Reform Versus Abolition of the Police, Part 8: The Police and the Political Economy of Capitalism

Introduction 

The following provides many quotes from Mark Neocleous’s book The Fabrication of Social Order:A Critical Theory of Police Power (2000), with short comments. The author argues that there is an inherent connection between the emergence of the modern police and the emergence of a society dominated by a class of employers.

The issue of the abolition of the police is thus intimately connected to the issue of the abolition of a society dominated by a class of employers–along with the associated economic, political and social structures.

The Primary Function of the Police is to Maintain Order–Within a Society Dominated by a Class of Employers

According to Neocleous, the primary function of the police is to maintain order (not to serve the law but to use the law after the fact to justify actions to maintain order)–and the order which the police maintain is essentially a society where people produce their lives by working for an employer via an implicit or explicit contract (whether the contract is individual or collective in the form of a collective agreement).

In his book, Neocleous refers to two authors—the German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel and Patrick Colquhoun. Both implicitly or explicitly criticized Adam Smith’s characterization of the emerging capitalist society as a society guided by the hidden or invisible hand of the market, with individual interest leading to the satisfaction of social interest.

Hegel and Colquhoon on the Police in Modern Class Society

Hegel saw modern capitalist market society as insecure and thus required the intervention of “the police” (which for him did not just mean the modern police but also welfare functions) to maintain the security of property against the necessary existence of those who lose out in the market system—the poor or the rabble. Colquhoon also saw the issue of security of a particular kind of property—capitalist property–to be central to the modern functioning of police. Page 44:

As the working class were gradually incorporated into the body politic so the question of security became a class issue. I shall develop this argument by pushing to its limits Marx’s suggestion that security is the supreme concept of class society. The recognition of the insecurity of the class system of private property meant that security came to be thought of as something to be achieved rather than merely conflated with liberty and property and left at that. Writers who recognized this, such as G.W.F. Hegel and Patrick Colquhoun, did so because they understood that security is imposed on civil society by the state through the exercise of police power. In some fundamental sense then, security is the concept of police, as Marx puts it. Security is part of the rationale for the fabrication of order. In terms of the demand for order in civil society, it is under the banner of ‘security’ that police most often marches.

Colquhoun in particular argued that the problem of crime—and therefore insecurity of property—was intimately connected to the issue of working for an employer—he saw crime and insecurity as mainly a function of not working for an employer. Those who did not work for an employer were suspect since they were on the margin, suspiciously teetering into committing acts of crime. The modern police were to ensure that those who were the working poor did not fall into the indigent (idlers and those incapable of working for an employer). Page 45:

The insight made by Hegel, but developed more fully by Colquhoun, is that ‘police’ must be understood in the context of wider questions concerning property and commerce on the one hand and poverty and indigence on the other. Put simply: a massive and intensive police operation on the part of the state is
a necessary feature of civil (i.e. class) society for the simple reason that the class of poverty and the indigent rabble generated by civil society in turn pose a threat to private property and commerce, rendering civil society insecure. Civil society therefore needs to be policed – to be made secure –
by the state.

Hegel on Poverty, Wealth and the Police

What Hegel called civil society is capitalist society—the society where workers sell their capacity to work to employers, and employers purchase that capacity for impersonal purposes not defined by the workers themselves. In other words, civil society is a society of markets (purchase and sale, buying and selling) and a society of production for employers (subordination of workers to the class structure dominated by employers in general and, in the first instance, subordination of workers to a particular employer). Workers work for both a particular employer and, indirectly, the class of employers (I elaborate somewhat in the posts Do Workers Work for a Particular Employer or for the Class of Employers? Part One: A Limitation of Some Radical Left Critiques of Capitalist Relations of Production and Exchange (A.K.A. Capitalism) and Do Workers Work for a Particular Employer or for the Class of Employers? Part Two: Critique of Unions and the Social-Reformist or Social-Democratic Left).

This society necessarily generates poverty (since wealth is concentrated at the opposite pole). Poverty is not some accidental feature of capitalist society; it forms a necessary feature of such a society and cannot be eliminated without abolishing the class power of the class of employers. Page 48:

The background to this is Hegel’s understanding of the insecurity brought about by the existence of a class of poverty, which is a necessary condition of civil society. ‘The emergence of poverty is in general a consequence of civil society, and on the whole it arises necessarily out of it.’ As such, there is no solution to it:‘The important question of how poverty can be remedied is one which agitates and torments modern societies especially.’

The problem, however, is not poverty per se, but the fact that from the class of poverty a further, more dangerous ‘class’ can emerge.

Poverty as such, from the point of view of the wealthy and powerful, is no problem. The problem with poverty is the potential threat such poverty may lead to—a threat to the security of the property and lives of the ruling class. Hegel had this to say on the topic: Pages 48-49:

When a large mass of people sinks below the level of a certain standard of living…that feeling of right, integrity, and honour which comes from supporting oneself by one’s own activity and work is lost. This leads to the creation of a rabble … Poverty in itself does not reduce people to a rabble; a rabble is created only by the disposition associated with poverty, by inward rebellion against the rich, against society, the government, etc.’

While charity may offer some help, it is no solution. The state’s police power is the main mechanism for overseeing poverty. But the crucial point here is this: the police is equally no solution. Since it cannot abolish poverty,because to do so would abolish civil society, all the police can do is to prevent the poverty-stricken class from becoming a criminalized and pauperized rabble. It is at this point that the work of Patrick Colquhoun becomes pertinent.”

Colquhoun On the Poor Working Class and the Police as an Organization of Order and Security for the Class of Employers

The idea that the police mainly function to enforce laws (such as it is) is an ideology—it has some truth, but overall it hides the real nature of the police. As asserted above, the real nature of the modern police system is the maintenance of a particular kind of social order. Page 51:

Colquhoun’s emphases are significant here. Like Hegel, Colquhoun sees civil society as something to be ordered, and this is the project of police. ‘The Criminal Police’ is one aspect or branch of this project. It is essentially this aspect or branch (or something like it) which became institutionalized as the police from 1829.

Colquhoun categorized the poor into different subgroups in order to identify those who would most likely commit crime (as defined by the property system based on the employer-employee relation), and the function of police was to ensure that the poor, as far as possible, maintained its status as wage workers: police and political economy were wedded to each other. Page 51:

Given the five classes of the poor identified by Colquhoun–useful poor, vagrant poor, indigent poor, aged and infirm, and poor infants– the ‘great art’ is to establish a system whereby those verging on indigence may be kept in the class of useful labour and those who are able but not willing to work (vagrants) be compelled to do so. At this stage in his work then, Colquhoun’s criticism that in the present system ‘the Police…has provided no place of industry in which those who were disposed to reform might find subsistence in return for labour. 

The problem for Colquhoun was not poverty as such; his distinction between poverty and indigence pointed the way to his approach in defining the political economic/police problem. Poverty is not a problem since it is by being poor that people seek to work for employers. What is a problem is indigence—not working for an employer. Page 52:

…he [Colquhoun] begins to recognize the importance of labour to the production of wealth, and thus the importance of poverty, and starts to separate poverty from indigence. ‘Labour is absolutely requisite to the existence of all Governments; and it is from the Poor only that labour can be expected…It is not Povertytherefore, that is itself an evil.’ Instead ‘the evil is to be found only in Indigence, where the strength fails, where disease, age, or infancy, deprive the individual of the means of subsistence, or where he knows not how to find employment when willing and able to work.

More explicitly, Colquhoun links poverty and working for an employer, on the one hand, and indigence and crime on the other. Page 53:

Poverty is that state and condition in society where the individual has no surplus labour in store, and, consequently, no property but what is derived from the constant exercise of industry in the various occupations of life; or, in other words, it is the state of every one who must labour for subsistence. Poverty is therefore a most necessary and indispensable ingredient of society, without which nations and communities could not exist in a state of civilization. It is the lot of man – it is the source of wealth, since without labour there would be no riches, no refinement, no comfort, and no benefit to those who may be possessed of wealth. Indigence therefore, and not poverty , is the evil…It is the state of any one who is destitute of the means of subsistence, and is unable to labour to procure it to the extent nature requires. The natural source of subsistence is the labour of the individual; while that remains with him he is denominated poor; when it fails in whole or in part he becomes indigent.

Modern police function to maintain workers, citizens, immigrants and migrants in a state of poverty–not in the sense of a level of consumption below a defined poverty line, but in terms of a state of dependence on having to work for a class of employers. Those who form the edges of this kind of poverty–who are almost teetering into indigence–are particular targets of the modern police since they represent a more likely direct threat to the premises of that state of poverty and dependence on employers.

Already within the capitalist factory, idleness was being dealt with through disciplinary measures of the owner and managers and through the division of labour. Page 55: 

For Colquhoun, then, the major police problem is the tendency to idleness, immorality and depravity among the indigent working class. This problem was already being overcome inside the factory through the discipline brought about by the division of labour and specialization.

Idleness outside the factory was to be dealt with by the police. Page 55: 

Colquhoun’s interest lay in the problem of idleness outside the factory. The task of police is to employ a whole panoply of measures and techniques to manage idleness, extending well beyond the administration of relief into the morality, profligacy and propriety of the working class. The working class need to be taught the morality of work and thus the immorality of idleness and related activities such as drinking, gambling, cohabitation, prostitution, political subversion, trade unionism and, a point which will become important in the following chapter, appropriation of property from the workplace, as well as ‘crime’ more generally.

Ultimately, the indigent need to be put to work for an employer, and the police are there to prevent them from engaging in activities that make them independent of that dependence. Pages 55-56: 

The general idea, then, is to put the poor to labour, to make the working class work. ‘Indigence’ is merely coda for any attempt to avoid wage labour, to refuse exploitation. As Peter Linebaugh has noted, if a single individual could be said to have been the planner and theorist of class struggle in the metropolis it would be Colquhoun.

The accumulation of wealth requires the security of property, and the security of property requires the police. Page 57: 

Since for Colquhoun the acceleration of wealth can only be achieved ‘by establishing a correct system of police’, political economy must concern itself with this. Yet the science of wealth has failed to grasp this point. ‘In all the branches of the Science of Political Oeconomy, there is none which requires so much skill and knowledge of men and manners, as that which relates to this particular object [the poor].’ Thus the main concern of his proposal for a Pauper Police Institution and a Board of General Internal Police should be seen as his contribution to the political economy of the wealth of nations, and the set of measures which Colquhoun subsumes under the police idea should also be seen as, in a roundabout way, his contribution to the science of political economy, but in the form of a science of police. This in turn consists in showing not just the necessity of police to the prevention of indigence and thus crime, but to the security of property: ‘where Property is exposed, a preventive Police must be resorted to, in order to be secure’. Far from the discourse of police being displaced by the discourse of political economy and the system of natural liberty, in Colquhoun’s work ‘police’ and ‘political economy’ are two sides of the same discursive coin. Police is a complement to the political economy of commercial society, rather than its opposite.

The police arise to secure what is inherently insecure–a society of “free” contract, where some will win at the expense of others–and therefore there will be losers–potential and actual–who threaten the system of property and the accumulation of capital. Page 59: 

…because the foundation of the modern system of liberty is itself insecure it requires state
power. On this reading the police of the poor is a mechanism for securing the insecure.

The insecurity of capitalist property is inherent in its very nature since it is founded on the dependence–and hence the lack of security–of the working class. Page 61: 

The history of security is a history of the state seeking an impossible security from the terror of the death of civil society. Civil society, after all, generates its own enemies; the bourgeoisie produces its own gravediggers. In class terms this means that police is necessary because capital, as the modern master, is forever at risk of losing control of the class of which it is master. The economic inactivity of the class of poverty is the heart of the insecurity of the system, the resistance of this class to the social domination of private property is its next step, and the political mobilization of the class its highest form. Thus security involves not just the prevention and detection of crime but, more importantly, the imposition of a form of social police. The history of police as a security project is a history of private
property’s fear of its most radical ‘other’.

The police has to assist in making a working class that corresponds to the needs of the class of employers. Page 69: 

The forms of policing being traced here were a political force for the making of the working
class in that the ultimate aim of the police project was the commodification of labour through the consolidation of the wage form. As such, the project of social police has historically been central to the function of political administration in fashioning the market.

Thus, traditionally workers appropriated all kinds of “left-over” products related to work despite working for an employer–such as spare wood or scraps of iron that carpenters and metal workers used to take home. The criminalization of such activities went hand in hand with the increasing exclusion of workers from obtaining their means of livelihood except through the wage–and the police were there to prevent and enforce such “crimes.” Page 72: 

The increasingly dominant bourgeois class felt that the customary rights in question jarred with
the fundamental purpose of labour, which was to earn a wage, and raised a fundamental question: are those who labour entitled to appropriate the products of their own labour, other than through the wage received? The answer given by capital was increasingly a firm ‘no’. What had previously been seen as custom was gradually being reconceptualized as crime.

Theft was redefined in order to accommodate the employers’ definition of absolute private property: ownership of the means for workers to produce their own lives (ownership of such produced things as spinning machines, power looms, furnaces and so forth) was to go hand in hand with ownership of the commodities produced by workers (as when I worked at a brewery in Calgary, where the beer that we produced was owned by the owners of, at first, Carling O’Keefe and then Molson). 

The function of the modern police as agents of security or order is of course security and order based on wage labour and not security or order in general. Page 74:

The net effect of the first preventive police system was thus not just a defence of property, but the
creation of a social order founded on private property via the consolidation of the money wage and
commodification of labour. This pattern was followed in the development of policing elsewhere in the nineteenth century. It is clear from Philips’s study of crime in the Black Country that there was a concerted effort on the part of industrial capital, police and magistrates to impose the money wage on the worker class, while in Liverpool merchants complained of the way the ‘secondary economy of the streets’ threatened the power of private property and money, not just in creating alternative points of sale but also in draining the wages and time of those who should more properly be engaged in wage labour.

Any Movement for the Abolition of the Police Requires Integration of the Working Class 

For those who aim to abolish the police (or even defund it), it is necessary to take into consideration that the police are a central component in the formation and maintenance of a working class dependent on the class of employers. Resistance by the class of employers and their representatives to the abolition of the police (or just partial defunding) will be fierce; it is vital that the working class form part of the movement for the abolition of the police and not be unrelated or tangential to it. If the working class does not form part of such a movement, it is highly unlikely that such a movement will achieve its goals since the police and the class interests of employers are intimately related. Pages 75-76: 

one should see the street powers granted to the police as an expression of the state’s contribution
to class formation as well as class domination. The new forms of police operation coming into existence were fundamental to the imposition of the money wage as a means of making the working class, and thus need to be seen in the broader context of the role of police in the fabrication of
a new, bourgeois, order. The attack on the non-monetary form of the wage and its transformation into a fully-fledged money form meant criminalizing a range of traditional working-class activities, bringing them into the orbit of police power and thus legitimizing their oppression, a project
designed to stamp the authority of private property over the living conditions of the majority of the population and confirm the power of capital as the new master. In other words, the order of the new industrial workplace was brought about in part by the ordering power of police.

Any movement that seeks to abolish the police must take into account the close relation between the maintenance of a class of workers dependent on a wage or salary–wage or salary labour–and the function of the police to maintain security of absolute private property grounded in the market in general and the market for workers in particular. Page 77: 

The problem is thus not just to use the police to prevent crime, but that crime is committed as a means of earning a living without succumbing to wage labour. The way to prevent crime is thus to enforce wage labour.

The police function of maintaining order should not be seen in the narrow sense of preventing overt acts of behaviour newly defined as criminal but of producing acceptance of the new form of absolute private property, where workers produced commodities but no longer owned anything except through the mediation of the wage form. Page 78: 

When writers talk about the fact that the new police emerged as a means of maintaining
‘public order’, the argument generally rests on a narrow and somewhat misleading vision of disorder (the typical example is riots). ‘Order’ should be understood not just as the absence of riots or generalized peace and quiet on the streets, but as the acceptance of the capital–labour relation, the domination of capital over the working class.

The maintenance of such order cannot usually be effected through military means on a permanent basis–hence the police function and its penetration into “civil society” or the market system. 

The function of forming and maintaining order of a special kind–employer order–involves separating off working for an employer from those who obtain their means of subsistence otherwise. Those who obtain their livelihood otherwise are, in turn, classified as either criminals or the indigent (claimants). Page 79: 

In this sense discussions of ‘crime’ are frequently barely veiled discussions of disorder, a point to which we shall return in the following chapter. It was only with the development of the new police and bourgeois order that ‘crime’ acquired the kind of meaning which it had only dimly possessed in the eighteenth century but which it has possessed ever since. One of the major historical achievements of the bourgeois class was to simultaneously incorporate the working class as part of the new bourgeois conception of order and impose an ideological separation on the class by distinguishing the working class from the ‘criminal class’ on the one hand and ‘claimant class’ on the other.

Before, many obtained their subsistence through various means: theft, working on their own, working for an employer for a time, or begging. However, as the new class of employers and the new working class emerged, crime and the indigent became identified as the “other” of wage labour. Page 81: 

But the key issue in each case is how the distinction in question is related to the working class. Both criminal and claimant are understood as engaged in the refusal of wage labour – the criminal steals and the claimant claims in order to avoid work – and both claimant and criminal are viewed through the lens of idleness. This is a constant feature of bourgeois order…. But both criminal and claimant became one of the mechanisms of power by virtue of being an ideological by-product of the wage as a mechanism of power. The making of the working class was simultaneously the making of a claimant class and making of a criminal class. Both claimant and criminal have failed to achieve the dizzy heights of respectability by failing to be a bona fide proletarian; as such, they fall outside of the social pact. In both cases, the threat to the order of property is apparent; and for much of the time, the bourgeois class cannot even distinguish between the two ‘threats’.

The distinction between the citizens who accepted their status as wage worker and those who did not became increasingly characteristic of police work. Page 81:

Yet the distinction between a ‘criminal class’ on the one hand and the rest of the population on the other became increasingly commonplace in the nineteenth century. Indeed, the distinction as it developed focused almost entirely on separating the ‘criminal class’ out from the ‘poor but respectable’ working class.

Once the distinction arose and became somewhat fixed, though, the category of “criminal class” became reflected back onto the working class as potentially falling into the criminal class and hence suspect. Page 82: 

But such differentiation has a paradoxical effect. As Gertrude Himmelfarb has noted, the sharper the differentiation between the subgroup and the larger group and the more dramatic the image of the former in contrast to the latter, the more inevitable it is that the dramatic image will be transposed to the larger group. The image of ‘pauperization’ and ‘criminalization’ was so dramatic that it spilled over to the image of poverty itself, and thus the image of the working class. In the case of pauperism, the poor become saddled with the worst attributes of the pauper; as such they are always potentially
the pauper-claimant. In the case of criminality, the working class get saddled with the worst attributes of the criminal; as such they are always potentially criminal. It is for this reason that discussions of crime are often barely veiled discussions of class. The point is not that any particular group is police
property, however true that may be, but that because it is workers who are always seen to be on the verge of becoming criminal or claimant (or both), it is the working class which is the object of police power. The military metaphors within which both criminal and claimant are conceptualized within the bourgeois mentality – the perpetual ‘war on crime’ mirrored in the equally perpetual ‘war on scroungers’ – disguise the social characteristics of the enemy in question, which if revealed would show the battle to be no more than coda for the permanent low-intensity warfare against the working class. And it should be added that this is a war which the state cannot win, for to win it would mean abolishing the condition of private property that gives rise to it, and thus abolishing itself as a state.

I will end this post with this assertion by Neocleous–since the issue of the lack of criminal proceedings against the class of employers deserves more detailed treatment. Pages 83-84: 

In fact, one could argue that the institutions of the criminal justice system are geared to conceal rather than reveal the crimes of the powerful, and this despite the much higher cost, in both human and financial terms, of corporate crime. Such ‘costing’ would have to take into account the following: first, the phenomenal scale of income tax fraud compared to the fraud perpetrated by social security benefit claimants. Taking one year as an example, ‘there were only 17 prosecutions for false income-tax returns (as against some 80,000 cases settled without prosecution). But there were 12,000 prosecutions over that period by the Department of Health and Social Security for fraudulent claims by its (largely working-class) clients. The amount recovered in these 12,000 cases amounted to less than 15 per cent of the amount recovered by the Inland Revenue in its seventeen income tax prosecutions.’ Second, the deliberate cost-cutting measures ignoring health and safety standards at work, resulting in the injuries and deaths – some in ‘accidents’, some over a prolonged period of poisoning –of countless numbers of workers. As Engels commented in 1845, a social order which allows companies to place workers in such a position that they inevitably meet an early and unnatural death should be considered to have committed the deed of murder just as much as murder may be the
deed of the individual – ‘disguised, malicious murder against which none can defend himself, which does not seem what it is, because no man sees the murderer, because the death of the victim seems a natural one, since the offence is more one of omission than of commission. But murder it remains.’ And third, the placing of products on the market which are known to be dangerous. To give but one example: in 1970 Ford released their new Pinto car, which tests had shown would explode from a rear-end collision. A cost–benefit analysis told them that installing the appropriate safety measures would cost $135 million, while prospective law-suits resulting from fatalities and injuries would be unlikely to top $50 million. It is estimated that between 500 and 900 people lost their lives as a result. The indictment for reckless homicide in 1978 failed.

By treating corporate ‘crime’ as mere failure to follow regulations and procedures and thus not ‘crime’ at all, the ruling class has defined itself as beyond incrimination. Those with social power by definition cannot be members of the criminal class. Being for the order of private property, the ruling class is by definition on the right side of the law.

Unions and the Coronavirus Pandemic: A Critique of a Social-Democratic View, Part Two

This is a continuation of commentary on an article written by Professor Tufs (geography professor, York University, Toronto, Ontario, Canada) (see https://socialistproject.ca/2020/05/covid19-and-actually-existing-unions/).

In my last post, I pointed out that Professor Tuft’s reference to Sam Gindin’s call for restructured and more radical unions is inadequate. Rather than addressing directly the issue of the inadequacy of modern-day unions in addressing the problems which workers face, Professor Tuft shuffles off the issue to Mr. Gindin. This shift permits Professor Tuft to focus almost exclusively on the creation of stop-gap measures to address the possible crisis in unions as a result of the pandemic.

Let us now turn to his discussion of reformed unions. He points out that many unions are not created by the members themselves in any real sense of the workers organizing themselves into  a fighting unit that functions to protect the common interests of its members I take it that that is what he means by the following:

There is also the reality that the current structures of the labour movement are limited. Rank-and-file members are not mobilized to self-organize.

Such a criticism needs elaboration, but Professor Tuft fails to do so. The very nature of modern unions (at least in Canada and the United States) as organizations whose primary function is to negotiate collective agreements, sets limits to the self-organizing capacity of unions–as long as they accept the model of “free collective bargaining” as somehow beyond criticism. Unions could develop the capacity to see collective bargaining and collective agreements as merely contracts forced upon them due to the inevitable power imbalance between the working class and the class of employers rather than somehow being “fair,” and they could also come to see such expressions as “decent work” as ideological in the bad sense of the word–of covering up the reality of the exploitation and oppression of workers.

By being vague, Professor Tuft fails to specify what he means by self-organize, and he thereby permits himself the luxury of not confronting the general limitations of unions, of collective bargaining and collective agreements. To openly call into question the center around which modern unions revolve–collective bargaining and collective agreements–would threaten the interests of many representatives of modern unions and thereby expose Professor Tuft to insults and ridicule by the social-reformist left.

Professor Tuft mentions another limitation of unions–they address mainly only the interests of their immediate employed members and not the unemployed. He mentions the construction trades as an exception:

 But there is the larger problem that labour organizations are simply not oriented toward the unemployed. Some unions such as the building trades maintain relationships with unemployed workers through hiring-hall ‘lists’. But this is an exception.

Professor Tuft fails to show how the lack of orientation towards the unemployed by unions is a larger problem. Rather, the lack of orientation towards the unemployed is interrelated with the focus on collective bargaining and the collective agreement.  Since unions focus on collective bargaining and collective agreements, and since unemployed workers have limited or no rights under such agreements (such as call-back rights), workers covered by a collective agreement who lose their job generally “vanish” or cease to exist as far as unions are practically concerned. The issue of unions not being oriented towards the unemployed is thus linked to the issue of their focus being collective bargaining and the collective agreement.

To be sure, workers in construction unions do not vanish from the union; they form part of a list to be hired. Professor Tufts does not explore this exception at all to determine whether it overcomes the limitations of traditional unions. (My brother, by the way, worked as a construction labourer in Calgary and a few other places in Alberta, Canada, when he was younger, and he evidently found the work not only difficult but exhausting.)

The construction industry is seasonal , and therefore many workers have only temporary jobs. Once their work for a particular employed has ended, they form part of a list to be hired by a pool of employers in the construction industry. The reason why the relation of the laid off member to the union is maintained, therefore, is because the worker is potentially employable by many different employers.

The hiring-hall list converts unions in the construction industry into, in some ways, a temporary job agency. From Michael Duke, Luke Bergmann, Genevieve Ames (2010), “Competition and the Limits of Solidarity among Unionized Construction Workers,” in Anthropology of Work Review, Volume 31, Number 2, page 85:

…the union serves as a job broker between workers and employers. In this capacity, union representatives from a given Local receive notice of job openings at particular job sites, and are tasked with providing those employers with workers from the union’s membership roster. The duration of these jobs varies widely, from 1 or 2 days to more or less permanent employment, resulting in many workers facing a continual struggle to receive a steady paycheck, and a continuous jockeying among members for jobs.

In addition to the seasonal nature of construction work, there is the additional but related fact that workers in the construction industry often work for a number of employers during a year and not just one employer. Construction workers go from periods of employment with one employer to periods of unemployment and then periods of employment with, possibly, a different employer.

There is, however, a major difference between this function as performed by construction unions and temporary agencies. Construction unions try to smooth out the distribution of work so as to make the system fairer as a whole for the construction workers in the union. Page 89:

There is little doubt that the hiring list benefits job seekers by reducing the influence of
favoritism, connections, and other influences that privilege some workers over others, and by spreading the risk of joblessness more or less equally among those on its roles.

Like most features of worker organizations in a capitalist society, though, the hiring-hall list is a double-edged sword. Being on the list is an expression of being unemployed, and in particular being at the bottom of the list expresses the likelihood of being unemployed for a longer period of time than many workers can afford. Page 89:

At the same time, the list represents a potent symbol of this alienation for these workers, in
that it provides a constant reminder of the temporary nature of their employment, and of the ephemeral quality of relationships on the job site.More centrally, the list represents for members the limits of union solidarity, the loss of a common stake in work and job security, and, ultimately, the alienation of laborers from the work they produce and the relationships that develop through that work.

A hiring-hall list does indeed maintain a relationship between workers and the union even when there is no specific employment relationship–but because the union functions in part as a temporary work agency, it also functions in part as an oppressive mechanism. A union that overcomes one of the limitations of collective bargaining–being connected to the union only by being connected to an employer (or set of employers in the case of more centralized bargaining)–often involves contradictions in other areas (such as the oppressive function of a temporary hiring agent).

Therefore, even when unions expand their functions to those beyond collective bargaining and collective agreements, they become involved in further contradictions that they cannot resolve. They are limited institutions for the self-organization of the working class. These limitations should be admitted and addressed.

Nevertheless, the issue of the unemployed not being organized by unions is certainly important. Employed and unemployed workers form, in general, part of one and the same working class.

Employed workers are united (temporally, during the working day) with the means of their work (buildings, machines, tables, floors, raw material, computers, and so forth). After work, they too , like their unemployed counterparts, become separated not only physically but also socially from those means (they do not own and control them).

The unemployed are separated physically and socially from all means of production for a shorter or longer period of time. Of course, some who work for employers may become unemployed, and some who are unemployed may become employed again. There is a often a change of who is employed and who is unemployed, due in great part to the changing needs of employers and, to some extent, the changing needs of workers (workers are not tied to a specific employer but can quit and try to find another employer to hire them).

Both groups of workers form part of the working class as class. As members of a class, those who work for a particular employer also are working for the class of employers.  No particular worker can work at any particular activity for any length of time without other workers producing both the means of production (machines, computers, phones, raw material, pens, pencils, tables and so forth) with which the worker works. In other words, there is a division of labour, where other workers are working for other employers in a system of interdependence. (Such interdependence has recently been experienced by some workers because of the coronavirus epidemic–as some workers stopped working, so too did others since they depended on other workers for the resources or means of production required to produce in their particular sphere). Or, as Thomas Hodgskin (1825), in his Labour Defended Against the Claims of Capital, remarked (page 45):

If we push our inquiries still further, all that we can learn is, that there are other men in existence who are preparing those things we need, while we are preparing those which they need.

The source of the active army of labour, at least in Canada, is the continued births of children within Canadian borders, on the one hand, and immigrants on the other.

The workers themselves, or the active army of workers of the class of employers, however, are subject to various levels of precariousness, some more and some less since changes in technology, rates of accumulation, taxes, state expenditures and its composition, intensity of work and so forth  can change employment levels. The precise composition of the active army of workers can of course also vary according to kinds and degrees of racism, sexism and so forth prevalent in and outside work.

In the world, there are “around 1.65 billion in the active labor army” (R. Jamil Jonna and John Bellamy Foster (April, 2016), “Marx’s Theory of Working-Class Precariousness – And Its Relevance Today,” in Monthly Review, page 38). 

The active army of labour is always subject to more or less unstable working conditions since the workers do not control the machines, buildings, resources, raw materials and so forth that they use, but are rather subject to the immediate control of particular managers and employers and, ultimately, to the control of the pressures of the world market.

The same could be said of the unemployed: they too are subject to varying levels of precariousness and subject to varying connections to particular employers and to the class of employers in general.

There are, in general, four kinds of groups that constitute the unemployed or the reserve army of labour: floating, latent, stagnant and pauperized. From R. Jamil Jonna and John Bellamy Foster, page 26:

… the floating population consisted of workers who had a connection – if a precarious one – to the active labor army, with a recent history of employment; they constituted those who would likely be the first to be re-hired in an expansion.

A section of the unemployed that has more precarious roots in the working class is the latent surplus population. From page 26:

The next layer of the reserve army, in Marx’s description, is the latent surplus population. For the most part this refers to the (self-sustaining) segments of the agricultural (or rural) population. This population served as a vast source of potential labor for capitalist industry (hence, “latent”).

In Canada, one of the sources for this form of unemployment is probably overseas in the form of the The Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP). From the Canadian government’s website:

The Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) allows Canadian employers to hire foreign nationals to fill temporary labour and skill shortages when qualified Canadian citizens or permanent residents are not available.

In other countries, similarly, the temporary immigrant population also form part of the latent reserve army of labour. Many students can now be considered to form part of the latent reserve army of labour.

In earlier times, women also formed part of the latent part of the reserve army of labour; employers eventually hired women, for example, for weapons factories during the Second World War. (My mother worked in a weapons factory in Toronto during  part of the War.)

The third form of the unemployed or the reserve army of labour is the stagnant group: it is a very precarious section of the reserve army of labour, characterized by very low wages and superexploitation. Some workers in short-term positions, some workers for temporary agencies, day workers, workers in the informal economy and the like constitute this layer of the reserve army of labour, which is subject to very irregular work. Even some substitute teachers may form part of this group since they are effectively shut out of obtaining a permanent position as teachers and often have no hiring rights at all (as is (or was) the case for substitute teachers as members of the Winnipeg Teachers’ Association, or WTA).

Finally, the pauperized layer of the reserve army of labour constitutes the lowest layer of the reserve army of labour, which includes those incapable of working for an employer, those who live from social assistance (and who, occasionally, can be obliged to work if they are to continue to receive social assistance), those who live from petty thefts and the like. Part of those workers in the informal economy (including children) form part of this layer, including those who try to sell small amounts of commodities at an individual level.

The distribution of the active and reserve army of labour (with their various layers) can be seen from the following (page 38):

In 2013, according to International Labour Organization (ILO, 2015b) figures, the global reserve army consisted of some 2.3 billion people, compared to around 1.65 billion in the active labor army, many of whom are precariously unemployed. The number of officially unemployed at that time (corresponding roughly to Marx’s floating population) was 200 million workers. Some 1.5 billion workers were classified as “vulnerably employed” (related to Marx’s stagnant population), made up of workers working “on their own account” (informal workers and rural subsistence workers) and “contributing family workers” (domestic labor). Another 600 million individuals between the prime working ages of 25-54 were classified as economically inactive. This is a heterogeneous category but undoubtedly consists preponderantly of those of prime working age who are a part of the pauperized population.

Unions, indeed, are limited since their focus is mainly on the organized sections of the active army–although we should not forget that unions have, in various ways, fought, indirectly if not directly, for the interests of various layers of the unemployed at specific periods in their history in the form of a national pension system, part of a pension system based on the duration of residence in Canada (Old Age Security), rather than on length of employment and level of contribution, medicare and so forth.

Professor Tuft’s  reference to the need for an organization dedicated to addressing the needs of the unemployed in the face of a possible decrease in the power of organized unions makes some sense–but it made sense even before the pandemic since unions often tooted the mere organization of workers into a union (and the effective enforcement of a collective agreement) as sufficient for ensuring “decent work,” a “fair contract,” “fairness” and the like.

With the emergence of the pandemic and the likely decrease in the working effectiveness of unions to protect the immediate interests of their members, on the one hand, and the increase in the need for stop-gap measures as more workers remain unemployed for a longer period of time, a gap arises that can be filled by former union representatives who also may well lose their jobs. According to Professor Tufts:

Most important, union representatives know the workers that will require a range of labour market adjustment services such as: assessment of the mental and physical health impacts of COVID-19; help with navigating emergency assistance, the CERB, and EI bureaucracies; assistance with resume writing; ensuring licenses and certifications are maintained during unemployment; counsel for workers considering early retirement; and guidance for workers considering re-training options. If the pandemic reoccurs in waves, as some have predicted, workers will shift in and out of employment and require training in COVID-19 health and safety measures. Who is going to do this work?

The federal government has allocated $350-million to help keep afloat the not-for-profit agencies providing needed services. These funds should be expanded and target labour organizations to deliver labour market adjustment services to unemployed workers. Economically, it makes sense as union communications infrastructure and staff can be efficiently deployed to assist workers. The social benefit of providing successful labour market adjustment and support is self-evident as it reduces hardship and the period of unemployment.

This solution seems to be reasonable  in the face of the likely increased instability of both the active army of workers and the reserve army of labour in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, on the one hand, and the likely decreased power of unions on the other. This situation will, of course, vary between sectors of the economy and over time; in other words, some groups of the active working class will be more subject to increased precariousness as will some groups of the reserve army when compared to their situation before the pandemic and when compared to other groups of workers in the active army or in the reserve army.

Professor Tuft’s solution is to call for Workers’ Resource Centres  to address the problem of the unemployed. Such centres would link active workers with unemployed workers and the community:

Politically and practically, resource centres make sense. ‘Actually existing’ unions have been in decline for decades. Serving all working people and entire communities rather than just employed members is fundamental to making unions relevant during the crisis. It also gives union staff work to do during a slow recovery that might preserve some institutional integrity that will be needed to fight inevitable workplace restructuring and austerity. As sectors recover, unions will be crucial in advocating for sufficient staffing levels and new COVID-19 related health and safety protocols.

This solution is certainly worthy of consideration–but of course it is hardly sufficient. The present-day workers’ action centres are entirely reformist and aim to address the immediate needs of workers without taking into consideration their long-term needs.

Professor Tuft then shifts to wishful thinking: such resource centres might serve as transitional organizations for a “green economy”:

A workers’ resource centre approach is admittedly full of contradictions and compromises. But we need realistic options for presently insufficient unions to survive in the short-term and meet workers material needs. Indeed, such efforts should be seen as part of building capacities for more transformative demands and actions. This may very well include expanding resource centre mandates in the future to administrate ‘just-transition’ supports for workers as economies adapt to green production. COVID-19 is a potentially transformative event for organized labour, but a sober analysis of what is possible to meet the needs of unemployed workers at this moment is required alongside aspirational calls.

He pays lip service to the “contradictions and compromises” that such workers’ resource centres would experience since funding for such centres would likely come from government coffers by way of funding community organizations and other non-governmental organizations:

It would not cost the government a great deal as these services will, in any case, need to be delivered by community organizations.

Professor Tuft implies that such organizations could somehow be self-organizations of the working class. What is more likely is that they will become at best reformist organizations like their trade union counterparts or, worse, even more restricted in their functions because of their dependence on the government for their continued functioning. Such a situation is hardly an expression of self-organization. Professor Tufts, like his social-reformist comrades, fails to address the limitations that workers’ resource centres would likely face that would prevent them from being institutions of self-organization. Professor Tufts, then, like his social-democratic or social reformist comrades, fails to address the limitations of such institutions.

Furthermore, the idea that such centres could be the stepping stone to “green production” is wishful thinking since a really green economy could only arise through the abolition of a society characterized by the class power of employers and the infinite increase of money–at the expense of human beings and this planet (see  The British Labour Party’s 2019 Manifesto: More Social Democracy and More Social Reformism, Part One).

Professor Tuft’s proposal for workers’ resource centres, from his point of view, then, undoubtedly express a “realistic option” for the self-organization of workers.

From my point of view, by contrast, his proposal will foster illusions of the self-organization of the working class while, in reality, perpetuating the exploitation and oppression of the working class by employers. His proposal is only realistic for social reformers and not for workers who reject the legitimacy of working for any employer.

It is necessary to link the interests of the unemployed and the employed by creating a common goal of controlling their life process through controlling the conditions of that life process–which is currently owned and controlled by the class of employers and protected by a government responsive to the need to reproduce itself in and through the protection of such forms of property and control. That common goal cannot arise without critiquing workers’ organizations that may have some independence from the class of employers locally or at the micro level but that operate at the macro level to confine the class struggle to limits set by the structural economic, political and social conditions characteristic of a society dominated by a class of employers.

Fixed Social Dogmas and the Special Language of the Social-Reformist Left

Michael Perleman refers to the Procrustean dogma that characterizes much of the discussion about the social world in which we currently live. What better characterization of the social-democratic rhetoric of “fairness,” “decent work,” a “fair wage,” “economic justice” and “social justice?”

From Michael Perleman, The Invisible Handcuffs of Capitalism: How Market Tyranny Stifles the Economy by Stunting Workers (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2011),

CHAPTER TEN
Where Do We Go from Here?

The Procrustean Language

Presently, two conflicting trends are colliding. On the one hand, those in control are successfully accumulating more power, solidifying the hold of Procrusteanism. On the other hand, the application of these new powers is producing dismal results, except for the most privileged sectors of society. Once people come to recognize the growing gap between economic performance and the potential productivity of society, the destructive nature of Procrusteanism will, hopefully, become self-evident.

Even so, the ideology of the status quo is so thoroughly ingrained that little progress—or even little hope of progress—appears on the horizon. We can only hope that Frederic Jameson was wrong when he observed that within contemporary society “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.” One precondition of moving in a progressive direction is to carefully reframe the imagery of the economy. The problem is that the Procrustean world has created a special language, one that intentionally clouds the harsh reality in which people find themselves, in effect, making the handcuffs invisible and questions of class unthinkable.

The key concepts of this rhetorical façade are freedom and equality.

The special language of the social-reformist left include such key concepts as “fair contracts,” “fair wages,” “fairness,” “decent work,” “a contract you can live with,” “social justice” and “economic justice.” The social-reformist left never get around to discussing what that actually means in the context of a society dominated by employers–they simply assume that what they call “fair,” “decent work,” “a contract you can live,” “economic justice” and other such rhetorical expressions is what is fair, decent, livable and economically just without any further discussion.

Anyone who calls into question their rhetoric is then often  treated as a pariah, insulted or ostracized. Such is the anti-democratic nature of the social-reformist left. Is there really any wonder why the right has gained ground when the so-called left seek to hide the real problems which workers face as members of a class?