In Saturday’s Irish Times, former Mountjoy Prison governor John Lonergan wrote an article, in advance of this week’s budget, with the title ‘No economic crisis justifies what vulnerable are paying’. In it, he detailed many examples of how the programme of cuts undertaken by successive governments, with the backing of the Troika and in search of the ‘approval of the markets’, has produced catastrophic human effects, inflicted, as he put it, on ‘our most vulnerable people’.
But whilst John Lonergan -were he not a former prison governor I doubt anyone would pay him any heed- does well to name many of the social outrages perpetrated against those who have few if any defences in Irish society, this pervasive idea of ‘the most vulnerable’ informs his article.
The function of ‘the vulnerable’, or ‘the most vulnerable’, in Irish public discourse is to conceal a multitude of sins. No-one is in favour of attacking the most vulnerable.
Even the IMF, which has ruined hundreds of millions of lives through its imposition of neo-liberal economic doctrine in defence of finance capital, thinks budgetary measures ought to protect ‘the most vulnerable’. Hence Craig Beaumont, director of the IMF’s Ireland programme, cites protecting ‘the most vulnerable’
when advocating means-testing for child benefit payments and cutting the cost of medical cards. Eddie Hobbs, one of Ireland’s most prominent media right-wing commentators, calls for the removal of the Croke Park agreement because it is tantamount to a ‘cartel’ that means cuts are ‘targeted at the most vulnerable
‘. The Fianna Fáil spokesperson on Finance makes precisely the same argument
. Thus breaking the power of organised labour, dismantling universality and restricting access to health services can be justified by claiming you are protecting the most vulnerable.
In the same paper in an article published just above Lonergan’s, Stephen Collins, the Irish Times political correspondent, claims that ‘the Irish State has managed better than any other in the EU to protect the most vulnerable sectors in society
from the worst hardship during this fiscal correction, which has already amounted to €23 billion.’ For Collins, there is no need to cite any evidence, of course. And by calling gargantuan cuts in public spending a ‘correction’, he is implying he can speak without fear of contradiction that dismantling public services and welfare is the right thing to do.
‘The most vulnerable’ are an alibi, then, for the elimination of public services and entitlements and the transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich. They are a lubricant for the ‘application of’ public debt as a lever for primitive accumulation’, as Karl Marx put it.
The category of ‘the most vulnerable’ serves to distract from the fact that hundreds of thousands of people have already been harmed and are currently being harmed by the structural violence of the Irish State and its preservation of a good business climate for finance capital.
Talking about ‘the most vulnerable’ is a way of setting back the clock to zero. Whatever happened in the past in terms of pain already inflicted is of no importance, indeed, no-one is actually feeling any pain, but is simply subject to the possibility that they may feel pain.
Not only that, but the category of the ‘most vulnerable’, whilst taking the place of any kind of class analysis, implies a continuum of vulnerability, along which there are certain people who are not vulnerable at all, as if for some human beings the possibility of getting old, frail and sick. for instance did not exist. This has the effect of turning those who are ‘most vulnerable’ into a kind of subspecies that the system and the ruling powers must manage appropriately, rather than recognising them as people with rights and dignity who are largely defenceless against the attack of a system run in the interests of the wealthy and powerful.
Furthermore, in the same way as talk about ‘deprived areas’ rarely entails talking about just who or what it is that is doing the depriving, talk about ‘the most vulnerable’ rarely ever entails specifying just who or what it is that threatens to cause harm.
And that is because ‘the most vulnerable’ are the object of the wealthy and powerful. It is the wealthy and powerful who name them, and it is the wealthy and powerful who threaten to inflict vicious harm on them, unless society conforms to their insatiable Procrustean expectations.