Sunday, May 17, 2009

Anarchists, Social Democrats and Greens

"People before ideology." is the adage I have lived by for the last 30 years. This does not mean "anything goes." What it does mean is that people's true needs – for a better life, for greater freedom etc., are more important than any ideological construct, party line or theory. Not to take this approach, is in my opinion, the first step in the direction of the killing fields.

In practice, if a party or government proposes or enacts legislation, say, that increases the minimum wage, makes it easier to join a trade union, or increases public transit, I would admit that these were positive steps and demand their implementation. I would do this without going rah-rah for the party and plainly separate this positive element from the other aspects which I think worthy of criticism.

I would like to see a lot of these genuine reforms. Trouble is, social democrats today don't seem to have much imagination in that regard, many of them having bought into neo-liberalism. In BC the forces of reform are divided between the NDP and the Greens making any hope for even minimal positive changes through government impossible. Thus, even though an outsider, I encourage social democrats and Greens to get their act together. Simple really – reformists work together = more reforms = better life for working people = better life for me.

Is not such an approach at variance with anarchism's revolutionary nature? Not in the least. A beaten down people rarely revolt. It is when the situation begins to improve that such sentiments arise. Workers in BC have been subjected to an unending series of defeats beginning with the failed general strike of 1983. While the activist core certainly exists, the population as a whole seems demoralized. We need some victories. Had the so-called Liberals been defeated and the NDP backed by the Greens, reversed the give-away of our rivers, scrapped TILMA, took back BC Ferries and BC Hydro from the piratizers, the cycle of defeat would have been broken and would have created demands for further progressive action.

While some parts of the world are in a revolutionary situation, Canada is plainly not. In a such non-revolutionary situation, progressive change develops in a pattern. (1) Each progressive ideology, whether reformist or revolutionary, parliamentary or anti-parliamentary, has its function within that process. Change starts from below, engenders forms of public protest and direct action. A mass movement emerges which then influences reformist parties. These parties then enact legislation which generalizes the reform. The function of anarchists and other visionaries is to initiate change and build the mass movement. The function of the reformists is to come on stage in the last act. The problem today is that the reformists do such a poor job of being reformists, and thus needed reforms are blocked.

Admittedly, the system may well be broken beyond repair and reform a product whose selling date has expired. Working people may will continue to be battered from pillar to post until they cannot take any more, finally in desperation rising against their tormentors. But until we have proof the system is incapable of reform, NDP, Greens, get your shit together! In the meantime, we anarchists will continue to implant ourselves within the communities and work places, encouraging the the idea of popular power and self-management.

1. See my article on the function of ideologies at



Anonymous Roderick T. Long said...

legislation, say, that increases the minimum wageMinimum wage laws cause unemployment, since capitalist owners react to them by simply shifting from labour-intensive to capital-intensive modes of production (or else by shifting from unskilled to skilled labour, or both). By making the scramble for jobs still more desperate, mimimum wage laws actually increase workers' dependence on and vulnerability to the capitalist class -- which I suspect is their function.

The key to worker empowerment is to bypass the capitalist class entirely, via political opposition to and extraparliamentary mass resistance to the vast network of laws designed to stifle self-help options like workers' cooperatives, mutual-aid societies, and independent low-capital entrepreneurs (see here and here).

8:30 AM  
Blogger Marcel said...

It is false to suppose that production can be achieved by Capital or Labor alone. Both are needed. In a perfect world Labor would provide its own Capital by pooling the meagre resources of individuals together. But wiht the small size of individual resources being what it is, this approach would require a bond of trust among an enormous numebr of people.
Thus it is convenient to join with a small group of people who hold Capital to fill this void.
Minimum wage laws reduce the size of the work force because there is very little elasticity in wages under a competitive system. But without robust competition the consumer, who is most often from the Labor side, is priced out of the market and into an effective proverty.
Bottom line: there are no simplistic solutions. Minimum wage laws fall in this category.

4:14 PM  
Blogger Larry Gambone said...

Yes, I am aware of that theory – promoted by the usual suspects - and I am surprised to see that you do. Obviously I do not agree, favouring an increase in the minimum wage. Nor do academic – rather than ideologically-rooted studies. See Card and Krueger "Myth And Measurement..." Nor do I see any evidence of this in the Canadian context. I am also aware of building worker alternatives to capitalism, having written a fair amount about them. But without a revolution generalizing worker self-management, such attempts within capitalism will only be a partial solution effecting only a minority of the work force. In the meantime most of us will be forced to work for capitalists private or state and thus social democratic reforms will still apply.

As for Marcel, your desire for labour and capital working together was the sort of thing promoted in the 19th Century and had about as much positive impact then as now. It is an impossible fantasy, an oil and water combination. Capitalists want the maximum returns from the minimum investment, workers, the maximum wage from the minimum effort. Conflict is inevitable. The only way to overcome this conflict is to make the owners of capital and labour the same people, ie worker ownership and self-management.

8:27 AM  
Blogger Steve said...

Thanks for writing the article, clarifying your rationale for being an anarchist while at the same time favouring an electoral alliance of the Green Party and the NDP. It baffled me at first, and now I see your reasoning. However, I don't agree at all.

You write: "In BC the forces of reform are divided between the NDP and the Greens making any hope for even minimal positive changes through government impossible."

I find this quite implausible. The idea that the "possibility" of "even minimal positive changes" is somehow contingent on which parties do or do not get elected flies in the face of everything we know about the history of progressive social change.

For example, look at the U.S.A. Many of the most progressive changes in that country came in during the Nixon Administration, even though Nixon was an arch-reactionary (although some of your market-libertarian commentators will of course embrace much of his anti-worker, pro-business views). Great strides were made during this period in changing the status of women, implementing in practice the gains that had been made on paper by the Civil Rights movement, and ending the U.S. war against the people of Vietnam. The trajectory of social change was largely progressive in those years, despite Nixon. Contrast that with what was happening in the U.S. during the Clinton years.

But none of those progressive changes during the Nixon Administration reflected the agenda of Nixon or his party. On the contrary, they happened in spite of Nixon. Why? An anarchist should not need the help of a Marxist like me to see that it was grassroots popular mobilization and pressure from below that made the difference.

On this point, although you are obviously free to believe whatever you like, I think that most anarchists historically would agree with me on this point. (I concede, though, that the anarchist tradition is not a coherent or consistent tradition, and you can quote major anarchist writers as saying all sorts of things.)

But I think that the view of most radicals historically has been that balance of power between labour and capital, between corporations and working people, is what determines the direction taken by public policy. And that battle unfolds primarily outside of legislatures, and is reflected ultimately in what legislatures decide to do. This is important because it suggests that the key question to ask in considering how to relate to an electoral process is not, "Who will implement good policies?," but instead, "How can we relate to this process in a way that strengthens the social power of working people?"

An important example came up recently in federal politics. A coalition was proposed between the Liberal Party, which rightly claims to represent the business community, and the New Democratic Party, which claims (in a way that is certainly misleading, but not utterly without substance, given its relation to the labour movement and much of the activist community) to represent working people. Now, if winning elections is the most important way to advance progressive social change, then we should all favour such a coalition. But if strengthening the social power of working people, and hence also bolstering the political independence of workers from corporations, then we should all oppose such a coalition.

It seems to me that on this issue there is a crucial parting of the ways between electoralist approaches to social change and grassroots class-struggle approaches to social change. And here I believe -- as a non-anarchist, to be sure -- that anarchists ought to align themselves with the grassroots class-struggle side rather than the electoralist side in this debate.

In solidarity,

1:35 PM  
Blogger mollymew said...

Minimum Wage and the Unreality of
Ideological Fantasies:
Do increases in the minimum wage rate actually !!!! increase unemployment ???? This statement is taken as a "given" amongst those who worship the "free market", but, to my knowledge, it has little empirical backing, and it is almost universally taken as a "given" from some VERY abstract arguments.
Not relying on my own almost 40 years of experience in this matter I decided to try and research this subject. When I tried to google "minimum wage + unemployment" the FIRST item that came up was one from what serves as the Vatican for free market ideologues ie the 'Mises Institute'. To my discomfort, but not surprise, the Mises Institute offered NO arguments for this proposition whatsoever. They merely repeated unemployment stats for the young and the old as if these numebers were "proof". No connection to minimum wage rates was attempted whatsoever.
As I went down the list I came to realize that very little-PERHAPS NONE- actual hypothesis testing on this matter has been done. From the point of view of those who believe, in a religious sense, in the virtue of a free market the incentive to dodge such fact checking is obvious.
The hypothesis can ACTUALLY be tested fairly easily. One can examine the case of Canada and the USA across provinces and states (which set the minumum wage) and see if minumum wage rates are positively correlated with unemployment rates. They, of course, are NOT. If anything in Canada the correlation points to the opposite conclusion ie that the higher the minimum wage the lower the unemployment rate.
THAT might be argued away, but the following has NEVER BEEN to my knowledge tested. There are several Canadian provinces (and probably US states)where inceases in the minimum wage are pretty well routine and regulated. My own province of Manitoba is one such example. To PROVE that increases in the minimum wage lead to greater unemployment one would have to examine such cases and show a correlation. No such correlation exists.
The whole idea that minimum wage increases lead to higher rates of unemployment may "follow" from deduction detached from reality, but this merely shows how much free market ideology resembles its Marxist mirror image in playing with ideas rather than testing hypotheses.
There are actually reasons why this deduction doesn't hold within orthodox economics; reasons such as "marginal utility" and "stickiness" that legitinate economists advance as "fudge factors" to explain why their models don't work. This, however, is the subject of another reply.
For now, no matter what the theory may say the objective reality says another thing.

11:10 PM  
Blogger Larry Gambone said...

Steve, "In BC the forces of reform are divided between the NDP and the Greens making any hope for even minimal positive changes through government impossible." = exaggeration to make a point for those Green and NDP supporters reading my article. I agree with everything you have written, and indeed, class struggle has always formed the basis of my own analysis. If you check thru my blog you will see very few articles on elections, maybe a half dozen out of 320 posts. It is not a fundamental aspect of my politics. I am not an “electoralist anarchist” - an oxymoron - and never have been. It is just that I am for improvement in our conditions wherever I can find it. And if some improvements can come about thru two left parties working together, such as the situation in BC with the Greens and NDP, fine. Furthermore, a coalition of those two parties is not the same as the Fed Lib- NDP coalition as I show in my article. The Libs are a centre-right bourgeois party. The BC Greens are an anti-neoliberal social democratic party as I show in my article on the GP..

8:00 AM  
Blogger Mr. Beer N. Hockey said...

Common ground aside, there is a bitter divide between BC's Greens and NDP. The NDP thinks the Greens are on the dope. The Greens know they would be smothered in a coalition.

Being against raises in the minimum wage is like being against flush toilets. It would be better if most all the workers who work for minimum wage bargained collectively to set the standard. Depending on the government to be your bargaining agent is a raw deal. Deprived of bacon-double-cheeseburgers, onion rings and fries, the public would soon demand the minimum wage better represent what an hour working is really worth.

10:59 PM  

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