Archive for June 17th, 2009

Age of Consent

As I was violating the Sabbath injunction against doing work yesterday, motoring through a massive pile of ironing, I listened to Marian Finucane’s radio show. There were a few panelists on, one of whom was Colm Barrington, Chairman of Aer Lingus. In a discussion on NAMA, as well as praising the wisdom reported appointment of a Jones Lang Lasalle boss to the entity, he observed:

‘We’re all part of the property boom problem too. We’re all out buying houses, buying apartments, renting them out, mortgaging up to the hilt, using the equity in our family home to buy more. Everybody in the community is part of this problem, and people who deny it are..[in denial] yes.’

One listener objected, saying he had behaved ‘prudently’, and defied the panelists to show how he was responsible. Then:

Barrington: “Well, he consented to a government that put all our reliance on property taxes, and he went along with that.”

Marian Finucane: “Well we don’t know that: he could have voted for the opposition.”

Barrington: “Well he was part of this.”

And that was the end of that. Barrington’s analysis of the problem is naturally self-serving. By socialising responsibility for the economic collapse, he justifies the policy of cutting everyone’s wages, including those who get paid double-time for working at weekends, a situation he had earlier described as a ‘legacy’ issue: the ‘we’ who remortgaged ‘our’ houses are also the ‘we’ who are paying ‘ourselves’ too much.

In fairness to Barrington, his reasoning is entirely in keeping with that of a modern CEO. In-house corporate communication strategies emphasise how ‘we’ are all in this together.

In one e-mail a CEO may be given to gush about how highly he values ‘our people’, and in another he may talk about how cutting the workforce by 10% is a decision taken by the executive team with the best interests of both shareholders and employees, and even the employees’ families.

By the time the mail is sent, the 10% may already have had their security passes cancelled. All of which is to say: any thought of conflicting interests between those who own and control the firm (the shareholders and the executives) and those who do most of the work (the rest of the employees) is systematically banished. The important point is not that all this talk of ‘our people’ is hypocrisy, but that these expressions of false common interest are a necessary means of reinforcing a structure of exploitation and domination.

The ideological flipside to this social corporatism, in which the individual exists purely as a product of the corporation, is infinite individual responsibility. That is, each individual is held entirely responsible for her own circumstances, through the choices she exercises. If a CEO is paid 30 times the average worker salary in his firm, it is because he is said to deserve it on account of the decisions he has made and can make in the service of firm profitability. The same is by extension true of the average worker. The important consideration is not whether this ‘meritocracy’ is consistent with some notion of true merit, but, again, that the ideology is, once again, a necessary means of reinforcing a structure of exploitation and domination.

Roughly put, the context to Barrington’s drooling is this. And you need to bear with me. Speculators form alliances with banks and political parties to induce workers to take out mortgages many multiples their salary. The media is paid to generate propaganda about the dangers of getting left off the property ladder. Workers take out mortgages not with an eye on turning a profit on a family home, but in fear of being unable to ever afford a home. Since an indebted workforce is a docile workforce, this ripens the possibilities for exploiting them further: workers are less inclined to strike or even attempt to demand better treatment if they have massive debts to pay off.

At the level of the individual firm, this may improve short-term profitability by reducing labour costs. However, cutting labour costs does zero for improving product quality, so the firm starts to rely even more heavily on driving down labour costs in order to maintain profitability. At a macro- level, however, the fact that workers have lower disposable incomes means they purchase less goods and services, thus leading the economy spiralling toward collapse. The demand for construction-related goods and services falls as a matter of course, and with workers unable to meet mortgage repayments, whether through the acquisition of new mortgages or the repayment of existing loans, builders find themselves unable to repay their loans, and the banks that provided these loans turn to the government to bail them out.

The government, acting in established neo-liberal fashion, turns to workers to carry the can for the speculators who were bleeding them dry in the first instance. To do so, it uses their money to set up an entity -NAMA- to manage these liabilities, calls them assets, and goes about appointing property developers to run the show. Barrington, in turn, uses the pulpit provided to him by the state broadcaster to fulsomely praise the wisdom of the appointment, and to sanctimoniously accuse workers of being in denial.

Why -to use Barrington’s language- do we consent to giving people the power to engage in such outrageous harangues?

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June 2009