What is at stake

One of the major achievements of the political and media establishments in Ireland has been to maintain a dominant frame in which people in Ireland conceive of relations with the rest of Europe. The political class elevates its own importance through sounds and images from important meetings and summits that it attends, supposedly on behalf of the population. Then, on return from these get-togethers, it pours forth accounts, through the media, of what ‘our European partners’ are thinking, and in particular, what they are thinking about Ireland. This in turn has a large bearing on how political correspondents, radio phone-in show presenters, and assorted experts, present and answer questions about what to do about Europe.

A useful, if simplified analogy would be the worker in a hierarchical firm who is dependent on his immediate superior to communicate what the boss higher up wants. This situation confers the immediate superior with power over the worker in that whenever the worker makes a request, he can turn down the request on the grounds that the boss higher up will not countenance it. He may even dominate the worker by ingratiating himself, placing himself on the side of the worker, not the big boss – “If it were up to me, we’d give it to you at the drop of a hat, but unfortunately my hands are tied by what the boss is saying” – and sharing in the worker’s frustrations, whilst simultaneously carrying out the boss’s orders, thereby perpetuating the domination.


image via.

This kind of analogy helps us understand the matter-of-fact arrogance with which Michael Noonan announced that any referendum vote on account of the recent negotiations between EU member states would be a vote on whether Ireland should remain in the euro. The population has no way of seeing what is going on behind closed doors in Brussels (or any of the other chambers where the decisions of the powerful are made). The statements issued by EU institutions when you read them, are addressed not to the citizens but to ‘the markets’.

In this vacuum, the appearance of additional power gravitates towards national politicians, who are only too happy to think of themselves as the emissaries of the people, temporarily free of the mild suspicion that circulates from time to time in Ireland they are actually representing Ireland’s owning class. Hence stentorian declarations about protecting ‘our’ corporation tax, which mainly benefits the IFSC, and politicians talking about themselves as canny poker players.

How does this situation shape the way people in Ireland think about Europe? First, I think the feeling of living in an island nation at a risk of drifting away from the rest of Europe -or being punished by Europe- is maintained.

Second, people are led into conflating ‘Europe’ -the people living within its borders- with the institutions of the European Union. Thus the interests of hundreds of millions of workers are decoupled from the interests of Irish workers, despite the interests of both coming under attack from a common set of political and financial institutions.

Third, the perception solidifies that when Michael Noonan opens his mouth in an ECOFIN meeting, or when any other politician goes off on international business, he is serving something that goes by the name of the ‘national interest’, which need not be called into question, Said ‘national interest’ is habitually presented as the interest of the Irish people (often, we are led to understand, in competition with the interests of other peoples) but is in fact the specific interest of the Irish owning classes. In this way the political and economic crisis is depoliticised -in that conflicts of interest within the Irish State are effaced- and nationalised in that people are led to conceive of merely national solutions to the crisis, as discussed by expert economists on TV and radio but, in the final analysis, only in terms of how the interests of the Irish owning classes might be served.


This was nicely illustrated the other night on Pat Kenny’s egregious Front Line show on RTE in an edition designed to truss up emigration as some sort of bittersweet eternal curse cast on the Irish people, where an elderly man -who was outraged at the injustice brought about by the crisis- spoke about how ‘Ireland’ – ‘we’ – were engaged in a ‘game of cards’ with ‘Germany’ (as though Angela Merkel and the banking sector were acting on behalf of unemployed workers in Duisburg and Dortmund).

Out of this depoliticised conception of the crisis comes a brutal simplification of the idea of democracy: that all it is about is ‘national sovereignty’: in reality, the sovereign activity of the owning class of the State; and of restoring power to elected representatives. According to this logic, people must endure unemployment, the threat of unemployment, wage cuts and the withdrawal of vital public services, and the continued profitability of the IFSC and pharmaceutical firms in the place of an industrial policy that served the needs of the people, as a means of restoring to Brendan Howlin and Alan Shatter the full complement of powers to act on the people’s behalf.


There was an interesting detail in a Fintan O’Toole article in the Irish Times on Saturday:  the RTÉ Authority, in preparation for the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising in 1966, decided that ‘the rebellion should be portrayed as “a nationalist and not a socialist rising”. The committee decided, moreover, that the overall approach to the commemoration should be “idealistic and emotional” rather than “interpretive and analytical”’

This is as good an illustration as any of how the nationalism of Irish ruling elites has operated as a bulwark against the socialist revolutionary nationalism in the tradition of James Connolly and others, according to which ‘the struggle of Ireland for freedom is part of the worldwide upward movement of the toilers of the earth’ and ‘‘the emancipation of the working class carries within it the end of all tyranny – national, political and social’. A danger for the Irish population, in the era of post-sovereign States, is that the former -which nowadays hinges on ideas about the Best Little Country In The World In Which To Do Business And Out Of Which To Keep Asylum Seekers, as though all independence from Empire means is running a successful carve-out- be allowed to efface conclusively the history of the latter.

In his essay In Defence Of The Word, Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano writes (and I apologise for my rough translation):


Our true collective identity is born out of the past and is nourished by it – prints in which our feet walk a path, steps that predict our walking in the here and now – but it is not crystallised in nostalgia. We will not, by the way, find our hidden face in the artificial perpetuation of dress, customs and souvenirs that tourists demand from defeated peoples. We are what we do, and especially what we do to change what we are: our identity lives in action and in struggle. Hence the revelation of what we are involves denouncing what stops us from being what we can be. We define ourselves out of the confrontation and in opposition to the obstacle.


However if Galeano’s observation is to serve any purpose, I don’t think this sort of endeavour should merely entail anxiously conjuring up the spirits of the past to its service, that is, it should not only be a question of recovering merely Irish historical memory of struggle -however important that might be- but the ‘we’ needs to recognise how the histories of so many different peoples have become intertwined over the last decades.

For the present moment, this means, at the very least, recognising and acting upon the fact that the fate of people living in Ireland is intimately intertwined with that of hundreds of millions of workers across Europe, because they are confronted with common obstacles. These obstacles include: voracious financial institutions that speculate against the debt of sovereign states while demanding ever greater sacrifices from their peoples, through privatisations and the dismantling of welfare states; anti-democratic European institutions stuffed with former, present and future financial sector stooges; a pan-European security apparatus designed to monitor, police and discipline the wrong kinds of migrant; and political castes who run with the local hare but hunt with the European hounds. It will not do, in light of this, to resort merely to the politics of the last throw of the dice, which functions as a convenient cop-out from committed internationalism.

What follows is a piece by Boaventura de Sousa Santos, which appeared in Spanish in Rebelión. It is mainly about the current situation in Portugal, but could just as well apply to Ireland. In it, de Sousa Santos considers what has visibly changed in light of the present European crisis, stresses the need for a recognition of common struggles on the part of everyone in Europe who is interested in a democratic solution to the impending disaster, and sets forth two scenarios that may provide a basis for light at the end of the tunnel.

An open question, which will need to be answered fairly soon: how might the peoples of the countries of Europe that are ‘in difficulties’ exert pressure so as to change the institutional framework of the European Union in short order? And from a local perspective: can Irish people play their part in this to any significant degree?  I am inclined to pessimism, but -in light of a potential referendum vote- couldn’t say for sure. It would depend a lot on whether the case for a ‘No’ vote could be made in such a way that cast aside both the bogus ‘national interest’ -and the scaremongering of isolation- articulated by Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, the Labour Party, the most compliant sections of the trade union movement, IBEC, astroturf civil society groups, RTE and the Irish Times on the one hand, and the reactionary right-wing sludge that gets given pride of place as a means of crowding out leftist and internationalist perspectives on the other. 

What is at stake


Composure has been lost. The deepening of the crisis in Europe has made possible a new radicalism and a new transparency. Until a short while back, positions considered as radical were those opposed to the intervention and prescriptions of the troika, for reasons of sovereignty, democracy, and based the suspicion that the crisis was the pretext for the right to implement in Portugal the “shock policies” of privatisations, including those of health and education. In light of the Greek disaster, they proposed the rejection of the memorandum of understanding or demanded a public debt audit in order to eliminate part of the illegitimate or even illegal debt. They were considered radical because they questioned the survival of the Euro, they discredited Portugal in the European and international context and because, if put into practice, they would lead to social disaster, which is precisely what was intended to be avoided with the referendum.

The deepening of the crisis has brought about a new radicalism which, paradoxically, and in contrast to the previous radicalism, originates in strict conformity with the logic that governs the troika and the memorandum. Commentators from the Financial Times and politicians from countries in the north of Europe call for the end of the Euro because, in the end, the “Euro is the problem”; they propose one Euro for the more developed countries and another for those less developed; they hold that a controlled exit from the Euro on the part of Greece (or other countries, it is implied) may not be such a bad idea; and they call, lastly, for the continuation of the Euro, on the condition that indebted countries are completely subordinated to the financial control of Germany (federalization without democracy). In other words, radicalism currently has two sides, and this perhaps provides us with a new transparency with regard to what is at stake and what is in our interest.

The transparency of what is left out is as important as that of what is being said. This is due to the fact that, in both cases, underlying interests have been uncovered.

The transparency of what is omitted. First, it is not possible to return to “normality” within the current European institutional framework. Within this framework, the European Union is on an inevitable path to its decomposition. Italy will be followed by Spain and France. Secondly, the austerity policies, besides being socially unjust, are not only ineffective, but are also counterproductive. No-one can pay their debts by producing less, and so, after these measures will come other measures even more severe, until the people (and let us not be afraid of this word), beaten and desperate, say enough. Thirdly, the financial markets, dominated as they are by speculation, will never compensate the Portuguese, the Greeks or the Irish for the sacrifices they have made, since the inadequacy of these sacrifices is what feeds the profits of speculative investment. Without controlling the dynamics of speculation, by waiting for the world to do what can and must begin to be done in Europe alone, the social disaster will come about either way, whether the way of obedience or the way of disobedience to the markets.

The transparency of what is in our interest. I am talking about the Portuguese, though the “we” includes the 99% of the citizens and all the immigrants in the south of Europe, as well as all those Europeans for whom a Europe of nationalisms is a Europe at war and for whom democracy is a good so precious that it only has meaning if it is democratically distributed. Any solution that tries to minimise the approaching disaster must be a European solution, that is, a solution articulated, at the very least, with several countries in the euro.

There are two possible solutions. The first, called Scenario A, consists of exerting pressure along with the rest of the countries ‘in difficulties’ in order to change, in the short term, the institutional framework of the European Union in order to arrive at a mutual accord with regard to the debt and to federalise democracy. Among other things, this implies conferring more power to the European Parliament, making the Commission accountable to it and directly electing the presidency. It also implies a European industrial policy and seeking out trade imbalances within Europe. For example, shouldn’t Germany, which exports so much to the rest of Europe, import more from the rest of Europe, abandoning the mercantilism of its unending search for trade surpluses? To make this possible, an intra-European customs and trade preferences policy is required, as well as a refounding of the World Trade Organisation (today a walking cadaver), in the sense of beginning to build the international model of co-operation of the future: global and regional accords that, progressively and to the measure of what is possible, ensure that the places of consumption coincide with the places of production.

Also required is a prudent financial regulation at a European level that envisages a post-neoliberal mandate for the European Central Bank (more powers of intervention based in a greater democratic control over its structure and functioning). This solution frontally opposes the authoritarian solution proposed by Germany, which consists in placing all countries under German tutelage in exchange for Eurobonds or some other mechanism of Europeanising the debt. This surrender to German imperialism would mean that in Europe only those who have money have a right to democracy.

Scenario A is very demanding. It would entail that, immediately, and despite the limitations of the current mandate, the European Central Bank should take on a far more active role in guaranteeing the period of transition. However, prudence recommends foreseeing and seriously considering the failure of this hypothetical scenario. For this reason, we must begin to prepare scenario B as soon as possible, an exit from the euro, either alone or with other countries, making the argument that, as shown by the facts, with it, inequalities between countries have not ceased to widen. The debt audit would be a signal of the seriousness of our proposal. The social costs of solution B are not higher than the costs of failure of solution A and, at a minimum, they allow us to see a light at the end of the tunnel.

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