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

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

He says the following:

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

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

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

He further writes:

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

Professor Noonan then dismisses both possibilities:

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

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

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

He says:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Socialism, Police and the Government or State, Part One

Mr. Gindin, in his article We Need to Say What Socialism Will Look Like argues the following:

The expectations of full or near-full abundance, added to perfect or near-perfect social consciousness, have a further consequence: they imply a dramatic waning, if not end, of substantive social conflicts and so do away with any need for an “external” state. This fading away of the state is, as well, rooted in how we understand the nature of states. If states are reduced to only being oppressive institutions, then the democratization of the state by definition brings the withering away of the state (a “fully democratic state” becomes an oxymoron). On the other hand, if the state is seen as a set of specialized institutions that not only mediate social differences and oversee judicial discipline but also superintend the replacement of the hegemony of class and competitive markets with the democratic planning of the economy, then the state will likely play an even greater role under socialism.

I will deal with Mr. Gindin’s inadequate conception of freedom and necessity in a socialist society in a later post that continues a description of what socialist society may look like. Here, I will begin a critique of Mr. Gindin’s idealization of the state when he implies that the nature of the state will expand under a socialist system.

Mr. Gindin, as his typical of his social-democratic point of view, vastly underestimates the importance and nature of the existing repressive nature of any government or state that presupposes the legitimacy of the power of a class of employers. He refers to “superintend the replacement of the hegemony of class and competitive markets” while simultaneously referring to the state as “overseeing judicial discipline.” What would “overseeing judicial discipline” mean in a socialist society? What would “judicial discipline” mean in a socialist society? No one will find an answer to these questions in his article since Mr. Gindin’s reference is simply vague.

Let us assume, however, that by “judicial discipline” Mr. Gindin means “the rule of law.” What does the “rule of law” mean? Many who refer to the rule of law believe that it prevents the government from infringing on the rights of citizens. This is a myth since the rule of law is just as vague as Mr. Gindin’s reference to “overseeing judicial discipline” or even “judicial discipline.”

What is the myth of the rule of law? It is the myth that citizens are somehow protected, by means of the law, from arbitrary actions by government officials of one form or another. The rule of law, rather, is a rule of order. This is the real function of police. The rule of law, for example, is supposed to limit the power of police–but does it?

From Mark Neocleous, The Fabrication of Social Order: A Critical Theory of Police Power, pages 112-113:

Since, as we have seen, law-enforcement is merely an incidental and
derivative part of police work, and since, as Lustgarten has noted, the police
invariably under-enforce the law, the equation of policing with law enforcement
is clearly untenable.68 The police enforce the law because it
falls within the scope of their larger duties of regulating order which, in
an ideological loop of remarkable ingenuity, is then justified in terms of
crime control and the need to ‘uphold the law’. In other words, law enforcement
becomes part of police work to the same extent as anything
else in which the exercise of force for the maintenance of order may have
to be used, and only to that extent. Police practices are designed to conform
to and prioritize not law, but order, as the judges and police have long
known.69 Law-enforcement is therefore a means to an end rather than an
end in itself, as witnessed by the fact that, for example, police often prefer
to establish order without arrest. The assumption central to the rule of law
that people should not take the law into ‘their own hands’ reminds us not
only that the law is meant to be used and controlled by chosen hands, as
Bauman puts it,70 but that police do in fact handle rather than enforce the
law. The law is a resource for dealing with problems of disorder rather than
a set of rules to be followed and enforced. The kind of police behaviour
which offends the sensibilities of civil libertarians or which seems at odds
with the assumptions in the liberal democratic conception of the rule of
law in fact turns out to be within the law and exercised according to the
need to deal with things considered disorderly. The police follow rules,
but these are police rules rather than legal rules. Thus when exercising discretion,
the police are never quite using it to enforce the law, as one might
be led to believe. Rather, officers decide what they want to do and then fit
their legal powers around that decision. Hence the main ‘Act’ which police
officers purport to enforce is the ‘Ways and Means Act’, a set of mythical
powers which they use to mystify and confuse suspects, and the question
of whether an officer should detain a suspect on legal grounds is displaced
by the question ‘which legal reason shall I use to justify detaining this person’.
Exercised according to police criteria rather than specific legal criteria,
the rules are rules for the abolition of disorder, exercised by the police and enabled by law.

Mr. Gindin’s reference to “judicial discipline” assumes that the judiciary will continue to exist as a separate institution–like now. He presumably also assumes that police will never be abolished since he eternalizes “scarcity” (as noted above, I will criticize this view in another article). With scarcity, there will be necessary some external force to ensure that people who do not follow the (mythological) law will be properly “motivated” to follow not the law but the order of scarcity. Socialism in such a situation will resemble the capitalist order in various ways.

The social implication of the rule of law or “judicial discipline” can also be seen in terms of the effects on how people would feel in Mr. Gindin’s “realistic socialism”–fear. From Mark Neocleous, The Fabrication of Social Order: A Critical Theory of Police Power, page 113:

‘We fear the policeman’ then, as Slavoj Zizek comments, ‘insofar as he is
not just himself, a person like us, since his acts are the acts of power, that
is to say, insofar as he is experienced as the stand-in for the big Other, for
the social order.’73 And it is because the police officer is the stand-in for
social order that order is the central trope around which even the smallest
police act is conducted. As a number of ex-police officers have testified,
the police themselves are obsessed with order, being institutionalized to
achieve order at all times and in all contexts. Malcolm Young has commented
on how one folder containing a record of the Orders by a range of
senior officers reveals ‘how everything in this world had an ordained place
and could therefore be controlled, ordered, disciplined, checked, scrutinized’.
Likewise ex-police sergeant Simon Holdaway has pointed to the
way prisoners are treated as ‘visible evidence of disorder’. Needing to
detect and end disorder among citizens, the police cannot cope with ambiguity
in any way.74 In dealing with any particular situation a police officer
makes a decision about what, if anything, is out of order and then makes a
decision about how to overcome it. Because each individual officer is institutionalized to achieve order at all times the police institution must have
a strong sense of the order they are there to reproduce, reflected in the
activities they are taught to pursue, the techniques they use in pursuit, and
compounded by a unitary and absolutist view of human behaviour and
social organization.75

The police as the representative of “order” entails not only fear but a need for the expression of deference. From Mark Neocleous, The Fabrication of Social Order: A Critical Theory of Police Power, pages 113-114:

So for example, failure to display deference to an
officer significantly increases the probability of arrest, for it is understood
as a failure to display deference to an officer’s demand for order. Any hostility
directed to them is treated as an attack on their authority and power
to order, and thus an attack on authority and order in general, mediated by
a supposed hostility to the Law. Antagonistic behaviour is a symbolic rejection
of their authoritative attempt to reconstitute order out of a disorderly
situation; it is this which may result in more formal (i.e. legal) methods of
control.76 Regardless of the legal issues pertinent to the situation, the failure to display deference is therefore likely to make one an object of the law as
an arrested person as a means of reproducing order.

Mr. Gindin’s world of scarcity probably looks a lot like the capitalist world order.

This view is consistent with Mr. Gindin’s conservative attitude–he could not even criticize the conservative pairing of a movement for increasing the minimum wage to $15 and for instituting needed employment law reforms with the idea of “fairness.” He even claimed that the justification by some trade unionists here in Toronto who used the term “decent work” were using it in a purely defensive manner–which is nonsense.

Indeed, the term “decent work” is linked to the repressive nature of the capitalist government or state since those who perform “decent work” in a society dominated by a class of employers can thereby pat themselves on the back while they look down on those who lack “decent work.” From Richard Ericson, Reproducting Order: A Study of Police Patrol Work, page 204:

The police can easily justify additional resources, including the latest in
protective headgear, because they have a solid populist constituency among
the ‘hard hats’ of ‘decent working people.’ These people have a great stake in
the status quo because they have invested their very lives in it. In relation to
them, the politics of ‘lawandorder’ is part of ‘the politics of resentment.’
According to people who analyse this politics (e.g. Friedenberg, 1975,1980,
1980a; Gaylin et al, 1978) these individuals are apparently frustrated by the
imprisonment of conformity within the status quo. Conformity yields
payouts which they judge to be meager; the payouts are assessed relatively
and thus prove insatiable. These people take out their frustrations against
those contained in the criminal prisons, and against all others who do things,
however vaguely defined, which suggest that they are gaining pleasure outside
conventional channels. For these conventionals, it is better to seek the
painful channels of convention and to avoid pleasures. For this reason, they
support the construction of an elaborate apparatus aimed at ensuring that
those who seek to experience disreputable pleasures and to avoid pain will
eventually, and often repeatedly, suffer pain that more than cancels out their
pleasures. Moreover, it seems that people are willing to support the construction
of this apparatus at all costs.

Mr. Gindin, far from providing a critique of the modern social order, panders to such an order and reinforces the proclivity of Canadians to call for more order (a stronger police presence and a stronger police state). From Richard Ericson, Reproducting Order: A Study of Police Patrol Work, page 204:

This mythology is so dominant that even when a major crisis
erupts, and the media help to reveal systematic structural flaws in control
agencies, public support for the police remains strong. This is clearly evident
in the continuing revelations about the wide net of illegal practices cast by the
RCMP (see Mann and Lee, 1979). In spite of repeated revelations about illegal
practices against legitimate political groups, illegal opening of the mail, illegal
trespasses and thefts in private premises, and the manufacturing of news
stories to serve its own interests, the RCMP still maintains its popularity in
public opinion polls (ibid). Indeed, some politicians have responded to this
exposure by calling for legislation to legalize previously illegal practices and
for a reassertion of authority within the administrative structure of the RCMP.
As Friedenberg (1980, 1980a) points out, this type of response is typical
of the Canadian reaction to any crisis in authority: ‘The solution for the
failure of authority is more authority …

Mr. Gindin’s view of the future “expansion of the state” simply ignores the repressive nature of the modern state and claims that it merely needs to be transformed. What he means by “transformation” seems, however, to be more of the same–repression, fear, deference. After all, with scarcity, property rights must be protected to ensure that workers are motivated to engage in work (rather than pilfering from others).

Such is the real nature of socialism for Mr. Gindin.

In a future post, I will, unlike Mr. Gindin, continue a critical analysis of the police, the law and the government or state that protects class order–the class order of employers above all.

Of course, workers also call the police in order to protect themselves from each other–to deny that would be naive. That workers experience the police as oppressive does not prevent them from relying on the police to protect what limited rights they do have on occasion–but the extent to which the police and the courts protect workers’ rights should not be exaggerated. Nor should it prevent us from seeing the major function of the police to protect the existing order–and use the law as a means to that end. The primary issue for the police is order–and to seek justifications for maintaining or reestablishing order–including using the law to justify their actions after the fact.