On ‘Lifting The Burden’ of Zombie Social Partnership

Behold the cover image from the ICTU leaflet to advertise the forthcoming protests on 9th February, against the Irish debt burden, I don't know who made it; I don't know what the decision-making process was behind it; I don't know who approved it; and I don't know if it's part of a series and the image will acquire greater coherence within a range of images.

Publication cover - Feb 9 leaflet

But there are problems with it, from the point of view of anyone who thinks unions ought to form a bulwark of opposition against austerity politics, rather than be complicit in it. Let me outline some them.

First of all, its destructive ambiguity. To whom is the message addressed? Is it supposed to be a message to the Irish government, and through them, to the Council of Ministers to lift the burden off working people? Or, is it supposed to be a message to the people who bear the burden at the moment that they should exert themselves even more? Who is doing the speaking? Is 'Lift the burden' what the faceless silhouettes struggling beneath the weight are saying, or is it a public notice, as with a street sign that reads 'Give Way'?

Through its ambiguity, the message 'Lift The Burden' avoids any kind of political antagonism, whether in institutional or class terms. It could well be saying, along with Enda Kenny and IBEC, that the heroic exertions of the Irish people mean that a 'deal' needs to be done. Enda Kenny could easily stand in front of such a poster and say, as he did last week, that 'Ireland has always paid its way, but it needs to be done in a fair and balanced way for everybody involved'.

So it has nothing to say about the democratic legitimacy of the political institutions that imposed the debt, nor does it have anything to say about who benefits from the imposition of the debt. Indeed, the image of debt as a dead weight with no visible attachments severs the conceptual link to creditors, to the fact that there are people who stand to benefit from the debt relation -whether the creditors themselves, or those who see public debt as the lever for the stripping away of public services and labour rights.

‘Jobs not debt' is a crisp slogan, meaning..what? One way of interpreting it would be as a rejection of current economic policy, which serves to keep unemployment high as a means of driving down labour costs whilst maintaining profitability, whilst at the same time raising taxes and cutting public spending whilst stripping away services in order to lower the budget deficit, thereby depressing economic activity and creating even more joblessness.

But it could just as easily be interpreted as an endorsement of current economic policy. 'Jobs' is the alibi used for a whole range of policies whose object is the immiseration of the working class and the accumulation of profits. An example would be the sale of public assets. Labour Party ministersin the Irish government have spoken approvingly about how the Troika has given thenod to using part -part- of the proceeds of the sell-off of state assets as ajob stimulus.  As Noam Chomsky points out: 'Jobs is a funny word in the English language. It’s a way of pronouncingan unpronounceable word. I’ll spell (that unpronounceable word) .P-R-O-F-I-T-S. You are not allowed to say that word, so the way you pronouncethat is jobs.'

And no-one -no-one- says these days that debt is a good thing. So-called 'deficit hawks', i.e. privateers and kleptocrats, think debt is a very bad thing. So the exertions of the faceless people taken in conjunction with 'jobs not debt' could very well be saying, "behold the heroically diligent Irish people working to shed themselves of their debt burden in order to get the budget deficit down. Let us assist them by selling off state assets to create jobs! Let us incentivise strivers by freeing them from social welfare payments so they can all land jobs!"

In fact, it's hard to escape the conclusion, surveying the ambiguous quality of this image, that the intention is for the upcoming mobilisation is to support the position of the Irish government in its travails to secure a 'deal' on banking debt, perhaps in such a way as to mitigate the severity of the demands made of public sector unions as part of renewed negotiations regarding the Croke Park agreement (as a side note, it was a propaganda coup for Ireland's ruling class to have that agreement named after a site that connotes a history of popular movements, national consensus, national independence, harmonious competition and muscular striving), without calling into any question the government's political legitimacy in pursuing the current programme of stripping away Ireland's threadbare welfare state provisions and the worsening of job conditions for those who do have jobs.

And this is not surprising given the number of Labour party members and supporters in the upper echelons of the trade unions, that is, supporters of the party whose ministers are engaged in shrinking the public sector and privatising and outsourcing whatever public services it can, thereby fragmenting and weakening the power of organised labour, and laying the basis for a society where spending on public services will be lower than both the US and the UK by 2017.

So the image does not disturb in any way the interlocking of the Labour Party and the trade union bureaucracy, and therefore does not disturb the current programme of stripping away of public services and social welfare and the harrassment of benefit recipients, the Labour Party's enthusiastic support for  that programme, and the relation between that programme and the problem of illegitimate public debt.

Now, you may be saying, so what, it's only one image. And yes, it's only one image. One among, well, not too many. But it is an image that has gone through a process of commissioning, conceptualisation, and approval, and the fact it has emerged in such a form tells us quite a lot about what ICTU's current priorities are. It does not seek to enter into any kind of open conflict with political institutions, ruling parties or ruling strata, no matter how vaguely (e.g. 99% vs 1%), and has nothing at all to say about a political and economic system in crisis. It does not seek to link the predicament of working class people in Ireland to that of people in Greece, or Spain, or in Portugal.

And the upshot of this -or at least the message conveyed by the image, though it is hardly a stretch of the imagination to extrapolate from this- is that corporately, ICTU is not interested in defending public services within a framework of defending the democratic gains won by the labour movement during the last century. Rather, it is content to confine itself to mitigating the severity of the anti-democratic austerity regime being imposed, without ever contesting its legitimacy.

In short, it does not take democracy seriously. And that -amid a climate of grim sacrificial inevitability- is a problem that no amount of simply shouting 'traitor!' or 'general strike!' will solve. We need imaginative ways of communicating the conflict, of capturing people’s commitment to a struggle for democratic rights, and of destroying the ambiguity served up by zombie social partnership.


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2 responses to “On ‘Lifting The Burden’ of Zombie Social Partnership

  1. Witness

    Well thought out article. I don’t agree with parts, however I do agree with the thesis that ICTU "is content to confine itself to mitigating the severity of the anti-democratic austerity regime being imposed, without ever contesting its legitimacy."As I am sure you are aware, post 1917 in USSR there was the emergence of a new overpaid unaccountable ruling class of civil servants, the Nomenklatura. It seems to me that Ireland is experiencing that today, courtesy of fiscal heroin from the EU where upper-tier PS employees are being overpaid, effectively bribed, as Euroklatura – but all of which is being fixed to the necks of Irish citizens. By not being prepared to call for cuts to start at the top, imo ICTU and their ilk have abused the majority of their members, who are lower paid, but who effectively serve the purpose of being useful idiots as a firewall.

  2. witness - again

    I also wish to add that I too agree that there’s ambiguity to the image. The word "bank debt" for instance. Doesn’t distingush that much of it is the unsecured bad debts incurred by other foreign banks making unwise investments. It all seems to amount to pretend politics by ICTU. Shame on them.

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