Men of Peace

Checkpoint on Bloody Sunday, 30 Jan 1972, Derry, Northern Ireland. Photo by William L. Rukeyser. Source:

A few weeks after I got my driving licence, and a few weeks before the IRA ceasefire of 1994, I was driving along a country road in mid-Armagh, with no particular place to go. I came to a British Army checkpoint. Such checkpoints were routine; in fact, during my driving test, the Army stopped and searched the boot of the car on the way back to the test centre (the test centre was right beside an army base). Here, again, they asked to search the boot. No problem. The soldier -carrying a rifle, of course- called in the registration number on his radio. He then asked me to pull over. So I did. Then he asked me to get out of the car.

He walked back a few yards up the road to the rest of the patrol, who were waving other cars on. I stood waiting. To begin with, it was no big deal to me. Five minutes passed. Then ten. It felt like longer. At first I put the delay down to my new driver’s licence and cross-checks or something. It was not as if I had ever been involved in anything. Then I started to wonder if they were taking the piss. Then, wondering whether they were waiting to see if I would react in some way. I remembered what had happened to Karen Reilly, shot dead at a checkpoint in West Belfast, and what had happened, maybe back in the 80s, when my father had his boot searched by the soldiers one night. “How do you explain this, sir?”, asked the soldier, returning from the boot to the driver’s window, holding a rifle he had supposedly found in the boot. “How many people have you tried that on tonight?”, my father asked, not before it crossing his mind that maybe he had been driving a car with a gun in the boot. The soldier laughed, and let him pass.

All this went on in my head, but I was trying to make sure I was showing no outward signs of unease, anything that might mean having to stand there even longer. I figured that if I asked what was keeping them, it would only make them more inclined to make me stay put for longer. And they were the ones holding the guns.

After about 25 minutes, I was told I could go. There was no “thank you”, no “sorry for the delay”, nothing.

On a scale of individual acts of military repression conducted by British armed forces in Northern Ireland, this delay must rank down somewhere between the infinitesimally trivial and the non-existent. But it lies nonetheless on a continuum: I had no intention of doing harm to anyone, but I was made to do what I was told for no apparent reason other than the presence of a group of armed men with guns. In my head there was resentment beginning to simmer, a feeling, in addition, of weakness at having to submit.

It isn’t hard for me -now- to understand how others, on witnessing or experiencing things that were immeasurably worse, or on joining all the little things and all the big things together and seeing them as part of an overall picture of repression and domination, might have opted to join the IRA.

At that point, the airwaves in Northern Ireland had been saturated for as long as I can remember with ways of speaking about the conflict that divided the place into a peaceful majority and a violent minority. A majority, you were told, wanted peace, but the violent extremists ‘on both sides’ were engaged in a ‘tit-for-tat’ ‘cycle of violence’. In the midst of this was the British Army and RUC, who were apparently defending society againg ‘the terrorists’. ‘BLAME THE TERRORISTS’ is what a sign read at a checkpoint in the middle of Cookstown. Absent from this, of course, was the violent role of the British State, whether in the form of internment, torture, operating death squads, or just a generalised presence of armed groups of men patrolling the streets with guns.

This morning, the airwaves and newspapers have been full of analysis of Martin McGuinness, following the announcement of his death. Many commentators are, in a a regurgitation of cliché, classifying him as someone who began as a ‘man of war’ who then became a ‘man of peace’.

And now I’m wondering: what makes you a person ‘of peace’? From what I can recall, being in favour of ‘peace’, back in the 80s and 90s, simply meant that you abided by the rule of law. You would frequently hear statements from the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland or Conservative Party and Unionist MPs to the effect that the majority of Catholics were ‘law-abiding’. All this meant is that as far as they were concerned, they did not mount any challenge to the rule of law, and the rule of law, day-to-day, meant things like that whenever a soldier with a rifle told you to get out of the car, you got out of the car, and you kept quiet. To be ‘peaceful’ in this regard does not mean that you have rejected violence: on the contrary, it just means you have accepted its imposition as a self-evident necessity.
I wonder about other things too. I have yet to hear any analysis, nearly 23 years on from the IRA ceasefire, about how the Britain has moved from being a ‘State of violence’ to a ‘State of peace’. For many opinion-formers, the guiding assumption, still, is that it has only ever been the latter, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Is the re-imposition of a hard border in Ireland, brought about as part of a drive to ‘take back control’ in Britain, likely to test that assumption? Somehow I doubt it.


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Varadkar, Minister for Fraud


Yesterday, Minister for Social Protection and would-be Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said that it would be not possible to confiscate Church property.

“Governments can only operate within the law. In our Constitution there are enshrined property rights and it is not in the power of the Government to confiscate anyone’s property,” he said.

Last week, Varadkar made Sunday paper headlines. He claimed that in order to retain “public support for Europe”, child benefit, paid to the children of people living and working in Ireland, ought to match the benefit rate of the country where the child resides.

That is, if you have left your family in Poland or Romania, and are working in Ireland, where your labour produces income for the exchequer and wealth for your employer, your children are not entitled to the same payments as the children of your Irish co-workers, who most likely live with their parents, unlike yours, and to whose education you contribute through the tax system here.

Money, of course, is a form of property. By taking away money from families with members who live and work in Ireland, not only are you helping to create categories of super-exploited workers, but you are also confiscating their property. The words ‘fiscal‘ and ‘confiscate‘ have the same root.

It is worth noting here that Varadkar did not justify the move on the basis of the total outlay involved (which is minuscule, compared, for example, to the earnings of a billionaire living in Malta to avoid paying tax in Ireland) but rather in terms of a claim that “people get annoyed” by such things. But it is others who are the populists.

Given the sinews strained by his government in making sure that Apple would not have to pay the €13bn that it is bound by law to pay to the Irish government, Varadkar’s manoeuvrings in this regard (which, by the way, are a means of further eroding universality in social welfare and other public services) invite us to paraphrase Adorno: he shouts Stop thief! and points at the Poles and Romanians.

Meanwhile, the Minister for ‘the Diaspora’ – which does not, of course, include Irish-born children who were deported along with their parents – has announced a referendum on the subject of allowing Irish people outside the State to vote in Presidential elections. The fact that the government promoting this feels it can treat the lives of people who live here -who have no such vote- with such routine contempt goes to show that not only has it no interest in expanding effective democratic political rights for people who actually live here, but has every intention of using racial-biological stratification as a means of confiscating even more from those who most need it.

As far as property is concerned. Let us recall that any strength of feeling for it that Varadkar maintains would defeat any referendum that would rearrange things, was fostered by the Catholic Church.

In Sins of The Father, Conor McCabe cited the Bishop of Cork, Cornelius Lucey, in 1957:

‘The man of property is ever against revolutionary change […]

‘Consequently a factor of the first importance in combating emigration and preventing social unrest, unemployment marches, and so on, is the widest possible diffusion of ownership.’

So, if Varadkar is correct -as no doubt the zealous defenders of the regime of property, the Catholic Church included, hope him to be- the Catholic Church helped make it illegal for the Catholic Church to be made make amends for its crimes.

What has characterised the Church hierarchy in Ireland has been its reverence for the rich and powerful and its condescension and callousness towards the poor and weak. Superficial differences aside, Varadkar -held aloft by some as some sort of straight-talking fresh face of political renewal- is, like the rest of his party, scarcely different when it comes to substance. Not least in his view that women’s bodies are ultimately State property.

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“We did this”

“We all partied”: Fianna Fáil Finance Minister Brian Lenihan’s infamous phrase, in the early years of the financial crisis, encapsulated the drive, on the part of Ireland’s political and media establishment, to broaden collective responsibility for social and economic calamity as far as possible. The objective in mind was the socialisation of private banking debt, racked up by property speculators, and the corresponding cuts to public spending and services.

In recent days, following the confirmation that eight hundred dead babies were interred in a septic tank at a former ‘Mother-and-Baby’ home in Tuam, there has been a similar dynamic in operation.

In the characteristically overwrought tones that Ireland’s current Taoiseach reserves for moments of national outrage, Enda Kenny told the national parliament that “as a society”, “we” “hid away the dead bodies of tiny human beings”, that “buried our compassion, our mercy and our humanity itself”, and that “we” had “a morbid relationship with…respectability”.

Referring to the unmarried mothers who wound up at the doors of the Mother-and-Baby home, Kenny said that “we” “took their babies and gifted them, sold them, trafficked them, starved them, neglected them or denied them”. There has been a lot of media comment to the same effect. Radio discussions dwelt on how no-one in wider society spoke out, and approvingly referred to Edmund Burke’s maxim that all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.

In the cases of both Lenihan and Kenny, none of it is true. Their claims can be easily demonstrated as false, through simple logic, and through citing simple easily accessible economic and historical facts. In fact, only a small minority of people racked up gargantuan debts through investment in hotel construction. In fact, a majority of Ireland’s present population was not even alive when the punitive regime inflicted on unmarried mothers and their children was at its height.

So it’s worth asking whether such claims are intended to be believed to be true. I don’t believe they are. In both cases mentioned above, the claims are a way of shifting blame, and of keeping a certain sense of order intact. Moreover, when this kind of gesture is made, I believe the speaker is happy enough for people to counter, with logic, with facts, with protestations, that it isn’t true.

This way of invoking a guilty “we” -coming from the people it comes from- operates to a way of forestall the emergence of any other “we”, of any other collective subject of a different character. In moments of political crisis, there can be no question, from these quarters of there being an “us” and a “them” in which the speaker winds up on the side of “them”. Neither Lenihan nor Kenny could afford to appear as the frontman for elite groupings who might be held as particularly culpable. There can only be an all-encompassing “we” who are collectively guilty. Hence no-one is really guilty.

If anyone does dissent, they set themselves apart from the collective, but this is fine: from the perspective of the person invoking the “we”, people denying that they had anything to do with it does little to undermine them. This is because this proposed collective guilt is fake anyway. It is a way of creating space to proceed unimpeded with their political projects. In the case of Lenihan, this entailed ploughing ahead with austerity. In the case of Kenny, this entails continuing along the path laid by Lenihan’s government, and continuing to promote the privatisation of healthcare and other public services whilst leaving existing power structures untouched and unquestioned. This supposed collective guilt is not a real demand that others should act on some set of social and ethical obligations.

“Not I,” said the cow.

This declaration of collective responsibility, or guilt, is intended to reproduce individualised responses, not actions taken in common. The responses can be it in terms of “everyone was at it” (in which case, if everyone is equally responsible, then nothing can be done) or “it wasn’t me” (I had nothing to do with this then, consequently I have nothing to do with this now either).

If it is accepted that “everyone was at it”, then one also assents to the proposal that everyone must shoulder their share of the punishment -even though the punishment, in practice, is delivered only to those least culpable and least capable of bearing it. If the response is “it wasn’t me”, one can absolve oneself of any ethical obligation to challenge the verdict, put the head down, and get on with things as usual.

Crucially, the effect of this “we did this” is to blur the line between responsibility on the one hand, and culpability or guilt on the other. If everyone is deemed guilty, it turns out that no-one need be prosecuted or pursued. In the case of the Tuam Mother-and-Baby Home, which was run by the Bon Secours religious order, such an outcome is quite convenient: the religious order now manages ‘the largest private healthcare provider in Ireland’, according to its own website.

If the verdict is “we did this”, then no inquiry need be made into how certain people did certain things, and who assisted them in doing so. If pressure to do something should become too much of an annoyance, then the inquiry should be conducted in the vaguest of terms -for instance, an inquiry ‘the role of the State’, without ‘the State’ ever being open to question in terms of its function, or the presence of class rule. So it is best to get an expert banker, or an expert judge, to preside over proceedings. In the case of the Magdalene Laundries, the main investigation was led by a man whose credentials, apart from the fact that he was the spouse of the previous head of state, and had apparently liaised behind the scenes with loyalist paramilitaries on golf outings in the interests of ‘peace’, were tenuous enough.

When it all boils down to the conclusion that “we did this”, what gets blotted out is any sense of real collective responsibility stemming from an ethical obligation to mutual care, aid, and responsibility. Indeed, if “we” are irredeemably given to such laxity and cruelty, how could any such thing be possible?

In his appearance before the national parliament, it was no slip of the tongue when Enda Kenny defended Bon Secours hospitals from People Before Profit TD Brid Smith’s observation that a ‘hospital empire’ had been built from the oppression and incarceration of women and children, and that the present Minister for Finance, Michael Noonan, had, at the very moment when the matter of the Tuam Mother-and-Baby Home was the centre of public debate, made an official appearance in Limerick at the inauguration of a new Bon Secours hospital.

For all the calls for ‘mercy’ and ‘compassion’, the ruling party has a long-running commitment to continued privatisation of the health system. Only last year, Kenny himself ‘turned the sod’ (as per the Bon Secours website) at a cardiology unit in Bon Secours private hospital in Galway.

The entire premise of private healthcare is that there are some whose lives deserve to be saved -the rich- and there are others that do not, others who deserve to be deprived (the root of ‘private’ and ‘deprive’ is the same) of such health care. It is on such foundations that the sentimental claptrap of compassion, of ‘mercy’ and ‘charity’ thrives. In this regard we might consider the ‘Sisters of Mercy’, the owners of the Mater Hospital, a major hospital in Ireland with a ‘Mater Private’ facility, who owned and ran Magdalene Laundries and who refused to contribute to a compensation fund for the survivors. Then there are the ‘Religious Sisters of Charity’, the owners of St Vincent’s Hospital, who also ran Magdalene Laundries, and who also refused to make such a contribution. In such a scenario, it becomes all the more difficult to ask why “we’” do not have our own hospitals to begin with, since this ‘we’ – a democratic, egalitarian, socialist ‘we’- has to be killed before it is born.

‘Kenny speaks for the nation on the ‘horrors’ of Tuam’ was the approving headline of an editorial in the Irish Independent, one of Ireland’s main broadsheets, following Kenny’s speech in parliament. The paper is largely owned by billionaire Denis O’Brien, also a major investor in private health care. On the board of O’Brien’s Beacon Hospital sits the former Taoiseach, Minister for Finance, and Minister for Health, Brian Cowen. Cowen was Taoiseach during the first years of the financial crisis. For some, at least, the party continues.

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Noonan In The Cesspit

Today, Michael Noonan (more about him here) attended the opening of a private hospital facility in Limerick. Noonan is a former Minister for Health, and is the current Minister for Finance. The official Twitter account of the Department of Finance posted a photo of the Minister at the opening. Among other things, this shows how it is official government policy to promote the continued privatisation of health care.

Noonan is hardly the first minister from the Fine Gael government to endorse the opening of private health care facilities. The Taoiseach Enda Kenny, and Leo Varadkar when he was Minister for Health have both done so, and for all I know, the current Minister, Simon Harris, may well have done the same.

You are unlikely to hear any Fine Gael minister saying that they actually support the continued privatisation of health care. They are more likely to say that the ‘two-tier healthcare system’ is ‘unfair, because it allows some people to buy faster access to treatment’ and ‘inequitable because it denies people treatment when they need it‘.

Leo Varadkar even went as far as to liken the introduction of free GP care for children under 6 as a comparable moment to the foundation of the National Health Service in the UK. Varadkar, the Nye Bevan of Castleknock.

They will say anything to get elected.

Why, exactly, is the Minister for Finance attending the opening of a healthcare facility in Limerick? What does the Minister for Finance have to do with building private hospitals? Was it through his deft administration of tax breaks for private hospital firms that the hospital got built? Possibly, but it seems more likely that it was because the hospital is opening in Limerick, and Michael Noonan is also a TD for Limerick City.

So by turning up -as Minister for Finance- to open a private hospital in Limerick, Michael Noonan is showing the local constituency that it pays to have a Minister from your constituency in cabinet, pulling irons out of the fire on your behalf.

This is so common in Ireland these days that people hardly notice. A sign at the end of our road during a previous election campaign had James Reilly, another Fine Gael Minister for Health, telling constituents that North County Dublin needed a minister from the area in cabinet. Alan Kelly, the former Labour Minister, had a billboard in Tipperary that read ‘Minister Alan Kelly… Keep Tipperary At The Top Table‘.

The thing about all this, as I’ve written before, is that Ministers are supposed to be public servants. And being a public servant means you are not supposed to favour any particular constituency or individual over another. To do that would be…well, corruption.

But the prevailing attitude, when it comes to political power and the possibility of delivering favours, appears to be: if you’ve got it, flaunt it.

So far, so humdrum: political hypocrisy and venality, in the service of private power. People shrug their shoulders and say things like ‘sure they’re all at it’.

Maybe it will all be forgotten by the time the next shocking exposé on some HSE facility comes along, followed by some angry words from the current incumbent at the Department of Health, followed by some heartfelt apology from some HSE mandarin, followed by lengthy technical and logistical discussions about how it is that elderly patients are left dying on corridors, followed by ads for Beacon Hospitals or the Blackrock Clinic aimed at those gripped by fear.

(Fun fact: I noticed recently that the Beacon Renal unit in Drogheda is directly opposite a KFC.)

On this occasion, however, there is something extra going on.

The Bon Secours private hospital that Michael Noonan as Minister for Finance is opening bears the same name as the religious order that operated the Tuam Mother-and-Baby home, where eight hundred dead children, victims of Ireland’s carceral state, were dumped in a sewage tank and forgotten about. That is because the hospitals were founded by the order, and a Bon Secours nun is on their board of directors. The ‘new name for private healthcare’ turns out to be synonymous with unspeakable cruelty.

Likewise, The Sisters of Mercy own the Mater hospital and the Sisters of Charity own St. Vincent’s Hospital. Those orders also operated industrial schools and ran Magdalene Laundries.

As I wrote before, in Ireland, the idea that religious orders should own hospitals paid for by the public, but with an important private and exclusive component, is regarded as something normal. The idea that religious orders should own schools paid for by the public, but with an important private and exclusive component, is regarded as something normal too. But it is a normality that was achieved in part by dumping the corpses of poor children into cesspits.

The officially acknowledged involvement of the religious orders in deeply abusive and repressive institutions has had no effect on their ownership of hospitals funded by the public. Many of the same voices who diagnose the problems of the past in such terms as ‘the State outsourcing its responsibilities to the Church’ will, curiously, fall silent when it comes to the matter of how these organisations remain at the heart of Ireland’s health care system, and how they make sure, through the privatisation of health care, that the suffering of the poor will continue to pay for the health of the rich. Private health care advertising helps pay the bills, after all.

Perhaps Noonan appearing to open a Bon Secours private hospital will get some negative media attention. If so, a lot of it will likely focus on the ‘bad optics’, or the poor judgment involved in turning up. I doubt any of it will trace any continuity between the carceral state of the past and the two-tier health system of the present.

Perhaps the Communications Clinic had other matters to deal with today. But maybe with the right PR strategy, the day Michael Noonan drove his ministerial car over the bones of dead neglected children to get his photo taken will just be remembered as one more day on the road to national maturity, that final rendez-vous when all have been made to understand that ‘public’ means inferior and degenerate, and that ‘private’ means virtuous and divine, and Noonan is fondly remembered as a canny éminence grise, sadly departed. Unless, that is, enough people shout stop.

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RTÉ: Trash on the airwaves

Yesterday afternoon RTÉ Drivetime had a segment devoted to waste collection. The private bin operator Panda was installing cameras in its bin lorries in order to identify households who were putting regular waste into the recycling bin. Dublin City Councillor Cieran Perry was invited on to speak, along with Managing Director of the Recycling Division in Panda Waste, Des Crinnion.

The item was introduced with the claim from Panda that 40% of the content of recycling bins was regular household waste. “Some customers”, the intro said, “going as far as hiding nappies inside cereal boxes”, and asked “what is the best way to get people responsible for their waste?”.

The presenter Mary Wilson began by asking Crinnion about the “abuse” of the recycling bin. Crinnion listed nappies as the number one item, and used the example of how people used the green bin to hide their heavier waste, a reference to how certain bin providers, including Panda, charge by weight for their collections. He outlined how the installation of cameras and chips that matched the household to the bin waste would be used to fine people who persisted in using the green bin as a means of disposing of regular waste.

Cieran Perry outlined how the whole problem stemmed from what the anti-bin charges campaign had highlighted: that people would begin to dump illegally, and use recycling bins for regular waste as a means of avoiding expensive charges. He emphasised that waste management was a vital public service that should be financed from general taxation.

“So you think it’s just to avoid paying bin charges, the bad behaviour”, Wilson asked, and asked why people could not go along to a local authority facility and recycle there instead. It was a curious question, since as far as I know, there are no nappy recycling facilities in existence. And even if there were, it is hard to imagine people loading up with dirty nappies to make the journey.

Perry said that in so far as the general public was mixing recycling waste with normal waste, a lot of it was likely down to ignorance, of not knowing what could and what could not be recycling. Crinnion for his part was keen to emphasise that a lot of it amounted to laziness. That is -though he was not drawn on this point- a lot of lazy parents putting nappies into green bins.

Wilson then asked how much was down to ignorance, how much was down to laziness, and how much was down to ‘couldn’t care less’, having apparently opted to set to one side the matter of cost, and the more general question -proposed by Perry- of how waste collection ought to be funded.

In response to Perry’s suggestion that more education would be a more cost-effective means of ensuring proper recycling, Wilson wondered how much more education people needed. “Every child in junior school up is taught about the green flag and recycling and composting and everything else.” Perry countered, not unreasonably, that people were generally aware about recycling, but not necessarily aware, in the specific case of green bins, of what could be recycled and what could not.

Mary Wilson then asked Crinnion about the roll-out of the scheme, and noted that it would be “the citizens of Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown first. They’re probably the best behaved, are they?”. The attempt at jocularity could scarcely conceal the class contempt that motivated the question: less affluent locations could be presumed to be worse behaved.

And that was that.

It was a short segment, but one that managed to ignore the substantive issue of affordability of bin charges altogether, and instead focus on the misuse of recycling bins as “bad behaviour”, allowing the representative of a private company to characterise people who put nappies in green bins as “lazy”.

An underlying assumption of private and individualised charging for waste and water services is that such charging makes people individually responsible for what waste they produce, and what water they consume. When it comes to household waste, people are supposed to have an incentive to recycle more by making it more expensive to not do so: putting recyclables in the black bin costs more.

Adam Smith would be familiar with the reasoning: it is not through a feeling of general benevolence that one recycles, but by acting in one’s own economic interest, a greater level of recycling on the whole will be attained.

However, the logic of this regime inevitably entails that people are compelled to act in their own economic interest, not that of society more broadly. In so far as people use the recycling bin to get rid of general waste because they cannot afford or do not wish to pay the charge, they are merely acting according to the logic imposed. But when this logic produces adverse outcomes, the abusers are singled out as ‘lazy’ and ‘badly behaved’.

Which brings me to nappies. Have you ever taken out a black bin full of nappies? A single nappy in your hand may not weigh much, but a bin full up with nappies requires considerable strength to manoeuvre and wheel onto the street, without it keeling over. Now imagine trying it with a baby in your arms.

Prevailing views on household waste production come with a moralistic streak, often encapsulated in the view that ‘the polluter pays’. In the case of homes where there are babies, the polluter in question is someone who cannot help it. All other things being equal, the weight of a bin for a home where there are babies in nappies is far greater than that of a home where there are no nappies used. And they fill up more quickly: we took out the black bins with far more regularity when subjects to the nappy regime. Hence the costs of waste disposal for homes where there are babies are far higher than those where there are not. Not everyone with babies in nappies has the money at hand to pay for a black bin collection every time it becomes necessary, or, for that matter, the presence of mind required to always throw the right waste into the right bin. That kind of thing is often quite hard, when there are babies to be fed and cleaned, and a home to be maintained.

Thus beneath the moralising disciplinary talk about ‘laziness’ and ‘bad behaviour’, there is the brute fact of a waste disposal regime that penalises poorer parents with babies, one more indication that we have no responsibility for other people’s children, or their welfare. Moreover this regime can only but penalise poorer single parents -usually mothers- even more. But the consequences of this regime are cast by the public broadcaster -through the words of a private company representative- in terms of the virtue of the rich and the wilful vice of the poor. What is all this, if not a form of widespread pollution?


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Trump Arrives (a Marxist hypothesis on the new power of capital)

Translation from Spanish of a piece by John Brown, published 10th November 2016.


The societies we live in today are capitalist societies. A capitalist society is a class society. In class societies, a minority sector of the population appropriates the surplus of material production. By surplus of material production, we mean that part of wealth produced in excess of what has to be allocated for the reproduction of the life of the worker, and the reproduction of the means of production necessary in turn for this. In every class society, without exception, the principle of the Chinese philosopher Mencius holds: “Some work with their minds, others with their bodies. Those who work with their minds rule, those who work with their bodies are ruled. Those who are ruled produce food, those who rule are fed.” What justifies the appropriation of the surplus, according to Mencius, is the fact that there are those who have the knowledge of how to rule, and those who lack it. This is the usual justification in a bureaucratic society in which the ruling class and the State are fused together.

In any case, whatever the justification given, the appropriation of the surplus also requires legal sanction, which translates into ownership of the means of production, and an amount of potential violence in order to give effect to the rights associated with this ownership. A feudal lord can be the owner of the lands that a worker cultivates, but in order to collect his tributes, he needs armed men. The appropriation of the surplus by the ruling class, depends, in non-capitalist class societies, on a political relation of dependence with regard to the sovereign or the lord, and on a capacity for armed violence. Ownership of the means of production, whether the land or any other means, is an expression of the relation of the worker’s dependence upon the ruling class or particular members thereof. The appropriation of the surplus, or in other words, the exploitation of the worker, is carried out through the two elements that determine the political relation: the law that legitimates ownership of the means of production (mainly land) and the personal dependence of the worker, and the violence that creates and reproduces the social conditions for the law to function.

In non-capitalist class societies, relations of class and exploitation are not only visible but are openly justified by ideology and by law. A lord exploits the peasants who work in his fields because he exercises over them a political domination that is open, legal and legitimate. Elsewhere, in such societies, it is not the owner of the means of production who controls them during their use in production. A peasant in a feudal regime controls the productive process autonomously, without the interference of the lord-owner of the land. The latter only intervenes in order to appropriate the surplus already produced, and does so from outside the production process.

In capitalism, as Marx shows in the first book of Capital, exploitation is inseparable from the production process, and as such has no direct connection to a relation of political domination. The worker produces in the same day of work, and in an indistinguishable manner, the part of wealth necessary for the reproduction of her life (of her ability to work) and the surplus appropriated by the owner of the means of production. This owner, the capitalist, controls the entire production process and combines in this labour power (the capacity of human individuals to work) with machinery and raw materials, with the object of producing commodities. During this process the body and the potency of the labourer dominate, at least temporarily, without there being a political dependency of the worker with regard to the owner of the means of production. The appropriation of the surplus as such becomes invisible, since the boss pays the worker for her “work” as stipulated in the contract and appropriates as a net benefit the value of the part of production that is not turned into wages, in paying off the means of production, payment for raw materials or reinvestment. The political and social domination exercised over the worker by the owning class is no less invisible than the exploitation itself

Political domination is not, under capitalism, an explicit condition for exploitation. This allows capitalism to divide social activity into two major spheres: an economic sphere that is considered autonomous and self-regulated, ideally without political interference, and a political sphere that is also autonomous in which in principle economic inequalities play no part. Classes are thus rendered invisible, and liberalism historically has boasted of having constituted a society without classes, in contrast to the feudal society characterised by its juridical institutionalisation and ideological legitimation of classes. This separation of politics and economics is not based, however, on the disappearance of social inequality, but rather its rendering invisible by means of law and ideology.

Under capitalism, as in any class society, there exists a direct relation between exploitation and domination, but the fact that the exploitation takes place within the very labour process, in the economic sphere, does not allow this relation to be seen. This relation between domination and exploitation is invisible because it occurs on two levels that are neither perceptible nor formalised by either law or ideology, nor are they present in the consciousness of subjects: in the microphysical realm of productive processes, discipline in the factory or other spaces of production (now blurred in many cases with spaces where one lives), and in the macro-physical realm of overall political domination by the ruling class or classes unified in the State. Both dimensions, which are invisible in the intermediate space represented by law and the market, function outside the latter and they constitute, in Marx’s terms, forms of despotism (factory despotism) or dictatorship (class dictatorship).

The invisibility of exploitation and domination does not prevent the worker, even if unaware of them, from feeling their effects in her own body. Within the framework of freedom provided by law and the market, each worker feels, in one way or another, the submission and physical and mental atrophy that a regime of exploitation involves. However much the submission to a work regime organised by a boss might be seen as normal and not as ‘wage slavery’, resistance to exploitation does manifest itself, at the very least, and still unconsciously, as rejection, boredom, laziness, sabotage, as material, corporeal resilience. Neoliberalism, by intensifying exploitation and extending the space for labour into the entirety of life’s activities, has eliminated neither this dark feeling of submission, nor the sad passions that constitute it, nor people’s resistances against it whether individually or collectively. There are classes and there is class struggle, however much these appear invisible to the naked eye and the microscope and telescope of historical materialism are required to bring them to light. This does not mean that these classes are subjects with perfectly defined interests of their own, nor does it mean that they have a political programme arising spontaneously or through their own essence. This is so much the case that resistance to domination by capital can even prove, within certain limits, useful to capitalist development itself. Without class struggle there would have been no large-scale industry, or machinery, or rational organisation of labour, or computers, or communications revolution. All these innovations correspond to capital’s need to maintain the submission of the worker, be it through discipline of her body (in the phases of industrial capitalism that lead to Fordism) or as control over life and ways of life (under the present, post-Fordist, capitalism).

In the political, too, which under capitalism appears as an autonomous sphere, the class dictatorship of the bourgeoisie and other capitalist classes demands the mobilisation on the part of the ruling minority of wide sectors of social majorities, specifically the exploited sectors. As Althusser reminds us, the ruling class, by being few in number in society, has never been able to exercise its domination on its own, and has always needed, within the frame of its political action, to recruit among dominated sectors. This does not only mean that the ruling class unified in its State generates obedience throughout the whole of society, but that it actively mobilises for its party -or parties- masses of people from exploited and dominated categories. In certain cases, this mobilisation has been combined with forms of social negotiation such as Roosevelt’s New Deal, or the Keynesian, ordo-liberal and social-democratic policies of Europe following the Second World War. In other cases, there has been no negotiation as such, and this has translated into the offer of unilateral protection from an authoritarian leadership, as in the case of fascisms.

The victory, with strong support from popular and working class sections, of Donald Trump, a multimillionaire, racist, xenophobic, sexist and socially reactionary businessman, in the recent North American presidential elections, is not, in this context, any surprise. Nor is the fact that he won wide support among sections of the white working class and petty bourgeoisie.  Given the impossible situation in which neoliberal capitalist rule, personified in the US elections by Hillary Clinton, found itself, unable to offer any kind of real social negotiation to popular sectors under attack from the neoliberal system of financial pillage, Donald Trump was able to portray himself as the candidate of resistance against globalisation, with a programme based on a rejection of free trade and the constitution of an ideological solidarity between popular and oligarchical sectors around the defence of a supposed North American white nation. The rejection of immigrants and free trade appears in Trump’s programme as the most widespread expression of rejection of the cosmopolitanism of globalised elites. In the same way, Ford, the foremost businessman in the automobile sector, and admired by Hitler, linked, in the 1930s, a common antisemitic and anti-cosmopolitan hatred of the Bolshevik Jew perverting the working class, which also included many poor Jews, and of the financial elite represented by a Jewish oligarchy symbolically associated to the name of Rothschild. Ford, however, had something to offer: a stable job and a decent wage in exchange for the obedience of workers under his despotic control. Ford, however, did not take up political roles and respected the separation between politics and economics that constitutes a pillar of the capitalist regime. This was possible in so far as the economy was a limited activity: material production and financial speculation had precise times, places and agents, and was territorialised in spaces such as the national economy, the factory, or financial centres. There were spheres of life that had nothing to do with the production of wealth. This model lasted until the 1970s, when it entered in crisis, no longer able to contain the demands for wages and rights from workers. Indeed, a wide section of workers played a leading role in revolts in major capitalist centres against the factory and its discipline, which converged with revolts of students and sections of the middle class.

Neoliberalism changed this situation entirely. In order to save capitalist profits, it destroyed the Fordist pact, making each worker a supposedly free economic agent, an entrepreneur. The relation between the worker and capital was no longer a collective negotiation as with Roosevelt’s New Deal or Fordism, but rather a strictly mercantile relation in which the worker is merely an agent of the market who submits to the conditions of the market. Labour and social rights fade away, and the State that had itself elevated collective bargaining into law, merely protects forms of individual contract. It did not take long for this to produce a redistribution upwards of wealth once the relation between wage incomes and capital incomes had been altered in favour of business profits, especially those of finance.

Elsewhere, the worker-cum-entrepreneur-of-the-self, increasingly lacking in rights, experiences the whole of life transformed into time and space for labour. Not only are the limits of the working day dissolved, but every activity, whether consumption, leisure or rest, is turned into a potential source of profits. Data exchanged through communications networks, as well as any other social activity, whether public, private, or even intimate, are turned into units of value that become the object of appropriation and trade for businesses. Nonetheless, the resistance, of workers now converted into a multitude put to work for capital, did not disappear. In fact, the demand for rights and social payments and the desire for access to consumption -indispensable conditions for the functioning of capitalism- were satisfied in the only possible and desirable way for finance capital: through debt. The debt crisis announced in 2008 that continues to work its effects put an end to this safety release valve. Easy credit was ended, and with it, the access to consumption of various goods for large sectors of society. The immediate consequence of this was a crisis in the system of political representation. It was no longer possible to maintain the illusion that debt was a merely economic reality and that the power of finance was not political, especially when the response of states to the crisis was a massive rescue operation for banks and financial entities. The illusion of a liberal State that gives economic agents a free hand such that the very creation of financial wealth for a few could generate positive (trickle-down) effects for the vast majority of the population, became evidence of a class power that imposed upon the population the payment of public and private debts that it had not chosen, or had no means of not choosing.

It is this ugly face of neoliberal political power that has been gradually showing its face in the near ten years of crisis that the system has undergone. This power has been turned directly into the collection agent for financial creditors, and as a consequence, for direct extortion of the surplus. In a way, neoliberal capitalism has returned to extra-economic forms of exploitation typical of pre-capitalist regimes. This produced a brutal crisis of representation: it is now impossible to make out as if the economy exists on the one hand and politics on the other. The economy is directly political and politics is exercised from the ruling classes and its State as a direct form of exploitation. Naturally, a situation such as this has eroded the democratic illusion in two senses: on one hand it has eroded the illusion, by showing the profound incompatibility between democracy and capitalism, but, on the other, it has eroded democracy itself, by turning it into something that broad sectors of societies reject, seeing in it only the form of their exploitation. The alternative presenting itself today is clear: either a democracy deployed against the capitalist order and its State; or a capitalist State highly personalised in boss-sovereigns such as Trump or Berlusconi, who impose capitalist rule in mafioso style, at once brutal and protectionist, offering protection in exchange for obedience, a global Corleone. Capitalism, following a long period in which it was able to play with the autonomy of the political and the correlative autonomy of the economic, is once again showing its nature, which, despite the disguise, was never absent, of a regime of class political domination and exploitation. Characters such as Trump or Marine Le Pen are the face of the new political regime of capital.

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Twitter, ideology, liberals, fascism

I spent a little time going back and forth with someone who took issue with my single-item list of early warning signs of fascism (the only item on the list was ‘capitalism’). The context for the list was a host of things I’d seen getting shared outlining this or that feature that was supposed to indicate that fascism could be on its way, but none of them made mention of capitalism. This particular individual maintained that there was no evidence for the claim that fascism arises from capitalism, that capitalism was a pre-requisite for fascism.


A longer list

As it’s Twitter, it is quite easy to ignore the obvious (for example, that there is no fascism pre-dating capitalism, and that fascism has reached its highest expression in capitalist societies) and try to compel your interlocutor to answer things on your terms.

Also, given the brevity of the medium, it is quite difficult to make more elaborate points concerning such things as the class structure of capitalist society and the kind of world-views and orientations that wind up lending support to fascism.

The individual maintained that fascism was in fact anti-capitalist, and, therefore, how could capitalism give rise to fascism? Here, capitalism, by his lights, was not a historically specific social form (the term is Ellen Meiksins Wood’s) but rather an array of certain things -private property, market competitiveness, voluntary exchange (obviously ignoring any consideration of labour power), accumulation of capital- that laid the basis for the kind of society he viewed as desirable.

Moreover, part of the oppression conducted by Nazism in particular, as he saw it, was ‘oppressing and controlling the market’, ‘the market’ thus conceived as the instrument of human freedom.

The anti-capitalist rhetoric of Italian fascism and Nazism was treated as decisive evidence that fascism was anti-capitalist in character (corrollary: fascists always tell the truth) and even when I was pointed out how big business had been supportive of Hitler in the drive to eliminate the labour movement, his contention was that this had nothing to do with capitalism as such.

This kind of stance is a curious mirror image of the kind of criticism often levelled at socialists and communists: such that you can’t get off the hook for atrocities committed in the Soviet Union by claiming that it was not really communism, the insistence being that such societies really were communist and hence any actions carried out there were eo ipso communist.

If, from this viewpoint, the drive to liquidate the labour movement, for example, can be considered nothing to do with capitalism, one can imagine that slavery, colonialist expansion and imperialism can all be treated as by the by as well.

Capitalism, by these lights, is not a system based on class exploitation, but at best a set of instruments, political and economic, by which true freedom is guaranteed. Capitalism and human freedom, then, are roughly one and the same.

All this flies in the face of actual historical evidence, but given formats such as Twitter, the need to consider historical evidence is too all too tedious and trivial.

What prevails from such quarters, in its strongest expression, is the idea of capitalism as a reflection of human nature but one that by its own workings constrains the worst excesses of human nature and tends towards greater freedom. In weaker expressions, capitalism is a system that is good overall but since no system is perfect, there will always be adjustments to be made.

Moreover, if some of these adjustments, historically speaking, had to be won by organised labour and popular mobilisation, it is tacitly understood that there is no need for this kind of business nowadays since market rationality really has everything covered. By the way, this is the kind of argument capitalists made 200 years ago about the need for guilds and the like.

What also comes with this -and such was the case with my interlocutor- was the conception of fascism and communism as two sides of the same coin, or, too use a more popular image nowadays, two ends of the same horseshoe. Both are extreme ideologies into which the proper order may keel if one is not too careful, if one is insufficiently moderate. ‘Both ideologies’, according to him, should be viewed with ‘equal opprobrium’.

I imagine this all sounds quite familiar to a lot of readers, since it really just echoes standard representations in public debate, and prevailing common sense regarding contemporary history.

What was interesting, though, was that the individual in question, when I eventually looked at his bio, was of an atheist-rationalist disposition. And the timeline had a fair few links to stuff about wearing the hijab (bad), Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and also approving stuff about the Liberal Democrats, Ken Clarke on Brexit, some anti-Trump stuff too.

Standing back from it, it is a heady concoction: an atheist liberal centrist disposition that hunts out ‘extreme’ ideologies, seeing them at work in the heads of individuals, at a remove from historically specific material conditions and social arrangements. It is, however, a concoction at work throughout state security forces, political parties, newspapers, social media.

At one point I offered an excerpt from Neumann’s Behemoth to outline the importance of the profit motive in Nazi Germany, and the response was: well he would say that, wouldn’t he? That is, Neumann, a Marxist Jew who had fled the Nazis, was an unreliable source. No doubt any Nazi who read Behemoth would say something similar.

Perhaps the distance between a far-right preoccupied with invading Muslim hordes and ‘Cultural Marxism’, and a ‘centre’ that claims to uphold liberal democracy and moderation, is not as great as we might prefer to think.

What is more, this idea that ideology is mainly a matter of what goes on in people’s heads implies, as Lefebvre has it, ‘the private consciousness’, ‘deprived of a consciousness of the practical, historical and social whole’.

Lefebvre again:

‘Turned back upon himself, secure within some imaginary inner fortress, he is the plaything of every hallucination, every spontaneous or deliberate ideological illusion. The ‘thinker’, self-taught or not, concocts his own little personal philosophy; the ‘non-thinker’ interprets what he reads in books (or preferably in newspapers) as best he can; and then one day individualism begins to collapse (and not as a result of a crisis of ideas or ‘world views’, but because of a material crisis, both economic and political), and these erstwhile individualists rush headlong to form a crowd, a horde, urged on by the most insane, most loathsome, most ferocious ‘ideas’, leaving the last vestige of human reason behind, caught up in a collective mental fever: and we have Fascism, the Fascist ‘masses’ and Fascist ‘organization’.’

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