“With a basic income program, recipients would be motivated to participate in the labour market and feel empowered to discover the most fulfilling way to work without fearing for their financial security.”
That quote leaps out at you as the clearest expression of the basic income delusion. What is proposed here is the provision of a level of income to millions of people that would utterly shift the balance between workers and employers in this society.
The article completely fails to understand that the capitalist job market rests on economic coercion and the seller’s market it envisages here would represent a devastating defeat for the capitalists. Yet this enormous retreat by that class is supposed to happen on the basis of a social policy redesign.
In reality, however, the measure that is being proposed here would work in a way that would actually worsen the situation of working class people because the payment would function as a subsidy to employers and as a cash replacement for existing public services.
Mr. Clarke simply repeats himself in a contradictory manner. Of course, if a minimum basic income is all that workers, citizens, immigrants and migrant workers can expect, then it would probably be better to leave the current welfare system as it is (although Mr. Clarke does not really provide any convincing arguments to the contrary).
Mr. Clarke continues to assume that only a minimum basic income would be the aim of a movement to free workers from the dictates of the market for workers. He continues to contradict himself since he assumes, on the other hand, that adequate housing, free university tuition and so forth will arise with a struggle (see Critique of the Limited Aim (Solution)–Decent Wages–of a Radical Social Democrat: The Case of the Toronto Radical, John Clarke: Part One). Struggle for a radical basic income is not something in the cards, for him–but a struggle for various welfare reforms are. Why does he persist in assuming that those who advocate a radical basic income would presume that it would not require much struggle, indeed, a major struggle between workers, citizens, immigrants and migrants, on the one hand, and the class of employers and the government on the other?
Mr. Clarke accuses those who propose a radical basic income of being delusional. I will let the reader draw her/his own conclusion conerning the clarity of Mr. Clarke’s own vision of the nature of the real world, its problems and solutions to those problems.
From August 4, 2022, Facebook:
“A Universal Basic Income would require a rethink of the values attached to different types of work, as workers would not be forced to accept just any job.”
I just saw this on Twitter and want to draw attention to it because it so perfectly captures the essence of the sadly pervasive basic income delusion. The problem is a failure to understand the nature and present condition of the society that we live in. What is being proposed is to take from the capitalist class their capacity to exploit workers by ending the economic coercion the job market rests on. This isn’t just about ‘values’ but a proposal to fundamentally challenge capitalism. I’m in favour of such a challenge but that’s a job for the mass action of the working class and not a social policy enactment.
You notice that the tweet pays no attention whatever to the means by which this shattering course of action might be achieved. There’s no proposal for the massive social action to completely change the balance of power in this society that would begin to make this proposal coherent. It is simply assumed that UBI has about it a rationality and fairness that can prevail regardless of social reality. Yet, because the political level is so low in this society, it is possible to write something like this and be taken seriously. If someone were to tweet out that “Staying young means never getting old,” the absurdity would immediately be apparent because those who read it would pass from the desirability of eternal youth to considering how likely it is to happen. Yet, the notion that governments that have worked for decades to intensify the exploitation of the working class are going to suddenly enact a measure that will overturn the very basis for capitalism is taken quite seriously.
At a time when what we demand and how we fight for it are critical issues, the faith based basic income delusion is a preposterous diversion that we must outgrow.
UBI = Universal Bandaid Income. Over the past 40 years or so, the corporate sector has contributed less and less to the tax “burden” and more of it is shouldered by individuals. These individuals don’t seem to get that that’s why their taxes are so “high” and they are getting less from them and yet they are yakking on about “personal responsibility” without reference to corporate responsibility. One tells them about the co-operative sector as a means of alleviating poverty and they sniff at it and say “fairy tales” or “granola” sector unaware of the $billions it contributes to GDP and tax revenue, helping people stay employed, and making a healthier economy. But John, you already know all that. I just needed to vent. Thank you.
I agree with you. Whole policy changes do happen, but if the capitalist class retains its pivotal influence in law making and market manipulation, it will attempt, and likely succeed, in neutering the effects of basic income, likely by bankrupting the state as they try to do with every institution that works against their insatiable interest, then pointing the finger at ubi as the culprit.
Of course, if there is no class struggle, then any universal basic income that threatens the availability of workers for exploitation by employers would be successfully resisted. A social policy that is not backed up by organized power of the working class would be whittled away for the benefit of employers.
The pilot program initiated in Wales certainly would not become universal. From the article by John Clarke in Counterfire:
Following in the footsteps of a sizable number of their international counterparts, the Welsh government has launched a pilot project to study the possibilities of basic income. As it unfolds, ‘more than 500 people leaving care in Wales will be offered £1600 each month (before tax) for two years to support them as they make the transition to adult life.’
Mr. Clarke is certainly correct to question whether such a program would be generalized (become universal) since it would probably threaten the job market, as he himself argues:
In a capitalist society, the job market rests on economic coercion and, if workers or potential workers have an alternative source of income that meets their needs, their bargaining power is massively increased. For that reason, social benefit levels are set high enough to control social unrest but great care is taken to ensure that they are not adequate enough to discourage people from taking low paid jobs.
So, since such a policy would increase the bargaining power of workers. Mr. Clarke, however, does not mention that to aim for such a goal would also threaten the class power of employers. Such a goal could serve as an organizing tool and a rallying point to increase not just “the bargaining power of workers” but their class consciousness and their class power by having workers coming to understand that employers need to have persistent economic coercion in place if they are to control workers in the first place and that the workers need to organize to counterpose such economic coercion by aiming to formulate policies that negate such economic coercion.
What does Mr. Clarke propose as an alternative to a radical basic income? A refurbished welfare system (as I argued in my posts above. He also repeats his social-reformist rhetoric of “decent wages” in his published article:
The great problem with basic income is that, precisely when there is such an acute need for a major fight back, it seeks a non-existent detour around the class struggle. If precarious, low-wage work has proliferated, rather than fight for decent wages and workers’ rights, it lets the exploiters keep their profits and asks only for wage tops up, paid for out of the taxes of other workers. In its response to technological displacement, instead of fighting for reduced hours of work at no loss of pay, it again lets the capitalists off the hook. [my emphasis]
Mr. Clarke nowhere justifies his assumption that radicals who propose a radical basic income “seek a non-existent detour around the class struggle.” My view (subject to change since a radical basic income policy is a means to an end of aiming to challenge the class power of employers and not an end in itself) is that such a policy likely has greater scope for challenging the class power of employers than a refurbished welfare state. It also has greater scope for challenging the class power of employers than the aim of “decent wages”–a figment of Mr. Clarke’s social-reformist or social-democratic imagination since there exists no such thing as decent wages in a society dominated by a class of employers. As I wrote in one of my posts cited above:
Let me make a categorical statement: There is no such thing as a decent wage. To work for an employer is in itself degrading, exploitative and oppressive. The concept of a decent wage serves to hide this exploitative situation (see The Money Circuit of Capital).
Mr. Clarke, apparently, only aims at refurbishing the welfare state rather than abolishing exploitation. Like Mr. Bush’s own references to exploitation, Mr. Clarke uses the concept as a rhetorical flourish (in his case, to criticize a radical policy of basic income) while conveniently “forgetting” the concept when it comes to the issue of whether wages can ever be decent.
Furthermore, there is no logical basis for counteposing a struggle for a radical basic income and “fighting for reduced hours of work at no loss of pay.” They are not mutually exclusive. Mr. Clarke fails to justify his implicit claim that the struggle for a radical basic income cannot include a struggle for reduced hours of work at no loss of pay.
The fact that economic coercion exists is used by this social refomer to oppose a policy that possibly challenges such economic coercion–because of the fact itself of economic coercion! It is like saying that because economic exploitation of workers by employers is a fact that therefore workers should not struggle to abolish economic exploitation.
In an article posted on the Socialist Project’s website (https://socialistproject.ca/2021/12/swords-into-ploughshares/), Simon Black speaks to Sam Gindin, a social democrat or social reformer here in Toronto, Ontario, Canada and author, along with the late Leo Panitch, of the book (2013) The Making of Global Capitalism: The Political Economy of American Empire.
Mr. Black states the following:
SB: Canadian arms exports to Saudi Arabia have been opposed by a range of civil society organizations, from Amnesty International to Oxfam. Collectively these organizations have also called for the federal government to work with trade unions representing workers in the arms industry to develop a plan that secures the livelihoods of those who would be impacted by the end of arms exports to Saudi Arabia. And in Labour Against the Arms Trade’s work with these organizations, we’ve always stressed the importance of centring this demand. Why is it important that mainstream, liberal human rights and humanitarian organizations are calling for a just transition for arms industry workers?
Mr. Gindin’s response?
Progressive organizations like Oxfam and Amnesty[my emphasis] are right to see that this [challenge to profit priorities] is a challenge to capitalist power and capitalism itself and so can be a barrier to convincing people, particularly workers and communities where these arms are manufactured, like the LAVs in London, Ontario. But it’s the only honest – and possible – way forward. The message is not just that there are potential alternatives, but also that they could be introduced only if we could build the kind of social force that’s necessary to [implement them]. Sometimes people want to obscure the fact that our demands are radical, because they feel like [this reality will make it] harder to mobilize. [But] unless we can respect workers enough to address the reality and win them over, we’re left with a progressive demand that is in essence an abstract slogan.
This concept of “progressive organizations”–without qualifications or analysis–sounds very much like “an abstract slogan.” Calling such organizations progressive without further ado fails to address the possible limitations of such organizations. It also sounds very much like the use of the term “radical” used by Mr. Gindin’s fellow social democrat, Herman Rosenfeld, who has used the term “radical” in a merely social-reformist or social-democratic sense (see my series of posts on the topic, such as What’s Left, Toronto? Part Two).
Whether an organization is progressive or not should depend on not only what it fights against but also what it implicitly or explicitly accepts as legitimate. In the case of Amnesty International, as I will show below, it implicitly accepts as legitimate the power of employers to exploit and oppress workers. It does not say this, of course, but what it focuses on, what it does not criticize and some of its recommendations imply that existence of employers is legitimate.
In this post, I will provide a general critique of organizations dedicated specifically to human rights and then move to a critique of Amnesty International’s general position. In a subsequent post in this series, I will delve in more detail into AI’s position in relation to the world of work in the context of a society dominated by a class of employers. I will also look, briefly, at its shortcomings when it comes to the capitalist state in general and to police in particular.
Doing some good is thus insufficient for determining whether an organization is “progressive.” Or is it that Oxfam and Amnesty International are non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and that, as NGOs, they necessarily perform progressive functions? Such a view is, of course, dangerous.
Consider, for example, a photo connected to the International Labour Organization and UNICEF (and indirectly to OXFAM). The photo–dishonestly–depicts a young girl apparently working as a shoe shiner in order to “sell” opposition to child labour. However, such a photo presents a very unlikely scenario since, firstly, shoeshining is predominantly a male occupation (including boys) and, secondly, the age of the girl would make it highly unlikely that such a person would ever engage in shoeshining in order to try to survive–her hands would be too small and weak to even engage in shoeshining. I quote Thomas Offit (2008), Conquistadores de la Calle: Child street labor in Guatemala City, pages 19-22:
Pictures also have served as a means of confusing if not outright misrepresenting the lives of child street laborers. Of course, the camera can lie, and photographers may not be aware of the uses that their employers will dedicate their pictures to, but the image presented in Figure 1.1 stands out in my mind as a photograph that communicates a great deal, little of which has to do with the lived reality of its subject. While I doubt that the authors of the books that utilize the photo intended to misrepresent their subjects, and likely believed that the photo provided visual representation for their well-meaning objectives, by misrepresenting the truth, the photo robs children of their agency as individuals performing meaningful valuable labor.
Figure 1.1 shows a picture from the book Combating Child Labour, an edited volume published in 1988 by the International Labour Organization that details the plight of child laborers in different industries in countries throughout the developing world (Bequele and Boyden 1988). Th e picture is presented with a caption that states “Child working at a street shoe-shining stand in Ecuador,” and also credits the photographer and the organization that provided the photo. Despite the ambiguity of the caption (is the child the shoeshiner and therefore the child laborer, or is she merely working there performing some other task?), the image presented does not equivocate. Of the six chapters in the book that discuss specific types of child labor in specific countries, neither Ecuador nor street labor is specifically addressed, yet the photo appears in the book as a means of accompanying the text. It is an excellent and provocative photo, showing a very young girl with a shock of hair and large eyes looking meekly up at the camera while supporting herself by grabbing onto the shoeshine bench, shoe polish at her side. On the edge of a frame is a cropped image of an unidentified seated adult, presumably a customer. One image and a few words convey to the reader the grave injustice of child labor. I was so struck by the photo when I first saw it that I posted it on the wall of my office as a means of inspiration during the grant-writing stage of my research.This photo was also reprinted in the book Child Labor by ex-UNICEF and Oxfam Education specialist Alec Fyfe (1989). Th e caption in this book reads only “Girl shoe-shining, Ecuador” and credits UNICEF as the source. Th e ambiguity concerning what job the girl is performing is resolved, and as shoeshiners are directly compensated for their labor by their customers, we know that the girl is a child laborer and not a child worker merely helping out a family member. In this photo, only the child and the shoeshine bench are visible; the older adult has been edited out of the picture.
Based on my experience, both versions of this photo are misleading, and the second borders on deliberate misrepresentation. In my two years of research in Guatemala, I never saw a girl or a woman shining shoes on the street. While this may be more common in Ecuador, it is rarely reported in the literature on the topic, and I believe it to be anomalous, as shoeshining in Latin America is a male-dominated street occupation. Second, it is also rare that a child as young as the girl pictured, regardless of sex, would be engaged in this task, as it demands a good deal of strength and dexterity that a child of her age would not be likely to possess. If a child her age were to be engaged in child labor, she would be far more likely to be selling newspapers near a family member or engaged in a less physically demanding task. Third, as anyone who has seen a street shoeshiner is likely to observe, the hands and forearms of anyone performing this job, child or adult, are covered with shoe polish even after one or two shines, and the girl in the photo shows no evidence of having shined shoes that day. She looks quite clean, especially considering the grime that surrounds her. Finally, as anyone who knows the intricacies of shoeshining can attest, the purported shoeshine girl is sitting on the customer’s side of the shoeshine bench! Th e sloping footrest that she holds is meant to be facing the shiner so that the toe of the customer is elevated to allow for easier access to the shoe. Based on this photo, it is far more likely that the adult whose image is cropped in the first photo and deliberately eliminated in the second is the shoeshiner, and the young girl, though sitting near him, is either a child street worker engaged in some other task, or simply a child accompanying an adult to work. Th is photo, reprinted here in its first version and many more times in similar volumes as a definitive image of the injustice of child labor, does not picture a child laborer!
Oxfam, the ILO and UNICEF undoubtedly do some good–but we should not assume that this is sufficient for labeling them “progressive organizations.” Doing good can easily be coupled with doing harm. NGOs should hardly be exempt from criticism.
A General Look at the Beginnings of the Human Rights Movement
It is interesting how Gindin, a professed socialist and Marxist, neglects to mention how a grassroots movement for human rights really emerged only in the late 1960s and early 1970s–by stripping such movements of concern for social and economic rights. From Samuel Moyn (2018), Not Enough: Human Rights in an Unequal World, pages 121-122:
THE HUMAN RIGHTS revolution occurred almost ex nihilo in the 1970s. There had been talk and even treaty making in the United Nations since the 1940s, but it testified more to states colluding to protect one another. No serious move had ever been made to fulfill the organization’s promise in its charter to institutionalize not simply peace but justice too. The lone exception of the increasingly outcast state of South Africa aside, human rights rhetoric at the governmental level had remained stillborn, and no state had a visible human rights policy. That changed in a series of stages, above all as new social movements of the 1960s were winnowed down and those movements defined in terms of human rights burst into consciousness across the next decade. Amnesty International, the first high-profile human rights non-governmental organization in history, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1977, the same year that the American president Jimmy Carter committed his country to a new human rights policy, in part to cleanse the stain of Vietnam from the national image.
Easily the most extraordinary fact about this human rights revolution, from the perspective of ideals about how to distribute the good things in life, is that, with some key exceptions, it unceremoniously purged attention to economic and social rights, to say nothing of a fuller-fledged commitment to distributive equality. It was a striking contrast to the spirit of social rights in the era of national welfare, when they were not only integral to human rights overall but linked to egalitarian idealism and outcomes at the national scale. Now, as if the promise of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) had never been about national welfare, it was remembered as a charter meant to save the individual from the state’s depredations of civil liberties rather than to empower the state to make individual flourishing and equality a reality.
Moyn certainly neglects increasing concerns for human rights before the 1970s, as Sarita Cargas (2016) argues, in “Questioning Samuel Moyn’s Revisionist History of Human Rights,” Human Rights Quarterly, Volume 38, Number 2, , page 425:
This conclusion [that human rights was in public discourse] is finally supported by a review of how many articles in the New York Times referred to human rights. In 1930, sixty articles used the phrase, in 1940, eighty-one articles. But by 1948, 571 articles include it. In 1950, 495 articles use it but only 260 in 1955. But by 1968, the number of articles referring to human rights jumps to 625. This data means, on average, the reader of the New York Times would have read about human rights in one to three articles every single day from the late 1940s onward. This does not negate Moyn’s statement that “In 1977 the New York Times featured the phrase ‘human rights’ five times more frequently than in any prior year,”80 but it does disprove the assertion that no one had heard the phrase before Carter’s inaugural speech.
However, Sarita herself neglects the increasing grassroots nature of the movement for human rights. Furthermore, since she shows little concern for the issue of capitalism versus socialism (an issue which an academic leftist, Jeff Noonan, considers to be a dead-end–see The Poverty of Academic Leftism, Part Nine: The Nature of Capitalism) she neglects how both Amnesty International and its close cousin, Human Rights Watch, emerged as substitutes for a socialist movement. From Moyn (2018), pages 122-123:
… especially in the global north, Cold War assumptions had long since damaged the 1940s communion of civil and political with economic and social rights, through the sheer force of insistence and repetition. And then, the new visibility of human rights ideals occurred as activists, disillusioned about the failures of socialism, the violence socialist politics sparked, or both—including in socialism’s postcolonial forms—embraced their roles, conceiving of “human rights” as a morally pure form of activism that would not require the exaggerated hopes or depressing compromises of past utopias.
Graphic evidence of the turn away from socialism and the skepticism toward social rights comes from Peter Benenson and Aryeh Neier, the respective founders of the first prominent global non-governmental organization and of the major American one concerned with human rights across the period. Despite having stood as a candidate for the Labour Party several times in his earlier life, when Benenson founded Amnesty International in the 1960s, he explicitly understood it as an alternative to socialism and set in motion a pattern that led the group to confine its attention to a narrow focus on political imprisonment. It added torture to its bailiwick in the 1970s. and the death penalty in the 1980s, shifting to poverty only after the millennium. “Look on the Socialist Parties the world over, ye mighty, and despair,” Benenson explained to a correspondent in justification of his emphases. Part of the reason for his depression was his own serial losses in election campaigns, but he also admitted, in the Christian idiom that frequently crept into his work, that “the quest for an outward and visible Kingdom is mistaken.” For the founder, human rights activism was much more about saving the activist’s soul, rather than building social justice.
American Aryeh Neier founded Human Rights Watch in the 1970s with an exclusionary attention to political violations in left-and right-wing regimes. Despite his early political awakening, thanks to the six-time socialist presidential candidate Norman Thomas, and his past as the president of the labor-affiliated Student League for Industrial Democracy (which later became Students for a Democratic Society), Neier nonetheless chose a class-free civil libertarianism as his definitive mode of politics. Given that the American Civil Liberties Union, over which he presided before co-founding Human Rights Watch, had ascended to prominence by departing from the class politics that originally birthed it, Neier’s Cold War stewardship of liberties and rights confined his attention to basics like free speech and a free press. Human Rights Watch functioned primarily to transfer such single-minded civil libertarianism abroad, with funding from foundation grants that singled out state repression rather than pursuing a more contentious social justice. Through the end of his career in the organization, Neier fought bitterly with anyone who tried to make room for distributive justice, including as a matter of social rights, tirelessly invoking the Cold War liberal Isaiah Berlin’s distinction between negative liberty and positive self-realization in his defense.
Human rights as an international grassroots movement emerged in the late 1960s and 1970s, and it arose and flourished shortly before neoliberalism arose. This is no coincidence. This does not mean that they are the same, but they are both hegemonic projects that inhibit a movement towards the abolition of a society characterized by the class power of employers and therefore the emergence of a socialist way of living.
Human rights as usually presented via AI not only substitute the pursuit of human rights at the expense of the struggle for the elimination of the class power of employers and the associated economic, political and social forms of exploitation and oppression–that is to say, as a substitute for the struggle for socialism. Human rights organizations, despite their own sometimes detailed efforts to substantiate what they consider to be human rights abuses, often simply neglect to contextualize such abuses in the wider context of the class power of employers.
From Christoph Henning 2005), Philosophy After Marx: 100 years of misreadings and the normative turn in political philosophy, pages 8-9:
Marx has largely disappeared from the stage of philosophy since 1989: he has been declared definitively dead by his critics. His place has been taken, within the sociophilosophical literature published in Germany since the 1990s, by the rise of normative principles. Discussions turned on whether the newly unified country required a new constitution, on how to conceptualise the hierarchy of norms within the ‘postnational constellation’ formed by the new nation state and the new Europe, on how human rights and ‘justice’ might be grounded philosophically, and such like. As rewarding as such normative reflections are, they cannot replace inquiries into the material base. When a normativistically restricted point of view takes the place of the former social theory, super-normativism results.
Human rights organizations and individuals often justify their activities and views on the basis of an abstract respect for being human without linking this up with the general exploitative and oppressive structure of the capitalist economy and the capitalist state. Indeed, human rights organizations display a decided lack of analysis of the socially determined material conditions of the production of human life characteristic of class society. In particular, advocates of human rights can consistently oppose violations of human rights and the continued existence of the exploitation and oppression of workers on a daily basis. From Samuel Moyn (2014), “A Powerless Companion: Human Rights in the Age of Neoliberalism,” in pages 147-169, Law and Contemporary Problems, Volume 77, page 149:
although the record of capitalism in our time is highly mixed when it comes to the achievement and violation of basic human rights, its most serious victim is equality (of resources and opportunities alike) both in national and global settings—a value that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 and the international human rights movements following in its wake do not even set out to defend.
It must be said that it is debatable whether “its most serious victim is equality;” its most serious victim may well be freedom. That issue, however, will not be addressed here.
It could be said, of course, that the human rights movement has provided some welcome gains in the area of protection from state oppression, such as the illegal detention of citizens, immigrants and migrants for political reasons–political prisoners.
Let us look at Amnesty International (AI) and perhaps, in another post, another human rights institution called Human Rights Watch (HRW) in relation to two issues: the right to choose work freely and the supposed need for the police to secure our lives. The first issue will be addressed in this post and the second issue in a subsequent post.
Amnesty International Does Not Contextualize Human Abuses
Naomi Klein, author of, among other works, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (2008), has a comment included on the cover of Jim Stanford’s book Economics for Everyone: :
Stanford is that rare breed: the teacher who changed your life. He has written a book–both pragmatic and idealistic–with the power to change the world.
Klein has the following to say about AI from her book, pages 119-120:
The narrow scope is most problematic in Amnesty International’s 1976 report on Argentina, a breakthrough account of the junta’s atrocities and worthy of its Nobel Prize. Yet for all its thoroughness, the report sheds no light on why the abuses were occurring. It asks the question “to what extent are the violations explicable or necessary” to establish “security”—which was the junta’s official rationale for the “dirty war.”14 After the evidence was examined, the report concludes that the threat posed by left-wing guerrillas was in no way commensurate with the level of repression used by the state.
But was there some other goal that made the violence “explicable or necessary”? Amnesty made no mention of it. In fact, in its ninety-two-page report, it made no mention that the junta was in the process of remaking the country along radically capitalist lines. It offered no comment on the deepening poverty or the dramatic reversal of programs to redistribute wealth, though these were the policy centerpieces of junta rule. It carefully lists all the junta laws and decrees that violated civil liberties but named none of the economic decrees that lowered wages and increased prices, thereby violating the right to food and shelter—also enshrined in the UN charter. If the junta’s revolutionary economic project had been even superficially examined, it would have been clear why such extraordinary repression was necessary, just as it would have explained why so many of Amnesty’s prisoners of conscience were peaceful trade unionists and social workers.
In another major omission, Amnesty presented the conflict as one restricted to the local military and the left-wing extremists. No other players are mentioned —not the U.S. government or the CIA; not local landowners; not multinational corporations. Without an examination of the larger plan to impose “pure” capitalism on Latin America, and the powerful interests behind that project, the acts of sadism documented in the report made no sense at all —they were just random, free-floating bad events, drifting in the political ether, to be condemned by all people of conscience but impossible to understand.
This suppression of social context is characteristic of the social-democratic or social-reformist left in general. This suppression assumed an internal form–self-suppression of criticisms of government and the class of employers because of internal repression (and such self-repression is understandable), but it is no excuse for suppressing it internationally. From pages 120-121:
Every facet of the human rights movement was functioning under highly restricted circumstances, though for different reasons. Inside the affected countries, the first people to call attention to the terror were friends and relatives of the victims, but there were severe limits on what they could say. They didn’t talk about the political or economic agendas behind the disappearances because to do so was to risk being disappeared themselves. The most famous human rights activists to emerge under these dangerous circumstances were the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, known in Argentina as the Madres. At their weekly demonstrations outside the house of government in Buenos Aires, the Madres did not dare hold up protest signs —instead they clasped photographs of their missing children with the caption “Donde estan?” Where are they? In the place of chants, they circled silently, wearing white headscarves embroidered with their children’s names. Many of the Madres had strong political beliefs, but they were careful to present themselves as nothing more threatening to the regime than grieving mothers, desperate to know where their innocent children had been taken.*
* After the end of dictatorship, the Madres became some of the fiercest critics of the new economic order in Argentina, as they still are today.
In Chile, the largest of the human rights groups was the Peace Committee, formed by opposition politicians, lawyers and Church leaders. These were lifelong political activists who knew that the attempt to stop torture and to free political prisoners was only one front in a much broader battle over who would have control of Chile’s wealth. But in order to avoid becoming the regime’s next victims, they dropped their usual old-left denunciations of the bourgeoisie and learned the new language of “universal human rights.” Scrubbed clean of references to the rich and the poor, the weak and strong, the North and the South, this way of explaining the world, so popular in North America and Europe, simply asserted that everyone has the right to a fair trial and to be free from cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. It didn’t ask why, it just asserted that In the mixture of legalese and human interest that characterizes the human rights lexicon, they learned that their imprisoned companeros were actually prisoners of conscience whose right to freedom of thought and speech, protected under articles 18 and 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, had been violated.
For those living under dictatorship, the new language was essentially a code; just as musicians hid the political messages in their lyrics in sly metaphors, they were disguising their leftism in legalese—a way of engaging in politics without mentioning politics.*
*Note: Even with these precautions, human rights activists were not safe from the terror. Chile’s jails were filled with human rights lawyers, and in Argentina the junta sent one of its top torturers to infiltrate the Madres, posing as a grieving relative. In December 1977, the group was raided; twelve mothers were permanently disappeared, including the leader of the Madres, Azucena de Vicenti, along with two French nuns.
When I first went to Guatemala in 1980, it became evident that public discussion of anything political was dangerous. For example, when I started to discuss the political situation in Guatemala, one man in the plaza (town square) in Quetzaltenango (the second largest city in Guatemala) indicated that he would not discuss such things “here.”
Yes, AI may do some good–but simultaneously, by excluding the social context, it does harm.
If AI decontextualizes social events, how is that a progressive organization? Mr. Gindin claims that we do not need abstract slogans, and yet when referring to AI as a “progressive organization” he himself is engaged in producing an abstract slogan.
From Amnesty International’s website (most of the bold are my emphases, on which I will comment after the quote):
Globalization has changed the world we live in. It presents new and complex challenges for the protection of human rights.
Economic players, especially multinational companies that operate across national borders, have gained unprecedented power and influence across the world.
Companies have an enormous impact on people’s lives and the communities in which they operate. Sometimes the impact is positive – jobs are created, new technology improves lives and investment in the community translates into real benefits for those who live there.
But Amnesty has exposed countless instances when corporations exploit weak and poorly enforced domestic regulation with devastating effect on people and communities.
There are few effective mechanisms at national or international level to prevent corporate human rights abuses or to hold companies to account. Amnesty is working to change this.
In Bodo Creek in Ogoniland, Nigeria, two oil spills (August/December 2008) destroyed thousands of livelihoods. Oil poured from faults in the Trans-Niger Pipeline for weeks, covering the area in a thick slick of oil. Amnesty and our partner, the Centre for Environment, Human Rights and Development, worked with the community to get the oil company responsible – Shell – to clean up its mess and pay proper compensation. Finally in December 2014, the Bodo community won a long-awaited victory when Shell paid out an unprecedented £55million in compensation after legal action in the UK.
“We are thankful to all that have contributed in one way or another to the conclusion of this case such as the various NGOs, especially Amnesty International, who have come to our aid.” said Chief Sylvester Kogbara, Chairman of the Bodo Council of Chiefs and Elders.
States have a responsibility to protect human rights. However, many are failing to do this, especially when it comes to company operations – whether because of lack of capacity, dependence on the company as an investor or outright corruption.
Companies operating across borders are often involved in severe abuses, such as forced labour or forcibly relocating communities from their lands.
Unsurprisingly, abuses are particularly stark in the extractive sector, with companies racing against each other to mine scarce and valuable resources. Traditional livelihoods are destroyed as land is contaminated and water supplies polluted such as in Ogoniland, Nigeria. The impact can be particularly severe for Indigenous Peoples because their way of life and their identity is often closely related to their land.
Affected communities are frequently denied access to information about the impact of company operations. Meaning they are excluded from participating in decisions that affect their lives.
Although it is now widely accepted that corporations have a responsibility to respect human rights, too many times profits are built on the back of human rights abuses. Despite laws in many countries that allow companies to be prosecuted, governments rarely even investigate corporate wrongdoing.
When communities’ attempt to get justice they are thwarted by ineffective legal systems, a lack of access to information, corruption and powerful state-corporate alliances. Worryingly, when the poor cannot secure justice, companies learn that they can exploit poverty without consequences.
WHAT AMNESTY IS CALLING FOR
• Prevention: all companies should be required by law to take steps to identify, prevent and address human rights abuses (known as due diligence). • Accountability: companies must be held to account for abuses they commit. • Remedy: people whose rights have been abused by companies must be able to access justice and effective remedy. • Protect rights beyond borders: companies operate across borders, so the law must also operate across borders to protect people’s rights.
Average payment of $1,000 a person – for killing and poisoning the Bhopal community. What an insult. Get Union Carbide back in court. #Whereartdhow
Companies have lobbied governments to create international investment, trade and tax laws that protect corporate interests. But the same companies frequently argue against any development in international law and standards to protect human rights in the context of business operations.
Companies are taking advantage of weak regulatory systems, especially in developing countries, and it is often the poorest people who are most at risk of exploitation.Governments are obliged to protect people from human rights abuses, this includes abuses committed by companies. All companies must be regulated to prevent the pursuit of profit at the expense of human rights.
Bhopal’s 30 year fight for justice
It was once known as the City of Lakes. But Bhopal has since gone down in history as the site of one of the world’s worst industrial disasters.
In 1984, a toxic gas leak in the central Indian city left more than 20,000 people dead and poisoned more than half a million. Thirty years later, that tragedy has turned into a human rights horror, with survivors and activists leading a relentless fight for justice.
The players in this battle have taken on mythical overtones — David and Goliath come to mind. On the one side are thousands of people who somehow survived the gas leak and are searching for truth, justice and compensation; on the other, the multinational corporations Union Carbide and Dow, along with the US and Indian governments who have effectively protected them.
The story of what happened in Bhopal, and the struggle that has endured for three decades, is best told by the people closest to it: the survivors and their supporters.
“Sometimes the impact is positive – jobs are created, new technology improves lives and investment in the community translates into real benefits for those who live there.”
Given the economic dependence–economic coercion, really–of workers on employers for access to the use of the means by which they live (machines (including computers), buildings, raw material and auxiliary material), workers for the most part prefer to be employed (used and abused) rather than remaining unemployed. In this sense, investment by employers that lead to the creation of jobs (demand for workers) is positive. However, nowhere does Amnesty International imply that the resulting oppression and exploitation of workers on a regular basis is against human rights. The creation of jobs as “positive” necessarily goes hand in hand with the oppression and exploitation of workers in the context of the class power of employers (see The Money Circuit of Capital). In other words, Amnesty International in essence is an organization that criticizes companies and governments that deviate from some idealized capitalist economy and government. The ideal company would not employ (oppress and exploit) children (only adults).
As it stands, AI does not intend to challenge the power of employers to coerce economically workers on a daily basis to work for them. This view is expressed in various ways in the above “Overview” quote:
But Amnesty has exposed countless instances when corporations exploit weak and poorly enforced domestic regulation with devastating effect on people and communities.
AI, by referring to “weak and poorly enforced domestic regulation” imply that what is required is “strong and adequately enforced domestic regulation.” Of course, “strong and enforced domestic regulation” of working conditions is generally better than “weak and poorly enforced domestic regulation”–but the assumption is that such strong and enforced domestic regulation is–adequate. AI is, in effect, arguing for a refurbished welfare state that provides regulatory conditions for the operation of companies; it obviously does not seek to challenge the idea that working for any employer or corporation or company is legitimate or justified.
There is further evidence of this attitude:
Although it is now widely accepted that corporations have a responsibility to respect human rights, too many times profits are built on the back of human rights abuses.
Are not profits built always through the exploitation of workers? How does Mr. Gindin explain the origin of profit if not from the exploitation of workers? If profits require human exploitation and oppression, and AI in effect is claiming that some profits are legitimate, then is not AI indirectly justifying the continued exploitation and oppression of billions of workers worldwide?
As I pointed out above, AI normalizes daily exploitation and oppression of workers only in order to highlight deviations from this normal situation as “human rights abuses.” Exploiting and oppressing workers normally is, therefore, not a human rights issue for AI.
All companies must be regulated to prevent the pursuit of profit at the expense of human rights.
If all profit is derived from the exploitation and oppression of workers, then AI, if it were consistent, would call for the abolition of corporations and the establishment of a socialist society, where workers would control their own living conditions. Rather than advocating such a society, all AI does–like social democrats and social reformers–the “left” these days–is advocate “regulation.” The AI is a social-democratic organization.
By calling AI a “progressive organization,” then Mr. Gindin is calling for a social-democratic world order–even if he is unaware of this.
AI’s social-democratic identification of the problems with corporations correspond to its social-democratic solutions:
WHAT AMNESTY IS CALLING FOR
• Prevention: all companies should be required by law to take steps to identify, prevent and address human rights abuses (known as due diligence).
Since companies necessarily exploit and oppress workers, AI should in effect call for companies to abolish themselves–since companies would have to ‘identity’ themselves as necessarily abusing humans by treating them as things to be used to obtain more and more profit. Of course, such a view would be wishful thinking.
The same logic applies to “preventing” human rights abuses and “addressing” human rights abuses. Obviously, AI is a reformist organization that seeks to normalize exploitation and oppression and not abolish it. Why otherwise imply that companies somehow can escape from exploiting and oppressing workers?
If AI were to admit that workers were, as part of the nature of companies, exploited and oppressed, it would have to radically change its characterization of human rights. Its standard would not be a refurbished welfare state but a socialist society, with nothing short of the abolition of the class of employers as the standard.
Is Amnesty International a progressive organization? If you are a social democrat or social reformer, you undoubtedly will think so. If, however, you consider the class power of employers to be illegitimate, you will not. That AI does some good does not mean that it is a progressive organization since it, ultimately, assumes the legitimacy of the class power of employers. The standard of such organizations, in other words, remains well within the bounds of capitalism.
The social-democratic left here in Toronto, however, engage in political rhetoric when they call such organizations “progressive.” If such rhetoric is then called into question, the social-democratic left then accuse the critiques of, among other things, lacking in “self-criticism” and “humility,” or they resort to insults.
I will let the reader draw her/his own conclusions about how the social-democratic left deal with criticisms of their own political rhetoric by quoting two social democrats or social reformers here in Toronto: Sam Gindin and Wayne Dealy. Ask yourself whether Mr. Gindin engages in his advice. As for Wayne Dealy, ask yourself what Mr. Dealy does to expose the real nature of the social world in which we live.
Sam Gindin: (I quote from a previous post)
Which brings me back to the point that the problem is not [Wayne] Dealy [union director for the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Local 3902] or Sean [Smith, Unifor Local 2002 Co-Ordinator and Toronto Airport Workers Council (TAWC) activist”] or others but OUR Collective inability to provide them with an effective alternative politics…They can be criticized but only if we do so with humility and part of criticizing ourselves. [my emphasis]
Wayne Dealy (I quote from a previous post the context and Dealy’s response):
I had worked in a brewery for around four years in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. I questioned this reference to a good (or decent) work and a fair contract. I did not try to attack the representative personally. I tried to address the issues.
I also pointed out that the striking workers did deserve our support–that it was a question of solidarity.
Wayne Dealy, who is a representative of a local Toronto union here, then intervened, stating the following:
Is this meant to be a serious intervention or are you taking the piss?
I expressed a point of view that was different–and was roundly insulted on a listserve.
It is meant to be a serious intervention. If Wayne Dealy has something against the intervention–apart from emotional venting and insults-he is welcome to debate the issue.
Social democrats, unionists and others who consider themselves to be progressive often refer to good or decent jobs and fair contracts (deals). This is an assumption that is rarely questioned. Indeed, the tone of Wayne’s response is indicative of the lack of real concern over the issue of the power of employers as a class in relation to employees as a class. In other words, Wayne’s response itself shows just how much the issue needs to be debated. That topic will start to be addressed at the next Toronto Labour Committee on March 9, from 7:00-9:00 at 31 Wellesley.
Fred Harris, Ph. D., philosophy of education, former brewery worker
I was too hopeful. No one from the listserve–including Sam Gindin–addressed the real issues of whether there is such a thing as good jobs or a fair contract.
Wayne Dealy replied:
Deepest apologies. Those fourteen words have been buried deep inside me for years and they could no longer be contained. I regret that you suffered so for their ill-timed appearance.
Apologies too for not showing more gratitude for the fact that you deigned to use Tracy’s call for picket-line support to explain to us in plain language how wage labour is exploitative. Sam, David, Tracy et al, I hope you all were taking notes. All of us on this list are obviously and sorely in need of simple explanations of such things; fortunately Fred is here to fill that void.
On a more personal note, thanks to your second intervention, my consciousness has been raised even further: I now see the problem all along was my “lack of real concern over the issue of the power of employers as a class in relation to employees as a class”.
And the fact that you were able to suss me out from my fourteen ill-chosen words? Mind. Blown.
Thanks again, truly, for sharing your insights. This group is extremely fortunate to have a Promethean figure like yourself who so selflessly kept the ember of class analysis alive so that it could be shared with all us sinners.
p.s. If I had wanted to insult you I would have called you a condescending prick — Wayne G. Dealy Ph.D. Candidate Department of Political Science
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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/).
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.
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?
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 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.
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).
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?