Ontario Looks Right–With Some Help From the “Left”

Herman Rosenfeld recently wrote an article on the election of the right-wing government of Doug Ford in Ontario, Canada (Ontario Looks Right). I would like to take issue with some of his analysis, specifically in relation to unions (and, to a less extent, to community organizations).

He writes:

 

Still, noticeably weak in the campaign was the labor movement. Three different unions waged competing anti-privatization campaigns in the year leading up to the election and were in no position to wage a sustained anti-Ford campaign with its own agenda. They did little or no education in most unions with their members, let alone in their communities, about the underlying issues, other than official appeals to vote for the NDP. Without any socialist political party or movement with roots in working-class communities or institutions, this is not surprising. …

There are several lessons that one can quickly draw from the experience of the Days of Action and the fightback against right-wing populist regimes elsewhere. Clearly, without engaging the working class as a whole, in unions as well as communities, you can’t build a movement that can confront both employers and the government. Simply taking verbal pot shots at the obvious buffoonery of Ford (or Trump for that matter) doesn’t change anything. It simply emboldens their base.

There has be a series of alternative policies and approaches popularized across the working class that can address many of the workers who supported Ford and his party. Mass democratic movements of workers, women, indigenous, LGBTQ people, tenants, and more need to be ready to disrupt the workings of the system that Ford looks to impose. This won’t be easy.

The NDP (like the Democrats in the US) will include elements that can be part of any resistance movement. Some of the newly elected MPPs have excellent activist histories that have placed them decidedly to the left of the party’s leadership. They should be welcomed as allies.

On the other hand, the NDP has a history of limiting the space for left critiques and activism within its caucus. Leader Horwath has already made moves to limit the party’s role to being an official parliamentary opposition and a government-in-waiting. This doesn’t bode well for the NDP’s potential role in any movement.
But it is critical not to subordinate any movement’s autonomy or leadership to that of a moderate, electoral political party like the NDP. It is important to keep in mind that the latter only became the center of electoral opposition to Ford because of the collapse of the Liberals and the lack of any real left alternative.

Most important is to build what was completely lacking in the last major popular push against the Harris years: socialists have to work with allies to change the opinions and understanding of working people who look to the false solutions of Ford. This can’t be done in isolation, but as part of building an alternative resistance in unions, communities, and other working-class spaces and institutions.

It means combining socialist principles with deeper education about the causes and solutions to challenges posed by neoliberalism, along with learning about right-wing populism and its agenda. Socialists need to argue that a clear analysis of the conjuncture and of the nature of our forces and those on the other side is essential in building solid resistance. This has to be done inside and alongside unions and working-class institutions and spaces and social movements, around all kinds of issues that have a class component: housing, transportation, education, workplace issues, jobs, social programs, racism, sexism, homophobia, and more.
Upcoming municipal elections across Ontario in October provide a potential space to mobilize resistance across the province if the left can build sectoral networks around the above issues, in alliance with elected officials, candidates, and community and labor activists.

Socialist organizations and individuals are small and isolated. We can’t control the larger course of events, but we can contribute towards building a countermovement against Ford and the broader right-wing populist push he represents — a movement that can ultimately move from playing defense against these forces to offense.

He rightly points out that the NDP limits leftist criticism and activism, but he does not extend this to the unions in any detailed way. Why not? General criticisms of unions are hardly what is needed at this point.

For example, John Cartwright, president of the Toronto & York Region Labour Council, speaks of economic justice, in his open letter of January 30, 2018 (an open letter to our movement):

 We need to fight for labour law reform including broader based bargaining so that precarious workers can have a vehicle in which to achieve dignity and economic justice.

It is unlikely that he means by economic justice the creation of a working-class movement organized to abolish the treatment of workers as a class. He probably means the signing of a collective agreement, with its management rights clause. (For an example of a management rights clause.  Management Rights: Private Sector Collective Agreement, British Columbia

Compare this with the money circuit of capital (The Money Circuit of Capital) to determine whether workers experience economic justice even in the best-case scenario of a collective agreement. Or do not socialist principles include opposing treating human beings as things, as mere means for others’ purposes?

What are these socialist principles of which Herman speaks? Do they not contradict many of the principles of what union leaders and representatives express these days? Does not resistance against the right include criticizing the rhetoric that many union leaders and representatives express?

As for issues that have a class component: Where was this component when the wisdom of the social-reformist left linked the fight for a minimum $15 with the idea of “fairness”? As I argued in another post, the radical left abandoned any class view and simply jumped on the bandwagon of “Fight for $15 and Fairness.” (The Limitations of the Social-Reformist Left).

What of CUPE 3902 and its reference to a fair contract (CUPE 3902)? Do socialist principles indicate that there can be such a thing as a fair contract given the power of employers as a class? Should socialist then remain silent over the issue?

As for the right-wing drift in many countries, one contributing factor may be the acceptance of social-reformist rhetoric, that is to say, the lack of criticism of the so-called progressive left.

It would be necessary to develop a socialist organization that is willing to criticize both unions, with their persistent vague references of social justice, and community organizations that do the same (see for example my criticism of OCAP, the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty). Basic Income: A Critique of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty’s Stance). 

What is needed is—a more specific idea of what socialist principles mean. I thought I tried to live socialist principles by criticizing union rhetoric—and was abused because of it.

What, then, are these socialist principles? How do they relate to collective agreements? How do they relate to unions? How do they relate to ideas like the Fight for $15 and Fairness? How do they relate to working for employers as a class?

So many questions—but no answers to be found in Herman’s article. A pity.

A Kindred Soul: Exposing the Irrationality and Absurdity of an Economy Dominated by a Class of Employers

As the social-reformist left plan to engage in a rally tomorrow in order to defend the increase of the minimum wage to $14, to defend needed reform of employment standards and other needed reforms, they engage in a contradictory process. On the one hand, they seek to defend needed reforms–and they should be defended. On the other hand, they do not go far enough by any means. They share assumptions with the Fordist right that the present society is, ultimately, rational. This they do in practice even if they claim otherwise.

As for the so-called radical left, they seem intent on jumping on the bandwagon and following the social-reformist left; they are afraid to engage in criticism of a predominantly reformist community and union movement.

Michael Perleman, on the other hand, points to a need to expose the inherent irrationality of the present society and the impossibility of reforming such irrationality.

Michael Perelman, in his book The Invisible Handcuffs of Capitalism: How Market Tyranny Stifles the Economy by Stunting Workers (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2011), expresses the need to expose the nature of capitalist relations and their irrational, absurd and harmful nature.  This is part of the purpose of this blog.

From the introduction:

This book is intended as one among many blows that will ultimately crack the prevailing dogma that prevents the development of an economy that can nurture and tap in to people’s potential. It does not describe how this kind of economy will work. Developing the details of the future organization is far more challenging than helping to make way for the transition; however, awareness of the current wasted potential must precede the transformation of the present system of social relations.

Michelangelo’s wonderfully evocative, half-finished sculptures, known as The Slaves, made a deep impression on me when I saw them in Florence forty years ago. These works do not display the uniform delicacy and detail of his David or the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel, but the very incompleteness of these four massive statues, intended for the tomb of Pope Julius, is a major source of strength. The Awakening Slave depicts a powerful body, seemingly waking, while still encased in stone. The effect of the Bearded Slave, struggling to free himself from his marble boulder, which had once completely engulfed him, is even more dramatic.

Everybody irritated by a boss’s foolish command or a corporation’s ridiculous bureaucratic demands has taken a first step toward an awakening. These annoyances are symptomatic of a much larger problem associated with an outdated system of command and control at the workplace. Once that realization kicks in, you can sense your inner Bearded Slave. I like to think that many economists are also like the Bearded Slave, deep down struggling to emerge from the self-censorship that engulfs the discipline. [I think he is too hopeful; economists have a vested interest in justifying the present economic system dominated by a class of employers.]

Capitalist society also has something in common with the Bearded Slave, except that what covers its inner potential is man-made. It is capitalist control that encrusts society with unsightly layers of waste and inefficiency. This book includes many such examples. Hammering away at this crud might make the system more productive, but more often than not the waste and inefficiency serve a purpose—to maintain the existing system of control.

With enough blows, the irrationality of this system will be exposed. An irresistible vision of a humane system with rich social relations—something more beautiful than Michelangelo’s statues—will first come into view and then replace capitalism.

Unlike Perleman, the radical left in Toronto seem bent on pursuing a tactic of silence at all costs. For example, its silence over whether it is legitimate to pair the idea of fairness, on the one hand, to an increase in the minimum wage to $15 an hour and needed reforms of employment law on the other, expresses a lack of any real movement towards the abolition of the power of employers as a class. The radical left does not even take itself seriously anymore. It, like the social-reformist left, in practice agrees with the TINA principle: there is no alternative to capitalism–not in practice.

Of course, the radical left will probably delude itself into believing that it is contributing to “building capacities”–as if a greater quantity of the same social reformism will somehow challenge the shared assumptions of the right and the social-reformist left.

It will be interesting to see what the radical left (and the social-reformist left) will have accomplished this time next year since they refuse to criticize the basic principles of modern society–a society dominated by a class of employers.

 

 

A Radical Basic Income as a Radical Reform

Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) argues against any kind of Basic Income (Basic Income in the Neoliberal Age ). I have argued against their opposition on their own terms in two previous posts.

Others, too, argue for a radical basic income as a proposal that breaks the “economic coercion” required by the class of employers and its representatives by breaking the link between need and entrance into the job market.

I remember reading somewhere (I cannot remember the author or title) of a proposal for a basic income of 45 000 euros a year. Of course, such a proposal could not be realized within the job market of capitalism. That, however, is just the point. Aiming for a goal that cannot be realized in terms of “economic coercion” prescribed by the job market would question the need for such economic coercion. It would also promote discussion about the need for the creation of alternative economic relations and processes. Of course, the exact level of basic income proposed would be open for debate, with variations according to needs, but the principle of making demands that the capitalist job market cannot satisfy permits a policy for organizing and for going beyond a society characterized by the power of a class of employers.

A radical basic income, therefore, needs to become part of the process of questioning the economic coercive power of employers as a class and the associated economic, social and political structures that support such economic blackmail. It is not, in itself, the goal but part of the means for creating a world free from such economic blackmail.

That it is impossible to realize a basic income that threatens the job market within the social relations characterized by a society dominated by a class of employers is hardly a reason to abandon a demand for such a basic income; it is, rather, a reason for making this and other proposals that begin to question economic coercion.

Several writers have argued for basic income, not as a cure-all, but as a means of addressing that economic coercion. For example, Tony Smith, in his book Beyond Liberal Egalitarianism: Marx and Normative Social Theory in the Twenty-First Century (Leiden: Brill, 2017, page 346:

It is not the mere presence of markets that establishes the alien power of
capital. What makes capitalist market societies so different from pre-capitalist
societies with markets is the society-wide compulsion to place the accumulation
of surplus value above all other ends. The democratising of decisions regarding
the levels and priorities of new investments, combined with full employment
and basic income guarantees that are not feasible in capitalism, removes the
compulsion.

The alternative is to delude yourself by using such rhetoric as “economic justice,” “decent work,” “fair contracts,” “good contracts,” a “fair wage” and “fairness” (as much of the social-reformist left does in Toronto). This is what the social-reformist left has done and continues to do. Should not those who claim to be radical break with such reformist ideology and begin the long road towards the construction of a society worthy of human beings.

Unless of course human beings deserve to be “economically coerced.” That is the hidden assumption of the social-reformist left.

The social-reformist left (and much of the radical left, at least in Toronto) certainly fails to question such economic coercion. It seeks reforms entirely in terms of economic coercion and economic blackmail. Is that rational?

The social-reformist left, however, do not see it that way since they assume that it is possible to achieve economic justice, decent work, fair wages and fairness in a society dominated by a class of employers.

Should not the social-reformist left listen to OCAP’s very realistic description of the nature of social world in which we live in their pamphlet mentioned above: “Capitalism needs economic coercion for its job market to function” (page 6)? Should they not take that fact seriously? Given that fact, should they not aim to abolish such a situation by advocating measures that question the need for such coercion? Or should the so-called radical left at least start to openly criticize the absurd rhetoric of “decent wages,” “fairness,” a “good contract,” and a “fair contract?” Unless the racial left are really social reformists and do not, in practice, question the economic coercion that characterizes the job market.