Law (the Legal System) and the Coercive Power of Employers as a Class

Introduction

It is interesting how little discussion arises over the nature of the legal system and how it contributes to the exploitation, oppression and economic coercion of billions of workers throughout the world. Unions rarely if ever discuss such issues–it is considered to be utopian at best–whereas unions dealing with the “real” problems that workers face every day. Representatives of unions really need to justify their lack of interest in, on the one hand, addressing such issues and, on the other hand, in failing to incorporate a critique of the legal system into trade-union education.

All Corporations as Criminals–Not Just Some, Or: Definition of the Problem

Below is a set of quotes, along with some commentary, from Professor Harry Glasbeek’s (2018) book Capitalism: A Crime Story. Glassbeek points out in various ways that the employment contract, whether individual or collective, involves coercion:

Every contract of employment, supposedly voluntarily entered into by workers, imposes a legally enforceable duty on workers to obey, a duty to exercise reasonable skill and care, a duty of good faith and loyalty. The worker is not to talk back, let alone rebel; the worker’s only goal is to serve her employer and its goals. This is deeply embedded in our supposedly liberal legal system. As Otto Kahn-Freund put it, the lawyer acknowledges that the hallmark of employment relationships is the element of subordination to which one party, the employee, is said to agree. Canada’s Task Force on Labour Relations baldly stated that a superior-inferior nexus is the distinguishing characteristic of the employment relationship.46 Even when workers can protect themselves better by having won the right to engage in collective bargaining (obviously a departure from the individual contract model), workers are required to obey all reasonable orders the employers issue. The notionally sovereign, autonomous workers are repeatedly and expressly told that the workplace is not a debating society. Coercion of individuals and appropriation of their product remain salient features of legally enforceable contracts of employment, even when laws are passed to alleviate the burdens imposed by its judicially developed doctrines.48

Force and taking—it is the norm. It is not hard to see this if law’s pretenses are unmasked. Take our illustrative mugger who threatens a person with force: the law is sanguine. He is a criminal. The employer who threatens a worker with wage loss if she insists on having clean lungs is treated, by means of a legal pretense, as merely negotiating terms and conditions of a contract (including those of safety at work) with another equally sovereign party. This is a momentous and absurd assumption. Yet, all occupational health and safety regulation begins with this premise, that is, with the initial thought that, whenever possible, safety at work should be left to bargaining between private (if unequal) actors. I will come back to this issue, but the implications are dire for workers. For the moment, I return to my claim that it is patently false to assert that workers enter voluntarily into contracts of employment. Workers have no choice about whether to sell their labour power [their capacity to work or to use the means of production, such as computers and other machines and tools]; if they are lucky they can choose among some purchasing capitalists. They must sell parts of themselves. That is their only freedom, a freedom that is best described as a freedom they are forced to exercise, an oxymoronic idea if there ever was one.

This coercive economic system and its indirectly coercive political and legal system can have deadly consequences, to which legislators have to pay lip service (as the Westray mining murders illustrate:

Legislators may have to overcome stiff opposition from the dominant class’s opinion moulders, but will act to still the palpable public unrest. They feel under pressure to reassure the non-capitalist public that politicians, policy-makers, and the law do truly care about life and the social values by which non-capitalists want, and expect, to live.

Canada’s Westray mining tragedy provides an easy illustration. Before the mine blew up, there had been fifty-two violations of mining safety regulations detected by the inspectorate, none of them leading to punishment. In the aftermath of the deaths of twenty-six workers (no employers or managers, of course), a public inquiry was established. The findings were that the operators had been incompetent at best and, at worst, heedless of human life. Note here that, while the violations of the regulations provided evidence for such findings, it was not the lack of obedience to the resultant orders for breaches of those
standards that got everyone angry. It was the business plan and the daily modus operandi of the mine owners that was seen as repellent, as worthy of criminalization. This was explicitly supported by the authoritative commission of inquiry. Its recommendation was that, if the law did not allow for criminal prosecution of corporations and of their senior operators for this kind of conduct, it should be reformed. After a lengthy battle (capitalists, their corporations, and their ideological defenders did not like this turn of events), legislation was enacted. It makes it possible to criminalize the omission to take action when it is reasonable for some senior officers to believe that it is likely that there will be a
failure to take adequate care (calibrated by regulations or general legal principles). This gradual realization that the usual exceptional legal treatment of capitalists and their corporations needs to be reined in from time to time is not jurisdictionally specific. Analogous legal reforms have been initiated in some Australian jurisdictions and a somewhat less sweeping statute was enacted in the U.K.

These recognitions that heedless risk-creation and risk-shifting, so natural, so routine to for-profit corporations, is potentially criminal in nature and might be so treated go against the grain, go against the starting premise that capitalism’s normal workings involve virtuous actors, using innocent substances and methods that may occasionally lead to unfortunate “accidents” and “spills.” The resistance mounted by capitalists and their corporations’ cheerleaders has been forceful and, thus far, has blunted the impact of the new criminal law reforms. In Canada, after ten years of operation, there has only been one prosecution in respect of fatalities at work per year, even though the number of fatalities has remained constant. The calculation is that there is a 0.1 per cent chance that a prosecution will be launched after a workplace death. That this was always going to be true can be gleaned from the fact that all these reforms took ages to put on the statute books (in Canada close to eleven years; the Australian Commonwealth statute took a similar twelve years to be given life), despite officialdom’s caterwauling about the tragic nature of the results that had led to them.

The powers-that-be continue to believe in their internalized make-believe view that it is not unethical, not criminal, for practising capitalists to undertake actions that they know, or should know, will lead to a certainty of death or other unacceptable outcomes. Thus, when confronted by policy-makers under pressure to confirm that we still live in a liberal democratic society and should punish capitalists as if they were ordinary folk, they ask everyone not to be romantic. Pragmatism is to rule. Principle is a luxury. The liberal spirit of law must be bent to allow capitalists and their corporations (and thereby all of us) to flourish. It is not a very convincing argument on which to base a legal system. At best, it is
amoral; it asks that we should be willing to suspend our ethical goals for the sake of expediency. In any event, this demand, based as it is on the notion that the suspension of our adherence to our shared values and norms is a practical response to real-world circumstances, is not backed by any sound evidence. What is certain, however, is that the tolerance for amorality, or worse, for ethical and moral failures, does nothing for the social cohesion that any society must have to flourish.

Some Proposed Solutions to the Criminal Nature of Corporations–and the Probable Resistance of Social Democrats to Such Solutions

Academics, like Professor Glasbeek, who are critical of the legal system and are aware of its class biases sometimes naively believe that those who claim to be opposed to capitalism are in fact opposed to it. For example,  Professor Glasbeek argues the following:

It would be politically useful to shift the nature of the debate. It should become a debate about whether corporate capitalism actually delivers the good it promises and that this permits it to justify asking society to bear the occasional “malfunctioning” of the system. If this can be done, anti-capitalist activists might find themselves on a more favourable terrain of struggle. Pro–corporate capitalism advocates will have to show that the material wealth capitalists and their corporations produce outweighs the dysfunctionalities generated by their ceaseless drive for more. The uneven distribution of wealth and power, the many physical and psychic injuries inflicted by the chase for profits, the rending of the values and norms by which people other than capitalists believe they should live, all can be listed and elaborated to offset the satisfaction we are supposed to evince because, in the aggregate, monetary wealth is growing ever so nicely. Making this a focus of the attack on capitalists and their corporations can reveal that their reliance on the argument that “the most wickedest of men [doing] the wickedest of things” is a proper means to deliver the “bounty” of economic growth that we supposedly need and crave is inane, perhaps even insane. An argument that their calculation of wealth does not speak of a kind of wealth that meets the aspirations of human beings who want to live in a more altruistic, more compassionate, more ecologically nurturing society can be put on the agenda.

I fail to see how such an agenda is really being promoted here in Toronto by the so-called progressive left. The progressive left talk about “fair contracts,” “good jobs,” and the like. Indeed, it is interesting how social democrats, ultimately, idealize law and the legal system. Thus, trade unionists here in Toronto, such as Tracy McMaster (union steward, organizer, former vice president, Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) local 561 and Wayne Dealy (executive director, Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) local 3902), who refer to a fair contract, indirectly idealize the legal system. They assume that there can be such a thing as a fair contract (including, of course, a collective agreement). The legal system, however, is not only “imperfect” (to use one of Ms. McMaster’s euphemistic terms) but riveted with biases against workers and the working class.

What are Wayne Dealys, Tracy McMasters of the world  doing to enlighten workers about the unfairness of contracts and the unfairness of a society characterized by the power of a class of employers? Or are they more concerned with idealizing collective agreements and minimizing the imperfections in collective agreements and the legal system of which collective agreements form a part?

What would the Dealy’s and McMaster’s say, not rhetorically but practically, about Professor Glasbeek’s following assertion:

This led to legislative interventions to “even up” the bargaining game. We now allow some unionization; we now provide some legislated standards if workers cannot win socially acceptable terms by their own free and voluntary dealmaking. The scope and kind of these protections wax and wane as political and economic fortunes change. When wins are recorded, they are significant worker friendly add-ons to what unmodified employer favouring law offers. But because they are add-ons, many of the legislative gains made by the working class are impermanent. The essentially coercive nature of employment remains intact. Still, the fact that there have been many reforms, that is, many interferences with free contract-making, may suggest to some that the continued significance of the ideological and instrumental impacts of the individual contract of
employment is overstated in the argument presented here. To many observers, the contention that workers are making autonomous choices when entering employment contracts holds up because, in the advanced economies where Anglo-American laws rule, many of us (after 180 or so years of fierce struggles) have some protections against the legalized right of employers to use their wealth as a bludgeon. It is fair to say that the modernized employment relationship looks more benign than it did, but this may only mean that its coercive nature is more insidious, less easily seen. This may make matters
worse….

The fact is that law maintains the basis for a deeply unequal relationship between employers and workers, even when this is sugar-coated by contingent gains made by the working class.

Social reformists and social democrats not only would likely ignore Professor Glasbeek’s analysis of the problem, but they would likely reject out of hand his proposed solutions. For instance, consider Professor Glasbeek’s following proposal:

The characterization of corporations as sovereign individuals with their own agendas is not defensible and should be confronted constantly. Conceptually and materially, they are collectives endowed with disproportionate economic and political powers that benefit the contributors of capital to their coffers. Corporations are instruments designed to satisfy capitalists’ drive for more. Their misbehaviours should be attributed to capitalism as a system and capitalists as people. Anti-capitalist activists and critics should not permit themselves to be distracted by legal proposals to reform corporations or by engaging with movements designed to persuade corporations to be more socially responsible. If, as argued here, capitalism is criminal in nature, it follows that, when they flout ethical and moral norms embedded in law or violate legally mandated standards, corporations are doing what comes naturally to red-blooded human capitalists and what they want their corporations to do. Given the frailty of the legal reasoning that bestows legal personality on an artificial being and that limits fiscal liability and removes legal responsibility from those who hide behind the novel legal person, anti-capitalist activists and critics would do well to argue for the abolition of corporations and hold their controllers’ feet to the fire. An extended and cogent argument to this effect has been made by Steve Tombs and David Whyte in their recent work, The Corporate Criminal.

Conclusion

I know of no social-democratic leftist individual in Toronto who seriously is working towards the abolition of corporations. They consider such talk to be absurd–in practice, although in theory they may pay lip-service to it. They certainly do not teach the decidedly opposite interests of workers and employers. Quite to the contrary. They often paper over such opposition by the use of such phrases as “fair contracts,” “fair collective agreements,” “fair wages,” “decent jobs” and the like.

I invite social reformists or social democrats to engage seriously in creating a movement for the abolition of corporations, in Toronto and elsewhere. Relying ultimately on the legal system to defend us is bound to end up in limited gains and the continued coercion, exploitation and oppression of millions upon millions of workers.

Of course, given my own experiences with social reformers or social democrats, I suspect that they will continue to ignore the systemic real experiences of class oppression, class exploitation and class coercion. In such circumstances, they need to be criticized constantly.

Reform Versus Abolition of the Police, Part Seven: Giving to Abolitionists with One Hand While Taking Back with the Other and Giving to Social Democrats

In his article published in the social-democratic journal Canadian Dimension on May 28, 2020, “Can We Ever Truly Transform or Democratize the Police? Measures Are Needed to Restrain and Neutralize Police Brutality to Whatever Extent Possible,” Harry Kopyto, ( https://canadiandimension.com/articles/view/can-we-truly-transform-or-democratize-the-police) seems to agree much more with James Wilt in the debate between Mr. Wilt and Herman Rosenfeld in the same journal (see my posts, such as Reform or Abolition of the Police, Part One). He argues, in effect, that it is, in practice, impossible to reform the police:

Rosenfeld is correct in promoting legislative and other changes similar to the ones identified above in response to the litany of police violence described by Wilt, but he is wrong in sowing illusions that these measures will change the fundamental nature of the police and “transform” them.

On the other hand, he claims that both Mr. Wilt and Mr. Rosenfeld have something to learn from each other: 

In my view, based on a career working as a criminal lawyer and a legal advocate against police abuse for 47 years before retirement, they should both learn to listen to each other because they both have something insightful to say.

I deny that Mr. Rosenfeld has much to teach us about how we are to address the problem of the police in relation to the working class. Mr. Kopyto concedes too much to Mr. Rosenfeld. Indeed, Mr. Kopyto falls into the same position, ultimately, as Mr. Rosenfeld, when answering the question: What is to be done? 

For example, Mr. Kopyto concludes his article with the following (despite showing the oppressive nature of the police historically): 

On the other hand, Wilt is right to point out that as enforcers of capitalist laws, police forces are inherently violent instruments of class oppression and must be abolished along with the capitalist system they serve. However, in the meantime, until that happens, measures are needed to restrain and neutralize police brutality to whatever extent may be possible [my emphasis].

This is a defensive position. Of course, we need to restrict the powers of the police at every opportunity (but this contradicts Mr. Rosenfeld’s view that we need the police because they protect workers from the theft of their property and from murder–see my critique. Mr. Kopyto does not mention Mr. Roesenfeld’s defense of the police in terms of these two functions).

In martial arts, if you can attack and defend at the same time, all the better. From Alan Gibson (2000), Why Wing Chun Works, pages 39-40 (Wing Chun is a form of Chinese kung fu): 

Simultaneous attack and defence.

Simultaneous attack and defence does not only mean doing one thing with one hand, (defending) and something different with the other (attacking). In Wing Chun this happens most of the time. Simultaneous attack and defence also refers to one hand serving two purposes at once.

Defensive measures may, on occasion, be necessary under special circumstances, but it is much more preferable to engage in simultaneous attack and defence in order to win a battle. To engage in purely defensive actions constantly often leads to defeat or at least to a weakening of one’s actions–as has indeed occurred with the rise of neoliberalism and the weak, defensive response of unions in many parts of the world. 

Mr. Rosenfeld, with his reformist suggestion of “transforming and reforming the police,” puts off forever the need to take back the protection of our lives from threats to it from others–and that means the major threat that employers mean to working-class lives (something which Mr. Rosenfeld does not even consider) (see Working and Living in a Society Dominated by a Class of Employers May Be Dangerous to Your Health). 

But let us return to Mr. Kopyto’s “In the meantime.” This “in the meantime” provides an opening to the social-democratic left to put off forever the abolition of the police. Their position, practically, is to perpetuate the existence of the police. They do not aim to abolish the police as a separate institution until some vague, distant future (Mr. Rosenfeld mentioned 100 years in his article–but it could well have been 1,000 years or 10,000 years–100 years is an arbitrary number chosen by Mr. Rosenfeld in order to postpone aiming to begin the process of abolition today). 

I will repeat (and quote) what I wrote in other posts about the difference between the abolitionist stance, which argues that it is necessary to incorporate the goal of abolishing the police in the present if that goal is to be realized. 

In a previous post (see How to Aim for Socialism Without Aiming for It, or The Nature of the Social-Democratic or Social-Reformist Left) , I wrote: 

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

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

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

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

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

Mr. Kopyto’s “In the meantime” provides an opening for social democrats to separate the future from the present and put off aiming for socialism in the present.

Let me repeat from still another post what a real or good aim means (not the pseudo-aim of social democrats who claim they are aiming for socialism). From Democracy and Education (2004):

The aim must always represent a freeing of activities. The term end in view is suggestive, for it puts before the mind the termination or conclusion of some process. The only way in which we can define an activity is by putting before ourselves the objects in which it terminates—as one’s aim in shooting is the target. But we must remember that the object is only a mark or sign by which the mind specifies the activity one desires to carry out. Strictly speaking, not the target but hitting the target is the end in view; one takes aim by means of the target, but also by the sight on the gun. The different objects which are thought of are means of directing the activity. Thus one aims at, say, a rabbit; what he wants is to shoot straight; a certain kind of activity. Or, if it is the rabbit he wants, it is not rabbit apart from his activity, but as a factor in activity; he wants to eat the rabbit, or to show it as evidence of his marksmanship—he wants to do something with it. The doing with the thing, not the thing in isolation, is his end. The object is but a phase of the active end,—continuing the activity successfully. This is what is meant by the phrase, used above, “freeing activity”

By contrast, the idea of “in the meantime” that is purely defensive involves an external aim or a pseudo-aim or not really even an aim since it fails to link up the present with the future and the future with the present:

In contrast with fulfilling some process in order that activity may go on, stands the static character of an end which is imposed from without the activity. It is always conceived of as fixed; it is something to be attained and possessed. When one has such a notion, activity is a mere unavoidable means to something else; it is not significant or important on its own account. As compared with the end it is but a necessary evil; something which must be gone through before one can reach the object which is alone worth while. In other words, the external idea of the aim leads to a separation of means from end, while an end which grows up within an activity as plan for its direction is always both ends and means, the distinction being only one of convenience. Every means is a temporary end until we have attained it. Every end becomes a means of carrying activity further as soon as it is achieved. We call it
end when it marks off the future direction of the activity in which we are engaged; means when it marks off the present direction.

Mr. Kopyto certainly does not intend to be a reformist, but his “in the meantime” leads directly and practically to such conclusions. His insights, such as the following, then can be dismissed by the social-democratic left:

The police, in Canada and elsewhere, were created to protect property rights and enforce repressive laws that were created and interpreted in the interests of the status quo. Even decades before it became the norm for police to break up demonstrations or target minorities, they were used to enforce criminal conspiracy charges against trade union “combines”. Police forces are not neutral or reformable—they are quasi-militarized with all emphasis on a culture of obedience and none on training to be able to exercise independent and critical judgment. Hence, sexism, racism, xenophobia and a “we-they” mentality run rampant in these institutions of repression. In many cases, as we know, police have been used to deny democratic rights and attack or restrict labour actions.

Why is it not possible to engage in defensive measures while simultaneously engaging in actions that serve to protect workers and other community members? I have already provided some examples of such efforts in the past (see Reform versus Abolition of Police, Part Four: Possible Alternatives)? 

There has been a call for defunding the police and using some of the funds to hire mental health workers, social workers and others to investigate violent crimes and to deal with gender- and race-based violence, civil services to engage in traffic services, the enforcement of bylaws and minor offences, and a specialized unit for immediate intervention in violent crimes, with such a unit having all other present functions performed by police allocated to other kinds of people as outlined above, and therefore with a much reduced budget and area for intervening in citizens’ lives (see https://defundthepolice.org/alternatives-to-police-services/). 

Furthermore, why not use some funds to create protective organizations for workers and others outside work? For hiring or training workers in health and safety inspections since workers often face many more dangers from working for an employer than threats at being murdered (see Working and Living in a Society Dominated by a Class of Employers May Be Dangerous to Your Health). 

Such abolitionist initiatives need to be sought in the present and not in some distant future. From Ray Acheson,  (page 25): 

The imperative of now

Abolition is inevitably a long-term, ongoing project of change. But abolition is not just
about the future: it needs to start now.

In this moment that we are currently experiencing, this moment of profound shifts in
thinking and in action happening across the United States and around the world, it
is important to recognise that we are already doing abolitionist work. Throughout the
COVID-19 pandemic and during the recent protests, we have built and enriched mutual
aid networks—models of community support learned from, among others, Indigenous,
Black, and queer communities. People from all walks of life are coming together to care
for each other physically and emotionally. Many of these acts of solidarity and support are
being documented through independent media like Unicorn Riot; many of them will never
be recorded. But it is happening, and it shows what more we can do.

Mr. Kopyto may not have intended to argue that the police should be perpetuated, but his use of the phrase “in the meantime,” coupled with merely defensive measures that regulate the police in effect defend the perpetuation of the police. 

Socialists need to aim for abolition by bringing such an aim into the present–into actions and engagements that institute policies that link the present to the future aim, and the future aim to present actions and engagements. 

That is our task at the present as socialists. 

Basic Income, Public Ownership and the Radical Left in the Wake of the Coronavirus Pandemic: A Critique

In a couple of posts, I criticized John Clarke’s opposition to a particular form of basic income. Mr. Clarke is a former leader of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

Mr. Clarke continues to oppose any alternative universal  basic income scheme (see  ‘Pandemic Basic Income’ Gets It Wrong). He has ignored my criticisms, of course. As I pointed out in one of the posts, his opposition then turns into a social-democratic or social-reformist criticism; he ignores entirely his own observation that capitalist society necessary involves economic coercion, which forces workers to work for employers. At the time, he offered no alternative solution–other than an implicit return to the welfare state of the earlier post-war era. In his new post, he does offer an apparent solution. Before looking at his proposed solution, let us briefly look at his analysis of the problem of universal basic income.

Rather predictably, this situation has led to a bit of an upsurge in calls for a Universal Basic Income (UBI). To the liberal and left thinkers who promote this idea, it naturally makes particular sense to put it into effect at a time such as this. Of course, the last thing I want to oppose is the idea of emergency payments to those without adequate income, as COVID-19 impacts our communities. However, the ‘pandemic basic income’ solution of simply distributing state payments to everyone ($1,000 a month has been suggested) puts into exceptionally clear focus the basic problem with UBI. In more normal times, the scheme represents an ill considered effort, as I’ve argued elsewhere, ‘…to make its peace with (the) neoliberal order and accept a commodified form of social provision.’ It doesn’t challenge low wage precarious work or the degrading and privatizing of the social infrastructure but asks only for a basic payment, paid out of general revenues, and it is taken on faith that the adequacy of this can somehow be assured.

Mr. Clarke still remains riveted to proposals for a basic income that remain well within limits acceptable to employers. However, what if a movement for a minimum basic income of $3000 per month per household member (or even more) emerged? Why limit such a movement to $1000 a month? A universal income that threatens the existence of the supply of workers on the market would not only “challenge low-wage precarious work” but would challenge in many instances the very employer-employee economic structure. Mr. Clarke simply implies through his silence that such a movement is not feasible.

What is his alternative proposal, or his alternative solution?

A fight for no bailouts without public ownership is the only approach that makes any sense if the current period is not to become the greatest free ride for the rich in history and a prelude to austerity on an unprecedented scale.

Mr. Clarke’s reference to a move towards “austerity on an unprecedented scale” is likely true if experience from the 2008 economic crisis is to be our guide. However, the idea that bailouts tied only to “public ownership” is a sufficient solution to the problems that workers and communities face. This reference to “public ownership” or nationalization is a staple of the social-democratic left. How does public ownership solve the problem of a society out of control by those who work and live in it?

The view that public ownership or nationalization by itself implies that  the state is a neutral instrument which merely needs to be captured by the left in order for social problems to be solved. I criticized this view in another post  (see 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).

Public ownership certainly addresses some of the concerns of workers and communities–specifically, the need for certain services without having to pay money for them. However, as long as the general process of producing our lives is out of our control, public ownership is bound to result in distorted and inadequate satisfaction of our needs.

This call for public ownership as a solution to the problems that we currently face is also proposed by other social democrats. For example, a social-democratic organization–Rankandfile.ca (“Canadian Labour News and Analysis from a Critical Perspective”) Emily Leedham refers to Tony Leah (ex-worker at GM Oshawa), who calls for public ownership of the plant:

While many workers are encouraged by GM’s decision, Leah says Green Jobs Oshawa will continue to push for public ownership of the plant.

“If it’s under public ownership, then it can be the basis for expanding and becoming an important manufacturing centre that provides a security of supplies for future crises,” he explains.“That can’t happen if it’s left up to a corporation that’s always driven by maximizing their own profit.”

In one sense, public ownership can overcome some of the problems associated with the limitations of private capitalist employers: production need not directly be produced for profit. However, if it is not produced for profit, what of its inputs? Public ownership exists alongside private corporations in a world market, which is the main driver of our lives

Neither Mr. Clarke nor Mr. Leah discusses at all the limitations of public ownership. They do not discuss the nature of the modern state and how it, magically, is to enable us to control our own lives. Should we not be discussing the adequacy of the modern state and public ownership or nationalization to enable us to control our own lives rather than assuming that it satisfies our needs?

When we look at the modern government or state, we see a political organization designed to ensure the continued maintenance of a society characterized by classes, specifically, on the one hand, the class that owns and controls the means for us to produce our lives–buildings, factories, computers, raw materials and so forth–the class of employers–and, on the other, those who work for them, the class of workers. Of course, in the real world it is more complicated, but such complications should not blind us to the basic class structure.

Werner Bonefeld (2014) in his Critical Theory and the Critique of Political Economy: On Subversion and Negative Reason, points out how the German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel characterized both modern “civil society” or a society characterized by an antagonism of individuals and modern classes, and it was this specific antagonism that required the modern political form (pages 166-167):

Hegel conceived of bourgeois society as antagonistic in character. It was because of its antagonistic character that it required a political form. He develops the necessity of the state from the innate character of bourgeois society. … He then argues that the division of labour crystallizes ‘into systems, to one or another of which individuals are assigned – in other words, into class divisions’.

These divisions are antagonistic in character as the development of bourgeois society leads to its polarization into antagonistic class relations. According to Hegel, the polarization of society into two opposing classes is an innate necessity of bourgeois society. It belongs to its constituted dynamic. As he sees it, bourgeois society ‘results in the dependence and distress of the class tied to [work]’. Dependence and distress are also entailed in the ‘inability to feel and enjoy the broader freedoms and especially the intellectual benefits of civil society’. Moreover, the expanded reproduction of bourgeois society results ‘in the creation of a rabble of paupers’ and the ‘concentration of disproportionate wealth in a few hands’. What to do ‘when the masses begin to decline into poverty’ and start to rebel? He rejects redistribution of wealth as this ‘would violate the principle of civil society’. He also rejects what today is called a policy of full-employment as contrary to its logic. Rather than solving the problem, it would intensify it. Thus, ‘despite an excess in wealth, civil society is not rich enough, i.e. its own resources are insufficient to check excessive poverty and the creation of a penurious rabble’. There is no economic answer to the polarization of society. Economy does not provide order, nor does it curb the ‘rabble’. In fact, ‘the inner dialectic of civil society . . . drives it . . . to push beyond its own limits’. How to keep the class antagonism within the limits of its bourgeois form? For Hegel, there is only a political answer. He saw the state as the political force of bourgeois society and charged it with containing the class antagonism.

The modern form of government, or the modern form of state, emerges simultaneously with the emergence of the class of employers and the class of employees or workers. To treat this modern political institution or modern political form as somehow capable of realizing our class interests as workers seems far fetched–and yet this is what the social-democratic left do when they call for public ownership or nationalization without further ado.

Note how the call for public ownership or nationalization is often not linked to the critique of the general class relation between employers and employees. It is seen as a solution to specific problems–a stop-gap measure needed to address specific problems that workers face. In such a situation, there is no challenge to the general power of employers.

What of the more general call for the nationalization of industry, means of communication and the like? This often has reactionary overtones since there is then an alliance between workers and employers within one country against workers and employers in other countries (Bonefeld, page 151):

The notion, then, of a ‘national economy’ makes little sense; it is a regressive concept that lends itself, at best, to ideas of national developmental methods associated with the theory and practice of economic nationalism or, at worst, and as Chapter 9 sets out, to the reactionary ideas and practices of nationalism that in reaction to world-market disturbances assert the regressive equality of the imagined national community as the rallying cry against the external enemy within. Of course, protectionism remains a very powerful device to protect a ‘national economy’. However, the national economy is neither independent from the world market nor does it merely exist in relation to the world market. Rather, the national economy subsists in and through the world market. Protectionism, then, amounts to a ‘measure of defence within free trade’.

The more general view that somehow public ownership leads to control over our lives and thus to freedom simply ignores the nature of the modern state.

Mr. Clarke’s solution to the problem of the current crisis idealizes the modern state. A call for a radical basic income, on other hand, pushes beyond the existing society by challenging on the one hand the power of the class of employers over the class of workers. As workers become more independent of the class of employers, they will be required to change the nature of the modern state since the latter is, by its very nature, designed to ensure their continued real subordination to the power of employers while making it appear that workers freely subordinate themselves to that power (Bonefled, pages 176-177):

Liberalism therefore does not demand ‘weakness from the state, but only freedom for economic development under state protection’.58 In this sense, the state of the free economy does not really govern over society. Rather, it governs through the individuals. There is no freedom without the order of freedom, and order is not only a matter of law. It is also a matter of morality. The order of freedom entails surveillance as a means of freedom. The premise of government is that economic ‘security is only to be had at a price of constant watchfulness and adaptability and the preparedness of each individual to live courageously and put up with life’s insecurities’. There really is only one freedom, and that is the freedom of the self-responsible economic agents who adjust to the price signals with the will of and for enterprise, the one buying labour power with the expectation of making a profit, the other selling labour power as the dispossessed producer of surplus value, seeking to make ends meet. That is, poverty is neither unfreedom nor is it primarily material in character.60 Rather, poverty expresses a moral form of deprivation that is characterized by a poverty of aspiration, requiring state action to transform the sellers of labour power from quarrelsome proletarians into citizens of private property. As such a citizen the worker personifies labour power, which she takes to the market to trade for a wage. She appears thus as an entrepreneur of labour power, always ready to compete for a contract of employment. She thus perceives poverty as an incentive to do better, sees unemployment as an opportunity for employment, prices herself into jobs willingly and on her own initiative and takes her life into her own hands, gets on with things, lives courageously and puts up with life’s insecurities and risks. For the neoliberals, unemployed workers are fundamentally entrepreneurs of labour power in transit, ‘floating’ from one form of employment to another. However, the sociological condition of the worker is based on ‘the transformation of labour power into a commodity, which results from the separation of the worker from the means  of production’. There is thus a ‘natural tendency towards proletarianisation’, and government is therefore required to counteract this tendency, time and time again, to secure the order of freedom. Government over society is government in and through society to ensure ‘the will’ for enterprise and labour market competition, integrating the free labourer into the capitalist relations of ‘coined freedom’ as a willing employer of labour power.

By labour power is meant what the worker sells to the employer. Labour power is what workers sell to employers, not their labour. Labour is what workers do when they work, and it is already controlled by employers when workers work.

Proletarianization here means the formation of workers into organized opposition to the class of employers (in other contexts it has a different meaning). The modern state not only attempts to monopolize the physical forms of violence (police, courts, prisons, military) but also attempts to forge the hearts and minds of workers so that they accept their situation as “entrepreneurs” or vendors of their labour power. In other words, it indoctrinates workers and their children into accepting their unfree status as somehow free.

Mr. Clarke’s assumption that public ownership, then, is a solution to the current crisis is conservative. It does not really address the class nature of modern society nor the class nature of the modern state.

Such is the nature of the social-democratic or social-reformist left.

The British Labour Party’s 2019 Manifesto: More Social Democracy and More Social Reformism, Part One

The following is the first of a two-part series of posts, providing a critical assessment of some of the views expressed in the 2019 British Labour Party’s Manifesto, It’s Time For Real Change.

The British Labour Party seemed to be more concerned with jumping on the bandwagon of climate change than really addressing the core issue of the power of employers as a class (and its relation to the rape of the Earth).

Thus, the very first section is entitled “A Green Industrial Revolution.” Climate change is a buzzword these days, but I doubt that it has the holding power necessary to make fundamental change. For many people, climate issues have little immediate concern for their daily lives as they proceed to drive to work for an employer, or take the bus, the subway or light rail transit. They then subordinate their wills to the employer (and try to get as much fulfillment as they can out of such work) and then return home to recuperate from their use as things at work (or go to malls to compensate for their less than fulfilling lives at work).

Furthermore, the whole issue of climate change that sidesteps the nature of the capitalist economy and the need to eliminate the power of the class of employers as such (and the associated economic and social structures) will never solve the problem of climate change. The issue is: Can climate change really be adequately addressed without addressing the power of employers as a class?

Can we continue to treat the Earth as unlimited and resolve the problem of climate change? The capitalist economy necessarily is a process that is infinite. Consider the money circuit of capital (see  The Money Circuit of Capital). If we look at the beginning and the end of the process, there is a quantitative difference between the two. This quantitative difference is profit, and that is the goal of the whole process. Thus, if you invest $1,000,000 at the beginning of the year and receive $1,100,000 at the end of the year, you receive $100,000 profit. This difference has arisen from a process of exploiting workers (that is where the $100,000 comes from–the workers produce more value than what they themselves cost to produce). However, once the capitalist process has ended through the sale of commodities and the capitalist has $1,100,000, this money is no longer capital. Capital is a process, and once it is finished, it no longer is: its birth is simultaneously its death, so to speak. The capitalist who now has $1,100,000, to remain a capitalist, must invest the money again–but because of competition with other capitalists, he will have to invest more than $1,000,000. There is thus an in-built infinite process of continuous expansion (interrupted by economic crises due to the impossibility of obtaining an adequate profit rate). Such an infinite process in the context of a finite Earth hardly bodes well for efforts to eliminate the causes of climate change.

The so-called “Green solution” that sidesteps the contradiction between an infinite economic process and a finite Earth will not likely be able to address the problem of climate change. The Labour Manifesto does just that–it sidesteps the power of employers as a class and the associated economic, social and political structures needed to maintain that power.

If workers are unwilling to oppose the class of employers at present, why would climate change motivate them to engage in such opposition? But then again, the purpose of the Manifesto is not to really challenge the power of employers as a class.

Of course, compared to anything proposed by the main political parties here in Canada, the Manifesto seems radical, such as a minimum wage of 10 pounds per hour, expansion of social housing, a pay raise of all public sector workers of 5%, nationalisation of key industries (such as energy and water), free tuition and so forth. Measured by the standard of the major political parties in Canada, it is a radical manifesto.

However, measured against the standard of a socialist society (see, for example, the series of posts on socialism on this blog),  the Manifesto is just one more expression of the lack of dealing directly with the class power of employers.

There are many other problems with this Manifesto, only some of which will be addressed in the next post in this series.

 

 

 

 

The Contradictions of Unions: Reformist and Radical Assessments

Steven Tufts, in an article first published on Wednesday, September 11, 2019, on The Star website, and republished on the Socialist Project website on September 25 (Pension Plans Should Not Invest in Companies That Harm Working People), tries to show that, despite unions consciously disassociating themselves from investments that harm workers, their own pension fund managers may pursue policies that contradict such conscious disassociation.

(As an aside, Professor Tufts is a representative of the Toronto Airport Workers’ Council (TAWC).

He writes:

For example, Caesar’s Entertainment partnered with Oxford Properties, the real-estate investment arm of the Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System (OMERS). Community groups lead by No Casino Toronto did successfully mobilize against these proposals, which divided council at the time. Members of CUPE Local 79 also deputed against the proposals as front-line city workers would have had to deal with the negative social and economic impacts of gambling.

At the same time, fund managers at OMERS, the pension fund of Local 79 members, deputed on the economic virtues of casino development. Here we see the contradictions of pension fund investments that negatively impact the very workers making contributions.

However, Professor Tufts does not question how unions can escape this situation. Pension funds generally have to invest money in some capitalist companies, and those companies are expected to obtain a profit. If this is the case, then there is a typical social-reformist strategy of opposing particular kinds of investments or particular kinds of employers while implicitly accepting the need for capitalist investments in general or the need for a set of employers.

In other words, does not any investment “harm workers?” Professor Tuft remains silent on how workers can escape this contradiction. Of course, there are degrees of harm of workers by employers, with some employers definitely treating workers worse than other employers. However, do not all employers harm workers by necessarily treating them as things to be used to obtain more money (private sector) or by excluding them from the right to determine the purpose of their work (public sector)? (See The Money Circuit of Capital).

Professor Tuft further states:

All workers deserve pensions, but pension funds for some built on tax cuts and privatization schemes are neither just nor sustainable over the long term. Unions continue to shield themselves against efforts to politicize pension investments, but this has a cost.

This criticism aims at the neoliberal model of “tax cuts and privatization schemes.” What if the pension schemes did not rely on such tax cuts and privatization schemes? What happens if they relied on merely–exploiting other workers in a non-neoliberal way (as they did before the emergence of neoliberalism)? Would that eliminate the contradiction between workers’ interests as workers and their interests as future retirees? I fail to see how it would.

Indeed, Professor Tuft states:

It is time for union leaders to confront pension plans that seek to transform our cities in ways that harm working people.

Surely, all pension plans, whether private or public, are riveted with the basic contradiction of being funded by workers while being used to exploit and oppress other workers. This contradiction cannot be abolished without abolishing the situation where a class of employers exploits and oppresses a class of workers called employees.

If this basic contradiction is acknowledged, then variations in levels of harm to working people can then be assessed. However, as it stands, Professor Tufts’ article implies that there can be “pension plans that seek to transform our cities in ways that” do not harm working people. Such a view is typical of reformist policies that fail to address the harm necessarily caused to workers because of the existence of a class of employers and the accompanying economic and political structure.

By not acknowledging the general harm that all employers pose for working people, Professor Tuft does not acknowledge the need to create organizations that oppose the class power of employers as such.

Obviously, some employers are better than others. However, the social-democratic left never get around to criticizing employers as such. They remind me of movies and television programs. Often, particular police officers or particular companies are presented as bad–but not the police function as such or employers as such.

Despite Professor Tuft’s evident desire to go beyond the limitations of union principles, he evidently operates within them implicitly since he assumes that workers’ pension plans can somehow magically overcome the contradiction of exploiting and oppressing workers by not following the neoliberal model–as if the capitalist relations of exploitation and oppression did not exist before the emergence of neoliberalism.

Should we not go beyond the limits of neoliberalism and challenge the economic and political power of the class of employers?