Monthly Archives: October 2011

A Bullet, Dodged

My daughter was nearly born to the sound of Sean Gallagher. No, seriously. It was a few months back and there was nothing on TV in the hospital apart from Dragon’s Den, and Sean Gallagher was talking, and my wife all of a sudden went into labour and our daughter was born roughly two minutes later, safely out of earshot of the TV.


I think it’s in Guatemala where peasant women who help deliver babies carry a thimbleful of honey, and they give the new born baby a little taste of the honey so that their first encounter with the outside world is bound up with the taste of something sweet. Among other things, my daughter’s first encounter with the outside world could have been bound up with the sound of..well, I’m happy to think of it as a lucky escape, even if she couldn’t have understood a word.

Do people realise how much of a bullet Ireland has dodged with Sean Gallagher’s defeat? Suppose Martin McGuinness, for whatever reason, decided not to bother exposing the matter of Gallagher’s role as a fundraiser for Fianna Fáil, and Gallagher had managed to carry on with his vacuous quasi-fascist message of strength, the abolition of negativity, and the exaltation of entrepreneurship just long enough to ward off any sort of critical light getting shone in his direction and to get just enough of the vote and preferences to sweep him into the Aras.

It’s true that the office of President, despite being considered the ‘highest office in the land’, is a largely ceremonial role and victory in a presidential election is largely a matter of symbolism. But symbols determine reality. A great deal of emphasis was given to Gallagher’s Fianna Fáil past by other campaigns, though I doubt this put off too many people with a long-standing habit of voting Fianna Fáil. That Gallagher was a characteristically venal FF stooge obscured the fact that it was his appearance on the TV series Dragon’s Den, produced by the state broadcaster, that gave him sufficient profile to stand in the first instance.

Dragon’s Den –and the last time I watched it was the night my daughter was born- is a highly popular TV programme produced by Screentime ShinAwiL, which also produces similar in-it-to-win-it programmes The Apprentice and Fame The Musical. Screentime ShinAwil’s own description of Dragon’s Den is ‘hopeful Irish entrepreneurs’ pitching their business schemes ‘in front of five wealthy and successful venture capitalists’.  It was aired on the public broadcaster, RTE, and sponsored by Bank of Ireland, one of the six State-guaranteed financial institutions. An RTE press release outlines the vision behind the show:

Real Entrepreneurial Stories Dispel Recessionary Gloom for Huge TV Audiences

Happy stories of real entrepreneurial spirit, expertise and success are offering respite to huge television audiences, seeking to dispel recessionary gloom, as well as impacting on featured business’s bottom line.

RTÉ’s Dragons’ Den, sponsored by Bank of Ireland and produced by Screentime ShinAwil, the second series of which came to a close this week after eight episodes of nail biting, must-see television, attracted an average of more than 409,000 viewers across the series.

‘Happy stories’ about ‘entrepreneurs’ intended to ‘dispel recessionary gloom’, commissioned by the public broadcaster and sponsored by a bank run by millionaires and kept afloat by a State guarantee. Do you see something wrong with this picture?

Gallagher’s campaign was all about maintaining relentless positivity. Like many a candidate in neo-liberal states, he claimed he was not a politician (let us recall Franco’s advice: do like me and don’t get into politics) but an outsider. Other examples of this tendency that spring to mind include Álvaro Uribe in Colombia and Barack Obama in the United States. Apart from this, he highlighted (somewhat unreliably, it seems) his ‘business expertise’ in advising ‘charity, voluntary and community groups helping them to maximise their resources and achieve their goals’ and encouraging the youth ‘to innovate and find their own enterprising solutions to today’s challenges’.

On different levels then –the unrelenting fetish for ‘entrepreneurship’ (recall what Ha-Joon Chang says about entrepreneurs: poor countries are full of entrepreneurs because either the social institutions necessary for growth and prosperity have not been developed, or they have been hollowed out); the exaltation of charity as a virtue; the managerial weasel words that comprised most of his utterances, Gallagher’s candidacy seemed to represent the withdrawal of the State from society in a comparable fashion to David Cameron’s Big Society. But at the same time, Gallagher also stood for a continuity with State domination of civil society groups that characterised the social partnership era. 

Though the comparisons were with Uncle Fester, Gallagher was more a sort of Frankenstein’s monster: a State cultural production, made in collaboration with a State-funded bank, geared towards depoliticising the recession and encouraging people to think happy thoughts instead. 

At the same time, the cultural production of which he was a part was designed to present the vision of an ideal society: one made up purely of individuals who either rise or fall based on their own genius or lack thereof, who stand alone before the verdict of powerful capitalists who can make them or break them at a whim.


Whatever kindly spirit Gallagher deployed on the programme probably had some influence on the way people viewed him favourably. Since he was said to be the nicest, most kind-hearted and decent of the ‘dragons’, as at least one newspaper profile put it, he represented the exception to the rule: with hundreds of thousands of people unemployed, a boss who would try hard not to fire you is not an unreasonable thing to hope for. In reality though, he was the exception that proved the rule. Michael D. Higgins may not change much, but a Gallagher victory would have emboldened right-wing forces in Ireland who seek the complete alignment of the priorities of the State with the needs of Capital. 


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One For The Masters


The occupation of Dame Street begins its third week tomorrow. Other occupations are also underway in Galway and Cork. As with last Saturday, a march will leave the Garden of Remembrance in Dublin for the site of the occupation, at the Central Bank headquarters on Dame Street, at 2pm. Last week’s march had around 1,000 people on it.

I’ve been on bigger marches in Dublin, but I find it hard to recall one as rambunctious. From thousands of miles off it’s quite hard to gauge if there’ll be a bigger turnout tomorrow, but in a way it doesn’t matter. It’d be a mistake to look at this ongoing event merely in terms of the number of people it draws out onto the street on a Saturday, but in terms of how it alters perceptions and serves to re-politicise Irish society, which I believe it will.

What effect will these networked occupations have on life in Ireland? I think anyone who delivers an assured response to this question is either spoofing, or seeking to contain and control the event, or both. I will try and give my own tentative answer this question a bit further down, but first, some context to the Irish occupations which, although catalysed by developments in other places (e.g. Tunisia, Egypt, Greece, Spain the US), need to be looked at in terms of the specific situation in Ireland.

The Eurozone is on the brink of the abyss. Greece, and indeed Ireland, is being looted and laid to waste by the European authorities, operating in the interests of finance capital, and in particular, big German and French banks. But unlike Ireland, there are general strikes in Greece, and mass rebellion on the country’s streets. The PASOK government’s grim insistence on collaborating in this robbery, along with the capitulation –with no small amount relish and vindictiveness- by the PSOE government in Spain to the demands to make the repayment of bank debt a constitutional priority, are telling illustrations, of the utter bankruptcy of European social democracy.

European welfare states built after the Second World War, the product of long and painful labour struggles, are being dismantled, and the designated function of Europe’s social democratic parties is to accelerate the great unravelling.

In the Republic of Ireland, the Irish Labour Party has a special role to play in the dismantling of the already emaciated welfare state. Its role, in a country that has never had a left-wing government, is to partake in a massive lie: that its participation in a government prepared to expropriate the population to a greater degree than even the IMF prescribes, represents the interests of the working class. In doing so it is supported by trade unions, as this recent press release illustrates. 

The EU-IMF-ECB bailout has secured a lockdown of neoliberal economic policy. Any measure, no matter how cruel and devastating its effect on the population, is justified by politicians from the ruling parties in terms of the need to reduce the budget deficit in line with imposed targets, and to raise ‘competitiveness’, the latter little more than a synonym for the fear of poverty. It scarcely needs mentioning that there are no official targets for restoring people to paid employment.


(Takings are down: you’ll have to dance more)

In pursuing slash and burn policies in health, education, social welfare and in other areas, Irish Government representatives say their hands are tied, that this hurts them nearly as much as it hurts you, and they cite binding requirements from the IMF memorandum of understanding.  But as shown by a recent Michael Taft piece, this is a lie. There is no requirement for the Government to privatise state assets. The  government, which represents the interests of local ruling elites (40 per cent of Cabinet members attended fee-paying schools, compared to just seven per cent of the general population) is using the bank bailout as an alibi for imposing their own visions of how Irish society should be organised.

And those visions include: a ‘flexibilised’ labour market, an emaciated public sector, a raised retirement age, wage cuts, pension freezes, a shift from direct to indirect taxation that benefits the rich, the protection of the corporate sector from tax increases, the privatisation of state assets, and an economy placed under the management of technocratic sages. A war of all against all: the ECB and IMF might be seeking all these things as a means of paying for bank bailouts, but all these things have long been none-too-obscure objects of desire for IBEC members and media oligarchs too.


Left political parties and trade unions have failed to operate as a significant countervailing force against the neo-liberal lockdown. This has fuelled widespread despondency and bewilderment. It’s hard to think of a singular event as enervating, for those who were inclined to mount some sort of concerted resistance, as the march in Dublin organised by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions last November. Tens of thousands braved extreme weather to protest the EU-IMF-ECB bailout.


And then: nothing. Trade unions backed the Labour Party in the February elections, who were only too happy to use the support to set about meeting the commitments they had made to Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Cue a near constant flow of approving media opinion about how homo hibernicus was a peaceable and affable beast.

However, if we bear in mind the history of ‘social partnership’, the demoralising character of the march last November should not be too surprising.

Social partnership presented the image of a society in which trade unions, and community and voluntary sector organisations, supposedly participated in decisions on an equal footing with employers’ organisations.

The effect was to enforce an idea of ‘One Ireland. Of Employers and employees’ (the capital E is in the original text), as Labour Party leader Eamon Gilmore put it, before the last election. ‘The social partners’ became the name used by evening news bulletins on the State broadcaster.

What happened, as one writer put it, was that the ‘institutionalised forms of intermediation’ used in social partnership appeared to have ‘become a vehicle for imposing a neo-liberal political agenda’ (Taylor, cited in Kirby, The Celtic Tiger in Collapse). What had grown during the years of social partnership was ‘the tendency of the state to control those sectors of civil society, such as the community and voluntary sector and the trade unions’ (Kirby) that might be expected to produce dissent. Social partnership, then, was intimately intertwined with structures of neo-liberal governance.

We need to regain our economic sovereignty” has been a consistent refrain by Irish politicians and business executives since the days of the first days of the EU-ECB-IMF bailout.

This raises the question of whether ‘we’ ever had economic sovereignty to begin with. Within the terms of the sterilising consensus established by social partnership, ‘we’ probably did. After all, banking bosses liked to talk about how, when negotiating with the Department of Finance about the best way to save their neck at the expense of the public, they were working in the national interest.

The point, then, is that the discourse of ‘regaining economic sovereignty’ becomes the main alibi used by ruling class groups for inflicting unrelenting cruelty on broad swathes of the population. And what this discourse obscures, in turn, is the conflict between popular sovereignty and neo-liberal governance.

One of the most nefarious inventions in recent Irish history has been the generation of civil society groupings that purported to be popular grassroots movements, but on closer examination –rarely undertaken in media- turned out to be the products of ruling class networks. Nearly all of them seemed to have failed Presidential candidate and professional Eurocrat Pat Cox in them. Other civil society formations, operating among constituencies that would have the most to gain from adopting dissenting positions vis-à-vis the dominant logic of the state, refrained from engaging in too much dissent, lest their funding arrangements take a hit.

What has been evacuated from Irish political life, then, through these processes of co-optation and domination, has been any animating vision of social transformation. Those who engage in political mobilisation and collective action become the enemies of consensus. The state’s incorporation of the trade unions, its domination of civil society, a compliant state broadcaster, and a news media dominated by a few oligarchs (O’Reilly, O’Brien, Murdoch) have all served to produce a remarkably sterile and insular consensus, in which maturity and obedience are demanded, and in which any inkling of conflict –which is, after all, the basic ingredient of democracy- prompts the media to conjure the spectre of checkpoints, bombs and riot police, drawing on memories of television images of life in the other state on the island of Ireland.

Enter the occupations.

The first, and as yet, the biggest of these, began 13 days ago, spurred on by the moment of popular revolt on Wall Street. Rebellions in Spain and Greece might have appeared more relevant, on account of the fact that all three countries are periphery members of the Eurozone. But the glut of  accounts of the occupation on Wall Street and elsewhere, and the relatively high interest in American politics by comparison with other places, meant it was the idea of an occupation that occupied just enough people’s minds to take the initial leap of faith to get things started.

The choice of the Central Bank building has puzzled some people, given the presence of Ireland’s Own Private Tax Haven to the left of Connolly Station, but in reality, the logistical challenges posed by an IFSC occupation would have been insuperable for the small group of pioneers who took the first step. There is a severe lack of suitable public spaces in central Dublin. There are no spaces where citizens (in the broadest sense of the term) can freely engage in open dialogue about life in the polis, and besides, the Central Bank, now with its very own IMF technocrat, is a good a symbol of the unaccountable nature of ruling institutions –the Global Mubarak– as any.

Hang around Dame Street for a few hours, or a few days, as I did last week, and you begin to realise that something different is happening there. There are people standing around, talking about politics, and economics, and history in public. There is music and poetry and talks. This sort of thing isn’t supposed to happen in Dublin. In Dublin’s pubs, whose residual reputation as hives of political intrigue is wholly undeserved, they turn up the music so you stop talking about politics and start drinking and talking about football.  

Some people in Ireland are impatient with the lack of sufficiently articulate political positions from the Dame Street. Given the dimensions of the crisis and other people’s failures, the impatience is understandable. But it’s important to bear in mind the immense material difficulties involved in maintaining an occupation in an urban space as sterile and inhospitable as that of Dublin.

Moreover the Dame Street occupation hasn’t had the same range or depth of sympathetic social movements to call on for assistance, as has been the case with other places.

But against the astroturf civil societies produced under neo-liberal governance, the Dame Street occupation has opened up a critical distance, not merely down at the site itself, but also on social networks, that enables people to subject the political system to radical questioning. This is in itself is a major achievement, and whatever happens to the occupation itself, it is hard to see how this achievement can ever be rolled back.

Occupy Dame Street, and Occupy Cork and Occupy Galway, are about to visit a polarising impact on Irish society. And this is an excellent thing. Media institutions, always keen to enforce a sterile consensus, invite us to believe that polarised opinion is always bad. And yet it’s hard to imagine anyone would argue that there is something wrong with polarising opinion on the morality of slavery or child labour. Why shouldn’t we do the same with regard to a political order based on discipline, dispossession and domination that concedes ever greater power to voracious financial institutions and seeks to destroy any vestige of popular sovereignty?


By taking the concept of the ‘99% vs 1%’ that originated from the Wall Street occupation, and using it as their own, the occupiers are engaging in a healthy polarisation. In their horizontally organised miniature of society, they’re demonstrating a commitment to social transformation and real democracy. Against the informed ignorance of dominant media institutions, an informed and reflective public opinion. Against the commodification of knowledge, collective intelligence. Against nativist isolationism, international collaboration. Against individual responsibility, collective responsibility.

Stand on the footpath at Dame Street and you can no longer see the bottom of the Central Bank. It’s obscured by the spread of tents and banners erected outside its entrance. It’s as though the building were getting devoured from below. They –we- can do this. There are plenty of signs that pessimism of the intellect’s long suffering partner –optimism of the will- is about to make a comeback.



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Bit busy in these parts at the moment so don’t have a great deal of time to be writing. But I’m very heartened by the embryonic #OccupyDameStreet, and deeply impressed by the bravery, commitment and good humour of so many in what were initially very unpromising conditions. Weather wise, this is probably the worst of times to be digging in to an occupation, but precisely for that reason, it may turn out to be the best of times.

A stunning success of the ‘We are the 99 percent’ motto in the United States has been to bring this conflict -class struggle- to light. As Conor McCabe (who gave an excellent talk down on Dame Street today, which I was able to watch online) shows in Sins of The Father, the history of the Republic of Ireland in the twentieth century is in many ways the story of an example of how (he quotes Eipper) ‘under the banner of development’, a small minority ‘were able, in classic fashion, to present their specific interests as general ones’.

‘We are the 99 percent’ is equally relevant in Ireland. As the most daring of the occupiers set up camp on Saturday night, a little further up the road discussions were underway in Dublin Castle, the former seat of colonial rule, involving government ministers and assorted captains of industry, including billionaire media and telecommunications mogul Denis O’Brien, whose payments of hundreds of thousands of pounds to a government minister, uncovered by the Moriarty Tribunal (which sat at Dublin Castle) was no barrier to entry to the Global Irish Forum.

The assembled in Dublin Castle trumpeted the importance of the ‘diaspora’ (a racial-biological term that goes unquestioned by the establishment) in maintaining foreign direct investment. The settings of Dublin Castle and Farmleigh illustrate well how ‘diaspora’ is a useful tool for the assembled to present their specific interests as general ones. As Adam Smith said, ‘people of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public’. The 1%.

Meanwhile people of many different nationalities were down on Dame Street in the cold, trying to cobble together structures that would provide shelter and protection for each other. The public. The 99%.

The rich possibilities of this distinction, however, would be jettisoned if, as I witnessed people advocate this afternoon, a stance were adopted of simply not entertaining any form of interaction with unions at all. How can you say ‘we are the 99%’ without recognising the importance of the instruments that the 99% have to use to protect their rights?

I understand that it’s essential to maintain autonomy for the occupation and to persist with the direct democratic assemblies – otherwise it has no point. But I don’t see how any such autonomy can mean anything of any great importance to wider society, unless it takes into account that neither the State nor bodies that have been co-opted by the State are going to wither away simply because lots of people camp out in tents and occasionally engage in marches and civil disobedience.

Nonetheless I have lots of hope. Provided there is a flow of intense democratic dialogue, which is what the space was created for, after all, as opposed to the petty demagoguery of ‘we won’t be dealing with unions’, which I expect to fade, a resolute course of politicising action can be reached. The movement can expose the 1% and the institutions that serve it, and deprive them of their legitimacy to carry out their savagely cruel austerity plans.

In this spirit I am publishing a translation here that I think particularly relevant, since it deals with the possibility of rebuilding unions in countries where they have operated as the tools of the State and the motors of depoliticising consensus and downward convergence.

As Michael Albert alluded to in his brief talk at Dame Street today, it is not just public spaces as designated by the State that need to be occupied and politicised. Therefore to exclude the question of how to relate to unions is to exclude many people in the 99% who want to politicise places of work, and to exclude, by extension, those people whose material well-being is inextricable from the protections won through union struggles. They are the 99% too, and deciding to cast them aside could prove fatal. But it is hard to be anything but hopeful

 It’s a translation from Juan Carlos Monedero’s El gobierno de las palabras (The Government of Words).

Catechism for rebulding unions

(From the footnotes: These measures were set forth in 2004 in the course “20th Century trade unionism that I directed in Mexico D.F. on the request of different unions that sought a position with regard to the reforms of social insurance promoted by President Fox….The original impulse for the creation of unions in Mexico came from the State, in such a way that for decades they were transmission belts for the Government party (PRI). Only when they began to free themselves from this tutelage were they able to build a trade unionism that attended more to the needs of workers. However, the inertia of seven decades still weigh heavily.

This is valid for all those countries where the trade unions integrated themselves in some way or another in the State (this is equally evident in the case of Venezuela, where the Central de Trabajadores de Venezuela even took part in the coup d’etat against Hugo Chávez that placed in power for two days the head of the bosses organisation, Carmona Estanga). Or in the case of the main European unions, who supported a European Constitution that removed the right to work and substituted it with the right to look for work. On the other hand, in those places where trade unionism did not get integrated into cartelisation (for example, Bolivia), it was valid for promoting transformations alongside other social movements’)

The following proposals, presented here not without irony as a catechism for union reconstruction set out some possible lines of action.

  1. You shall not seek mere economic responses to neoliberal devastation. The reconstruction of the world of labour at the same time requires the reconstruction of a new cultural identity that reinforces the “we” of the collective, new forms of reciprocity that generate trust in the group, new forms of political orientation for the future that allow for the confrontation of the onslaught of other exclusionary approaches. To reinvent the economy, culture, politics and the normative system all form part of the same reconstruction of the right to work as the main collective right of human beings (the basis for the guarantee of the rest). As such, it is essential that worker thought places at the centre of its debate the need to build its own language that restores the identity lost in the inflexible voyage of capitalism, modernity and statism.
  2. You shall not replace rights with acts of charity. Whilst charity is voluntary and only dignifies the person who provides it, rights form part of a social achievement that makes them obligatory, conferring dignity on whoever enjoys them. In times of religious fundamentalism in the East and West, accompanied by the dismantling of the social contract, charity weakens rights, it justifies the powerful and it disciplines workers.
  3. You will demand relief from external debt, since its payment, as well as being immoral for having already been conducted numerous times and for being a debt acquired by illegitimate rulers, prevents economic development and it becomes the social debt of the Latin American continent. External debt strongly hinders the creation of a decent world of labour in Latin America.
  4. You shall demand a just access to world markets, especially agriculture markets, since it is here that a large part of the economic backwardness of impoverished societies lies. And for this, you shall define critical positions in the World Trade Organisation, aware that global spheres always make themselves concrete in local spaces. 
  5. You shall push for free and urgent access to the necessary pharmaceutical products needed to treat the diseases that destroy impoverished countries and prevent their development. For this, faced with the pressure of pharmaceutical countries, you will demand the creation of generic medicines, based on the fact that health is not a business.
  6. To the demand to “think global, act local” you shall add “think local act global”. In this way, you will make workers and unions of other countries part of your demands for the universal right to work, social rights and the transfer of technology. The globalisation of resistance must form part of the strategy of unions in any part of the world.
  7. You shall promote regional integrations that go beyond the creation of wide markets, conferring the new construction with a political content that raises the member countries to the maximum rights of existing citizens.
  8. You shall incorporate sustainability and respect for the environment as an essential element in labour rights, understanding that ecological deterioration is one of the most terrible and lasting features of the impoverishment of both the workers of today and those of future generations.
  9. You shall reform multilateral global institutions by democratising them, in such a way that reverses their current status as governing bodies where the common interests of global elites are defended.
  10. You shall combine your efforts with those of social movements, understanding that the sum of the demands by the movements construct the map of social emancipation in which the union movement is also implicated. You will set in train the work of translation, so that the union struggles are understood by all the social movements. At the same time, you shall provide help, by relying on your greater structural capacity, so that social movements also activate that need for the translation of their patch so that the red thread that crosses all the social movements is understood in each of its parts.
  11. You shall use your strength as citizen-consumer to democratise the supply of goods and services both public and private and to demand compliance in social rights. In the private sphere, there will be pressure applied by bringing down the sales of firms with antisocial behaviours. In the public sphere, by reinforcing the idea of the citizen in the against that of the customer, which atomises the relation of people to administration.
  12. You shall reinvent a new form of solidarity-based nationalism that creates social cement and prevents attacks from compact groups that profit from the porosity of borders in globalisation. The new communitarian consciousness, based on the idea of a solidarity-based nation, will reinvent the polis and, as such, the politcs that globalisation has weakened with the attacks on the national State.
  13. You shall recover from your past the memory of the struggles that constructed democratising paths. Just as the struggles of today are the rights of tomorrow, the struggles of yesterday are the rights of today. In the remembrance of these emancipating struggles new reasons and examples will be found to fuel the emancipations that must be promoted at every moment.
  14. You shall demand a strong democratic behaviour in society and you will set in train within the union the same demands that you demand in the social sphere. In this way, the union will be an example of the rule of law (the norms will be applied in an identical manner to all the members of the union, from the secretary general to the most recent joiner); of the separation between the private and the public (which avoids individual use of funds that are collective and which put a brake on caudillismo and clientelism); and of horizontal accountability (not vertical, tied to electoral processes, but carried out day to day by all the members of the collective. Democratic access to information and, as such to communications media, is a requirement for this promotion of citizenship). The demand for democracy in society by unions will not be believable if it is not applied within its own structures.
  15. You shall integrate unionised labour into Federations and Confederations in which it will be possible to develop political activity rendered impossible from within individual structures, even when positions of strength are enjoyed. You shall not confuse the task of political defence of workers carried out from the union with the tasks that belong to a political party, however much the crisis of political formations on the left might invite this leap to be made. The place of the union is different from the place of the party and the cohesion that it possesses as a union can be weakened when it articulates as a formation that takes part in an election in competition with other forces. A similar thing happens with an excessive linkage to any government, which ends up paralysing the union, devoured by a greater apparatus once the doors have been opened to it.
  16. You shall not confuse technical arguments with political arguments. For this, you shall endow yourself with technical qualifications and ideological clarity, being able to identify the political condition, masked in technicalities, of the privatising, deregulating and flexibilising discourses. You shall unmask the falsity of the three recurring arguments of conserviative and reactionary thought for preventing changes: nothing can be done; things are going to get worse; other achievements are going to be endangered. A review of history shows the lie behind these arguments. In the final instance, when intelligence finds itself paralysed by the hegemony of unitary thought, apply the “She did not know it was impossible, she went and did it” as the motor of transformations. It is a matter of recalling the Gramscian approach: “To the pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will”, or that of the Venezuelan Simón Rodríguez: “We invent or we fail”.
  17. You shall turn the union into a poet, with the capacity to reinvent the concepts that explain exploitation and the struggle for dignity, furthermore making an extra effort to recreate with new words the old problems thus permitting the incorporation of new generations to a fight that seems to them old and rancid merely by its language. For this, you shall endow the union structures with powerful study groups that counter the renaming efforts of conservative “think tanks” which end up turning the dead into collateral damage, corruption into individual reassignment of budgetary allocations at the same time as they urge unions to sign up to competitiveness, flexibility and adjustment.
  18. You shall recover the place in civil society that unions abandoned when they became part of the State. For this, you shall set out the mission of re-moralising the State, turning it into the efficient guarantor of collective interests and the promoter of social rights. At the same time, you shall turn the market back into the mere instrument at the service of the community as it should be in a democratic society.
  19. You shall place at the heart of your union essence the struggle against inequalities of class, race and gender, helping to end the prehistory of the humankind. At the same time, you shall incorporate all those social demands that hold as a principle the defence of a right or a difference that creates equality or prevents the loss of identity, always within a dialogue-based commitment to collective happiness.
  20. You shall know and you will let people know, through union commitment, that to participate, that giving your all, constitutes one of the finest social obligations; specifically, the obligation to give back part of what society provides us, one of the forms of the mandate to transform (to improve), which is what makes us human and what gives us meaning.


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Second Letter to the Left(s) 2: Boaventura de Sousa Santos

First Letter to the Left(s) here.


What shape should concerted left political action in Ireland take? Conor McCabe’s excellent book Sins of The Father presents a very strong thesis about how the history of the Irish Republic should not be thought in terms of a narrative of neo-liberalism that might apply in other western democratic States, due to the very specific character of the Irish State and the way its economy was developed in the interests of ruling elites since the State’s foundation.

But I think that whilst this understanding of the Irish State must provide the basis for urgent political action at a local level, it’s still important to bear in mind the consonance of processes of domination in Ireland with processes -and the experiences of resistance- elsewhere, and indeed how much processes in Ireland also form part of a global process.


Each one of the neo-liberal transitions named by Boaventura de Sousa Santos in his second letter to the lefts below (translated Spanish version here) are as relevant to Ireland as anywhere else. Indeed, if we wanted, we could put an Irish name to each of them: 1. Charlie McCreevy; 2. Peter Sutherland; 3. Pat Rabbitte; 4. Bertie Ahern; 5. Denis O’Brien. But I find it hard to get beyond de Sousa Santos’s formulation of the principle of ‘better State always; less State, never’ as the basic idea for unified left political action here as elsewhere.

Second Letter to the Lefts

Political democracy presupposes the existence of the State. The problems we are living through today in Europe show dramatically that there is no European democracy because there is no European State. And since many sovereign prerogatives were transferred to European institutions, national democracies are less solid today because national States are post-sovereign. The deficits of the national democracies and Europe’s democratic deficit feed back on each other and are aggravated because, at the same time, European institutions decided to transfer to the financial markets (that is, to half a dozen big investment bodies, at the head of which is Deutsche Bank) part of the prerogatives transferred to them by national States. For the common citizen it will be easy to conclude now (sadly, only now) that this was a well-hatched plot in order to deprive European States of their capacity to carry out both their functions of protecting their citizens against collective risks and of promoting social welfare. This neo-liberal plot has been weaved throughout the world. Europe just had the privilege of being ‘plotted’ European-style. Let us see how it happened.


There is a global process underway to dismantle the democratic State. The organisation of this type of State is based in three functions: the function of trust, through which the State protects its citizens against foreign forces, crimes and collective risks; the function of legitimacy, through which the State guarantees the promotion of welfare, and the function of accumulation, with which the State guarantees the reproduction of capital in exchange for resources (taxation, control of strategic sectors) that enable it to carry out the other two functions.


The neoliberals intend to dismantle the democratic State through the inculcation of public opinion of the supposed need for various transitions.

First transition: from collective responsibility to individual responsibility. According to the neoliberals, what citizens expect from life derives from what they do for themselves and not what society can do for them. In life, the successful person is the one who makes good decisions or gets lucky, and the failure is the one who makes bad decisions or has little luck. Difference of conditions by birth or by country should not be significantly altered by the State.



Second transition: from State action based in taxation to State action based on credit. The distributive logic of taxation permits the State to expand at the cost of the highest revenues, which, according to the neoliberals, is unjust, whilst the distributive logic of credit obliges the State to restrict itself and to pay everything to its creditors. This transaction guarantees the financial suffocation of the State, the only effective measure against social policies.



Third transition: from the recognition of the existence of public goods (education, health) and strategic interests (water, telecommunications, postal services) that should be looked after by the State to the idea that every intervention by the State in a potentially profitable area is an illegitimate limitation on the opportunities for private gain.


Fourth transition: from the principle of the primacy of the State to the principle of the primacy of civil society and the market. The State is always ineffective and authoritarian. The coercive force of the State is hostile to consensus and to the co-ordination of interests and limits the freedom of entrepreneurs, who are those who create wealth (workers are not mentioned). The imperative logic of government must be substituted wherever possible by the co-operative logic of government among sectoral interests, among these the State.



Fifth transition: from social rights to philanthropy and assistance in extreme situations of poverty and incapacity. The social State exaggerated solidarity among citizens and transformed social inequality into an evil when, in fact, it is a good. Between whoever makes charitable contributions and whoever receives it, one person is the subject of charity and the other is its object.



Faced with this disturbing set of neoliberal prescriptions, it is difficult to imagine that the different lefts cannot agree on the principle of ‘better State always; less State, never’ and that they do not arrive at conclusions from that.

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Letter to the Left: Boaventura de Sousa Santos

It’s interesting how in English, people talk about ‘the Left’ tout court, in ways that drive many people nuts: ‘The Left’ should do this, such and such is a failure of ‘the Left’, whereas in other languages it is quite common to talk about ‘the lefts’, thus recognising different strands and tendencies rather than habitually lumping them all together as a single object when analytically this can obscure more than it reveals.

Rather than bother trying to find some sort of formulation that sounds idiomatic (‘left forces’?, ‘left tendencies’?) or to use the standard ‘the Left’ (as suggested by the often scarily good Google Translate), I have stuck below with ‘the lefts’ in the translation of these two letters by Portuguese sociologist Boaventura de Sousa Santos. I will post the second letter in a separate post. As he himself notes, thinking about the world is not the same as thinking about the world with western conceptions. The same principle ought to apply to those who view the world as a series of anglospherical objects.

These are mostly translations of translations, and thus their bootleg tape quality should be borne in mind, but that does not render the content any less compelling. The Portuguese version is here and the Spanish translation used is here.

Letter to the lefts


I do not doubt the existence of a future for the lefts, but their future will not be a linear continuation of its past. To define what the lefts have in common is the same as replying to the question: what is the left? The left is a collection of political positions that share the ideal that all human beings have the same value and constitute the supreme value. This ideal is placed in doubt whenever there are social relations of unequal power, that is, of domination. In this case, some individuals or groups satisfy some of their needs by transforming other individuals or groups into means for their ends. Capitalism is not the only source of domination, although it is an important source.

The different ways of understanding this ideal have provoked various divisions. The main ones have arisen from opposing answers to the following questions? Can capitalism be reformed so as to improve the fate of the dominated or is this only possible beyond capitalism? Should social struggle be driven by a class (the working class) or by different classes or social groups? Should this be carried out inside democratic institutions or outside them? Is the State, in itself, a relation of domination, or can it be mobilised to combat relations of domination?

The opposing answers to these questions were at the origin of violent devisions. In the name of the left atrocities were committed against the left; but, as a whole, the lefts dominated the 20th century (despite Nazism, fascism, and colonialism) and the world became freer and more equal thanks to them. This short century of all the lefts ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall. The last thirty years have been characterised, on the one hand, by a management of ruins and inertia, and on the other, by the emergence of new struggles against domination, with other actors and languages that the lefts could not understand.

Meanwhile, free from the lefts, capitalism showed once again its antisocial vocation. It is once again urgent to rebuild the lefts to avoid barbarism. How to begin again? With the acceptance of the following ideas: The world has diversified and diversity has been installed within each country. Understanding the world goes far wider than the western understanding of the world; there is no internationalism without interculturalism.

  1. Capitalism conceives of democracy as an instrument of accumulation; if necessary, it consigns it to irrelevance and, if it were able to find a more efficient instrument, it would get rid of it (the case of China)/ The defence of democracy at high intensity is the great banner of the lefts.
  2. Capitalism is amoral and does not understand the concept of human dignity; its defence is a struggle against capitalism and never with capitalism (in capitalism, even charitable donations only exist as public relations.
  3. The experience of the world shows that there are many realities that are not capitalist, guided by reciprocity and co-operativism, which are waiting to be recognised as the future within the present.
  4. The past century revealed that the relation of humans with nature is not a relation of domination against which one must struggle; economic growth is not infinite.
  5. Private property is only a social good if it is one among various forms of property and all are protected; there are common goods of humanity (such as water and air)/
  6. The short century of the lefts was sufficient to create an egalitarian spirit among human beings that can be identified in all surveys; this is the heritage of the lefts that they themselves are squandering.
  7. Capitalism needs other forms of domination to flourish (from racism to sexism to war) and all must be combated.
  8. The State is a strange animal, half angel half monster, but without it many other monsters would stalk the land, insatiable in the search for defenceless angels. Better State, always; less State, never. 

With these ideas there would still be numerous lefts, though it is unlikely that they would kill each other and it is possible for them to unite to stop the approaching barbarism.

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