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

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

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

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

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

What is his alternative proposal, or his alternative solution?

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

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

The view that public ownership or nationalization by itself implies that  the state is a neutral instrument which merely needs to be captured by the left in order for social problems to be solved. I criticized this view in another post  (see The Poverty of Academic Leftism, Part Seven: The Idealization of the Nation State or the National Government and Nationalization in the Wake of the Coronavirus Pandemic, Part Two).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Poverty of Academic Leftism, Part Six: The Idealization of the Nation State or the National Government in the Wake of the Coronavirus Pandemic, Part One

Professor Noonan, a self-declared historical materialist and teacher of Marxism, continues to argue a political position that ignores the reality of capitalist society. In his post Back to the Magic Mountain, he argues the following:

No one should fetishize the nation state, but it remains the dominant form of political society and, when it chooses to, it can marshal the power to override capitalist market forces. The dependence of human life on market forces has been suspended in large parts of the world during this crisis. The state has effectively taken over the direction of economic activity and positioned itself as the guarantor of people’s income. We have been re-acquainted with a truth that capitalism works hard to suppress: our lives depend upon collective labour and nature, not market forces. This truth has to become the basis for post-pandemic reconstruction.

Professor Noonan’s opening part of the first sentence, “No one should fetishize the nation state,” is supposed to prevent any criticism of what follows. Professor Noonan, he implies, does not fetishize the nation-state.” The use of the conjunction “but” then is used to do just that.

In a Canadian context, Professor Noonan, in his statement: “The dependence of human life on market forces has been suspended in large parts of the world during this crisis. The state has effectively taken over the direction of economic activity and positioned itself as the guarantor of people’s income,” can refer to the provisions for workers to receive $500 a week for up to sixteen weeks through the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), a federal program. From workers’ point of view, such economic relief is of course welcome–if they qualify (they must have worked a certain number of hours, for example–although some of the gaps are being addressed).

Professor Noonan forgets that workers are means to employers’ ends (see The Money Circuit of Capital). Consider things that you own, use and need. Do you take care for them in some way? They are means to the end of your goals, but you do care about preserving their existence in order to achieve your goals. Professor Noonan idealizes (and fetishizes) the modern state. The Canadian federal government, like other governments, instituted income policies because the workers could not temporarily work for employers–and because they lack their own independent means by which to produce and hence to live.

Employers need employees in one way or another if they are going to continue to be employers. The modern state intervenes in the capitalist market, if necessary, because that market needs the continued existence of workers as employees. The dependence of employers on employees can be seen from the following issue that arose in the 1860s in England in relation to the possible emigration of skilled English workers (from Karl Marx, Marx-Engels Collected Works, volume 35, Capital:

The reproduction of the working class carries with it the accumulation of skill, that is handed down from one generation to another.1′ To what extent the capitalist reckons the existence of such a skilled class among the factors of production that belong to him by right, and to what extent he actually regards it as the reality of his variable capital, is seen so soon as a crisis threatens him with its loss. In consequence of the civil war in the United States and of the accompanying cotton famine, the majority of the cotton operatives in Lancashire were, as is well known, thrown out of work. 471 Both from the working class itself, and from other ranks of society, there arose a cry for State aid, or for voluntary national subscriptions, in order to enable the “superfluous” hands to emigrate to the colonies or to the United States. Thereupon, The Times published on the 24th March, 1863 [p. 12, col. 2-4], a letter from Edmund Potter, a former president of the Manchester Chamber of Commerce. This letter was rightly called in the House of Commons, the manufacturers’ manifesto.2′ We cull here a few characteristic passages, in which the proprietary rights of capital over labour power are unblushingly asserted.

“He” (the man out of work) “may be told the supply of cotton workers is too large … and … must … in fact be reduced by a third, perhaps, and that then there will be a healthy demand for the remaining two-thirds…. Public opinion … urges emigration….The master cannot willingly see his labour supply being removed; he may think, and perhaps justly, that it is both wrong and unsound…. But if the public funds are to be devoted to assist emigration, he has a right to be heard, and perhaps to protest.”

… He [Mr. Potter] then continues:

“Some time …, one, two, or three years, it may be, will produce the quantity…. The question I would put then is this — Is the trade worth retaining? Is it worth while to keep the machinery (he means the living labour machines) in order, and is it not the greatest folly to think of parting with that? I think it is. I allow that the workers are not a property, not the property of Lancashire and the masters; but they arc the strength of both; they are the mental and trained power which cannot be replaced for a generation; the mere machinery which they work might much of it be beneficially replaced, nay improved, in a twelvemonth.’: Encourage or allow (!) the working power to emigrate, and what of the capitalist?”a “…Take away the cream of the workers, and fixed capital will depreciate in a great degree, and the floating will not subject itself to a struggle with the short supply of inferior labour…. We are told the workers wish it” (emigration). “Very natural it is that they should do so…. Reduce, compress the cotton trade by taking away its working power and reducing their wages expenditure, say one-fifth, or five millions, and what then would happen to the class above, the small shopkeepers; and what of the rents, the cottage rents…. Trace out the effects upwards to the small farmer, the better householder, and … the landowner, and say if there could be any suggestion more suicidal to all classes of the country than by enfeebling a nation by exporting the best of its manufacturing population, and destroying the value of some of its most productive capital and enrichment…. I advise a loan (of five or six millions sterling), … extending it may be over two or three years, administered by special commissioners added to the Boards of Guardians in the cotton districts, under special legislative regulations, enforcing some occupation or labour, as a means of keeping up at least the moral standard of the recipients of the loan … can anything be worse for landowners
or masters than parting with the best of the workers, and demoralising and disappointing the rest by an extended depletive emigration, a depletion of capital and value in an entire province?”

Potter, the chosen mouthpiece of the manufacturers, distinguishes two sorts of “machinery”, each of which belongs to the capitalist, and of which one stands in his factory, the other at night time and on Sundays is housed outside the factory, in cottages. The one is inanimate, the other living. The inanimate machinery not only wears out and depreciates from day to day, but a great part of it becomes so quickly
superannuated, by constant technical progress, that it can be replaced with advantage by new machinery after a few months. The living machinery, on the contrary, gets better the longer it lasts, and in proportion as the skill, handed from one generation to another, accumulates.

…the factory operatives are part of the movable fittings of a factory. Their emigration was prevented.1; They were locked up in that “moral workhouse”, the
cotton districts, and they form, as before, “the strength” of the cotton manufacturers of Lancashire.

With millions of workers being sent home in order to prevent damage to human beings as employees–a necessary part of the process of capitalist production and exchange as well as governmental processes– the government’s intervention in being “the guarantor of people’s income” looks much less positive. The government or state (here the distinction is not important) is not the benevolent, neutral institution that Professor Noonan makes it out to be. It is providing income as a stop-gap measure until the capitalist and governmental processes can once again operate normally.

Indeed, Professor Noonan implies as much when he writes:

The danger, of course, is that the state is currently acting under emergency powers, but will revert to its standard function of enframing and protecting capital, if we let it.

Professor Noonan sees the provision of income by the state that is supposedly independent of market forces as something positive–but as we have already seen, the preservation of workers independent of the market in the sense that they can obtain money without having to work for an employer–is only a temporary measure that in no way is in opposition to the interests of the class of employers.

As the pandemic recedes in intensity, at least two issues will arise concerning the opposition of the working class to the nation-state. Firstly, there will be increased intensification of calls for workers to go back to work for employers despite the health risks. After all, around 1000 workers die and 600,000 workers are injured every year in Canada; health and safety are not a priority for the Canadian state.

Secondly, the issue of who will pay for the temporary income of workers and the subsidies for employers during the pandemic will arise. Although calls for cutbacks in health care will undoubtedly be more difficult to justify, cuts in other areas (such as education) will probably intensify.

Without a movement that expressly or consciously opposes the treatment of workers as things to be used by employers, the temporary measure taken by the Canadian (and other capitalist) government(s) is just that–a temporary measure. There will likely be opposition from the labour movement and from communities to the treatment of such measures as temporary, but since the labour movement and communities, for the most part, share Professor Noonan’s view that the state can somehow overcome its own nature as a capitalist state, the tasks required for converting such temporary measures into permanent measures cannot be addressed.

Professor Noonan refers to “we.” But who is this “we?” The “we” is a figment of his social-democratic imagination. In order for there to be a “we,” there would have had to have been much prior preparation. Has Professor Noonan engaged in such preparation? Not at all. He has engaged in the idealization of the collective-bargaining process and promoted class harmony (see earlier posts, such as  The Poverty of Academic Leftism, Part Five: Middle-Class Delusions).

Surely an essential part of the process of our preparing for a society where we all have our biological, social, intellectual, emotional and aesthetic needs met is a negative process–a process of coming to understand that the present social relations inside and outside work are in opposition to our interests and nature and that we therefore need to organize to change the situation by abolishing all class relations and relations of oppression.

However, my experience here in Toronto has been that most of the so-called left simply do not want to deal with the issue and attack those who do, such as calling them “a condescending prick,” ridiculing them and so forth. Alternatively, they ignore the issue by remaining silent over the issue. For example, John Clarke and other so-called radicals here in Toronto opposed calling for a basic income; I called for a radical basic income in opposition to Mr. Clarke’s rejection of any consideration of a basic income (see Basic Income: A Critique of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty’s Stance). It has been largely ignored by the left here in Toronto; there has been no real discussion or movement for establishing a radical basic income here in Toronto.

Professor Noonan’s reference to “if we let them” is, therefore, utopian thinking. My prediction is that at best there will be some pressure from the organized social-democratic left for the maintenance of some kind of improvements in the welfare state, but that is all. Of course, there will be counter-pressure by the government or state and the class of employers to such improvements.

Professor Noonan’s further utopian social-democratic thinking can be seen in the following:

The alternative is to use this crisis as a basis of legitimacy for the state– under the control of democratic political forces acting in our shared life-interest– to assume control over the productive basis of society and re-orient production to serving life-needs.

I certainly share the goal of having “the productive basis of society…serving life-needs,” , but Professor Noonan has not shown how he or other members of the so-called progressive left have engaged in the preparatory work necessary to take advantage of a crisis.

Professor Noonan’s reference to using

“this crisis as a basis of legitimacy for the state–under the control of democratic political forces acting in our shared life-interest–to assume control over the productive basis of society and re-orient production to serving life-needs”

follows in the footsteps of another post by Professor Noonan, a post that assumes the present existence of certain social relations that are required if other social relations are to arise. In the previous post already referred to above, I pointed out how contradictory Professor Noonan’s theoretical position is with respect to the interests of most workers at universities; Professor Noonan assumed that there was already democracy at universities and thereby assumed what in fact needs to be accomplished.

The same logic applies here. If we already have democratic control of forces “acting in our shared life-interest,” then we already have “control over the productive basis of society” and have already “reoriented production to serve life-needs.” The reconstruction of the economy is democratic control. We need to reconstruct the political and the economic simultaneously and not the so-called political seizure of power occurring before and then democratic control of the economy somehow following afterwards.

Professor Noonan’s call for nationalization by the present state ignores this problem altogether by assuming that nationalization by the modern state will somehow magically lead to control over our own life process and life needs:

 Nationalization can pre-figure democratic socialization, and democratic socialization can re-focus economic life on collective work to provide each and all that which we really need, and freeing our time for the– real-life, multidimensional– experiences, actions, and interactions that make life worth fighting for, protecting, and living.

The call for nationalization as a prelude to socialism is typical of social democrats; they idealize and fetishize the modern state–contrary to Professor Noonan’s disclaimer–and thereby short-circuit what needs to be done–expose the anti-democratic and alienated nature of the modern state–a nature that has its parallel in the modern economy dominated by a class of employers or what some call civil society (see Employers as Dictators, Part One).

This issue, however, is somewhat complicated and will be dealt with in the next post. Professor Noonan’s position, ironically, is similar in some ways to the Leninist view of the modern state–a view that Professor Noonan supposedly finds unsatisfactory.

 

 

The Limitations of Social-Democracy in the Face of the Coronavirus

John Cartwright is the president of Toronto and York Labour District Council. According to the website of this Council:

The core belief of unions is in solidarity. We want every one of our members to feel they belong, to appreciate the gains that unions have made for working people, and to have a sense of our common purpose. For all of us, fairness matters. Winning union members to embrace those common values is one of the most important tasks we have.

It is in that context that we address the challenge of tackling systemic racism and building stronger unions.

By working together, we can nurture inclusive workplaces and strengthen our shared commitment to our union’s shared values of equality, respect, justice and dignity for all.

This sounds very radical. However, the claim that “fairness matters” and similar statements do not address the issue of whether Mr. Cartwright opposes the power of employers as a class or whether he accepts such power and merely aims to modify such power to the advantage of workers and the community.

To answer this question, we need to look at another statement made by Mr. Cartwright:

Speaking notes for CAW-CEP – A Moment of Truth Workshop

By John Cartwright, President Toronto and York Regional Labour Council

February 25, 2012

COMMUNITY POWER AND POLITICAL BARGAINING

  • Since its start, our movement has undertaken two kinds of bargaining – collective bargaining to determine terms and conditions in the workplace; and political bargaining to determine the conditions of life both inside and outside the workplace
  • The Canadian labour movement has fundamentally defined itself as a social union movement, guided by the slogan “What we wish for ourselves, we also wish for others”.
  • That has led to us taking a stance from the earliest days to speak out for public education, universal healthcare, public pensions, unemployment insurance, public transit, affordable housing and wide variety of social services
  • Those have been achieved through a combination of building mass popular movements and formal political action – the US experience serves as a sobering reminder of how narrow the political window can be without the existence of a social democratic party with labour roots, as we have with the NDP and PQ, despite their shortcomings

What are the shortcomings of the NDP (and PQ)? There is no elaboration, but at least we get a clearer idea of what Mr. Cartwright means by fairness–capitalism with a human face, or the welfare state of old.

This view is also expressed in the following:

JUST LABOUR vol. 8 (Spring 2006) [page) 92

EQUITY BARGAINING IN THE NEW ECONOMY

John Cartwright, President, Toronto and York Region Labour Council,
Toronto, Ontario, Canada

When thinking about equity bargaining in the new economy we need to think about
both collective bargaining and political bargaining strategies. The gains of the union movement have been built on pursuing both of these strategies.In greater Toronto, out of the 2.3 million paid work force, over 1 million workers earn less than the
official poverty level. The vast majority of those workers are women and workers of colour. If we are going to talk about bargaining for equity, we need to address how to build power to bargain gains for these workers and how to transform
ourselves to build power.

The Labour Council is launching a major initiative – a framework for dozens of campaigns called A Million Reasons, because there are a million workers in this city below the poverty line and therefore a million reasons to raise wages, to improve labour law, and to improve standards and social programs.

In this framework we see four pieces crucial to building trade union power in today’s economy:

1. Protect good jobs in the public sector and private sector. That means that every
union needs to get involved in supporting each other’s struggles.

2. Bargain to raise standards sector by sector by establishing common bargaining. For example, we need to bargain standards for the hotel industry in the city, not just bargain with each hotel separately.

3. Mass organizing, especially with workers of colour. We need to forge ties and be
involved in the community organizing that is going on in local, ethnic communities,
asking them to tell us how to best support their struggles.

4. Use our power to protect and strengthen the social wage –all of those programs people think of as government programs. We need to reclaim these as the
programs we fought for and won politically – including workers’ compensation, health care, public education, child care, etc. The social wage is crucial, especially for low-wage workers of colour to achieve equity.

We certainly should try to increase standards for a whole industry and not just for a particular employer, and we should fight for improved community conditions, increases in the minimum wage and more social supports (the social wage).

Mr. Cartwright’s implicit standard, though, is “good jobs”–both in the private and public sectors. Good or decent jobs will not only lift those below the poverty out of poverty but will ensure that a social wage will be protected: “public education, public education, universal healthcare, public pensions, unemployment insurance, public transit, affordable housing and wide variety of social services.”

I have criticized Mr. Cartwright’s views before (Ontario Looks Right–With Some Help From the “Left”), but what inspired me to look a little closer at Mr. Cartwright’s views was an email I received from him today, March 24, 2020, related to the coronavirus crisis:

Dear Fred,

Every day, political leaders at all levels of government are making new announcements to respond to COVID-19 impacts, on both people and the economy. These have been crucial steps to ensure public safety and financial stabilization. Nobody knows how long this crisis will last, but we do know that when it finally recedes our world will look very different.

We cannot truly address the COVID-19 crisis if the responses entrench the social and economic dynamics that made us so vulnerable in the first place. Now is the time to remind our decision makers that their policies must not only seem fair for today but must also correct the growing imbalances in our society that are leaving too many of our neighbours behind.

Perhaps now more than ever, we see clearly that divestment in our public services and safety net has always been, in reality, divestment in ourselves. When any one person in Canada can’t access basic water and sanitation, medicines that they need or a fair wage, then we are all vulnerable.

This crisis hasn’t just created new disasters, it has taken root within the flaws of our existing system. Inequality in Canada has meant that now, in this time of deep need, we risk sacrificing the health and safety of vulnerable people for whom the social safety net has been weakened.

This inequality has been with us for generations, whether we consider the long-standing boil water advisories for First Nations communities or the ongoing austerity measures in our health care systems. The impact of social and political disparity puts many Canadians at increased risk because not everyone has access to basic lines of first defence such as secure housing or access to a doctor.

Governments across the country have taken quick steps to expand programs like Employment Insurance and Emergency Benefits, granting sick time, and pausing evictions or water shut-offs. Health care workers have again become heroes instead of targets for conservative politicians. Most importantly, people are re-discovering the reason why past generations decided to create strong public services that reach every community. Reinvestment in our public services and social safety net is the right thing to do – not only now, during COVID-19, but permanently in Canadian society.

Our economic system has allowed a small portion of society to gain the vast majority of benefits. Too many politicians have divested in public services and increased corporate loopholes, resulting in a reduced social safety net that sacrifices more and more people to the very real risks of unaffordable housing, lower access to health care, precarious work or, of course, to COVID-19. The climate crisis means that we will see an increase in health and extreme weather emergencies, making a just transition into jobs that bolster our environmental and social health even more pressing.

The expected bailout for the oil and gas industry is the exact opposite of this approach. That industry suffers from an unrelated and untreatable crisis of global price wars and a world that is leaving it behind for greener solutions. Instead of pouring good money after bad, our governments should create green jobs programs that reclaim land, support public health and reinvest in local communities. The loopholes that allowed these giant corporations to pay a pittance into the public sphere must be closed, along with those for the new digital commerce giants and others hiding fortunes in tax havens.

Nobody wants to see a repeat of the last financial crisis – when CEOs rewarded themselves with huge bonuses while people were losing their jobs and their homes. If any company is to be supported with public funds, ownership shares must be taken, or strong rules imposed to benefit ordinary people instead of billionaires. Why should banks be allowed to charge interest rates of over 20 per cent on credit card charges that many Canadians will have to rely on to survive? In exchange for billions in liquidity from the federal government, there should be strict limitations on gouging the public, during this time of crisis and beyond.

Government must show leadership in transforming our economy to one that works toward well-being for all of us rather than for the few. We have the momentum and opportunity to shift our systems to prioritize our care and wellbeing for the long run. While this crisis is unlike any in our lifetime, the Council of Canadian will organize to hold elected officials accountable, challenge corporate greed and fight for the common good – as we work together for a renewed vision of a better world for all.

In solidarity,

John
John Cartwright
Chairperson

Again, expansion of public provisions in health care, education, pensions and the like is better than their contraction. However, Mr. Cartwright still implies that employers are somehow necessary. In referencing “increased corporate loopholes,” he implies that if such loopholes were eliminated, then corporations would be legitimate. In other words, it is the old repetition of corporations paying their “fair share” of taxes.

/Furthermore, Mr. Cartwright’s demand for an expansion of public services and an increase in the safety net through education and health care does not even address the issue of the quality of such public education or health care. I have already criticized the Chicago Teachers Union’s assumption of the need to only expand educational “services” rather than a radical restructuring of the public education system (see, in the section Publications and Writings on the main page of this blog, “A Deweyan Review of the the Chicago Teachers’ Union Publication The Schools Chicago Students Deserve: Research-Based Proposals to Strengthen Elementary and Secondary Education in the Chicago Public Schools (2012). 

As for health care, in the first place, I have already addressed the inadequate nature of health and safety at the workplace in a series of posts (see, for example, Working for an Employer May Be Dangerous to Your Health, Part One). In the second place, see the last post for the beginnings of a critique of health care.

It is hardly sufficient to reinvest “in our public services and social safety net.” Like the private sector, such public services have been characterized by the dictatorship of employers (see The Money Circuit of Capital  and the series of posts  Employers as Dictators, Part One etc.).

Mr. Cartwright, as part of the social-democratic left, uses the period before neoliberalism as his standard. He wants to return to the ideal world of welfare capitalism. This standard is wholly inadequate for the creation of a fair society. Before neoliberalism, there was still the treatment of human beings at work as things to be used for the benefit of employers. There was, certainly, a more robust safety net than now, but even then such a robust safety net was always under threat by sections of the class of employers.

Even if we assumed that there existed a robust safety net, as long as a class of employers exists, such a safety net will always be threatened.

It is better to think about starting a movement towards the abolition of the power of the class of employers in order to create a society that can respond in a humane and timely fashion to threats to our common lives on this planet. Trying to recreate the social-democratic ideal of the past (the 1950s-1970s)–the social-democratic ideal of welfare capitalism– is utopian; if we are to meet adequately our common problems, we need to go beyond the rhetoric of improvements in the safety net. Such solutions are band-aid solutions that do not meet the challenges to our lives that we face in the 21st century. What we do not need is more social-democratic rhetoric.

It is better to think about how to create a movement towards a socialist society–a society without a class of employers.

What’s Left, Toronto? Part Seven

As I indicated in an earlier post, on September 19, 2018, several leftist activists gave a talk about what was to be done in the city of Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The talks were posted on the Socialist Project website on October 7, 2018 (also posted on YouTube) (What’s Left, Toronto? Radical Alternatives for the City Election). As I indicated in my earlier posts, over the next few months, I will be analyzing some or all of the talks from a Marxian perspective.

This post is the last post in the series since it looks at the last talk by David Kidd, introduced by Herman Rosenfeld as a community worker, trade-union activist and as a political activist. Mr. Kidd was supposed to talk about some of the challenges and options the left have.

Mr. Kidd opened by claiming that he was going to provide a Twitter version of some of the left-activist projects in Toronto since he had limited time. It was indeed a Twitter version–and the weakest “analysis” of all the talks.

Mr. Kidd first outlines how, in the 1970s, he took a stance between either the choice of liberal or Tory (conservative) at the municipal, provincial or federal level (Canadian politics is usually analyzed at one or more of these three levels). Mr. Kidd acted negatively by tearing down any Conservative signs since he aimed to ensure, where he immediately lived, that it was a Tory-free zone.

He then refers back to the 1950s and 1960s. The Toronto Labour Council was instrumental in obtaining a public transit system and a public education system. In the 1950s, it campaigned against the racist discrimination of blacks and other people of colour to gain access to restaurants and other places as well as against the anti-Semitic and racist policies of exclusion to recreational facilities.

The 1970s and the 1980s were a period of struggle of massive community mobilizations and organizations for, for example,tenants’ rights and against gentrification. Women’s groups emerged to fight for their rights. This period also saw opposition to the far right and to fascist movements. A movement against carding also was initiated as was a movement for police accountability. The fight for gay and lesbian rights started to develop despite violent attacks against gays and lesbians.

Fights against business-oriented initiatives, such as the attempt to bring the Olympics to Toronto, were defeated in 1996 as organizations for the rights of the homeless fought back. The left gained a victory in this instance.

The 1990s and 2000s saw the public-sector unions and environmental groups fight back against privatization. This period saw the fight against the amalgamation of the city and the emergence of such leftist organizations as Black Lives Matter, No One Is Illegal and the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP).

Mr. Kidd then tries to explain the shift towards a right-wing populism because of two economic crises in Toronto and the increase in homelessness. Deindustrialization has led to a decrease in decent paying jobs. The emergence of a substantial working-class poor has led to their blaming others and to a shift towards right populism. The municipal left also failed to offer solutions to problems they were facing.

Municipal activism is rooted in the communities in the city, but so too is the fight for democracy. The fight for democracy is like the fight against oppression. Both involve a daily fight and should not be conceived as something that you win and then is finished.

What is necessary is to renew the left’s analysis and its strategic sense of how to build working-class power.

Mr. Kidd then refers to Doug Ford’s elections and the need to build community councils again. In particular, it is necessary to build parent councils once again that, in the past, had some decision-making power at the school-board level.

Ultimately, the left cannot count just on the elected officials at City Hall but need to build local community organizations that will fight for people’s needs.

Mr. Kidd then claims that, as socialists, the left need to build programmatic unity on where it needs to go. The fight against the Conservative Harris Ontario government in the past was purely negative–to stop Harris. Consequently, welfare rights 20 years later are still at the same level. Subsequent governments did not raise them nor did they undo some of the attacks on welfare rights instituted by the Harris government. The same logic applies to subsequent governments after Ford loses power, Mr. Kidd implies–unless the left does something different.

What Mr. Kidd means by “programmatic” is what the audience has heard from other presenters, who have shown what is necessary in order to talk to people about where to go. The free transit movement and Stefan Kipfer’s presentation on housing are examples of what needs to be done (descriptions of these are found in my previous posts on this topic–as are criticisms of them). The left cannot count on the market to achieve its goals. It needs public land banking, expropriation, public housing, co-ops and nationalized affordable housing. It needs to maintain free public education and healthcare. The left needs to protect and expand public assets in Toronto.

Finally, what is needed is a Municipal Human Rights Code since discrimination is still the daily experience of queer, racialized and elder members of Toronto. What is needed is a city that is for all its citizens and not just taxpayers.

Mr. Kidd’s description of various struggles sounds very radical–but it really is a rehash of social-democratic demands of an expanded public sector, supplemented by non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) that are linked to community organization. Mr. Kidd’s socialism is really welfare capitalism. Not once does Mr. Kidd question the power of employers as a class.

Mr. Kidd mentions necessary community organizations required to fight for what he calls socialism, such as the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP), and yet as I showed in a previous post, OCAP, although it recognizes economic coercion via the power of employers as a class with one hand, ignores it subsequently when dealing with social proposals and solutions with the other hand (see “Capitalism needs economic coercion for its job market to function” (Ontario Coalition Against Poverty: OCAP)

Mr. Kidd, like much of the social-democratic left, idealizes the public sector. What is needed, for them, is the expansion of the public sector. The social-democratic left, however, rarely inquire into the adequacy of the public sector to express either the interests of public sector workers or the interests of workers in general. They assume that the existing relations will prevail and that all that will change is the quantitative weight of the public sector relative to the private sector.

Mr. Kidd, like many of the social-democratic left, do not bother to consider the adequacy, for example, of the current educational system in terms of quality. What they propose is an expansion of services under present conditions rather than a radical restructuring of education in relation, for instance, to work.

Rather than repeat what I have written elsewhere, I refer the interested reader to links to some of my publications and writings as found on my home page. I am adding another link that is directly more relevant to educational issues: A Deweyan Review of the the Chicago Teachers’ Union Publication The Schools Chicago Students Deserve: Research-Based Proposals to Strengthen Elementary and Secondary Education in the Chicago Public Schools (2012).

Although Mr. Kidd’s proposals may help people in one way or another, they also can be co-opted and integrated into the capitalist economic and political structures. Each proposal he has made has nothing specifically socialist about it. Such proposals are socialist only if they are linked to a more radical program of eliminating both the power of employers as a class and the social, economic and political structures associated with that power.

The same could be said of Mr. Kidd’s reference to the need for a Municipal Human Rights Code. Although this and other such measures may help workers and citizens in particular situations, such measures fail to address the issue of the power of employers as a class. None of the references made by Mr. Kidd have any link to questioning the power of employers as a class. They are reformist measures as such. Furthermore, in a post that I will send in the distant future, I will point out the inadequate nature of “human rights” personally, when I filed a human rights complaint for political discrimination (something which Mr. Kidd fails to mention–typical of the social-democratic left).

Mr. Kidd did indeed provide a twitter version of the struggles in which he has been involved. Such struggles are reformist through and through. This should surprise no one. Mr. Kidd has been a Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) organizer and executive member of local 79. He evidently prides himself on his activism–but there is no indication whatsoever that Mr. Kidd has ever intended, through his activities, in contributing to the creation of a new kind of society without classes in general and without employers in particular. His reference to “decent paying jobs” tips his hand.

There is no indication that Mr. Kidd has ever intended to contribute to the radical restructuring of social, economic and political institutions in such a way that human beings finally control their own life process rather than having their lives controlled by objectified social, economic and political structures which they create but do not control. His aim is to achieve “decent paying jobs” supplemented by a welfare state–hardly anything “radical.” Mr. Kidd, like much of the social-democratic left, want to turn back the clock to the 1950s and 1960s, when workers obtained increased wage gains and expanded their benefits–but he forgets that the economic times have changed and that the capitalist economy is not the same as it was then. Moreover, even during the 1950s and 1960s, workers were treated as things–something about which Mr. Kidd is silent. As long as workers receive “decent paying jobs” while being treated as things, Mr. Kidd will be content. Such is the implicit view of those who refer to “decent paying jobs.”

In general, then, the series of talks which claim to be radical fall far short of being radical. They are all in one way or another reformist and have no intention of questioning the class structure of modern society. Even the most radical of them–presented by Michelle Lee of No One Is Illegal–fails to live up to its own potentiality.

This series of talks should have been named: What’s Left, Toronto? Social-Reformist Alternatives for the City Election.

I will leave these radicals to their own delusions. I hope that by exposing the limitations of such views, others will abandon such delusions and see more clearly what needs to be done.