What’s Left, Toronto? Part Four

As I indicated in an earlier post, on September 19, 2018, several leftist activists gave a talk about what was to be done in the city of Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The talks were posted on the Socialist Project website on October 7, 2018 (also posted on YouTube) (What’s Left, Toronto? Radical Alternatives for the City Election). As I indicated in my earlier post, over the next few months, I will be analyzing some or all of the talks from a Marxian perspective.

Taraneh Zarin is a graduate student at the University of Toronto and active in the Free Transit Toronto movement. She spoke about the primary aim of that movement as the abolition of fares for public transit. The abolition of fares would permit the racialized poor the same access to mobility as those wealthier inhabitants of Toronto. Ms. Zarin argues that this is unfair.

It would also limit climate change by reducing the carbon imprint and would reduce the experience of gridlock which characterizes Toronto (like many other capitalist cities). It would, on th one hand, eliminate the need for transit fare officers, who often harass the poor by obliging them to show proof of payment (and, if found guilty, are fined $200); on the other, it would eliminate the need for expensive fare systems (such as the recent switch to the Presto card system, which has now cost $1 billion).

If free public transit were available, there would undoubtedly be a surge in ridership. Indeed, Mayor John Tory’s decision to eliminate fares for children under 12 years old led to the doubling of ridership, from 11 million to 22 million in 2016. Hence, if free public transit were available to all, we could expect an even larger increase in ridership. Hence, it would be necessary to expand public transit infrastructure.

Ms. Zarin justifies her call for free public transit because it is unfair for some with more money to have greater power to be mobile than others.

What must be asked is: How is the call for free public transit a reform that may lead to challenging the class power of employers? The answer is: It is unlikely to lead to a challenge to the class power of employers by itself. It is a reform that is consistent with the power of employers (although the extent to which it is consistent is probably dependent on the specific circumstances of each city/region/country).

For example, as Ms. Zarin points out, free public transit exists in Tallinn, Estonia and that it is being extended to the whole country. This move has certainly not challenged the power of employers in Estonia. One analysis of Estonia characterizes it thus (M. Feldman(2017). Crisis and opportunity: varieties of capitalism and
varieties of crisis responses in Estonia and Slovenia. European Journal of
Industrial Relations, 23(1), page 7):

Estonia has been characterised as a liberal market economy with decentralized market institutions (Feldmann, 2013b) and a very limited role for social dialogue or wage bargaining (which tends to occur mostly at the firm level). Estonia has also consistently had one of the most open economies, and its state has been described as pursuing a neoliberal version of capitalism with a small welfare state (Bohle and Greskovits, 2012).

In relation to industrial relations and the market for workers, the same author comments (page 8):

Estonia has decentralised industrial relations, incl. the lowest unionisation rate amongst the new member states and relatively low collective bargaining coverage. As in most of Central and Eastern Europe, the company level is the primary bargaining level in Estonia, with the transport and energy sectors being the most successful examples of social dialogue and collective agreements at the sectoral level (Espenberg and Vahaste, 2012: 32-3). In addition, there have also been a few social pacts at the national level, usually when the Social Democrats (until 2004 known as the Moderates) have been part of the government (Vare and Taliga, 2002).

As can be seen, free public transit as a policy need not conflict with the class power of employers.

One of the reasons why Estonia has been able to implement free public transit is the heavy subsidies that this sector already received before the implementation of the policy–something which Ms. Zarin fails to mention (from Estonia Will Roll Out Free Public Transit Nationwide):

Why is Estonia going so big on free transit now? At its root, this is a form of fiscal redistribution.

That’s because Estonia’s public transit already gets extremely generous subsidies. The state-owned railway operator Elron, for example, will get a €31 million boost from taxpayers next year. The rural bus routes due to go free, meanwhile, are already subsidized to up to 80 percent of cost as it is. Making them entirely fare-less should only cost around €12.9 million ($15.2 million) more—not a vast amount for even a small country such as Estonia.

Getting rid of ticket sales and inspections, meanwhile, will eliminate some overhead—and also cut down on delays. I couldn’t turn up any figures on the actual cost of charging for Estonian bus travel, but on larger, more complex networks such as New York’s MTA, it can reach 6 percent of all budget. When only 20 percent of the bus network’s costs are being recouped from fares, it’s easy to see how maintaining a ticket sale and inspection system can come to seem like a burden worth shedding.

As Ms. Zarin admits, the largest part of the operating budget for the TTC comes from fares, so the implementation of free public transit in Toronto would likely encounter much more resistance from the municipal and provincial governments. This implies that such a reform has more potential for challenging the power of employers than is the case in Tallinn, but in itself it is unlikely to constitute a major challenge since other cities and capitalist countries besides Tallinn and Estonia are either contemplating implementing free public transit or have already done so.

Dunkirk, France (population around 200,000), introduced free public transit, several cities throughout the world have also done so, and some European cities are contemplating it (from ‘I leave the car at home’: how free buses are revolutionising one French city):

Free urban transport is spreading. In his research Wojciech Keblowski, an expert on urban research at Brussels Free University, says that in 2017 there were 99 fare-free public transport networks around the world: 57 in Europe, 27 in North America, 11 in South America, 3 in China and one in Australia. Many are smaller than Dunkirk and offer free transit limited to certain times, routes and people.

In February this year, Germany announced it was planning to trial free public transport in five cities – including the former capital Bonn and industrial cities Essen and Mannheim. In June this was downgraded to a slashing of public transport fares to persuade people to ditch cars.

The largest in the world is in Changning , in China’s Hunan province, where free transit has been in operation since 2008. Passenger numbers reportedly jumped by 60% on the day it was introduced.

A study into free public transport by online journal Metropolitics found an increase in mobility among older and younger people, and an increased sense of freedom

It cannot be said, then, that this proposal of free public transit is radical since it does not generally question the power of employers as a class.

Should such a policy be supported by the radical left? Yes–but with the necessary condition that any attempt to claim that this is somehow radical or revolutionary should be criticized. Life may be enhanced through free public transit immediately for the poorer sections of the working class and, in the medium to long term, environmental conditions may improve.

A further aspect should be considered–about which Ms. Zarin was silent. What about the Estonian bus drivers? Even with free public transit, bus drivers are still used as means–as things–to ends over which they have very limited say (for a general view, see in general The Money Circuit of Capital). Furthermore, strikes have occurred in Estonia by bus drivers due to relatively low wages when compared to workers in Helsinki) (see Bus drivers to hold warning strike in 3 Estonian regions  and Helsinki and Tallinn compete over bus drivers). Ms. Zarin completely neglects to look at working conditions in Estonia in general and the working conditions of bus drivers in Estonia in particular.

Should the reformist left present this policy as somehow “fair” or “just,” then it should be criticized. Just as free public healthcare can make life more livable for the working class (as it does in Canada), so too can free public transit. That would not change the general tenor of life in Canada–unless a movement towards free public transit were linked to a movement towards challenging the power of employers as a class.

So far in this series, there has really been no discussion of radical politics. Up to now, all discussion and proposals fail to challenge the power of employers as a class–a typical social-reformist left tactic of presenting what is not in fact radical as something essentially radical.









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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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