Jocelyn Cohn and James Frey question the demand for budgetary transparency.
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.