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 Robust or Ambitious Universal Basic Income: An Impossible Dream for Some Among the Social-democratic Left

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).

In a previous post (The Strawman of a Minimal Universal Basic Income by the Social-democratic Left in Toronto), I pointed out how unethical and dishonest Dhunna and Bush were in their critique of a policy of universal basic income (UBI) since they, for the most part, assume that such a UBI would involve at best a minimum and definitely inadequate level of income for Canadian citizens. There is, however, one exception.

The International Labour Organization and the Principle of a Universal Basic Income (UBI)

There is one situation in which they acknowledge a possible more generous UBI–when they refer to the costs of such a program in relation to GDP analyzed by the International Labour Organization (ILO). Thus, they write:

If our demand consists of a UBI of $24,000 per year for Canadians aged 18 and over, we are looking at a front-loaded cost of $696 billion every year. This is roughly double the current national deficit (approximately $350 billion), or put another way, 40% of Canada’s GDP (for reference, the country’s overall health spending makes up 11.6% of our GDP). A UBI at a lower level of $1,000 per year for people aged 18 and over comes with a more modest $29 billion price tag — roughly 14 percent of the entire federal budget pre-pandemic. On the other hand, a targeted basic income through a negative income tax set at $21,810 (if you are earning below that amount, you would receive a cheque that boosts you to that level) would, according to one study, cost roughly $177 billion a year (the latest Basic Income Canada Network study puts the cost somewhere between $134 to $187 billion). 

In 2018, a study published by the International Labour Organization calculated the costs of a UBI in 130 countries that would raise everyone above the poverty line, and concluded it would on average cost between 20 to 30 percent of GDP. This is a staggering annual cost for one program that, in many countries, is near or even greater than all other government expenditures combined in many countries. 

Let us take a look at the 2018 International Labour Organization report (the ILO itself is a social-democratic organization and hence is itself a reformist organization that assumes the legitimacy of the employer-employee relation–but that only in passing). From Isabel Ortiz et al (2018)., Universal Basic Income Proposals in Light of ILO Standards: Key Issues and Global Costing, page 18:

A meaningful amount of UBI benefits is generally found to be fiscally infeasible (OECD, 2017a; Tanner, 2015; Van Parijs and Vanderborght, 2017). Thus, if governments were to consider the introduction of a UBI at adequate UBI benefit levels that could have a significant impact on the reduction of poverty and inequality, they would need to explore new financing sources.

Proposals include an increase in existing taxes, for example, income, inheritance, capital, corporate, or value added taxes, or the imposition of new taxes on natural resource revenues, financial transactions or robots (Reed and Lansley, 2016). Others have proposed the abolishment of existing tax-free allowances or the taxation of the UBI alongside other incomes to reduce the cost and make it more targeted to low income earners (see OECD, 2017a); such a tax claw back approach would have similar effects to a negative income tax model 13 – care should be taken with the diminished redistributive effect of some financing proposals.

Given that UBI is proposed to redress growing inequalities caused by corporate globalization and new forms of work, it should be redistributive. UBI should not be financed by regressive methods such as taxing households or depriving them from other social benefits, as this UBI policy would give to households with one hand what it would take away with the other.

The ILO discusses three possible scenarios. Page 22:

Scenario 1 assumes the introduction of a UBI set at the level of the poverty line. 

Here social assistance funds are generally replaced by UBI; social insurance schemes are slightly reduced as UBI compensates for a small percentage of this category. Private insurance schemes (for example, private pensions) remain the same. Employers’ contributions do not decrease in this scenario. The conclusion (page 23): 

… the main winners are the majority of citizens in a country. … the majority of the population – are the net winners, a reason why this UBI scenario would reduce inequality.

The second scenario (page 23)

sketches out the introduction of UBI in exchange for cuts in employers’ contributions to social security systems.

Here the conclusion is different: 

 The net losers would be the large majority of people in formal employment who would lose the
higher levels of protection of public social security systems, including low and the middle classes. … From the point of view of financing, the net winners would be corporations….

The third scenario (the scenario generally assumed by Dhunna and Bush) 

presents the most radical neoliberal proposal, the introduction of UBI with the complete abolition of public social insurance.

The conclusion is even more negative than that of the second scenario (page 24): 

In this scenario virtually everybody is a net loser; the poorest will not receive anymore social assistance at the poverty line level; the low and middle classes, before covered by a better social protection system, now they will lose their accumulated social protection benefits.

Unlike Dhunna and Bush, the general conclusion of the ILO is–it all depends on the specific scenario proposed whether UBI will reduce inequality (in income) and benefit more most citizens than currently (page 26):

As outlined earlier, some UBI proposals are in accordance with ILO Conventions and Recommendations, and others are not.

Some scenarios could function to reduce levels of income inequality: 

Indeed, UBI could be the most radical form of the income component of a national social protection floor, an important tool for the advancement of inclusive development and social justice. UBI on its own cannot be considered a panacea to existing and future income security and social protection challenges, but can potentially help to close coverage gaps and provide a basic level of income security.

As I argued in a previous post (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), there is no reason why we should not struggle simultaneously for a robust UBI and an expanded welfare state.

It should be noted, however, that Dhunna and Bush, despite their own distorted presentation of the ILO’s position on the UBI, implicitly use the ILO as a standard for their own social-democratic and reformist aims; why else do they reference the ILO study to justify their conclusions?

They do not, however, question the ILO standards. ILO, though, assumes the legitimacy of the continued existence of a market for workers and hence fails to consider how a struggle for achieving a universal basic income could constitute a means by which to initiate the undermining of a market for workers. Thus, the ILO states (page 29):

Effective labour market institutions are necessary to ensure decent work for all in a
rapidly changing environment.

Since “labour market institutions” involve working for an employer, and working for an employer involves being treated as a thing or means for obtaining more money (the private sector) or as a means for purposes over which workers have little say in their daily lives in the public sector (see The Money Circuit of Capital), the ILO does not consider a scenario where workers seek a UBI, in addition to other social insurance schemes, that threatens the existence of the market for workers or “labour market institutions.” The exclusion of such a scenario reflects the social-democratic nature of the ILO. 

The Public Service International (PSI) and the Principle of a Universal Basic Income (UBI)

Dhunna and Bush refer to a 2019 report by the Public Services Alliance:

In 2019, Public Service International (PSI) released a wide-ranging report assessing UBI pilots and experiments globally, as well as academic literature. The report concluded that, “making cash payments to individuals to increase their purchasing power in a free-market economy is not a viable route to solving problems caused or exacerbated by neoliberal market economics.”

That document contains, ironically, to the following principle (page 3):

At the heart of the critique of UBIs contained in this brief is the failure of the most basic principle of progressive tax and expenditure, which can be summarised as “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need”.

This interpretation of the principle is typical of the social-democratic view: it looks at the problem from the point of view of distribution and consumption of already produced commodities and not according to the process by which such commodities were produced (see 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). Employers can exploit and oppress workers, and then, for social democrats, employers can be taxed and some of the revenue can be shifted to those who either cannot find employment with a particular employer or are incapable of working for a particular employer. It is more like a compensatory model than a model that permits people to control their own lives in the totality of their lives: production, distribution and income. 

Let us take a look at this document in more detail. Anna Coote and Edanur Yazici, the authors of this report, refer to the ILO report outlined above in relation to costs, implying that it would cost too much (pages 8-9). However, as has been shown, the ILO concludes that a more robust (though by no means sufficient) UBI could be viable even within a capitalist setting, depending on how it was financed.

On page 10, the authors conclude:

It is a lazy utopian remedy that fails to address issues of class, economic ownership and the productive capacity of the economy.

If a robust UBI begins to question the legitimacy of the market for workers and therefore the legitimacy of the class power of employers, it does indeed address the issues of “class, economic ownership and the productive capacity of the economy.” The authors, however, nowhere question the legitimacy of the class power of employers; they assume its continued existence. 

On pages 11-12, they make the following assertion:

UBI alone cannot build long-term economic self-sufficiency. Small injections of cash, even if regular and unconditional, will not be enough. People must also be able to control what happens to them, to have structures for shared decision-making and access to essential resources.

Since the nature of the kind of society in which we live is that workers and the unemployed are not ‘economically self-sufficient’–if they were, there would not be a market for workers (a so-called labour market). As for ‘people having to be able to control what happens to them,” working for an employer, whether in a unionized setting or not necessarily involves a loss of “control” over “what happens to them” (see for example The Radical Left Needs to Call into Question Existing Social Institutions at Every Opportunity, Part One or Employers as Dictators, Part One and , more generally, The Money Circuit of Capital ).

Although unions limit somewhat the power of employers and hence are to be supported as defensive organizations, they also often function as ideologues of employers by claiming to create conditions of fairness at work when that work is characterized by exploitation and oppression (see Reform Versus Abolition of the Police, Part Six: Unions and the Police). Management rights clauses in Canadian collective agreements, furthermore, explicitly express the lack of control of workers over their work and working conditions (see, for example, Management Rights, Part One: Private Sector Collective Agreement, British Columbia), and even when such a clause does not exist in a collective agreement, it is implied. 

On page 12, Coote and Yazici write: 

If emancipation is the goal, not just ‘inclusion’ or reduction of poverty, UBI is not the answer. If cash payments become the preferred tool for social protection, there is a serious risk of crowding out efforts to build collaborative, sustainable services and infrastructure – and setting a pattern for future development that promotes commodification rather than emancipation.

What then is the answer if the aim is the abolition of the class power of employers and classes in general? How are we to question the power of employers without taking risks? Of course, employers could try to use UBI to dismantle public services–and to counter such a move would require organization and class struggle–as would the maintenance of public services. However, fighting for a robust universal basic income that breaks the link between needs and work does point towards a new kind of society–a society where access to expanded basic needs (since what is basic is itself variable as our capacity to produce our lives changes) do not require us to subordinate our lives to the power of any particular employer. 

The authors do not take seriously the goal of emancipation. If they did, they would at least mention the goal of abolishing the power of employers as a class. Indeed, they implicitly reject such a goal since they advocate for an enhanced welfare state or enhanced welfare capitalism–like Dhunna and Bush. From page 13 :

It is necessary and possible to raise funds to bring greater security, opportunity and power to all people, but the money needed to pay for an adequate UBI scheme would be better spent on reforming social protection systems, and building more and better quality public services.

There is little here that addresses challenging the class power of employers and the abolition of classes; it is a question of reforming capitalism in order “to bring greater security, opportunity and power to all people”–an impossible goal since the general nature of capitalism is to bring insecurity to many while providing security to a dwindling minority–by exploiting and oppressing workers, citizens and migrants. 

The priority for Coote and Yazici is to focus their energies on reforming the class power of employers, not abolishing it (page 13):

The campaign for UBI threatens to divert political energies – as well as funds – from more important causes.

It is necessary and possible to raise funds to bring greater security, opportunity and power to all people, but the money needed to pay for an adequate UBI scheme would be better spent on reforming social protection systems, and building more and better quality public services.

I guess that emancipation from the power of employers is not a very important cause–for social democrats. Indeed, it is likely that for for Dhunna and Bush, for the ILO, for Coote and Yazici and for Public Services International, the goal is not really socialism or the abolition of classes but a humanized form of capitalism, or enhanced welfare capitalism, or capitalism with a human face (see  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 ). 

Paying Lip-Service to a Radical Position

There is a very slight recognition of more radical positions that support the idea of a UBI, such as the late David Graeber’s advocacy of such a proposal. They write (page 20): 

Contemporary political theorists such as David Graeber see UBI allowing people to escape from ‘bullshit jobs

They then have a brief section that refers to “radical transformation” (page 21): 

RADICAL TRANSFORMATION

For some of its progressive advocates, UBI is part of a vision of a new social settlement where poverty is eliminated, where everyone has a secure income, where unpaid work is valued on par with paid work, and where inequalities are history. For UK Green Party leaders Jonathan Bartley and Caroline Lucas, it is an “exciting idea because it will help us form a clearer idea of what constitutes welfare, good work and human flourishing, and it would help us towards a more balanced economy which acknowledges what is truly ‘productive’ in its broader sense’”.11 UBI is rarely seen as the only lever to achieve these goals: it is usually envisaged as running alongside a range of progressive reforms as well as more and better public services.

The UK Green Party’s aim in adopting a UBI is not, however, to challenge the existence of the power of employers as a class but at best to restrict such power. Thus, on page 51 of the UK Green Party Manifesto (2019), we read:

Reviewing current employment law to close loopholes that allow employers in the gig economy (where workers are offered freelance work or short-term contracts only) to deny gig workers key rights. We will ensure that gig economy workers always receive at least the current minimum wage, and have job security, sick leave, holiday pay and pension provision.

On the same page, we read further: 

Requiring all employers, no matter their size, to legally recognise any union chosen by their workforce to represent them.

On page 52:

We will support employers to explore four day working weeks in their workplace, driving up productivity as well as boosting the wellbeing of staff.

There is no evidence in the UK Green Party’s manifesto that it propose using the UBI as a means by which to challenge the power of employers as a class; it, like the British Labour Party, seeks to reform the employer-employee relation and not overturn it. Hence, Coote’s and Yazici’s reference to the UK Green Party as radical is similar to some social democrats here in Toronto, who refer to social reforms that do not involve challenging the basic social relations characteristic of a society dominated by a class of employers (such as a market for workers, or a “labour market.”) (see the seven-part series of critiques, beginning with What’s Left, Toronto? Part One).

Coote and Yazici’s extremely brief mention of David Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs: A Theory fails to even address Graeber’s critique of the employer-employee relation as such. From that work:

The modern morality of “You’re on my time; I’m not paying you to lounge around” is very different. It is the indignity of a man who feels he’s being robbed. A worker’s time is not his own; it belongs to the person who bought it. Insofar as an employee is not working, she is stealing something for which the employer paid good money (or, anyway, has promised to pay good money for at the end of the week). By this moral logic, it’s not that idleness is dangerous. Idleness is theft.

This is important to underline because the idea that one person’s time can belong to someone else is actually quite peculiar. Most human societies that have ever existed would never have conceived of such a thing. As the great classicist Moses Finley pointed out: if an ancient Greek or Roman saw a potter, he could imagine buying his pots. He could also imagine buying the potter—slavery was a familiar institution in the ancient world. But he would have simply been baffled by the notion that he might buy the potter’s time. As Finley observes, any such notion would have to involve two conceptual leaps which even the most sophisticated Roman legal theorists found difficult: First, to think of the potter’s capacity to work, his “labor-power,” as a thing that was distinct from the potter himself, and second, to devise some way to pour that capacity out, as it were, into uniform temporal containers—hours, days, work shifts—that could then be purchased, using cash.17 To the average Athenian or Roman, such ideas would have likely seemed weird, exotic, even mystical. How could you buy time? Time is an abstraction!18 The closest he would have likely been able to come would be the idea of renting the potter as a slave for a certain limited time period —a day, for instance—during which time the potter would, like any slave, be obliged to do whatever his master ordered. But for this very reason, he would probably find it impossible to locate a potter willing to enter into such an arrangement. To be a slave, to be forced to surrender one’s free will and become the mere instrument of another, even temporarily, was considered the most degrading thing that could possibly befall a human being.19

As a result, the overwhelming majority of examples of wage labor that we do encounter in the ancient world are of people who are already slaves: a slave potter might indeed arrange with his master to work in a ceramics factory, sending half the wages to his master and keeping the rest for himself.20 Slaves might occasionally do free contract work as well—say, working as porters at the docks. Free men and women would not. And this remained true until fairly recently: wage labor, when it did occur in the Middle Ages, was typical of commercial port cities such as Venice, or Malacca, or Zanzibar, where it was carried out almost entirely by unfree labor.21

So how did we get to the situation we see today, where it’s considered perfectly natural for free citizens of democratic countries to rent themselves out in this way, or for a boss to become indignant if employees are not working every moment of “his” time?

Like Dhunna and Bush, Coote and Yazici do not question how we got to that situation today, nor do they question what can be done about abolishing such a situation and having workers control their own lives again. What both assume is that–the employer-employee relation is eternal and must always be regulated–but not abolished.

Their reference to class struggle, by contrast, does not have as its aim the abolition of the class power of employers and with it the working class as a class and therefore the abolition of all classes; their aim, rather, is to perpetuate class struggle–a never ending process that perpetuates a more humanized but still nevertheless capitalist society.

Their critique of UBI is, then, motivated by their implicit assumption that a socialist society is not really achievable. They do not say that, but they imply it. Alternatively, they define socialism as merely capitalism with an enhanced welfare state and protective measures. Thus, it is interesting to note that Dhunna and Bush refer to labour laws without criticizing their adequacy (whereas they do criticize the inadequacy of a minimalist UBI–almost the only form of UBI they recognize):

We stand to lose much more than we have to gain under a basic income regime doled out by the ruling class. Our energy and money is better spent waging struggle directly to strengthen labour laws and access to unionization for all, to build more power at the point of production — the source of worker power. 

Labour laws that protect workers or extend certain rights certainly should be supported and struggled for, but they are defensive in nature, not offensive. What of labour laws that protect managerial rights? (See for example Management Rights, Part Nine: Is A Collective Agreement that Involves Management Rights and the Exploitation of Workers a Fair Contract?). Can labour laws defend the interests of workers to oppose the very existence of the class of employers? Can labour laws eliminate the exploitation of workers? (For an example of the calculation of the rate of exploitation of workers, see The Rate of Exploitation of the Workers of Rogers Communications Inc., One of the Largest Private Employers in Toronto).   Can they eliminate the oppression of workers? (For discussion of the oppression of workers both during the general time when they work for employers, see Employers as Dictators, 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). 

Conclusion

This is the last post that critically looks at the specific article written by Dhunna and Bush. In the series, I have shown that the writers assume that only a minimum basic income is what is possible under existing conditions–an incorrect assumption. Furthermore, I have also shown that they often distort the references that they use by claiming that their references show that a basic income is unfeasible–when in fact their references show that only certain kinds of basic income are unfeasible whereas other kinds are feasible. 

Ultimately, Dhunna and Bush aim for an enhanced welfare state–with regulation of employers rather than the abolition of employers–and the related economic, social and political structures. 

Their criticism of universal basic income is invalid.

I will take up in future posts further criticisms of a social democrat who defend welfare reforms while simultaneously opposing basic income. Specifically, my future target will be the radical social democrat here in Toronto, John Clarke. 

The Strawman of a Minimal Universal Basic Income by the Social-democratic Left in Toronto

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) .

In two previous posts, I questioned Dhunna’s and Bush’s proposed solution to the problems which members of the working class face, namely an enhanced welfare capitalism (see The Expansion of Public Services Versus a Basic Income, Part Two: How the Social-democratic Left Ignore the Oppressive Nature of Public Services: Part One: Oppressive Educational Services and The Expansion of Public Services Versus a Basic Income, Part Two: How the Social-democratic Left Ignore the Oppressive Nature of Public Services: Part Two: Oppressive Welfare Services). Now I will look at their criticisms of the idea of a universal basic income (UBI).

I will endeavour to show that the authors of the article mainly create a straw concept of universal basic income (in order to criticize it all the more easily).

A Straw Minimal Universal Basic Income

Dhunna and Bush assume that, firstly, there would be a minimal UBI and, secondly, that it would somehow be realized immediately and without a struggle–since some members of the class of employers and their representatives advocate a minimal basic income.

They write the following:

Some on the left look to basic income to complement workers struggles, but the ruling class looks to basic income to blunt class struggle. When the fight to raise the minimum wage was at its height in Ontario, the Ontario Chamber of Commerce countered calls to to raise the minimum wage by stating, “we support the Government’s piloting of a Basic Income, which we see as a more efficient and realistic means of ensuring Ontarians are given greater security.” The business community was in favour of basic income because it acted as a political shield against reforming labour laws, and because a basic income also acts as a wage subsidy for businesses. Employers would be relieved from the pressure of increasing wages from their own coffers and put the onus on the state to top up incomes through general revenues. The burden of payment would shift from the employing class to the rest of us.

Of course, the class of employers would try to minimize basic income–just as it tends nowadays to try to minimize expenditure on public services for the working class (and increase expenditures, if necessary, on services that serve to oppress the working class–such as the police). The authors assume magically that employers will in fact get their way–without a struggle. If, however, an organized movement for the realization of a robust basic income (not the minimal basic income that Dhunna and Bush assume) were to develop, aiming for all to obtain a relatively high standard of living without having to work for a particular employer, then there is little reason to believe that the basic income would be merely a “burden of payment from the employing class to the rest of us.” To pay for such a robust universal basic income would require making inroads on both the power of employers (since it would attack the economic dependence of workers on particular employers) and on their income (since funding would involve substantially increased taxes on corporations).

There is no warrant for their assumption that there could only be the realization of a minimalist universal basic income–as I indicated in my last post on this subject.

References to “class struggle” in their article sound radical, but they really do not aim to question those premises.

The Alaska Model of Basic Income

It is interesting that these Dhunna and Bush refer to experiments in UBI that hardly are robust as so-called evidence that UBI would not work:

Many of the basic income experiments piloted by local governments ended rather abruptly, either running out of money, or ending after a newly elected government without the political commitment to the project axed the program. These are not just unfortunate bumps in the road, but speak to the real political and economic inviability of basic income. As the report summarized, “there is no robust evidence relating to UBI defined as unconditional, regular cash payments to individuals regardless of income or status. The schemes have seldom lasted long enough to test viability over more than a few years.” Thus, there is “no evidence that any version of UBI can be affordable, inclusive, sufficient and sustainable at the same time.”

The longest and largest sustained experiment in basic income is Alaska’s Permanent Fund dividend. Starting in the 1970s, the Alaskan government created a special state-run fund from a portion of oil revenues. Since 1982, the fund pays out a dividend to every permanent resident of Alaska (this annual amount has ranged from $1000 to 2000 per year in recent years). The newly elected governor of Alaska campaigned to increase the dividend, but this came at a cost. To pay for the increase, Governor Mike Dunleavy has pushed a series of cuts to the public university system, ferry service, and other public services. The economic crash in 2020 reduced the dividend payment to $992, and there is now a real question about whether the fund will be able to issue any dividends at all in the coming years

Here is what it says from one of the articles to which they refer above:

This year’s oil royalty check [for residents of Alaska] will be $992, one third of what is should have been under the statutory calculation, but all that the Alaska Legislature’s majority members could give, since they needed the rest of the Permanent Fund dividend dollars to pay for government programs.

If $992 is one third of what recipients normally received, then $2976 per year is what they normally received. If you divide that by 12 months, then you obtain $248 per month–hardly a robust level of basic income! Indeed, the yearly basic income in Alaska was usually less than this.

From Karl Widerquist (2012), “Exporting the Alaska Model to Alaska: How Big Could the Permanent Fund Be if the State Really Tried? And Can a Larger Fund Insulate an Oil Exporter from the End of the Boom?” in Exporting the Alaska Model Adapting the Permanent Fund Dividend for Reform around the World, page 173:

The most recent dividend was $1,174 in October 2011, and dividends have tended to be between $1000 and $2000 per person per year for the past 15 years.

Dividing $1000 and $2000 by 12 gives the low and high range of $83,33 per month to $166,66 per month. Using this model to refute the basic income model is grasping at straws.  Referring to such a basic income as if it were evidence of the infeasability of such a policy is illogical. It is an extremely weak counterexample, and yet they decided to include it in their “critique” of UBI. 

David Macdonald’s Study on Basic Income

The writers refer to David Macdonald’s estimate of a $29 billion federal fund required for one kind of scenario for a basic income. They write:

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.

I assume that they are referring to the following scenario (from David Macdonald (2016), A Policymaker’s Guide to Basic Income, page 21):

In Scenario 4, the government issues a $1,000 universal cheque in addition to offering all existing income support programs. In essence, this would be the 34th Canadian basic income program, and by providing support over and above what already exists, it would lower poverty rates across all age groups (see Table 6). An annual $1,000 cheque or bank transfer to all Canadians could either be taxed back at year’s end, or clawed back from existing programs.

Under this scenario, the overall poverty rate would fall two percentage points — taking 713,000 people out of poverty. The biggest impact would affect child poverty, which would drop three percentage points, from 10.9% to 7.9%. Adult poverty would drop from 11.8% to 9.9%. Seniors would see the smallest, though by no means insignificant, benefit under this scenar-

A $1000 cheque a year is, again, hardly a robust universal basic income–even if it were a top up to present income-enhancing schemes. Why do Dhunna and Bush fail to mention, once again, the wider context that shows how minimal such a scenario would be? Perhaps they want to create a straw model of basic income so that they can then proceed with their idealized solution to the problems that face the Canadian working class and community members face by proposing an expanded public service? Is this ethical? Is it honest?

Stereotypical Presentation of Those Who Advocate a Robust Universal Basic Income

Dhunna and Bush say this

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.

They present no evidence to show that those who advocate a robust universal basic income somehow “can solve all of our problems at once.” 

Bryant Sculos (2018), in  “Socialism & Universal Basic Income,” Class, Race and Corporate Power, Volume 6, Issue 1, shows that their view finds an echo in other stereotypical criticisms of a robust UBI: 

Most of the critics of UBI treat its advocates as though they believe UBI would solve all or most socioeconomic problems, at least in the Global North. I have yet to come across any serious UBI advocate who takes such an expansive position.

Contradictory Conception of the Capitalist Government or Capitalist State: 

Dhunna and Bush argue, contradictorily, the following:  

Instead of ending poverty, UBI could in reality entrench low wages and precarious work, and reduce workers’ bargaining power. In part, this reflects an analysis that understands that the state’s role under capitalism is to create conditions of profitability for capitalists, such that workers are further pushed into the labour market [my emphasis].

They also have the following to say: 

Our energy and money is better spent waging struggle directly to strengthen labour laws [my emphasis].

Of course, labour laws should be strengthened–but how does this come about except through–the capitalist state. They can argue for state intervention in the form of strengthened labour laws, but those who advocate for a robust UBI provided by the capitalist state cannot. Why is it that they can rely on the capitalist state whereas those who advocate for a robust universal basic income cannot?

In addition, as I have shown in a number of posts, labour laws (for example, relating to collective bargaining and management rights) may restrict the power of the class of employers but they in no way question the legitimacy of that power (see, for example, Management Rights, Part Nine: Is A Collective Agreement that Involves Management Rights and the Exploitation and Oppression of Workers a Fair Contract?Do Collective Agreements Convert Working for an Employer into Decent Work?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). 

Why is it that Dhunna and Bush are silent on the limitations of labour laws and reliance on the capitalist state? Perhaps because they are biased towards reformist unions? Perhaps because they idealize unions and labour laws? 

I will let the reader figure out why Dhunna and Bush express such contradictions. Or why they propose the following: 

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.  

Would not such policies be implemented–by the capitalist state? They criticize advocates of UBI for pressuring the capitalist state to provide for a universal level of income above the poverty line, but they rely on the capitalist state to provide free state services. What is sauce for the goose is apparently not sauce for the gander.

Furthermore, if the proposal for a robust universal basic income is used as an organizing tool and linked to the aim of abolishing the class power of employers and all classes, the issue of going beyond the capitalist state and indeed beyond capitalism arises–but that question never arises for Dhunna and Bush.

In a follow-up post, I will look at the one example which they provide that involves a more robust or ambitious UBI–the one referred to by the International Labour Organization.

An Implicit Assumption of a Zero-Sum Approach to Struggling Against the Class of Employers

Dhunna and Bush in the last quote above imply that improvements in the level of UBI will likely lead to reductions in services in other areas–a kind of zero-sum situation. However, reduction in social services have occurred over the years without the existence of UBI; there is no necessary connection between the two.

As I wrote in my first post on this topic, the struggle for a robust universal basic income and the expansion of public services need not be mutually exclusive. The working class should struggle for both–all the while aiming to abolish the class power of employers and not just reform it, as Dhunna and Bush aim to do (see 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).

Their implied zero-sum analysis in the following quote thus is also illogical:

The business community was in favour of basic income because it acted as a political shield against reforming labour laws, and because a basic income also acts as a wage subsidy for businesses. Employers would be relieved from the pressure of increasing wages from their own coffers and put the onus on the state to top up incomes through general revenues.

To claim that the “business community was in favour of basic income” is, again, true only on a minimalist assumption of a basic income–the “business community was in favour of [a minimalist version of” basic income–not a more robust version. The assumption for most of their article operates on this assumption so that they can easily refute such a model and provide their idealized version of the expansion of public services–their humanized version of capitalism, or humanized welfare capitalism (see my critique of that version in 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).

Conclusion

Dhunna and Bush assume a minimal universal basic income in order to provide superficial evidence against it. They stereotype the position of radical advocates of a universal basic income and have a contradictory conception of the nature of the capitalist government or state; they idealize labour laws and, implicitly, union as well as the provision of public services. In addition to these problems, they assume that there is necessarily a zero-sum situation facing the working class: either a (minimal) universal basic income or an expansion of public services. They exclude from consideration a simultaneous struggle for a robust universal basic income and an expansion of public services. Finally, they exclude any consideration of aiming to abolish the class power of employers and thereby the elimination of class exploitation and class oppression–once and for all. 

In a future post, I will look at their references to studies by the International Labour Organization (ILO) and Public Service International (both international social-democratic labour organizations).

Basic Income as A Radical Reform That Points Beyond Capitalism and Towards Socialism

This is a continuation of a previous post (see 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), which critically analyses Simran Dhunna’s and David Bush’s article that criticizes moves towards a universal basic income (see https://springmag.ca/against-the-market-we-can-do-better-than-basic-income).

In previous posts on this topic, I have mainly focused on a negative critique of Dhunna and Bush’s views on basic income.

This post will look at proposals for a more robust form of basic income–a form that could begin to challenge the power of employers as a class. In other words, rather than engaging in a negative critique of the social-democratic critique of basic income, I will look at basic income from a positive point of view. In future posts in this series, I will, however, continue with the negative critique.

The main point is that a radical proposal for universal basic income can have two distinct aims: one aim may be to realize such a proposal within the confines of the class power of employers. Another aim–the one that will be discussed in this post–is to use a radical proposal for universal basic income to push beyond a society dominated by a class of employers and the associated economic, political and social structures and relations.

Of course, a universal basic income that questions the very existence of a market for workers and the existence of a class of employers would meet with organized opposition from the class of employers. And? Dhunna and Bush do not even address this issue, but assume it away–because their aim is not to question the premises of a society characterized by the class power of employers and the economic, political and social structures that are associated with such class power.

A generous UBI would undoubtedly be robust. It would undoubtedly also be ambitious, as David Calnitsky (Fall 2018) points out. From “Does Basic Income Assume a Can Opener?” Catalyst, Volume 2, Issue 3, no page number):

It is true that the policy is incredibly ambitious, but ambitious thinking about transforming the world is at the core of the socialist project, and basic income would not be exciting if it wasn’t so ambitious.

It is necessary to distinguish, though, between a policy of basic income that aims to be as consistent with a society based on the power of employers as a class and a policy that aims to question the power and legitimacy of the class of employers.

Any socialist policy should involve a springboard for providing, on the one hand, a critique of the present class power of employers and, on the other, a vision of an alternative kind of society.

The strawman approach of Dhunna and Bush to basic income (which I will outline in another post in this series) does not permit such a springboard. Their strawman approach is countered by Bryant Sculos, in his article (2018), “Socialism & Universal Basic Income,” Class, Race and Corporate Power: Volume 6, Issue 1 , Article 9 (no page number): [What Sculos calls “thick” I call “robust” since Dhunna and Bush use that term]”:

My point here will be to provide reasons for why socialists should support a thick conception of UBI as a kind of radical reform from within capitalism, as part of a broader left agenda. …

First, it is quite true that not all UBI programs would be worth supporting. Any UBI program
that would have the likelihood of leaving the poor and vulnerable worse off should certainly
be opposed by any socialist or progressive. This kind of welfare-state replacement UBI is the
kind that white supremacist and conservative thought-leader Charles Murray and other
libertarians often support. However, simply because not all UBI programs are worth
supporting, does not mean that there are not thick or expansive conceptions of UBI that
absolutely are. An example of a conception of UBI that socialists should support would be
one that is—as the acronym requires—universal and also set at or above subsistence. This
means that all people, regardless of their ability or willingness to work, would at least be
much more likely to live a life without lacking any fundamental necessities.

Why cannot workers organize and create a movement for the establishment of a level of basic income that ultimately questions the premise or assumption of the permanent existence of a market for workers and the existence of a class of employers?

There are policies that can indeed be realized through modifications of the economic and political structures and relations of capitalism–and there are policies that challenge such economic and political structures and relations. A movement towards the establishment of a robust basic income could do just that. Furthermore, as I stated in an earlier post, a social movement for basic income could complement existing public services and not abolish them; they are not mutually exclusive.

Some, such as Tony Smith, may argue that an adequate basic income is incompatible with capitalist relations and therefore, presumably, should not be considered–but how we are going to get from the present class society to a challenge to that society remains unspecified. From Tony Smith, Globalisation: A Systematic Marxian Account (2006. Boston: Brill), pages 269-270:

Another sort of contradiction arises when cosmopolitan theorists call for proposals that are effectively ruled out by the social relations defining the model they defend. Measures designed to provide high levels of basic income and meaningful ‘access avenues’ to industrial and financial decision-making throughout the global economy are ultimately incompatible with the capital/wage labor relation that remains an essential feature of the democratic cosmopolitan model [my emphasis]. The reproduction of this relation requires that those who do not have access to capital continue to see entering into wage contracts as their best available option. This implies that social assistance must be quite limited, since few will choose to sell their labour power for the low wages most workers in the global economy are offered if acceptable alternatives were available. The limited level of basic income compatible with capitalist property relations is unlikely to provide the material conditions for effective exercises of autonomy to anything approaching the extent required by the precepts of cosmopolitan democratic theory.

Although Smith cannot be accused of not providing proposals for moving from the present to the future (see for example How to Aim for Socialism Without Aiming for It, or The Nature of the Social-Democratic or Social-Reformist Left), his proposals still remain less concrete than is necessary to begin to move in the direction that he proposes.

There are those, of course, who propose a minimal basic income that would not challenge the basic premise of an extremely dependent class of workers on not just the class of employers but even specific employers; such a minimal basic income has nothing to do with a socialist proposal for a robust basic income.

It is precisely because a robust basic income begins to question the link between living and having to work for any particular employer that it is potentially a transitional demand that can form a link between the present society dominated by a class of employers and a future society not only without employers but without classes. .

Radicals who reject a basic income as a radical reform are often left with nothing concrete to propose in moving from the present to the future, as David Zeglen (2018) argues, in “Basic Income as Ideology from Below,” Lateral, Issue 7.2, (no page number):

After his demolition of the impossible economics behind universal basic income, Zamora concludes
that we should “reconnect with the postwar period’s emancipatory heritage,” while
Gourevitch and Stanczyk similarly finish their piece arguing that socialists need to “build a
new working-class consciousness.” These seem like obvious points that socialists can
broadly agree upon and yet there is no clear rhetorical strategy or narrative for how to
accomplish this within a political organization. Indeed, the question boils down to a
double bind regarding the state’s position in relation to basic income: what kind of
narrative can encapsulate both the necessity for a demand for a basic income from the
capitalist state, while acknowledging the realities of the limitations of the capitalist state
to offer a universal basic income, thus necessitating the historical negation of the said
state?

The proposal for a robust basic income would, of course, not free the working class from the class of employers. I have argued in a couple of other posts that a worker in a society dominated by a class of employers works for a particular employer (workers generally are conscious of this, of course) as well as for the class of employers (workers are more or less conscious of this).

A robust basic income would likely increase the freedom of workers to move from one particular employer to another particular employer. James Hickson (2020) recognizes this (although he disagrees with such a proposal, on such grounds as the threat of capital flight due to the level of taxation needed to fund a robust basic income, for example). From A Political Theory of Precarious Work. Ph. D. dissertation, pages 127-128:

In this respect, the introduction of a basic income could be particularly impactful for precarious workers. The provision of a basic income would disarm the extraordinary discretionary power that employers hold over precarious workers: the power to demand extra work, to withhold work, and to deny work altogether without reference to the interests of the individual worker. For example, the zero-hours contract worker would have less to fear from a week without any shifts from their employer if they know they can fall back on a guaranteed income paid as right by the state. Meanwhile, the temporary agency worker in the Amazon fulfilment centre may feel less inclined to bend over backwards to meet the company’s ever-more intense performance targets when they know they can walk away from the job and still have access to an income. The effects of their precarious employment would be mitigated by an alternative source of economic security that is independent from work. when they know they can walk away from the job and still have access to an income. The effects of their precarious employment would be mitigated by an alternative source of economic security that is independent from work.

To finance a robust basic income, workers and employers would have to be taxed–and that presupposes the continued existence of a class of employers; there would still be social forces that would oblige workers as a class to work for the class of employers. A proposal for a robust basic income would still need to be linked to an explicit program for freeing workers from the power of the class of employers and not from the power of a limited group of employers

That the class of employers would try to take measures that would undermine increased freedom of workers from particular employers and from power of employers as a class goes without saying, and any socialist movement that aims to abolish the power of the class of employers would have to take measures that would need to prevent the class of employers from undermining a socialist movement. (I ignore Hickson’s further objections and his proposed alternative solution of what he calls a “republican political program” since it it parallels Dhunna’s and Bush’s social-democratic proposals for an enhanced regulatory welfare state–and not the abolition of class relations).

Indeed, the proposal for a robust basic income may be similar to proposals and measures taken by the Paris Commune in 1871. (The Paris Commune arose when French army was defeated by the Prussian army; the French representatives of the class of employers, such as Adolphe Thiers, wanted to disarm Parisian workers, but the Parisian workers initially repulsed such efforts. A civil war ensued, in which thousands of Parisian workers were massacred and many others were imprisoned or exiled.) From Monty Johnstone (1971) The Paris Commune and Marx’s Conception of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, The Massachusetts Review (pages 447-462), Volume 12, Number 3), page 451:

This placing of “the unconscious tendencies of the Commune … to its credit as more or less conscious plans” was in Engels’ view “justified and even necessary under the circumstances.” In
doing so, Marx was anticipating the socialist measures that his class analysis of society (as well as his knowledge of the socialist trends and demands in the Paris labour movement) led him to expect sooner or later from a workers’ government. “The political rule of the producer cannot coexist with the perpetuation of his social slavery,” he wrote in the Address. Such a concept was nothing new for Marx: it belonged to the heart of his dialectic of social development. Already in 1844, in The Holy Family, he and Engels had written: “The question is not what this or that proletarian, or even the whole of the
proletariat at the moment considers as its aim. The question is what the proletariat is, and what, consequent on that being, it will be compelled to do.” In the first draft of The Civil War he wrote: “The Commune does not (do) away with the class struggles, through which the working classes strive for the abolition of all classes . . . but it affords the rational medium in which the class struggle can run through its different phases in the most rational and humane way.”

Just as the Commune was a political “rational medium in which class struggle can run through its different phases in the most rational and humane way,” so too is the policy of a robust basic income one of the rational forms through which the different phases of the class struggle can develop in the most rational and humane way.

Formulated another way, the proposal of a robust basic income could lead, given the economic and political situation of the working class as a class, to measures that would enable them to work out the conditions for their own self-emancipation, From Marc Mulholland (2009), Marx, the Proletariat, and the ‘Will to Socialism’,
Critique: Journal of Socialist Theory (pages 319-343) Volume 37, Issue #3, page 340:

Of course, a revolutionary situation promised a much deeper working out of the logic of class consciousness. Marx extrapolated the potential of working-class consciousness in the light of a brief revolutionary episode, the Paris Commune of 1871. He explicitly stated that the proletariat carries to power ‘no ready made utopias to introduce par ‘decret du peuple’. Class instinct instead realises itself as a drive towards the practical ‘co-operative production’ of workers which, when challenged by the countervailing logic of capital as expressed in ‘constant anarchy and periodical convulsions’, gropes towards horizontal and vertical collaboration in ‘co-operative societies’. This generates the desire to
‘regulate national production upon a common plan’: what Marx called ‘possible communism’. Even this, however, is only preparatory to the resolution of that philosophical conundrum that had first propelled Marx into politics: the estrangement of the individual from society.

Dhunna and Bush, however, do not even address the issue of ending a class society characterized by the domination of a class of employers, in association with the economic, political and social structures that reflect that domination.

There may be other policies that are superior to the policy of a basic income in initiating a movement towards the abolition of the class of employers and the associated economic, political and social structures–but then it would be necessary to indicate how and why they are superior in relation to the goal of abolishing the class power of employers and the associated economic, political and social power structures.

Dhunna and Bush, however, have different aims–social-democratic or social-reformist aims. They want a more humane capitalism–a refurbished welfare state.

Their critique of the proposal for a basic income is a social-democratic or social-reformist critique. In their critique, they fail to address the need to overcome the class power of employers.

Further posts in this series will critique Dhunna’s strawman approach to basic income; in other words, they create an easy (and distorted) target so that they can easily show its inadequacy.

The Expansion of Public Services Versus a Basic Income, Part Two: How the Social-democratic Left Ignore the Oppressive Nature of Public Services: Part One: Oppressive Educational Services

Introduction

This is a continuation of a previous post (see 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), which critically analyses Simran Dhunna’s and David Bush’s article that criticizes moves towards a universal basic income (see https://springmag.ca/against-the-market-we-can-do-better-than-basic-income).

In the previous post in this series, I argued against considering the expansion of free public services as socialist and for supporting the struggle for such free public services while simultaneously criticizing the limitations of such a struggle. The expansion of free public services in no way is the same as the beginning of a socialist society.

In this post, I expand on the limitations of the view that free public services amount to a socialist society by looking at the provision of such free public services from the side of the people who receive or use such services.

General Considerations: An Illegitimate Assumption 

Dhunna and Bush make the following claim about their aims:

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 assume what they must prove: that there is an identity between “publicly owned infrastructure” and “publicly operated infrastructure.” What does “publicly operated infrastructure” mean? It must mean–operated by the government or state. They imply that the shift from private to public ownership somehow entails democratic control over “publicly owned infrastructure.” Publicly owned infrastructure is supposed to magically become operated–by the public–or operated democratically? They provide no evidence that the mere shift of services provided by the private sector to the public sector or the government somehow involves democratic control over the government.

In my previous post in this series, I acknowledged the positive side of state services that do not involve the user in having to pay personally or directly for such services in; in Canada, the classic example is free and universal basic health care. I have had cancer twice now (invasive bladder cancer diagnosed in 2009 and rectal cancer, diagnosed in 2015 (with metastatic liver cancer diagnosed in 2017). I certainly appreciate the fact that I did not, personally and directly, have to pay for health services connected to both the diagnosis and the removal and elimination of the cancer through surgery, chemotherapy and radiation.

The social-democratic left, however, do not focus on the negative side of such services to any great extent; alternatively, when they acknowledge it, they usually refer to the cliche of working “in and against the state.” The fact is that they mainly work within the state and pay lip service to working against the state.

Dhunna and Bush do not even acknowledge how their reforms will involve both positive and negative aspects–contradictions. Such services often simultaneously enable and alienate those who receive their services. From Adrian Little (1998), Post-Industrial Socialism: Towards a New Politics of Welfare, page 38:

As such it [the welfare state] cannot necessarily be regarded as an egalitarian institution because, as Baker suggests, ‘the present welfare state is a compromise which serves many interests. It helps people in need, but it also helps to keep them in their place. It is a system of support but also of control.’ In short, Baker argues that ‘the welfare state is designed for an unequal society’ (Baker
1987:10).

An enhanced welfare state is certainly preferable to a welfare state stripped of protections–but it is still a welfare state that presupposes that workers are to work for a class of employers–and that those who receive services from the welfare state are to be controlled to a greater or less extent in one way or another. Dhunna’s and Bush’s neglect of the issue of control over work and their focus on free public services ignore the negative side of public welfare in the context of a society dominated by a class of employers and the associated general economic, political and social structures.

As Primož Krašovec argues (https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=25&v=T6HIhwVmgh4&feature=emb_title), the left’s idealization of the public sector–as if it were a haven of democracy–hardly provides an accurate picture of the nature of public sector work. Although the Canadian public sector is more heavily unionized than the private sector, to assume that higher unionization means democracy and control over our lives is just that–an assumption that requires justification.

Mr. Krasovec asks why some people–other than the rich–support neoliberal policies. His answer is that such neoliberal policies do address–unlike the social-democratic policies–some concerns of the ordinary worker about the public sector–such as the bureaucratic, neo-feudalist status of the state in the public education system. Both students and workers do not like these rigid hierarchical structures. Neoliberal policies may indeed be misleading about the efficacy of market policies in destroying these hierarchies if they are introduced into the public sector, but they nevertheless touch a real concern of workers and students. This applies not only to public education but also to state administration in other public services. We cannot pretend that long lines at the doctor’s office do not happen, or that superficial treatment does not occur, or that bureaucratic incompetence does not arise–because people experience them every day in their dealings with these institutions. To fail to recognize these experiences and to take them into account when formulating policy is to feed into the neoliberal backlash.

This idealization of the public sector will unlikely convince many who have experienced the negative aspect of public services since it does not correspond to their own experiences.

I mentioned above that I have been diagnosed with cancer twice (and diagnosed with metastatic cancer once). Given free public health care, as I said, I certainly appreciate the free treatment that I received. However, when we look at the wider context, the treatment also has negative aspects. As I argued in another post: (see Class Harmonies in Health Care? The Social-Democratic Way):

Today, though, many social determinants are largely ignored in favour of focusing on caring for those already sick. Consider breast cancer. It arises in many instances from environmental conditions, and yet most money is allocated to caring for those already inflicted with the disease rather than with preventing it from arising in the first place. From Faye Linda Wachs (2007), (pages 929-931), “Review. Pink Ribbons, Inc.: Breast Cancer and the Politics of Philanthropy. By Samantha King,” in Gender & Society, volume 21, number 6 (December), pages 930-931:

Recent studies reveal that simply removing known carcinogens from products and our environment could prevent thousands of cases annually (Brody et al. 2007). However, funding for such research is limited, while the monies for identifying and curing existing cases is the focus of most efforts. Indeed, many of the companies that fund survivorship continue to use known car cinogens in their products. King points to the fact that despite increased awareness, rates of breast cancer have increased from 1 in 22 in the 1940s to 1 in 7 in 2004. Even if one considers women’s increasing longevity, this still indicates an increase in the prevalence of breast cancer. Moreover, structural factors that affect risk and survivorship, such as socioeconomic status, remain woefully understudied.

Other experiences with the bureaucracy also tends to alienate the public from the public sector. Humiliation of the unemployed by office workers occurs, for example, and to not acknowledge such facts as a problem is to feed into the neoliberal ideology. So too does invasive surveillance of mothers by state bureaucrats. So too does humiliation of residents in public housing.

Nowhere do Ms. Dhunna and Mr. Bush acknowledge relations of domination and subordination in the public sector. Such experiences also alienate the public from the public sector. Mr. Krasnovic, by contrast, argues that it is necessary for the left to engage in a critique of the public sector in order to acknowledge the real problems that real people experience in relation to state institutions and state inequalities. It is necessary for the left to acknowledge these problems if they are to address neoliberalism and how it feeds off of the daily experiences of people in relation to the state.

Nowhere do the writers really address the nature of the problem of “the market.” despite the title of their article. On the assumption, though, that they oppose in fact the exploitation and oppression of workers in the private sector (a big assumption since many social democrats merely pay lip service to opposing exploitation and oppression since they really have no intention of aiming for the beginning of a movement towards the abolition in the present but rather push such a goal to the vague future–see Reform Versus Abolition of Police, Part Three–as Mr. Krasovec points out, it is hypocritical to criticize exploitation and oppression of private sector workers while not doing so in the public sector. Mr. Krasovec, like me, does not believe that any just society can arise as long as the capitalist state exists.

General Oppressive Structures and Relations in Public Services 

Dhunna’s proposal for expanded public services would be different from present-day life, but not that different–as John Baker (1987) notes in his Arguing for Equality, pages 9-10:

Equality and the welfare state

For nearly a century, equality has been linked with the idea of the ‘welfare state’: income support for the elderly, unemployed and disabled; publicly provided education for all, with a trend in the direction of comprehensive, mixed-ability schooling; a free, comprehensive health service, at least for the worst off; public housing for people on low incomes; and a variety of social services for people with special needs. Would an egalitarian society mean more of the same? Since the welfare state does stand for more equality than ‘free market’ alternatives offered by its opponents, there are certainly good reasons for supporting and defending it. But there are two major reasons why an egalitarian society might turn out to be very different.

First of all is the issue of democratic control. The present welfare state is a compromise which suits many interests. It helps people in need, but it also helps to keep them in their place. It is a system of support but also of control. In some areas, particularly in housing, users and providers of public services are starting to cooperate in making the system more democratic, but there’s a long way to go. Too much of the system still runs on the belief that the bureaucrats know best and that consumers should be grateful for whatever they’re given.

The second reason is that the welfare state is designed for an unequal society. Many of its policies and problems would be transformed by more equality. For instance, there’s a lot of argument in education over how to promote equality of opportunity in an unequal society. There are bitter conflicts over the use of limited funds, with parents fighting over the means to protect their children’s futures. Schooling is seen as a major cause of achievement in adult life, and since all children are in competition for advancement there is no limit to the demand for educational resources. Even a good school could be better, making a crucial difference to children’s educational success. No wonder there are disputes over private schooling, mixed-ability classes, examination systems, busing! In an egalitarian society, there would still be disagreements over the best ways to ensure that every person had the opportunity to develop their ability in a satisfying and fulfilling way and over how to use our resources — disagreements that it would be impossible to sort out now. But there wouldn’t be conflict over access to privilege; the penalty for ‘failure’ wouldn’t be poverty; there wouldn’t be a contrast between inner city ghettos and middle class suburbs.

Undoubtedly the welfare state provides some of the materials for the social institutions of an egalitarian society, as well as a great deal of experience in providing for people’s needs. But it would be wrong to imagine that an equal society would just be a bigger welfare state. It would be in many ways a different society altogether.

Or, as Wolfgang Streeck (2016) argues, the building of protective layers over top of the capitalist economy seeks a different form or variety of capitalism–and not its dismantling. From How Will Capitalism End? Essays on a Failing System:

Fred Block’s notion of an ‘always embedded’ capitalism subject to a ‘primacy of politics’ radiates an optimism that conspicuously resembles what European social democrats have for a long time made themselves believe: that socialism, as defined above, could be had, preserved and surreptitiously expanded on top of a capitalist economy-cum-society, by serving its inexorably growing functional need for collective governance. Looking back at the past four decades, however, we see a sustained process of institutional transformation, slow but irresistible and driven, not by democratic politics but by the dynamic logic of capitalist development, that has effectively destroyed most if not all of the political safeguards whose establishment had been the very condition for capitalism being allowed to return after the disasters of the first half of the twentieth century. That logic, and the reorganization – or disorganization – of social life that it dictated, culminates today in the dual crisis of the global financial as well as the national democratic state system. Decades of ‘reform’ aimed at meeting the ever more aggressive demands of capitalist markets have only exacerbated the capitalist wear and tear on the social fabric, often with the connivance of blackmailed states and governments, including social-democratic ones. Is this experience really compatible with a theory that considers ‘market society’ to be at the disposition of politics? Or does it not rather speak for attributing to capitalism as a social action system a life, a logic, a power and a dynamism of its own, on which social-democratic post-war politics as usual has more and more lost its grip? If one comes to conclude, as I have, that it is the latter that is the more realistic perspective, is it then still responsible to invest one’s time and energy in developing responsible ideas as to how responsible governments may repair ‘the system’ or turn one variety of capitalism’ into another? Or would it not be much more constructive to be less constructive – to cease looking for better varieties of capitalism and instead begin seriously to think about alternatives to it?

This post does try to focus on some of the negative sides of public services in the context of a society dominated by a class of employers.

Oppressive Public Educational Services

Grades or Marks in Schools

Another problem with their article is that they assume that public or state or government services need only be expanded rather than fundamentally or qualitatively altered (something they share with Sam Gindin, former research director for the large national union Canadian Auto Workers (now Unifor) and the academic leftist Jeff Noonan (see, for example, 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 the area of education, for example, they simply advocate free access to university.

The school system, of which the university is a part, is simply not considered. For example, are not grades (marks) an oppressive feature of the modern school system (including universities)? Do they not function to sort the “intelligent” from the “less intelligent?” Of course, assessment of some kind must occur, but all assessment could be in the form of feedback for improvement (formative assessment) and not in any form of quantitative assessment. As I wrote in an article (see in my Publications and Writings section, “Dewey and Assessment: Opposition to the Modern School System):

A few years ago, I was the chair of the local Equity and Social Justice Committee of a teacher’s association. I sent off articles and some of my thoughts to the Equity and Social Justice Ning (a kind of blog) of the Manitoba Teachers’ Society. At a school where I worked in Manitoba, I also placed the same articles and my own thoughts in binders in the staff lounge for the staff to read. At one point, I argued that there was a conflict between grades and teacher feedback (usually in the form of written or verbal comments) that is supposed to improve teaching and learning. My own experience in receiving both teacher feedback and grades was such that I almost always looked at the grade first and only then (if at all) looked at the teacher’s comments afterward. I doubt that my experience is unique.

At a meeting with Janet Martell, the superintendent of Lakeshore School Division, and the principal of Ashern Central School, where I worked, Ms. Martell stated that she considered my argument about the contradiction of grades and teacher feedback via formative assessment to be faulty and would address it later during the meeting. She never did.

Grades, or what in educational circles is called summative assessment, is characterized by the following. From Shujon Mazumder (2020). “Critical Education: Increasing Student Achievement through Formative Assessments.” The Organizational Improvement Plan at Western University, 149. Retrieved from https://ir.lib.uwo.ca/oip/149, pages 10-11: 

According to Frey (2014), the defining characteristics of summative assessments include:
• Assessing student learning at the end of a period of instruction.
• Is typically very formal with defined test-taking rules and scoring procedures.
• Its main purpose is to determine grades. (p. 91)
Summative assessments view students as receptacles of information, and learning is measured by how well they can restate facts and knowledge given to them by their teachers.

The typical summative procedure of grading proceeds as follows page 11): 

Table 1
Traditional Sequence of Activities in Student Assessment Cycle

1. Students are given instructions and advice about how to approach the assessment.
2. Students may undertake developmental, formative assessment to gain some feedback on their progress in this area of learning, before submitting their formally assessed (that is, summative) work.
3. Students prepare for their summative assessment, either individually or in collaboration with peers (where the latter is permitted and required).
4. Students undertake the assessment (e.g. write the essay; complete\the group project; give the presentation; sit the exam).
5. Students submit the assessment to the assessors, who are already experts in the field.
6. Students await feedback on the assessment.
7. Feedback and/or marks are made available.
8. Students may or may not access the feedback on their work. Students may or may not assimilate the feedback and actively use it to inform future approaches to learning and assessment.

How many reading this post have experienced the oppressive nature of grades–which is counterproductive to real learning? How many can identify with the following comments on the experience of grading in schools (dated February 11, 2018):

Grades: An Oppressive System In Education

Reading The Case Against Grades brought up a TON of emotions for me this week. Some of the emotions this pieced evoked from me were anger, frustration rage and even a bit of embarrassment. I’m not embarrassed for my present self, but embarrassed for my younger self, the me 10-15 years ago who wasn’t among her high-achieving peers in the classroom. I went to school in a county, on a particular side of the county where high grade marks and straight A’s were an expectation of almost everyone. As hard as I tried, I wasn’t one of those students. I excelled in my elective classes like music/choir classes, home economics/teen living and sociology but could never seem to master’s subjects like physics, geometry and chemistry. It was embarrassing to receive my test scores and they sometimes were significantly lower than my peers.

In The Case Against Grades, Kohn mentions that several of the effects of grading are that grades tend to diminish what students are learning, grades create a preference for the easiest possible task and that grades tend to reduce the quality of students thinking. All of these statements resonate with me on a personal level. … Essentially, students are not taught to think at all. Grades are a way of inhibiting students learning. If students do not receive good grades, they are thought of as less than adequate and labeled as “problem” children when, in fact, many of those labels could not be further from the truth.

The oppressive nature of grades is similar in many ways to what I referred to in an earlier post about external or bad aims (which are oppressive) (see Reform Versus Abolition of Police, Part Three). Internal or good aims link our goals to what we are doing now and the means available to us by organizing present activities and means; they link the future with the present and the present with the future in a logical and coherent manner. External or bad aims, by contrast, involve a disconnect between means and ends. In the case of grades, the goal is to obtain the highest grade possible, and there is no intrinsic connection between that goal and the organization of present activities and means as internally related to each other. Such an external aim as obtaining the highest grades often leads to focusing on satisfying the teacher rather than the specific nature of problems–and hence diminishes the power of children and adolescents to address the problems that arise in the process of living.

Alfred Kohn (see link above) has this to say about intrinsic and extrinsic motivation in relation to grades:

Motivation:  While it’s true that many students, after a few years of traditional schooling, could be described as motivated by grades, what counts is the nature of their motivation.  Extrinsic motivation, which includes a desire to get better grades, is not only different from, but often undermines, intrinsic motivation, a desire to learn for its own sake (Kohn 1999a).  Many assessment specialists talk about motivation as though it were a single entity — and their recommended practices just put a finer gloss on a system of rewards and punishments that leads students to chase marks and become less interested in the learning itself.  If nourishing their desire to learn is a primary goal for us, then grading is problematic by its very nature.

I mentioned above another form of assessment–formative assessment. This form of assessment is supposed to provide feedback to students without quantifying it–it is more qualitative and narrative. However, as Alfred Kohn notes, when it is linked to summative assessment, it performs a subordinate role and thus is still linked to an oppressive practice. From Kohn (see the link above):

It’s not enough to add narrative reports.  “When comments and grades coexist, the comments are written to justify the grade” (Wilson, 2009, p. 60).  Teachers report that students, for their part, often just turn to the grade and ignore the comment, but “when there’s only a comment, they read it,” says high school English teacher Jim Drier.  Moreover, research suggests that the harmful impact of grades on creativity is no less (and possibly even more) potent when a narrative accompanies them.  Narratives are helpful only in the absence of grades (Butler, 1988; Pulfrey et al., 2011).

Unsurprisingly, given the title of this blog, it would be better to aim for the abolition of grades in order to facilitate internal or intrinsic learning and to abolish the oppressive nature of grades and external or extrinsic learning. What is needed is only formative assessment or narrative (and personal interviews and personal forms of assessment).

For those who are parents, it should be obvious that you never quantify your assessment of your child’s or adolescent’s performance; you provide verbal feedback mostly in order to guide the child or adolescent. 

The Oppressive Curriculum, or the Oppressive Program of Studies

In addition to the oppressive nature of grades for some students, there is the question of the adequacy of current curriculum structure and content to address the learning needs of children and adolescents. As I argued in another post (see Much Educational Research Assumes the Legitimacy of the Current School Structure), most educational research assumes that the current educational system is the standard, with only variations (reforms) around this standard conceivable (similar to the social-democratic or reformist left).

The expansion of public services such as education is then conceived only in terms of–more of what is essentially the same. For an alternative (socialist) educational system, which does not foresee a mere expansion of existing educational services but a major restructuring of the curriculum in order to contribute to the abolition of the separation of manual and intellectual labour and life, see Socialism, Part Ten: Inadequate Conception of the Nature of Freedom and Necessity, or Free Time and Necessary Time, Part Three: Education ).

The imposition of grades as external motivators then permits the creation of a curriculum that involves the learning of many irrelevant things that have little to do with addressing present problems and interests. This in turn leads to the weighing down of the mind by unused and irrelevant facts, leading to the dulling of interest and the wonder of children in the world around them. From Katherine Mayhew and Anna Edwards (1936), The Dewey School: The Laboratory School of the University of Chicago, 1896-1903, pages 21-22: 

“He must learn by experience” is an old adage too little heeded by modern methods of schooling. Too often these methods take for granted that there is a short cut to learning, and that knowledge apart from its use has meaning for the developing mind. The memorizing of such knowledge has come to be a large part of present-day education, with the result that great masses of young lives have been denied the thrill of experimental living, of finding the way for themselves, of discovery, of invention, of creation. The fine aspiring tendril of childhood’s native curiosity, like the waving tip of a growing vine, seeks the how and why of doing its intellectual food. It is early stunted in many children. The strong urge to investigate, present in every individual, is often crushed by the memorizing of great masses of information useless to him, or the learning of skills that he is told may be useful to him in the far-away future, the sometime, and the somewhere. Only those in whom the urge to know will not be denied break away into new trails by virtue of individual and experimental effort, and when directed in the use of the scientific method, climb to the highest peaks of living; the majority travel a wide made-easy
way of schooling into a dead level of mediocrity.

Are not most schools public? If so, then they must fall under Dhunna’s and Bush’s idealized view of public services: schools, as public institutions, “affirm the power of publicly owned and operated infrastructure.” Quite to the contrary. Public schools ‘affirm the oppressive power of publicly owned and operated infrastructure.’ Merely because citizens do not pay for such services does not mean that oppression does not form part of such services–as long as there is a class of employers, along with the associated economic, political and social structures of such power.

Dhunna’s and Bush’s idealization of public services is typical of the social-democratic left. As I noted above, Mr. Sam Gindin, former research director of the former Canadian Auto Workers union (now Unifor, the largest private-sector union in Canada) merely views a socialist society as an expansion of public services rather than the abolition of oppressive structures in such services. He has this to say about public services in a socialist society:

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

Conclusion

There is little recognition of how “the public sector” can be oppressive. Referring to social services, such as “education” as if schools  and the school system were identical to non-oppressive services leads not only to the perpetuation of oppressive conditions but also to members of the working class becoming right-wing since such left-wing rhetoric fails to capture and express their experiences in this world. The social-democratic left, by idealizing the public sector, contribute to the right-wing backlash that has been raging for more than four decades. 

Dhunnah’s and Bush’s solution–expanded public services in the form of free education that do not involve the purchase of such services–does not solve the problem of an oppressive situation. Their critique of the principle of universal basic income, therefore, loses some of its legitimacy. 

In future posts, I may refer to the other side of the coin in education–not from the side of children and adolescents but from the side of those who work in schools, including teachers and custodians. Or perhaps health services (although I have already referred to some problems with the health sector (see Health Care: Socialist versus Capitalist Nationalization)–and therefore may not. Since most readers of this blog have provided little feedback or discussion, I will write on topics as I see fit–unless there is more feedback and discussion. 

However, I will definitely address in another post the criticisms of basic income that Dhunna and Bush offer–such as they are. 

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.

What Kind of Organization or Structure does an Anti-Capitalist Struggle Require?

The following is a critical look at a leftist conference held on April 26, 2014 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, entitled Building Solidarity Against Austerity. Session 3. Fighting Austerity Today. Specifically, it looks critically at the presentation by Dave Bush, a leftist activist in Toronto, who argues that it is necessary to create an organization for the long-term struggle.

Mr. Bush implies that we need something beyond the New Democratic Party (NDP), which is a social-reformist political party, but he does not explicitly explain why we need something beyond it. Implicitly, though, he argues that a new organization is needed to fight against the neoliberal austerity program.

The new organization required seems to be a purely negative organization since its main purpose is to fight against austerity. Fighting against austerity, however, is not necessarily the same as abolishing the class relation between employers and employees.
Indeed, fighting against austerity is perfectly consistent with the stated aims of the NDP and other social democratic organizations. On the federal NDP website , it states:

Canada’s NDP has a proud history of fighting for ordinary Canadians and delivering results. Over the last 50 years, New Democrats have helped ensure the introduction of universal medical care, public pensions, and the expansion of Canada’s social safety net.

New Democrats are champions for people – not corporations or the ultra-rich. We believe in building a society that is more equal and more just for everybody. We are determined to fight for solutions people urgently need right now. From skyrocketing housing prices to soaring out-of-pocket healthcare costs – Canadians haven’t received the help they need.

Mr. Bush perhaps advocates for a new organization because the NDP does not, in practice, live up to its own claims. This interpretation is justified since Mr. Bush points out that we need to think about what is needed to the left of the NDP. Yes, we do. Unfortunately, his references to “ripping apart our collective services” seems to assume that public services are our services. Public services are hardly democratic, as he undoubtedly knows, and yet his vocabulary leads to a false image of the public sector as a collectivity of some sort. Workers in the public sector are employees just as much as employees in the private sector. How being “public services” magically converts being a public employee into a collective organization that provides “our collective services” is never explained.

Mr. Bush also refers to “making gains beyond a specific campaign” as being strategic. In what sense is it strategic? One campaign to which he refers in Halifax was to fight for converting hydro from a private corporation and monopoly into a public one. I certainly agree that privatization should be fought against, but the left then tends to limit its demands to its opposite–make it public, which is exactly what Solidarity Halifax advocated. Nationalizing utilities, however, is hardly a socialist measure if by a socialist measure you mean increased control over our lives at work and in life generally.

Nationalizing hydro does not even take it to the same level as education (at the public school level) and health services in that, at least theoretically, the use of the services do not require money. To use hydro that is publicly run by the capitalist state still requires that the users have money. How is that a major socialist gain? From the point of view of public workers, how is it a gain? Do they not have “jobs” working for an employer (the capitalist state)? Is that what is meant by socialism? How is that a enriching life, to have to work for the capitalist state as your employer?

Mr. Bush argues that advocating for the nationalization (or rather provincialization) of hydro was strategic for two additional reasons than just the need to protect public services as public: firstly the private corporation would raise rates whenever it wanted to do so, so there was a potential large opposition to it and hence for conversion to a public corporation. Secondly, none of the regular political parties, including the NDP, were making it an issue. Hence, Solidarity Halifax could distinguish itself by focusing on a large potential need.

However, It could in fact be said that Mr. Bush and the rest of the left is now in fact a purely anti-austerity movement. It considers, practically, that fighting against austerity is the only practical thing to do. To challenge the power of employers as a class is off the agenda forever for the left here in Toronto and indeed in most parts of Canada. At best, Mr. Bush illustrates the limits of the social-reformist left, which cannot envision a world beyond the power of employers as a class.

Mr. Bush also says that we need to engage in coalition building. On what basis? There was little discussion about what the goals of such coalition building would be,

Coalition building perhaps was supposed to be centered around the fight against privatization in general and the privatization of Canadian postal services in particular. This seems to be some of what Mr. Bush is aiming to achieve. However, having services performed by state employees rather than the private sector may be preferable in that, on the one hand, more employees are proportionately unionized in the public sector than in the private sector and, on the other, at least on the side of consumption workers who receive services do not need to pay directly out of their pocket; consumption is socialized and made available to all (in theory if not always in practice).

Although these two reasons form a basis for fighting against austerity, they hardly question the principle recognized theoretically but not practically by the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) (a leftist organization that resists policies that lead to “immiseration and destitution”): that economic coercion forms the necessary base of class relations in a capitalist society. State employees are subject to economic coercion like their private-sector counterparts (see The Money Circuit of Capital).

Fighting against austerity through nationalization and other measures should be a means towards the end of abolishing the power of employers as a class; fighting austerity should not be an end in itself–which is what Mr. Bush seems to seek.

Mr. Bush further argues that the community’s role is mainly one of support. Admittedly, he makes this assertion in the context of the potential privatization of postal services, but is that the major role of the community? Is the community merely to be a reflective support for “labour” (actually, unionized workers), or can it not be both supportive and critical? Or can it be supportive by being critical? The view that the community’s main role is to be supportive assumes that the union movement represents a standard that is sufficiently robust and powerful to justify subordinating the community to it.

Why should we accept that assumption? The open letter by John Cartwright, president of the Toronto & York Region Labour Council to the union movement on January 30, 2018,  refers to economic justice, and yet in another post (see Basic Income: A Critique of the Social-Reformist Left’s Assumptions and Analysis: Part Two), it was pointed out just how inadequate is Cartwright’s implicit claim that the union movement has as its goal economic justice when the power of employers as a class is not questioned.

It can be further added that the nationalization of hydro involves its own set of problems that the social-democratic left do not seem to want to address. For example, public sector workers are employees. Being employees, they lack freedom in various ways. How does the fact that public sector workers are employees relate to socialism? Is socialism consistent with the existence of employees? If so, then it is consistent with using human beings as things, is it not? Is that then socialism or capitalism?

What is more likely meant by socialism is what existed before the emergence of what is called neoliberalism: a truce between unions, employers and government and the resurgence of the old welfare state.

What I call socialism would include the abolition of the employer-employee relation–period. It is not about nationalizing utilities and converting institutions merely from private to public government; it would involve the democratization of the economy (see Socialism, Part One: What It May Look Like,  Socialism, Part Two: What It May Look Like,   Socialism, Part Three: What It May Look Like, or Visions of a Better Kind of Society Without Employers).

Despite these many limitations of Mr. Bush’s presentation of what an anti-capitalist movement needs to become, his idea of having an organization as a membership based organization does have merit. The idea is that membership will determine what is feasible in terms of human capacity. If there are only four members, then only four-member actions should be taken. If 400 members, then larger actions, or more coordinated actions, can emerge. Mr. Bush’s recognition of some of the limitations placed on leftist organizations, unfortunately, does not extend to any recognition of his own views on leftist organization.

Mr. Bush claims that it is necessary to build a non-sectarian left, but what that means he fails to spell out. His own brand of anti-capitalism is really only anti-austerity and is itself sectarian.