universities and thereby assumed what in fact needs to be accomplished.

The same logic applies here. If we already have democratic control of forces “acting in our shared life-interest,” then we already have “control over the productive basis of society” and have already “reoriented production to serve life-needs.” The reconstruction of the economy is democratic control. We need to reconstruct the political and the economic simultaneously and not the so-called political seizure of power occurring before and then democratic control of the economy somehow following afterwards.

Professor Noonan’s call for nationalization by the present state ignores this problem altogether by assuming that nationalization by the modern state will somehow magically lead to control over our own life process and life needs:

 Nationalization can pre-figure democratic socialization, and democratic socialization can re-focus economic life on collective work to provide each and all that which we really need, and freeing our time for the– real-life, multidimensional– experiences, actions, and interactions that make life worth fighting for, protecting, and living.

The call for nationalization as a prelude to socialism is typical of social democrats; they idealize and fetishize the modern state–contrary to Professor Noonan’s disclaimer–and thereby short-circuit what needs to be done–expose the anti-democratic and alienated nature of the modern state–a nature that has its parallel in the modern economy dominated by a class of employers or what some call civil society (see Employers as Dictators, Part One).

This issue, however, is somewhat complicated and will be dealt with in the next post. Professor Noonan’s position, ironically, is similar in some ways to the Leninist view of the modern state–a view that Professor Noonan supposedly finds unsatisfactory.

 

 

Employers as Dictators, Part One

I find it fascinating how the social-democratic or reformist left fall all over themselves, insisting that they are fighting for fairness and justice–and yet neglect the persistent injustice of having to work for an employer. (The same could be said of many who consider themselves radicals these days).

Elizabeth Anderson, in her book Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (and Why We Don’t Talk About It) questions the assumption of the social-democratic or reformist left by pointing out how the power of employers resembles the power of communist dictators (pages 37-39):

Communist Dictatorships in Our Midst


Imagine a government that assigns almost everyone a superior whom they must obey. Although superiors give most inferiors a routine to follow, there is no rule of law. Orders may be arbitrary and can change at any time, without prior notice or opportunity to appeal. Superiors are unaccountable to those they order
around. They are neither elected nor removable by their inferiors. Inferiors have no right to complain in court about how they are being treated, except in a few narrowly defined cases. They also have no right to be consulted about the orders they are given.

There are multiple ranks in the society ruled by this government. The content of the orders people receive varies, depending on their rank. Higher- ranked individuals may be granted considerable freedom in deciding how to carry out their orders, and may issue some orders to some inferiors. The most highly ranked individual takes no orders but issues many. The lowest-ranked may have their bodily movements and speech minutely regulated for most of the day.

This government does not recognize a personal or private sphere of autonomy free from sanction. It may prescribe a dress code and forbid certain hairstyles. Everyone lives under surveillance, to ensure that they are complying with orders. Superiors may snoop into inferiors’ e- mail and record their phone conversations.
Suspicionless searches of their bodies and personal effects may be routine. They can be ordered to submit to medical testing. The government may dictate the language spoken and forbid communication in any other language. It may forbid certain topics of discussion. People can be sanctioned for their consensual sexual activity or for their choice of spouse or life partner. They can be sanctioned for their political activity and required to engage in political activity they do not agree with.

The economic system of the society run by this government is communist. The government owns all the nonlabor means of production in the society it governs. It organizes production by means of central planning. The form of the government is a dictatorship. In some cases, the dictator is appointed by an oligarchy. In other cases, the dictator is self- appointed.

Although the control that this government exercises over its members is pervasive, its sanctioning powers are limited. It cannot execute or imprison anyone for violating orders. It can demote people to lower ranks. The most common sanction is exile. Individuals are also free to emigrate, although if they do, there is usually no going back. Exile or emigration can have severe collateral consequences. The vast majority have no realistic option but to try to immigrate to another communist dictatorship, although there are many to choose from. A few manage to escape into anarchic hinterlands, or set up their own dictatorships.

This government mostly secures compliance with carrots. Because it controls all the income in the society, it pays more to people who follow orders particularly well and promotes them to higher rank. Because it controls communication, it also has a propaganda apparatus that often persuades many to support
the regime. This need not amount to brainwashing. In many cases, people willingly support the regime and comply with its orders because they identify with and profit from it. Others support the regime because, although they are subordinate to some superior, they get to exercise dominion over inferiors. It
should not be surprising that support for the regime for these reasons tends to increase, the more highly ranked a person is.

Would people subject to such a government be free? I expect that most people in the United States would think not. Yet most work under just such a government: it is the modern workplace, as it exists for most establishments in the United States. The dictator is the chief executive officer (CEO), superiors are managers, subordinates are workers. The oligarchy that appoints the CEO exists for publicly owned corporations: it is the board of directors. The punishment of exile is being fired. The economic system of the modern workplace is communist, because the government— that is, the establishment— owns all the assets,1 and the top of the establishment hierarchy designs the production plan, which subordinates execute. There are no
internal markets in the modern workplace. Indeed, the boundary of the firm is defined as the point at which markets end and authoritarian centralized planning and direction begin.

Most workers in the United States are governed by communist dictatorships in their work lives.

 

This parallel of the power of communist (or fascist) dictators and the power of employers to dictate to workers is simply neglected by social-democratic reformers. They ignore the issue altogether, minimize it or, when some try to bring up the issue, engage in insults. Their own conception of what is fair is so limited that they have little to say about the daily experiences of billions of workers worldwide.

They remind me of something which Karl Marx wrote long ago. From Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. Volume 1: The Process of Production of Capital (page 91):

Perseus wore a magic cap so that the monsters he hunted down might not see him. We draw the magic cap down over our own eyes and ears so as to deny that there are any monsters.

The social-democratic left seek to hide the reality of our own lives from us–lives characterized by dictatorship in various ways (with some freedoms, to be sure, such as limited freedom of speech–depending on where you are located on this planet and your status within that locality).

Let us listen to the social-democratic left for a moment as they characterize modern social relations and “draw the magic cap down over our eyes so as to deny that there are any monsters”. As I wrote in another post:

As already mentioned, the left does not generally criticize management rights as such. Quite to the contrary. It uses rhetoric and euphemisms, such as “decent work,” “fair wages,” (Tracy McMaster), “a fair contract” (Wayne Dealy). It fails to criticize the pairing of the Fight for $15 with the concept of “fairness,” implying that fairness can be achieved within the employer-employee relation. It fails to criticize the rhetoric of “Fair Labour Laws Save Lives.” It fails to criticize the rhetoric of “economic justice” (John Cartwright).

At the Toronto Pearson airport (the largest in Canada, with between 40,000 and 50,000 employees), at the May Day rally, there was a banner being carried by some with the message: ‘Airport Workers Fighting for Decent Work.’ The banner also had the following: ‘$15/Fairness YYZ’ (YYZ is the airport code for Toronto Pearson International airport). If working for an employer is essentially working for a dictator, then the demand for decent work and fairness under such conditions is illogical. It is certainly necessary to fight for better working conditions and increases in wages and salaries, but better working conditions and an increased salary do not change the fundamentally dictatorial nature of employer power. To think otherwise–and the slogans express such thought–is to engage in delusions–which is hardly what the labour movement requires.

Organizations need to arise that express openly the reality of our lives so that we can begin to address the problems associated with that reality.