Unions and the Coronavirus Pandemic: A Critique of a Social-Democratic View, Part Two

This is a continuation of commentary on an article written by Professor Tufs (geography professor, York University, Toronto, Ontario, Canada) (see https://socialistproject.ca/2020/05/covid19-and-actually-existing-unions/).

In my last post, I pointed out that Professor Tuft’s reference to Sam Gindin’s call for restructured and more radical unions is inadequate. Rather than addressing directly the issue of the inadequacy of modern-day unions in addressing the problems which workers face, Professor Tuft shuffles off the issue to Mr. Gindin. This shift permits Professor Tuft to focus almost exclusively on the creation of stop-gap measures to address the possible crisis in unions as a result of the pandemic.

Let us now turn to his discussion of reformed unions. He points out that many unions are not created by the members themselves in any real sense of the workers organizing themselves into  a fighting unit that functions to protect the common interests of its members I take it that that is what he means by the following:

There is also the reality that the current structures of the labour movement are limited. Rank-and-file members are not mobilized to self-organize.

Such a criticism needs elaboration, but Professor Tuft fails to do so. The very nature of modern unions (at least in Canada and the United States) as organizations whose primary function is to negotiate collective agreements, sets limits to the self-organizing capacity of unions–as long as they accept the model of “free collective bargaining” as somehow beyond criticism. Unions could develop the capacity to see collective bargaining and collective agreements as merely contracts forced upon them due to the inevitable power imbalance between the working class and the class of employers rather than somehow being “fair,” and they could also come to see such expressions as “decent work” as ideological in the bad sense of the word–of covering up the reality of the exploitation and oppression of workers.

By being vague, Professor Tuft fails to specify what he means by self-organize, and he thereby permits himself the luxury of not confronting the general limitations of unions, of collective bargaining and collective agreements. To openly call into question the center around which modern unions revolve–collective bargaining and collective agreements–would threaten the interests of many representatives of modern unions and thereby expose Professor Tuft to insults and ridicule by the social-reformist left.

Professor Tuft mentions another limitation of unions–they address mainly only the interests of their immediate employed members and not the unemployed. He mentions the construction trades as an exception:

 But there is the larger problem that labour organizations are simply not oriented toward the unemployed. Some unions such as the building trades maintain relationships with unemployed workers through hiring-hall ‘lists’. But this is an exception.

Professor Tuft fails to show how the lack of orientation towards the unemployed by unions is a larger problem. Rather, the lack of orientation towards the unemployed is interrelated with the focus on collective bargaining and the collective agreement.  Since unions focus on collective bargaining and collective agreements, and since unemployed workers have limited or no rights under such agreements (such as call-back rights), workers covered by a collective agreement who lose their job generally “vanish” or cease to exist as far as unions are practically concerned. The issue of unions not being oriented towards the unemployed is thus linked to the issue of their focus being collective bargaining and the collective agreement.

To be sure, workers in construction unions do not vanish from the union; they form part of a list to be hired. Professor Tufts does not explore this exception at all to determine whether it overcomes the limitations of traditional unions. (My brother, by the way, worked as a construction labourer in Calgary and a few other places in Alberta, Canada, when he was younger, and he evidently found the work not only difficult but exhausting.)

The construction industry is seasonal , and therefore many workers have only temporary jobs. Once their work for a particular employed has ended, they form part of a list to be hired by a pool of employers in the construction industry. The reason why the relation of the laid off member to the union is maintained, therefore, is because the worker is potentially employable by many different employers.

The hiring-hall list converts unions in the construction industry into, in some ways, a temporary job agency. From Michael Duke, Luke Bergmann, Genevieve Ames (2010), “Competition and the Limits of Solidarity among Unionized Construction Workers,” in Anthropology of Work Review, Volume 31, Number 2, page 85:

…the union serves as a job broker between workers and employers. In this capacity, union representatives from a given Local receive notice of job openings at particular job sites, and are tasked with providing those employers with workers from the union’s membership roster. The duration of these jobs varies widely, from 1 or 2 days to more or less permanent employment, resulting in many workers facing a continual struggle to receive a steady paycheck, and a continuous jockeying among members for jobs.

In addition to the seasonal nature of construction work, there is the additional but related fact that workers in the construction industry often work for a number of employers during a year and not just one employer. Construction workers go from periods of employment with one employer to periods of unemployment and then periods of employment with, possibly, a different employer.

There is, however, a major difference between this function as performed by construction unions and temporary agencies. Construction unions try to smooth out the distribution of work so as to make the system fairer as a whole for the construction workers in the union. Page 89:

There is little doubt that the hiring list benefits job seekers by reducing the influence of
favoritism, connections, and other influences that privilege some workers over others, and by spreading the risk of joblessness more or less equally among those on its roles.

Like most features of worker organizations in a capitalist society, though, the hiring-hall list is a double-edged sword. Being on the list is an expression of being unemployed, and in particular being at the bottom of the list expresses the likelihood of being unemployed for a longer period of time than many workers can afford. Page 89:

At the same time, the list represents a potent symbol of this alienation for these workers, in
that it provides a constant reminder of the temporary nature of their employment, and of the ephemeral quality of relationships on the job site.More centrally, the list represents for members the limits of union solidarity, the loss of a common stake in work and job security, and, ultimately, the alienation of laborers from the work they produce and the relationships that develop through that work.

A hiring-hall list does indeed maintain a relationship between workers and the union even when there is no specific employment relationship–but because the union functions in part as a temporary work agency, it also functions in part as an oppressive mechanism. A union that overcomes one of the limitations of collective bargaining–being connected to the union only by being connected to an employer (or set of employers in the case of more centralized bargaining)–often involves contradictions in other areas (such as the oppressive function of a temporary hiring agent).

Therefore, even when unions expand their functions to those beyond collective bargaining and collective agreements, they become involved in further contradictions that they cannot resolve. They are limited institutions for the self-organization of the working class. These limitations should be admitted and addressed.

Nevertheless, the issue of the unemployed not being organized by unions is certainly important. Employed and unemployed workers form, in general, part of one and the same working class.

Employed workers are united (temporally, during the working day) with the means of their work (buildings, machines, tables, floors, raw material, computers, and so forth). After work, they too , like their unemployed counterparts, become separated not only physically but also socially from those means (they do not own and control them).

The unemployed are separated physically and socially from all means of production for a shorter or longer period of time. Of course, some who work for employers may become unemployed, and some who are unemployed may become employed again. There is a often a change of who is employed and who is unemployed, due in great part to the changing needs of employers and, to some extent, the changing needs of workers (workers are not tied to a specific employer but can quit and try to find another employer to hire them).

Both groups of workers form part of the working class as class. As members of a class, those who work for a particular employer also are working for the class of employers.  No particular worker can work at any particular activity for any length of time without other workers producing both the means of production (machines, computers, phones, raw material, pens, pencils, tables and so forth) with which the worker works. In other words, there is a division of labour, where other workers are working for other employers in a system of interdependence. (Such interdependence has recently been experienced by some workers because of the coronavirus epidemic–as some workers stopped working, so too did others since they depended on other workers for the resources or means of production required to produce in their particular sphere). Or, as Thomas Hodgskin (1825), in his Labour Defended Against the Claims of Capital, remarked (page 45):

If we push our inquiries still further, all that we can learn is, that there are other men in existence who are preparing those things we need, while we are preparing those which they need.

The source of the active army of labour, at least in Canada, is the continued births of children within Canadian borders, on the one hand, and immigrants on the other.

The workers themselves, or the active army of workers of the class of employers, however, are subject to various levels of precariousness, some more and some less since changes in technology, rates of accumulation, taxes, state expenditures and its composition, intensity of work and so forth  can change employment levels. The precise composition of the active army of workers can of course also vary according to kinds and degrees of racism, sexism and so forth prevalent in and outside work.

In the world, there are “around 1.65 billion in the active labor army” (R. Jamil Jonna and John Bellamy Foster (April, 2016), “Marx’s Theory of Working-Class Precariousness – And Its Relevance Today,” in Monthly Review, page 38). 

The active army of labour is always subject to more or less unstable working conditions since the workers do not control the machines, buildings, resources, raw materials and so forth that they use, but are rather subject to the immediate control of particular managers and employers and, ultimately, to the control of the pressures of the world market.

The same could be said of the unemployed: they too are subject to varying levels of precariousness and subject to varying connections to particular employers and to the class of employers in general.

There are, in general, four kinds of groups that constitute the unemployed or the reserve army of labour: floating, latent, stagnant and pauperized. From R. Jamil Jonna and John Bellamy Foster, page 26:

… the floating population consisted of workers who had a connection – if a precarious one – to the active labor army, with a recent history of employment; they constituted those who would likely be the first to be re-hired in an expansion.

A section of the unemployed that has more precarious roots in the working class is the latent surplus population. From page 26:

The next layer of the reserve army, in Marx’s description, is the latent surplus population. For the most part this refers to the (self-sustaining) segments of the agricultural (or rural) population. This population served as a vast source of potential labor for capitalist industry (hence, “latent”).

In Canada, one of the sources for this form of unemployment is probably overseas in the form of the The Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP). From the Canadian government’s website:

The Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) allows Canadian employers to hire foreign nationals to fill temporary labour and skill shortages when qualified Canadian citizens or permanent residents are not available.

In other countries, similarly, the temporary immigrant population also form part of the latent reserve army of labour. Many students can now be considered to form part of the latent reserve army of labour.

In earlier times, women also formed part of the latent part of the reserve army of labour; employers eventually hired women, for example, for weapons factories during the Second World War. (My mother worked in a weapons factory in Toronto during  part of the War.)

The third form of the unemployed or the reserve army of labour is the stagnant group: it is a very precarious section of the reserve army of labour, characterized by very low wages and superexploitation. Some workers in short-term positions, some workers for temporary agencies, day workers, workers in the informal economy and the like constitute this layer of the reserve army of labour, which is subject to very irregular work. Even some substitute teachers may form part of this group since they are effectively shut out of obtaining a permanent position as teachers and often have no hiring rights at all (as is (or was) the case for substitute teachers as members of the Winnipeg Teachers’ Association, or WTA).

Finally, the pauperized layer of the reserve army of labour constitutes the lowest layer of the reserve army of labour, which includes those incapable of working for an employer, those who live from social assistance (and who, occasionally, can be obliged to work if they are to continue to receive social assistance), those who live from petty thefts and the like. Part of those workers in the informal economy (including children) form part of this layer, including those who try to sell small amounts of commodities at an individual level.

The distribution of the active and reserve army of labour (with their various layers) can be seen from the following (page 38):

In 2013, according to International Labour Organization (ILO, 2015b) figures, the global reserve army consisted of some 2.3 billion people, compared to around 1.65 billion in the active labor army, many of whom are precariously unemployed. The number of officially unemployed at that time (corresponding roughly to Marx’s floating population) was 200 million workers. Some 1.5 billion workers were classified as “vulnerably employed” (related to Marx’s stagnant population), made up of workers working “on their own account” (informal workers and rural subsistence workers) and “contributing family workers” (domestic labor). Another 600 million individuals between the prime working ages of 25-54 were classified as economically inactive. This is a heterogeneous category but undoubtedly consists preponderantly of those of prime working age who are a part of the pauperized population.

Unions, indeed, are limited since their focus is mainly on the organized sections of the active army–although we should not forget that unions have, in various ways, fought, indirectly if not directly, for the interests of various layers of the unemployed at specific periods in their history in the form of a national pension system, part of a pension system based on the duration of residence in Canada (Old Age Security), rather than on length of employment and level of contribution, medicare and so forth.

Professor Tuft’s  reference to the need for an organization dedicated to addressing the needs of the unemployed in the face of a possible decrease in the power of organized unions makes some sense–but it made sense even before the pandemic since unions often tooted the mere organization of workers into a union (and the effective enforcement of a collective agreement) as sufficient for ensuring “decent work,” a “fair contract,” “fairness” and the like.

With the emergence of the pandemic and the likely decrease in the working effectiveness of unions to protect the immediate interests of their members, on the one hand, and the increase in the need for stop-gap measures as more workers remain unemployed for a longer period of time, a gap arises that can be filled by former union representatives who also may well lose their jobs. According to Professor Tufts:

Most important, union representatives know the workers that will require a range of labour market adjustment services such as: assessment of the mental and physical health impacts of COVID-19; help with navigating emergency assistance, the CERB, and EI bureaucracies; assistance with resume writing; ensuring licenses and certifications are maintained during unemployment; counsel for workers considering early retirement; and guidance for workers considering re-training options. If the pandemic reoccurs in waves, as some have predicted, workers will shift in and out of employment and require training in COVID-19 health and safety measures. Who is going to do this work?

The federal government has allocated $350-million to help keep afloat the not-for-profit agencies providing needed services. These funds should be expanded and target labour organizations to deliver labour market adjustment services to unemployed workers. Economically, it makes sense as union communications infrastructure and staff can be efficiently deployed to assist workers. The social benefit of providing successful labour market adjustment and support is self-evident as it reduces hardship and the period of unemployment.

This solution seems to be reasonable  in the face of the likely increased instability of both the active army of workers and the reserve army of labour in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, on the one hand, and the likely decreased power of unions on the other. This situation will, of course, vary between sectors of the economy and over time; in other words, some groups of the active working class will be more subject to increased precariousness as will some groups of the reserve army when compared to their situation before the pandemic and when compared to other groups of workers in the active army or in the reserve army.

Professor Tuft’s solution is to call for Workers’ Resource Centres  to address the problem of the unemployed. Such centres would link active workers with unemployed workers and the community:

Politically and practically, resource centres make sense. ‘Actually existing’ unions have been in decline for decades. Serving all working people and entire communities rather than just employed members is fundamental to making unions relevant during the crisis. It also gives union staff work to do during a slow recovery that might preserve some institutional integrity that will be needed to fight inevitable workplace restructuring and austerity. As sectors recover, unions will be crucial in advocating for sufficient staffing levels and new COVID-19 related health and safety protocols.

This solution is certainly worthy of consideration–but of course it is hardly sufficient. The present-day workers’ action centres are entirely reformist and aim to address the immediate needs of workers without taking into consideration their long-term needs.

Professor Tuft then shifts to wishful thinking: such resource centres might serve as transitional organizations for a “green economy”:

A workers’ resource centre approach is admittedly full of contradictions and compromises. But we need realistic options for presently insufficient unions to survive in the short-term and meet workers material needs. Indeed, such efforts should be seen as part of building capacities for more transformative demands and actions. This may very well include expanding resource centre mandates in the future to administrate ‘just-transition’ supports for workers as economies adapt to green production. COVID-19 is a potentially transformative event for organized labour, but a sober analysis of what is possible to meet the needs of unemployed workers at this moment is required alongside aspirational calls.

He pays lip service to the “contradictions and compromises” that such workers’ resource centres would experience since funding for such centres would likely come from government coffers by way of funding community organizations and other non-governmental organizations:

It would not cost the government a great deal as these services will, in any case, need to be delivered by community organizations.

Professor Tuft implies that such organizations could somehow be self-organizations of the working class. What is more likely is that they will become at best reformist organizations like their trade union counterparts or, worse, even more restricted in their functions because of their dependence on the government for their continued functioning. Such a situation is hardly an expression of self-organization. Professor Tufts, like his social-reformist comrades, fails to address the limitations that workers’ resource centres would likely face that would prevent them from being institutions of self-organization. Professor Tufts, then, like his social-democratic or social reformist comrades, fails to address the limitations of such institutions.

Furthermore, the idea that such centres could be the stepping stone to “green production” is wishful thinking since a really green economy could only arise through the abolition of a society characterized by the class power of employers and the infinite increase of money–at the expense of human beings and this planet (see  The British Labour Party’s 2019 Manifesto: More Social Democracy and More Social Reformism, Part One).

Professor Tuft’s proposal for workers’ resource centres, from his point of view, then, undoubtedly express a “realistic option” for the self-organization of workers.

From my point of view, by contrast, his proposal will foster illusions of the self-organization of the working class while, in reality, perpetuating the exploitation and oppression of the working class by employers. His proposal is only realistic for social reformers and not for workers who reject the legitimacy of working for any employer.

It is necessary to link the interests of the unemployed and the employed by creating a common goal of controlling their life process through controlling the conditions of that life process–which is currently owned and controlled by the class of employers and protected by a government responsive to the need to reproduce itself in and through the protection of such forms of property and control. That common goal cannot arise without critiquing workers’ organizations that may have some independence from the class of employers locally or at the micro level but that operate at the macro level to confine the class struggle to limits set by the structural economic, political and social conditions characteristic of a society dominated by a class of employers.

The Rate of Exploitation of Magna International Inc., One of the Largest Private Employers in Toronto, Part Two, Or: Intensified Oppression and Exploitation

As I argued in the last post on this topic  (see  The Rate of Exploitation of Workers at Magna International Inc., One of the Largest Private Employers in Toronto, Part One), Christopher Arthur, in his The New Dialectic and Marx’s Capital, claims that there are two forms of exploitation (pages 55-56):

It is obvious here that this exploitation time to which I refer comprises the whole of the working day, not just the so-called ‘surplus labour time’. It is not the case in reality that the workers first supply themselves and then check into the factory to work the extra. On the contrary, the accounting of necessary and surplus labour time is the outcome of the struggle at the point of production over exploitation; and the unremitting pressure of capital’s representatives on the workforce is present the whole day from the first minute. Since capital ‘takes charge’ of production, the ‘pumping out’ of surplus labour cannot be distinguished on the ground from the pumping out of labour generally because during the whole working day its use value is exploited. So there is a conceptual distinction hidden here, between exploitation in this sense, and the sense in which exploitation is identified with only the extension of the working day beyond its necessary part.

I would be inclined to reverse Marx’s emphasis when he said: ‘Capital is not only command over labour, as Adam Smith thought. It is essentially command over unpaid labour.’48 Instead I would write: ‘Capital is not only command over unpaid labour, as Karl Marx thought. It is essentially command over labour, i.e. of the entire working day.’ (Of course Marx knew perfectly well that it is only because capital acquires ‘command over labour’ that this ‘coercive relation . . . compels the working class to do more work than would be required by the narrow circle of its own needs’.)

… My view allows for a ‘traditional’ measure of exploitation if we distinguish
two kinds of exploitation. Exploitation in production is in effect not dissimilar
to alienation in that it involves the subjection of workers to alien purposes;
it goes on throughout the day. Exploitation in distribution arises from
the discrepancy between the new wealth created and the return to those
exploited in production.

Arthur has a point: too often those who refers to Marx’s theory of exploitation emphasize surplus production and surplus value while neglecting to note how workers experience the situation: they do not produce their wage first independently of the employer or her/his representatives (forewomen/men, supervisors and managers) and then produce a surplus. The time that they spend producing their wage or salary is subject to the power and will of the employer–and not just the surplus labour and surplus time that the workers provide for free. This fact is too often neglected.

Nonetheless, there is a good reason for distinguishing the time that workers require to produce  their own wage or salary an the surplus time that they devote free of charge to employers: this has to do with the accumulation of capital.

I referred to this situation in an earlier post when criticizing the views of the social democrat David Bush (see Basic Income: A Critique of the Social-Reformist Left’s Assumptions and Analysis: Part Two).

Essentially, the question needs to be asked: Where does the investment funds come from that Magna International (or any other capitalist employer) uses to purchase c (constant capital, or the machines, raw material, desks, buildings, etc.) and v (the variable capital, or the labour power or capacity that workers sell to the employer)? From the surplus produced by workers in former years and, eventually, an “original investment” that does not come from the exploitation of workers by capitalist employers. (How this “original investment” arose is an historical question which Marx addressed in part 8 of Capital, volume 1: “The Secret of Primitive Accumulation.).

I quoted from Marx in the earlier post:

From Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, volume 1, pages 727-728:

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

We leave out of account here the portion of the surplus-value consumed by the capitalist. We are also not interested, for the moment, in whether the additional capital is joined on to the original capital, or separated from it so that it can valorize itself independently. Nor are we concerned whether the same capitalist employs it who originally accumulated it, or whether he hands it over to others. All we must remember is this: by the side of the newly formed capital, the original capital continues to reproduce itself and to produce surplus-value, and this is true of all accumulated capital in relation to the additional capital engendered by it. The original capital was formed by the advance of £10,000. Where did its owner get it from? ‘From his own labour and that of his forefathers’, is the unanimous answer of the spokesmen of political economy.4 And, in fact, their assumption appears to be the only one consonant with the laws of commodity production. But it is quite otherwise with regard to the additional capital of £2,000. We know perfectly well how that originated. There is not one single atom of its value that does not owe its existence to unpaid labour. The means of production with which the additional labour-power is incorporated, as well as the necessaries with which the workers are sustained, are nothing but component parts of the surplus product, parts of the tribute annually exacted from the working class by the capitalist class. Even if the latter uses a portion of that tribute to purchase the additional labour-power at its full price, so that equivalent is exchanged for equivalent, the whole thing still remains the age-old activity of the conqueror, who buys commodities from the conquered with the money he has stolen from 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 ofliving unpaid labour on a constantly increasing scale. The more the capitalist has accumulated, the more is he able to accumulate. The surplus-value that makes up additional capital no. 1 is the result of the purchase of labour-power with part of the original capital, a purchase which conformed to the laws of commodity exchange and which, from a legal standpoint, presupposes nothing
beyond the worker’s power to dispose freely of his own capacities, and the money-owner’s or commodity-owner’s power to dispose freely of the values that belong to him; equally, additional capital no. 2 is merely the result of additional capital no. 1, and is therefore a consequence of the relations described above; hence each individual transaction continues to conform to the laws of commodity exchange, with the capitalist always buying labour power and the worker always selling it at what we shall assume is its real value. It is quite evident from this that the laws of appropriation or of private property, laws based on the production and circulation of commodities, become changed into their direct opposite through their own internal and inexorable dialectic. The exchange of equivalents, the original operation with which we started, is now turned round in such a way that there is only an apparent exchange, since, firstly, the capital which is exchanged for
labour-power is itself merely a portion of the product of the labour of others which has been appropriated without an equivalent; and, secondly, this capital must not only be replaced by its producer, the worker, but replaced together with an added surplus. The relation of exchange between capitalist and worker becomes a mere semblance belonging only to the process of circulation, it becomes a mere form, which is alien to the content of the transaction itself, and merely mystifies it. The constant sale and purchase of labour power is the form; the content is the constant appropriation by the capitalist, without equivalent, of a portion of the labour of others which has already been objectified, and his repeated exchange of this labour for a greater quantity of the living labour of others.

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

As “costs,” the workers’ previous products are used against them to further exploit them.

Of course, the workers’ previous products are not only used to further exploit them but to further control their lives even when they are producing the equivalent value of their own wage. In other words, when we consider the accumulation process, the power of capital–produced by workers–has increased and is used to intensify the weight of the control of their past labour over their present lives.

That is why we need to distinguish the concept of exploitation as the production of surplus value from the concept of oppression, which is what occurs during the control of workers during the time they reproduce their own wage–that is to say, during the time in which workers produce an equivalent in value for their own wage.

Although Arthur recognizes that, when considering accumulation of capital in time, the wage that is paid in the present year is influenced by the previous rounds of the accumulation of surplus value, he does not consider the importance of this situation for the changing level of power that private employers (capitalists) have over workers. It is not just a question of the workers lacking power of controlling their work during the time that they reproduce the value of their wage; it is also the degree to which employers have the past power produced by workers at their disposal in the present (via the production of previous rounds of surplus value and their investment).

To call both parts of the oppression experienced in capitalist society “exploitation” would confuse the issue of the increasing power of capitalists or private employers over worker by means of the increasing power of past investment over the present lives of workers.

In the case of Magna International, the rate of exploitation, as noted in the previous post on this topic, is 79%. That means that in an 8-hour work day, Magna workers produce their wage in 4.5 hours, and they work for free for 3.5 hours. However, in addition to working for free for 3.5 hours for Magna International, and being subject to the control of the supervisors and managers, they are also subject to such control during the 4.5 hours that they produce their own wage.

The social-democratic left have little to say about either the exploitation of such workers or about the control of workers not only during this time but also during the time when they produce their wage. If Magna workers belong to an independent union (one that can engage in collective bargaining independently of the particular employer), then for the social-democratic left, such workers have decent work and have “fair contracts,” “fair collective agreements,” “fair wages,” and other such expressions.

My position has always been that both the exploitation of workers and the time when workers produce the value of their own wage, since they are both subject to the power of employers, involve treating human beings as things to be used for inhuman purposes (see  The Money Circuit of Capital) need to criticized and abolished. Given the social-democratic rhetoric of fairness and decent work, is there really any wonder that I was insulted by them in Toronto?

What do you think of workers at Magna International being exploited? What do you think of the time during which they produce the value of their wage? What do you think about whether the power of employers to exploit such workers and to control their lives during that time and during the time they produce their wage? Is either justified? What of the increasing power of the accumulated capital–and therefore the collective power of employers–over the present life of workers?

 

The Rate of Exploitation of Workers at Magna International Inc., One of the Largest Private Employers in Toronto, Part One

In another post, I presented the twenty largest employers in Toronto according to level of employment (see A Short List of the Largest Employers in Toronto, Ontario, Canada). One of those employers is Magna International Inc., a multinational corporation whose workers produce automobile supplies for inputs into car manufacturing.

This is a first attempt at calculating the rate of exploitation of one of the largest private employers in Toronto, Magna . It is undoubtedly imperfect in many ways, and I invite the reader to correct its gaps. Nonetheless, the lack of any attempt to determine the rate of exploitation at the city level by has undoubtedly reinforced social-reformist tendencies.

I am going to begin with a conclusion, and then explain what it means and how it is calculated so that the reader understands where I am headed in the calculations:

That means that for every hour worked that produces her/his wage, a worker at Magna International works around an additional 47 minutes for free for Magna International. In an 8-hour work day, the worker produces her/his wage in about 4.5 hours, and the remaining 3.5 hours works for free for Magna. In a 10-hour work day (both work days seem possible at Magna International—see https://www.indeed.com/cmp/Magna-International-Inc/faq/how-are-the-working-hours-at-magna-international-inc?quid=1at7gf6rrak7i9ff)–the worker produces her/his wage in about 5.6 hours and the remaining 4.4 hours works for free for Magna International.

But: What is the rate of exploitation? And why not use the usual rate of profit or the rate of return? The rate of profit is calculated as profit divided by investment. Since employers purchase both the means for work–buildings, computers, office supplies, raw material–and workers–we can classify investment into two categories: c, meaning constant capital, or the capital invested in commodities other than workers; and v, or variable capital, the capital invested in the hiring of workers for a certain period of time (wages and salaries).

The purpose of investment in a capitalist economy is to obtain more money (see The Money Circuit of Capital), and the additional money is surplus value when it is related to its source: workers working for more time than what they cost to produce themselves. The relation between surplus value and variable capital (or wages and salaries) is the rate of surplus value or the rate of exploitation, expressed as a ratio: s/v.

When the surplus is related to both c and v and expressed as a ratio, it is the rate of profit: s/(c+v).

In Marxian economics, you cannot simply use the economic classifications provided by employers and governments since such classifications often hide the nature of the social world in which we live. The rate of profit underestimates the rate of exploitation since the surplus value is related to total investment and not just to the workers. Furthermore, it makes the surplus value appear to derive from both constant capital and variable capital.

I decided to look at the annual report of some of the largest private companies in Toronto if they are available in order to calculate the rate of exploitation at a more local level. I begin with one company and invite others to provide criticisms or suggestions for improvement.

I have used some of the ideas from Thomas Ittelson (2019), A Visual Guide to Financial Statements: Overview for Non-Financial Managers and Investors, and Antonios Patidis (2016), “A Micro-Approach for Testing Marx’s LTRPF:Evidence from Greece, 2000 and 2009,” Review of Political Economy. Patidis “utilises data taken directly from company reports and accounts” in order to determine whether the rate of profit falls in the major corporations in Greece. My purpose, however, is not, initially at least, in determining whether the rate of profit has fallen but rather what the rate of exploitation is in diverse companies in Toronto.

I also asked Michael Roberts how to calculate the rate of exploitation; he graciously sent me a couple of articles (one of which I read). After that, I sent him the above, and he commented that it looked good.

Again, the following undoubtedly contains many limitations, but I will leave that for further discussion, should the issue arise.

The income statement is broken into the following categories for 2019 (in millions of US dollars): (pages 5, 36):

Sales $39,431
Costs and Expenses $37,208

Cost of goods sold $34,022

Material $24,585

Direct labour $2,815

Overhead $6,622

Depreciation and amortization $1,345

Selling, general and administrative $1,697

Interest expense, net $82

Other expense, net $240

Equity income ($178) [If you add up all the numbers–34,022; 1,345; … 82, then you get 37,286; if you subtract 178 from that, you get 37,208–the same amount as “Costs and expenses.” That is why the 178 is in parentheses–it is necessary to subtract it from expenses since it is really income. 

Income from operations before taxes: $2,223 (profit or surplus value) 

A couple of adjustments are probably necessary. On page 37, there is a reference to pension benefits. I assume that this category belongs to “direct labour” since it forms part of the deferred wages of workers that is paid in the current year (but then again, it is unclear whether the category of direct labour includes this, but since it is subtracted from net income, this leads me to believe that it is not included in that category). This should be added to direct labour. Hence, direct labour would be: 2,815+47=2,862, “Costs and expenses” would be $37, 255 “Costs of goods sold”would be $34,069, and “Income from operations before taxes” should be adjusted downward accordingly.

A second adjustment should probably be the treatment of the payment of interest; despite being an expense from the point of view of the individual capitalist, it probably forms part of the surplus value. Hence, it should be added to “Income from operations before taxes.” Adjusting “Income from operations before taxes,” we have 2,223-47+82=2,258.

So, with the adjustments in place: s=2,258; v=2,862. The rate of exploitation or the rate of surplus value=s/v=2,258/2,862=79%.

That means that for every hour worked that produces her/his wage, a worker at Magna International works around an additional 47 minutes for free for Magna International. In an 8-hour work day, the worker produces her/his wage in about 4.5 hours, and the remaining 3.5 hours works for free for Magna. In a 10-hour work day (both work days seem possible at Magna International—see https://www.indeed.com/cmp/Magna-International-Inc/faq/how-are-the-working-hours-at-magna-international-inc?quid=1at7gf6rrak7i9ff)–the worker produces her/his wage in about 5.6 hours and the remaining 4.4 hours works for free for Magna International.

This is not, however, the end of the story. Christopher Arthur, in his book The New Dialectic and Marx’s Capital,  argues that there are two kinds of exploitation, one that occurs during the production of the wage by the workers (since they are subject to control by employers during that time), and the other kind of exploitation outlined above, where workers work for free for the employer. This issue, however, will be addressed in a follow-up post.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We leave out of account here the portion of the surplus-value
consumed by the capitalist. We are also not interested, for the
moment, in whether the additional capital is joined on to the
original capital, or separated from it so that it can valorize itself
independently. Nor are we concerned whether the same capitalist
employs it who originally accumulated it, or whether he hands it
over to others. All we must remember is this: by the side of the
newly formed capital, the original capital continues to reproduce
itself and to produce surplus-value, and this is true of all accumulated
capital in relation to the additional capital engendered by it.
The original capital was formed by the advance of £10,000.
Where did its owner get it from? ‘From his own labour and that of
his forefathers’, is the unanimous answer of the spokesmen of
political economy.4 And, in fact, their assumption appears to be
the only one consonant with the laws of commodity production.
But it is quite otherwise with regard to the additional capital of
£2,000. We know perfectly well how that originated. There is not
one single atom of its value that does not owe its existence to unpaid
labour. The means of production with which the additional
labour-power is incorporated, as well as the necessaries with which
the workers are sustained, are nothing but component parts of the
surplus product, parts of the tribute annually exacted from the
working class by the capitalist class. Even if the latter uses a portion
of that tribute to purchase the additional labour-power at its
full price, so that equivalent is exchanged for equivalent, the whole
thing still remains the age-old activity of the conqueror, who buys
commodities from the conquered with the money he has stolen from
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 ofliving unpaid
labour on a constantly increasing scale. The more the capitalist
has accumulated, the more is he able to accumulate.
The surplus-value that makes up additional capital no. 1 is the
result of the purchase of labour-power with part of the original
capital, a purchase which conformed to the laws of commodity
exchange and which, from a legal standpoint, presupposes nothing
beyond the worker’s power to dispose freely of his own
capacities, and the money-owner’s or commodity-owner’s power to
dispose freely of the values that belong to him; equally, additional
capital no. 2 is merely the result of additional capital no. 1, and
is therefore a consequence of the relations described above; hence
each individual transaction continues to conform to the laws of
commodity exchange, with the capitalist always buying labour power
and the worker always selling it at what we shall assume is
its real value. It is quite evident from this that the laws of appropriation
or of private property, laws based on the production and
circulation of commodities, become changed into their direct
opposite through their own internal and inexorable dialectic. The
exchange of equivalents, the original operation with which we
started, is now turned round in such a way that there is only an apparent
exchange, since, firstly, the capital which is exchanged for
labour-power is itself merely a portion of the product of the labour
of others which has been appropriated without an equivalent; and,
secondly, this capital must not only be replaced by its producer,
the worker, but replaced together with an added surplus. The relation
of exchange between capitalist and worker becomes a mere
semblance belonging only to the process of circulation, it becomes
a mere form, which is alien to the content of the transaction itself,
and merely mystifies it. The constant sale and purchase of labour power
is the form; the content is the constant appropriation by the
capitalist, without equivalent, of a portion of the labour of others
which has already been objectified, and his repeated exchange of
this labour for a greater quantity of the living labour of others.

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is hardly in the interests of the working class.

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

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

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

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

 

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

Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Costing Basic Income–An Employer Approach

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

The Limitations of the Social-Reformist Left

Introduction

I used to belong to a leftist organization in Toronto. I started, slowly, to realize that it really has little to do with challenging the power of employers as a class despite the rhetoric concerning class issues being a priority. This view was confirmed when a movement for the reform of employment standards developed in Ontario in general and in Toronto in particular, and the Ontario Liberal government (Canada is divided into provinces, with Ontario as one of the provinces) agreed to such reforms.

The reform of employment standards was certainly needed, and the reforms are indeed useful to the working class. Among the reforms was included an increase in minimum wages to $15 an hour (in two phases). However, the problem is not the reforms but the pairing of these reforms with “fairness.” T-shirts with the slogan “Fight for $15 and Fairness” were produced, and rallies were announced with the same slogan. I found such a pairing objectionable, to say the least.

The Social-Reformist Left

This is a “selling point” typical of the social-reformist left. They try to get others to agree to the reforms that they propose by claiming that it is fair or just in some way; this is also often the tactic of union negotiating teams (as will be seen in another post).

Logically, the social-reformist left would never dare to pair a law that reduced the number of times a husband could hit his wife legally from 25 times a year to 10 times a year with the concept of fairness. Of course, receiving 10 hits a year is, in general, better than receiving 25 hits a year (all other circumstances being the same, such as the force of the hit, the hit not resulting in death and so forth). But they would object to the very idea of calling even the 10 hits a year fair.

Logically, though, the social-reformist  left do dare to pair $15 an hour (and other labour law reforms) with the concept of fairness. They “forget” that workers still are treated as means for purposes over which they have little or no control (see The Money Circuit of Capital)

This forgetfulness is actually agreement with the continued existence of the power of employers as a class.

Indeed, David Bush, a labour and community organizer (and doctoral student) in Toronto specifically claimed that the reforms were fair. They are certainly fairer, but to claim that they are fair assumes that the relationship between the class of employers and the class of workers is fair. The social-reformist left rely on the acceptance of the fairness of the employer-employee relation in order to justify its own position. The money circuit of capital shows that such a relationship is decidedly unfair. (I will address Mr. Bush’s reformist ideology in another post).

The social-reformist left, therefore, conveniently forget about the class relation between employers and employees as the background for any reform movement, and then boldly claims that the Fight for $15 is fair. They have no intention of challenging the power of employers as a class.

The social-reformist left may, of course, try to argue that there is a large difference between arguing that a reduction from 25 hits to 10 hits is fair to arguing that an increase in the minimum wages to $15 is fair. A reduction in the number of hits is negative whereas the increase in the minimum wage is positive. If, however, we look at the logic of both, they are the same. Both narrow the focus to what has been gained. In the case of a reduction in the number of hits, the focus is exclusively on the number of hits, without taking into consideration the remaining hits. In the case of an increase in the minimum wage (and other labour law reforms), consideration of the remaining power of employers–a power that is abusive in itself–is simply ignored. How otherwise could the social-reformist left then call the increase in the minimum wage fair (rather than fairer)?

Both logics exclude consideration of the wider context, and both present certain changes exclusively in a positive light (a favourite tactic of the social-reformist left). In another post, it will be pointed out that acting intelligently requires taking into consideration the context; if we do not, we likely will act unintelligently. The social-reformist left, ultimately, propose that we act unintelligently.

The Radical Left

The organization to which I belonged found the pairing of $15 and fairness to be irrelevant. There was no objection to such a linking of the reform movement and the issue of fairness. I found this lack of criticism to be appalling and, as a consequence, withdrew from the organization.

The silence of the so-called radical left in Toronto (and undoubtedly in other cities and countries) over such issues shows just how dominate the social-reformist point of view has become at a practical level. Such a view assumes TINA: there is no alternative.

We need to start discussing how to challenge the power of employers as a class. The so-called radical left, however, creates all sorts of excuses for not adopting a class point of view and for putting off any discussion about such issues. Reform is all that is on the agenda for them–like the social-reformist left.

The radical left in Toronto, by remaining silent over the issue, practically are on the same level as the social-reformist left. By remaining silent, they foster the continued illusion that the existence of the class of employers and the class of employees are somehow natural and eternal. This illusion needs to be constantly criticized.

By remaining silent, the radical left in Toronto fosters actions that are unintelligent. By remaining silent, the radical left contributes to the continued oppression and exploitation of the billions of workers who experience the daily grind of being treated as things at work.

Some among the radical left, of course, will justify such silence in many ways. Some may say that it is necessary to create structures (such as TAWC–the Toronto Airport Workers Council) that cut across unions. Somehow, by magic, such structures are going to address the power of employers as a class–in the far distant future. Such a vague future is a fairy tale. The radical left, in practice, do nothing different from the social-reformist left.

I attended one TAWC meeting; I did not hear any conversation that related to the power of employers as a class. It was more like an extended union meeting than anything else.

Others may claim that we need to engage in a “war of position” (based on the Italian Marxist Gramsci). Practically, this “war of position” turns out to be no different than the social-reformist left’s position. Why else was there silence over the issue of the fairness of $15 an hour? Or is such silence an expression of a “war of position”?

Ultimately, the radical left in Toronto lost an opportunity for bringing up the class issue–and that is what is needed in these trying times of ours–and not more social-reformist rhetoric.