Monthly Archives: July 2011

Broccoli or Savoy Cabbage?


Which option would you prefer for tackling the budget deficit: tax increases or spending cuts?

See what I did there? No? Let me pose the question in another way:

Which green vegetable would you like for your dinner: broccoli or savoy cabbage?

See now? In the second instance, by affording you the autonomy to choose between two perhaps unpalatable options, I’m smuggling in the tacit proposition that you will have green vegetables for your dinner.

This is a simple trick, and one which parents with headstrong infants may find themselves resorting to with uncanny instinct.

Similarly, in the first question, there are quite a few tacit propositions smuggled in.

  1. The budget deficit must be tackled;
  2. Either spending cuts or tax increases are effective ways of tackling the budget deficit;
  3. Your preferred option is a product of a free, not a forced choice;
  4. There are no other ways of tackling the budget deficit apart from tax increases or spending cuts;
  5. The scope and material impact of either option, regardless of the areas of their application (regressive vs progressive taxation, spending cuts on bank bailouts vs spending cuts on hospital beds), are of no consequence. Rather, what is important is that one option be given preference over the other.

The answer to this form of question, as it turns out, is precisely what is adduced as justification for cuts to the health service, in this Irish Times op-ed:

Research by the ‘We the Citizens’ group suggests a majority of people are against significantly raising taxes in order to minimise the depth of health cuts. Most of those surveyed favour spending cuts as the best way of dealing with the massive deficit.

We The Citizens is proving a very handy instrument for executing what Pierre Bourdieu calls symbolic coups de force.

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Political choices

There is a super article on Irish Left Review by Alison Spillane and Adam Larragy examining the politics of paying off bondholders, and the opportunity costs involved:…

(I haven’t figured out how to embed links yet via a mobile e-mail client, sorry)

As the authors rightly note, cutting assistance for children with special needs while paying off wealthy investors is a political choice on the part of elected representatives (who were not elected to do any such thing). It is not some inexorable machination of proper order. Fine Gael and the Labour party are deliberately making these political choices. Why are they doing this? One fairly compelling answer is: because they want to, and if they didn’t want to, they wouldn’t do it. These politicians do not have to take part in the dispossession of the poor, sick, and vulnerable (for starters). Their leaders did not have to meet with Dominique Strauss-Kahn in advance of the last election and insist they would be the faithful executors of the IMF’s will. They do not have to perpetuate the con trick that these people must be dispossessed now in order to avoid being dispossessed even more in future. If you wanted to protect people, why would you strip away whatever threadbare protections for a decent and healthy life? If Fine Gael and Labour are doing this, it is because they have proven themselves willing servants of the same ideology that propels the ECB and the IMF, not because they are unwilling hostages to troika demands.

There are obvious reasons why the owning class might want a population in fear of ill health and destitution, but these are no reason for anyone else to be complicit in making their dreams come true. Faced with this, everyone, not just Fine Gael and Labour, has political choices to make.

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Dan O’Brien does a half-striptease in the Irish Times and comes out in favour of a comprehensive welfare state and in so doing laments the fact that there is no debate in Ireland about this. He is correct. I would venture that there is no debate in Ireland because there is no welfare state in Ireland, at least by the standards of other European countries. Ireland lags behind other countries in the EU-15 in terms of welfare provision. As Vicenc Navarro has pointed out, it shares this laggard status with countries that were dictatorships for considerable periods in the second half of the 20th century, namely Spain, Portugal and Greece. The map in yesterday’s Guardian showed how Ireland has had a right-wing government for the last 38 years. That very fact has a substantial effect on how people perceive welfare states. As well as that, the authoritarian character of the Catholic Church in Ireland and its preoccupation that any form of state provision for social need was a form of incipient communism, means that what welfare provision there is in Ireland is often presented as though it were charity, not an entitlement. The moralising idea of the state being ‘generous’ is a commonplace, and was on display in Joan Burton’s speech to the McGill Summer School yesterday. So it is no surprise that there is a little bit of Timothy Winters in everyone.

But O’Brien, while lamenting the lack of debate, declares that the debate has already been settled elsewhere in favour of moves away from universal provision – ‘internationally, the debate is essentially over’. He therefore sees no need to supply any reason as to why universalism in provision (for instance, in child benefit) might be worth having, e.g. it serves to keep the standard of provision high and functions as a basic moral statement that every child in the society is considered equal. Universalism in the provision of child benefit also recognises that looking after children is everyone’s responsibility, not just that of parents.

Funny way of starting a debate. But ‘having a debate’ rarely means having a debate.

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The Citizens

I had a piece in the Irish Times last week on the We The Citizens group. It is reproduced below. There are a couple of things I would have addressed had I had the time and the presence of mind.

First, I would have addressed the question of who precisely is included in the category of citizen.

I don’t know if We The Citizens, in conducting its assemblies, had stipulated anywhere that you had to fit some sort of citizenship criteria (whether Irish, EU or otherwise) in order to participate. They may well have left the criteria open. Nonetheless there is a problem, as a couple of people pointed out, that the term citizen is exclusionary, and therefore by using citizen as a political name you are actually excluding from participation people who do not fall under the statist definition of citizen. As a result, for me to write as ‘a citizen’ meant an implicit acceptance of these parameters.

I don’t think the use of citizen as a political name has to entail excluding anyone from participation, but if you are going to use it then you should make expressly clear, which I didn’t do, that it excludes no-one. I suppose my use of it is influenced by Rancière’s notion of what constitutes democratic movement ‘a double movement of the transgression of limits: a movement to extend the equality of public man to other domains of common life, in particular all those that govern the capitalist illimitation of wealth; and also a movement to affirm the belonging of everyone and anyone to this incessantly privatized public sphere’. But then again, whether or not ‘citizen’ is effective in this way depends on how, when and where you use it.

The other thing would have been to address what the WTC research actually suggests. One thing I thought interesting was how people’s opinions on particular political issues (albeit refined and presented in advance by expert facilitators) could change substantially on account of deliberative experience within a short period of time. Whatever one might say about the scope and the function of WTC, this is a useful piece of information. It shows that the opinions currently believed to be held by members of the public are by no means the opinions they would hold if they had the chance to develop them through sustained contact with proper information.

This means there are serious questions to be posed here in terms of media influence and how people’s conception of politics, and of political problems, are shaped by their representation in the media. Even the treatment of We The Citizens can be used here as an example. Even though, as I say in the article, its media profile was strikingly high, this did not mean an uncritical acceptance.

For example, on the We The Citizens Prime Time special, the whole question of citizen discontent and participation was introduced with a series of library images of unrest in the streets, thereby presenting citizens who do not feel served by the parliamentary system as a chaotic and violent mob.

Following that, two of the ‘judges’ on the programme worked for Independent News and Media. The very fact that RTE sought those two individuals out as the interpreters of the limits of citizen participation (and their interpretations were altogether predictable), combined with the images used to prefigure the discussion, serve to illustrate how even when it comes to operating within the narrow parameters set forth by We The Citizens, there is an in-built manipulation of reflexes that serves to distort and confound public perception.

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The McGill Summer School is perennially presented as the rare moment of intellectual ferment and frankness among the political class. And yet everything that emanates from it seems to be a recapitulation of precisely the same ideas that rule the country the other 50 weeks of the year, including the idea, emanating from the trade unions participating in these neo-liberal symposia, that the country should be more like Scandinavian countries, despite the fact that Scandinavian countries have comparably far more progressive states and societies on account of struggle led by organised labour, not because its right-wing elites had a brainwave.

What follows is a brief translation into brute reality of some of the terms used in this article from the McGill Summer School in today’s Irish Times.

  • ‘the vitality of the banking system ultimately rests on the fiscal health of the Government’ – get rid of hospital beds to keep banks alive
  • ‘The new European bailout framework provides important benefits to Ireland’ – shrink the welfare state to the benefit of the Irish owning class
  • ‘An interest rate of about 3.5 per cent on funds from the European Financial Stability Facility is much more conducive to fiscal sustainability than the previous deal’ – European authorities now know that crucifying the population completely will be bad for the banks
  • ‘policy conditionality is bound to be even stricter on programme countries’ – Econo-sadism for the periphery, more power to the banks
  • ‘the assurance of ongoing official support means the negative feedback loop between the market perception of the sovereign position and the funding position of the banking system is somewhat attenuated’ – financial markets relieved nation states have got their act together to make sure speculator meal tickets won’t be destroyed
  • ‘the optimal response for Ireland is to move more quickly on fiscal adjustment’ – the optimal response for Irish owning class is to launch an assault on the living standards of the population, driving down wages and driving up unemployment
  • ‘a large enough difference to demonstrate to Ireland’s European partners and the markets that Ireland recognises the change in its financial environment’ – Ireland’s owning class will show its European counterparts just how vicious it can be with the Irish workforce
  • ‘in-train spending review to be published in September can provide a basis for a “smart” approach to cuts’ – in-train spending review to be published in September can provide a basis for presenting cuts as “smart”
  • ‘Swift’ – vicious
  • ’employment-friendly’ – employer-friendly
  • ‘The desirability of collecting revenues from a property tax, water charges and other user fees and the elimination of many types of tax expenditures has been well ventilated in the Irish debate’. – The desirability of collecting revenues from a property tax, water charges and other user fees and the elimination of many types of tax expenditures has been well ventilated on
  • ‘the capacity to collect more income tax through reducing bands and allowances is also well understood’ – allowances have been made due to the reluctance of the owning class to pay more tax


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‘sharp differences’, blunt realities.

Despite sharp differences between the Government parties over the initial proposals to reform the JLC system put forward by Mr Bruton, Labour TDs yesterday strongly supported the final measures which were approved by the Cabinet this week.

The only sharp differences are in terms of rhetoric, not substance. When push comes to shove, it is as Labour minister Brendan Howlin said a few weeks back, “we like successful companies“. And it is a particular sort of success: the success that comes from delivering a greater share of the surplus for business owners.

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Ab initio

In the beginning there was a few words. More later.

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