Monthly Archives: June 2013

John Waters: A Calculated Insult To The Intelligence


The article titled ‘The Taoiseach, the psychiatrist and the Pandora’s Box syndrome‘* published by John Waters in today’s Irish Times, has to be one of the most calculated insults to the intelligence ever written. It is as though he were aware that the painstakingly constructed syllogism of the first two-thirds of the article was about to go pear-shaped, so he decided to take a baseball bat to the whole thing, leaving the discerning reader with only confusion and bewilderment.

Engaging with stupid arguments can make you look stupid. Fortunately I don’t care how I look. Waters’s argument can be summarised like this: if it’s not OK in principle for the State to refrain from preventing someone killing himself on account of a debt by cancelling the debt, why is it OK in principle for the State to prevent someone from killing herself on account of an unwanted pregnancy by allowing an abortion?

The short answer for this is that it is perfectly desirable and legitimate that the State should prevent people from killing themselves on account of debts by cancelling their debts. And similarly, it is perfectly desirable and legitimate that the State should prevent people from killing themselves on account of unwanted pregnancies by allowing abortions. If you agree with these political positions, Waters’s syllogism is bereft of any substance.

In order to make his syllogism appear more convincing, he develops the fantastical scenario of someone telling his psychiatrist he will kill himself unless his debt is paid off by the government there and then. But that is not how anyone is ever likely to kill himself on account of an unbearable situation generated by onerous debt. They will do so in their homes, or in the building that the bank has decided is no longer their home, for instance.

Waters then tries to imply that this fantastical scenario encapsulates the same stratagem that a pregnant woman might use in order to obtain an abortion. But assuming that a woman were not genuinely suicidal, why would she opt to fake such a thing and go through the humiliating and demeaning rigmarole of getting round the Irish State’s highly restrictive abortion laws, which treat women seeking abortions as criminals, when it would be much easier go to Britain?

Debt is a political relation. It can be addressed by political means. States concerned with the welfare of their citizens will adopt general measures that do away with debt relations so unbearable that they damage people’s health. Similarly, States concerned with the fullest degree of equality for their citizens will remove measures that treat certain people as inferior. Ireland’s abortion laws treat women as inferior beings by designating their bodies as property of the State. In their enforcement, as with the current proposed legislation, they deem that women are unable to decide what is best for themselves. It is an indication of the patent injustice of these laws that nonsense such as John Waters’s column is the best their defenders can come up with.

*I don’t link to Irish newspaper sites. Sorry.

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Anglo’s Rotten Apples versus The Taxpayer: A Most Useful Idiot

This is an extended version of a comment I left on a piece , by Peter Cunningham in today’s Irish Times titled ‘A dark, cruel comedy at the expense of the Irish taxpayer’

Anyone who thinks people in Ireland ‘don’t riot, burn buses or paralyse the infrastructure in their anger’ either has a very short memory or a limited idea of Ireland. The history of the north of Ireland in recent decades offers plenty of examples to disprove the claim. It’s only when you think of Ireland in terms of the 26 counties of the southern state that such things appear convincing.

True enough, the population in the south has been docile by comparison with other periphery countries such as Greece or Spain. But we are talking about different places with different histories, so you shouldn’t expect to see the same thing.

There is no congenital condition affecting people in Ireland. Saying that people in Ireland on the whole are remarkably docile, considering the fact that they have had a humongous debt burden placed on their shoulders, is a bit like saying that people in Britain on the whole are remarkably deferential towards wealth and power considering the fact they live in a hereditary monarchy that glorifies rich people. There’s a paralysing circularity to such conversations.

If Ireland’s ‘sovereign government’ was willing to ‘make a decision that would beggar its people’, as the author puts it, might it not be down to the rather banal situation that the political establishment sees the needs of finance capital, of banks and property developers and associated intermediaries, as ultimately more important than people’s welfare? And, if people are confused about what to do about this, might it not be down to the rather banal situation that Ireland’s media establishment makes it seem as if the priorities of finance capital, of banks and property developers and associated intermediaries, are ultimately more important than people’s welfare, and moreover makes it seem that nearly everyone agrees on this point?

As far as I can see, media coverage of the Anglo Tapes affair is just one more attempt at denying any kind of fundamental problems with the system. It is a system in which the needs of finance capital are paramount, rights are stripped away, and democracy is winnowed down to empty voting ritual and madcap speculations about fantasy political parties who might take the form of a Messiah. The grotesque spectacle of a few especially rotten apples helps to cover that up.

One handy way of maintaining a sense of impotence in the face of abuses as blatant as those of Anglo bosses is to make sure people diagnose the problem with words supplied by the forces that enabled the robbery in the first place.

A good example is the word ‘taxpayer’, which is put to use in this article: ‘A dark, cruel comedy at the expense of the Irish taxpayer’; ‘on to the backs of the Irish taxpayer’.

‘Taxpayer’ is an idiotic term. By idiotic I don’t mean merely stupid, but more importantly, I mean concerned solely with private interest, as per its original Greek meaning.

‘Taxpayer’ is an anti-political term. It reduces politics to a transaction between the taxpayer and the representative, where the only necessary participation in political life by the idiot/taxpayer is the occasional vote. I pay taxes, therefore I am represented. Politics is a service you pay for, not an activity in which you take part. You pay your taxes and elect your politician so you can get on with sending your kid to grind school or watching porn on the internet. ‘Taxpayer’ serves to dislodge politics from any grounding in democratic equality. Instead, the greater your capacity to pay, the greater your entitlement.

‘Taxpayer’ is a way of effacing class differences and antagonisms. It makes it seem as though the act of funneling tens of billions in public money in the direction of wealthy private investors is an act that offends and aggrieves everyone equally, when in fact it improves the possibilities for some people to exploit others, and causes a great deal more misery for poorer people. But the ‘taxpayer’ says: we are all in this together.

The ‘taxpayer’ holds that public things –such as education, health, water, shelter- are only of use to the extent that they deliver a desirable outcome for private, individual ends. The ‘taxpayer’ reduces such things to the status of commodities for individual consumption. The idea that things such as education and health ought to be things to be bought and sold is well embedded in Irish public consciousness. Though it claims to be a democratic state, Ireland subsidises the rich in the provision of private education and health services, and it is currently formalising the status of water as a commodity.

Some people hold that ‘citizen’ is a far better political name than ‘taxpayer’, which is really an anti-political name. I’m inclined to agree. But ‘citizen’ has its problems too, not least the way its use can exclude people who don’t have official status as citizen. At any rate, it is only after a moment of rupture that new names or new ways of naming things can start to take real shape.

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Ruairi Quinn and The Sick Choreography of Ireland’s Bailout Politics

One of the ways in which Ireland is not Greece is that the former country has no memory of dictatorship and resistance to it, unlike Portugal, Spain and Italy. There is therefore no readily accessible collective memory of democratic gains won that might spur widespread dissent and resistance.

Along with this comes a relatively weak attachment to rights, and a tendency to see charity as a substitute for justice. Ruling politicians are expected to supply rain and sunshine from above, and open conflict is averted through a network of unions, charities and civil society formations that see things through the eyes of the government of the day.

This is a favourable terrain for a successful bailout programme. By successful I mean from the point of view of bankers who want to party and have the public clean up their vomit, successful from the point of view of privateers who want to get stuck into rich seams of income from services previously provided by the public sector, and successful from the point of view of major firms who want their profits maintained and restored through the imposition of austerity measures.

Part of this ongoing process of disciplining the public has been the manipulation of expectations: threats to inflict harm are followed by claims that no, not at all, it will not be as bad as that, there will be more sunshine and less rain than had been expected.

Then, more threats come through from the political establishment: auguries of violence in which everything -everything- will be on the table. Then, they relent. You see, at the end of the day, cuts to health, welfare and education spending hurt a Minister on €150,000 a year just as much as they hurt a child living in poverty. (But the latter needs to feel discipline.)

There is a direct relation, then, between the fiscal and economic stability demanded by the Irish government and the Troika on the one hand, and the feeling of instability that affects everyday people on the other, a feeling generated by the fear -and the experience- of impoverishment, deprivation, unemployment, and, frequently, humiliation.

A particularly insidious feature of this relation is members of the public having to depend on the Minister of the day -whether in Finance, Social Protection, Health or Education- to rescind their course of action, to relent from unleashing chaos on people’s lives.

Given the power of the government over the Dáil, and given the absence of civil society institutions independent of government influence that are capable of offering a robust defence of social and economic rights, lobbying the Minister is often the only thing campaigners can do.

But this leads to a sick choreography, in which government departments announce vicious assaults on rights and entitlements, only for the Minister in charge to announce his or her solidarity and common cause with those affected once the public outcry has reached a certain level. It hurts him just as much as it does you. He listens.

Today, on the eve of planned protests, Minister for Education Ruairi Quinn announced, flanked by six Labour backbenchers, that his Department would not proceed with a 10% cut in specialist teaching hours for children with more moderate to severe levels of special needs: a partial relief, perhaps, for those parents and educators fearing the worst for the education and welfare of the children for whom they bear responsibility.

Ruairi Quinn said he had listened to the concerns of his colleagues

When the ‘bailout’ of Greece was agreed back in 2010, Ruairi Quinn took to the airwaves to endorse it.

He told RTE, the Irish state broadcaster, that “Ireland was going to make a bit of money out of this”, because it was lending money at a lower rate than the international markets. The erstwhile ruling party, PASOK, part of the Socialist International along with the Irish Labour Party, was “getting massive support from the Greek citizens right across the political spectrum.”

Quinn said Greek opinion polls on the bailout were “much more positive than the savage demonstrations would suggest”. He was in no doubt that the lessons to be dealt out to Greek society applied to Ireland as well. Ireland had “continued to act like Italians, or should I say Greeks”, when they should have “learning to behave like Germans”.

The measures contained in the Greek deal were steps that Ireland’s political establishment was already agreed upon, since, as he put it, “while many of us disagreed with the nature of the cuts, there was no intellectual disagreement in political Ireland against the necessity for the macroeconomic measures”.

Three years later, with Greek society laid waste, PASOK’s popularity decimated, and public institutions subject to dictatorial erasure, and with the Irish Labour Party on the road to oblivion in the polls, Quinn and the rest of the government are still out to maintain Irish discipline, still out to teach people to behave like good little Germans.

And they are resorting to sick choreography -preying on the fears of parents of children with special needs, and discarding the rights of those children before conveniently rediscovering them- in order to achieve it. Quinn gets to look human and the cuts will come from somewhere else, from more deserving victims.

What this episode tells us is that the horrifying choreography of the ongoing bailout will only stop once Irish people take to the streets and stay there. The protests for tomorrow evening (Wednesday) are still going ahead, and with good reason.

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Fiscal Discipline: Who’s Gonna Feed Them Hogs?

I posted this response to Philip Lane’s article in today’s Irish Times titled ‘There are too many downside risks to relax fiscal discipline now’

‘The first thing to note about Philip Lane’s article is that it doesn’t question the legitimacy of any part of Ireland’s current debt burden; it simply proposes actions to be taken in order to pay it off.

In short: more cuts to public spending to pay off private banking debt.

The ‘commitment to fiscal stability’ Lane wishes to see the government maintain involves greater instability for the public, in terms of access to decent health, education and welfare services. It also involves greater instability through diminished wages across the board, via the so-called ‘demonstration effect’ that cuts to public sector wages are intended to produce, and the consequent fear of losing one’s job or not getting one.

The rationale behind Lane’s proposal is to gain the approval of ‘market sources’ and ‘international analysts’, thereby keeping public debt costs down. To simplify: if the government attacks wages and living standards and continues to sell off state assets and ignores pressure from the public, the markets will lend it money. The outworking of this position, however, is that ‘markets’ are sovereign, not the government.

The best the government can do, according to Lane’s position, is force the public to obey the dictates of the markets in such a way that the harm they inflict is minimised. The Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas CEO Richard Fisher referred to financial markets the other day as ‘feral hogs’: Lane’s counsel: obey the hogs!

Fine. But If the government is effectively an agent of the markets, doesn’t that pose a problem for democracy? In nominally democratic societies, a tacit assumption of policy advice in public is that governments carry out the will of the people. Well, what if governments are carrying out the will of the markets? Under such circumstances, to lend the impression that things should carry on as normal, that the budget routine is same as it ever was, that representative democracy’s legitimacy under Troika rule is unquestionable, that the debt must be paid, that no new political institutions are needed, that the public should be ignored, and so on and so forth, is to act, in the final instance, as little more than an advocate for the feral hogs.


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Blame: Blinkered Thinking and Thinkered Blinking

I left this comment on ‘Blinkered thinking at the heart of Ireland’s economic crash’ by Donal Donovan and Antoin Murphy, published yesterday in the Irish Times. Donal Donovan is a former deputy director of the International Monetary Fund and a member of the Fiscal Advisory Council; Antoin Murphy is a fellow emeritus of Trinity College Dublin. 

The question of blame is important because beyond the academic considerations of regulatory architecture and processes of policy-making, there are people paying the price for the banking guarantee. This payment takes various forms: in worsened health due to cutbacks in health; in impoverishment due to unemployment and cuts to wages and benefits; in the destruction of family and community life due to the compulsion to emigrate, to name a few things. The price is not being paid by bankers or policy-making elites and associated advisers. Nor for that matter is it being paid by those owners of capital whose profits are being restored through the imposition of austerity policies.

What Donovan and Murphy suggest in this article is that such payments are a logical and justifiable consequence of ‘most of Irish society’s’ ‘acquiescence’ in the ‘artificial riches of the boom’. They do not say what forms such acquiescence took, or what non-artificial riches look like. In fact, that is the only time ‘most of Irish society’ comes into their argument. The rest of the article focuses on ‘the policy-making apparatus’, ‘the key decision-makers’, and the absence of ‘contrarian views’ in ‘the Central Bank/Financial Regulator, the Department of Finance or the media’.

Thus whilst they counsel ‘a wide-ranging and systematic reflection’, it doesn’t sound like the kind of process that ought to involve the general public much. Their own reflection is neither wide-ranging nor systematic, but operates within narrow parameters: it’s fine to blame the public for causing Ireland’s property, banking, fiscal and financial crises, and make them pay the according price in order to preserve the integrity of the financial system, but there is no need to explain why they are to blame, let alone worry about how the public might protect itself against such calamities in future.

Which is fine. By so doing, they are helpfully showing that economic orthodoxy –even when it espouses a critical, contrarian viewpoint- sees no role for democratic participation in economic decision-making, whilst treating the needs of the owners of capital as paramount. Thus an article denouncing ‘blinkered thinking’ is merely peddling a better set of blinkers in the interests of the rich.

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Brazil: The Price of Progress

This is a translation of an article by Boaventura de Sousa Santos, originally published in Público, 21st June.


The price of progress

With the election of President Dilma Roussef, Brazil sought to accelerate the pace in turning itself into a global power. Many of the initiatives in this direction came from beforehand, but they had a new impetus: the UN Conference on the Environment, Rio+20 in 2012, the World Cup in 2014, Olympic Games in 2016, the battle for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, an active role in the increasing prominence of the “emerging economies”, the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa), the naming of José Graziano da Silva as the director general of the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in 2012 and Roberto Azevedo as director general of the World Trade Organisation from 2013 onward, an aggressive policy of exploiting natural resources, both in Brazil and in Africa, mainly in Mozambique, the development of major industrial agriculture, especially in the production of soya, biofuels and livestock.

Benefiting from a good international public image sown by President Lula and his policies of social inclusion, this developmentalist Brazil confronts the world as a power of a new kind, one that is benevolent and inclusive. The international surprise, then, could not have been greater with regard to the demonstrations which during the past week brought hundreds of thousands of people onto the streets of the main cities in the country. If the reading of the recent demonstrations in Turkey as one of “two Turkeys” was immediate, in the case of Brazil it was more difficult to recognise the existence of “two Brazils”. But it can be seen by everyone. The difficulty in recognising it lies in the very nature of the “other Brazil”, a Brazil that eludes simplistic analyses. This Brazil is made of three narratives and temporalities. The first is the narrative of social exclusion (one of the most unequal countries in the world), of landowning oligarchies, of violent caciquism, of narrow and racist political elites – a narrative that dates back to colonialism and which has reproduced itself on always mutating forms to this day. The second narrative is that of the demand for participative democracy, which dates back this past 25 years and had its highest points in the constituent process that led to the Constitution of 1988, the participative budgets on urban policies in hundreds of municipalities, the impeachment of president Collor de Mello in 1992, in the creation of citizen councils in the main areas of public policy, especially in health and education, at different levels of state action (municipal, regional and federal). The third narrative is less than ten years old and relates to the vast policies of social inclusion adopted by president Lula da Silva from 2003, which led to a significant reduction in poverty, the creation of a middle class with a high consumerist drive, the recognition of racial discrimination against the Afro-descendant and indigenous population, and policies of affirmative action, and the widening of the recognition of Quilombola [slave descendant] and indigenous territories.

What happened from when President Dilma took power was the slowing down or even the stagnation of the last two narratives. And since there is no vacuum in politics, the waste ground they left behind was put to use by the first and oldest narrative, strengthened under the new garb of capitalist development and the new (and old) forms of corruption. The forms of participative democracy were co-opted, neutralised in the domain of major infrastructure and mega-projects, and they ceased to motivate the youngest generations, orphaned of an integrating family and community life, dazzled by the new consumerism or obsessed by the desire for it. The policies of social inclusion petered out and ceased to respond to the expectations of those who felt they deserved more and better. The quality of urban life worsened in the name of international prestige events, which soaked up the investments that ought to have improved transport, education and public services in general. Racism showed its persistence in the social fabric and in the police forces. There was a rise in murders of indigenous and peasant leaders, demonised by those in political power as “obstacles to growth”, simply for struggling for their lands and ways of life, against agri-business and mining and hydro-electrical mega-projects (such as the damn at Belo Monte, intended to supply cheap energy to the extractive industry).

President Dilma was the thermometer of this insidious change. She adopted an attitude of unconcealed hostility towards indigenous peoples and social movements, a drastic change from her predecessor. She fought against corruption, but left to her most conservative political allies those agendas she deemed less important. Hence the Human Rights Commission, historically committed to the rights of minorities, was handed over to a homophobic evangelical pastor, who promoted a legislative proposal known as ‘cura gay‘ (gay cure). The demonstrations reveal that, far from it being the country that awoke, it was the president who awoke. With an eyes on the international experience and also on the presidential elections of 2014, President Dilma made clear that repressive responses only sharpened conflicts and isolated governments. In this vein, the mayors of nine capitals have already decided to lower the price of public transport. It is barely a start. For it to be consistent, there is a need for the two narratives (participative democracy and intercultural social inclusion) to resume the dynamism they previously had. If this were to happen, Brazil would show the world that the price of progress is only worth paying by deepening democracy, redistributing the wealth generated, and by recognising the cultural and political difference of those who consider that progress without dignity is regression.

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RTE and the idea of the Public

Pat Kenny


I left this comment on Richard Pine’s article in today’s Irish Times titled ‘Dispute over Greek broadcaster illustrates how essential public service broadcasting is’.

No doubt public service broadcasting is a different kind of entity. But the existence of a public service broadcaster does not in itself ensure ‘information…is available free of market forces’, as the author writes.

Market forces can greatly influence the quality and range of information transmitted by a public service broadcaster. This is the case with RTE. Much of its programming in news and current affairs accepts the legitimacy of the capitalist market as the decisive force in society. This acceptance shapes perceptions about what is and what ought to be public, and helps set limits on how far the public, as an autonomous body, may go.

Evidence for this can be found in RTE’s reporting and analysis of politics under the bailout. Neither its presenters nor its reports will ever question the legitimacy of rule by Troika; in fact, it presents that rule –and the actions that flow as a consequence, from cuts to education and health to imposition of regressive property taxes and water charges to privatisation of public goods- as self-evidently necessary.

In so doing, it is helping to efface the idea of the public as an autonomous body committed to democratic thought and deliberation, and installing in its place the idea of the public as a passive mass of consumer-voters that needs to be ruled by experts who supply sunshine and rain from above. So, if RTE ever gets shut down to pay off private banking debts, it will be not least because RTE has shaped large parts of public opinion to accept such an event.

This veneration of the capitalist market precedes Troika rule, of course. As UCD academic Julian Mercille has shown, RTE ‘fed the national obsession with property by airing shows like House Hunters in the Sun, Showhouse, About the House and I’m an Adult, Get Me Out of Here.’ What is more, many of its most prominent and wealthy faces have their own private companies, which means they identify with the ideology of the rugged entrepreneur so relentlessly promoted by the channel. They would therefore be glad to help sign the death warrant for real public broadcasting, which RTE does produce in some admirable exceptions, if the money was right.

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