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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

which is will be criticized in a further post

but of course  there is an opportunity for

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.”

His theory of the state (some may find this term confusing. You might prefer to substitute “government” for it in order to make more sense of the following) is contradictory when we compare the above with some of his former writings.

Above, Professor Noonan presents the state as neutral and somehow independent of

 

 

without Professor Noonan simply ignores  for example, in Canada, providing $2000 a month for four months via the

 

Garo, page 231:

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.

 

 

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

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

He says the following:

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

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

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

He further writes:

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

Professor Noonan then dismisses both possibilities:

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

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

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

He says:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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