We Can’t Cede Transparency to Liberals

Without transparency in politics and in the institutions that govern our daily lives, we can’t build socialism.

People walking through a skywalk. (Dave Shaver / Flickr)

A long time ago, the leaders of the socialist organization I belonged to, the now-defunct International Socialists (IS), decided, with the approval of the group’s annual convention, to cease distributing to members the minutes of the political leadership body’s deliberations. This new policy was designed to prevent the revelation of political differences among national leaders, which, they argued, encouraged the factionalism that had led to the splits in the organization’s recent past.

While the concern was well-founded, I always thought that for an organization like the IS, one of the most democratic on the US left, the remedy lied in changing the political culture of the group through discussion and education on that issue instead of heavy-handed organizational measures that deprived members of information necessary to make democratic decisions. Since I was one of those that most strenuously objected to the new policy at the annual convention that approved it, one of the leaders criticized me for advocating what he called “fishbowl” political deliberations, deliberations that were completely transparent.

The key issue here was thus one of transparency defined as the total availability and open access that members of a voluntary organization, institution, or of the society at large should have to the information indispensable to democratic decision-making.

The power to reduce or eliminate transparency is ultimately rooted in the control of organizational and social resources and the hierarchical division of labor more than on the intentions of leaders. Less transparency allows for more control from the top; more transparency leads to more accountability. Democracy, therefore, requires transparency: full information of the issues and facts involved in decision-making in the political and economic realms, be it within the state or voluntary associations.

Such transparency would even be more necessary in a socialist democracy where decisions that are currently the product of the blind forces of the market would instead be the outcome of open democratic political processes where working people would have critical input and power into what goods and services are produced, with what kind of resources, and for whom. This is a major reason why transparency is central not only to democracy today, but to the construction of a world that can benefit everyone, in contrast to capitalism that cannot function without a fundamental lack of transparency.

But in certain contexts, transparency is socially and politically harmful when it leads to the violation of individual privacy or of the freedom and autonomy of groups by the state or other powerful entities and individuals with the sole purpose of discrediting and oppressing those individuals and groups — for example, when welfare recipients and other poor people are compelled to allow all sorts of state oversight into their private lives to preserve benefits provided by governments.

While a lack of transparency has been a structurally built-in characteristic of most modern social systems, I focus here on how it plays out in the American capitalist economy, its trade unions, and in domestic and international politics. When most people in this country today think about transparency, they tend to think about it in terms of the deceptions, tricks, and conspiracies of politicians and big businessmen — particularly when such kinds of behavior violate the law.

However, the system’s fundamental lack of transparency is based on its very nature and structure, not illegal conspiracies. While there are plenty of conspiracies in capitalist societies, the system itself is not a conspiracy, since it is ruled by the laws and tendencies inherent in its political economy, such as capital accumulation, competition, and the rate of profit, which are not secret but widely known.

The heart of the capitalist system is based on the commodity, which hides the social relations underlying it and obscures the exploitative nature of capitalism. In addition, economic competition depends in many ways on the lack of transparency, including the mechanism of trade secrets and the technological duplication that is closely related to it. Corporations are likely to duplicate research and other forms of innovation in total ignorance of each other’s efforts, for example — a way of organizing applied science and technology that is seldom discussed as the economic waste that it is.

Thus, the research departments of two corporations might be researching a problem without cooperating and communicating with each other, thus failing to enhance the effectiveness and efficient use of time and resources. In a socialist society, institutions dedicated to innovation formed by inventors, scientists, and representatives of workers’ councils would organize the development of new products following the priorities democratically established by society at large as an integral part of democratic economic planning.

Lack of transparency is also one of the central features of liberal capitalism, which separates the political from economic spheres as if they were independent of each other, and which holds the state as the mediator of society’s multiple economic interests, obscuring the relationship between the state and the dominant power of corporations over state policy. This is expressed, for example, in the corporate ways of influencing regulatory, fiscal, and monetary policy through lobbying, campaign financing, and other (often corrupt) methods. Also unacknowledged, mostly because it is so taken for granted that it is not even explicitly recognized, is the structural power that corporations have to affect the whole society, like their ability to dispose of investments as they see fit, without governmental involvement or democratic input.

There are also the opaque and manipulative ways capital attempts to enlarge its side of the boundary between the economic and the political realms. Take plant and business location. The power to decide on where to install a business or factory is made by capitalists, regardless of its major social consequences, subject to minor political and administrative limitations like zoning and environmental rules. But corporations aren’t satisfied with that power and are highly adept at extracting fiscal and other concessions from the political system. But these concessions play a marginal role in capitalists’ assessment of overall profitability, which is central to their decision-making. Municipal and state governments negotiate concessions without full knowledge of the concessions offered in other jurisdictions — knowledge that the corporations keep to themselves.

The Political Realm at Home

Transparency is most discussed in the political realm. Concern with transparency arose as an outcome of mass suffrage and other expressions of political democracy, starting in the late eighteenth through the twentieth centuries. Before then, there was no expectation of transparency — politics was openly and publicly restricted to elite, ruling class groups.

As in the economic and social realm, the power to decide what to disclose is rooted in the hierarchical division of labor within the political sphere. Politicians claim it as a prerogative of their position of power under a variety of justifications like security. But the sense that vital information is being withheld from the public contributes to popular cynicism over politics.

Trevor Potter, president of the Campaign Legal Center, has argued that the electoral system has dramatically shifted from transparent to secret spending in recent years, a process in which David and Charles Koch played a major role. This had led to an increase in campaign spending to entirely new levels. Countering the established practice of all candidates for the presidency, Trump refused to reveal his income tax returns, while presidential candidate Hillary Clinton refused to publish the text of her speeches to Wall Street financial institutions.

Once in office, Trump has repeatedly refused to provide critical public information. As Neal K. Katyal pointed out in the New York Times, Trump had already invoked executive privilege to block Congress from obtaining documents about the efforts of the administration to add a question about citizenship to the 2010 Census (which would have intimidated undocumented people from participating for fear of being deported; the resulting undercount would have reduced the voting power and social services available to Latino and other immigrant communities), from obtaining the full Mueller report, and from obtaining documents from Trump’s former White House counsel Don McGahn, which would have thrown much light on the Mueller report’s treatment of Trump’s possible obstruction of justice.

At the state level, few people knew what went on in the infamous closed meetings of the “three men in the room” (Governor Andrew Cuomo, Assembly Democratic leader Sheldon Silver, and State Senate Republican leader Dean Skelos) making decisions on the state budget and other legislative matters for New York state just a few years ago. Such a political culture opened the path to outright corruption, as evidenced by both Silver and Skelos being found guilty, in two separate cases, of using their political office for personal gain.

Further proof is Cuomo’s numerous “pay to play” secret deals during his many years running the state of New York. As the New York Times investigative reporters Emma G. Fitzsimmons, J. David Goodman, and Agustin Armendariz revealed, corporations such as the Haugland Group donated important sums to Cuomo’s electoral campaigns and in exchange obtained lucrative construction contracts with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority or MTA.

This lack of transparency is key to the functioning and survival of professional politicians. In the US context, these politicians may be committed to political ideologies or organizations representing particular interests, but more often than not, their prospects for survival or advancement in office are the single most important force determining their political conduct.

The professional politicians’ lack of transparency is also motivated by the need for politicians to say different things to different people. Other things being equal, candidates in socially heterogeneous districts tend to have a greater lack of political clarity, because they are afraid of openly and publicly alienating certain sections of the electorate and losing their positions. Reforms like proportional representation, ranked-choice voting, and full public financing of elections would allow for the open and explicit representation of conflicting interests such as those based on social class, and might help to combat opaque political practices by candidates.

The mold of the professional politician seems to have been broken by Donald Trump, who succeeded exactly for being a different kind of transparent: speaking in grossly racist, xenophobic, and sexist outbursts and breaking the polite conventions of American politics. His political campaign style aside, Trump’s pathological lying far outpaces the dissembling of run-of-the-mill politicians. And far from being transparent, his policies, in fact, support the interests of big business, as in his regulatory policies in labor, consumer affairs, and the environment that hurt the standard of living of many of his supporters. There is little that distinguishes him from the extreme right wing of the Republican Party.

The International Political Realm

Lack of transparency is much greater in international relations than in national politics, which is why the work of people like Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald, and Julian Assange and his WikiLeaks has been so important in uncovering the lies and maneuvers of governments and ruling classes throughout the world. Governments distort and hide information, not only from each other but from their populations, and brazenly lie, as when US president George W. Bush and British prime minister Tony Blair assured the world that Saddam Hussein had stockpiled weapons of mass destruction to justify the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

And while many use national security as the justification for keeping information away from the public, it is frequently done to manipulate domestic public opinion. A classic example was President John F. Kennedy’s agreement with the Soviet government to end the missile crisis of October 1962 that brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. The Soviet leaders agreed to remove the missiles from Cuba in exchange for JFK promising not to invade Cuba and secretly promising that the United States would remove its missiles from military bases in Turkey.

In doing this, the United States colluded with its Russian enemy to hide that part of the agreement from the American people for a number of reasons, especially the November 1962 midterm elections shortly after the October crisis. Kennedy wanted to maintain his “tough” image in the eyes of the electorate.

Mainstream opinion and political “common sense” have long held that these opaque practices in international relations are inevitable, even desirable. But the October 1917 Revolution in Russia turned that “common sense” on its head when the new government led by the coalition between the Bolshevik and Left Socialist-Revolutionary parties quickly moved to end Russia’s participation in World War I in alliance with Britain, France, and the United States. The revolutionary government quickly moved to publish the secret treaties between Russia and its Western allies, allowing the Tsarist empire to grab Galicia and Constantinople and to dominate the Balkan countries in the context of the Allied plans to dismember the Austro-Hungarian empire.

According to Isaac Deutscher, the revolutionary government’s foreign secretary Leon Trotsky, clearly understanding that the central powers (Austria and Germany) — sworn enemies of the Western allies, Tsarist Russia, and, of course, of the Russian Revolution — would try to benefit from the Soviet disclosures, decided nevertheless it was worth taking the risk of publishing those secret agreements to give an example to others, especially to the German working class, on how to deal honestly with matters of foreign policy by fully disclosing information about the secret bargains and compacts of their ruling classes.

The transparency that the revolutionary leadership was aiming at also extended to the negotiations to bring the war to an end. Shortly after the Bolshevik Revolution, the revolutionary leadership began negotiations with the Germans at Brest-Litovsk to cease hostilities. Until Trotsky arrived on the scene several months later, the peace conference negotiations had been conducted in the conventional diplomatic politeness typical of such affairs.

Trotsky’s arrival led to a marked change of tone in the negotiations. He put a stop to the diplomatic hobnobbing with the Germans by having the Russian delegation eat their meals at their quarters and being forbidden to have private contact and share entertainment with them. As he put it, appearances had to conform to the realities: the Russian delegation had come to negotiate with enemies, not friends, and that fact should be made publicly transparent.

And before the eyes of the German diplomats and officers assembled to greet him upon his arrival in Brest-Litovsk, he had his companion Karl Radek, a Polish Jew well known as an experienced Bolshevik agitator, distribute antiwar pamphlets among the German soldiers who had been assigned for duty at Brest-Litovsk. Clearly showing where the new government stood, it also began to demobilize the Russian Army and free the German and Austrian POWs from compulsory labor, allowing them to leave the camps. Perhaps most important of all, it also declared null and void the Russian-British Treaty of 1907 partitioning Persia between the two powers, and at the same time ordered Russian troops to evacuate northern Persia.

The revolutionary strategy and tactics of openness and transparency were aimed at combating working-class and popular cynicism by demonstrating that the “inevitable” features of international relations could be changed through revolutionary action. To the Bolshevik revolutionary leadership, this was the path to change political consciousness and move the working class to the left.

The much-sought expansion of support for the revolution came to a stop, however, as I showed in Before Stalinism, when Soviet democracy disappeared during the Civil War, and the alliance with the peasantry broke down — in part due to the ultra-left, from-above policies of War Communism that led to the revolution’s degeneration and to Stalinist counterrevolution that defeated the revolution from within.

The dying process of the Soviet revolution was reflected in its foreign policy by the adoption of the state interests of the USSR as the criterion driving its orientation abroad instead of the promotion of socialism. With this change, secret diplomacy hid the cynical deals made by the Communist Party leadership. So, for example, in 1924, the USSR and China engaged in secret negotiations to determine the fate of Outer Mongolia, which at the beginning of the negotiations the USSR recognized as an integral part of the Republic of China but shortly afterward ended up as a Soviet-dominated Mongolian People’s Republic. Another example is the nonaggression pact that Stalinist Russia signed with the Nazis in August of 1939, which in addition to colluding with Nazi Germany, also included a secret protocol establishing German and Soviet spheres of influence in Poland and the Baltic states in the event of war. This was in sharp contrast with the revolutionary policy that the government had adopted in 1917 and early 1918 when its openness and transparency was seen as essential to elevating working-class and popular consciousness and building socialism.

Transparency and Democracy in the Unions

Only a small minority of the unions in the United States can be considered to be democratic. Most are run by bureaucrats for whom keeping members in the dark is essential to avoid challenges to their holding union office as a lifetime career, which is why union officials conduct boring membership meetings without discussion on important union matters, while decisions about union members are taken behind closed doors and presented to them as a fait accompli, and membership lists are closely controlled by the local or international union officialdom to prevent the emergence of an opposition to them.

Nowhere is opacity more prevalent than in contract negotiations, starting with formulating demands and assembling the negotiation committee; to the one related to informing the members about the substance and status of the negotiations going on, from which they also tend to be excluded; to time and means members are given to read, discuss, and campaign for and against the final proposed contract, which is often not provided or even substantively explained to them; to the way in which the voting is organized (e.g., in some unions, such as the Teamsters, a simple majority of negative votes may be insufficient to reject a proposed contract).

The lack of transparency during contract negotiations achieved a laughable and pathetic height during a recently approved contract in 2019 of the New York City District Council of Carpenters, representing more than twenty thousand carpenters in nine local unions in New York City. The contract was negotiated by the leadership without any input by the rank and file; it included cuts and a two-tier system for new hires, both proposed by the union leadership, not by the employers. And it was approved by a delegate body dominated by employees of the District Council and superintendents and foremen (frontline bosses) with a token few rank-and-file carpenters.

There are people that question whether union bargaining power and union democracy — and transparency — are compatible. Their arguments are based on economic and technical grounds rather than the deliberate efforts of the union bureaucracy to exclude the membership and keep it in the dark regarding key union affairs. Economist Charles Craypo, for example, argued that union bargaining strength often rests on centralized authority and decision-making, processes that are removed from the eyes and ears of the rank and file. Citing practitioners and observers of collective bargaining who believe that centralized bargaining does erode democracy, he noted that such erosion is not necessarily due to the union leadership’s authoritarianism, but to the fact that responsibility and power inside unions travel upward as bargaining becomes formal, technical, legalistic, and concentrated, depriving local leaders and activists of information and power where it counts most.

Yet there are various democratic institutional ways, like bargaining committees elected by the rank-and-file members, which could hold union leaders more accountable. But Craypo does not consider that possibility. Neither does he take into account the extraordinary lengths, sometimes involving the use of threats and violence, that union bureaucrats go to keep members in the dark — blocking, for example, information about the existence, let alone the proposals, of union oppositionists, through their control of the official union organs. Craypo did accurately describe existing objective material conditions that produce the lack of transparency in the bureaucratic conduct of union affairs. But in and by themselves, they are far from sufficient to explain the opaque, undemocratic practices of the union bureaucracy.

Such explanation would require an understanding of the position that union officials occupy in the American social structure. The trade union bureaucracy is a fundamentally cautious and risk-averse social group in society that has to constantly play a balancing act between capitalists and the workers. On one hand, it acts as a brake to control worker insurgency in order to avoid risks to the “stability” of the union and to reassure the capitalists that they are dealing with powerful leaders who can be “reasonable” and therefore trustworthy. On the other hand, it cannot go too far in that direction. as that would render unions powerless and irrelevant, placing them and their own jobs at risk.

The root of this division between workers and union bureaucrats lies in the hierarchical division of labor separating the large majority of workers from the persons whose full-time job is to negotiate with the employers. They seek to maximize the security of their jobs by turning what might have been a job of relatively short duration into a lifetime career. But to achieve this, they not only depend on their command of technical and legal skills, but must actively work to keep the membership ignorant of all facets of union business, keeping at bay and actively discouraging the emergence of opposition. Lack of transparency is the first line of defense for union bureaucracies to erode, if not altogether do away with, union democracy and entrench themselves in power.

Transparency Against Group and Individual Freedoms

In certain contexts, however, transparency can be highly prejudicial, like when it is geared to oppress individuals and groups and to restrain their freedom through the exposure of personal and private information.

It could be argued that the personal is also political and should therefore be publicly transparent. But not all personal matters are politically relevant. Personal matters are politically relevant only when they are affected by government policies on matters like employment, education, and welfare, as well as when personal relations involve exploitation and oppression such as domestic violence and suppression of gender equality, violating fundamental rights. As politically relevant, those personal matters are “fair game” for various kinds of public intervention, ranging from public exposure through media, expulsion from voluntary associations, the approval of new protective legislation against phenomena like sexual harassment, and the intervention of the police and the courts.

It does not follow, however, that all methods of public intervention in politically relevant private matters are necessarily equitable or serve a legitimate purpose. In other words, public intervention must be modified and adjusted to deal fairly and effectively with the personal, the private, to limit or avoid unnecessary, unwarranted incursions into those realms.

For example, publishing the names of parents (usually fathers) who have failed to pay child support would be a violation of privacy that is unjustified given the existence of judicial and police alternatives that can protect the rights of the affected children and their parents (usually women). Besides, failure to pay child support might be based on involuntary factors such as unemployment and poverty that would make public exposure fundamentally unjust and with racist consequences.

Nowadays, identitarian politics has introduced a new element in the controversy inside the Left over how to address politically relevant personal matters in an effective way. This new element involves defining those matters in the narrowest possible terms to show one’s own group as having suffered the most and being the least privileged. This reduces the effectiveness of protest as it divides rather than unites various oppressed groups in order to elicit political solidarity among the broadest possible layers of the population, thereby deepening the political character of the protest.

Beyond the politically relevant personal realm is the vast realm of intimacy that includes the multiple forms of sexual relations among freely consenting adults, which are nobody’s business except for the people directly involved, and the world of lifestyles based on cultural choice and taste. Whether people choose to be religious, agnostic, or atheist is a personal, private matter that should not be open to public intervention as long as it does not involve coercion. The problem arises when the discussion of these matters is used to expose and interfere in the intimate, private life of individuals.

For example, those who chose to hide their sexual orientation have been, in the name of gay liberation, “outed” against their will in recent years. This kind of “outing” is politically and ethically legitimate only in the very exceptional cases of powerful public figures who are homophobes, but who privately engage in the practices that they publicly attack. Fishbowl politics should not apply to personal, private behavior that can be used by authorities, as well as peers, to deprive people of their freedom and autonomy.

Unfortunately, privacy is increasingly being eroded. The current focus of this erosion is social media, which is being criticized for invading their users’ privacy in search of profit. Yet it is the more ominous activities of state surveillance and gathering information of personal and private activities that have been growing for many decades well before social media. (Americans of a certain age may even remember when Social Security cards and their respective numbers had not yet become a universal identity document.)

An important aspect of an individual’s autonomy and freedom is the ability to selectively show different aspects of her life as she chooses, thereby preventing those who have the power to harm her interests from having total access to information about that individual. In his analysis of “total institutions” such as mental asylums and prisons, the late sociologist Erving Goffman pointed out that in those institutions, the different spheres of life are desegregated, “so that an inmate’s conduct in one scene of activity is thrown up to him by staff as a comment and check upon his conduct in another context.”

Goffman is pointing to a total transparency that “travels” and links one area of life to another in the process abolishing their boundaries, resulting in an extreme lack of privacy. We are all confronting that danger with the increasing invasion of privacy, especially by the government. But that is especially true among working-class people, who are constantly confronting the fact that knowledge about every aspect of their lives is known to and shared among a variety of governmental and private entities with power over their lives — landlords, employers, the police, and judicial authorities — which limits their privacy, autonomy, and freedom.

Similar considerations apply to the public sharing of the information of recipients of food stamps, free school lunches, and scholarships based on financial need. Recently, the New York Times reported on the “lunch-shaming” policy of the city of Cherry Hill, New Jersey, where students having more than a $20 student lunch debt are limited to just one lunch option: a tuna fish sandwich meal. Those owing more than $75 are blocked from buying yearbooks or prom tickets and from participating in nonacademic field trips and various extracurricular activities. These penalties, besides their class and racial implications, are visible to all and infringe upon the penalized students’ right to privacy.

“Class for Itself” Consciousness

Transparency has two faces. It can be used as a tool of surveillance and personal oppression, and it is also an indispensable component of democracy. People elected to office must be held politically accountable, and there cannot be real accountability without political transparency.

Transparency is also an essential element in the formation of what Karl Marx called “class for itself” consciousness that develops from the working people’s own experiences in struggle. It is through that struggle that workers develop a total view of society and understand its parts and interconnections. Transparency is an indispensable element to develop that understanding. That is what allows working people to understand that it is not welfare recipients, immigrants and racial minorities at home, and foreign workers abroad that are the cause of their exploitation and oppression, but the capitalist system itself, ran for profit and not for human needs.