Monthly Archives: June 2013

‘Democracy Matters’ in me arse

I left this comment on an article in The Journal titled ‘The abolition of the Seanad is an act of political vandalism‘, by a member of a group called ‘Democracy Matters‘. Incidentally I was listening to Tavis Smiley and Cornel West’s radio show a few weeks back and Cornel West spoke of the time when he went to Venezuela, Hugo Chávez arrived with copies of West’s book Democracy Matters, asking him to sign them. He had put Democracy Matters on the Venezuelan school curriculum. The subtitle of West’s book is ‘Winning the Fight Against Imperialism’, a fight no doubt close to the heart of the Irish group.

‘Democracy Matters’ in me arse. It is true that the proposal to abolish the Seanad is just a ploy by Fine Gael to tap into the general anti-political mood, in which ruling politicians are perceived as pigs at the trough, a perception that has a large degree of truth.

However, the net effect of abolishing the Seanad on democracy in Ireland will be minimal, since the Dáil is on the whole subservient to the demands of big business and finance capital. The Seanad has never stood in the way of such demands; on the contrary, it has offered up a nice spectacle in which beautiful souls wring their hands at the way things are going, thus giving the impression that Ireland’s great and good actually care about democracy, when in fact what they care about is the State and the Law.

Or, to be more precise, they care about bourgeois democracy, described by Raymond Williams as ‘the coexistence of political representation and participation with an economic system which admits no such rights, procedures or claims’. They identify with the priorities of big business and the rich and look down on the public, whom they pretend to shower with ‘rain and sunshine from above’, as Karl Marx put it.

So, whilst financial dictatorship tightens its grasp over European populations, driving them into misery and stripping them of social and labour rights, of freedom of information and freedom of communication, will Democracy Matters and sympathetic political grandees take a stand on the material requirements for basic democratic equality? They will, I repeat, in me arse.

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Notes on the G8 – and Fracking

One of the key moments in the so-called Peace Process in Northern Ireland was the declaration by the British Government that it had ‘no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland’. It is hard to see how staging the summit among what Churchill referred to as the ‘dreary steeples of Fermanagh‘ is anything other than the expression of both a selfish strategic interest and an economic interest.

No doubt the British Government would deny any icy cold egotistical calculation in using Fermanagh: there is consensus among the ruling parties in government North and South that the G8 summit is a Good Thing, an opportunity for that region to flaunt its landscape, at least before it gets fracked into oblivion, and for the people there to showcase how submissive they can be to the demands of Power now that Peace has broken over them. But for those inclined to take the Crown’s injunction of Honi soit qui mal y pense with a pinch of salt, there are clear selfish strategic interests –if only the British Government were suitably equipped to recognising them, of course- in presenting Britain to the world as a successful broker of peace at a time when its troops are subjecting Afghans to the benefits of its helicopters and drones.

There are also clear selfish strategic interests –not that they have ever occurred to the British Government- in minimising levels of public protests amid an atmosphere of deep discontent arising from the Tory Government’s ongoing destruction of the National Health Service, its brutal cuts to welfare provision, and its imposition of crippling and punitive taxes on the weakest constituencies in British society. What better place, in this context, than a remote location inaccessible by land to Britain’s population, one that sports long experience of using repressive policing apparatus with a minimum of fuss? Therein lies the economic interest too, of course, and also in the chance to use Northern Ireland once again as a petri dish for deploying new technologies of population control and containment, as with the purchase of drones purchased by the PSNI.

From the point of view of the Irish Government, the G8 summit matters only in so far as it gives the opportunity, on the one hand, for flexing the muscles of its security apparatus and cracking down on so-called ‘dissident’ behaviour real or imagined, and, on the other, for demonstrating once again how willing it is to bow to the interests of more powerful states, including Britain, in the pursuit of a ‘good business climate’.

With the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, the Irish Government no longer lays any claim to the territory of Northern Ireland, and hence what goes on within its borders is in the final instance none of its business. This is a situation the Government is quite happy to contend with: moves toward an all-Ireland Republic would necessarily entail a substantial shift in terms of class power – in the wrong direction, from the point of view of its political establishment. Why, for instance, would you want Northerners starting to lay claim to sovereignty over the material possessions and resources in the South?

The reverse is true for the Unionist establishment in the North. If drilling companies wants to frack Fermanagh or Lough Neagh or wherever to bits and risk destroying vital freshwater lakes, what business is that of interfering Southerners? The political settlement has been cast, and these things are decided in the Northern Ireland Assembly, and you wouldn’t want that falling to bits, and things going back to the bad old days…

The whole point of the republic is the res publica: that which is common to all. Under the old constitutional claim, that meant Lough Neagh and Lough Erne were common to everyone who lived on the island. Now there is an understanding that Britain exercises sovereignty -through its local assembly, of course- over the loughs of the North to do with them as they will. Is it all that surprising that ‘dissidents’ – people who refuse to recognise the legitimacy of Northern Ireland and British rule – should be given especial attention in the run up to the G8, or, as it appears, that anti-fracking campaigners should be presented in the pro-fracking Northern media as if they were such ‘dissidents’? The issue of fracking, whilst it might seem a minor one at present, drills right into the political and material constitution of Ireland. Whatever happens at the G8 summit, I have a feeling the question of the Republic of Ireland is likely to re-emerge….

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The Continued Triumph of Reason and Evidence: Dan O’Brien vs. The Reactionaries

I left another comment on Dan O’Brien’s piece in today’s Irish Times titled ‘‘Neoliberalism’ is being used as a straw man to close down reasonable debate on policies’. Couldn’t help myself.

I could not let the occasion pass without remarking on the utter absurdity of the fact of the newspaper’s Economics Editor effectively denying the existence of neoliberalism in one article and, in another, published on the same day, the newspaper’s Political Correspondent Harry McGee writing about the tribulations of John McGuinness, the head of the ‘watchdog that closely monitors State spending’, a ‘robust committee’, now that it has emerged that McGuinness’s bluff common sense approach to waste and parsimony stops at the entrance to his luxury toilet.  
 
Michel Foucault –who certainly looked like the kind of guy Dan O’Brien might describe as ‘cerebral’- gave lectures on neoliberalism way back. He said that ‘the problem of neoliberalism is how the overall exercise of political power can be modelled on the principles of a market economy’.  
 
If Foucault is correct, McGuinness is the strutting embodiment of Irish neoliberalism, with his hard-nosed public persona urging the application of entrepreneurial principles and business sense in government, constantly drawing comparisons between the inefficiency of the public sector and the thrusting rationality of the private sector.  
 
The ‘robust committee’ that is the PAC recently issued a report on the Health Service Executive, issuing ‘recommendations aimed at tackling inefficiencies’ in the context of ‘the commitments given by the State as part of the Troika bail-out’. However, the report said that ‘cuts of €57 million being made to front line services’ were ‘a policy matter’, and ‘outside the remit of the PAC’. Here we find an excellent example of neoliberalism in operation: public entities are subjected to intense scrutiny on efficiency of spending practices, hypocritical opulence is seized on with glee, but in keeping with the primacy of the financial system over the collective rights (and quality of life) of the population, the dictatorship of the financial bourgeoisie escapes unquestioned, both by the committee and Ireland’s media. Thus the tens of billions in public money paid out in bank bailouts -and the destructive effects on collective solidarities as a consequence- are made to appear as a self-evident necessity.  
 
But no matter, Dan O’Brien says neoliberalism is a figment of a reactionary left’s brainless imagination. Because reason and evidence tell him so, apparently.

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‘Reason and evidence are triumphing’ – Dan O’Brien on neoliberalism and its reactionaries

I left this comment on Dan O’Brien’s piece in today’s Irish Times titled ‘‘Neoliberalism’ is being used as a straw man to close down reasonable debate on policies’. In it, he claimed that ‘in a world that is increasingly complex, reason and evidence are, thankfully, triumphing’, against ‘reactionaries on the right’ and ‘reactionaries on the left’. The latter, in Ireland, are ‘seeking to close down debate’ through ‘name-calling’, which ‘happens even though no political party, grouping or individual in Ireland describes itself/himself/herself as “neoliberal”.’

Pro-tip: if you’re going to attack straw men and emerge with respect, it’s always better to refrain from erecting 300ft straw men of your own. Dan O’Brien contradicts the supposedly ‘reactionary’ conception of neoliberalism with the following claims:

a) that there is a contradiction between neoliberalism and ‘the combination of the state, its agencies, market mechanisms and private business’;
b) that neoliberalism means diminished state involvement;
c) that neoliberalism means lower levels of regulation on the whole;

But none of these things are characteristics of neoliberalism according to scholarly definitions. The neoliberal state is by no means a smaller state. David Harvey, in A Brief History of Neoliberalism, a well-known text on the subject, writes that:

‘In the event of a conflict, the typical neoliberal state will tend to side with a good business climate as opposed to either the collective rights (and quality of life) of labour or the capacity of the environment to regenerate itself’;

Moreover,

‘In the event of a conflict, neoliberal states typically favour the integrity of the financial system and the solvency of financial institutions over the well-being of the population or environmental concerns’.

Furthermore,

‘the neoliberal state cannot tolerate any massive financial defaults even when it is the financial institutions that have made the bad decisions’.

Not applicable to Ireland, of course.

None of these things mean a smaller state; on the contrary, they require a far greater degree of regulation –in particular, of ‘the collective rights (and quality of life) of labour’ – with greater surveillance, bureaucracy, segregation and marketisation brought to bear on access to resources previously considered as public. Neoliberalism thus defined is a project for a restoration of class power, not a political identity, as O’Brien claims.

As for the claim that the term ‘neoliberalism’ shuts down public debate: it is dismally serendipitous that this article (published in a country with no left-wing newspapers) should be published the day after the Greek public broadcaster was shut down as a consequence of a State seeking to maintain the integrity of the financial system over the democratic life of the population.

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Spaces of a Second Republic

Comment left on Journal column titled ‘Ireland needs a new party to make the ‘Second Republic’ a reality‘ by Rory Hearne, in which the author proposes, drawing on Fintan O’Toole’s idea for a ‘Second Republic’, ‘a new broad based, progressive, political party that proposes a vision for an Ireland based on the values of social and economic equality, community, democracy, and environmental sustainability’.

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There is a problem here. On the one hand, the author says the public has to ‘go beyond being passive consumers and observers and get involved in politics, campaigns and communities’. On the other, he says that a ‘new political party is necessary to capture the imagination of the electorate’, pointing to particular elected political representatives who might form the base for such a party.

The problem is this: if the public are passive consumers when it comes to attitudes toward politics, it is because their political imagination has already been captured: by the dominant idea, held and promoted by the political establishment, that political representation is the only legitimate form of politics. This exerts a near pathological hold on many people, who see politics as a professional activity that operates at a remove from their everyday existence, and who think a political opinion is of no consequence unless it tallies with a stance held by an elected political party. Plenty more see politics as an inconvenient stumbling block for rule by Ryanair.

There is frequent talk about ‘spaces’ opening up in the current crisis, particularly in light of the Labour Party’s loyal participation in the Grand Troika Party. Such talk of ‘spaces’ is generally in terms of mere representation, of electoral choice. Such talk pays no heed to the question of how public contestation might be heightened, or how the urge toward representation might kill off democratic mobilisation before it can even gather pace or potency.

The idea that a party might ‘do what is right for the Irish people’ in the absence of any such mobilisation, in the absence of any ‘people’ making its presence felt on the streets, would be no more than a continuation of conflict-free clientelism within the regime of representation, helping to leave the fundamental contradiction between capitalism (which the author does not mention) and democracy safely obscured and most of the social problems the author rightly highlights unsolved.

It is one thing to call for people to cast aside ‘archaic socialist dogma’. It is quite another to invoke James Connolly in calling for a Second Republic in this way whilst ignoring his criticism that the ‘democracy of Parliament is in short the democracy of Capitalism’. Without addressing the fundamental contradiction between capitalism and democracy, without addressing the basic factors that lead to widespread depoliticisation, especially this fixation on representation, and by focusing solely on composing a viable electoral vehicle, all you will get is a continued insistence that the people in Ireland shall ‘bend as subjects to be ruled’ (Connolly). That is not much of a democracy, and not much of a republic either.

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Democracy or Capitalism?

This is a translation of an article by Boaventura de Sousa Santos, published 5th June on Público.

Democracy or capitalism?

The relation between democracy and capital has always been a tense one, of even total contradiction. Capitalism only feels safe it is ruled by whoever owns capital or identifies with its needs, whereas democracy, on the contrary, is the rule of the majorities who have neither capital nor reasons to identify with the needs of capitalism. The conflict is distributive: a contest between the accumulation and concentration of wealth on the part of the capitalists and the demand for the redistribution of wealth on the part of workers and their families. The bourgeoisie has always feared the poor majorities taking power and has used the political power that the revolutions of the 19th century conferred it to prevent this from happening. It has conceived liberal democracy as the mode of guaranteeing this through measures that may change over time, but maintaining the goal: restrictions on voting, absolute primacy of individual property rights, a political and electoral system with multiple safety valves, violent repression of extra-institutional political activity, corrupt politicians, legalisation of lobbies…and, whenever democracy proved dysfunctional, the possibility of a return to dictatorship was kept open, something that happened on numerous occasions.

In the immediate post-war period, very few countries had democracy. Vast regions of the world were subject to European colonialism, which served to consolidate European-North American capitalism. Europe was devastated by a war provoked by German supremacy and in the East there was a consolidation of the communist regime, which was seen as an alternative to liberal democracy. It was in this context that so-called democratic capitalism emerged, a system that consisted of the idea that, in order to be compatible with democracy, capitalism ought to be strongly regulated. This entailed the nationalisation of key sectors of the economy, progressive taxation, the imposition of collective bargaining and even -as happened in the West Germany of that era- the participation of workers in the management of firms. On the scientific plane, Keynes represented economic orthodoxy and Hayek dissidence. On the political plane, economic and social rights had been the instrument of choice for stabilising the expectations of citizens and to defend against the constant and unpredictable fluctuations in ‘market signals’. This change altered the terms of the distributive conflict, but it did not eliminate it. On the contrary, it kept all the conditions for inflaming it for the three following decades, when economic growth became paralysed. And this is what happened.

Since 1970, central States have managed the conflict between the demands of citizens and the demands of capital by recourse to a range of solutions that have gradually conferred more power to capital. First it was inflation; then, the struggle against inflation, accompanied by the rise in unemployment and the attack on the power of unions. Then came the indebtedness of the State as the result of the struggle of capital against taxes, economic stagnation, and the rise in social spending in turn caused by the rise in unemployment. Finally came the indebtedness of families, seduced by credit facilities conceded by a financial sector finally free from state regulation to evade the collapse in expectations created around consumption, education and housing.

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It went on like this until the trickery of fictitious solutions came to an end in 2008, and it became clear who had won the distributive conflict: capital. The proof? The spike in social inequalities and the final assault on the expectations of a decent life for the majority (the citizens) in order to guarantee the expectations of profitability for the minority (finance capital). Democracy lost the battle and it can only avoid losing the war if the majorities lose their fear, and revolt inside and outside of institutions and force capital to be afraid once again, as occurred sixty years ago.

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June 9, 2013 · 5:52 am

Begg: Neck Like A Jockey’s Ballbag

This is a comment I left on an Irish Times article by Bernadette Segol, general secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation and David Begg, general secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, titled New Deal necessary for Europe laid waste by austerity and service cuts’

Notable by its absence from this article is any mention of democracy. This is in spite of the fact that the present economic crisis has cast into stark relief the chasm between political elites and the public they claim to represent:at both supra-national and national level.

This chasm is particularly pronounced in periphery countries such as Greece, Spain and Portugal, where there has been a collapse in support for social democratic political parties. These parties stood, or at least claimed to stand, for the ‘Social Europe’ that the authors defend here. And the reason the chasm is so pronounced is not that the social democratic parties that count on Europe’s main trade unions for support have been ‘panicked’ by the crisis, as the authors claim, but because their hierarchies identify more closely with the priorities and outlook of Europe’s political and economic elites (in fact, they are part of them) than they do with the people whose lives are being laid waste by the dismantling of Europe’s post-war democratic settlement.  
 
In Ireland in particular, the Labour Party, which is one of the most right-wing of Europe’s social democratic parties anyway, has counted on the support of the trade union leadership at every turn since it went into government. The outsourcing of public services; the bureaucratic hounding of welfare recipients; the abolition of universality in benefit payments; regressive taxation to pay for private banking debt; the destruction of collective bargaining rights – all of these things have been met by the trade union leadership with the mating call of the eternal conservative that resistance –or even dissent- will only make things worse.

This has led to the absurd and pathetic spectacle of a public demonstration organised by ICTU that preferred farcical anti-Teutonism to opening up any line of conflict with the right-wing government, or any suggestion of common struggle with workers across Europe. To compound things, one of the authors of this piece has vouched for the impeccable democratic legitimacy of a government that has done more than its part in stripping away the so-called ‘Social Europe’ in representing the Irish population as the ideal pupils for consenting to robbery by contrast with the unreasonable Greeks. He has also condemned legitimate civil disobedience in this context. To invoke 1913 as an alibi for such conniving submission, well, to be honest, it takes a neck like a jockey’s ballbag.

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From ‘Irish Citizen Army’ to ‘We The Citizens’

Comment left on Fintan O’Toole’s article in today’s Irish Times titled ‘No longer citizens, just customers’.

The transition from citizen to consumer in Ireland did not happen overnight. The meaning of the word ‘citizen’ has changed radically over the last 100 years in Ireland. From ‘Irish Citizen Army’ -the militant armed defence of workers against the forces of the State and big business- to ‘We The Citizens’:  expert-led experiments in deliberative decision-making that leave all conflicts between labour and capital at the door. In the interim, an alteration in the constitutional meaning of citizenship, so that it meant membership of a racial-biological community.

But there is a parallel transition, in the meaning of the word ‘public’. James Connolly’s Irish Socialist Republican Party had as its object the ‘public ownership by the Irish people of the land, and instruments of production, distribution and exchange’, and the ‘the consequent conversion of the means of production, distribution and exchange into the common property of society, to be held and controlled by a democratic state in the interests of the entire community.’ Today, however, we see a Labour Party in government introducing a ‘Financial Emergency Measures in the Public Interest Bill 2013’. However, the ‘Public Interest’ at stake here is not that of the entire community, but that of financial speculators, who are using public debt as a lever for privatisation, asset stripping, and attacks on workers’ rights.

The meanings of words are determined by the balance of forces that contest them, not just their dictionary definitions. If ‘citizenship’ is stripped of any sense of conflict, and reduced to mere rational choice within narrow parameters, and the odd letter to the Irish Times, and if ‘public’ just means ‘State property’, then we should be looking at the forces that sustain their current meanings, which in turn clear the way for social destruction. Here we have to point the finger at RTE, the Irish Times and other mass media outlets, but in particular we must single out the Labour Party and the trade unions that prop up the current government. They are turning symbols of Ireland’s history of democratic struggle into instruments of domination and plunder.

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Guff, Sovereignty and Neoliberal Rationality: Comment

I left this response to Patrick Smyth’s article in today’s Irish Times entitled Talk of being masters of our fate is just guff.

The concept of sovereignty is not guff. But its predominant usage in Ireland these days is.  
 
The recovery of an illusory sovereignty has been used by the current government as an excuse for stripping away public health, education and welfare services. The claim of lost sov­er­eignty is a way of clear­ing the way for and jus­ti­fy­ing emer­gency meas­ures, at times through the intro­duc­tion of new legis­la­tion, but also through the pro­mot­ion of a pass­ive dis­reg­ard for demo­cratic rights set forth in the con­sti­tu­tion, how­ever lim­ited in scope and applic­a­tion these rights may be.  
 
Somehow I doubt that the Institute for International and European Affairs confab attended by the author gave too much thought to the concept of popular sovereignty, even if this is one of the key elements of the Crotty judgement. Why would it? Representative democracy works perfectly well from the point of view of European Union elites precisely because it applies a formal varnish of popular legitimacy to the nails of the real sovereign: the financial ‘markets’ represented by former attorney general and Goldman Sachs chairman Peter Sutherland. Representative democracy under present circumstances means you can have formal rule of the people but substantive rule by financial corporations. 
 
The reason the idea of sovereignty appears like so much guff in the Irish context is that it is devoid of any real democratic content, in a society whose political imagination and sense of possibility has been laid waste by neoliberal rationality.

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Childcare, Austerity and The State: Comment

I left this comment on Gordon Jeyes’s piece in today’s Irish Times, which is titled ‘How I plan to reform our deficient childcare system’. Jeyes is the chief executive-designate of the Child and Family Agency.

No-one, especially not those of groups known to kiss babies for photo ops, is ever going to admit they are against welfare and growth of children. But the Prime Time report has opened up a crack that reveals Irish society still has warped priorities when it comes to children, with brutal consequences for children themselves.

The author is right that the State should not be seen as the solution. But we have to be careful about what we understand by the State. For too long, religious conservatives and wealthy business owners (who are often one and the same) have shaped public conceptions about the State. In the imaginary of the religious conservative, when it comes to health or education or social services, it appears as a totalitarian, all-devouring bureaucratic monster that annihilates humanity. This is always in contrast with the loving embrace of the heterosexual two-parent family and the Church to which it ought to belong.  In the imaginary created by wealthy business owners, the State is associated with inefficiency, waste, and indolent public servants. For good reason: services that could be provided by the State are potentially rich seams of profit for private investors.

And it is also true that the State currently guarantees a right to profit over and above the right of children to a decent standard of care and education. However, we should take care not to confuse the State with what is public, what belongs to everyone, the basic elements of a democratic society: common goods such as health and education and water.

The current austerity regime, which the author rightly criticises, seeks to strip the State of its capacity to provide such goods, to marketise them in the interests of profit. The catastrophic consequences of such a regime can be seen in defenceless children getting slammed to the floor like throwaway objects, their basic rights grossly violated.

A commitment to democracy means standing against such a regime, in defence of what is public and common to all. A meaningful public debate under such circumstances can only ever come about, at an absolute minimum, through the presence of the public on the streets in mass demonstrations.

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