Academic Narrow-mindedness: A Reason for Starting a Blog, Part Three

This is a continuation of a previous post.

Before I started this blog, I had sent an article critical of the implied concept of “free collective bargaining.” The article was rejected for publication. Given that the reasons for rejecting the article seemed absurd, I decided to skip the academic process and post directly my views. This seemed all the more necessary since the journal that rejected my article is called Critical Education.

Since I believe in the politics of exposure (exposing the real nature of social processes and not the rhetoric of such processes), I thought it would be appropriate to post my proposed article, the criticisms of my article by the reviewers and my commentary on their criticisms.

The proposed article is found in the Publications and Writings link on my blog, entitled “Critique of Collective Bargaining Models in Canada.” (There is a slight difference between the article submitted to Critical Education and the one found at the link: the article submitted to Critical Education contains an abstract, which I include below, and the title of the proposed article was changed to: “A Critique of an Implicit Model of Collective Bargaining: The Nova Scotia Teachers’ Strike and a Fair Contract.”

Abstract

This paper looks at Brian Forbes’ presentation of the recent Nova Scotia teachers’ strike in order to analyze critically the nature of collective bargaining in a capitalist context. Forbes shows the underhanded nature of the McNeil government’s supposed negotiations, but he implies (like many trade unionists) that collective bargaining, in its normal form, results in a fair contract. The paper argues against this view. It does so in two ways. Firstly, it looks at Jane McAlevey’s alternative method of collective bargaining. Secondly, it looks at the limitations of her method in terms of the capitalist economic structure—especially as am exploitative and oppressive structure that transforms workers into means for others’ ends. A humanist view, by contrast, requires that human beings need to be treated as ends in themselves in a democratic fashion at work. Such a view, however, is rarely discussed precisely because the rhetoric of a fair (collective) contract in the context of the collective power of employers prevents such discussion from occurring.

Key words: teachers, collective bargaining, capitalism, exploitation, oppression, strikes, justice, fairness, Nova Scotia, Jane McAlevey

The decision to reject the article, the short version of the third review (there is a long version of the third review, but I will not post that–it would be tedious to reply to all of reviewer C’s comments) as well as  my comments on the third review.

We have reached a decision regarding your submission to Critical Education,
“A Critique of an implicit model of collective bargaining: The Nova Scotia
teachers’ strike and a fair contract”.
Our decision is to: Decline submission.

Three external reviewers supplied reports (see below); I have also attached
the file with the marginal comments of Reviewer C.

All three reviewers see potential in the manuscript and each recommends
major revisions are necessary before the manuscript is ready for
publication. The comments are the reviewers are quite detailed, but in short
I believe it’s fair to say they all agreed that further theorizing and
deepened/more sustained analysis of events are necessary.

I hope you find the feedback from the readers helpful as continue to work on
this project.

Yours truly,

E Wayne Ross
Co-Editor, Critical Education
University of British Columbia
wayne.ross@ubc.ca

Reviewer C begins his comments as follows:

Reviewer C:

“Please see the uploaded document for my complete review of the manuscript. Review of manuscript: “A Critique of an Implicit Model of Collective Bargaining: The Nova Scotia Teachers’ Strike and a Fair Contract”

The manuscript has potential; however, it requires major rewriting. The present manuscript lacks a clear focus and coherence. The author implies that the focus of the paper is the Nova Scotia teachers’ strike and Brian Forbes’ perspective about collective bargaining in relation to that struggle. However, there is very little content in the article that addresses the NS teachers’ struggle, the collective bargaining process, or the ‘collective agreement’ that was the outcome.”

The academic did not even understand the point of the article. I hardly implied “that the focus of the paper is the Nova Scotia teachers’ strike and Brian Forbes’ perspective about collective bargaining in relation to that struggle.” The focus of the article is on Brian Forbes’ perspective on collective bargaining in general as illustrated by his implied view of the fairness of collective bargaining in the case of bargaining and the breach of that form of what he considers fair collective bargaining by the Nova Scotia government.

The Nova Scotia teachers’ strike was an occasion to critically analyze a general perspective on collective bargaining by a former head of the Nova Scotia teachers’ union. This perspective, in turn, is illustrative of many trade-union representatives in Canada, such as Tracy McMaster, president of Greater Toronto Area Council (GTAC), to which are affiliated 35 local unions of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU)), who referred to “decent work” and “fair wages” as something realizable in an employment relationship.

To be fair to the reviewer, in his long review, he does at one point correctly identify the point of my article: I wrote, on page 23:

Free collective bargaining cannot remedy the basic problem of treating human beings as means or things for others’ purposes

He wrote:

This seems to be the central thesis. Why not present this early as the focus the paper?

Part of what I was trying to do was indeed to show that collective bargaining and collective agreements cannot remedy this situation. However, since trade union representatives often claim that a contract is fair (even if they do not explicitly state it), my purpose was to criticize this implicit assumption. As I said near the beginning of the article:

The purpose of this article, though, is not to review the articles in the journal. Rather, it is to point out and criticize the hidden standard that is uncritically assumed by most of the authors of articles in the journal.

The reviewer fails to consider the need to criticize explicitly such hidden standards:

Indeed, only a paragraph is quoted in the words of Brian Forbes and the quote does not say what the author says it does. Forbes states that negotiating a contract with the full participation of the negotiating teams of both parties, instead of through backroom deals, would be an approach more likely to result in an agreement that both sides could live with. He was speaking about the process of collective bargaining, but the author claims that Forbes is referring to the outcomes of the process—the contents of the agreement. There is no evidence that this is the case.

This too is inaccurate. I explicitly state that the purpose of the article:

The purpose of this summary, however, is to provide the background for a critique of the implicit assumption by Forbes (and many of the other authors of the spring/summer edition) that the typical model of collective bargaining and the corresponding collective agreements constitute something that is fair or just to the members of the contract.

Process (collective bargaining) and product (the collective agreement) are both seen as limited, with the inadequacies of the process being reflected or expressed in the inadequacies of the product.

But let us look at my quote of Brian Forbes, or rather both what I wrote before the quote, the quote itself, and what I wrote immediately after the quote.

What I wrote before the quote:

The first question to ask is: Who is Brian Forbes? The brief biography at the end of the article provides a summary: “… a retired teacher. He taught for 30 years in Amherst and Yarmouth, Nova Scotia before serving as President of the Nova Scotia Teachers’ Union from 2000 to 2004” (2017, 29). The second question to ask is: What standard or criterion does he use to criticize what happened in Nova Scotia? A quote in the Herald News (Gorman, 27 November 2015) indicates what that standard is:

My quote of Brian Forbes’ statement:

What we suggest would be a reasonable way out is that the union … would say to the government, ‘There’s a lot of opposition to what has been presented to the members and very well may not pass and we should go back to the table, engage in proper collective bargaining, give the process time to work, discuss the issues that you said you want to discuss and try to arrive at something that we can both live with,’” said Forbes’.

What I wrote after the above quote:

The implication is that bargaining should occur through the bargaining teams ([quote of Brian Forbes’ statement] ‘engage in proper collective bargaining’). Further evidence of what Forbes believes is a legitimate or fair collective bargaining process is his statement in an information release from the South Shore District School Board, dated April 28 2003, when Forbes was president of the NSTU:

NSTU President Brian Forbes said, ‘The negotiations were conducted in a very professional manner, the resulting agreement was achieved in a timely fashion and teachers are satisfied with the results. I believe this agreement will not only benefit the South Shore District School Board and its teachers but, most importantly, the students.”

Indeed, the reviewer is correct to point out that Mr. Forbes is referring to the process of collective bargaining:

 Forbes states that negotiating a contract with the full participation of the negotiating teams of both parties, instead of through backroom deals, would be an approach more likely to result in an agreement that both sides could live with.

Forbes, unlike the reviewer, is not only referring to the process, but is implying that the process of collective bargaining in general leads to results that are fair. How else could “both sides live with it?” If one of the sides does not believe the agreement is fair, why would they comply with the provisions (except due to a consciousness of being forced to comply with the collective agreement)? Forbes , when he was president of the NSTU, links “the professional nature of the collective bargaining process” to the agreement being realized “in a timely fashion” and to teachers being “satisfied with the results.” Process and product are united. If the process is tainted (as it was in the case of the McNeil government), then the product will be tainted as well. Mr. Forbes does not explicitly state this, but it can be inferred from what he wrote. Such a connection between “free collective bargaining” and “fair contracts” (product) is constantly made by trade union reps either implicitly or explicitly.

The reviewer continues:

The preamble masks the real focus of the article, which is (apparently) a critique of the industrial model of labour-management relations and, in particular, a critique of business unionism within that model. At certain points, the manuscript becomes a critique of capitalism.

I explicitly stated, in the second paragraph, the following:

The purpose of this article, though, is not to review the articles in the journal. Rather, it is to point out and criticize the hidden standard that is uncritically assumed by most of the authors of articles in the journal.

That hidden standard, as I attempt to show, is the legitimacy or fairness of both collective bargaining as process and product—which is a legitimization of capitalism and the power of employers as a class.

The critique is hardly just of “business unionism”–but of unionism as an ideology that the left and the labour movement never questions.

The reviewer continues:

The problem is not only lack of clarity about the central argument, but the way in which the manuscript rambles and sometimes goes off on tangents that seem unrelated to the argument. Concepts and theories are not clearly presented (e.g., McAlevey’s ideas) and that leaves the reader floundering while trying to identify and understand the author’s argument.

Since the reviewer’s critique both distorts the nature of article and fails to understand the argument, I will leave it up to the reader to determine whether “the manuscript rambles….”

The reviewer continues:

Some of the claims made in the manuscript are not well supported. For example, the author claims that union leaders represent the voice of employers, not the voice of union members.

I never implied that. Unions are often contradictory, with elements that oppose particular employers in diverse ways. However, they generally accept the power of employers as a class, and that acceptance is expressed in diverse manners.

The reviewer continues:

I think he means to say that if a union operates under a business unionism model, the union leaders’ perspective about the labour-management relationship is likely to be skewed in favour of management’s interests.

This way of putting it is itself likely to be interpreted in a skewed manner. “Management’s interests” is often tied to a particular interest (this particular employer and this particular management structure). Unions have to deal with this particular structure, but my focus is on management’s interests as class interests and their representation of the power of employers as a class—and the ideology that expresses such interests—such as the so-called legitimacy of collective agreements.

The reviewer continues:

If the argument is that the NSTU operates according to business unionism, then this should be stated and supported with evidence. Making a generalization to all unions is wild and unjustifiable.

Hardly. Various posts on this blog express the hostility of unions (whether “business unions” or “social unions”) to my views.

Another example is the author’s assumption that all workers belong to a single class—a Marxist argument that has criticized and long-since debunked. It presents an overly simplistic representation of modern day capitalism.

This view that all workers belong to a single class as having been debunked is written from a purely academic point of view, of course. What would this academic do when faced with workers in the private sector and in the public sector—if s/he aimed to oppose the power of employers as a class?

Initially, as Geofrrey Kay and James Mott imply in their work: Political Order and the Law of Labour, those who work for an employer can be considered as part of the working class since they are economically dependent on a wage. The elimination of certain wage workers from consideration of the working class organizationally can then proceed; for example, one of the major functions of the police is to protect private property in general and capitalist private property; organizationally, they oppress the working class and cannot be considered part of it. Another group are managers. Some have the objective or material function of coordinating work, but this coordination is overlaid by their function to exploit and oppress workers.

In the private sector, part of their work makes pulls them towards the working class and part towards the class of employers; some of their work contributes to the production of surplus value and part of it to the extraction of surplus value.  In the public sector, bureaucratic and financial pressures also function to have managers pressure workers to work more intensely. Organizationally and partially objectively, they are not part of the working class.

I recommend to the author that he focus his paper on problematizing the taken-for-granted assumptions about collective bargaining, especially in the public sector, and especially in an era when governments have decided to use their legislative power to legislate so-called ‘collective agreements.’

The point of the essay is to question the legitimacy of collective agreements even if the best-case scenario of respect for the process of collective bargaining and respect for its product, the collective agreement. To introduce the issue of back-to-work legislation would only cloud the main issue. The critique fails to understand the target of my criticism.

The reviewer continues:

If the argument is that the industrial model of labour-management relations does not (and possibly never did) work well for teachers and other workers, then focus on that.

Again, the argument is that no collective-bargaining process as such has definite limitations—limitations which the social-reformist left do not recognize or discuss. This academic’s own failure to understand the point of the essay illustrates this.

The NSTU case might be an example of the dysfunction of the arrangement but would not be the central focus of the manuscript. I recommend that the author read Tangled Hierarchies by Joseph Shedd and Samuel Bacharach to gain background information about the settlement between teachers and their employers that happened decades ago and what its implications are.

Any reference may be relevant. I will read this when I have the time. However, I will undoubtedly draw different conclusions than this academic if I do read it.

The reviewer continues:

Finally, if the present system of labour-management relations does not work, what does the author think should replace it? If the author believes that workers should have agency or control over their working lives, what would that look like?

To require this in an essay is absurd. One of the first things to do is to criticize the existing situation. What will replace this system is a related issue, but it can hardly be divorced from the definition of the problem. In other words, solutions are functions of problem definition.

The reviewer continues:

“What would be the pros and cons of such a model and for whom?”

What a stupid way of looking at the world—as if it were a question of listing the pros and cons and checking them off. For workers who work for an employer, being treated as a thing is the con; all other pros can hardly compensate for this treatment of human beings as things. Perhaps this academic would do well to consider whether her/his question would be appropriate in the context of the master/slave relation. Imagine if an academic asked the following question about slavery: “What are the pros and cons of such a model and for whom?”

As for what it would look like, I have specified that in posts what an alternative might look like (see for instance Socialism, Part One: What It May Look Like) but such a discussion would require much more space than that allotted by the journal, as I indicate in a previous post.

I suspect that one of the ways in which academic reviewers limit the publications of those with whom they disagree is by this method: the author, they claim, should have included such and such—whereas journals generally impose strict limitations on the length of journals.

The author needs to take into consideration that the public sector involves many stakeholders, not just employers and employees.

Firstly, who are these “stakeholders?” The concept of “public sector” independently of the employer-employee relation has no meaning in a capitalist context.

Secondly, in her/his detailed comments, s/he mentions “social justice for children, social justice for taxpayers, social justice for society.” The author simply assumes that the status quo will continue to exist.

In a society without employers, the tax structure would be very different (if taxes would exist at all)–a subject for debate). In a society without employers, the school structure would be very different, with a far greater integration of physical and intellectual activities than exist at present—the abolition of the division of labour between physical and intellectual (and artistic and aesthetic) activities. In a society without employers, society would be very, very different.

“How do we achieve social justice in a complex system? And social justice for whom? Should the rights of workers trump the rights of others?”

That of course would be up for negotiations, but workers are the “front-line” class who face employers directly. Other groups, as Tony Smith implies (Globalisation: A Systematic Marxian Approach) would definitely have their interests represented in a socialist society (which I have outlined in other posts), but the leverage for eliminating the class of employers and the social structures corresponding to their power must come from somewhere, and workers, being the front-line class which both positively faces the power of employers and negatively can oppose that power through their organization, are key. However, this is not the concern of this undoubtedly social-reformist leftist.

The reviewer continues: 

I recommend that the manuscript be rewritten and resubmitted for review. I have attached the manuscript with more detailed feedback.

Since I refused to rewrite according to the criticisms of these academics (undoubtedly some of the writing could have been improved—as can all writings), I decided to eliminate these “middle-(wo)men” and start my own blog. It is obvious that most so-called leftist academics lack a critical attitude towards the society in which we live. I naively expected more from a journal with the title Critical Education. What is meant by “critical” in the title is critical according to social-reformist criteria.

I should have been wiser; when attending university, when the professor was sympathetic to my views, I generally obtained better grades; when they opposed my views, I received worse grades. I also had my experience as a Marxist father to go by (see for example A Worker’s Resistance to the Capitalist Government or State and its Representatives, Part One).

Although workers’ experiences are hardly the last word, they should also form an essential part or any “Critical Education”–but the reviewers of my article obviously consider their academic backgrounds to be superior to anything workers’ experience on a daily basis at work–even in unionized settings subject to collective bargaining and collective agreements.

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

Introduction 

This is a continuation of two previous posts (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 and The Expansion of Public Services Versus a Basic Income, Part Two: How the Social-democratic Left Ignore the Oppressive Nature of Public Services: Part One: Oppressive Educational Services), which critically analyses Simran Dhunna’s and David Bush’s article that criticizes moves towards a universal basic income (see https://springmag.ca/against-the-market-we-can-do-better-than-basic-income).

In my previous post, I endeavoured to show that Dhunna’s and Bush’s aim of “affirm[ing] the power of publicly owned and operated infrastructure” by calling for an expansion of public services as a solution is inadequate because they fail to consider the oppressive nature of public services in the context of a society dominated by a class of employers. Specifically, I looked at how educational services are oppressive by imposing grades or marks on students and by imposing a curriculum that often has little meaning for students.

In this post, I look at how welfare services are oppressive.

Oppressive Welfare Services

Public services include welfare services in various forms, such as child welfare, social assistance (called welfare when I was young) and unemployment insurance (now euphemistically called “employment insurance” in Canada). Related to educational services in some ways since children are often involved, do welfare services provide “”publicly owned infrastructure” and “publicly operated infrastructure?” Is there democracy within the provision of welfare services? Or is “publicly operated infrastructure” an oppressive infrastructure?

From Don Lash (2017), “When the Welfare People Come”: Race and Class in the Child Protection System:

This theory is generally applicable to child welfare workers. Workers, whether investigators, caseworkers, or lawyers, operate with some discretion in forming judgments, albeit with layers of management oversight and final say on decisions, and even greater discretion over the way in which a client is treated. Their work also has an enormous potential impact on their clients. Finally, they are accountable to managers for datadriven outcomes, to judges, to the pressures of media attention, and to countless other “stakeholders” with more influence than the parents and families with whom they work. Because of the pressure of caseloads and paperwork requirements, they are also prone to routinization and simplification to manage the work and meet management expectations. Conscientiousness, empathy, and even professional ethics may not always be trumped by the dynamics of street-level bureaucracy, but there will always be a tension that is seldom resolved solely in the interests of the client.

Two child welfare workers who worked for the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) describe the position of DCFS social workers. They are nominally given professional discretion to be exercised in the best interest of the children and families to whom they are assigned, but operate under constant pressure to act in the best interest of the department. In a memoir about their work experiences, they wrote:

If CSWs [Certified Social Workers] could speak frankly without fear of retribution, many of
these well-meaning workers who should place the welfare of their case children and/or families
above all else do not feel able to do so. If they felt free to speak the truth, they would say that
they are being made to do whatever they’re told without question or hesitation, and if they do
otherwise, they would find themselves under threat of discipline. They are fully aware that to
resist certain morally questionable directives may mean putting any hopes of advancement or
even their entire careers in jeopardy. They realize that in demonstrating reluctance to go along
with these directives, they may even run the risk of facing trumped-up charges on grounds of
insubordination.

This does not sound very democratic, either from the point of view of the workers or those who receive their services. Why are Dhunna and Bush silent about the oppressive nature of the welfare state? In a society dominated by a class of employers, where civil servants are wage workers, is there not bound to be a conflict between the needs of those who receive the services and those who perform them? After all, civil servants in modern capitalist society are wage workers, and there exists a hierarchy of managers to which front-line workers are subordinate. Dhunna and Bush, however, simply ignore this fact, idealizing instead the modern state’s provision of services.

But the above quote is from a situation in the United States. What of more social-democratic states?

In Sweden, work-for-welfare was introduced in the 1990s. From Katarina Thorén (2008), “Activation Policy in Action” A Street-Level Study of Social Assistance in the Swedish Welfare State, page 5:

…municipal activation policies were introduced in the 1990s in the municipal social services organizations. The Swedish form of activation policies target unemployed social assistance recipients and require them to participate in local activation measures in return for financial support.

Of course, Dunnah and Bush would probably argue that they oppose such work-for-welfare programs. However, since they fail to engage in any way with the fact that there is a market for workers–employed by a class of employers–their opposition is more rhetoric than reality. Why would they oppose such programs? As long as there is a market for workers, there is bound to be a distinction between the “deserving poor” and the “non-deserving poor.” And the deserving poor are those who are willing to work–for an employer. Since Dunnah and Bush do not address the class relation at all in any direct fashion, any criticism they offer against work-for-welfare will only be partial and limited; to be effective, it is necessary to criticize the employer-employee relation as such.

But let us turn to the Swedish case. Do Swedish welfare services, which are “publicly owned infrastructure,” provide “publicly operated infrastructure” in a humane manner? 

In the Swedish case, there was a division of labour between social workers and “activation staff,” or the front-line workers who directly related to welfare “clients.” The activation staff tried to use this division in order to hide the oppressive nature of their own activities. Pages 130-132: 

But activation staff, for their part, admitted that they wanted to be viewed as “nice” and not part of the mandatory requirement process in order to keep a friendly atmosphere at the activation
programs. From a street-level bureaucracy perspective, the activation staff had an incentive, therefore, to conceal the coercive elements of the activation requirements. 

Local Organizational Arrangements and Bureaucratic Responsibilities

In part to limit the tensions with frustrated clients, there was an organizational divide of the formal responsibilities of social workers and activation workers. Clients were told that the social workers were responsible for all formal decisions and activation workers, whom they saw on a daily basis, would merely execute the activation requirements and related services. At the first information
meeting, clients were informed through a power point presentation that:

“WHY ARE YOU HERE? (Statement in Power Point presentation)
… You should not feel that you are forced to go here … participation here is a resource for those how are looking for jobs and receive social assistance … the goal is to be self-sufficient and to say “goodbye” to your social worker … (Commentary from job coach)

JOBBCENTRUM IS AN OFFER! (Statement in Power Point presentation)
… It’s not the staff at Jobbcentrum that decides that you are required to be here, it’s the Stockholm Municipality that has decided that and it’s your social worker that is taking care of all formal decisions. (Commentary from job coach)”

Thus, activation workers presented the activation requirement as an offer and concealed, rather successfully, the mandatory feature of the activation process, which, from a street-level bureaucracy perspective, was important for the activation staff. Clients were thereby encouraged to see activation workers as somehow removed from the formal decision-making. Clients were frequently referred to the social workers whenever they had questions regarding requirements, entitlements, and administration practices, although the activation staff was well informed about the local policy rules. But the right to social assistance was based on the clients’ performance at the activation program. Most clients could see that their first point of inquiry, negotiation, and tension would be with the activation worker who monitored their performance and attitude on a daily basis. The claim
of an organizational divide displaced this overt power held by activation workers, and tried to keep activation workers appearing neutral in an unequal bureaucratic relationship, and this may have only added to client frustrations and tensions within the program. Especially, when they found out that the activation staff reported their program performance to the social workers on a regular basis.

In one case, a client, whose social assistance had been withdrawn after her job coach had reported her as “inactive”, was very upset and told me the following:

“The social worker told me that the job coach had called her to say that I wasn’t active enough at Jobbcentrum and that he was disap-spoke with my job coach and he said that I was going good … why did he do so, he’s “my” job coach and supposed to support me….”

When it became apparent that the job coach had, in fact, reported her performance and thereby becoming a real factor in the decision-making process, the client felt she was not taken seriously and that they “gone behind her back”.

Thus, the organizational arrangement to separate the “exercise of public authority” between the social workers and the activation workers was mainly symbolic since the activation requirement indirectly determined the right to social assistance and activation staff reported clients’ activation performance to the social workers. Similar administrative arrangements have been demonstrated elsewhere.
Carstens (1998) claims that there is an underlying conflict between clients’ interest and organizations’ interest within the activation policy context and masked issues that demonstrate the asymmetric relationships in the activation policy process in Denmark.

Welfare services are anything but democratic–for both those who provide the services and for those who receive them.

The sectarian social-democratic left, of course, will claim that the oppressive nature of state work–for state workers and for citizens who receive those services–is due mainly to the neoliberal policies that currently exist. However, since neoliberalism–privatization of state services, deregulation of financial services, etc.–is only one form of the class power of employers, how any particular form of capitalist government or state can solve the problem of the tension or contradiction between state as both an employer of workers, on the one hand, and defender and supporter of a market for workers for the class of employers, on the other, is beyond me.

Of course, there are a range of possible policies that are better or worse by treating both social workers and those who use their services more or less humanely, but these are modifications around a basic point: As long as there exists a class of employers–both private and public–and a market for workers, there will always be a tension between the needs of those who provide services and those who receive them.

Perhaps the social-democratic left can provide an outline of how “publicly owned infrastructure” and “publicly operated infrastructure” can achieve this without calling into question the class power of employers

Frankly, I doubt that they can. Hence their silence about the issue.

What has been the main purpose of welfare services? There are undoubtedly many purposes, but one of the main purposes has been to reduce the aspirations of workers–as David Graeber (2015) points out in the German case, The Utopia of Rules On Technology, Stupidity, and the Secret Joys of Bureaucracy, pages 154-155 :

Even though Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, the great mastermind behind the creation of the German
state, allowed his parliament only limited powers, he was confounded by the rapid rise of workers’ parties, and continually worried by the prospect of a Socialist majority, or a possible Paris Commune-style uprising in his new united Germany. His reaction to Socialist electoral success from 1878 was twofold: on · the one hand, to ban the Socialist party, trade unions, and leftist newspapers; on the other, when this proved ineffective (Socialist candidates continued to run, and win, as independents) ,
to create a top-down alternative to the free schools, workers’ associations, friendly societies, libraries, theaters, and the larger process of building socialism from below. This took the form of a program of social insurance (for unemployment, health and disability, etc.), free education, pensions, and so forth-much of it watered-down versions of policies that had been part of the Socialist platform, but in every case, carefully purged of any democratic, participatory elements. In private, at least, he was utterly candid about describing these efforts as a “bribe,” an effort to buy out working-class loyalties to his conservative nationalist project. [note 117, incorrectly numbered 116]. When left-wing regimes did later take power, the template had already been established, and almost invariably, they took the same top-down approach, incorporating locally organized clinics, libraries, mutual banking initiatives, workers’ education centers, and the like into the administrative structure of the state.

Two points are relevant here. Firstly, the purpose of welfare services need not be to enhance workers’ control over their own lives but to limit their capacity of seeking to go beyond the class system of employers. Graeber argues that Bismarck consciously sought to institute welfare services in order to bribe the working class. From Graeber (2015), page 252, note 117:

As he [Otto von Bismarck] put it to an American visitor at the time: “My idea was to bribe the working classes, or shall I say, to win them over, to regard the state as a social institution existing for their sake and interested in their welfare” (cited in William Thomas Stead, On the Eve: A Handbook for the General Election [London: Review of Reviews Publishing, 1892], p. 62). The quote is useful to bear in mind since I find that the general point-that the welfare state was largely created to pay off the working class for fear of their becoming revolutionaries- tends to be met with skepticism, and demands for proof that this was the self-conscious intention of the ruling class. But here we have the very first such effort described by its founder quite explicitly as such.

It would be unfair to Dhunna and Bush to argue that they seek to bribe the working class since they seek to force the provision of welfare services through power emanating from below, of course. However, given that the ruling class has used the provision of welfare services as a means of blunting the demands of workers, it would be necessary to seek means by which to prevent welfare measures from actually blunting workers’ demands. They fail to provide any such means in their article; indeed, they seem to believe that the provision of welfare services by the capitalist state is somehow in itself socialist. They also fail to consider whether the demand for a robust universal basic income could be just such a means from below that could question the power of employers as a class. 

Secondly, the form in which welfare services are provided is top-down–a hierarchy of employees, with little democratic structure within the provision of welfare services. Dhunna and Bush are also silent over this issue.

Oppressive Administration of Welfare Services Results in Fragmentation or Division of Interests of the Public 

I have already referred to my own personal experiences of the oppressive nature of “public services” via their administration (indirectly, in this case, via the courts and a court-ordered assessor (see for example A Worker’s Resistance to the Capitalist Government or State and its Representatives, Part One).

Dhunna and Bush do not address the issue of the administration of the decommodified programs and how such administration creates various “subpublics” that divide people from one another through bureaucratic means. From Michael Kratke (1989), “Does Social Security Create a New Class? On the Restructuring of Social Inequality by Welfare State Arrangements,” in Political Regulation in the “Great Crisis,” pages 285-315, edited by Werner Vath, pages 305-307:

At this point the fragmentation thesis enters. It says that the institutional fragmentation of the social security system, the coexistence of different systems of social insurance and social assistance, and, last not least, the administrative practice of classifying and sub-classifying client groups altogether lead to just as many cleavages among welfare state clients. Take for example the Dutch social security system once again. Its clients are officially put into a whole string of subsystems and categorized accordingly as AOWers, WAOers, WWers, WWVers, RWWers, IOAWers, ZWers, WBPers, ABWers, AWWers and so on. No doubt, European social politics have been and still are obsessed with such classifications of client groups as they were in vogue for centuries. Such classifications of inactives are part and parcel of any social security system which is built upon the principle of specific and conditional rights to specific benefits. Only under & regime of an unconditional and universal grant for all citizens such [classifications would be unnecessary.

All these classifications bear moral overtones and are burdened with notions of “decency” and “respectability”. In moral terms, social security classes are certainly divided in an upper, a middle and an underclass retired people occupying the ranks of the most respectable upper clas$»j| the sick, the handicapped and the disabled occupying the less respected] but still deserving middle class, and the (long-term and young) unemployed filling the ranks of the least respected, more or less “undeservinging” underclass. (School)children, students, apprentices should be ranked some kind of a “upper middle class”, as they are doing some useful work preparing themselves to become part of the working population in the future. Members of the upper and especially the middle class can define themselves in terms of a special profession of trade–the profession trade they once belonged to or they will belong to in the near future And they have links with the groups of the working population they belonged to or will belong to–apprentices and students much stronger ones than the retired and disabled. But the latter still know to which group they will belong and try to stay in touch with their former colleagues, their trade unions and their clubs and associations. Maintaining some kind of a professional group identity certainly works as a means to keep the less deserving welfare state clients, the people on the dole and the mass of wretches living on social assistance at some social distance at least. Pensioners of various kinds–the largest group of welfare state clients– thus keep in touch with official politics, too; they are still included to some degree in professional organizations trade unions in the first place which they expect to represent their interests.

The administration of public services through a bureaucracy also often involves complicity, where pretense of a meritocratic system of assignment of people within a hierarchy is based mainly on merit and not on other criteria–such as nepotism. From Graeber (2015), pages 26-27:

Such institutions [bureaucracies] always create a culture of complicity. It’s not just that some people get to break the rules-it’s that loyalty to the 0rganization is to some degree measured by one’s willingness to pretend this isn’t happening. And insofar as bureaucratic logic is extended to the society as a whole, all of us start playing along.

This point is worth expanding on. W hat I am saying is that we are not just looking at a double standard, but a particular kind of double standard typical of bureaucratic systems everywhere.
All bureaucracies are to a certain degree utopian, in the sense that they propose an abstract ideal that real human beings can never live up to. Take the initial point about credentialism. Sociologists since Weber always note that it is one of the defining features of any bureaucracy that those who staff it are
selected by formal, impersonal criteria-most often, some kind of written test. (That is, bureaucrats are not, say, elected like politicians, but neither should they get the job just because they are someone’s cousin.) In theory they are meritocracies. In fact everyone knows the system is compromised in a thousand different ways … Many of the staff are in fact there just because they are someone’s cousin, and everybody knows it. The first criterion of loyalty to the organization becomes complicity. Career advancement is not based on merit, and not even based necessarily on being someone’s cousin; above all, it’s based on a willingness to play along with the fiction that career advancement is based on merit, even though everyone knows this not to be true.  Or with the fiction that rules and regulations apply to everyone equally, when, in fact, they are often deployed as a means for entirely arbitrary personal power.

Nor do Dunnah and Bush address how their proposals will enable people to control their own lives when the power of employers as a class is not addressed directly. From Brett Clark and John Bellamy Foster (July 2010), “The Dialectic of Social and Ecological Metabolism: Marx, Meszaros, and the Absolute Limits of Capital,” Socialism and Democracy, pages 124-138, Volume 24, Number 2, page 129:

The ecological and social challenges that confront us are often minimized as the logic of capital goes unquestioned and various reforms are put forward (such as improving energy efficiency via
market incentives) under the assumption that the system can be tamed to accommodate human needs and environmental concerns. Such positions fail to acknowledge that the structural determinations of capital will inevitably grind onwards, threatening to undermine the conditions of life, unless systematic change is pursued to eradicate the capital relation entirely.

Possibility of Recommodification of Public Services

Since Dunnah and Bush fail to address the power of employers at work (see the previous post), their proposal for an enhanced welfare state would always be subject to the threat of the conversion of public services into private services provided by capitalist employers. Their approach lacks any realistic assessment of how decommodification of these services (the conversion of services into universally free and accessible) can be realized as a viable permanent solution to the problems which people face since Dhunna and Bush do not aim at dismantling the labour market, abolishing the power of the class of employers and hence the existence of classes.

Decommodification will always be threatened by recommodification (as it has been during the neoliberal era of privatization and deregulation) unless the power of employers as a class is broken for good–and they fail even to address this issue. From Chris Wright (2014), Worker Cooperatives and Revolution: History and Possibilities in the United States, pages 147-148:

With respect to the very long run, Marx was always right that capitalism is not sustainable. There are many reasons for this, including the contradiction between a system that requires infinite growth and a natural environment that is finite, but the reason most relevant to Marxism is that
ultimately capital can never stop accumulating power at the expense of every other force in society. It is insatiable; its [competition-driven] lust for ever more profit and power condemns it to a life of Faustian discontent. It can never rest. Any accommodations, therefore, between the wage-earning
class and capital—such accommodations as the welfare state and the legitimization of collective bargaining—are bound to be temporary. Sooner or later capital’s aggressiveness will overpower contrary trends and consume everything, like a societal black hole (to change the metaphor). Everything is sucked into the vortex, including social welfare, the nation state, even nature itself. The logic is that nothing will remain but The Corporation [in the plural], and government protections of the people will be dismantled because such protections are not in the interest of capital. This absurd,
totalitarian logic can never reach its theoretical culmination, but it will, it must, proceed far enough, eventually, that an apocalyptic struggle between the masses and capital ensues. A relatively mild version of this happened once before, in the 1930s and ’40s, and a compromise [in the West]—the
mature welfare state—was the result. But then, as I said, capital repudiated the compromise (or is doing so as I write these words), and the old trends Marx diagnosed returned with a vengeance, and so humanity could look forward, this time, to a final reckoning. A final settling of accounts will occur in the coming century or two.

Conclusion

Dhunna’s and Bush’s aim of “affirm[ing] the power of publicly owned and operated infrastructure” through an expansion of public services in the context of a society dominated by a class of employers is more rhetoric than reality since they fail to inquire into the nature of those public services. Welfare services are often oppressive, undemocratic and divisive. Furthermore, as long as the class power of employers is not explicitly challenged, the expansion of welfare services will always be threatened with a reduction of such services. 

So far in this series, I have shown that two of the three aims implied in Dhunna’s and Bush’s article–““meaningfully improve the material realities of working-class and oppressed people” and “affirm the power of publicly owned and operated infrastructure“–are hardly solutions to the problems which regular workers, citizens and community members face these days.

I will pursue a different tactic in future posts that criticize Dhunnah’s and Bush’s article. Specifically, I will show how they almost always illegitimately assume a minimal basic income, distort the nature of the references they use to justify their claims and fail to take into consideration proposals that involve a robust universal basic income the aim of which is to challenge the legitimacy of a market for workers.

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

Introduction

This is a continuation of a previous post (see A Basic Income Versus the Expansion of Public Services? Part One: Critique of the Social-democratic Idea that the Expansion of Public Services is Socialist), which critically analyses Simran Dhunna’s and David Bush’s article that criticizes moves towards a universal basic income (see https://springmag.ca/against-the-market-we-can-do-better-than-basic-income).

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

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

General Considerations: An Illegitimate Assumption 

Dhunna and Bush make the following claim about their aims:

But those committed to principled class struggle should strive for the decommodification of public services. Compared with universal basic income, universal basic services cost less, meaningfully improve the material realities of working class and oppressed people, and affirm the power of publicly owned and operated infrastructure. That’s our bread and butter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mr. Krasovec asks why some people–other than the rich–support neoliberal policies. His answer is that such neoliberal policies do address–unlike the social-democratic policies–some concerns of the ordinary worker about the public sector–such as the bureaucratic, neo-feudalist status of the state in the public education system. Both students and workers do not like these rigid hierarchical structures. Neoliberal policies may indeed be misleading about the efficacy of market policies in destroying these hierarchies if they are introduced into the public sector, but they nevertheless touch a real concern of workers and students.

This applies not only to public education but also to state administration in other public services. We cannot pretend that long lines at the doctor’s office do not happen, or that superficial treatment does not occur, or that bureaucratic incompetence does not arise–because people experience them every day in their dealings with these institutions. To fail to recognize these experiences and not to take them into account when formulating policy is to feed into the neoliberal backlash.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

General Oppressive Structures and Relations in Public Services 

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

Equality and the welfare state

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oppressive Public Educational Services

Grades or Marks in Schools

Another problem with their article is that they assume that public or state or government services need only be expanded rather than fundamentally or qualitatively altered (something they share with Sam Gindin, former research director for the large national union Canadian Auto Workers (now Unifor) and the academic leftist Jeff Noonan (see, for example, The Poverty of Academic Leftism, Part Seven: The Idealization of the Nation State or the National Government and Nationalization in the Wake of the Coronavirus Pandemic, Part Two). In the area of education, for example, they simply advocate free access to university.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Table 1
Traditional Sequence of Activities in Student Assessment Cycle

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

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

Grades: An Oppressive System In Education

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Oppressive Curriculum, or the Oppressive Program of Studies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

Socialism, Part Ten: Inadequate Conception of the Nature of Freedom and Necessity, or Free Time and Necessary Time, Part Four: Art

This is the conclusion of a series of previous posts on the subject.

In a previous post, I criticized Mr. Gindin’s claim that the expansion of educational services would involve scarcity and therefore would require external or extrinsic motivation of some sort. (Mr,. Gindin is (or was) head of the Toronto Labour Committee and former research director for the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) (now Unifor) union. See Socialism, Part Ten: Inadequate Conception of the Nature of Freedom and Necessity, or Free Time and Necessary Time, Part Three: Education.

Let us look at part of a previous quote from Mr. Gindin’s writing on socialism:

Furthermore, the calculation of scarcity can in particular not ignore leisure, with leisure representing the “realm of freedom.” Even if we produced enough of what we wanted, as long as some of that labor isn’t completely voluntary but instrumental, then effective scarcity of either labor time or the good/service remains. Workers may even like their jobs and see them as a source of creative expression and satisfaction, but as long as they’d periodically prefer to not show up or leave early, some further inducement is needed to offset the sacrifice of providing those labor hours. That inducement is a measure of the persistence of effective scarcity. And once scarcity is acknowledged as an inherent and essentially permanent frame in the restructuring of society, the question of structured incentives becomes paramount. This is not just a matter of motivating adequate hours of work, but of affecting its intensity and quality, and influencing where that work is best applied (i.e., determining society’s overall division of labor).

Mr. Gindin’s use of “scarcity” is meant to show that he is being realistic. However, just as Mr. Gindin does not criticize the particular form of education in modern society, he does not consider the limitations of the particular form of art in modern society. He writes the following:

Scarcity — the need to make choices between alternative uses of labor time and resources — is unlikely to end outside of utopian fantasies because popular demands, even when transformed into collective/socialist demands, are remarkably elastic: they can continue to grow. Think especially of … the expansion of art and of cultural spaces — all of which require labor time and generally also complementary material goods. That is, they demand choices.

Mr. Gindin seems to consider the “expansion of art and cultural spaces” in purely quantitative terms. The existing “art and cultural spaces” are supposed to be “expanded” rather than qualitatively transformed. Given the specific class nature of modern society dominated by a class of employers and the general class nature of human history after the agricultural revolution, the view that art and culture needs mere expansion rather than qualitative transformation reflects an impoverished view of the nature of socialist society. If socialist society is characterized by the abolition of classes, and classes involve exploitation and oppression, then the nature and development of art and culture should accordingly change qualitatively.

The issue can be approached from different angles. One issue is the question of the form of art (something which Mr. Gindin does not even adddress). John Dewey’s philosophy of art can aid us in understanding the limitations of Mr. Gindin’s characterization of “scarcity” and art in a socialist society.

Dewey points out that the form of modern art is isolated from common human experience. It is this isolated form itself that prevents a proper understanding of the nature of art as a refined development of common-sense human experience. From John Dewey (1934), Art as Experience , pages 3-4:

BY ONE of the ironic perversities that often attend the course of affairs, the existence of the works of art upon which formation of an esthetic theory depends has become an obstruction to theory about them. For one reason, these works are products that exist externally and physically. In common conception, the work of art is often identified with the building, book, painting, or statue in its existence apart from human experience. Since the actual work of art is what the product does with and in experience, the result is not favorable to understanding. In addition, the very perfection of some of these products, the prestige they possess because of a long history of unquestioned admiration, creates conventions that get in the way of fresh insight. When an art product once attains classic status, it somehow becomes isolated from the human conditions under which it was brought into being and from the human consequences it engenders in actual life experience.

When artistic objects are separated from both conditions of origin and operation in experience, a wall is built around them that renders almost opaque their general significance, with which esthetic theory deals. Art is remitted to a separate realm, where it is cut off from that association with the materials and aims of every other form of human effort, undergoing, and achievement. A primary task is thus imposed upon one who undertakes to write upon the philosophy of the fine arts. This task is to restore continuity between the refined and intensified forms of experience that are works of art and the everyday events, doings, and sufferings that are universally recognized to constitute experience. Mountain peaks do not float unsupported; they do not even just rest upon the earth. They are the earth in one of its manifest operations. It is the business of those who are concerned with the theory of the earth, geographers and geologists, to make this fact evident in its various implications., The theorist who would deal philosophically with fine art has a like task to accomplish.

If one is willing to grant this position, even if only by way of temporary experiment, he will see that there follows a conclusion at first sight surprising. In order to understand the meaning of artistic products, we have to forget them for a time, to turn aside from them and have recourse to the ordinary forces and conditions of experience that we do not usually regard as esthetic. We must arrive at the theory of art by means of a detour. For theory is concerned with understanding, insight, not without exclamations of admiration, and stimulation of that emotional out burst often called appreciation. It is quite possible to enjoy flowers in their colored form and delicate fragrance without knowing any thing about plants theoretically. But if one sets out to understand the flowering of plants, he is committed to finding out something about the interactions of soil, air, water and sunlight that condition the growth of plants.

The isolation of art from ordinary human experience distorts an understanding of the nature of art. Such a distortion is like a mirror, in which we only see the reflection offered to us and not the background material (and social) conditions for the mirror to function as a mirror. From Thomas Nail (2020), Marx in Motion: A New Materialist Marxism, page 149-150:

A mirror is something that reflects almost all the light that it receives within a certain limited frame. A mirror, however, also actively changes the light it receives and limits the range of light returned based on the limits of its frame. The danger of the mirror, as the myth of Narcissus reminds
us, is mistaking the mirror for nothing other than the image it reflects. The mirror is thus a tricky kind of object because it so easily conceals its own quality, use- value, or sensuous materiality: the frame, the tain (silver backing), as well as the agency of light itself. Narcissus dies because he mistakes the sensuous agency of nature (water, light, air) as nothing other than himself.

The isolation of art in a socialist society from the rest of human experience would proceed to break down as the power of the class of employers was superseded and as the objectified power of workers is abolished and the human life process comes under the workers’ and the diverse communities’ control.

Mr. Gindin simply ignores any qualitative transformation of art and culture and refers to the (quantitative) expansion of arts and culture–as if the integration of the domain of art with other domains of life would not in itself involve “an expansion of art and culture.” Mr. Gindin fails to see that the modern art form itself expresses oppressive conditions, where art is relegated to an isolated activity by a relative minority. He succumbs to the ideology of the mirror, seeing only the reflected form of the alienated art form as a permanent form that merely requires–“mechanical” elements rather than organic elements that grow from the common source of human daily life experience.

Art in modern capitalist society would undergo a qualitative change–it would be freed of the exploitative and oppressive conditions that give rise to it as something separate and divorced from everyday living and working. From Piotr Hoffmann (1982), The Anatomy of Idealism: Passivity and Activity in Kant, Hegel and Marx, page 98:

In effect, since human labor is guided by conception and imagination, the Marxian “architect” from Capital is always capable of embodying in the material an original vision of things; he can tear
the veil of banality and commonplace which stifles the potential of our sensibility. Needless to say, according to Marx this aesthetic potential of human senses must be stifled and repressed under the prevailing conditions of commodity production and of alienation of labor in general. 54 But it is the same conditions – the increasing sophistication of the labor-process – which both create the new potential of human senses and needs and repress its emerging claims and requirements. Indeed the whole process of labor, such as we know it in its past and present form, has that double, paradoxical function: at the same time that it creates those new and higher qualities of human life it also represses them by creating a mode of human intercourse which prevents their realization. “Certainly, labor obtains its measure from outside, through the aim to be attained and the obstacles to be overcome in attaining it. But [ …] this overcoming of obstacles is in itself a liberating activity [ …] the external aims become stripped of the semblance of merely external natural urgencies, and become posited as aims which the individual himself posits – hence as self-realization,
objectification of the subject, hence real freedom, whose action is, precisely, labor. ” It is in Grundrisse, not in Pans Manuscnpts, that Marx writes these words. His intention couldn’t be clearer: labor is not only a response to need and dependency upon external objects, but a truly creative
and (as Marx put it) “liberating” process through which man gives a higher form to his life-activity, a form where his senses, needs and tastes become refined and stripped of their crude utilitarian functions.

In societies before the emergence of capitalism, art was not as divorced from daily life as it is now. Art forms were closely related to utility and daily living, with art expressing more, initially, an assumed magical function related to survival than some sort of separate form expressing emotion and aesthetic refinement. From Arnold Hauser (1951), The Social History of Art, Volume 1: From Prehistoric Times to the Middle Ages, page 3:

When the Palaeolithic artist painted an animal on the rock, he produced a real animal. For him the world of fiction and pictures, the sphere of art and mere imitation, was not yet a special province of its own, different and separate from empirical reality; he did not as yet confront the two different spheres, but saw in one the direct, undifferentiated continuation of the other. He will have had the same attitude to art as Lévy- Bruhl’s Sioux Red Indian, who said of a research worker whom he saw preparing sketches: ‘I know that this man has put many of our bisons into his book. I was there when he did it, and since then we have had no bisons.’ The conception of this sphere of art as a direct continuation of ordinary reality never disappears completely despite the later predominance of a conception of art as something opposed to reality.

Later on, emotional expression and aesthetic concerns emerged with the development of agriculture. Here art and aesthetics (the appreciation of art from the side of consumption) now became somewhat divorced from daily life–with the emergence of class society. Religious rite took the place of magic. However, even then the degree of separation of art from daily life characteristic of modern capitalist society, with art appearing to be a separate realm from the realm of human life and its self-reproduction, was much less. In feudal society, for example, production and consumption were not as separated since they were still closely linked to daily life and utility. Page 93:

‘Urban economy’ in the sense of Buecher’s theory of economic stages signifies, in contrast to the earlier production for own use, a production for the customer, that is, of goods that are not consumed in, the economic unit in which they are produced. It is distinguished from the following stage of ‘national economy’ in that exchange of goods still takes the ‘direct’ form—i.e. the goods go direct from the producing to the consuming unit, production as a rule not being for stock or the free market, but to the direct order of definite customers personally acquainted with the producer. We are thus at the first stage of the separation of production from consumption, but still far removed from the completely abstract method of modern production by which goods have to pass through a whole series of hands before they reach the consumer. This difference of principle between the medieval ‘town economy’ and the modern ‘national economy’ still remains, even when we pass from Buecher’s ‘ideal type’ of town economy to the actual historical facts; for although pure production to order never existed by itself, the relationship between the tradesman and consumer in the Middle Ages was far closer than nowadays; the producer was not yet faced with a completely unknown and indefinite market as he was later. These characteristics of the ‘urban’ way of production showed themselves in medieval art in a greater independence of the artist, on the one hand, as compared with the artist of Romanesque times, but, on the other hand, in a complete absence of that modern
phenomenon, the unappreciated artist working in a total vacuum of estrangement from the public and remoteness from actuality.

The abolition of classes in a socialist society, undoubtedly, would revolutionize the relation between art and daily life–just as the agricultural revolution and the emergence of class societies also revolutionized the relation between art and daily life. The abolition of classes would mean that even in work relations there would be the possibility of expressing ourselves without exploitation and oppression preventing us from doing so. The relation between freedom and necessity would change accordingly. There would be a qualitative change in the nature of art as it became integrated into the daily lives of individuals–but this time on a higher, more refined plane than earlier.

Mr. Gindin, though, just sees “an expansion of art”–undoubtedly in purely quantitative terms. He has an impoverished view of the nature of a socialist society and the relation between freedom and necessity in a socialist society.

Socialism and Central Planning: Mr. Gindin’s Analysis of The Political Situation of Workers in General, Part One

The following is a two-part series on Bill Resnick’s interview with Sam Gindin, in accordance with the two-part presentation of the interview. I put my summary of Mr. Gindin’s talk in italics; my comments are in regular print. I also use italics when quoting others.

One of Mr. Gindin’s key criticisms of both GM and the union that represented the workers at Oshawa is that GM promised jobs if the union would make concessions. The union made concessions–and GM reneged on the deal and eliminated the jobs. The union did not adequately respond to the repeated down scaling of the workforce but only succeeded in “managing” the down scaling.

Mr. Gindin then argues that an adequate union response requires thinking beyond GM since GM cannot solve this problem. Being militant in bargaining may get you some things, but jobs are not something that bargaining can guarantee. Retaining jobs involves a larger issue and is political. Ultimately, you are arguing on the company’s terms since it holds the trump card of maintaining the facilities open or closing shop.

Let us stop there. There is an implicit critique of the whole union model that has existed in Canada since 1944, when the federal government obliged employers to recognize unions of workers’ choice. If collective  bargaining cannot guarantee jobs, then should not Mr. Gindin criticize the union rhetoric of “fair contracts,”  “economic justice,” and “fairness” (all stock-in-trade phrases of the left here in Toronto)? And yet when the opportunity arose of criticizing the pairing of a struggle for $15 an hour minimum wage (and needed employment law reforms) with the concept of “fairness,” Mr. Gindin remained silent. Why is that? Mr. Gindin claimed that we should be humble, and yet is it not the height of arrogance on his part to presume that such pairing is unimportant? I found the equation of $15 an hour minimum wage with the concept of “fairness” to be politically conservative, and Mr. Gindin’s silence over the matter to be an example of the repeated pandering after popular opinion rather than a needed ideological struggle over what is indeed fair and not fair in our society.

How does Mr. Gindin suppose people operate? If they personally find that something is fair, and no one even addresses the issue, they eventually become cynical and reduce their activities to self-interest. Why bother, they ask themselves? Nothing will change. After all, the so-called progressives in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, think that if I work for a minimum wage of $15, have a few extra rights at work, then everything is fine–it is fair. And yet I have to drag myself out of bed to go to work that is largely determined by others. I have to accept the daily abuse experienced at work if not directly and personally by having a supervisor criticize me but indirectly and impersonally by having my work procedures, work load and so forth determined beforehand by others.  I then have to struggle to return home either by standing in packed subway cars and buses or driving  a car during rush hour to get home and find some kind of relaxation by either partying or watching TV. The rhetoric of fairness feeds into the development of a cynical attitude since most people that the lives they lead in various ways is not fair. To bullshit them by using such words and various phrases does them a great disservice.

What of workers covered by collective agreements? Mr. Gindin is silent on this score. It is not just a question of the impotence of unions to stop employers from closing shop, but he only refers to the impossibility of collective bargaining addressing the issue of jobs. Collective bargaining, however, more generally cannot address the issue of jobs because collective bargaining presupposes the legitimacy of management rights. Why does Mr. Gindin not explicitly criticize the rhetoric surrounding collective bargaining and collective agreements in general? Is this not necessary if we are to overcome the limitations of the union movement? But if criticizing the rhetoric surrounding collective bargaining and collective agreements is necessary in order to free us of the illusion of the fairness of unionized work environments, and if freeing ourselves of such an illusion is a necessary condition for fighting for a socialist society, then a socialist would engage in such criticism.

If, however, doing what is necessary to achieve a socialist society is to abandon our illusions concerning what is fair, and Mr. Gindin refuses to do what is necessary, is he not engaging in unrealistic actions? If questioning the limitations of collective bargaining and collective agreements forms a necessary component of a socialist movement, and Mr. Gindin refuses to engage in such criticism, then how effective will Mr. Gindin’s actions be in the long run?

Where is the humbleness in Mr. Gindin’s actions?

The second point is that we have to deal with the larger issue of economic reconstructing because the present system is not working for the benefit of working people. Workers are no longer getting security or decent wages. The larger issue is how do you deal with economic reconstructing generally and not just GM.

Yes, there is a larger issue, but economic reconstruction is not the only thing that is involved. Mr. Gindin talks a lot about class, but surely a socialist society would involve the abolition of a class society–a radical qualitative change in our lives.  Mr. Gindin, being a “realist,” ignores this dimension of the problem. Economic reconstruction has existed in the past; capitalist emerged through economic (and political and social) reconstruction. However, in a socialist society, the reconstruction would involve the abolition of classes–and Mr. Gindin ignores the radical qualitative change in such reconstruction.

The third point is that radical demands that go beyond GM must be able to connect to the larger community and gain its support by addressing some of its needs. Mr.Gindin then asserts that the obvious issue that connects the two is the environment.

It is hardly obvious to me. As I argued in another post (The British Labour Party’s 2019 Manifesto: More Social Democracy and More Social Reformism, Part One), the focus on climate change is presently a fad (Bill Resnick refers to climate change often enough, outlining a possible apocalyptic life). Not that environmental problems are unreal; however, if people are unmotivated to face the power of employers as a class despite the daily experience of oppression and exploitation, why does Mr. Gindin think the issue of environmental problems will somehow motivate them and have lasting power?

Let us look at the concept of “environment” for a moment. The philosopher John Dewey analyzed the nature of the environment, and it is not something which is somehow “external” to living beings (from Logic: The Theory of Inquiry, pages 33-34):

There is, of course, a natural world that exists independently of the organism, but this world is environment only as it enters directly and indirectly into life-functions. The organism is itself a part of the larger natural world and exists as organism only in active connections with its environment.

The natural world is an environment only in relation to the life process. From John Dewey, Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education, pages 12-13:

In brief, the environment consists of those conditions that promote or hinder, stimulate or inhibit, the characteristic activities of a living being. Water is the environment of a fish because it is necessary to the fish’s activities—to its life. The north pole is a significant element in the environment of an arctic explorer, whether he succeeds in reaching it or not, because it defines his activities, makes them what they distinctively are. Just because life signifies not bare passive existence (supposing there is such a thing), but a way of acting environment or medium signifies what enters into this activity as a sustaining or frustrating condition.

The environment is not something external to workers but forms the conditions within which they live both biologically and socially. Some environmental conditions are distant, others close at hand physically. Such an environment in the case of human beings is also social since we are a species that depend on each other (grounded in the relatively long period before an infant can become a productive member of the world).

What are the environmental conditions that will most likely and immediately grip the interests of workers and community members? The priority should be developing opposition to the power of employers as a class, and community issues should be linked to that issue–such as housing, health, education, social services, the police and the oppressive forms in which such community services are provided. and, yes, the environment in a wider sense, but only in conjunction with the other issues. The view that the “environment” is something independent of us is nonsense. The environment as an isolated area of our lives will  unlikely have lasting power to engage workers and community members interests; it must be linked to these more immediate interests if it is to have lasting power rather than be just a fad.

He then summarizes these three points: the left must address the problem of the corporations not solving our problems, of how to deal with economic (and political) restructuring) and how to address the first two in relation to problems associated with the environment. Unions must thus become something other than what they have been since they have lost focus and direction under the sway of globalization and neoliberalism. Mr. Gindin, however, refers to the private-sector unions and leaves open the question of the nature and efficacy of public-sector unions.

I have already addressed the issues above-except Mr. Gindin’s backhanded idealization of public services and public-sector unions. This should come as no surprise. Mr. Gindin’s conception of socialism involves an expansion of public services via nationalization–as if the current form of public services did not require thorough reconstruction due to their oppressive nature. See my brief criticism The Contradictions of Social Democracy: Mr. Gindin’s Musings on the Closure of GM’s Oshawa Plant  and a more in-depth criticism of nationalization (and, indirectly, the idealization of public services) in the post 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; see also The Money Circuit of Capital ).

Mr. Gindin then outlines his alternative plan. We should take over the GM plant, put it under public ownership and converting the plant and having the now unemployed workers use their diverse skills in the assembly facilities, the paint shop, the stamp shop and coordinating it with components plants in the surrounding area.

Such a plan needs to be linked to the environment for at least two reasons. In the first place, Mr. Gindin implies, the problem of the environment is urgent and needs to be addressed now. In the second place, the planned alternative facility should not face the constraints placed on it by competition from other capitalists in China and other parts of the world.

The appeal to the urgency of problems associated with the “environment” reminds me of some Marxists’ appeal to the urgency of transitioning to socialism because of the inevitable breakdown of capitalism. This hype about the urgency of environmental problems is unlikely to grip the interests of most workers and community members; they have more pressing immediate problems, like getting to work on time, enduring their work life without suffering too much humiliation, finding some meaning in their work life, going home and not suffering further problems.

It does make sense to seek areas of  production where competition is limited in order to prevent competition from leading to cuts in wages, benefits and deteriorating working conditions.

To kill two birds with one stone, it is necessary to engage in planning, and this planning requires not only the state becoming engaged in the process but in a more aggressive state that improves environmental standards by obliging people to move away from an economy based on fossil fuels. Furthermore, the state could also function as consumer by purchasing electrical vehicles. In addition, the state could use some of what it purchases for the expansion of public transport, thereby reducing the use of private vehicles and decreasing dependence on fossil fuels. Mr. Gindin calls the state planning to this end democratic planning. Democratic planning is impossible if key economic decisions are made by private companies.

I am dealing with Mr. Gindin’s inadequate treatment of socialism in other posts (see,  for example, Socialism, Part Nine: Market Socialism as an Initially Necessary but Inadequate Social Model). In relation to democratic planning, though, I will add that the idea that the total planning of society is to arise through the state was not an idea proposed by Marx: the state may own the means of production in the sense of preventing private individuals from denying workers to collectively use them, but the control over those means of production would be in the hand of workers themselves and not the state. From Rob Bryer, Accounting for History in Marx’s Capital: The Missing Link, page 277:

The section rejects the dominant interpretation that he advocated central planning. Marx’s mature concept of socialism abolishes markets for capital and labor power, but the section argues it requires competitive markets for products and services, cooperative enterprises, and accounting to hold enterprise management accountable to workers, and workers accountable to society.

(Bryer’s view of socialism has its own limitations in that he sees that Marx distinguished a socialist society that emerges from capitalism and a society that maintains itself on its own basis, but he then eternalizes markets.)

Mr. Gindin is an advocate of central planning, as is evident from the following:

Environmental change involves radical change since it involves change throughout society–including both production and consumption. We need to begin to create the capacity to convert to an environmentally friendly economy in every community by creating from research centers (peopled by young engineers) that inquire into what capacities, skills and equipment we currently have and what we are going to need to make the transition to an environmentally friendly economy. At the same time, the state needs to restructure the economy through, for example, raising environmental standards that require such environmentally friendly restructuring.

Mr. Gindin then contends that for this to work, several components must work together: planning, decentralisation and calling into question the private power of employers.

He then returns to the issue of environmental problems and the large-scale nature of the problem and the urgency of the problem. The problem cannot be addressed through the fragmented market nor can it be addressed through general phrases about the environmental crisis; if we stay at that level, workers will simply ignore the issue since they lack control over their lives and cannot address the issue when it is posed in general terms.

He then argues that since planning is required, it is necessary to control what you are planning. This involves changing property relations at work, which requires real struggle with workers to oppose the closing of plants not just in Oshawa but in many other communities.

Mr. Gindin admits that for now there is no base for such an approach; it would be necessary to organize for such an end. He also points out that the modern state is a capitalist state, which manages discontent by controlling and managing labour; the capitalist state has not developed planning capacities. What is required is a transformation of the capitalist state so that the state can plan democratically.

He argues that the capitalist market is failing in various ways in meeting our needs, from security to equality, environment and a rich personal life. Business is very vulnerable in these areas since it does not really meet these needs.

We need to develop the capacities of the working class to represent these needs, and it will not be easy. The working class must be reconstructed into a social force with the confidence to address these needs.

Mr. Gindin then claims that, during the Second World War, planning did indeed occur within the state, but the planning was performed mainly by businessmen becoming state officials. With the end of the war, they exited the state because they did not want the state to become autonomous. To be sure, the state has developed the capacity for planning in various departments, but it has not developed the capacity to engage in overall planning at the national level during normal periods (not exceptional periods, like wartime). Furthermore, the state does not know how to plan democratically. It is necessary to transform the state, and that will not be easy.

There are several problems with the above. Firstly, the reference to “decentralisation” is left hanging in the air. Where does decentralisation come into play in Mr. Gindin’s view of the nature of socialism. It remains a mystery. Secondly, it is not only necessary to call in question the private power of employers but the public power of state employers over employees. Thirdly, he talks about how workers need to oppose the closing of factories in various communities. Since the police protect the right of employers to close factories, Mr. Gindin should have indicated some kind of strategy about how to deal with the violent means used to protect the closing of factories and workplaces. Fourthly, even if he did propose such a strategy, it would probably involve workers having to jeopardize, if not their lives, at least their livelihood as the capitalist state through the courts fined them or threw them in jail. Would Mr. Gindin engage in such needed opposition personally? Fifthly, Mr. Gindin merely repeats the well-worn idea that central planning is socialist. This is hardly so. A common plan need not be a central plan formulated by some separate entity called the state. From Bryer, page 283:

Second, while Marx often wrote, for example in Volume 1 of Capital, that socialism would function according to a “definite social plan” (1976a, 171), there are two meanings of the word “plan” we need to keep separate. The dominant interpretation is that by “plan” Marx meant, “A table or programme indicating the relations of some set of objects,” “a detailed formulation of a plan of action,” in his case a production and consumption program or plan of action for society.3 The chapter, however, argues he meant a “scheme,” “of arrangement” or “of action,” a “Method, way of proceeding,” “a method for achieving an end,’ a way of organizing society. As Jossa (2005, 11) puts it, “while Marx and Engels certainly conceived of the plan as an antidote to the anarchical nature of the capitalistic market, they were thinking of a plan for abolishing the production of commodities and so not based on the law of value,” a scheme or way of organizing society for abolishing value.

Marx’s way of organizing socialist society, his concept of its relations of production, the chapter argues, is not the supervision or action controls implied by the central planning interpretation, but results control by workers.

Mr. Gindin’s reference to the state (which is not to wither away according to Mr. Gindin but is to expand) and implied central planning, on the one hand, and a democratic state, on the other, contradict each other. Marx, by contrast, was more consistent:

For Lavoie (1985) the ‘procedure’ or ‘process’ must be central planning. However, Marx and Engels consistently argued for a democratically elected and accountable workers’ state, for control by workers, which is what they meant by their occasional uses of ‘dictatorship of the proletariat,’ not ‘dictatorship of the Party’ or their leaders (Draper 1986). Against Lassalle’s fetishism of the state, the theoretical side of his pervasive authoritarianism” (Draper 1986, 304), as Marx put it, “freedom consists in converting the state from an organ superimposed upon society into one completely subordinate to it” (1989, 94), that is, in making the state fully accountable to workers. To provide the economic basis for democracy on Day 1 of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat,’ to transcend capitalism’s profit and loss system of accounting control that Marx had explained in Capital (Bryer 2017), it implements a system of cooperative enterprise and social accounts, not central planning, a conclusion that Engels accepted, and Lenin eventually drew (see Bryer 2019a).

It is workers who will have to learn how to coordinate their own work and not the state as a separate entity. That such a learning process may take years or decades does not mean that the principle should be abandoned since coordination by workers (and communities) must begin from the beginning. With the elimination of capital markets and a market for workers, worker cooperatives (and community organizations) could emerge and serve as the learning organizations for such planning. From Bryer, page 277:

Fourth, the chapter analyses Marx’s criticisms of the draft Programme of the Socialist Workers’ Party of Germany, the Critique of the Gotha Programme (1875). …  He re-emphasized his long-standing vision of socialism based on a universal system of worker cooperatives that, transcending capitalist accounting control, must be accountable to workers and society for the production of value on Day 1.

Planning can emerge inductively through a federation of cooperatives, as Bryer argues (page 276):

To make this change the proletarian state takes all means of production into its hands, thereby abolishing the capital market, and abolishes the market for labor power, replacing ‘free’ wage workers with free social agents by replacing joint stock companies with a universal system of worker cooperatives, accountable to their worker-shareholders and to society.

It is through this “inductive” process rather than the “deductive” (top-down) process of planning that workers and the community will at last begin to control their own life process–and not through some form of central plan divorced from the workers and the community. Mr. Gindin may claim that he agrees with this, but his argument implies the divorce of the planning process from those who experience the consequences of this process–hence, his claim, in another writing, that the state is not to wither away but to expand.

I will continue in another post with critical commentary on the second part of the interview of Mr. Gindin. I suspect, though, that it will probably contain the similar arguments as above.

The Contradictions of Social Democracy: Mr. Gindin’s Musings on the Closure of GM’s Oshawa Plant

The following is a critique of an article written by Sam Gindin before the coronavirus pandemic emerged. It is relevant to the current situation because of the current call for public ownership as a solution to the problems that we face.

Mr. Gindin published an article on February 3, 2020, titled Realizing ‘Just Transitions’: The Struggle for Plant Conversion at GM Oshawa. Here Mr. Gindin attempts to criticize, on the one hand, what happened at GM Oshawa (elimination of around 2200 direct jobs when GM closed the auto plant), and on the other to suggest what should be done to prevent such a situation to arise in the future. However, his own social-democratic position, with its implicit assumption of not challenging the power of the class of employers, shines through in the article.

Mr. Gindin claims that GM’s decision to close, among other plants, the GM Oshawa plant left the recently elected Conservative government of Doug Ford “red-faced”:

The response of the federal government, which had used the preservation of jobs to justify giving GM billions in public funds during the financial crisis, was a tepid ‘disappointment’. The provincial government, which had been plastering the province with the slogan ‘Ontario is open for business’ was left red-faced when, as its billboards were going up, GM announced the closing of one of the largest workplaces in the province.

Where is there evidence that the Ford government was embarrassed at all? The idea of “open for business” includes the idea that, in the competitive struggle for survival, corporations will sometimes close down. The obverse side of “open for business” is–“closed for business.” Corporations are free to decide to open and close doors as they see fit–such is the nature of neoliberalism. Or is that not so?

Mr. Gindin then criticizes Ms. Dias, head of Unifor (which represented the workers at GM Oshawa):

Nor did the autoworkers’ union, Unifor, escape its own share of discomfort. Less than two years earlier, its leadership had negotiated lower wages and pensions at GM for new (essentially younger) workers in spite of those workers doing exactly the same job as those beside them. This betrayal of union solidarity was sold to the members as a victory because of its promised retention of jobs. When the closure exposed the job ‘guarantees’ as a sham, the national president reacted with predictable bluster and launched a public relations campaign to shame the corporation into reversing its decision.

Undoubtedly, Mr. Dias would have preferred for the plant not to close. To prevent such an action, Mr. Dias negotiated a collective agreement that involved “lower wages and pensions at GM for new (essentially younger) workers in spite of those workers doing exactly the same job as those beside them.” Mr. Gindin objects to such a negotiated agreement on the basis of “union solidarity.” The principle of union solidarity, it would seem, involves attempting to have all union members who are doing the same job to be treated in the same way. (Note that Mr. Gindin does not refer to “labour solidarity” or “worker solidarity” but “union solidarity.” Mr. Gindin is a friend of–unions. As I argued in another post, he is too close to unions to adequately criticize them. But that just as an aside).

Mr. Gindin then refers to how this “betrayal to union solidarity was sold to the members of a victory because of its promised retention of jobs.” It is of course possible to criticize Mr. Dias and others for sacrificing some workers in exchange for an impossibly guaranteed retention of jobs. However, Mr. Gindin does not explicitly question the power of employers to make decisions that involve closing down plants. Such power forms part of management rights and is often embodied in a management rights clause, implicitly if not explicitly. Why does Mr. Gindin not criticize this fundamental right?

And why does he not criticize the attempt by many unions to “sell” negotiated collective agreements on the basis of “fairness,” “decent work” and so forth? He certainly criticizes Mr. Dias’ attempt to “sell” the betrayal to union solidarity” in relation to the creation of a two-tiered collective agreement–but he nowhere criticizes the implicit or explicit acceptance of unions and negotiating committees to the legitimacy of collective agreements. Union reps often “sell” negotiated collective agreements that need to be ratified to their members by referring to them as “fair contracts”

“We have been trying to negotiate a fair contract for seven months,” said James Nugent, the bargaining team’s chief spokesperson [for CUPE Local 3902, or the Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 3902]. “We’ve been fighting for better learning conditions for our students and better working conditions for our members. Last night, our members sent us back to the bargaining table to keep fighting for those things, and that’s what we intend to do.”

Union reps often try to “sell” this ideology of “fair contracts” to their members. Why does not Mr. Gindin criticize this ideology and not just the ideology of two-tiered contracts? What happens if a collective agreement does not have a two-tiered provision? Does that then make it a “fair contract?” Mr. Gindin is silent over the issue–as are union reps. Why this silence?

Mr. Gindin then has a section that outlines an alternative:

Toward an Alternative

A small group of rank and file Oshawa workers and retirees understood that far more was needed; both logic and history suggested that appealing to GM to rethink their cold calculations was naïve. They joined with other community allies, including the Durham Labour Council and supporters from the Toronto-based Socialist Project, to establish Green Jobs Oshawa. Its mandate was to explore and organize around other possibilities for the Oshawa facility.

A problem already arises. I am ignorant of the specific nature of the Durham Labour Council, but the Toronto and York Region Labour Council does not call into question the legitimacy of the power of employers as a class; rather, it presupposes such legitimacy (John CartWright, president of the Council, refers to “economic justice”–implicitly referring to collective agreements. See my post  Ontario Looks Right–With Some Help From the “Left” ). I have criticized  as well some of the views expressed by the Steering Committee of the Socialist Project (see The Socialist Project’s Critique of Doug Ford’s Attack on Local Democracy Falls Short).

But let us proceed:

Four perspectives drove their ambitious proposal. First, GM was the problem, not the solution.

Yes, GM is a problem and not the solution–but it is not just GM that is the problem but the power of employers as a class, of which GM is only one example. Defining the problem only in terms of a particular employer is a typical social-democratic trick of focusing on one “bad” employer rather than the class of employers. Already, looking at alternatives seems limited.

Let us continue:

Second, expecting to compete in the market with China, Mexico or plants in the American south was no answer. It would only reproduce past pressures on wages and working conditions, past insecurities and past failures. Third, any alternative would need to introduce a product with special social significance. And fourth, the issue was not just jobs but retaining Canada’s manufacturing capacities.

Seeking an alternative product that would prevent competition with other workers in the same kind of market is certainly to be preferred. As for “a product with special social significance,” this issue is connected to the following:

The Oshawa facility could then be converted to assembling fleets of electric vehicles. The sale of these vehicles was to depend not on market competition, but a social plan based on direct government purchases of the products the government had invested in. The fleet vehicles involved would range from electric post office vans (as recommended earlier by the Canadian Union of Postal Workers) to hydro-electric vans, newly designed school buses, ambulances and police cars. With that base, the plant could also produce electric cars for individual consumers and, depending on how much space remained available, add other environmentally-related products.

The government would provide the bulk of demand for the output, with individual consumers making up any needed demand so that the Oshawa facility could be fully utilized (GM had identified under-utilization of the capacity of the plant as a major reason for its closing).

The government as the major consumer would also be the major owner:

In line with this outlook, Green Jobs Oshawa called on the federal government – or the municipal government with substantial financial and technical support from the feds – to take over the land and equipment idled by GM.

The government would then become both the employer and the major consumer. This solution may certainly have retained the jobs–but would not have changed the use of workers as things by government. Merely because the government is the employer does not prevent workers from being exploited and oppressed (see The Money Circuit of Capital).

Why did Green Jobs Oshawa not call on the government to take over the plant while concentrating decision-making power over the plant with the workers who worked there? Why did it not call into question the power of employers to make decisions at all that can affect the lives of many workers and the community–investment decisions? Why not use the GM shut down as an example of the dictatorial power of employers? Why this focus on the government as the saviour rather than the workers and the community?

Green Jobs Oshawa, rather, tried to evade this central issue:

The message was that jobs, the environment, and the industrial capacities for conversion and restructuring are inseparable. From that perspective, saving Oshawa was not an end point but a beginning and an example to build on.

Jobs, the environment and the industrial capacities for conversion are not just inseparable. To adequately address them, it is necessary to address the power of employers as a class, the infinite movement of capital (see  The British Labour Party’s 2019 Manifesto: More Social Democracy and More Social Reformism, Part One) and the social and political structures that go with them.

The next section of the article is titled “Frustration and Persistence.” Mr. Gindin outlines what he believes is the cause of workers’ skepticism concerning such an alternative:

Frustration and Persistence

Green Jobs Oshawa developed a website, distributed leaflets to workers, held educationals and public forums in Oshawa and Toronto, organized petitions, commissioned a widely respected professional feasibility study confirming its case, received sympathetic attention in the press and gave numerous media interviews. Yet the committee couldn’t generate the necessary level of support, starting with the workers themselves.

The workers in Oshawa were frustrated and angry, but anger doesn’t necessarily translate into activism. Having experienced the steady drip-drip decline of the Oshawa complex, having recently suffered demoralizing defeats after defeats in bargaining, and now seeing the final end of vehicle assembly in the city, workers had shifted to survival mode. In that state of mind, most workers, it seemed, had simply stopped even thinking about possibilities. Nor was it unusual for workers to guard against hope creeping into their consciousness; risking the pain of once more seeing hopes dashed made even hope something to willfully avoid.

Though workers contacted by Green Jobs Oshawa generally considered the proposals on conversion as sensible, this was trumped by their skepticism of ‘sensible’ driving economic and political decisions. Critical here was the role of the union. As frustrated as workers were with the union, they still looked to its structures and resources for leadership, especially given the radical nature of the alternative proposed. But with both the national and local leadership not interested in and even hostile to an alternative, it was no surprise that workers were lukewarm to committing to a fight for a long-shot alternative.

Important here, as well, were the limits of the environmental movement. Environmentalists have most impressively raised public awareness of the looming environmental catastrophe. Yet they have been far less successful in getting the mass of working people on side. Two inter-related problems stand out. First, the promise of a ‘just transition’ is well-meaning but unconvincing to workers; workers rightly ask how such a commitment could be met in a society driven by competition and private profits. Second, with the environmental movement generally absent from workers struggles, developing ‘awareness’ could only go so far.

Workers have been indoctrinated from school to accept the power of employers to make decisions over their lives (as I show in a series of posts on indoctrination in schools via the silence of the Canadian history curriculum over the historical emergence of employers and employees. See, for example,  Co-optation of Students at School Through We Day, Or School Indoctrination, Part One). Various organizations and activities reinforce such indoctrination (union ideology of “fair contracts,” “decent work,” social organizations that deal with oppressing people in various ways (child and family services, social assistance, collection agencies, courts and the like). To counteract such indoctrination, it would be necessary to engage systematically in a critique of such indoctrination–but Mr. Gindin does not believe that such a systematic and engaged critique is necessary (otherwise, he would have engaged in such criticism when the opportunity presented itself in relation to pairing the fight for a minimum wage of $15 an hour with the idea of “fairness”).

The skeptical attitude of workers in relation to their own capacities for controlling their lives in the face of multiple forms of indoctrination and oppression is understandable, but Mr. Gindin ignores such indoctrination and oppression in practice.

The final section is called “Green Jobs Oshawa Lives On.” Mr. Gindin states what he thinks has and has not been accomplished in the Green Jobs Oshawa” campaign and what should be done:

Green Jobs Oshawa Lives On

Measured by its ability to keep the Oshawa facility humming, Green Jobs Oshawa was not successful; today, no more vehicles are being assembled in Oshawa. But measured by their work in placing a vital but largely ignored issue on the agenda – the steady loss of the productive capacity we will need to reconstitute the environment – brings a more encouraging conclusion.

Though the Oshawa facility is now quiet, the battle to revive it, with all its noise and productive bustle, continues. The facility still has waiting assembly lines, a body shop, a paint shop, and 10 million square feet of space. In Oshawa and nearby, there is no shortage of workers anxious to apply their too often underestimated skills, suppliers with flexible tooling capacities, and young engineers leaving university anxious to apply their knowledge to developing socially useful products. Green Jobs Oshawa continues to send out material and speak at events, making connections and spreading the urgent discussion of possibilities.

Workers – with the support of their union leadership where possible, on their own if that leadership is not sympathetic – should be setting up committees to consider the future of their workplaces and holding meetings to discuss the plant occupations, nationalizations and conversions in other cities facing major manufacturing shutdowns.

The Canadian Labour Congress should be supporting and coordinating such initiatives with its own research and also joining with the environmental movement to take the initiatives further. A significant step would be to lobby for a National Conversion Agency with the authority and financial and technical resources to intervene when plant closures occur or seem imminent.

Provincial federations of labour could focus on the environmental particularities of their own regions as, for example, the Alberta Federation of Labour has started to do in addressing how the inevitable transition away from oil could be economically and socially managed. This could include lobbying to establish local tech-enviro centers populated by the hundreds of young engineers mentioned above. Alongside coming up with possibilities for local conversion and development, they could contribute to spreading understanding to the community of what we face and what needs to be done.

For private sector workers, the crucial fact is that environmental pressures will require transforming everything about how we live, work, travel, and use our leisure time. Such a massive and unprecedented undertaking (the conversions entering and exiting World War II come closest) can, if done right, mean not a loss of jobs but a shortage of workers trying to meet society’s ‘regular’ needs and the demands of environmental reconstruction.

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

Finally, for environmentalists, truly addressing the scale of what must be done means moving from a vague anti-capitalism to an aggressive – and confident – call for democratic planning and its corollary of fundamentally challenging corporate property rights. And addressing how to implement such policies, requires bringing the mass of workers on side to both the environmental necessities and to the overcoming of capitalism. This can only begin with actively supporting the defensive struggles of workers with the goal of linking them, as Green Jobs Oshawa has tried to do, to those larger issues of conversion and democratic planning in the shaping of the world to come.

In short, the issue is not simply a matter of bringing the environmental movement and the labour movement together; each must be transformed if the sum is to be more than the currently limited parts. The environmental movement must raise itself to a new level by concretely engaging the working class, and the labour movement must escape what, for it, has become an existential crisis. The threats and opportunities of the environmental crisis offer a chance for labour revival, but only if this incorporates a renewed approach to organizing, struggle, radical politics, and the maximization of informed membership participation. •

Mr. Gindin follows the British Labour Party, in its Manifesto, by jumping on the bandwagon of environmentalism–rather than focusing on criticizing the power of employers as a class (which would involve criticizing union ideology of “fair contracts,” “decent work,” “fair collective bargaining,” and the like) , first, and then linking that issue to environmental issues (see my post  The British Labour Party’s 2019 Manifesto: More Social Democracy and More Social Reformism, Part One). Mr. Gindin only near the end of this section does Mr. Gindin address this issue:

Finally, for environmentalists, truly addressing the scale of what must be done means moving from a vague anti-capitalism to an aggressive – and confident – call for democratic planning and its corollary of fundamentally challenging corporate property rights.

But earlier, Mr. Gindin claims the following is the key issue:

But measured by their work in placing a vital but largely ignored issue on the agenda – the steady loss of the productive capacity we will need to reconstitute the environment

The deindustrialization of the advanced capitalist countries–is that really more important than another issue that has been “largely ignored”–the power of employers as a class? Which should the left focus on? And if we focus on the power of employers as a class, should we not criticize the ideology of many unions, which often try to sell the results of collective bargaining as a “fair contract?”

Frankly, Mr. Gindin’s approach fails to see the need for a rigorous and persistent struggle against those who justify collective agreements with such phrases. The same applies to other social movements who refer to “fairness” and the like. We need to use every opportunity to oppose such indoctrination.

Mr.Gindin, however, argues only for the positive side in the following:

Workers – with the support of their union leadership where possible, on their own if that leadership is not sympathetic – should be setting up committees to consider the future of their workplaces and holding meetings to discuss the plant occupations, nationalizations and conversions in other cities facing major manufacturing shutdowns.

To set up committees that are more than paper committees, it would be necessary to deal with the limitations of unions, collective bargaining and collective agreements while recognizing that collective agreements do provide some real protection for workers. If workers merely set up committees without engaging seriously in debate over the pros and cons of collective bargaining and collective agreements, then such committees will likely be isolated from the needs and interests of workers.

It is interesting that Mr. Gindin engages in abstract moralizing when referring to what the Canadian Labour Congress (an organization of affiliated unions that represent over three million Canadian workers) ‘ought or should do’:

The Canadian Labour Congress should be supporting and coordinating such initiatives with its own research and also joining with the environmental movement to take the initiatives further.

Another inadequacy of Mr. Gindin’s approach can also be seen from the above quote. Hegel, a German philosopher, saw through such empty phrases as “ought to” or “should” long ago (from the Encyclopedia Logic, page 30):

… the understanding, which regards its dreams (L e., its abstractions) as something genuine, and is puffed up about the “ought” that it likes to prescribe, especially in the political field-as if the world had had to wait for it, in order to learn how it ought to be, but is not. If the world were the way it ought to be, what then would become of the pedantic wisdom of the understanding’s “ought to be”?

This does not mean that we should not engage in wishing for what ought to be, but that what ought to be should be grounded in what is the case. What is the nature of the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC)? Is it realistic to believe that the CLC would ‘support and coordinate’ such initiatives? See my criticism of the position of the president of the CLC, Hassan Yussuff, in The Canadian Labour Congress’s Idealization of the Collective-Bargaining Process.  Would it not be better to engage in criticism of the CLC–what it is, how it operates and so forth?

There are other problems with this last section. Reference to “democratic planning” clashes with the call for the government (a capitalist government) to operate as employer. How is there democratic planning when the government is the employer? This is to idealize the government and the public sector. This idealization also is expressed in the following:

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

This uncritical reference to the “public sector”–as if working for the government were somehow not subject to exploitation and oppression–is typical of social democrats. So too is Mr. Gindin’s one-sided reference to challenging “corporate property rights” without challenging the power of the state as a capitalist state, on the one hand, and as an employer, on the other. Again, see the money circuit of capital link above for a critique of this view.

The Poverty of Academic Leftism, Part Five: Middle-Class Delusions

This is a continuation of a critique of an academic leftist (aka academic historical materialist), the philosopher Jeff Noonan.


As noted in a previous post, Professor Noonan makes the following statement in relation to employees at a university (from Thinkings 4Collected Interventions, Readings, Evocations, 2014-2015, page 13):

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

Professor Noonan may respond that he wrote the above in hypothetical form–“if that claim is true”–rather than stating “That claim is true.” By not inquiring into whether the claim is in fact true, though, and proceeding on the basis as if it were true, he practically makes the claim that it is true.

Professor Noonan fails to consider the hierarchy at work as illegitimate; democracy for him, it seems, maintains a hierarchical division of labour; the difference is one where (page 13):

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.

Given the employer-employee relation, Professor Noonan’s position is contradictory. If there is an unelected hierarchy, then how is their democratic argument? Does not an unelected hierarchy necessarily prevent democratic argument since democratic argument requires relative equality of power? In other words, Professor Noonan assumes a socialist organization in the first place, but in the context of an unelected hierarchy, which involves unequal power relations. Or does Professor Noonan consider that an unelected hierarchy does not involve unequal power relations?

Furthermore, given the unelected hierarchy, who will be at an advantage in “the determination of budgets, policies, rules, and goals that guide the institution’s mission?” Of course, academics and the upper echelons of administration. This situation is hardly democratic (although it is certainly to the advantage of tenured academics and the upper echelons of administration).

What is more, Professor Noonan’s implicit acceptance of the current structure of the division of labour hardly reflects a just society. as James Furner has argued, in order for there to be a free society, it is necessary to abolish occupational confinement and occupational identity (see https://www.academia.edu/24290808/Marxs_Sketch_of_Communist_Society_in_The_German_Ideology_and_the_Problems_of_Occupational_Confinement_and_Occupational_Identity ).

In addition, to claim that all workers at a university should have the same goal, where the economic relation of employer-employee is dominant, is to perceive the world from the upper echelons. Why should all workers at a university have the same goal when they are treated as things by the unelected hierarchy? Or are they not treated as things? How is it possible to not be treated as a thing when there exists an employer-employee relation? Perhaps Professor Noonan can explain how this is possible.

Finally, Professor Noonan advocates class collaboration, implicitly if not explicitly. His use of the verb “cooperate” indicates that he believes that all the diverse kinds of employees working at a university should get along in a collegial fashion in order to pursue the same goal. A Marxist, by contrast, would see that although workers have a certain interest in maintaining the university as an institution in the short-run because they need money in order to live, they are used as means for the benefit of the upper echelons’ purposes and are excluded in fact from doing so (see https://theabolitionary.ca/the-money-circuit-of-capital/). Calls for cooperation in such a context work against their own long-term interest of abolishing such a situation. Rather, calls for the intensification of conflict would be more appropriate since there is already an antagonistic relation between workers as employees and management at universities.

Professor Noonan’s position, is, therefore half-hearted. Rather than seeking the elimination of the power of employers as a class, he opts for the illusion of democracy in the public sector–as if that were possible given the dominance of the power of employers as a class in both the public and private sectors.

Such is the poverty of academic leftists, social democracy and reformist leftism these days.

Worker Resistance Against Management, Part Four

This is a continuation of a series of posts on worker resistance. The following was written by Herman Rosenfeld. Since it formed part of a course that he, Jordan House and I presented for workers at the Toronto Pearson International Airport, I am including the preliminary instructions and the subsequent questions so that others can modify and make use of it in similar courses.

Activity Sheet 3: Learning from Collective Resistance Experiences

This is a small group activity.
Read the story and answer the questions below together.
Be prepared to describe the collective struggle to the whole class, and report your answers.
You have 25 minutes to complete this exercise. [This exercise, initially, was combined with other experiences of resistance against management, so we permitted them 25 minutes.]

Overtime Action in the Ontario Legislature

In the early 2000s, members of a public-sector union in Ontario–policy advisors, analysts and other public-service workers–were fighting their employer, the Government of Ontario, for a first overtime provision in their collective agreement. Up until that time, members of the union could be forced to work unlimited hours. The Employment Standards Act does not apply to most civil servants.

As bargaining got started, it became clear the employer did not want to bargain the overtime provision. The union had made it a priority, in part because it was known that many members worked several uncompensated hours on a weekly basis.

The union is organized into chapters along ministry lines. The chapter at the Ministry of Labour was typically the most radical in the union and included people who well understood the challenges facing the union movement in the province. Conscious of the fact that the overtime provision was going to be tough to win, the chapter hatched a plan, with the quiet endorsement of the union’s head office.

When the legislature is in session, policy advisors are expected to complete their House notes by 8:30 a.m. These are documents that government ministers read from when asked questions in the House by opposition members. House notes often take up to one hour to complete. The chapter identified House note “production” as a pressure point that could be used in bargaining. Not having house notes when needed, if done as a collective act, would send a strong message to the employer. That first week the House was in session, the chapter made sure that every House note that was to be delivered to the Minister arrived an hour late. The Minister found herself in the House with no papers to read from when called upon to answer questions. It was an embarrassing performance, indeed!

The message was sent. The following week the employer began to bargain the overtime provision, which was eventually won a few months later and incorporated into a new collective agreement. The Labour Chapter understood how to keep up the pressure in the context of bargaining. The tactic with House notes forced the employer to bargain a provision that the entire membership now benefits from.

Questions

  1. How might this example show that worlplace cultures and practices, favourable to the boss, can be changed?
  2. What were some of the things that the union chapter in the Ministry of Labour would have had to do, in order to build the confidence and resolve necessary to carry out such a collective action? 
  3. What lessons can be learned from this example that applies to your workplace? 

The Poverty of Academic Leftism, Part Three: Collective Bargaining and the Interests of the Working Class

This is a continuation of a critique of an academic leftist (aka academic historical materialist), the philosopher Jeff Noonan.

Another example of the limitations of Professor Noonan’s analysis is the following
(from Thinkings 4Collected Interventions, Readings, Evocations, 2014-2015,page 10):

And sometimes it is necessary to struggle to protect or extend our rights as workers to help determine our conditions of work.

The context for the statement is Professor Noonan’s defense of workers’ right to strike. The problem with this argument is located in his use of the word “sometimes.” Since order-in-council 1003, enacted in 1944 during the Second World War, workers have not had the right to strike during the terms of a collective agreement in Canada. What happens during the terms of a collective agreement? Workers are generally expected to grieve an order, a procedure and so forth by management but continue to work. Is this something with which Professor Noonan agrees? His use of the word “sometimes” seems to imply that as well as his defense of the right to strike–a right that legally arises only after the expiration of a collective agreement.

But what of the need to struggle during the terms of a collective agreement? It may appear that Professor Noonan is sympathetic to the working class and to socialism, and yet his silence concerning, on the one hand, the general legitimacy of collective agreements in the context of the power of a class of employers and, on the other, his silence concerning the need to engage in struggle during the terms of a collective agreement demonstrate the limitations of his approach.Indeed, the International Workers of the World (IWW) have recognized the need to engage in struggle in various forms, with escalating consequences rather than just the strike; the strike, rather, is a high-end pressure tactic and not generally the first form of tactic to engage in in order to achieve workers’ own ends.

This does not mean that workers will engage in struggle continuously; workers of course need to pick and choose their struggles. However, the defense of the right to strike without any mention of the need to struggle against employers during the term of a collective agreement (and not just in the form of grievances) is a very limited defense of the interests of the working class.

It may seem that Professor Noonan recognizes the limitations of collective bargaining. He says the following (page 11):

Collective bargaining is a difficult process. At its best, it is a rare opportunity for workers to participate in the determination of their conditions of work, rather than simply accept whatever conditions are offered. Collective bargaining allows workers to deliberate together as a democratic body about how they think their work should be organized and compensated and to make their case to the employer. Despite what employers publicly maintain, there is no equality of power. Since employers retain ultimate legal control over the workplace, since they continue to draw full salary during any work stoppage, and since the legislative deck is stacked in their favour, without solidarity, both between members of the bargaining unity and between the bargaining unit and the wider community of labour and concerned citizens, the employer is typically in an advantaged position.

How does “solidarity, both between members of the bargaining unity [unit?] and between the bargaining unit and the wider community of labour and concerned citizens” overcome the power of employers as a class? A particular employer may have to concede relative defeat due to certain favourable conditions of a particular section of the working class, but the fact that workers still have to work for an employer involves “an advantaged position” of employers as a class–including the relatively “disadvantaged” employer.

Further evidence of the inadequacy of Professor Noonan’s position can be seen from the following (page 11):

We have only taken strike votes in the face of protracted impasses at the bargaining table over issues of fundamental importance to the membership.

Professor Noonan is trying to present the Windsor University Faculty Association as being reasonable; it does not engage in needless strike votes but only “over issues of fundamental importance of the membership.” This seems eminently reasonable–except it neglects the management rights clause, implicit or explicit, in collective agreements. What if an issue arises “of fundamental importance” to “the membership” during the term of a collective agreement that is not grievable?

Professor Noonan, further, argues the following (page 12):

Why, then, has bargaining often stretched into the fall? The answer is that both sides have too often brought so many items to the table that it took that long to work through them all in a responsible manner.

Perhaps university professors, who have greater control over what they do, how they do their work, and when they do their work than most other employees, need not bring “so many items to the table,” but the implicit or explicit management rights clause for most employees involves the general power of employers and their representatives, managers, to determine what to do, how to do it and when to do it. It is quite understandable why there are many items on the negotiating table from employees’ point of view–the collective agreement is a limiting document, restricting the power of management to exercise its right as management.

In fact, when I was a member of a negotiating team for Operating Engineers Local 858, Prince George, British Columbia, Canada, I consciously tried to show the workers how many items on the table we had to remove in order to obtain what we obtained by presenting all items desired on the left-hand side of the bargaining bulletin and either an x or check mark on the right-hand side. The union business manager had to present this format to a ratification meeting for those in Prince George (because she had asked me to draft it), but since the bargaining unit extended beyond Prince George, ratification also assumed the form of mail-in ballots. The union business manager changed the format to show only what we won before sending out an information bulletin.

Professor Noonan says, further (page 12):

Nevertheless, despite the nightmares of right-wing pundits, university faculties are not full of rabid leftists chomping at the bit to prosecute the class struggle (there are a few of us still left, but I can assure everyone we are in a small minority). Most faculty members care most about their research and their teaching, they do not want either interrupted by either lockouts or strikes, and most are loath to engage in struggles that might harm the reputation of the institutions in which their own reputations as academics are forged. You really have to push academics hard to anger them enough as a collective to make them want to strike (or a strongly resist an imposed lockout).

Although some or even many or even most university professors may find doing research and teaching meaningful in itself, as you go down the line of jobs, with less and less control and more precarious work, the extent of a job being meaningful probably decreases correspondingly. Even jobs in schools, with some control over pedagogy can be less important than other aspects of the job (such as pay and vacation). Although workers try to find meaning in their work in various ways (in the brewery, for example, some workers would play “ball” with beer bottles when the foremen were not looking), many workers have families and find the work more a means to an end rather than an end in itself. (This is the “decent work” that social democrats and reformers persistently talk about–without discussion–such clichés).

In the context in which Professor Noonan is speaking–a union of university professors–it may make sense to speak of striking as a last ditch effort by them to avoid a strike if at all possible–it makes less sense as the work becomes less and less meaningful. Workers in various sectors (whether public or private) may not like to strike–it interrupts their own lives and makes life difficult in various ways–but even when a collective agreement is signed, they are more prone to strike and engage in covert (and, if necessary, overt) actions that express their treatment as things to be used by employers.

Professor Noonan’s neglect of the relatively privileged status of university professors in relation to other workers leads him to assert the following:

Whether or not it was ever practiced in reality, the principle of collegial self-governance is the goal to which universities should aspire. Unlike for profit businesses, universities do not have owners whose goal is to maximise profits. 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.

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.

At the University of Manitoba Dafoe Library, the same hierarchy existed, but there was even more repression (including racist oppression). Was “the left” at the University even aware of this? Not that I could see. Has Professor Noonan even inquired about the working conditions of subordinates at the University of Windsor? Has he tried to criticize trade unionists who adopt an ideology of “decent work?”

It is much easier to criticize from afar than near at hand–much less dangerous. Talk of “democracy” that does not threaten one’s own work position is pure rhetoric.

As I wrote in my previous post:

Furthermore, 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. 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 Guatemala, 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.

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.