Economics for Social Democrats–but not for the Working Class, Part Three: The Health and Safety of Workers and an Economy Dominated by a Class of Employers Are at Loggerheads

Introduction

I was going to continue my next post in this series with a continuation of my critique of Mr. Stanford’s definition of money as “purchasing power,” but I came across a more directly political issue that should be addressed. 

I have already had occasion to take a critical look at both Jim Stanford’s views (see Economics for Social Democrats–but Not for the Working Class, Part One: Critique of Jim Stanford’s One-Sided View of Job Creation in a Capitalist Society and Economics for Social Democrats–but Not for the Working Class, Part Two: Critique of the Social Democrat Jim Stanford’s Theory of Money, Part One). I will further engage in critical analysis of his views by looking at a Webcast posted on YouTube titled Economics After COVID: The Need for National Reconstruction Planning (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XUSIxXvk8BE). The webcast has Mr. Stanford referring to the relationship between health and the “real economy.” 

The webcast is supposed to be an analysis of what the economy should be after COVID. Mr. Stanford’s analysis, however, fails to grasp the specific historical nature of the present economy, which is dominated by a class of employers. 

Mr. Stanford’s Continued Ahistorical Characterization of an Economy Dominated by a Class of Employers

I pointed out in another post (part one on the theory of money) how Mr. Stanford tends to identify production in general throughout history with the current economy, which is an economy whose primary aim is accumulating more and more money by means of exploiting workers (and by revolutionizing technological conditions). 

Since workers in such an economy are mere means for the increase of money (see The Money Circuit of Capital ), there is often a contradiction between the health of workers and the interests of employers (as I have often pointed out in my posts. See for example, Working for an Employer May Be Dangerous to Your Health, Part One, part of a series of posts on how the health of workers is often sacrificed for the benefit of employers). 

Mr. Stanford, however, treats the real economy as if it were some sort of pure labour process in general, producing use values that people need for their lives, or alternatively that the economy in the present is actually or really a socialist economy, where the purpose of work is to satisfy the needs of workers and others. Thus, Stanford says: 

The economy is not a thing in and of itself. The economy is what we refer to as the work that people do to produce goods and services and then how those goods and services are distributed and used.

This way of looking at the economy reminds me of an academic leftist, Jeff Noonan, who argued the following (copied from my post The Poverty of Academic Leftism, Part Eight: Class Harmony):

Instead, all members of the institution– faculty, librarians, learning specialists, lab technicians, students, support workers, and administration have the same goal—the advance of human knowledge and creativity in the widest and most comprehensive sense. If that claim is true, then it should follow that all the groups who together make up the university ought to cooperate (not without respectful disagreement) in the determination of the budgets, policies, rules, and goals that guide the institution’s mission. The best ideas emerge through deliberative and democratic argument—no one group knows best just because of the position they occupy in the hierarchy.

To which I responded:

This view is ideology in the worst sense of the term. In a society dominated by employers–including public-sector employers like universities, it is highly unlikely that such workers as “lab technicians, students and support workers” have the same goal–“the advance of human knowledge and creativity in the widest and most comprehensive sense.” Such a view may apply in a socialist organization, but to assume such a situation in universities, which function in a capitalist context, is bound to lead to inadequate policies and theories.

Consider support workers. I worked twice at a university library, once doing my practicum to obtain a library and information technology diploma from the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT) at the University of Calgary main library, in the cataloguing department. At the University of Calgary, I noted that the work situation was characterized by a very hierarchical, top-down power structure. One worker commented that she would prefer a benevolent dictator to a mean one; of course, but why have a dictator at all? At least this worker recognized that there was a dictator–unlike Professor Noonan.

Stanford, like Professor Noonan, simply ignores the hierarchical and dictatorial nature of relations at work–as if that hierarchical and dictatorial structure did not form an integral part of the present economy.

A Real Trade-off Between the Health of Workers and the Health of an Economy Dominated by a Class of Employers 

As a consequence of his characterization (actually reduction) of the present economy to a pure labour process of producing social use values, he incorrectly claims that there is no contradiction between the health of workers, citizens, immigrants and migrant workers and the economy:

So, you can’t have an economy that is healthy if people aren’t healthy, and this false trade-off between the economy and public health was a giant self-inflicted wound in our response to Covid.

It is hardly a “false trade-off between the economy and public health”–because the current economy includes the sacrifice of workers for the benefit of the class of employers. 

Ironically, it is Stanford and not the conservatives whom he criticizes who fails to understand the real nature of the present economy. He states:

Doug Ford [premier or head of the provincial Progressive Conservative government of Ontario] , Jason Kenny [premier or head of the United Conservative provincial government of Alberta] and Erin O’Toole [leader of the official opposition party the Conservative Party of Canada] themselves implied that there was some kind of trade-off between public health and the economy.

For representatives of employers–and unfortunately for workers as well–there is definitely a trade-off between “the economy” (which workers do not control but, quite the contrary, the economy controls the workers) and the health of workers. The health of workers is secondary to the drive for accumulation of more and more profit and more and more money. 

Diverse governments of countries dominated by a class of employers have responded differently to the pandemic, in part at least, because of their divergent assessments of the impact reducing the employment of workers will have on the pandemic in the country. Obviously, the kind and extent of workers’ responses to the pandemic also have influenced governments’ responses. However, before the pandemic emerged, governments (and employers) were already involved in making decisions that jeopardized the future health of workers, citizens, immigrants and migrant workers. 

In a previous post (Working and Living in a Society Dominated by a Class of Employers May Be Dangerous to Your Health), I quoted Mike Davis in his work (2020) The Monster Enters: COVID-19, Avian Flu and the Plagues of Capitalism

But this time around there was little mystery about the identity of the microbe—SARS-CoV-2 was sequenced almost overnight in January—or the steps necessary to fight it. Since the discovery of the HIV virus in 1983 and the recognition that it had jumped from apes to humans, science has been on high alert against the appearance of deadly new diseases with pandemic potential that have crossed over from wild fauna. This new age of plagues, like previous pandemic epochs, is directly the result of economic globalization. … Today, as was the case when I wrote Monster fifteen years ago, multinational capital has been the driver of disease evolution through the burning or logging out of tropical forests, the proliferation of factory farming, the explosive growth of slums and concomitantly of “informal employment,” and the failure of the pharmaceutical industry to find profit in mass producing lifeline antivirals, new-generation antibiotics, and universal vaccines.

Forest destruction, whether by multinationals or desperate subsistence farmers, eliminates the barrier between human populations and the reclusive wild viruses endemic to birds, bats, and mammals. Factory farms and giant feedlots act as huge incubators of novel viruses while appalling sanitary conditions in slums produce populations that are both densely packed and immune compromised. The inability of global capitalism to create jobs in the so-called “developing world” means that a billion or more subsistence workers (the “informal proletariat”) lack an employer link to healthcare or the income to purchase treatment from the private sector, leaving them dependent upon collapsing public hospitals systems, if they even exist. Permanent bio-protection against new plagues, accordingly, would require more than vaccines. It would need the suppression of these
“structures of disease emergence” through revolutionary reforms in agriculture and urban living that no large capitalist or state-capitalist country would ever willingly undertake.

To treat the “economy” in its present structure as if it were some pure structure that satisfies human needs, over which some kind of superficial or artificial “superstructure” is imposed, as Stanford does, surely distorts the real nature of the economy in which we live. That social structure has led to immense gains in the productivity of labour–while simultaneously reducing humans and the rest of the natural world to mere means for the ever-increasing accumulation of money (and means of production). Furthermore, if that ever-increasing accumulation of money stops due to an economic crisis (itself a result of the development of a capitalist economy–as Michael Roberts (2009), in his book The Great Recession Profit cycles, economic crisis A Marxist view, argues), then millions workers are thrown out of work and the production of many commodities is reduced. 

Covid and the Trade-Off Between the Health of Workers and the Health of an Economy Dominated by a Class of Employers

Stanford’s words continue to ring hollow as he tries, in vain, to separate ‘the pure, good economy’ from the ‘bad, capitalist economy’–within the capitalist economy:

The best thing to do for the economy is clearly to keep people healthy and stop the pandemic and then rebuild and that means protection and that means income support and that means a plan to rebuild once we can back to work. It doesn’t mean sacrificing ourselves for “the” economy, which actually means just sacrificing ourselves for our employers and to even cut their pay.

Some representatives of employers surely did not know what was best for the capitalist economy–whether to shut down for as long as necessary until the number of deaths and infections were reduced, to leave parts of the economy (in addition to essential economic structures, such as food, hand sanitizer and mask production) functioning or to leave most of the economy dominated by a class of employers functioning. But “sacrificing ourselves for our employers” even in normal times is run of the mill. Why is it that there are, on average, over 1,000 deaths officially at work per year and more than 600,000 injuries in Canada (and many more deaths when unofficial deaths are included (see Working and Living in a Society Dominated by a Class of Employers May Be Dangerous to Your Health). 

Stanford reminds me of another social reformist or social democrat–an author whom Marx criticized long ago-Pierre-Joesph Proudhon. 

From Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, volume 1, page 181, note 4: 

From this we may form an estimate of the craftiness of petty-bourgeois socialism [such as Proudhon’s], which wants to perpetuate the production of commodities while simultaneously abolishing the ‘antagonism between money and commodities’, i.e. abolishing money itself, since money only exists in and through this antagonism. One might just as well abolish the Pope while leaving Catholicism in existence.

Proudhon treated the market, exchange, commodities and money as permanent features of our lives, but he wanted to eliminate the contradictions that flowed from these social conditions. He generally treated exchange of commodities and money and money and commodities as if they could be treated independently of the class relation of employers and workers. 

Stanford, similarly, treats the production of use values within a society dominated by a class of employers as independent of or isolatable from the social contradictions that flow from their production as both commodities and as capital. This production of use values for our needs is somehow the “real economy” and is not subject to overproduction, underproduction, sudden surges of employment and sudden surges of unemployment–not subject to crises. Nor is it subject to exploitation and oppression; otherwise, it would be necessary to admit that the health of workers and the maintenance of an economy dominated by a class of employers are necessarily at odds with each other.  

But wait. When workers produce use values in a society dominated by employers, are they not subject to the power of the representatives of the employer (whether private or public)? Are not workers in such situations oppressed and, in the case of the private sector at least, exploited? (The question of whether workers in the state sector are exploited I leave open). It is illegitimate to treat work in a society dominated by a class of employers as if it were not–and that is what Mr. Stanford does.

Stanford seeks to ignore the integrated nature of exchange of commodities for money and money for commodities with the exploitation and oppression of workers, who are treated as mere means for the ever increasing accumulation of money (see  The Money Circuit of Capital).

By the way, informally I have been following the statistics on the number of infections and deaths on the website Worldometer for some time  (https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/). In general, on the weekends, when there are fewer workers at work, the number of infections and deaths decrease, and as the working week proceeds, the number of infections and deaths increase. Undoubtedly there are other factors at work here, but surely one of the factors is, on the one hand, the requirement by employers that their employees work and, on the other, the need for non-essential workers to obtain a wage or salary by working for an employer.  

Stanford’s denial that there is a trade-off between the economy and the health of workers, therefore, rings hollow. Before the pandemic, there was a trade-off, and during the pandemic there has been a trade-off. The health of workers is necessarily put in jeopardy if an economy dependent on a class of employers and the attendant economic, political and social structures is to continue to exist and expand. (The same could be said of the natural world in which we live and the response of social democrats or social reformers–see The Money Circuit of Capital, The British Labour Party’s 2019 Manifesto: More Social Democracy and More Social Reformism, Part One and Socialism and Central Planning: Mr. Gindin’s Analysis of The Political Situation of Workers in General, Part One.)

Further Evidence that the Health of Workers and the Health of an Economy Dominated by a Class of Employers Are at Loggerheads

Protecting Oneself from a Tornado Versus Having to Work for an Employer to Obtain Money

The seriousness of Mr. Stanford’s denial that there is a trade-off between the economy and the health of workers can be seen from a relatively recent event in the United States: the tornado that hit Mayfield, Kentucky. From the website  https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/kentucky-tornado-factory-workers-threatened-firing-left-tornado-employ-rcna8581?cid=sm_npd_nn_fb_ma&fbclid=IwAR2oyQiJ3BH2KPYvP0NOPavpJwZw2W-zuoB7R2YEnOd2ES8TtBANVPvIjWM

MAYFIELD, Ky. — As a catastrophic tornado approached this city Friday, employees of a candle factory — which would later be destroyed — heard the warning sirens and wanted to leave the building. But at least five workers said supervisors warned employees that they would be fired if they left their shifts early.

For hours, as word of the coming storm spread, as many as 15 workers beseeched managers to let them take shelter at their own homes, only to have their requests rebuffed, the workers said.

Fearing for their safety, some left during their shifts regardless of the repercussions.

At least eight people died in the Mayfield Consumer Products factory, which makes scented candles. The facility was leveled, and all that is left is rubble. Photos and videos of its widespread mangled remains have become symbols of the enormous destructive power of Friday’s tornado system.

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear said Monday that 74 people were confirmed dead in the state.

McKayla Emery, 21, said in an interview from her hospital bed that workers first asked to leave shortly after tornado sirens sounded outside the factory around 5:30 p.m.

Image: Satellite images show the Mayfield Consumer Products candle factory and other nearby buildings before, on Jan. 28, 2017, and after, Dec. 11, 2021, the tornado struck.
Satellite images show the Mayfield Consumer Products candle factory and nearby buildings before, on Jan. 28, 2017, and after, on Saturday.MAXAR Technologies via Reuters

Employees congregated in bathrooms and inside hallways, but the real tornado wouldn’t arrive for several more hours. After employees decided that the immediate danger had passed, several began asking to go home, the workers said.

“People had questioned if they could leave or go home,” said Emery, who preferred to stay at work and make extra money. Overtime pay was available, but it wasn’t clear whether those who stayed were offered additional pay.

Supervisors and team leaders told employees that leaving would probably jeopardize their jobs, the employees said.

“If you leave, you’re more than likely to be fired,” Emery said she overheard managers tell four workers standing near her who wanted to leave. “I heard that with my own ears.”

About 15 people asked to go home during the night shift shortly after the first emergency alarm sounded outside the facility, said another employee, Haley Conder, 29.

There was a three- to four-hour window between the first and second emergency alarms when workers should have been allowed to go home, she said.

Initially, Conder said, team leaders told her they wouldn’t let workers leave because of safety precautions, so they kept everyone in the hallways and the bathrooms. Once they mistakenly thought the tornado was no longer a danger, they sent everyone back to work, employees said.

Anyone who wanted to leave should have been allowed to, Conder said.

Elijah Johnson, 20, was working in the back of the building when several employees wanting to head home walked in to speak with supervisors. He joined in on the request.

“I asked to leave and they told me I’d be fired,” Johnson said. “Even with the weather like this, you’re still going to fire me?” he asked.

“Yes,” a manager responded, Johnson told NBC News.

Johnson said managers went so far as to take a roll call in hopes of finding out who had left work.

Company officials denied the allegations.

Image: A rescue worker and a cadaver dog arrive at the Mayfield Consumer Products candle factory in Mayfield, Ky., on Dec. 11, 2021.
A rescue worker and a cadaver dog arrive at the Mayfield Consumer Products candle factory Saturday in Mayfield, Ky.John Amis / AFP via Getty Images

“It’s absolutely untrue,” said Bob Ferguson, a spokesman for Mayfield Consumer Products. “We’ve had a policy in place since Covid began. Employees can leave any time they want to leave and they can come back the next day.”

He also denied that managers told employees that leaving their shifts meant risking their jobs. Ferguson said managers and team leaders undergo a series of emergency drills that follow guidelines of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

“Those protocols are in place and were followed,” he said.

A 24-hour hotline is available as of Monday for employees to call about hazard pay, grief counseling and other assistance, he said.

Autumn Kirks, a team lead at the factory who was working that night, denied Monday afternoon on MSNBC that people’s jobs were threatened if they didn’t go in.

But another employee, Latavia Halliburton, said she witnessed workers’ being threatened with termination if they left.

“Some people asked if they could leave,” but managers told them they would be fired if they did, she said.

The first tornado warning passed without any damage, but several hours later, another warning was issued. Once the second tornado siren sounded sometime after 9 p.m. Friday, Conder and a group of others approached three managers asking to go home.

“‘You can’t leave. You can’t leave. You have to stay here,’” Conder said the managers told her. “The situation was bad. Everyone was uncomfortable.”

Mark Saxton, 37, a forklift operator, said that he would have preferred to leave but that he wasn’t given the option.

“That’s the thing. We should have been able to leave,” Saxton said. “The first warning came, and they just had us go in the hallway. After the warning, they had us go back to work. They never offered us to go home.”

As the storm moved forward after the second siren, the employees took shelter. The lights in the building started to flicker.

Moments later, Emery, who was standing near the candle wax and fragrance room, was struck in the head by a piece of concrete.

“I kid you not, I heard a loud noise and the next thing I know, I was stuck under a cement wall,” she said. “I couldn’t move anything. I couldn’t push anything. I was stuck.”

Emery, who was trapped for six hours, had several chemical burn marks on her legs, her buttocks and her forehead from the candle wax. She also sustained kidney damage, her urine is black, and she still can’t move her legs because of the swelling and from having been motionless for so long.

Employees who wanted to go home early said they were mistreated.

“It hurts, ’cause I feel like we were neglected,” Saxton said.

Mr. Stanford’s conclusion that there is no trade-off between the economy and the health of workers flies in the face of such tragedies. 

Protecting Oneself from Dangerous Working Conditions Versus Having to Work for an Employer to Obtain Money

The same could be said of the Westray Mine deaths (really mass murder) in Nova Scotia, Canada, in 1992. What was the Westray Mine Mass Murder? From Tom Sandborn (2016), Hell’s History: 
The USW’s Fight to Prevent Workplace Deaths and Injuries from the 1992 Westray Mine Disaster Through 2016. page 23: 

… the lethal disaster had been made inevitable by Westray management negligence, corner cutting and speed-up, as well as by company decisions to ignore and/ or disable crucial safety equipment. One of the disabled sensors, attached to a machine called a “continuous miner” in the mine’s Southwest 2 tunnel, was supposed to detect methane levels
as the explosive gas was released from the coal face by the machine’s excavation. Instead, the unmonitored level of methane reached a critical level and a spark from the machinery ignited it. The methane explosion drove fine particles of highly flammable coal dust (which should have been regularly ventilated out of the mine and/or “stone dusted” with ground rock to make it less volatile, but was neither properly ventilated nor stone dusted), into the air and created a secondary explosion that drove a fireball through the mine’s tunnels, killing the 26 men on the night shift in less than a minute.

The “real economy” (material production through concrete labour) was not separated from the process of pursuing profit, and workers well knew that: 

Alan Doyle has bitter memories about the dangerous practices encouraged at Westray.
“That mine was a place called hell,” he told me in 2016. “It was run through intimidation. The inspectors were led around by the nose and mainly ignored. Once an inspector caught them with a bulldozer underground with unshielded sparks coming off it. Once the inspector left the mine, the foreman ordered Robbie to take the dozer back underground ‘… if he wanted to keep his fucking job.’”

Workers, more or less consciously, understand that there is indeed a trade-off between the “economy” (dominated by a class of employers) and their own health; otherwise, they would not fear being fired for complaining. This is economic coercion (see my critique of John Clarke, a Toronto radical, who refers to economic coercion as a necessary feature of capitalism and then ignores this fact in his own definition of social problems and social solutions    “Capitalism needs economic coercion for its job market to function” (Ontario Coalition Against Poverty: OCAP)).

As I wrote in another post (The Issue of Health and Safety in the Workplace Dominated by a Class of Employers): 

…a study from a skills and employment survey in Britain (Fear at Work in Britain. Gallie, Feldstead, Green, & Inanc, 2013) found that workers’ feared job loss, unfair treatment and loss of job status; available historical statistics for the first two categories show that such fears have increased. In addition, when I took a health and safety course at the University of Manitoba in the early 1990s, the instructors (both government employees and trained in the science of occupational health and safety and inspectors themselves) implied that workers often would not complain because of the economic climate of high unemployment.

Mr. Stanford’s separation of the real economy from the actual economy is a figment of his own social-democratic imagination. His economics is–for social democrats and social reformers, not for workers.

I pointed this out when criticizing Stanford’s purely exchange theory of money, which involves no connection between the purchasing power of money (and the power of those who hold it) and the work or labour process (see Economics for Social Democrats–but Not for the Working Class, Part Two: Critique of the Social Democrat Jim Stanford’s Theory of Money, Part One). 

Marx’s dual theory of labour (concrete labour producing use values and abstract labour producing value, which needs to be exchanged for money in order to be or function as value) is much superior for workers to the “economics” offered by Mr. Stanford. Marx’s dual theory of labour connects abstract labour to value and hence money while also distinguishing this process from the concrete labour process of producing use values–but there is no separate existence of the two aspects of labour in a capitalist economy. The money economy and the labour process are necessarily related in a society dominated by a class of employers.

By denying that the economy dominated by the class of employers can be divorced from the “real economy” (concrete labour), Marxian economics acknowledges the experience of workers–that their health and safety and the economy are often at loggerheads. 

Conclusion

A pattern seems to be emerging of a social-democratic or social-reformist trick that covers up the real social world in which we live. Mr. Stanford flies to the “real economy” (a fantasy economy that does not exist in a society characterized by the domination of a class of employers and the associated economic, political and social structures and institutions) to hide the fact that workers’ health is often sacrificed for the benefit of both individual employers and for the benefit of the class of employers. There is a real trade-off between the health of workers and the “economy”–as an economy dominated by a class of employers. 

There is no such thing as a “real economy” separate from a class economy in a capitalist system. To view such a real economy as somehow existing now is to assume that we need not radically transform the economy at both the macro and micro levels. Why bother if the real economy somehow already exists? 

Since there is no such thing as a separable “real economy” in a capitalist economic and political system, unfortunately there is a definite trade-off between the health of workers and the health of an economy dominated by a class of employers. 

Of course, if the economy or the life process of workers producing their own lives were to be under their control, this trade-off would be abolished since the lives of workers would be the priority. The production of use values to satisfy the needs of workers-citizens would not then lead to such a trade-off. However, it is illegitimate to assume that such an economy exists in the present; by making such an assumption, Mr. Stanford, like his social-democratic or social reformist comrades, can then avoid the conclusion that the primary task is to abolish the conditions that prevent such an economy from arising.

This is a key trick or method of social democrats or social reformers everywhere. They assume a situation in which what ought to be the case in fact actually is the case. Stanford assumes that the “real economy” somehow purely occurs–as if how workers produce in this society independently of how they are oppressed and exploited and, similarly, how what they produce is distributed and consumed is independent of the capitalist market system. 

Of course, it should be the aim of a socialist movement to produce a society where what is produced, distributed and consumed assumes a form worthy of human beings. However, Stanford, by assuming that what may arise in the future exists in the present, eliminates any need for struggling for achieving that goal in the present. If a pure human (and humane) economy can somehow exist in the present, then why bother aiming for the realization of such an economy in the future (with action in the present to achieve such a goal)? 

Mr. Noonan, similarly, assumes illegitimately that the abolition of class relations at the university is already an accomplished fact.

This trick does a great disservice to the working class. 

The social-reformist or social-democratic left do not seem capable of dealing with the real lives of workers, where their health and welfare are often sacrificed for the benefit of employers. 

As Jack Nicholson said in the movie A Few Good Men–“You can’t handle the truth!” Mr. Stanford and his social-democratic or social-reformist followers cannot handle the truth.

 

The Poverty of Academic Leftism, Part Nine: The Nature of Capitalism

Introduction

It is interesting that social democrats express themselves in different ways. Thus, Professor Noonan, a professor at the University of Windsor (Ontario, Canada), who teaches Marxism, among other courses, presents what he considers one of the major issues at stake in the struggle of the left against the right in his “post (really a series of posts) “Thinkings 10” (https://www.jeffnoonan.org/?p=4662):

… a small minority class owns and controls the natural resources that everyone needs to survive. Because they control that which everyone needs to survive, they force the rest of us to sell our ability to labour in exchange for a wage. Labour is exploited to produce social wealth, most of which is appropriated by the class whose ownership and control over natural resources grounds their social power.

Isn’t this just the picture that Marx paints? Yes, it is,

No, it is not. To present the ground of the capitalist class as control over natural resources requires justification. Nowhere does Professor Noonan provide such a justification–apart from his unsubstantiated reference to Marx.

Such a presentation of the nature of capitalism misses the specificity of the nature of capital and hence of capitalism.

Control over land (the monopolization of land or natural resources) is certainly a condition for modern society to arise, but this condition–“control over natural resources”–hardly “grounds their [the capitalist class’s] social power.”

What is different about modern exploitation is that workers are mainly exploited through control over their own products and the processes which produce those products by a minority–and not just control over “natural resources.” Workers themselves, through the objective relations between the commodities they produce, produce their own exploitation. It is the direct control over these produced commodities that constitutes the ground of the social power of the class of employers; control over natural resources is mediated through such control rather than vice versa.

Let us look at what Marx wrote on the topic, especially in the notebooks known as the Grunrdrisse (Outlines), found in volumes 28 and 29 of the collected works of Marx and Engels (Marx’s best friend and political collaborator). The following has to do with an interpretation of Marx’s theory, so there will be some quotations in order to refute Professor Noonan’s social-democratic reference to Marx.

Control Over Natural Resources Is Insufficient to Characterize the Nature of Capital(ism)

Ownership of Natural Resources (Landed Property) Characteristic of Non-capitalist Societies

Marx drafted (but did not publish) an introduction to what he planned to be his critique of political economy in August and September 1857. He wrote From volume 28(pages 43-44):

… nothing seems more natural than to begin with rent, with landed property, since it is bound up with the earth, the source of all production and all life, and with agriculture, the first form of production in all more or less established societies. But nothing would be more erroneous. In every form of society there is a particular [branch of] production which determines the position and importance of all the others, and the relations obtaining in this branch accordingly determine those in all other branches. It is the general light tingeing all other colours and modifying them in their specific quality; it is a special ether determining the specific gravity of everything found in it. For example, pastoral peoples (peoples living exclusively on hunting or fishing are beyond the point from which real development begins). A certain type of agriculture occurs among them, sporadically, and this determines landed property. It is
common property and retains this form in a larger or smaller measure, depending on the degree to which these peoples maintain their traditions, e.g. communal property among the Slavs. Among peoples with settled agriculture—this settling is already a great advance—where agriculture predominates, as in antiquity and the feudal period, even industry, its organisation and the forms of property corresponding thereto, have more or less the character of landed property. Industry is either completely dependent on it, as with the ancient Romans, or, as in the Middle Ages, it copies in the town and in its conditions the organisation of the countryside. In the Middle Ages even capital—unless it was
purely money capital—capital as traditional tools, etc., has this character of landed property. The reverse is the case in bourgeois society. Agriculture to an increasing extent becomes merely a branch of industry and is completely dominated by capital. The same applies to rent. In all forms in which landed property rules supreme, the nature relationship still predominates; in the forms in which capital rules supreme, the social, historically evolved element predominates. Rent cannot be understood without capital, but capital can be understood without rent. Capital is the economic power that dominates everything in bourgeois society. It must form both the point of departure and the conclusion and must be analysed before landed property. After each has been considered separately, their interconnection must be examined.

The issue can be approached from a variety of angles. One angle is how to divide human history into stages or periods. Of course, there are various ways of dividing human history, and some ways are more appropriate (depending on the purpose) than others. Marx at one point divided human history into three stages. From Dan Swain (2019), None so Fit to Break the Chains: Marx’s Ethics of Self-Emancipation, pages 31-32: 

In one passage in the Grundrisse Marx schematically divides history into three kinds of social forms:

Relations of personal dependence (entirely spontaneous at the outset) are the first social forms, in which human productive capacity develops only to a slight extent and at isolated points. Personal independence founded on objective dependence is the second great form, in which a system of general social metabolism, of universal relations, of all-round needs and universal capacities is formed for the first time. Free individuality, based on the universal development of individuals and on their subordination of their communal social productivity as their social wealth, is the third stage. The second stage creates the conditions for the third.

The third stage is conceived as merely the ‘subordination’ of – the exertion of control over – the conditions that exist in the second. This claim is no less necessary for being historically specific, however. So long as we want to maintain the huge advanced developments of capitalism – and we do want most of them – we cannot take a step back to small scale handcrafts. Thus the only option available to us, says Marx, is economic democracy.

Or again, as poin Paresh Chattopadhyay (2018) points out, Socialism and Commodity Production: 
Essay in Marx Revival, pages 239-240: 

Thus in his 1865 lecture (in English) to the workers, Marx speaks of three ‘historical processes’ of the relation between what he calls the ‘Man of Labour and the Means of Labour’ – first, their ‘Original Union’, then their ‘Separation’ through the ‘Decomposition of the Original Union’, third, the ‘restoration of the original union in a new historical form’ through a ‘fundamental revolution in the mode of production’. Earlier we referred to a passage from Marx’s 1861–3 manuscript where Marx, in the same way, speaks of the ‘Original unity between the labourer and the conditions of production’, as in family agriculture and ‘natural communism’, separation between them under capital and the ‘restoration of the original unity by means of a working class revolution’ (along with the rest of society).

A Condition for the Existence of Capitalism Is the Use of Produced Commodities to Oppress or Dominate Workers

Economic democracy, however, as a solution to the problems thrown up by capitalist development, must address the fact that both oppression and exploitation of the working class arises through the production of the conditions for their own oppression and exploitation and not just “control over natural resources” by the ruling class. It is control over produced resources, not natural resources, that forms an essential element of capitalism. 

From Marx-Engels Collected Works, Volume 28, pages 381-382:

Labour capacity has appropriated only the subjective conditions of necessary labour—the means of subsistence for productive labour capacity, i.e. for its reproduction as mere labour capacity separated from the conditions of its realisation—and it has posited these conditions themselves as objects, values, which confront it in an alien, commanding personification. It emerges from the process not only no richer but actually poorer than it entered into it. For not only has it created the conditions of necessary labour as conditions belonging to capital; but the valorisation [the impetus for producing surplus value] inherent in it as a potentiality, the value-creating potentiality, now also exists as surplus value, surplus product, in a word, as capital, as domination over living labour capacity, as value endowed with its own power and will confronting it in its abstract, object-less, purely subjective poverty. Not only has it produced alien wealth and its own poverty, but also the relationship of this wealth as self-sufficient wealth to itself as poverty, which this wealth consumes to draw new life and spirit to itself and to valorise itself anew.

All this arose from the act of exchange in which the worker exchanged his living labour capacity for an amount of objectified labour, except that this objectified labour, these conditions for his being which are external to him, and the independent externality (to him) of these physical conditions, now appear as posited by himself, as his own product, as his own self-objectification as well as the objectification of himself as a power independent of himself, indeed dominating him, dominating him as a result of his own actions.

All the moments of surplus capital are the product of alien labour—alien surplus labour converted into capital: means of subsistence for necessary labour; the objective conditions— material and instrument—so that necessary labour can reproduce the value exchanged for it in means of subsistence; finally, the necessary amount of material and instrument so that new surplus
labour can realise itself in them or new surplus value can be created.

It no longer seems here, as it still did in the first consideration of the production process, as if capital, for its part, brought with it some sort of value from circulation. The objective conditions of
labour now appear as labour’s product—both in so far as they are value in general, and as use values for production. But if capital thus appears as the product of labour, the product of labour for its part appears as capital—no longer as mere product nor exchangeable commodity, but as capital; objectified labour as dominion, command over living labour. It likewise appears as the
product of labour that its product appears as alien property, as a mode of existence independently confronting living labour … that the product of labour, objectified labour, is endowed with a soul of its own by living labour itself and establishes itself as an alien power confronting its creator.

Capitalism as the Use of Produced Commodities to Oppress and Exploit Workers 

The separation of workers from their conditions of producing their own lives (conditions of life), even if produced by them, does not however, yet constitute capital(ism). It is, rather, the structured process of forcing workers to expend more labour than the labour required to produce the conditions for their own lives, relative to From volume 28, pages 396-397:

Capital and therefore wage labour are not, then, constituted simply by an exchange of objectified labour for living labour—which from this viewpoint appear as two different determinations, as use
values in different form; the one as determination in objective form, the other in subjective form. They are constituted by the exchange of objectified labour as value, as self-sufficient value, for living labour as its use value, as use value not for a certain specific use or consumption, but as use value for value.

Hiring someone to mow the lawn does not make me a capitalist nor a member of the class of employers. This hiring process becomes a class relation in the first instance because the process involves a movement that involves a drive to increase more value through control over produced commodities which are then used to exploit workers further (see The Money Circuit of Capital).

By referring to the monopoly over “natural resources,” rather than over produced commodities by the workers themselves, Professor Noonan can then ignore the specificity of the nature of capital(ism). His own brand of social reformism can then be snuck in. He writes:

… but when we paint the problems of the world in ideological terms of “capitalism” versus “socialism” we get stuck immediately in an absolute opposition between political camps. Instead of arguing with opponents we shout at them. The other side does not listen but shouts back before both sides get tired and revert to preaching to the converted.

Getting underneath the political labels will probably not solve that problem. However, it does remove one rhetorical barrier to argument. If we can stop thinking in simplistic terms: capitalism=bad and socialism=good, then we can confront one another on the terrain that really matters: life-requirements and how best to distribute them.

The implication is that we should drop the opposition between capitalism and socialism–and focus on the issue of “life requirements and how best to distribute them.” Since “life requirements” applies to all societies (all human societies involve necessary conditions for human life to continue)–the specific nature of capitalism is lost.

It is not just a question of how “best to distribute life requirements.”–but of the form or structure or arrangement of the process that is involved in maintaining human life in a capitalist society. The very form, structure or organization of capitalist society is such that what is produced is used against workers–as a weapon against them to obtain surplus value in the private sector and to oppress workers in both the private and public sectors. Life requirements, being produced by workers, are used against workers in a capitalist society.

The concept “best distribution of them” sounds very similar to the social democrats Dhunna’s and Bush’s assumption of focusing on distribution of already produced commodities rather than the process through which they are produced in the first place (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). Is there really any wonder that Professor Noonan then opposes movements that pose the problems that we face in terms of capitalism versus socialism. To be sure, I have already noted the illegitimacy of treating capitalism as a catch-all phrase of capitalism this and capitlaism that among social democrats (see Socialism and Central Planning: Mr. Gindin’s Analysis of The Political Situation of Workers in General, Part Two), but if we are going to aim for a society without classes, then aiming to create a society without classes requires the elimination of social relations, social structures and political relations that support the specific nature of the kind of society in which we live and suffer, with systemic exploitation and oppression.

Marx would therefore disagree with Professor Noonan’s specification of the problem; it is not just “control over natural resources” that needs to be discussed and critiqued, but the separation, alienation and domination of workers’ own labour and life through its own labour and products. From Volume 28, pages 390-391:

The recognition of the products as its own, and its awareness that its separation from the conditions of its realisation is improper and imposed by force, is an enormous consciousness, and is itself the product of the mode of production based on capital, and just as much the KNELL TO ITS DOOM as the consciousness of the slave that he cannot be the property of another, his consciousness of being a person, reduced slavery to an artificial lingering existence, and made it impossible for it to continue to provide the basis of production.

By ignoring the specificity of capitalist relations, Professor Noonan then simplistically argues that merely referring to “life’s requirements” and “how best to distribute to them” form a necessary and sufficient condition for the realisation of a society in which there are no classes and no exploitation and oppression. He then claims that, by focusing on “life-requirements and how best to distribute them,”

individuals are freed to live the lives the want to live.

This is wishful thinking. Rather than engage in wishful thinking, Professor Noonan would do better to engage in a systematic critique of social democrats and their philosophies–for the domination of social democrats among “the left” is itself a problem.

Professor Noonan recognizes that it is a problem–but he does not address how to solve the problem:

Progressive taxation, the Green New Deal, reparations, public health care, and GBIs [guaranteed basic incomes] can be institutionalised in ways that do not fundamentally transform the structure of ownership and control over life-resources. They can all be sold as in effect ways to bolster consumer demand by putting more money in the pockets of ordinary Americans. If the ruling class is assured that it will get its money back in the end, they can be convinced to go along with the reforms (as they were, despite vociferous opposition, in the 1930’s by the original New Deal). In Canada and the United Kingdom, social democratic parties came up with the ideas for programs like public health insurance, but it was generally ruling class parties that implemented them.

Professor Noonan offers no solution to the problem of cooptation of the labour movement and social movements. Indeed, he naively assume that by referring to life’s needs that we will be able to advance by debating the issues–rather than seeing that it is necessary to engage in struggle and critique to debate relevant issues in the first place. He writes:

While the media (mostly the right-wing media) wastes time hyperventilating about small groups of naive Antifa agitators (it would not surprise me if their ranks were thoroughly infiltrated by the cops they want to abolish) much more important debates about serious institutional changes are underway in the United States. These debates will not get anywhere without patient, organized mass mobilisation and political argument. Some of these debates are about public institutions that have long been parts of countries with effective social democratic parties (public health care, for example). Some are specific to the history of the United States (the debate around reparations for slavery). Along with ambitious plans like the Green New Deal, discussions about a renewed commitment to progressive taxation, and perhaps even Guaranteed Basic Income projects, these debates move public scrutiny beneath the level of slogans and stories to what really counts: an understanding of who controls what and why.

Firstly, Professor Noonan should practice what he preaches. I tried to engage in debate with him some time ago (see The Poverty of Academic Leftism, Part One)–to no avail. Secondly, he does not address how social democrats not only resist any discussion of relevant issues but go out of their way to ridicule those who attempt to engage in such discussion (see for example Do Collective Agreements Convert Working for an Employer into Decent Work?).

It would seem that Professor Noonan and I do, however, agree on the following: he implies that we should aim for a kind of society in which collective control over our conditions of life are to achieved:

The ruling class is good at playing the long game, and so must the Left be. It has to think of public institutions not in terms of income support that bolsters consumer demand for the sake of revitalising capitalism, but as first steps towards socialising ownership and control over the means of life.

However, the real Professor Noonan shows the true implications of his emphasis on the “control of life resources”–and his lack of understanding of the nature of capitalism–in a more recent post on the subject of collective bargaining. Compare the quote immediately above with the following (from the post titled “Social Democracy Meets Capitalist Reality” (https://www.jeffnoonan.org/?p=5008): 

Political persistence eventually changed the law, unions were formed, and over the next century succeeded not only in raising real wages (a feat that most classical political economists regarded as structurally impossible) but also helped democratize the work place, by giving the collective of workers some say in the organization of production (via collective bargaining).

Unions have certainly benefited workers in the short-term, but Professor Noonan simply ignores how unions often now function to justify the continued oppression and exploitation of workers (see for example  Fair Contracts (or Fair Collective Agreements): The Ideological Rhetoric of Canadian Unions, Part One  or Fair Contracts or Collective Agreements: The Ideological Rhetoric of Canadian Unions, Part Three: Unifor (Largest Private Union in Canada)). 

As for the claim that collective bargaining “democratizes the work place,” Professor Noonan undoubtedly works in privileged conditions relative to other workers and generalizes from his much superior control over his working conditions compared to most other workers (even when unionized). As I wrote in another post (What’s Left, Toronto? Part Five): 

Collective agreements, however, as this blog constantly stresses, are holding agreements that continue to express exploitation and oppression. A few privileged sets of workers (such as tenured university professors) may seem to have decent jobs, but even that situation has eroded over time. Furthermore, it should not be forgotten that such relatively privileged workers exist in a sea of workers, whether unionized or not, who are things to be used by employers systematically and legally. University professors cannot engage in research, teaching and administrative activities unless there are other workers who produce their food, clothing, cars and so forth.

This division of labour is implied in a poem by one of the most famous poets of Gutemala, Otto Rene Castillo (from   Apolitical Intellectuals):

Apolitical Intellectuals

One day
the apolitical
intellectuals
of my country
will be interrogated
by the simplest
of our people.

They will be asked
what they did
when their nation died out
slowly,
like a sweet fire
small and alone.

No one will ask them
about their dress,
their long siestas
after lunch,
no one will want to know
about their sterile combats
with “the idea
of the nothing”
no one will care about
their higher financial learning.

They won’t be questioned
on Greek mythology,
or regarding their self-disgust
when someone within them
begins to die
the coward’s death.

They’ll be asked nothing
about their absurd
justifications,
born in the shadow
of the total lie.

On that day
the simple men will come.

Those who had no place
in the books and poems
of the apolitical intellectuals,
but daily delivered
their bread and milk,
their tortillas and eggs,
those who drove their cars,
who cared for their dogs and gardens
and worked for them,
and they’ll ask:

“What did you do when the poor
suffered, when tenderness
and life
burned out of them?”

Apolitical intellectuals
of my sweet country,
you will not be able to answer.

A vulture of silence
will eat your gut.

Your own misery
will pick at your soul.

And you will be mute in your shame.

Collective agreements do not exist in a vacuum but form part of interrelated social relations; to exclude such relations when considering the nature and legitimacy of collective agreements is to empty collective agreements of the background conditions which give them meaning in the first place.

Collective agreements by no means help to “democratize the work place.” They certainly are not “first steps towards socialising ownership and control over the means of life.”  Professor Noonan seems to be aware of this and yet idealizes collective agreements by claiming that they somehow “democratize the work place.” If however capitalist society is characterized by the use of commodities produced by workers to oppress and exploit them, then collective agreements (except for a small minority of workers–such as tenured professors) merely limit the power of employers to oppress and exploit workers–but do not by any means form even the first step in the democratization of the work place. 

What are these “first steps towards socialising ownership and control over the means of life?” Professor Noonan fails to specify what they are. Why is that? 

I will leave Professor Noonan with his “democratized work place.” Undoubtedly he enjoys a fair amount of control over his work; he is a tenured professor at the University of Windsor. What of the support workers at the University of Windsor? Do they?  

How to Aim for Socialism Without Aiming for It, or The Nature of the Social-Democratic or Social-Reformist Left

The above title is a take on a scene in the movie Enter the Dragon, where Bruce Lee says: “My style is the art of fighting without fighting.” See the end of this post for a description. 

This is a more colloquial or informal way of expressing my point about the need to include the goal or the aim in present actions if we are going to go beyond a society characterized by a class of employers (capitalism) and live a socialist life (see Reform Versus Abolition of Police, Part Three). It does so by briefly looking at what I mean and then looking at a concrete example of this by a self-declared socialist feminist, Sue Ferguson (or what she calls a social-reproduction feminist).

To start with a conclusion: aiming for a socialist society is just that–incorporating the goal, consciously, of overcoming the class power of employers, including the economic, political and social relations and structures connected to that power and the creation of a society free of class relations and relations of oppression.

Social democrats and reformers (including self-proclaimed Marxists who practically do the same thing), on the other hand, believe (even if they are not conscious of this belief) that it is possible to achieve a socialist society without aiming for it.

The movie Rocky III illustrates what I mean. Rocky Balboa (played by Sylvester Stallone), who had lost his title of world heavyweight champion to James “Clubber” Lang (played by Mr. T), was being trained by former heavy-weight boxing champion Apollo Creed (played by Carl Weathers, who won the first match against Balboa in the first movie and lost in the second movie). (There are undoubtedly racist overtones in the movie–see  Siobhan Carter’s  master’s thesis  Projecting a White Savior, the Body, and Policy).

At one point in his training, Rocky said that he would train later. Apollo answers: “There is no tomorrow.” The basis idea is that if you want to accomplish anything in life, you had better not procrastinate–putting off tomorrow what needs to be done today. Social democrats (and the radical left here in Toronto) act like Rocky Balboa did before Apollo Creed criticized him–they believe that socialism can arise in some distant future without explicitly incorporating the aim in the present, just as Balboa believed that he could regain the heavyweight title without incorporating that goal into his present actions. In other words, he believed that he could engage in procrastination.

The social-democratic or reformist left do the same thing. They shift the fight for socialism to some distant future and content themselves with fighting for reforms that fail to challenge the class structure. Their socialism is always pushed into the future as an ought that never meets the present conditions and circumstances; future and present (and past conditions) are severed. 

They may indeed achieve social reforms–as they have in the past, but the claim that they are aiming for socialism is untrue–as was Rocky Balboa’s efforts at training to regain the heavyweight championship of the world until Apollo Creed criticized him.

The social-democratic left (and, practically, much of the radical left here in Toronto and undoubtedly elsewhere) consider that it is impossible to aim for socialism by incorporating it into our daily lives. They believe in magic; an aim can be realized without the aim organizing our activities in the present. 

John Dewey, one of the greatest philosophers of education, saw the distinction clearly in relation to schools. Most of those reading this post merely have to reflect on their own experiences in schools and how schools have often severed their interest in the present and forced an external future upon them. As Dewey noted, in chapter five of one of his two major works in the philosophy of education, Democracy and Education (2004), pages 58-59):

Chapter 5

Preparation, Unfolding, and Formal Discipline

Education as Preparation

We have laid it down that the educative process is a continuous process of growth, having as its aim at every stage an added capacity of growth. This conception contrasts sharply with other ideas which have influenced practice. By making the contrast explicit, the meaning of the conception will be brought more clearly to light. The first contrast is with the idea that education is a process of preparation or getting ready. What is to be prepared for is, of course, the responsibilities and privileges of adult life. Children are not regarded as social members in full and regular standing. They are looked upon as candidates; they are placed on the waiting list. The conception is only carried a little farther when the life of adults is considered as not having meaning on its own account, but as a preparatory probation for “another life”. The idea is but another form of the notion of the negative and privative character of growth already criticized; hence we shall not repeat the criticisms, but pass on to the evil consequences which flow from putting education on this basis.

In the first place, it involves loss of impetus. Motive power is not utilized. Children proverbially live in the present; that is not only a fact not to be evaded, but it is an excellence. The future just as future lacks urgency and body. To get ready for something, one knows not what nor why, is to throw away the leverage that exists, and to seek for motive power in a vague chance. Under such circumstances, there is, in the second place, a premium put on shilly-shallying and procrastination. The future prepared for is a long way off; plenty of time will intervene before it becomes a present. Why be in a hurry about getting ready for it?

We have already seen this severance of the future struggle for socialism and the present struggle for socialism by Herman Rosenfeld, a self-styled Marxist who refers vaguely to socialism a hundred years from now (see Reform Versus Abolition of Police, Part Three and, more generally, Reform Versus Abolition of the Police, Part Five: More Philosophical Considerations). The focus on reforms above all else and the denigration of the need for incorporating an explicit aim in the present of abolishing the class of employers and the associated economic, political and social relations will at best lead to capitalism with a human face–and not its abolition. 

There are two typical tendencies that express this attitude of severing the present from the future and the future from the present. Treating reforms as if they were, in themselves, somehow leading to a socialist society is a typical trick among the left; they treat the future (socialist society) as already present rather than the present being in need of radical reconstruction. The second tendency denigrates the need for aiming explicitly or consciously at radical transformation of class, economic, political and social structure in the present (which in effect is a revolution–although I believe that politically it is a waste of time to call for revolution–as the sectarian radical left frequently do

The treatment of the present as if it were already the future via current experiences and reforms is reflected by Sue Ferguson, a self-proclaimed socialist, who claims the following  (Women and Work: An Interview with Sue Ferguson):

As I argue in Women and Work, social reproduction feminism provides a strategic focus and direction that avoids the contradictions of equality feminism. Because, in this view, oppression is built into the very ways we reproduce ourselves, overcoming oppression requires reorganizing the processes and institutions of life-making. This cannot happen in boardrooms or by electing more women into state office. It can happen only when people are encouraged to mobilize with others to resist the priorities of the current social reproduction regime, and learn together how to reorganize and take collective, responsible control of the resources of life-making. And in a small way, this is what education worker strikes do: they assert the need for and possibility of expanding and democratizing our life-making powers and resources, of deploying them in ways that prioritize meeting human needs [my emphasis]. 

Do “education worker strikes” really “assert the need for and possibility of expanding and democratizing our life-making powers and resources, of deploying them in ways that prioritize meeting human needs?” Perhaps they do–“in a small way”–but that is not the same as aiming for “expanding and democratizing our life-making powers and resources” at more than a local level. That teachers who go out on strike may well aim to improve their working lives and the lives of their students is not in question. The issue is whether the aim of such actions is of the same nature as aiming for a socialist society. I deny that such is the case in most cases since there is no explicit aim to overcome a society characterized by the class of employers; improvements in working lives and lives of children does not necessarily involve aiming for a socialist society.

By claiming “in a small way,” that education workers somehow, is the same as the “democratizing our life-making powers and resources” is a social-democratic trick. It equates reformist changes at the local level with radical changes in  social structures and relations.

This social-democratic trick is reiterated in her book (she goes by Susan in the book), Women and Work: Feminism, Labour, and Social Reproduction, pages 135-136:

That is, strikes do not have to be exercises in revolutionary commons to model alternative ways of organizing life-making. The potential to unleash creative energies and ideas about how to build a better world and engender social bonds to counter the alienation and isolation of capitalist subjectivity is inherent in the very act of organizing with others to improve control over the conditions of work and life. Perhaps the most vivid recent example of this come from the 2018 wave of education worker strikes to hit the United States. Eric Blanc’s interviews with more than a hundred people involved in the West Virginia, Arizona, and Oklahoma strike movements lead him to conclude that strikers were “profoundly transformed” [my emphasis] by their participation. They connected in new ways with co-workers they had barely known and had little in common with culturally and ideologically; they strategized, waved placards, shared meals, chanted, sang, and camped out on the state legislative grounds together; they jointly endured moments of disappointment, debate and defeat, and even bigger moments of celebration. And they connected in new ways with the communities they worked in as passersby honked and waved in support, as strangers identifying them by their distinctive red T-shirts approached them in grocery stores to thank them for their job action, and as students and parents stood on their lines and rallied in support. In the words of Arizona teacher Noah Karvelis, interviewed by Blanc:

Since the strike, there’s a definite sense of solidarity that wasn’t there before. When you go into school and see all of your coworkers in red, it’s like they’re saying, “I’m with you, I got you.” It’s hard to even sum up that feeling. You used to go in to school, do your thing, and go home. Now if there’s a struggle, we go do something about it because we’re in it together. It’s not just that there are a lot more personal friendships—we saw that we had power.

Such solidarity did not magically appear. It had to be built. The strikers were divided by all the usual social cleavages. Not all teachers were in the union and most were white. They differed in political allegiance, religious affiliation, and income (in West Virginia bus drivers, cafeteria cooks, custodians, and other support staff walked out as well). Moreover, as social reproductive workers in the public sector, the walkout risked creating a wedge between themselves and the community they served. Rather than deny these divisions, organizers and strikers consciously addressed them—figuring out imaginative ways of addressing needs and drawing people in: bilingual signs and chants, GoFundMe sites to help lower-income strikers make ends meet, soliciting food donations, and delivering care packages for families who otherwise rely on school lunches. As Kate Doyle Griffiths observes, strikers temporarily and partially reorganized the relations of social reproductive labour “on the basis of workers control for the benefit of the wider working class” while also fostering solidarity with community members. And although strikers did not generally politicize around racial issues, Blanc notes, they were self-consciously inclusive and won the support of the majority black and brown student base and their families through their calls for increased school funding and (in Arizona) opposition to cuts to Medicaid and services for those with disabilities.37 These are not-so-small and incredibly important examples of how strikers organize new ways of life-making, ways that defy the alienating, individualizing experiences of everyday life under capitalism.

Of course, such struggles and organizing should be supported, and they do indeed form a possible bridge between the conscious aim of struggling in the present for a socialist society and the creation of such a future society. However, let us not idealize them. They are not necessarily expressions of a conscious aim to overcome the class power of employers. As I have shown elsewhere (see for example The West-Virginia Teachers’ Strike and a Socialist Movement  and   Review of Jane McAlevey’s “A Collective Bargain: Unions, Organizing, and the Fight for Democracy”: Two Steps Backward and One Step Forward, Part One), such movements do not necessarily involve such an aim. By equating such struggles with the conscious aim to overcome such class power, social democrats in effect claim that we should not struggle to aim for such a goal in the present by, among other things, criticizing the limitations of the aims of such strikes and movements.

To not question whether there has indeed been “profound transformations” is to be blind to the force of habit in working-class and community behaviour. Not just decades but centuries of indoctrination, of exploitation, subordination and oppression are not going to magically be transformed through such efforts. To overcome such situations will take years if not decades of internal struggle in order for a conscious movement aiming to overcome the class power of employers to arise in the present and not vanish because of superficial adherence to “social justice” and similar general terms. The present leftist movement must aim for a socialist society in diverse domains and integrate such domains in as coherent a fashion as possible.

The other tendency of splitting the present from the future and the future from the present by denigrating the need for radical transformation of economic, political and social structures. frequently by casting the term “revolution” in a purely negative light. As I noted above, I do agree that using the term “revolution” is a waste of time politically; workers and community members will likely look upon such talk as akin to religion. Nonetheless, their attitude of avoiding the term “revolution” often leads to reformism by being unable to offer anything other than reform and more reform–as if many reforms will not be absorbed by the capitalist economic, political and social structure. The class power of employers and the capitalist state have many resources to engage in reformist politics if there is sufficient organization and power to threaten the power of the class of employers.

I have referred to Jeffrey Noonan’s opposition to “revolution”–but he has little to offer but more reforms within the present class structure (see The Poverty of Academic Leftism, Part Four: The Myth of Creating Socialist Spaces). Another example is the article written by Richard Sandbrook and posted on the Toronto-based Socialist Project website (Racism, Class Solidarity and Systemic Change). Here is what he claims:

Non-Reformist Reformism

But what strategy would horizontal unity serve? Any viable strategy would be gradualist. Compromises would need to be made to build a majority coalition in a (quasi)democratic process. But gradualism does not signify mere reformism or cosmetic changes. The widespread disaffection and the challenge posed by invigorated populist-nativists demand genuine structural changes. Policies to de-commodify labour, money, health care, knowledge, and education; to democratize the economy by promoting cooperative production; and to deepen political democracy must be pressed at the local, national and, eventually, global level. But there would not be a “big bang”, in which society is irrevocably transformed; instead, we would have non-reformist reformism.

The problem with the above view is that Mr. Sandbrook does not discuss how such reformism in the present can be prevented from leading–as it so often has in the past–to incorporation into the class structure and to the continued control of our lives by a class of employers. I seriously now question the real intent of those who claim that they aim for a socialist society and yet not only accept compromises that need to be accepted because of the present limited power but freeze such compromises into an ideology of the left (such as the terms “fair contract,” “fair or free collective bargaining,” “fair wages,” “decent work,” or the pairing of the term “Fairness” with the movement for the fight of a minimum wage of $15.

Mr. Sandbrook appears to see the need for avoiding both reformism characteristic of the social-democratic left and the sectarianism of the radical left:

If this is the only viable and morally justifiable path, the progressive movements would need to steer clear of two pitfalls that have ensnared earlier experiments: Third-Wayism and revolutionism. The first represents compromise to the point of co-optation, leading to renewed hegemony; the second, an unwillingness to compromise in order to preserve the ideal, leading to irrelevance.

Avoiding Two Pitfalls

The Third Way, as it developed in the early 1990s, reflected the attitude “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” …

The lesson is clear. Reformism that, in the longer term, reinforces the hegemony of neoliberalism and plutocracy is self-defeating. When times get hard, voters dessert “socialist” parties that lack an alternative vision.

The opposite pitfall is a purist approach that, positing a narrow choice between capitalism and socialism (or “barbarism or socialism”), refuses to compromise with the former. In the academy, this approach is often associated with a scholasticism that is strong on abstract theorization but weak in developing concepts with any popular appeal. The purists are also prone to an irritating smugness, as though moral superiority is more important than winning power.

Starkly casting the alternatives as binary is problematical for two reasons. It strikes many people as unrealistic. How, for example, do we totally transform society and economy to replace markets with participatory planning at all levels? And secondly, it essentializes capitalism. The latter comes in a myriad of forms. If its essence is private ownership and free labour, there are many degrees.

Capitalisms are not all the same. The Anglo-American model differs from the Scandinavian model, which differs from Chinese authoritarian state capitalism. The Keynesian accord introduced what many have called the golden age of capitalism, which neoliberalism ended. A gradualist program of decommodification, democratization, and equal freedom is a voyage that begins within capitalism; however, we may not even be aware of the precise point at which we traverse the boundary.

There are indeed variations in the kind of capitalism, and some forms are definitely preferable to other forms. This hardly addresses the issue of how any “gradualist” approach is going to maintain the aim of eliminating the general class power of employers over our lives in the present without being co-opted. (The Scandinavian model is, in any case, itself in retreat because of general changes in capitalist class structures and the idealization of such models in the past and present). Mr. Sandbrook does not address what workers and community members who live in any form of capitalism (as depicted in The Money Circuit of Capital, for example), are supposed to do to overcome the general nature of capital. Or is the general nature of capital somehow just or fair?

Decommodification, for example. of health services, does not mean that those who fight for such decommodication or those who implement it or those who use such decommodified services aim to achieve a socialist society. (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). Decommodification or the conversion from gaining access to commodities (including services) by means of purchase and sale to direct access or use without the mediation of purchase and sale may or may not express the aim of achieving a socialist society.

My experiences in Toronto and elsewhere is that we need to aim consciously and persistently in the present for radical changes in various domains (with the focus on the work relations dominated by a class of employers). We indeed will have to make compromises because we lack the necessary power to do otherwise–but that also should form part of our own consciousness–and not the acceptance of such compromises through such social-democratic phrases as “decent work” or “fair contracts.” To achieve such deep-seated consciousness and aim will require years if not decades of internal struggle within working-class communities and workplaces.

We need to use the aim for a future socialist society in the present to realize such a future society while all the time modifying specific goals within that general aim based on current conditions and circumstances.

As I indicated at the beginning, the title of this post is a take on a statement made by Bruce Lee in the movie Enter the Dragon. The following is a description of the scene by Brian Freer: 

There is a scene in the 1973 kung fu classic “Enter the Dragon” where a man (Peter Archer, who plays Parsons] walks around a boat bullying passengers. When the man accosts Bruce Lee by throwing air strikes near his face, Lee unflinchingly looks at him and replies, “don’t waste yourself.”

“What’s your style?” the bullying man asks.

“The art of fighting without fighting,” says Lee.

“Show me some of it.”

Lee tries to walk off, but the bullying man insists he show him what the “art of fighting without fighting” looks like. Since the boat was crowded, Lee suggests that they take a dingy to a nearby beach for more space. As the bully boards the dingy, Lee releases slack from the rope, watching the dingy with the bully inside drift away. Lee then releases the rope to the bully’s onetime victims who laugh heartily as the dingy takes on water from the crashing waves.

Although this isn’t the most exhilarating fight scene in “Enter the Dragon,” it is clearly the most complete victory in the film. Lee uses wit to overcome his opponent without ever raising his fists. He is without fear and clear of mind. The bullying man wanted to fight so badly that he was willing to ride a dingy to a remote island to do so.

Freer then philosophizes: 

There are many reasons to fight. It’s deep within our nature. And yes, sometimes we have no choice. Ideologues tell us the world is a scary place. They attempt to influence our interpretation of the world to reinforce our fears. And fear is the real bully in the boat. You see, Bruce Lee’s character mastered his fear. He liberated his mind from it. Fear is a tarp that covers our understanding. It stifles our self-control. You have to look it right in the eye, because when you must finally resort to violence, you’ve clearly run out of ideas.

I take something different from the scene. Firstly, Lee did not directly engage in a fight with the bully at the time, but enabled those who were bullied to hold the power to let go of the rope attached to the dinghy. 

Freer fails to ask, however, the following obvious question: What happened to Lee and the bully once they landed? Would not the bully try to fight Lee? The art of fighting without fighting might have been a short-term tactic, but the goal of avoiding a fight might not have been achieved. The fight might have occurred on the island where they landed. The aim of avoiding a fight was put off to a not-so-distant future. The aim was perhaps to, avoid a fight under existing conditions of riding the boat.

Freer simply ignores this aspect. Lee would undoubtedly have known that there would exist the possibility of a fight in the near-future. Or perhaps Lee would  hope that, having arrived on the island, the rules of the tournament would convince Parsons to not engage in a fight?  We could speculate forever, of course.

In the case of the social-democratic left, the art of aiming for socialism without aiming for it, ignore the need to aim explicitly for a socialist society–a society without classes. The social-democratic or social-reformist left do not aim to achieve a classless society but rather a humanized capitalist society. Their view, explicitly or explicitly, is that aiming for such a society is idealist or utopian at present (and will, practically, forever, be the case). 

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

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

Professor Noonan makes the following claim:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I think we need to forget about revolution/reform as a fundamental and meaningful political difference today and start to think about working out a common agenda of structural change that can take us from where we are to a democratic life-economy (where we need to be) The social-reformist left has problems, but the ‘revolutionary’ left suffers from the problem of not existing as in any sense a meaningful political force, and has no model (save archaic Leninist ideas) about how to build. If nineteenth and early twentieth century ideas about revolution were going to work they would have worked 100 years ago. Historical materialism requires new political thinking in new times. The organizational forms that will attract and unify people have yet to be found. Most times I worry they never will be.

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

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

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

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

Professor Noonan makes the further following claim:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

… He [Mr. Potter] then continues:

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

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

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

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

Indeed, Professor Noonan implies as much when he writes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Professor Noonan’s reference to using

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

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

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

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

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

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

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