Against Transparency

by James Frey and Jocelyn Cohn

The following piece by JC and James Frey (an independent marxist and labor organizer in NYC, and author of “A Moving Story” ) takes a look at the demand for “transparency”, and presents a critique from the perspective of communist labor organizing.

The demand for transparency will inevitably arise in the course of workplace struggle, especially when liberal organizations, trade unions, and non-profits are involved. “Open the books!” some will demand, “and let us see where the money is coming from, where its going, and just what can be afforded!” The imperative to open the books can be inspired by noble intentions, notably, the desire for radical democracy in the workplace, and it comes as a response to the mystery created by management about the source of the company’s wealth. However, demanding to see our bosses’ budgets suggests that workers are an expense for whom money is to be found, when in fact, we are the most necessary component of production, and the very source of whatever is to be found in the “budget”.

So what is the origin of the demand for an open budget? Demanding transparency seems to promise irrefutable proof of inequality: if we “follow the money”, we can show that the bosses get more of it than the workers, and armed with this knowledge, we as workers can show that so much money is “wasted” in management salaries. This argument is especially prominent when cuts to wages come under the guise of “cost cutting” or “austerity.” “It is management’s wages costing so much, not ours! Cut from the top!” are the cries for the open budget. But for workers demanding equality of this kind, the source of the company’s wealth remains, as management would have it, a mystery. It appears that this wealth comes from activity external to the work itself, such as purchases made and profits gained on the market, from interest accrued in the banks, or from the benevolence of generous endowments. The source of the worker’s misery is, therefore, the subsequent mismanagement of these funds at the hands of greedy bosses. In this view, the poverty of the worker can be easily rectified—move the money around! But workers in struggle against their conditions find something different. The inequality between boss and worker is not incidental, caused only by incompetence or greed; it is fundamental to work in the society we live in. Inequality is inherent in the social relationships between the class of bosses, landlords, and politicians and the class of workers, tenants, and everyday people.

At best demanding transparency seeks to work within the paradigm established by the bosses, and accordingly it reeks of reformism, whether naive or pernicious. At worst, the demand for transparency is the demand for a managerial role for the working class, or, to use a vogue term, its “self-management”. This means that the self-destructive logic of capital is internalized within the working class. Armed with open books, the militant who should be posed adversarily against the bosses and administrators, and their governing logic, becomes instead the self-regulating agent of austerity, pointing to waste and redundancy, and demanding a larger share of money for the workers like a greedy industrialist, by pointing to its misuse elsewhere. The boss’s salary is too high! Too much is spent on some irrelevant item! These are of course true: bosses and high-level administrators are overpaid, money is wasted, and the working class eats shit on a good day. But its equally true that when workers demand higher wages, benefits, lower tuition, etc., it is not our problem where it comes from. The militant worker makes demands, not suggestions contingent on the available facts. Further, the militant worker should not be afraid of making demands that cannot be allowed for in the present budget in its current state; such a demand is instead the essence of radicalism. Of course the current arrangement of capital cannot afford us better wages, benefits, and conditions. That is why we fight! And on a very basic level, don’t we as workers do enough free labor without having to figure out how we’re going to get our own demands?

Once we accede to opening the books, we have entered enemy terrain. We begin to speak the language of the capitalist, to think his misanthropic thoughts, to stroll through his monochrome dreams. And in this foreign terrain we will always be outgunned. It can be demonstrated through the magic of spread sheets that our demands are simply unaffordable. There will be information that cannot be revealed to us, or is beyond our comprehension, which demonstrates this irrefutably. The money just isn’t there! And of course, in the current composition of capital, it’s probably not. But that’s not our problem. The inability of our bosses to meet our demands is why we’re fighting, and we would be fools to shrink away from this fact as if it were fixed for all of time. However, some will be convinced. We can be made to empathize with the ruling class, to feel the heavy burden of spreading around dwindling funds in the age of austerity. We can adopt the forward thinking attitude that thinks in upcoming fiscal periods and not the childish immediacy of the present. We can be made to see the world as it really is, for grownups who have to make tough decisions. The mystification of the budget has returned and chiseled off our fangs.

Most fundamentally, the demand for transparency changes the entire tenor of the struggle. In struggle we demand what is ours: what we have made, and what has been taken from us. Through the demand for transparency, the “budget” once more assumes the fetish character it is given by the bosses to obscure that the source of value lies in the workers. Our demands are something that must be fit alongside the suicidal infrastructures of advanced capital, which of course, is impossible. No longer are we demanding what we have created ourselves. No longer do we pose the promise of a future society against the rotting vestiges of the old. No longer do we speak in a language that bureaucracies cannot understand, and make demands they could not possibly meet without altering themselves fundamentally. Through transparency we become functionaries of a system we have posed ourselves again. And like the countless others before us who attempt to “change the system from within”, we will be swallowed alive, and with us, the radical potential of our struggle.

When workers are engaged in struggle, when we organize, defy the bosses, resist discipline, and go on strike, we reveal the truth of the budget; when workers win higher wages, or stop production, we reveal the truth about the budget. This truth is that the contents of the budget don’t exist without us. Workers win not because we raised awareness from the outside, or because we made the bosses feel bad or scared. We win because our struggle reveals materially what the bosses knew the whole time but tried to keep a secret: they have nothing without us. We need not a transparent budget to elucidate the fundamental condition of our lives as workers who produce value, which is in turn collected by our non-productive bosses. This is the origin of the workplace struggle, already in progress by the time we get around the demanding “transparency” of a relationship already laid bare by our self-activity. And in struggle, the classes confront each other as enemies. The workers meet in secret, circulate documents, plan actions based on the element of surprise, and so forth. The ruling class does the same. Cooperation has no place in this schema.

Faced with the inevitable demand for transparency, we should not be afraid to reply: keep the books closed. It is through our struggle as workers that material reality is made transparent, not through the disclosure of numbers on a page.

  • http://werehirwerequeer.wordpress.com/ xmailitix

    JC and JF, great post. As someone who is new to Marx, the idea that the source of value lies in the worker has always been something i’ve seen and felt (as a worker) but never understood on a theoretical level. So this is all sort of mind blowing to me. And while i agree that the demand “obscures that the source of value that lies in the worker,” does that mean that any demand that does not engage directly with the dismantling of capitalist infrastructure is one worth not making? I guess what isn’t clear for me is whether this is an argument against transparency as a campaign or as a demand even when paired alongside other demands.
    My initial thoughts are that people make similar arguments against the Wages for Housework campaign. They critique it for doing nothing to dismantle an infrastructure and see it merely as a campaign to win a lump of money, that in a grand perspective, probably won’t change much. Or it gets critiqued for shuffling around and redistributing wages that workers get, not a way to take wages from bosses (this is a critique i only have a very rough understanding of because it is written in difficult, high level language. And like i said i’m a newb, so maybe i’m actually misinterpreting. But i’m gonna keep going anyways.) How i’ve come to understand Wages for Housework  is as a campaign that has value in exposing a worker that is hidden by their non-wage. Is it a campaign whose demands will directly crumble the infrastructure of Capital? i don’t really see it that way at least not on its own. I think using this example for my argument could get a little sticky because i don’t want to compare wages for housework with a demand for transparency on a one to one basis. But my point was that i think transparency could be used in tandem with other demands though i disagree with it as a campaign.
    I recently learned about solidarity networks and what i’m thinking is if in that letter that gets delivered to the boss, there is a line that reads “open the books” alongside the demand for regaining past wages that were stolen and getting health benefits that have never been offered, i wouldn’t argue against it being there. (Again, i’m not sure if that is exactly what you are saying either.)
    Lastly, when campus organizing at the University of Texas was happening around the cuts to ethnic studies, the leaked numbers on a page that showed programs such as African-American Studies and Mexican-American studies were getting budget cuts while European studies was actually receiving a budget increase, the unintentional transparency (unintentional by administration) was used as a tool to show how the cuts were just another example of institutional racism that has always existed on campus. And while i wouldn’t argue for a redistribution of the budget to those programs losing money, so again this isn’t a one to one comparison either, i do think that transparency became a useful tool in a campaign for no cuts, free tuition, etc. etc.
    Anyways, sorry for the crazy long reply and really good work on this post!

  • http://gatheringforces.org/ LBoogie

    This is a compelling case for rethinking the demand to “open the books”. I wonder if the authors can help clarify and extend the argument to apply it in practice, i.e. if we are not demanding to open the books, what are we demanding? Like xmailtix, I see how a similar logic could be used to critique most forms of struggle today, including demands for higher wages or benefits, so some additional perspective would be helpful.

    Xmailtix’s comment gets at an important distinction that perhaps is an underlying assumption of this piece? That is, there is a difference between demands that obscure the source of value (the worker or living labor) and demands that can be reintegrated into the reproduction of capital. Ultimately, all demands contain the potential to do the latter – to be absorbed by capital and reorganized in such a way that the worker is only reinforced as a wage-earner. The critique of Wages for Housework is in part tied to this point.

    But not all demands do the former (obscure the source of value). This piece is arguing that the “open the books” demand does and thus should be discarded by militants in favor of demands that instead reveal that “they [the bosses] have nothing without us.”

    Specifically, the piece argues that the “numbers on a page” obscure the source of value for the capitalist. You can see this in how most companies, non-profits & other employers will say that their largest expense by far is personnel. This implies that personnel is also the largest problem for the budget and thus cuts to wages/pensions and/or layoffs/speed-up are necessary and justifiable in times of crisis or budget imbalance.

    Ultimately, the numbers bely social relations. Who makes what wage or salary, what role is considered more “valuable” (in a social sense), etc., are power, and therefore, social relations. Balancing the numbers is not the problem, the underlying “unequal” social relations are the problem.

    At the same time, and I’m curious if the authors of this piece would agree, while we should not get lost in the numbers, we do need information. This is an aspect of “open the books” struggles that should be preserved but perhaps can be channeled through other demands or strategies. By information, I mean that workers want and need information about how production is organized. Often, we are compartmentalized into specific functions and given little to no information about how our function relates to the 1000 other functions that makes a workplace run. This can lead to a sense that the boss’s role is necessary and contributes to the value produced.

    For instance, I worked at a call center for a large company. The center I was at alone had hundreds of employees. Management was organized around a sort of progressive, foster-a-happy-employee type of managerial philosophy so they regularly had meetings with workers to inform us of what was happening with the company and to get our “feedback” on what we wanted to see done. The information they provided was only partial, of course, so often times rather than feeling “empowered” workers left the meetings feeling like the company was a mystery and thank god there are those knowledgeable managers keeping the whole thing together.

    The reality was that there was not enough communication between workers in different departments so that we could fully understand the big picture and see how each of our roles related to one another.  We felt practically, but could not always see theoretically, how inter-related and inter-dependent our labor was. Organizing in such a setting, rather than raise a demand to open the books so that folks can see more clearly how things are run, militants could build cross-departmental meetings and workers committees to share the information they need, on their own terms and in their own language. Out of that newly shared knowledge, demands could be raised that more directly reveal the “relationship already laid bare by our self-activity.”

    • http://www.gatheringforces.com/ Eve Mitchell

      Interesting discussion.  It helps to clarify the difference between demands that “obscure the source of value” vs. demands that “have the potential to be reintegrated into the reproduction of capital.”  LBoogie, can you (or someone else) give an example of another common demand that obscures the source of value?  I think this is an important category to further develop and be able to argue against.  I still have an elementary understanding of Capital so I need a little help filling out the category.

      • http://gatheringforces.org/ LBoogie

        Eve, here’s a partial answer. I’m not sure if this is helpful but one other example that comes to mind is some of the language used in the ongoing struggle at Wal-Mart. The character of the walkouts, strikes and pickets of Wal-Mart workers seems to vary city to city so this point may not apply to how it is being organized everywhere. But in general, the language and demands have revolved around opposing “corporate greed” and “demanding respect” from the company.

        In a certain sense, both of these hold some degree of truth. Workers get disrespected by bosses all the time, get humiliated and ridiculed and made to feel like shit. Further, there are corporate CEOs and what not who are just greedy fucks, plain and simple.

        The problem with this language and framing “respect” as a demand is that it turns the objective social relation between labor and capital into a moralistic, overly subjective question of “bad” corporations and disrespectful bosses.

        A critique of this can be found in Marx’s Capital. For instance, in Chapter 7 he discusses the valorization process, how living labor is the only commodity that can create new value, and hence surplus for the capitalist. He writes,

        “Therefore the value of labour-power, and the value which that labour-power valorizes in the labour-process, are two entirely different magnitudes; and this difference was what the capitalist had in mind when he was purchasing labour-power. The useful quality of labour-power, by virtue of which it makes yarn or boots, was to the capitalist merely the necessary condition for his activity; for in order to create the value labour must be expended in a useful manner. What was really decisive for him was the specific use-value which this commodity possesses of being a source not only of value, but of more value than it has itself. This is the specific service the capitalist expects from labour-power, and in this transaction he acts in accordance with the eternal laws of commodity-exchange…On the one hand the daily sustenance of labour-power costs only half a day’s labour, while on the other hand the very same labour-power can remain effective, can work, during a whole day, and consequently the value which its use during one day creates is double what the capitalist pays for that use; this circumstance is a piece of good luck for the buyer, but by no means an injustice towards the seller…the laws governing the exchange of commodities have not been violated in any way. Equivalent has been exchanged for equivalent.” [300-301]

        What I interpret Marx as saying here is similar to what this piece argues is the problem with the “open the books” demand. That according to capitalist logic, there is a “fair” relationship between labor and capital, so any problems that arise can be worked out through a more “equal” distribution of resources between labor and capital.  We just need to open the books, or demand respect from the bosses, or end corporate greed in order to win that “fair” and “equal” relationship. There is no injustice beyond rude and greedy bosses that don’t give enough to their workers.

        Militants today have to break from this logic, from accepting the terms of debate set by capital.

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  • Total Worker

    Hi everyone,

    Sorry for commenting on this post so late in the game. I just saw it linked on FB in Portuguese so I remembered to come back to it and re-read.

    I’m an education worker in a public school district on the west coast. In order to ground some of the conversation around the utility or futility of demanding transparency of budgets, I want to contribute some anecdotes from organizing initiatives I’ve participated in with others where demanding transparency has been useful and not necessarily totally reformist. Additionally, I want to pose some theoretical questions that were raised as I read this piece.

    Practical utility of transparency:

    In organizing with students, educators, and parents across the city I’ve seen how the framework of the public school budget has been used to divide all these sectors of proletarian people against one another. On the one hand, students are told by nonprofit organizers that they should fight for money for student interests, and that teachers are being greedy by demanding money for their own raises. Parents are similarly divided against teachers.

    In our organizing it’s been useful to actually analyze the budgets to prove why this isn’t the case, to show why there is money that the district wastes on standardized tests and curriculum to carry out test prep that nobody wants. We’ve analyzed these instances of spending by the district using the language of “the district is everyone’s boss.” Students latch on to this and use it to understand the class relation between themselves, the district and education workers who are employed by the district.

    Last year we organized with a group of parents who were defending their Adult Education ESL program from being cut. This was a defensive battle and not some type of transitional proletarian insurrection, but nonetheless it was an important development here where nonprofits tend to dominate parent organizing. Rather than form a united front with the nonprofit leadership, parents organized directly with adult ed teachers and k-12 teachers and students to carry out a demand delivery and proceed with some escalating tactics (on-the-clock meetings on a city wide level where parents self-organized rides to get all the classes in one place for a mass assembly, protests and disruptions at the board meeting, flyering, threats of strikes, etc).

    Part of the political education that the radical teachers involved carried out was exposing the budget, finding out where the district was hiding up to 25million dollars (in reserves) and calling them out for cutting the program when it was clear it could be funded. Part of this political education involved examining sources of additional profits that could be appropriated for expanding education in the interests of proletarians in the city. Some of these sources were the real estate developers gentrifying the city, the port, corporations and banks with headquarters in the area, etc. This was part of not reifying the budget as a static and fixed amount of money but rather examining other sources of surplus value to reappropriate. We framed this as the working class of the education sector – students included – taking back money that should be spent on developing stability in working class communities, rather than appropriated by capitalists off the backs of workers. This leads me to the theoretical question . . .

    Theoretical question around transparency:

    Some of the heart of the analysis in this article is around the obscuring of sources of value. But is the assumption taken that value is produced in all workplaces? What about schools and hospitals where value is not really produced at all, at least not in the orthodox marxist sense? Of course part of the source of the school district’s exploitation is that it’s forcing teachers and others (studnets, etc) to work unpaid hours. But this doesn’t really generate surplus value in the same way a factory worker that’s producing food or machines does. Rather, it’s surplus labor that’s taken advantage of, but which doesn’t directly re-enter into the circulation of capital.
    Rather, where I see the intersection of production of surplus value and public schools is through things like the contracts for capital projects, construction, standardized testing curriculum, online programs, and other commoditized educational/infrastructural products that go into the overall production of public schools as a whole. These contracts are signed and discussed at bi-weekly school board meetings, and it’s these contracts that represent reified forms of exploited labor – the labor of those that do the construction, those that produce the tests, those that produce the shitty food the kids get to eat, etc etc.

    Do you all agree with this? If so, then what does it mean for going beyond the individual worker in the individual factory unit of analysis?

    Also, thirdly, on a historical scale:

    What do you all think about the self-management that has happened in pretty much every single revolutionary upsurge in history? It’s been interesting for me to read about experiences such as those in Russia (pre-1917), Algeria (1960s) , and Nicaragua (1970s) where there were intensive periods of battle by workers to self-manage in opposition to capitalists who wanted to engage in capital flight.

    These were efforts at forming workers committees for control of industry that formed part of the heart of the revolutionary process, producing food during times of crisis where the revolutionaries were challenging/overthrowing the old regime, and they were also the initiatives that the new ruling parties ended up smashing once they couldn’t get the workers to work fast enough under their new state capitalist regimes of accumulation.

    Through the little I’ve read of all these initiatives, opening the books was a big part of workers understanding the total social production process in relation to their own individual place in the division of labor. It was empowering rather than reifying . . . at least, that’s what it’s seemed like superficially. Would be interested in your historical thinking on this.

    Thanks for the provocative article.

    • jcohn

      Thanks so much for the thoughtful comments, Total Worker! We badly owe you a response and will do so this week!