Unenlightened Self-Interest

Time to change the system that failed us – The Irish Times – Mon, Nov 23, 2009

The Toyota Way (the 14 management principles of the car manufacturer) offers similar advice with the Five Whys model (which aims to assist in getting speedily to the roots of problems), emphasising that the obvious answers are rarely deep enough. Few systems are more complex than a liberal, market-oriented democracy.


How society works is complicated, which is why some feel the need to employ methods first used to sharpen industrial production techniques as a means of putting society along the right track. Not a new idea: Lenin, for instance, having previously recognised Taylorism as an instrument for the further exploitation of the workers, man’s enslavement by the machine, went on to ‘raise the question of applying much of what is scientific and progressive in the Taylor system‘. Its application would take place in service of the transition from capitalism to socialism, with Lenin’s form of socialism envisaging competition on a broad economic basis, with competition organised between communes.

But whereas Lenin ostensibly claimed to envisage Taylorism as an instrument for the ‘organisational form of the dictatorship of the proletariat’, leaving behind the ‘formal democracy of the bourgeois republic’ to ‘real participation of the mass of working people in administration’ (and we can leave to one side the matter of how successful this was), the use of modern management principles in Casey’s article is adduced as a starting point for the maintenance of a ‘liberal, market-orientated democracy’, id est, the formal democracy of the bourgeois republic. Another common name for this is capitalism.

‘Liberal, market-orientated democracy’, then, is the system to be analysed, and Casey’s diagnosis is total system failure. Here are the salient elements of collapse he highlights:

  • Collapse in public finances
  • Massive economic contraction
  • Invisible corporate governance practices
  • Ideal of public service dying
  • Massive wealth destruction in financial services

However, he doesn’t specify whether these elements are effects produced by the system, or whether they are symptoms of something that caused the system to fail. The headline confuses things because of it is not clear what the grammar of ‘change’ is – does changing the system mean getting rid of the existing one and bringing in another (like giving up football for golf) or does it mean making changes to the system (like moving from 4-4-2 to 4-5-1)? We are approaching things from a rather technocratic perspective here, but I would like to make one analogy on the idea of changing a system: if you are looking at the failure of a computer’s operating system and how this can be addressed, you can either make changes through patches, upgrades and so on, or you can replace the operating system. But the idea of changing the operating system here is never entertained. In fact, it turns out Casey is really concerned with hitherto unknown system at work within the broader system of ‘liberal, market-oriented democracy’:

Something incredible has happened to our national value system in the course of a single generation. Family, education, work and self-sacrifice defined our parents.


The defining value of Ireland 2009 is self-interest. This is an almost impossible shift in such a short time. The only plausible explanation I can offer is that the omnipresent and suffocating nature of the social partnership process has coded us to think only of ourselves.

Having started out apparently concerned with the highly complex system of liberal, market-oriented democracy, he seems to have been waylaid into a confrontation with something called the ‘national value system’. A naive and sympathetic close reader might regard this as unfortunate. First, because there has not been much talk of the ‘national value system’ (Casey’s article is on the first page of Google search results for the term), and even if it does exist in reality, there’s no reason to assume that its existence is not determined by the broader political and economic system.

Indeed, if we substitute ‘capitalism’ for ‘liberal, market-oriented democracy’, we might find a more convincing explanation than social partnership as to why the ‘defining value’ of Ireland in 2009 is self-interest, since self-interest is well-known as a defining characteristic of capitalism. You know the capitalist love story: a merchant invests in a industry not because they care much about the good of the society in which the industry exists but because they want to make a profit, and in doing so they are guided by ‘an invisible hand to promote an end that is no part of his intention’, i.e. greater material wealth for the wider population. That’s how it’s supposed to work anyway. One problem with this, from the point of view of the merchants at least, is that people compelled to work in industry for a wage will, no doubt out of some degree of self-interest, seek to maximise their wages and improve their general working conditions, and not entirely without good reason.

We can take this one step further: if it appears in the self-interest of the merchant, or the ruling class, to maximise the profitability of its industries, it will also appear in the interest of that class to convince the wage labourer that it is not in the wage labourer’s interest to engage in any action that might conflict with the interest of the ruling class (e.g. demands for higher wages, forming trade unions). An outcome of this situation will be that the existing system will be presented by institutions controlled by the ruling class as the best of all worlds, but regrettably under attack from dangerous and morally suspect tendencies. Marx encapsulated this rather nicely in The German Ideology:

The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it. The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas; hence of the relationships which make the one class the ruling one, therefore, the ideas of its dominance.


One curious and interesting thing about Casey’s article, then, is that he profers a pseudo-Marxist explanation for the current situation -the ruling material force of society, which is to say, social partnership, is its ruling intellectual force, and therefore the ‘self-interest’ that pervades the ‘national value system’ is what enables social partnership to dominate. This may strike you -as it does me- as bonkers on rocket-powered rollerskates, but this explanation is, in reality, an expression of the ideas of ruling class dominance, brought to you by the Irish Times.


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