There is a passage in Adam Phillips’s most recent book On Balance where he quotes Freud biographer Ernest Jones as observing that it is not the people we hate the most that we want to kill, but the people who arouse in us the most unbearable conflict. Thinking about its media campaign around its ‘crackdown’ on welfare fraud, is there not something similar happening here with the Irish Labour Party?
Historically, the Labour Party claimed, as did its ‘sister parties‘ across Europe (those parties that comprise the Socialist International, including until recently the parties of Zine El Abidine Ben-Ali and Hosni Mubarak, though there is no reason, given the Labour Party’s intense collaboration with Fine Gael, for openly right-wing parties such as the Partido Popular in Spain or the Christian Democratic Union to be refused some sort of honorary sibling status) to represent working class voters and to protect them from the depredations of big business interests.
Now, it collaborates in a government that oversees the transfer of billions of euro of public money (€1.5bn this week alone) -which could go to schools, hospitals, social welfare payments and public works schemes- to wealthy investors. It has set up a scheme that uses the unemployed to subsidise employers with free labour and simultaneously drive down wages. When the ECB makes the demand for more cuts to wages and social welfare payments, the Labour Party announces it will introduce bio-metric ID cards for welfare claimants, who on losing their jobs will join a new disciplinary society in which they will all be treated as potential criminals.
In seeking some sort of egalitarian response to the economic crisis, Labour Party voters may have been looking for ‘a party of Government‘, as the party ceaselessly advertised itself. As those who find themselves on the dole through no fault of their own are starting to discover, what they got was a party of governmentality that comes down hardest on the people that reminds it most of what it is supposed to be.
‘A democracy, to be sure, with open and free elections, but far from governed in the interests of its people’ is how Conor McCabe assesses the picture of Ireland that emerges in light of the bank guarantee in Sins of The Father.
The contradictory character of this picture will intensify in the weeks and months ahead, as the government presses on with its intention to continue sating wealthy bondholders while cutting vital public jobs and services, selling off public assets, harrassing welfare claimants, undermining wages and working conditions, and dumping an even greater burden onto households through regressive taxation measures, all of which is precisely what the wealthiest and most protected sector of Irish society demands.
It will claim to do all this in the name of ‘our children’s future‘. Meanwhile, in the misleadingly-titled ‘Measuring Ireland’s Progress‘ report released yesterday by the CSO, 8.2% of children under 15 were in consistent poverty in 2009, up from 6.1% in 2008, a figure set to rise even further on account of the continued austerity drive of the current government.
In his think-in speech, Eamon Gilmore spoke about the importance of looking to the Labour Party’s values, and named solidarity as one of these, when it came to casting away the ‘old manuals’ of social democratic government. His cabinet colleague Brendan Howlin recently gave a vivid illustration of the meaning of solidarity from the point of view of the Labour Party.
Nominated as ‘Business person of the month’ for July by Business and Finance, the magazine approvingly quoted Howlin on the value of solidarity:
We want to preserve the social solidarity that has been manifest in this process to date and not to have the discordant situation that you have in Greece, where people resist change that I’m afraid is inevitable.
There lies the true value of ‘solidarity’ for the government politician: a handy instrument for quelling dissent so that the robbery can continue unabated.
As this translated piece by Manuel Castells, originally published in La Vanguardia, shows, the Republic of Ireland is far from the only nominally democratic European country with a government that openly and willingly prioritises the interests of people whom Richard Drayton of Imperial College London, described in a talk earlier this year as ‘a nomadic global pirate class’. The options for the residents of this country, as with Spain, Greece and elsewhere, are either to capitulate, or to recover the real meaning of words such as solidarity and democracy through dissent, collective action, and new forms of participation and mobilisation.
A couple of notes on the translation:
Acampada has been left untranslated, because it has a specific historic sense in Spanish –especially in light of the setting up of camps during the 15-M mobilisations- that ‘camp’ in English does not convey.
A desalambrar means, literally, get rid of the wires. This is an allusion to the song of the same title, written by Uruguayan singer-songwriter Daniel Viglietti
but also sung by Victor Jara, the Chilean folk singer who was arrested, tortured and murdered when the US-backed forces of General Augusto Pinochet launched a coup against the government of Salvador Allende on September 11, 1973.
Viglietti wrote the song in response to heavy repression of a demonstration by refrigeration and meat workers in Uruguay, in which pro-government forces tortured workers with estaqueo – using stakes driven into the ground to maintain the body of the victim in the form of an X- in working-class neighbourhoods.
The land referred to in the song is both the land used to torture the workers, and the ground for the demand for agrarian reform. A desalambrar in Viglietti’s song suggests the removal of any ties –whether physical in the form of fences or instruments of torture, or institutional, or mental- that may bind the exercise of freedom.
Citizens and markets
Zapatero will go down in history as the worst president of Spanish democracy to date (Aznar at least had ideological coherence). The pantomime of constitutional reform, treacherously perpetrated under cover of night by the two big parties acting in cahoots, affects the root of democracy and the autonomy of the State. It has been a decision imposed by Merkel and Sarkozy, resuming a proposal from the PP. It is reasoned that it was necessary in order to calm the distrust of the markets about the Spanish debt which could precipitate a crisis in European debt, in particular that of Italy, thereby sinking the Euro. To refloat Greece, Portugal and Spain is difficult. To save Spain from bankruptcy is unviable for German and French finances. Hence the pressure on the Spanish government, which some time back abandoned any pretence to economic sovereignty. All this in the name of prophecies about the behaviour of the markets, that supreme and mysterious power that must be appeased with human sacrifices: the cutbacks in social spending affect health, education and pensions, or in other words, life.
But who are the markets? Do you know any market personally? In reality one can put names and surnames to them: they are the investors (perhaps you yourself) represented by financial intermediaries. But what do these investors and their intermediaries want? Balanced budgets? The capacity to pay debts long term? All these are strategic calculations to get to another end, to what really motivates investment: hard profit in the short term. This is how financial firms operate, it is on this that shareholder dividends depend and, above all, the commissions and profits of financiers. And this short term profit is obtained through multiple means, among these through betting on changes in valuation on financial assets, including treasury bonds and foreign exchange. Therefore, for some, the devaluation of Spanish sovereign debt and the increase in risk premiums can be juicy business. It is precisely in a situation of financial turbulence that the big profits are made.
By contrast what the investors (called markets) take into account is the outlook for business in each economy. Because recession and a rise in unemployment are bad business for everyone. Precisely because of this, when in spring of 2010 Spain decreed austerity measures the ratings agency Fitch lowered the rating of our public debt. What will these investors stop at now, knowing that even if in the long term Spanish debt can be paid, in the short term the country has been parched of possible fiscal stimulus in a situation in which private investment cannot get out of the employment and demand crisis on its own? Economic slowdown is the darkest outlook for the markets.
And this is why on the same day that the yes-sirs of the Courts of the Kingdom voted to bind the hands and feet of the State by removing its capacity to acquire funds whenever the need arose, Spain’s sovereign debt-risk premium rose and stock markets of the world fell in reaction to the negative jobs data in the United States. In contrast, there was an upward reaction by the stock markets when the agreement was reached so that the United States could get into more debt. And they have sunk again after the IMF made the announcement about the possibility of the recession despite (or because of) the cutbacks. It is for these reasons that Spain and the euro can go to the wall, not because we got into debt.
It is not about saving the Spanish economy but rather of taking advantage of the crisis to tie the hands of the representatives of citizens in case they get the temptation to follow their voters instead of the markets as interpreted by Merkel, Sarkozy and all those who save their political hide in their own countries at the cost of other Europeans: a clear case of European (dis)Union.
And here we have the crux of the matter: in the name of the markets (whose judgment remains to be seen), a constitutional reform is imposed on the citizens, without consulting them and by taking advantage of a parliamentary majority that may dissolve in three months. And in so doing, it delegitimizes a Constitution of convenience, which is untouchable for some things and is manipulated in a few days to suit those politicians circumstantially in power. There would never, in this way, have been approval for the 1978 Constitution, which however imperfect it might be, allowed the organisation of a political coexistence based on an evolving consensus which has now been broken with no imperative need and without informing the citizens just why such urgency apart from the dark references to the perception of the markets. But the citizens have a right to make mistakes because that too is popular sovereignty. What they do not accept is the invocation of democracy as a source of legitimacy only to then act on such important matters by using the parliamentary bulldozer as though the country belonged to the politicians. The Icelandic example returns to mind: after months of social agitation a referendum on crisis policies brought about financial regulation, sacking and prosecution of politicians guilty for the crisis and to the non-payment of banking debt. And things were solved for people.
If there was already a deep crisis of legitimacy in Spanish democracy, a source of outrage that the great majority of the population shares, this shameful reform of the Constitution dynamites any credibility held by the politicians who voted for it. And in passing it makes things very difficult for Rubalcaba, who tried to save some respect for his party and for politics by extending bridges to the feelings of society. If the source of the Constitution is the markets, let the bankers call the shots directly. But if the citizens think that they are the constituents, perhaps they should re-found democracy peacefully and clean out the institutions of majoritarian parties who camp out in the Courts as if it were their ranch and we were their peons. Acampada versus acampada. Political cynicism against citizen hope. A desalambrar.
A desalambrar (Victor Jara)
I ask of those present
If they have never stopped to think
That this land belongs to us all
And not to whoever has the most
I ask if on the land
You have never thought to yourself
That if the hands are ours
Whatever they give us is ours
Tear it down, tear it down
The land is ours
Yours and his
Pedro’s and Maria’s
Juan’s and Jose’s
If my song should bother
Someone who happens to hear
I say he is a gringo
Or an owner of this country
Tear it down, tear it down
The land is ours
Yours and his
Pedro’s and Maria’s
Juan’s and Jose’s