Archive for February, 2011

Democratic Revolution

Hello. A quick glance of the papers coughs up the following:

Kenny hails democratic revolution at ballot box – The Irish Times – Mon, Feb 28, 2011

“This was a democratic revolution at the ballot box. The message is for a
stable and strong government. The chasm opened between people and
government has to be rebuilt,” he said on RTÉ television.

We can treat the lack of quotation marks in the headline as an indicator of how much the people really believe it. The IT leader is no less enthused.

The people have spoken – The Irish Times – Mon, Feb 28, 2011

Let there be no doubt, however, that the public did engage in this general election. No one can say that our parliamentary democracy did not work. The people expressed their views at the ballot box.

And then, in the same paper, by contrast:

Soldiers of Destiny fall victim to voter vengeance – The Irish Times – Mon, Feb 28, 2011

This is the clearest message of the election. The policy mandates are much less decisive, and there is little enough evidence in the exit poll that people voting for most parties had concrete policy objectives in mind.

So we don’t really know what policies people were voting for, but let there be no doubt that ‘our’ parliamentary democracy works. OK then. What do Fine Gael people have to say about this?

Ivan Yates: Voters have just signed up for years of harsh medicine – Analysis, Opinion – Independent.ie

Voters may not have realised what they signed up to on Friday. Regardless of expectations, in reality the electorate signed a patient consent form — same as the disclaimer before the anaesthetist puts the patient to sleep in the operating theatre.

The people have expressed their views, we do not really know what they are, they may not even have known what they were doing, but they will be ignored anyway. Chloroform please, Dr Varadkar.

Meanwhile, here is what the Directorate-General for Economic and Financial Affairs had to say about the Irish election.

Implementation risks [to the EU-IMF plan to ‘to restore financial market confidence in the Irish economy’s banking sector and the sovereign’] also exist. The planned reforms are substantial, will take a number of years, and engage a wide range of stakeholders both public and private. An election in Ireland is now imminent and a change of government is very likely. In this context it should be noted, however, that in the preparation phase the programme partners met the leaders of the main opposition parties. Many aspects of the programme have a legislative component, and these will need the approval of the Irish parliament.

Vive la révolution!

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‘soft language hiding hard policies’

Take emigration – I cannot believe that people are so complacent about it. It is a national tragedy. There is no country that would take emigration the way we are taking it. We have a birth rate of approximately 60k per annum. About 1,000 people per week are leaving. That means we are losing our entire birth corp. It is an extraordinary crisis – a huge emotional crisis as much as anything. Why do people have children? Because they want their company – not to service the economy. The associational loss and the sense of community that is lost are enormous. It’s not just even your own children, it’s your neighbours’, your friends’, your nieces and nephews – they’re gone. Nobody is saying it’s an absolute disaster. I was shocked too at the 5-way leaders debate, I thought it was appalling that there was such a lack of initiative about alternative economic models. But that goes back to the elite again – their own children, on average, will not have to emigrate because they are well connected.

There is a brilliant wide-ranging and in-depth interview with Kathleen Lynch on Mediabite that demands your attention.

Work That Body

One thing that the radical political reformerators and the maverick centre-right economist dissidents have in common, apart from a sanguine acceptance that there is nothing wrong with the economic system being under private control, is a total obliviousness to the matter of work.

Political reform does not mean requiring short hours in order to enhance democratic participation. The people’s economy has nothing to do with people exercising control over the means of production.

In any expert-led discussion of politics and economics, any questions of what happens to us when we are at work, our physical and mental exertions, whether in paid or unpaid labour, and what happens when we have no paid work, are left at the door, consigned to the place known as ‘out there’, as in ‘there’s a lot of anger out there’.

The dominant assumption for these people is that people’s economic agency, beyond the realm of consumption, is confined to their entering work as part of a voluntary exchange between employee and employer.

People’s political agency has nothing to do with organising campaigns of resistance in defence of working conditions. It’s all just a matter of the unitary bourgeois subject doing its thing, maximising its utility under conditions that everyone has always-already agreed. It starts here? Actually, it ended a long time back.

Fintan O’Toole said the other day that people are voting freely for the EU-IMF bailout. If so, this is a Hobbesian idea of freedom, where if the highwayman points a gun at you, you hand over your money freely.

If most of your day is taken up trying to keep your nose clean and your head above water in work, and when you get home you have kids to look after and a house to maintain, and the only sources of information you have at hand to help you decide about political matters are the ones most easily available, you’re probably quite susceptible to accepting to some degree the parameters and objects of inquiry set by media institutions that serve ruling class interest. So how free is your choice? The response, when people do point this out, is often an accusation of elitism.

This accusation is usually part and parcel of a phony ruling class populism, according to which things are the way they are because that is how everyone has willed it, and the real snobs are the ones who will not bow to the reality that the people are smart enough to know their priorities, and those of Tony O’Reilly and Michael O’Leary, are one and the same.

But as CMK says in the comments to the previous post, there is nothing condescending about pointing this out. I know myself that there are all sorts of ways in which news and reporting messes with my mental processes. I turn on the RTE news or Prime Time or whatever, and they’re talking about tens of billions of euro getting ploughed into such and such a bank, and my head spins. Trying to conceive of ten billion euro, and the full ramifications of paying it to private bondholders, is an act of labour. It takes concerted effort.

Where your efforts get you depends on how the information is presented to you. The more exhausted you are, the more susceptible you are, either to concede defeat and disconnect from politics completely or take some leap of faith into the ability of technocratic elites to sort things out on your behalf.

Normally, when it comes to news and current affairs programmes, basic moral considerations -like whether it is a good idea to dispossess the poor to satisfy the rich-are left ‘out there’, and what people are geared toward confronting is always a matter of ‘pragmatism’, i.e. how can we optimise the satisfaction of the rich? The fundamental questions of power: who owns what, who controls what, who benefits most from this or that- are simply ignored.

For instance, as kenoma points out in the comments in the previous post, there is nearly a tacit acceptance of the need to maintain corporation tax at 12.5% because that’s what is needed, it is assumed, to keep jobs. And the consequences of this, when it comes to power in society, are left completely unquestioned. Having ordinary workers pay more tax while corporations pay the same amount, or less, is a net transfer of power to corporations: it allows them to dominate workers more easily.

No mainstream news outlet -or political party, certainly not the one that calls for the ‘One Ireland of Employers and Employees’- these days will ever adopt a critical view of conditions faced by workers -apart from those of footballers and other sports stars- unless the conditions violate legal norms, and even then it would take a concerted campaign to get notice taken.

But when there are no norms violated, the place of work, as a site of struggle and competing material interests, and its effect on political agency, are ignored completely, unless it is a matter of attacking union rights or demands.

To give one example. There is no attention given to the working conditions of the firms that the state seeks to attract and retain through sweetener and subsidy. The basic assumption is that these are good quality jobs and sure aren’t they lucky to be getting them? But I know of people employed on 20 grand a year by multinationals where the state is paying 9 grand of the wage bill. And then the firms, which are making massive profits, pull stunts like cut canteen subsidies and complimentary bus services.

The withdrawal of a two euro subsidy per day in the food you’re buying doesn’t seem like much, but it is equivalent to a 2% pay cut to someone on 20 grand a year. Since there are no unions, these people have to suck it up. How much would you pay someone to walk for 50 minutes a day in the absence of a bus? Minimum wage? For someone on 20 grand a year, that would be labour equivalent to 15% of their annual salary.

The point here is that these are always the companies presented as the good firms, the standard-bearers for the post-union, post-ideological, smart economy, Ireland 2.0 workplace. And -since keeping them sweet is a key component of government strategy- they are never the object of any critical inquiry in terms of their effect on working conditions in the country (they are a powerful bulwark against union recognition).

The only time working conditions in these places ever swing into view is when someone floats the idea of raising income tax on high earners. When this happens, an imaginary cadre of senior managers from overseas are conjured up, who will shut down operations at the very idea that they might have to pay taxes closer to the rates in Narnia, or Atlantis, or wherever it is they are supposed to come from.

And yet we are driven to think about the economic system as though none of this happens, and we are driven to think about the political system as though none of this matters. This is all part of donning the golden straitjacket insisted upon by ruling parties, oligarchs, and sado-monetarist technocrats. It is not enough that politics be excluded from the workplace; the workplace must be excluded from politics.

Team Conservatism

Maybe it’s an unjustifiable optimism on my part, but I am loathe to accept the idea, floated by a fair few commentators in recent days, that Ireland is a passive, timid, and conservative country. On the face of it, the proof of the truth of this statement can be found in electoral voting since whenever. But in the rush to find an all-encompassing account of why things are the way they are in Ireland, I think the danger is that we make assumptions about why it is that people, from our own point of view, vote conservatively. Not least on account of the risk of creating self-fulfilling prophecies.

Radical Irish republican socialist Oscar Wilde observed in the Soul of Man under Socialism that there is only one group that worries more about money than the rich, and that is the poor. What Wilde shows us here is that you can have two groups of people who share the same concern, but for rather different reasons. Poor people worry all the time about money because they need it to meet their animal needs, whereas rich people worry about money because they believe they need it to meet their human needs.

So when you see a bloc of voters, whom you might expect to move left in the wake of the disaster wrought by neo-liberal policies and no small amount of corruption, switch instead to another right-wing party whose only difference from the other right-wing party is a more convincing claim to moral hygiene, you can’t just explain it away in terms of, oh, this is an innate conservatism, or they are a timid people, because it ignores the fact that people vote for right-wing parties for a variety of reasons, and one person’s reason for voting for Fine Gael may well contradict the reasons of another person for so doing.

Let me give a very crude example. Peter Sutherland will probably vote Fine Gael, assuming he lives in Ireland, because he knows it will assist in fashioning the economy to meet the needs and vision of the class of people he represents: his clientele at Goldman Sachs, his friends at the IMF and so on. And then there was a pregnant woman I was speaking to last week, who worked for an SME and who had had her wages cut, only 18 months after being made redundant from a previous job. We were talking about maternity leave and she was saying that she was afraid of taking no more than three months in case she began to appear a burden to her employer. When I suggested that there ought to be more substantial provisions for maternity and paternity leave, she didn’t disagree, but when I suggested that firms who claimed that they couldn’t pay for it could, in fact, pay for it, she didn’t accept this, saying that she found it highly unlikely that her employer could afford it, under present circumstances at least. Now in so far as you have people like this, who work for small and medium enterprises and as such are very fearful to any sort of measure that might affect their future employment prospects, they are likely to identify very much with people who claim to be on the side of business. So I reckon she might vote Fine Gael.

I don’t think you can describe such people as conservative. I don’t think you can say that she and Peter Sutherland share a common political philosophy. You might venture, as Fintan O’Toole does, that such people are timid, but if so you need to ask: who is doing the intimidating?

Bondholder Inferno

Saying that you’re going to burn the bondholders might sound big and clever, but there is a catch: it implies that there will be some sort of pain inflicted on those wealthy individuals who expect states to expropriate wealth from poor people in order to ensure that their own position of power and privilege is assured. It might be mildly unpleasant for such individuals to hear that they aren’t going to get exactly what they want, at a level of pain comparable to stubbing one’s little toe against the bedpost, but it’s certainly not going to plunge them into searing agony, which is what would happen if you set them on fire.

So talking about burning the bondholders presents the bondholders as being a group of people who are in a far more precarious, vulnerable position than the position of power and influence that they enjoy in reality. Thinking about someone who has her social welfare payments cut in order to ensure that the bondholders, the markets or whatever other synonym for the rich you may care to use are sated with what they feel is rightfully theirs, it would rarely occur to anyone to say that she is going to get ‘burnt’, even though the suffering inflicted is likely to be far greater than any bondholder awakened rudely.

When I hear people talking about burning the bondholders it reminds me of that stupid joke about the mouse who tries to have sex with an elephant and in the course of doing so a coconut drops on the elephant’s head and the elephant lets forth an “ouch” and the mouse shouts “suffer, bitch, suffer”. We should steer clear both of presenting ourselves as mice, and of presenting bondholders as mighty elephants.

JamCraic

Here’s my piece for Technocracy Now!, a special instalment of #crisisjam out today and continuing through the week.

Of the many fulsome initiatives intended to normalise the trauma of forced emigration, an ad campaign for a soft drink goes in at number one with a bullet. By purchasing the product of this global corporation, you enter a draw for the prize of bringing back a group of your recently emigrated friends. They will, if you are successful, be back in Ireland on Saint Patrick’s Day for ‘the craic’. Recession-busting pizza might give you heartburn, but there’s nothing like an emigration-busting soft drink to ease the heart ache.

Is there not a lurid enjoyment offered up here, and in many other instances, that while we are invited to lament the departure of our compatriots, we are also invited to warm the cockles of our heart with the idea of the warm and friendly country they are leaving behind? It is as though we are being tickled by the same reflex that afflicts broadcaster Joe Duffy, who, after hearing a caller’s heartfelt testimony about the misery inflicted upon them by a venal and corrupt society, cannot but help respond with the dread words “but sure it’s a great country?”

The devastating effects of emigration go way beyond rotting teeth, and yet, the current wave of emigration from Ireland has still failed to produce any instances of concentrated popular anger. Instead, it has provided an opportunity for gloopy sentimentality that drowns any questions about the root causes of emigration, its function, and its effects, in a sugary goo.

The best response, when bombarded with this depoliticised rubbish, is to recall its similarity to the advice issued by American firm Northwest Airlines to workers it intended to lay off: ‘don’t be shy about pulling something you like out of the trash‘.

There is an urgent need to confront emigration as a political question, and not, as so often the case, as though it were a matter of the country being shaken by some mystical rhythmic movement that makes itself felt from deep within the island’s core.

The failure for the traumatic effects of emigration to be addressed in political terms beyond anything but neo-liberal I-feel-your-pain emoting provides a vital starting point for the formation of a broader movement. This movement ought to seek to challenge, and overthrow, the concentrations of capitalist power for which emigration, and the threat of emigration, is a tool for disciplining the population.

On the face of it, the conditions for such a movement seem ripe enough. The crippling EU-IMF ‘bailout’ conditions are intended to force the broad mass of working people in Ireland to shoulder the enormous losses incurred by European banks.

While the new government will include political parties that have promised to ‘renegotiate’ the imposition, the basic parameters, which entail the deepening entrenchment of neo-liberal capitalist policies in Irish society will remain unchanged.

However, a major stumbling block for the formation of any such movement will be the representation of the ‘bailout’ deal as the product of the will of the people, once the elections have ended.

Whoever ends up in power, the election results will be presented, by political parties, bosses, and civil society institutions aligned with ruling class interests, as a gold-plated endorsement that this –the dismantling of the welfare state, the decline in living standards, the destruction of public services- is truly what the people want, having given the matter sustained and rational deliberation.

From the perspective of those institutions most closely aligned with European capital, the responsibility of the Irish population for shouldering the burden of the debt of private speculators is self-evident.

As Brigid Laffan writes, in an article for the Institute of International and European Affairs, a think-tank funded by, among others, Bank of Ireland, Goldman Sachs, State Street, IBEC, Depfa Bank and Shell:

Ireland’s dependence on the EU and the terms of the bailout could well have long lasting effects on Ireland’s relationships with European institutions and the other member states. Although there is no public opinion data yet available, the discourse and narrative on the ‘bailout’ in the Irish print and electronic media is replete with references to what was done to Ireland, to Ireland as victim. In popular lore, the other member states, particularly Germany, were motivated by saving their own banks rather than assisting Ireland.

The mere idea, then, that the working population of Ireland is somehow the victim of the German state being influenced by the interests of German banks, from the standpoint of elite opinion, is up there with Fionn mac Cumhaill and the Salmon of Knowledge as extracts from the Bumper Irish Book of Likely Stories.

Laffan continues:

Given the economic and financial interdependence in the EU and the democratic foundations of the member states, all Governments must be attentive to their domestic electorates. The German Government and other governments in the EU were concerned about their banks and financial systems but it was Ireland that put itself in a position whereby help would have to be sought from the EU/IMF.

We should, of course, welcome the concession that governments should listen to what the people who elected them are saying.

But it simply does not follow from this, I am afraid, that governments can be assumed, certainly not ex post facto, and certainly not in the Irish case, given the cronyist collusion between elite business circles and powerful politicians, to represent or serve the will of the people.

It is precisely this assumption, however, that will be used as a means of laundering the EU/IMF ‘bailout’ after the forthcoming elections. Against this, a popular movement must reject the proposition that the forthcoming government has any authority whatsoever to bring forth the austerity plan envisaged by the ‘bailout’.

Just as mass unemployment, and the dread of unemployment among workers, are tools used by bosses to force workers to accept lower wages and diminished wages, the trauma of emigration is being used, under the cover of phoney national sentimentality, to strengthen the power of capital over labour.

Fine Gael, for instance, proposes to stem the ‘scourge’ of emigration by ‘putting more than 20,000 people on one year public, private and voluntary sector work placements’. This, Leo Varadkar claimed, would be funded in large part by ‘welfare substitution’, which is to say, Fine Gael would regale employers with the labour power of unemployed graduates. No doubt the firms would be delighted: what better way of keeping worker wages depressed?

A popular movement will not get off the ground if emigration in Ireland is taken to be a weapon used solely against Irish citizens. The proposition that the Irish working population and the Irish government are one and the same, and therefore singularly responsible for shouldering whatever burden of European banking losses is determined by European Union institutions, as expressed by Brigid Laffan, excludes non-Irish citizens, roughly 10% of the population, from the frame of vision.

Whereas the departure of young Irish citizens is an opportunity for crocodile tears and sickly hand-wringing on the part of the rich, the departure of people of other nationalities is considered proper order. For instance, in an editorial from October 2009, the Irish Times described the slowing in the unemployment rate due to ‘immigrant workers returning home’ as an ‘encouraging indicator’.

Now that the election doorsteps have spoken, elite discourse has moved a little bit beyond bandying about the idea, in public at least, that forced emigration for Irish people has upsides worth talking about. It is quite acceptable for ruling class parties to refer to it as a ‘scourge’, for Irish citizens at least, albeit a scourge applied by no-one in particular, and especially not a scourge applied by the same people who stand squarely behind the imposition of internal devaluation. However, in the rare occasions that they appear in the frame of vision, emigration is portrayed as a soothing sponge for those who are not Irish citizens. Sure aren’t they returning home?

But while non-Irish workers are often those who work in the most precarious and badly paid of jobs, and even though they are those for whom the threat of having to emigrate is foremost, they are not able to participate in national elections, in keeping with current European law. EU citizens do not have the right to vote in the national elections of another member state. Furthermore, Article 16 of the European Convention of Human Rights allows member states to impose ‘restrictions on the political activity of aliens’. The current political organisation of the European Union, then, allows for the creation of super-exploited and disenfranchised categories of workers in order to serve the interests of capital. Were this not the case, it is hard to envisage that the slashing of the minimum wage could be executed so easily.

The idea, then, that non-Irish workers ought to shoulder the burden of European banking losses because they somehow consented to it is patently false, and this exposes in broad daylight, as if more proof were needed, the phoney universalism and contempt for democracy among European elites and their Irish ‘partners’. In so far as a popular movement may wish to organise a referendum, it ought to include every single person who lives in this state, including, for instance, the Davenport Hotel workers who are expected to take a wage cut to “help the government”, but who will have no political vote when it comes to decisions on what happens to the minimum wage.

The full incorporation of non-Irish citizens to a popular movement to overturn the political lockdown imposed by EU-IMF bailout is an urgent matter, then, for anyone interested in democracy and universal justice. But what happens when technocracy confronts the question of including non-Irish citizens in the political franchise?

There isn’t a great deal of data available, but in its Which? Magazine-style survey on Political Reform, Reformcard.com’s presentation of Sinn Féin as class dunces served to obscure an interesting datum. Sinn Féin was the only party to advocate votes for both non-resident citizens and long-term legally resident non-citizens, and got top marks among all the political parties for doing so. Reformcard.com, which includes researchers from the Institute of International and European Affairs, has smiled benignly on this extension of the democratic franchise. We should take them at their word on this point, demand full political rights for non-Irish citizens, and take one small step toward bringing democracy back. Not least for the craic.

2K LurK

This is my 2,000th post. I figured I’d write something special for it.

So, yeah.


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