Leftists frequently refer to themselves and others as the left. This is vague to the point of being useless. Often, what is meant by being left is being paying lip-service to being anti-capitalist–without in reality doing anything to oppose the power of the class of employers as such, either ideologically or in practice.
A good example is an article written by Tim Heffernan, Simon Schweitzer, and Bill Hopwood on July 8, 2020, in the social-democratic journal Canadian Dimension (COVID-19 and Mass Unemployment: the NDP and Beyond). In that article, the writers make the following statement in relation to what kind of organizing efforts could be achieved in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic in Canada by the New Democratic Party (the social-democratic party in Canada):
Events like well-publicized video town halls, car caravans, or carefully marshalled physical protests/pickets would do a lot to shine a light on the shortcomings of the Liberal government and the capitalist system [my emphasis]. The NDP could be pushing now for public ownership of all long-term care homes, waiving of rent and mortgages during the pandemic, an end to evictions or foreclosures, and a universal public health system.
Trudeau may be popular, but he is also vulnerable, especially from the left. The NDP could start now building support for a jobs program to reconstruct the Canadian economy and society after the devastation of COVID-19 and a world economic depression. This program could combine tackling the climate crisis with providing jobs and building affordable homes–all vital for Canadians’ well-being. Restarting the economy will take major public investment–workers are short of money, and big business is continuing its refusal to invest just as before COVID-19.
There is almost a mystical quality about the claim that “the shortcomings of the capitalist system” will become evident by such short-term efforts. This overestimates vastly the efficacy of such efforts in driving home to working people and community members “the shortcomings of the capitalist system,” and vastly underestimates the staying power of the capitalist system despite such “shortcomings.”
This does not mean that there should be no efforts to address problems associated with the capitalist system or with specific problems that have emerged due to the pandemic in the context of a capitalist system characterized by the domination of a class of employers. However, let us not underestimate the tasks required to ensure that people do indeed believe that the capitalist system has shortcomings that require the elimination of the power of the class of employers and the economic, political and social structures and relations associated with that power.
The overestimation of what people actually believe can also be seen from the following:
An indication of the leftward shift in public attitudes is shown by the results of a recent survey conducted by Abacus Data in late May. Three-quarters of Canadians said they either strongly support (44 percent) or support (31 percent) a tax of one to two percent on the assets of Canada’s wealthiest to help pay for the country’s recovery. The survey also touched on the issue of government aid to corporations. Four-fifths of respondents (81 percent) said that companies receiving government assistance should be prohibited from using foreign tax havens or using the funds to pay for excessive executive salaries, to buy back shares, or hike dividends.
Belief in heavier taxation of the wealthy, or more strings attached to corporations that receive government assistance is hardly the same thing as a belief in the shortcomings of the capitalist system. Social democrats or leftist social reformers often talk of the need for corporations to pay their fair share of taxes, for example (see Co-optation of Students at School Through We Day, Part Two: The Social-Democratic Left Share Some of We Day’s Assumptions). The concept of corporations paying their fair share of taxes does not express opposition to the class power of employer.
At the provincial level, the writers refer to the British Columbia NDP (British Columbia is the most western province in Canada) and its lack of criticism of the failings of the capitalist system:
BC’s New Democrats have acted as a moderate and competent government, better than is the case in several provinces, but they have not shown a commitment to working people and have propped up capitalism rather than challenging it. The NDP is missing an opportunity to show to the rest of Canada a bold alternative to the present failing system.
The NDP, federally and provincially, do not aim to end capitalism. Has it ever really done so? It is a social-democratic or social reformist party; that is its nature. The NDP would have to be a very different kind of party to be able to offer “a bold alternative to the present failing system.” Furthermore, most working people and community members do not really believe that the capitalist system is a failing system. Where is there evidence to the contrary?
Let us listen to one of the writer’s own lack of taking seriously the need to engage in sustained ideological struggles in order to ensure that workers and community members really believe that capitalism is a failing system: Tim Heffernan is a member of Socialist Alternative, the same political party as Kshama Sawant, an elected representative to the Seattle City Council. I had a debate with Mr. Heffernan sometime ago:
Fred raises some interesting points. However, I think he’s confusing social-democratic/reformist demands with transitional demands. There’s a difference which I can elaborate on if needed but the practical contrast between them can be seen in Seattle itself where I would argue that Rosenblum encapsulated an honest and militant social democratic approach while Kshama Sawant & Socialist Alternative (also militant and honest) pushed the movement to its limits by raising the demand for 15/taxing the rich to the need for a socialist transformation of society. But I will concede that there are some in the US left who label SA as reformist too.
Also, we need to look at the concrete not the abstract. The “15 movement” in North America has seen different manifestations and the slogans/demands put forward have varied in time and place. So in Seattle in 2013-14, it was “15 Now”, in other parts of the US it became “15 and a union” and in Ontario it was ” 15 & Fairness”. Fred objects to the term “fairness” presumably because of its association with the old trade union demand of “a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay”. Engels dealt with this demand back in 1881 where he recognized the usefulness of it in the early stages of developing class consciousness of the British working class, in the first half of the 19th Century, but saw it as an impediment at the time he was writing.
To today and “15 and Fairness”. I think the addition of “fairness” to the straight “15” demand was an excellent move. Fairness wasn’t understood as an airy fairy, feel good notion but came to be seen as shorthand for a series of extra and linked demands that could mobilise low paid and exploited workers:
– paid sick days
– equal pay for equal work (full time vs part time)
– the right to a union
– the fight against racism and discrimination
If the above be bullshit, so be it. I like to think that Engels, were he alive today, would have his criticisms of the limitations of 15 & Fairness but would be overwhelmingly positive about what it has achieved so far.
To which I responded:
Tim’s justification for “fairness” is that it is–somehow–a transitional demand. Let him elaborate on how it is in any way a “transitional” demand. I believe that that is simply bullshit.
He further argues the following:
“Fairness wasn’t understood as an airy fairy, feel good notion but came to be seen as shorthand for a series of extra and linked demands that could mobilise low paid and exploited workers:
– paid sick days
– equal pay for equal work (full time vs part time)
– the right to a union
– the fight against racism and discrimination
How does Tim draw such conclusions? It is a tautology (repetition of what is assumed to be true) to say that it is fair if “paid sick days, equal pay for equal work (full time vs part time), etc. is considered “fair.”
Why should these goals be tied to “fairness”? I had paid sick days at the brewery, I belonged to a union (there was, however, evident racism among some of the brewery workers and there was also a probationary six-month period before obtaining a full union-wage). Was that then a “fair” situation? I guess so–according to Tim’s logic. Why not then shut my mouth and not complain since I lived a “fair” life at the brewery? But, of course, I did not shut my mouth.
But does Tim believe that merely gaining “paid sick days, equal pay for equal work (full time vs part time), the right to a union, the fight against racism and discrimination and more” is fair? If he did, he would then presumably cease being a member of Socialist Alternative since he would have achieved his goals. However, he likely does not believe that it is fair. What he proposes, then, is to lie (bullshit) to workers by not revealing what he really believes as a “transitional” demand. He does not really believe that it is fair, but he believes that such rhetoric is a useful tool in developing a movement. Frankly, I believe that such a view is both dishonest and opportunistic. Workers deserve better–it is they who continue to be exploited despite “paid sick days,” etc. Receiving paid sick days is better than not receiving paid sick days, but all the demands obtained cannot constitute “fairness.” And yet workers who buy into the rhetoric (bullshit) of fairness may believe this fairy tale (it is, after all, a fairy tale presented by social democrats often enough, among others). Rather than enlightening the workers about their situation, such rhetoric serves to obscure it and to confuse workers–support for the Donald Trump’s of the world in the making.
Such low standards. Rather than calling into question the power of employers to direct their lives by control over the products of their own labour, it implicitly assumes the legitimacy of such power. Ask many of those who refer to the fight for $15 and Fairness–are they opposed in any way to the power of employers as a class? Not just verbally, but practically? Or do they believe that we need employers? That we need to have our work directed by them? That working for an employer is an inevitable part of daily life? That there is no alternative? That working for an employer is not really all that bad?
When working at the brewery, I took a course at the University of Calgary. The professor was interested in doing solidarity work for the Polish organization Solidarity at the time. I told him that I felt like I was being raped at the brewery. He looked at me with disgust–how could I equate being raped (sexually assaulted) with working for an employer? I find that radicals these days really do not seem to consider working for an employer to be all that bad. If they did, they probably would use the same logic as their opposition to sexual assault. Sexual assault in itself is bad, but there are, of course, different degrees of sexual assault. Those who sexually assault a person may do so more violently or less violently; in that sense, those who sexually assault a person less violently are “better” than those who are more violent. However, sexual assault is in itself bad, so any talk of “fairness” in sexually assaulting someone is absurd. Similarly, any talk of fairness in exploiting someone is absurd. But not for the “radical” left these days, it would seem.
Engels, Marx’s best friend and political ally, criticized the opportunist sacrifice of the long-term interests of workers for possibly short-term gains–and this is what the so-called radical left do often enough (and Mr. Heffernan’s defense of linking the fight for improved wages and working conditions with “fairness” . Quoted from From Christoph Henning (2014), Philosophy After Marx: 100 Years of Misreadings and the Normative Turn in Political Philosophy, page 37, note 86:
This forgetting of the great, the principal considerations for the momentary interests of the day, this struggling and striving for the success of the moment regardless of later consequences, this sacrifice of the future of the movement for its present, may be “honestly” meant, but it is and remains opportunism, and “honest” opportunism is perhaps the most dangerous of all!
Let us now discuss Mr. Heffernan’s acceptance of the slogan “Fairness” alongside the fight for a minimum wage of $15 an hour, on the one hand, and the reference to shedding light on the “shortcomings of the capitalist system” on the other. Surely one of the shortcomings of the capitalist system is its unfairness. Having millions of workers working every day for an unelected manager or managers (as representatives of employers) is unfair. Losing your job through no fault of your own (because management decides it is best for the company or department) is unfair. Being treated as a means for the benefit of employers is unfair (see The Money Circuit of Capital).
There is an apparent clash here between the acceptance of the slogan “$15 and Fairness” and the apparent claim that it is necessary to shed light “on the shortcomings of the capitalist system.” This contradiction is, however, merely apparent. Mr. Heffernan does not take seriously the need to engage, systematically and persistently, in pointing out “the shortcomings of the capitalist system.”
Or does he? He claims that the slogan “Fight for $15 and Fairness” is a transitional demand. Does he have evidence that it indeed has served to change the aims of workers from fighting for reforms within a system characterized by a class of employers to an aim of fighting to abolish their class power? I am still waiting for Mr. Heffernan to provide such evidence.
In fact, it is very difficult to shed light “on the shortcomings of the capitalist system” in such a way that working people and community members will take seriously such shortcomings and act upon such a belief. Frequently, what happens is that one aspect of the capitalist system is criticized whereas the system as such is simply assumed to be unchangeable. This is in fact the assumption of the slogan “Fight for $15 and Fairness.”
Mr.Heffernan’s evident acceptance of the ideology of “Fight for $15 Fairness and Fairness” goes hand in hand with substantial underestimation of the need for and difficulty of sustained ideological criticism of the “shortcomings of the capitalist system.”
Imagine a substantial number of of Canadian believing that the capitalist system has such short comings that they are willing to organize and struggle to overcome such a system. In other words, they would have to have similar aims. How far are we from achieving such common aims among millions of workers and community members? The distance between where we are and where we need to be is great, and Mr. Heffernan’s acceptance of the slogan “Fight for $15 and Fairness” does nothing to bridge the gap; to the contrary, it contributes to the maintenance of such a gap. References to shedding light on “the shortcomings of the capitalist system” ring hollow.
Mr. Heffernan, like many other self-styled radical leftists, does not really aim to shed light on “the shortcomings of the capitalist system.” If they did, they would persistently engage in exposing such shortcomings. Furthermore, they would distinguish shortcomings that arise from shortcomings of the capitalist system as such and shortcomings that arise from a specific form of capitalism. Shortcomings arising from capitalism as such cannot be reformed whereas shortcomings arising from a specific form of capitalism can be reformed without changing the basic nature of capitalism. Admittedly, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish the two, but we need to make an effort at distinguishing them so that we can distinguish between actions that question the very foundation of the class power of employers and actions which that class power can co-opt.
We need to realize that aiming for a socialist society will require much ideological struggle in order to clarify our aims and to move, collectively, towards the common aim of abolishing the class power of employers and its associated economic, political and social structures.
There is no such movement here in Toronto. It needs to be created. I suspect the creation of such a movement is also required in many parts of the world since it is mainly social democrats who dominate the left these days–despite their radical-sounding phrases.