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

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

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

Where Do We Go from Here?

The Procrustean Language

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

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

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

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

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

Socialism, Part Three: What It May Look Like, or Visions of a Better Kind of Society Without Employers

The following is a continuation of an earlier post (Socialism, Part Two: What It May Look Like) about the nature of socialism–which is a solution to problems that capitalism, characterized by the domination of a class of employers, cannot solve. Socialism is not something that emerges from a utopian view independently of the nature of capitalism but requires a critical approach to capitalism.

In the following, Michael Perelman contrasts what many people experience in their lives: their own contrast between an activity which they enjoy doing and their experience working for an employer, which they often enough find to be draining.

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

Just What Is Work?

To understand the potential for transforming the economy, consider a simple example that does not require much of a stretch of the imagination. Just think of the enormous contrast between farm work for wages and gardening as a hobby. Farm work is considered to be so abhorrent in the United States that we regularly hear that only foreign-born workers are willing to perform it. Supposedly, upstanding citizens of the United States would never subject themselves to the life of a farm worker for poverty wages.

While farm labor may be among the hardest, most dangerous work in our society, many people regard gardening as a pleasant diversion. While the United Farm Workers Union represents mostly downtrodden workers, a good number of wealthy people are proud affiliates of their blue-blood garden clubs. Over and above the time they spend in their gardens, many gardeners enthusiastically devote considerable leisure time to conversing or reading in order to become better gardeners. In addition, many gardeners also willingly spend substantial sums for equipment and supplies to use in their gardens.

What, then, is the underlying difference between farm work and gardening? Farm work typically entails hard physical labor, but many gardeners also exert themselves in their gardens. The difference lies in the context of gardening. Gardeners, unlike farm workers, freely choose to be gardeners. During the time they work in their gardens, they want to be gardening. Nobody tells them what to do. Gardeners are producing for themselves rather than for someone else who will benefit from their work.

As the psychologist John Neulinger says: “Everyone knows the difference between doing something because one has to and doing something because one wants to.”43 We should also keep in mind that society respects gardeners. Our newspapers regularly print features of interest to gardeners. Some even have special sections to appeal to their affluent gardening readers. All the while, the lives of farm workers pass virtually unnoticed. In our society, farm work is never “respectable” work; well-to-do families would not approve of their children becoming farm workers.
Of course, gardeners are not entirely free to follow their whims. The rhythms of the seasons and the sudden shifts in the weather dictate some of what the gardeners do, but gardeners generally accept these demands beforehand. …

As suggested earlier, the key to the Procrustean trap is not the threat of physical force but rather the inability to imagine anything outside of the constrained present circumstances. The willingness to take seriously Margaret Thatcher’s preposterous claim—“There is no alternative”—perfectly sums up this state of mind.

A writer for reminisced about Thatcher’s Procrustean destructive success:

Of course, it’s possible to change a society and to drag it into the global economic monoculture. Mrs. Thatcher showed how: Break up collectives and make people feel a little bit more alone in the world. Cut a few holes in the social safety net. Raise the status of money-making, and lower the status of every other activity. Stop giving knighthoods to artists and start giving them to department-store moguls. Stop listening to intellectuals and start listening to entrepreneurs and financiers.
Stick to the plan long enough and the people who are good at making money acquire huge sums and, along with them, power. In time, they become the culture’s dominant voice. And they love you for it.46

Thatcher’s scheme actually worked. Her acolytes were so convinced that the mere utterance of Thatcher’s acronym TINA seemed sufficient to cut off any debate with skeptics.

The social-democratic or social-reformist left in Toronto certainly has reinforced the TINA principle. The so-called radical left, by keeping silent out of fear of becoming isolated, themselves becomes part of the social-democratic left. They, like the social-reformist left, provide no real alternative vision to the oppressive and exploitative nature of work characteristic of the power of employers as a class.

In fact, through their silence and their lack of criticism, they contribute to the perpetuation of class rule. They are, practically, social reformists who will never go beyond the existing class system despite their rhetoric of class struggle and struggle from below.



A Kindred Soul: Exposing the Irrationality and Absurdity of an Economy Dominated by a Class of Employers

As the social-reformist left plan to engage in a rally tomorrow in order to defend the increase of the minimum wage to $14, to defend needed reform of employment standards and other needed reforms, they engage in a contradictory process. On the one hand, they seek to defend needed reforms–and they should be defended. On the other hand, they do not go far enough by any means. They share assumptions with the Fordist right that the present society is, ultimately, rational. This they do in practice even if they claim otherwise.

As for the so-called radical left, they seem intent on jumping on the bandwagon and following the social-reformist left; they are afraid to engage in criticism of a predominantly reformist community and union movement.

Michael Perleman, on the other hand, points to a need to expose the inherent irrationality of the present society and the impossibility of reforming such irrationality.

Michael Perelman, in his book The Invisible Handcuffs of Capitalism: How Market Tyranny Stifles the Economy by Stunting Workers (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2011), expresses the need to expose the nature of capitalist relations and their irrational, absurd and harmful nature.  This is part of the purpose of this blog.

From the introduction:

This book is intended as one among many blows that will ultimately crack the prevailing dogma that prevents the development of an economy that can nurture and tap in to people’s potential. It does not describe how this kind of economy will work. Developing the details of the future organization is far more challenging than helping to make way for the transition; however, awareness of the current wasted potential must precede the transformation of the present system of social relations.

Michelangelo’s wonderfully evocative, half-finished sculptures, known as The Slaves, made a deep impression on me when I saw them in Florence forty years ago. These works do not display the uniform delicacy and detail of his David or the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel, but the very incompleteness of these four massive statues, intended for the tomb of Pope Julius, is a major source of strength. The Awakening Slave depicts a powerful body, seemingly waking, while still encased in stone. The effect of the Bearded Slave, struggling to free himself from his marble boulder, which had once completely engulfed him, is even more dramatic.

Everybody irritated by a boss’s foolish command or a corporation’s ridiculous bureaucratic demands has taken a first step toward an awakening. These annoyances are symptomatic of a much larger problem associated with an outdated system of command and control at the workplace. Once that realization kicks in, you can sense your inner Bearded Slave. I like to think that many economists are also like the Bearded Slave, deep down struggling to emerge from the self-censorship that engulfs the discipline. [I think he is too hopeful; economists have a vested interest in justifying the present economic system dominated by a class of employers.]

Capitalist society also has something in common with the Bearded Slave, except that what covers its inner potential is man-made. It is capitalist control that encrusts society with unsightly layers of waste and inefficiency. This book includes many such examples. Hammering away at this crud might make the system more productive, but more often than not the waste and inefficiency serve a purpose—to maintain the existing system of control.

With enough blows, the irrationality of this system will be exposed. An irresistible vision of a humane system with rich social relations—something more beautiful than Michelangelo’s statues—will first come into view and then replace capitalism.

Unlike Perleman, the radical left in Toronto seem bent on pursuing a tactic of silence at all costs. For example, its silence over whether it is legitimate to pair the idea of fairness, on the one hand, to an increase in the minimum wage to $15 an hour and needed reforms of employment law on the other, expresses a lack of any real movement towards the abolition of the power of employers as a class. The radical left does not even take itself seriously anymore. It, like the social-reformist left, in practice agrees with the TINA principle: there is no alternative to capitalism–not in practice.

Of course, the radical left will probably delude itself into believing that it is contributing to “building capacities”–as if a greater quantity of the same social reformism will somehow challenge the shared assumptions of the right and the social-reformist left.

It will be interesting to see what the radical left (and the social-reformist left) will have accomplished this time next year since they refuse to criticize the basic principles of modern society–a society dominated by a class of employers.