Co-optation of Students at School Through We Day, Part Two: The Social-Democratic Left Share Some of We Day’s Assumptions

In a previous post, I outlined how We Day is a form of indoctrination and that schools form vehicles for such indoctrination. What is the social-democratic left’s position in relation to  this indoctrination and its incorporation into schools?

I already mentioned the Manitoba Teachers’ Society (MTS) decision not to promote We Day since some of the corporations that sponsor the event act in contradiction to some of We Day’s professed principles (perhaps, by way of example, Cadbury’s use of cocoa produced with child labour from Ghana). MTS writes:

MTS Bows Out of We Day

The Manitoba Teachers’ Society will no longer be involved in promoting or participating in We Day events.

Delegates to annual meeting agreed with a recommendation from the organization’s Equity and Social Justice Committee and provincial executive.

“The Manitoba Teachers’ Society model of social justice is not reflected in We Day,” the resolution said. “We Day doesn’t promote, support or include a model of social justice that the Society identifies as effective in advancing social change. We Day is more of a charity model that doesn’t address the roots for systemic inequity.”

We Day is a yearly concert and speaker series attended by tens of thousands of students in Canada, the U.S. and Britain.

In recent years it has attracted controversy because of the number of corporate sponsors involved in the events. Some of those sponsors have been accused of actions in other countries that run counter to the messages on which We Day is based.

The decision by delegates does not extend to the involvement of schools and students. In the past, both MTS staff and elected officials have promoted and been participants in We Day.

Would MTS, however, have decided to not support We Day if all the sponsors were consistent with the professed principles of the creators of We Charity, Craig and Marc Kielburger? It is difficult to say, but since they consider a charity model to be insufficient to address the problem of systemic inequity, they would presumably still oppose the model characteristic of We Day. When I searched for the meaning of “systemic inequity” on their website, the only hit that came up with that term was–the item on We Day. (Replacing “equity” by “equality” resulted in zero hits.) Hence, the reader of their site cannot determine why specifically they do not support We Day. This vagueness prevents a reader from determining whether MTS’s position is reasonable in diverse social contexts, such as systemic racism, systemic sexism, systemic ignoring of the power of employers as a class, and so forth.

When I searched The Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario (ETFO) website for “We Day,” I found zero hits. Nonetheless, I did find some hits when I searched using “Kielburger”–the surname of the founders of WE Charity and organizers of We Day held annually at many schools throughout Canada, the United States and elsewhere. Some of the material refers to Craig Kielburger as a model “hero,” as an example of a person who has made a difference, and a “high” recommendation of the book Take Action! A Guide to Active Citizenship by Marc and Craig Kielburger for activism advocacy.

For the many students who attend We Day, the vague reference to “systemic inequity” and the idealization of the Kielburgers as persons and as activists will probably confuse more than enlighten.

Lisa Howell, in an article written in 2015 “A parent & teacher’s reflections on “WE DAY”
how can a social movement feel so meaningless,” expresses her contradictory experience of expecting an inspirational day while attending We Day in Ottawa and experiencing a consumerist and anti-environmental day.

This contradiction between rhetoric and reality should not, however, surprise anyone who understands the nature of capitalist relations at work. In The Money Circuit of Capital, the end of the process of obtaining more money (the goal of private employers) results in more money in relation to the initial process but in itself it is merely a sum of money. To become capital, both the principal and some of the profit must be invested if the employer is to continue to function as an employer (since otherwise competition from other employers will result in being undercut and eventually going bankrupt). This whole process is infinite and can never be reached–it is a goal that can never be satisfied–the infinite process of the accumulation of capital.  How much money is enough? Never enough.

To state it differently: the birth of capital is simultaneously its death; consequently, the being of capital is a process that is only through it always reaching beyond itself.

In a finite world characteristic of the environment, capital is contradictory. There must be a contradiction between the environment and the nature of capitalist social relations. To resolve this problem requires surpassing this infinite process of capital accumulation. It requires a socialist society.

The Kielburgers, as seen in the first part of this two-part series of posts, do not question the legitimacy of this infinite process. They revel in it when they refer to “corporate and social responsibility.” The solutions which they offer, at best, a slight reduction in the impact that this accumulation process has on human beings, on human life and on the environment. Since they fail to question the legitimacy of the process of the process of capital accumulation, their solution actually diverts attention away from the pressing need to go beyond this accumulation process if the problems of child labour, poverty and environmental destruction are to be resolved.

The social-democratic left do seem to object to We Day on occasion. Thus, Molly McCracken, Manitoba director of the social-democratic Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, wrote a short article published online at Rabble.ca (We Day Sidesteps the Real Issues of Child Poverty). She points out the bias of We Day of pandering to corporations, who get free publicity and appear to be socially responsible. The problem of child poverty, she points out, is not addressed in such a forum.

However, let us look at some of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives’ own attitude towards corporations. I did a search, using the terms “fair share taxes.” Several hits came up, with such titles (and dates) as:

  • Demanding a Fair Share (July 20, 2017)
  • Replacing MSP with fair taxes would mean savings for most BC families: economist (July 6, 2016)
  • Change in direction on tax policy needed to escape budget crunch, ensure high-income British Columbians and corporations pay fair share: study (January 29, 2013)
  • A decade of eroding tax fairness in BC (June 30, 2011)
  • Fair Shares (April 27, 2011)
  • Canada’s rich not contributing fair share in taxes: study (November 8, 2007)

The criticism of corporations is restricted to the level of taxes that they pay. Neoliberal governments have reduced corporate taxes and taxes on the rich unfairly whereas the rest of the Canadian population has to pay a disproportionate (and unfair) level of taxes relative to the corporations and the rich.

The implication is that if progressive taxes are re-instituted, then fairness will be realized. This is a social-democratic  point of view, of course. One of the strategies of he social-democratic point of view is to focus on distribution after it has been produced and to disregard the process by which it has been produced (and, when it does focus on the process of production, it neglects the issue of the whether workers are free or not by using such cliches as “good jobs,” “decent work,” “fair contracts” and the like).

This does not mean that the left should not criticize skewed tax policies–but why do they simultaneously do so by implying that a change in tax policies will somehow magically convert the social world into a fair world? If corporations were to pay their “fair share,” then they should have the right to dictate to workers what to do, when to do it and how to do it, should they not? Would child labour, poverty and environmental destruction end if corporations paid their “fair share.”

This idea of “fair share” forms another cliche that the social-democratic left use to hide the reality of the social dictatorship that prevails when working for an employer.

What does the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives mean by “fair share” of taxes? Presumably the following (from the above 2007 article):

The study finds the top 1 percent of families in 2005 paid a lower total tax rate than the bottom 10 percent of families.

“Canada’s tax system now fails a basic test of fairness,” says Marc Lee, senior economist with the CCPA’s B.C. office and author of the study. “Tax cuts have contributed to a slow and steady shift to a less progressive tax system in Canada.”

Paying a fair share of taxes would then mean that the bottom 10 percent of families would pay a lower tax rate than the top 1 percent of families. As long as this is the case, then We Day promoters would then be justified in having corporate sponsors for the event. Of course, some may object that some sponsors may still contradict the principles of We day, but assuming that no corporation exploited child labour (for example), would the social democrats then criticize We Day? Presumably not. They believe, implicitly, that there can be such a thing as corporate fairness and corporate responsibility–just like the Kielburgers. Social democrats and neoliberals share certain assumptions together.

The social-democratic left cannot deal with the contradictory nature of the society in which we live; their inadequate way of dealing with We Day illustrate their inadequate capacity for dealing with this contradictory society.  They either vaguely refer to “systemic inequity,” or they find their expectation and reality contradictory, or they imply that as long as corporations pay their “fair share” of taxes, then We Day should be supported.

Since the social-democratic left cannot deal adequately with the nature of We Day, it is necessary to go beyond their point of view–to a socialist point of view, where the intent is to overcome the infinite process of the accumulation of capital and its corresponding conflicts, struggles and contradictions.

What of the radical left? As far as I can tell, they are, at least in Toronto (and probably elsewhere) oblivious to We Day and the extent to which students in schools are bombarded with employer ideology through such events. The radical left here in Toronto does not even bother to engage in ideological struggle; it accepts such ideologically loaded phrases as “decent work,” “a fair contract,” “fair labour laws,” and so forth.

What is the social-democratic left like where you live? The radical left?

 

The Canadian Left’s Lack of a Vision of the Good Life Beyond a Class of Employers

Stanley Aronowitz, in his book The Death and Life of American Labor: Toward a New Workers’ Movement (New York: Verso, page 162) , points out how the left has in effect abandoned any real intention of developing a movement powerful enough to challenge a system dominated by the class of employers:

Professional intellectuals need not be the only formulators of a new vision of the good life, but they may be needed to boldly put the questions associated with the good life back on the table. As we have seen, even political groups motivated by the promise of new social arrangements refrain from openly discussing their transformative views in their trade unions or in public forums, for fear they will be labeled as sectarians and lose access to the rank and file.

This self-censorship among U.S. radicals is nothing new. It dates from two closely related developments: Samuel Gompers’s refusal to link the labor movement to an ideological flag, a stance that led more radical thinkers to form the rival IWW; and the Socialist Party’s entry, with both feet, into the electoral arena, where the terms of engagement implied acceptance of the capitalist system as the given framework within which the struggles for social reform were to be conducted.

The Canadian left, probably like much of the left, refuse to try to open up debate about where the labour movement is really going. Rhetoric, such as “decent work,” “a good job,” “fair wages,” ‘economic justice” and indeed “fairness” in general are thrown around without the left ever bothering explaining what they mean by such terms.

The Toronto left, for example, is certainly afraid of trying to oblige union representatives to justify their platitudes such as “decent work.” Thus, in Toronto there was a call for supporting the striking brewery workers here. Such a call is certainly to be supported. However, to justify such a call, it was claimed that the brewery workers wanted decent jobs and a fair wage. The call went was sent over a list serve through an organization to which I belonged (the Toronto Labour Committee), headed by Sam Gindin, Herman Rosenfeld and Paul Gray. I decided to criticize the use of such expressions while also indicating the need for supporting the striking brewery workers (I had worked as a brewery worker in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, for about four years, and I knew about wages and working conditions from personal experience).

Eventually, I was called a “condescending prick” by a union representative, and the only defense of my action came from Herman Rosenfeld, who claimed that both I and the union representative were both right (it is nice to be able to have your cake and eat it too).

The point of all this is–there is a decided lack of discussion within the union movement and in the public sphere here in Toronto (and, I suspect, elsewhere in North America)–due to such intimidation tactics. The rhetoric of democracy within the left is just that–it is rhetoric.

There is no real discussion about the obvious dictatorship which billions of workers experience daily in their lives. There is no discussion of any alternative vision of what kind of life we humans really deserve. There is rhetoric of social justice, but there is no real substantial discussion of what that means and no movement towards building a society worthy of our nature as human beings.

There is much talk of resistance–but to what end? Resistance for resistance sake? To hold on to what we have? Not to dare think of anything beyond $15 and fairness or the idea of decent work? The hostility I met from the union reps and the so-called radical left when I questioned such ideas evidently expresses a lack of vision of the good life. For the so-called progressive left, there have been employers, there are employers, and there will always be employers. Such is the nature of the “progressive” left these days. They lack any vision of the good life beyond the class of employers.

 

Social-Reformist Leftist Activists Share Assumptions with the Right

In an earlier post (Basic Income: A Critique of the Social-Reformist Left’s Assumptions and Analysis: Part Two), I argued that the social-reformist leftist activist Mr. Bush used Karl Marx’s theory of surplus value for conservative (reformist purposes). This post will expand on this view by pointing out, in a more theoretical way, how Mr. Bush, undoubtedly like many of his social-reformist comrades, share assumptions with their apparent enemies, the right, such as the conservatives.

Mr. Bush referred to Marx’s theory of surplus value and assumed that this was the primary feature of Marx’s theory. Undoubtedly it is an important aspect of Marx’s theory, but Mr. Bush, by referring to the “messy business of material reality,” including “costs,” crassly assumes that costs are somehow a fixed standard that leftists are somehow not to question. The “messy business of material reality” is assumed, in other words, to be a fixed fact rather than a fluid reality created by human beings and therefore subject to change by them.

Mr. Bush assumes, like Doug Ford and other conservatives, that things (including human beings), have “costs” (the “messy business of material reality)–without inquiring into the nature of those costs or why such things have such costs in the first place.

Let us, however, refer to Marx (and not to the shared assumptions of Mr. Bush and Doug Ford). From Capital, Volume 1, pages 173-175,

Political economy has indeed analysed value and its magnitude, however incompletely, and has uncovered the content concealed within these forms. But it has never once asked the question why this content has assumed that particular form, that is to say, why labour is expressed in value, and why the measurement of labour by its duration is expressed in the magnitude of the product.  These formulas, which bear the unmistakable stamp of value of the belonging to a social formation in which the process of production has mastery over man, instead of the opposite, appear to the political economists’ bourgeois consciousness to be as much a self-evident and nature-imposed necessity as productive labour itself.

The first point is that value and its magnitude (which is related to price, money and “cost”) is an expression of a kind of society in which “process of production has mastery over man [and woman], instead of the opposite.”

The second point is that Marx relates his labour theory of value in order to reveal the social and alienated nature of the labour involved in the development of money and in “costing” things. From Capital, Volume 1, pages 168-169:

Consequently, it was solely the analysis of the prices of commodities which led to the determination of the magnitude of value, and solely the common expression of all commodities in money which led to the establishment of their character as values.
It is however precisely this finished form of the world of commodities – the money form – which conceals the social character of private labour and the social relations between the individual workers, by making those relations appear as relations between material objects, instead of revealing them plainly.

Other authors agree that Marx’s concern is not just with a theory of surplus value but with a theory of surplus value. Thus, John Weeks, in his work Capital, Exploitation and Economic Crisis (New York: Routledge, page 19):

Value acts as a regulator of price once the entire product, all inputs, are monetized;
until this occurs, the product is not a commodity in its entirety and all the
concrete labor time expended on it need not be replaced by money. This occurs
only with the development of capitalist production. It is important not to
become entangled in semantics. “Value” regulates price under capitalist relations
and can be used as a tool of analysis only in capitalist society.

Value regulates cost or the price of what is produced because both the items used to produce something have a price and what is produced with those commodities generally have a price (public services on the produced side excepted). Cost is not some neutral fact in a capitalist society but in an integral aspect that characterizes the very nature of the kind of society in which we live: a capitalist society (modified by public services but not altered fundamentally).

Marx’s theory of value, which Mr. Bush completely ignores, is designed to capture that essential aspect. This is one of the reasons why, before he analyzed capital, he analyzed commodities and money.

Mr. Bush, like Mr. Proudhon, a nineteenth century leftist socialist reformist before him, simply assumes that costs are natural. He refers to these costs as the “messy business of material reality”–as if material reality were somehow by nature characterized by prices and costs. Doug Ford undoubtedly shares the same belief.

In other words, Mr. Bush, a self-avowed social-reformist leftist, shares similar beliefs as Doug Ford about the nature of society despite apparent opposing ideologies. The same could be said of many trade unionists. Do they not believe that costs are natural? That the “messy business of material reality” must necessarily include costs and prices? A social world without costs and prices would be impossible for them.

How can such a shared belief not but fail to have limits in practice? Already Mr. Bush has equated fighting for a $15 minimum wage and other employment law reforms with “fairness.”

What does the radical left do in Toronto (and probably elsewhere)? It is afraid to criticize Mr. Bush’s ideology. After all, Mr. Bush is–doing something. He is “progressive.” Such progress, however, will lead to a backlash since its limits are limits shared by him and Doug Ford. Mr Bush will not seek to go beyond the limits of the power of employers. He will become an apologist for employers, ultimately, since he considers costs and prices to be inevitable–like Doug Ford does. He will, in practice, engage in tactics and strategies that will limit the capacity of workers to free themselves from the power of employers as a class once and for all. He has already begun the process ideologically by claiming that $15 an hour as a minimum wage is somehow fair.

The radical left, then, would do better by criticizing Mr. Bush’s position (and the position of trade unionists similar to that of Mr. Bush). Otherwise, it forms part of the problem rather than part of the solution. By not criticizing such positions as that of Mr. Bush, by remaining silent, it panders after the elite and fails to address the needs of the working class, unionized or non-unionized. Those needs involve exposing the produced conditions of their oppression and exploitation and the proposal of an alternative vision of a society without such oppression and exploitation–which only they can produce.

In other words, the radical left, by failing to develop an independent position and merging with the amorphous “progressive left” (aka, the social-reformist left), has aligned itself with a clique of elitist activists within the labour movement rather than with the working class as a whole.

By doing so, the radical left indirectly aligns itself with the right–such as Doug Ford, since Mr. Bush and Doug Ford share certain assumptions.

 

 

The Limitations of the Social-Reformist Left

Introduction

I used to belong to a leftist organization in Toronto. I started, slowly, to realize that it really has little to do with challenging the power of employers as a class despite the rhetoric concerning class issues being a priority. This view was confirmed when a movement for the reform of employment standards developed in Ontario in general and in Toronto in particular, and the Ontario Liberal government (Canada is divided into provinces, with Ontario as one of the provinces) agreed to such reforms.

The reform of employment standards was certainly needed, and the reforms are indeed useful to the working class. Among the reforms was included an increase in minimum wages to $15 an hour (in two phases). However, the problem is not the reforms but the pairing of these reforms with “fairness.” T-shirts with the slogan “Fight for $15 and Fairness” were produced, and rallies were announced with the same slogan. I found such a pairing objectionable, to say the least.

The Social-Reformist Left

This is a “selling point” typical of the social-reformist left. They try to get others to agree to the reforms that they propose by claiming that it is fair or just in some way; this is also often the tactic of union negotiating teams (as will be seen in another post).

Logically, the social-reformist left would never dare to pair a law that reduced the number of times a husband could hit his wife legally from 25 times a year to 10 times a year with the concept of fairness. Of course, receiving 10 hits a year is, in general, better than receiving 25 hits a year (all other circumstances being the same, such as the force of the hit, the hit not resulting in death and so forth). But they would object to the very idea of calling even the 10 hits a year fair.

Logically, though, the social-reformist  left do dare to pair $15 an hour (and other labour law reforms) with the concept of fairness. They “forget” that workers still are treated as means for purposes over which they have little or no control (see The Money Circuit of Capital)

This forgetfulness is actually agreement with the continued existence of the power of employers as a class.

Indeed, David Bush, a labour and community organizer (and doctoral student) in Toronto specifically claimed that the reforms were fair. They are certainly fairer, but to claim that they are fair assumes that the relationship between the class of employers and the class of workers is fair. The social-reformist left rely on the acceptance of the fairness of the employer-employee relation in order to justify its own position. The money circuit of capital shows that such a relationship is decidedly unfair. (I will address Mr. Bush’s reformist ideology in another post).

The social-reformist left, therefore, conveniently forget about the class relation between employers and employees as the background for any reform movement, and then boldly claims that the Fight for $15 is fair. They have no intention of challenging the power of employers as a class.

The social-reformist left may, of course, try to argue that there is a large difference between arguing that a reduction from 25 hits to 10 hits is fair to arguing that an increase in the minimum wages to $15 is fair. A reduction in the number of hits is negative whereas the increase in the minimum wage is positive. If, however, we look at the logic of both, they are the same. Both narrow the focus to what has been gained. In the case of a reduction in the number of hits, the focus is exclusively on the number of hits, without taking into consideration the remaining hits. In the case of an increase in the minimum wage (and other labour law reforms), consideration of the remaining power of employers–a power that is abusive in itself–is simply ignored. How otherwise could the social-reformist left then call the increase in the minimum wage fair (rather than fairer)?

Both logics exclude consideration of the wider context, and both present certain changes exclusively in a positive light (a favourite tactic of the social-reformist left). In another post, it will be pointed out that acting intelligently requires taking into consideration the context; if we do not, we likely will act unintelligently. The social-reformist left, ultimately, propose that we act unintelligently.

The Radical Left

The organization to which I belonged found the pairing of $15 and fairness to be irrelevant. There was no objection to such a linking of the reform movement and the issue of fairness. I found this lack of criticism to be appalling and, as a consequence, withdrew from the organization.

The silence of the so-called radical left in Toronto (and undoubtedly in other cities and countries) over such issues shows just how dominate the social-reformist point of view has become at a practical level. Such a view assumes TINA: there is no alternative.

We need to start discussing how to challenge the power of employers as a class. The so-called radical left, however, creates all sorts of excuses for not adopting a class point of view and for putting off any discussion about such issues. Reform is all that is on the agenda for them–like the social-reformist left.

The radical left in Toronto, by remaining silent over the issue, practically are on the same level as the social-reformist left. By remaining silent, they foster the continued illusion that the existence of the class of employers and the class of employees are somehow natural and eternal. This illusion needs to be constantly criticized.

By remaining silent, the radical left in Toronto fosters actions that are unintelligent. By remaining silent, the radical left contributes to the continued oppression and exploitation of the billions of workers who experience the daily grind of being treated as things at work.

Some among the radical left, of course, will justify such silence in many ways. Some may say that it is necessary to create structures (such as TAWC–the Toronto Airport Workers Council) that cut across unions. Somehow, by magic, such structures are going to address the power of employers as a class–in the far distant future. Such a vague future is a fairy tale. The radical left, in practice, do nothing different from the social-reformist left.

I attended one TAWC meeting; I did not hear any conversation that related to the power of employers as a class. It was more like an extended union meeting than anything else.

Others may claim that we need to engage in a “war of position” (based on the Italian Marxist Gramsci). Practically, this “war of position” turns out to be no different than the social-reformist left’s position. Why else was there silence over the issue of the fairness of $15 an hour? Or is such silence an expression of a “war of position”?

Ultimately, the radical left in Toronto lost an opportunity for bringing up the class issue–and that is what is needed in these trying times of ours–and not more social-reformist rhetoric.