Monthly Archives: July 2013

Why Class Conscious Jesus Hates The One Percent Difference Campaign and all your Charities and your Government

Following on from my post on charity and philanthropy the other day, and from the post earlier on the matter of what is fair and what is progressive, I want to take a look at the logic that operates behind both the One Per Cent Difference Campaign and the equation of fairness with progressivity.

The One Per Cent Difference Campaign says that everyone giving one per cent of their income –or their time- is everyone all giving the same. So someone in receipt of €14,500 a year giving €145 is the same as someone in receipt of €145,000 giving €1,450. But this equality only exists in terms of the percentage itself. It does not exist in terms of the material impact on the respective lives of the donors.

€145 could be three visits to the doctor, or a couple of weeks’ shopping: people on low incomes spend a far greater percentage of their income, and spend it on basic necessities. It is not the same thing to place real limits on your access to basic necessities as it is to forego money that you might otherwise spend on luxury items or invest in stocks and shares.

This calls to mind the Gospel story of the widow outside the temple. In it, many rich people arrived at the temple and ‘put in large sums’; the poor widow comes and puts in ‘two copper coins’. Mark reports that Jesus remarks that all the rich people have “contributed out of their abundance”, whereas the poor widow has contributed “out of her poverty”, putting in “everything she had, all she had to live on”.

When this story was taught to us at school, it was in terms of pointing out the superior form of giving that is giving out of necessity. Such an act, according to this interpretation, is considered more generous, more worthy. But that isn’t the point Mark is trying to get across at all. In fact, Mark quotes Jesus as singling out, prior the widow coming onto the scene, the

‘scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honour at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation’.

So when Jesus says that the “poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury”, he is not only referring to the impact of her immediate material contribution, but also the fact that the scribes have already devoured her house. Jesus is far too class conscious for charitable organisations to pay him any heed.

What is interesting about the One Per Cent Difference Campaign is that its logic is near identical to that used by the Department of Finance in a presentation that attempted to demonstrate why Ireland’s austerity measures had been ‘fair’, which it treats as a synonym of ‘progressive’.

HighEarners

The ‘fairness’ lies in the fact, we are told, that people earning –I use the word guardedly- €200,000 a year have been subject to a -13.9% change in net income, whereas those on €25,000 a year have only seen an -8.0% change. But whilst this might fit some sort of criteria of ‘progressivity’ within narrow parameters, it says nothing about the comparative impact on the lives of people within each category. In what way does a 13.9% cut in income to someone on €200,000 affect their means of meeting basic material needs? Short answer: it does not, not at all. Whereas the impact on someone on €25,000 a year is not just in terms of making them materially poorer, to the extent that they suffer experiences of deprivation and poverty in many cases, but it also renders them far more open to exploitation.

We can sum this situation up in biblical terms: when ‘scribes’ –highly paid economists at the Department of Finance, in the Troika, official and semi-official advisory bodies, to name one group- are allowed to present progressivity as fairness, they are devouring the houses of the poor.

What is more, the dominant economic discourse, which aims at a shift away from direct taxation toward indirect taxation whilst making noises about the ‘progressive’ tax system, masks the dismantling of public institutions that –however imperfectly and unevenly- guarantee social solidarity and maintain living standards for the majority. This dismantling is real and ongoing, as this graph based on predicted IMF data shows:

IMAGE IMF

This destruction of the social wage –undertaken whilst profits are protected- is masked by the emphasis on charitable giving and on volunteer activities, on the protection of ‘the most vulnerable’, instead of guarantees of social rights enforced by the state. In short: charity not rights.

Why is this important? Because the annual budget pageantry is nearly upon us. In it, various civil society groups –prominent charities among them- will make their submissions, in which they will outline their alternatives to the anticipated government approach (within the parameters set by the Troika, of course) and in many cases try to reverse or prevent cuts in their statutory funding. Eminent figures from the charity world will cite the need to protect the ‘most vulnerable’. Unions will complain about the absence of ‘fairness’.

These submissions will make no difference, as ever, apart from conferring legitimate authority on the government to embark on its latest round of cuts.

However, even within such a narrow frame, there is still room for public discontent to undermine the government’s position –which will broadly mirror that of the Troika and the German government, no matter what the macho posturing of government ministers might suggest in the weeks ahead.

This is where the ‘progressive’ aspect to fiscal ‘correction’ comes in: as a propaganda weapon that marries lying about economics with the morality of charity. How can you oppose our budget when it is fairness itself! Our latest progressive budget is intended to protect the most vulnerable!
The Department of Finance is often portrayed by right-wing propaganda as the permanent government of faceless bureaucrats and unaccountable mandarins. Such propaganda is aimed at discrediting public institutions in the eyes of the public, in order for the logic of the private sector and the ‘entrepreneur’ to be given free rein.

Whilst it pays to be wise to this strategy, it is important to stress, as shown above, the Department of Finance is not some neutral entity operating as an instrument of the will of the people that simply does whatever the executive tells it. Rather, it shares an ideological world-view with finance sector bosses, privateers and charity-mongers, who are often one and the same.

The fact that it is quite happy to blur fairly standard economic distinctions, in order to launder a political programme of dispossession, means that the public proposal of solutions in strictly economic terms, which is what these budget submissions are all about, count for less than nothing.
The model being imposed on Irish society is for ever-growing swathes of society to contribute out of their increasing poverty to the increasing abundance of the few. It is a model that depends on hierarchies that cover their trail through appeals to charity and fairness.

Either the model is exposed for what it is, or its hold will be one of devastation.

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‘Progressive’ vs ‘Fair’: An Elementary Distinction, Blurred

Progressivity

Image from the Department of Finance Budget 2013 ‘Fairness’ presentation.

I left this comment on the Irish Times piece today by a group of Young Turk Fine Gael backbenchers, titled ‘In spite of tight budgetary situation there are still a number of options for the economy’.

It is a barbarism for the authors to declare, in the context of taxation policy, that ‘most progressive’ means ‘fairest’.

In macroeconomics, to say the tax system is progressive is a positive statement. To say the tax system is fair is a normative statement. This used to be an elementary distinction learned by any economics student. This is a distinction that the Fine Gael government, and the Department of Finance, want us all to unlearn: why?

Because Fine Gael, first and foremost, is the party that protects the interests of the wealthy.

As another commenter points out below, the ESRI figures do not account for a whole range of taxes and charges that are regressive in character: they focus only on income. But the trend in Western economies has been away from direct taxes on income towards increases in indirect taxation – hence the introduction of property and water taxes, VAT increases. Any agency representing High Net Worth Individuals -the super-rich- will tell you that the shift away from direct taxation to indirect taxation redounds to the benefit of their clients. (see for example the Knight Frank Wealth Report 2011) .

What is considered ‘fair’ is a matter for political interpretation. For instance, is it fair that 62 percent of health expenditure comes via social insurance funds in the EU-15, whereas in Ireland, it is zero percent? No doubt from the point of view of employers it is. How about from the point of view of low income workers who have to rely on a crumbling health system that privileges the wealthy?

Well, I don’t think Fine Gael is inclined to ask, because social rights don’t enter into any definition of fairness that Fine Gael might ever come up with. But wealthy unsecured bondholders will always get their billions when their investments go belly up, and it is only ‘fair’ in such circumstances that Paddy ponies up out of money for his hospitals and schools.

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Temporary Necessities. Of Summer Schools and States of Exception

Last night I was at a bit of a loose end between the end of Eastenders and the point where the children have deflated enough to stay in bed without drifting out down the stairs again, so I decided to listen in to some of the MacGill Summer School live stream. Someone tweeted it; this is not the sort of thing I go looking for, honest.

Summer School season in Ireland for me is like a weeks-long twilight of the public imagination. For most of the rest of the year, the media fixes eyes on the capital and the parliament, where an efflorescence of men in suits strike poses to show they mean big business, in heroic attempts to save the economy from the gluttonous desires of the public for luxuries such as health and education.

Then, at Summer School session, the spectacle is dislodged to some wee town down the country. Collars are opened, stalking horses are unleashed, and earnest impassioned discussion with familiar figures in political and media circles gushes forth. Summer School season is where the life of the mind takes wing, a drawing of breath before getting back to the brass tacks of saving the economy from venal bloatedness.

Though reports on what is said at these gatherings fill up a lot of newspaper space and broadcasting time, I don’t know anyone personally who would want to go to such a thing. I seriously doubt there is anyone living in my housing estate who has ever been gripped by the urge to pack the kids in the car and head west or north to hear a discussion on what a real republic might look like or the shape of future political reform.

The only person I can think of who might be so inclined is a dentist who recently took a tooth out for me, who told me he had been reading Garret Fitzgerald’s autobiography on holidays. Nothing human is alien to me, but that doesn’t apply to aliens from outer space, which is what you would have to be to read such a thing.

One function of the Summer School season, I think, is to bolster the sense that what happens the rest of the year round, the spectacle of representative democracy subordinate to capital, is all there is to politics.

There is time and room at the informal gatherings for prominent thinkers to deliver caustic flagellations of the body politic, and reports of these are approvingly held up as evidence that the odd spark in the life of the mind endures, and that those in power are, on the whole, sentient and thinking beings who are doing what they can, given the circumstances.

But the co-ordinates for any such criticisms are already mapped out well in advance: questioning of capitalism as such, and of the class exploitation upon which it depends, lie beyond the intellectual pale.

Anyway, the bit I tuned into was like a comic acting out of everything I imagined such a gathering to entail. There was a well-spoken middle class man in the audience berating Irish Times columnist Fintan O’Toole for “bottling it” by not standing in the 2011 election. The man -who said his blood was boiling- had himself stood for election, and what grounds did Fintan O’Toole have to say he could know what people thought when he hadn’t gone through the hard work of standing on doorsteps asking for votes? And, moreover, wasn’t the Irish Times and the media responsible for the current crisis too, in the way they had promoted the property bubble with their property supplement. At this point O’Toole pulled the pin from a hand grenade with his teeth, lobbed it in the man’s direction, and, as the man’s guts spattered the stately green stage backdrop, pulled out an AK-47, knocking out the livestream by shooting at the camera.

Not really. He proceeded to defend his decision not to stand in the past election (it wouldn’t have made any difference to the good and would probably have had harmful effects), and to defend the Irish Times whilst recognising its shortcomings (he was proud to work for it, it was a decent institution, it had made lots of proper criticisms of malign political practices).

O’Toole did make the reasonable point, one that is often lost amid the pompous asseverations of people whose life hinges on the truth of the equation politics = elections, that standing in elections is not all there is to democracy, and that journalism, for instance, is a democratic practice.

That depends, of course, on what you mean by journalism. Much of what passes for it is cheerleading for power.

For example, today’s Irish Times has a leader column, titled ‘A temporary necessity’, justifying the four man Economic Management Council (which O’Toole had been criticising in his talk for the utter lack of democratic accountability) in terms of a state of exception:

in what have been extraordinary economic times, the EMC has become an exceptional. but temporary, necessity.

“Sovereign is he who decides on the exception”, wrote Carl Schmitt. Sovereign are the international lenders, but, according to the dominant discourse, the suspension of even formal democratic appearances, in doing the bidding of the markets, is all part of the recovery of economic sovereignty.

To say you’re doing the Troika’s bidding in order to get your sovereignty back is rather like saying you’re kneecapping yourself with a sledgehammer to get back into winning form for the 400m hurdles at the next Olympics. It makes no actual sense. But if you repeat it enough times and with enough conviction and without fear of contradiction, you can bore or nonplus enough people into letting you get on with it. Besides, once the exception has kicked in, you’re not under any obligation to provide reasonable justification for anything. What do you think this is: a democracy or something?

So, back to the MacGill livestream for a minute. There was a man called Don Thornhill who asked a question from the floor. He said he agreed with Fintan O’Toole on nearly everything. I googled him. Like I said, people do not just wind up at these gatherings because bingo is cancelled that night. He is chairman of something called the National Competitiveness Council, which sounds like a quango for making people poor in the interests of foreign investors. Unless I am mistaken and it was really a Don Thornhill who wandered in because bingo was cancelled. Anyway, he took exception to O’Toole’s contention that Ireland could be called a failed state. In his eyes, the fact that Green Party leader Eamon Ryan stood for elections despite the Green Party’s impending humiliation was an indication that Ireland was not a failed state (for me the fact Eamon Ryan even exists is proof Ireland is a failed state). And so on, blah blah.

The children were now suitably deflated, so that was the end of the livestream watching for me. At the moment when I have to put children to bed I am at my most incapable of consequent thought. The sofa downstairs calls out to me more than any intractable political problem. But last night a couple of things occurred to me.

First, such spectacles unfold as if the present state of exception imposed by the Troika on behalf of the markets is never going to inflict any kind of permanent damage. For all the polite discussions about how society might be improved, there seems to be little awareness, or little concern, at the way society is being reshaped right now: the dismantling of public services, the stripping away of the welfare state, and so on. Nor is there any sense that this reshaping is a political programme that operates at an international, not a national, level.

Part of this is the blithe indifference of the comfortable Irish liberal. But another part, I think, is genuine parochial ignorance. Whilst someone like Fintan O’Toole might win the approval of the audience by saying that the electorate needs to stop electing local gobshites like Michael Lowry, the same audience would not know where to begin with the idea that a problem imposed by European institutions requires responses that entail alliances between peoples of Europe. Instead, you get madcap ideas about special delegations to Europe involving Michael Somers and Mary Robinson. That idea is Fintan O’Toole’s. I mention it because I think he is one of the more enlightened figures in such circles, not because I think he’s an idiot.

Second, these spectacles unfold as if there were no such thing as real political conflict. Not only in the fact that they decidedly avoid any encounter with questions of class conflict, but also in the way they call together figures from as wide a range as the established spectrum allows. So Enda Kenny arrives at the beginning to inaugurate the thing, regurgitating his usual schtick about the best small country in the world in which business can raise families. Then the more critical intellectuals come along and try inscribing the idea of the republic and 1916, then you have the hard-headed economic realists who tell you what the bond markets really want, the psychologists with their psychohistory/psycho history, and so on, and so on.

Where does it all go? Nowhere much. It is a theatrical performance, not a deliberative process: the presentation of a benign image that masks the stark social reality of the politics of the ongoing bailout. It is an interlude where time is allowed to stand still, before real business can resume in a little while.

The worrying thing, I think, is the continued absence of any other site or time, where other people excluded from such performances -people who are the targets and the victims of austerity policies- can talk about the kind of institutions they need to deal with the ‘temporary necessity’ of government by the markets, which now extends as far and as wide as the eye can see.

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The Occupy Movement of Giving: Ireland in the Age of the One Per Cent

By contrast with solidarity, which is horizontal and exercised from equal to equal, charity is practised top down, it humiliates the person who receives it and never in the slightest alters power relations: in the best of cases, there will be justice some time, but in the highest heavens. Here on earth, charity does not threaten injustice. It merely proposes to cloak it.

-Eduardo Galeano, Upside Down

I suppose….. I want us to be almost….. a sort of ‘Occupy Movement’ of Giving.

-Frank Flannery, Director of Organisation and Strategy, Fine Gael, speaking at launch of One Per Cent Difference Campaign.

I for one am surprised at the fact that an initiative to promote philanthropy should be given a name so fitting as the One Per Cent Difference campaign.

I would have thought that the people doing the brainstorming for such a name would have rejected it on account of the 99%:1% dichotomy that came into common parlance as a consequence of the Occupy movement.

I would have thought that someone with their ears attuned to what people say about ‘the 1%’ would have piped up and said “bit of a problem with that one”. I would have thought that the enthusiasm for such a name would have curdled at the prospect of philanthropy being associated with robbery and unprecedented inequality.

Shows how much I know.

If you don’t know what it is, the One Per Cent Difference campaign is aimed at persuading people to give one percent of their income, or their time, to charitable organisations or to engage in philanthropic activity.

It was launched on the 21st June last, with speeches from former President Mary Robinson, present Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan, and Frank Flannery, strategist for Ireland’s current ruling party, Fine Gael.

In his speech, Frank Flannery cited the example of James Joyce as evidence of Ireland’s supposed philanthropic tradition.

FlanneryJoyce

He framed the campaign in terms of the present economic crisis.

FrankFlannery3

This sense of a national movement bound by the urge to charitable giving, as a means of transcending crisis, was also conveyed by one of the promotional videos for the campaign:

As a nation we’ve been broke many times. With every hike, cut, it’s hard to even consider giving to a cause other than you and your family. And yet. Even on our worst day, we still believe in giving whatever is left over to a person who needs whatever is left over. Wherever they are in the world. We’ll do what we can to keep a community or a place of care from falling. Provide for other children as much as our own. We help the arts help lift us. We’re one of the most generous countries in the world. But how do we continue to be so generous when we feel we can’t give any more? When we all give the same.

The view of the world implicit in the ad script is worth dwelling on. The opening phrase, “As a nation we’ve been broke many times”, echoes all-in-this-together moments, recent and distant, in which the situation of the rich and situation of the poor, are considered in aggregate, and any sense of antagonism –any sense that the rich get richer at the expense of the poor- is effaced.

“Every hike, cut” –a reference to present austerity policies- then appears as a natural and inevitable event in the experience of the community, one that implicitly impacts everyone, in equal measure.

The reality, of course, is different. Michael Taft notes in the latest edition of Irish Marxist Review that

‘between 2007 and 2011, Irish employment collapsed by over 14 percent; in the EU the decline was a mere 1 percent. This was mirrored in the collapse of aggregate wages. In Ireland, during this period,  wages in the economy fell by over 13 per cent while wages actually grew in the EU by 4 percent’

And, as a consequence of Ireland’s austerity policies, what Michael Taft describes as ‘the drive to restore capital’s hegemony’ – through policies intended to drive down wages whilst trenchantly opposing any changes to the corporate tax regime-

‘the EU Commission expects nominal wage growth (average per employee) in Europe overall; in Ireland, however, wages are expected to remain below the 2009 levels. Profit growth in Ireland, on the other hand, is projected to rise faster than the EU average.’

So in actual fact, whilst the One Per Cent Campaign holds that ‘we still believe in giving whatever is left over to a person who needs whatever is left over’, living standards and social rights are being liquidated so that profits shoot upward. What happens to ‘whatever is left over’, however, when we think not in terms of families and households, but what is produced by society as a whole? In November 2012, economist Michael Burke noted that:

Investment has fallen by €23.6bn in the recession, compared to a fall of €14.6bn in GDP.

This hoarding of capital – a refusal to invest – is the source of the recession. A government committed to boosting the profits of the private sector would reduce benefits and pay in the public sector in order to lower private sector wages. This is what mainstream economists refer to as a ‘demonstration effect’ . At the same time the government would reduce its own investments, say in schools, hospitals, housing or transport in order to facilitate private sector investment at a later date. This is the content of current policy.

This is also the reality of what the One Per Cent Campaign calls ‘one of the most generous countries in the world’. Ireland’s Central Statistics Office reports that Ireland’s at risk of poverty rate has risen from 14.4% in 2008 to 16% in 2011, and that its deprivation rate has risen from 11.8% in 2007 to 24.5% in 2011.

Alongside the One Per Cent Campaign, then, there is another tradition of philanthropy being kept alive in Ireland: the ragged-trousered kind.

In a 2011 article, sociologist Boaventura de Sousa Santos spoke of a ‘global process underway to dismantle the democratic State’, taking the form of numerous transitions. The fifth such transition he identified was:

from social rights to philanthropy and assistance in extreme situations of poverty and incapacity. The social State/welfare state exaggerated solidarity among citizens and transformed social inequality into an evil when, in fact, it is a good. Between whoever makes charitable contributions and whoever receives it, one person is the subject of charity and the other is its object.

As outlined above, the One Per Cent Campaign masks structural social inequality with an all-in-this-together veneer. And it presents austerity policies –which, as de Sousa Santos and many others have shown, are intended to unravel social rights that emerged from the post-war democratic settlement- as no more than a naturally occurring event.

It is worth noting that one of the members of Philanthropy Ireland –aside from various philanthropic organisations- is JP Morgan. A recent blog post by Leigh Phillips, titled JP Morgan to eurozone periphery: “Get rid of your pinko, anti-fascist constitutions”, is therefore of some interest here. Phillips quoted from the JP Morgan analysis:

The constitutions and political settlements in the southern periphery, put in place in the aftermath of the fall of fascism, have a number of features which appear to be unsuited to further integration in the region.

Moreover, the analysis noted that:

Political systems around the periphery typically display several of the following features: weak executives; weak central states relative to regions; constitutional protection of labour rights; consensus building systems which foster political clientelism; and the right to protest if unwelcome changes are made to the political status quo.

The picture is by no means similar in Ireland. Under Irish law, for example, you have the right to form a trade union, but you do not have the right to workplace representation, and employers are under no obligation to enter collective bargaining negotiations. What is more, the stronger emphasis on social rights in other constitutions is not to be found in the Irish Constitution. Instead, Ireland’s Directive Principles on Social Policy  hold that the

state shall strive to promote the welfare of the whole people by securing and protecting as effectively as it may a social order in which justice and charity shall inform all institutions of national life

Thus the transition de Sousa Santos identifies is not as pronounced in Ireland, since much of the groundwork was laid a long time ago, with many charitable institutions performing functions that would elsewhere be expected from public institutions.

It is no accident, for instance, that two of the religious congregations that ran Magdalen Laundries are called the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity and the Religious Sisters of Charity.

Nor is it any accident that the McAleese report found ‘no evidence to contradict’ the position of the religious congregations that ‘they responded in practical ways as best they could, in keeping with the charism of their Congregations’ in ‘providing marginalised girls and women’ with ‘shelter, board and work’. Charity has long been widely seen as superior to social rights in Ireland.

Similarly, it is no surprise that the present government appointed the chief executive of the charity Concern to chair its Constitutional Convention.

Nonetheless, there is still a transition away from fundamental rights accorded as a consequence of citizenship of a democratic state.

Last week, the aforementioned Frank Flannery, in his capacity as chair of the Forum on Philanthropy, advocated that certain rich people, who live outside the State in order to escape tax obligations, ought to be allowed to make charitable contributions that would allow them to spend an extra two months in Ireland.

If implemented, such a measure, in effect, would move citizen status toward a function of economic capacity, not of basic right. There have been other moves made by the present government in this regard. Ireland’s 2012 Finance Bill made provision for high earners in the world of finance to write off up to €5,000 in private school fees against tax.

In a democratic society that valued free and universal access to quality public services, such moves would be considered scandalous. In a regime where charity is exalted, however, such people must be given unto freely, in the hope that they might deign to give something back.

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Translation: Strength and power. Reimagining revolution

This is a translation of an article by Amador Fernández-Savater, originally published 19th July on the Interferencias blog on eldiario.es.

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Strength[i] and power. Reimagining revolution.

How can it be possible for a group of fifty people to stop an eviction? And for this to happen time and again (up to six hundred times). I have been thinking about this question for a while. On 25-S, at the Plaza de Neptuno, we witnessed directly that the police are able to empty a space of any number of demonstrators. So, what strength is it that allows these fifty people to stop an eviction? What does it mean to have strength, if it doesn’t coincide exactly with having power (whether physical, in numbers, economic, institutional, etc)? What follows is an attempt at answer that does not pretend to exhaust the question. That is, there is room for other answers, and, above all, there is room to keep on exploring the answer – and this is what seems to me most important.

War of movement and war of positions

I will now move along a strange delta before going back to the central channel of the river, which is the question of the strength of the handful of people standing outside a house. I will start off by looking at the debate surrounding the idea of revolution that emerged in inter-war Marxism, with particular interest in the approach of the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci. At first it may look like a very strange leap, but this is a debate with rather contemporary resonances. The past does not pass: it is a very rich deposit of images and knowledge that can always be updated (resignified) from the problems and needs of the present.

Gramsci intervenes in the debate with a distinction between ‘war of movement’ and ‘war of positions’. To think about class struggle as a war and as such to use the language of military strategy was very typical in Marxism at that time. What is more, Gramsci writes from Mussolini’s prisons and under the necessity of continually inventing metaphors so as to avoid censorship. Paradoxically, resorting to this allusive and very often cryptic language, instead of the classic Marxist vocabulary, the future capacity for suggestion and inspiration in Gramsci’s work multiplied thousandfold.

Now, the key features of the ‘war of movement’ are: velocity, a minority character and the frontal attack. Gramsci is discussing here notions such as Trotsky’s ‘permanent revolution’, George Sorel’s general strike, Rosa Luxemburg’s worker uprising and, especially, the Leninist taking of power. These images of revolutionary change clash time and again with European and Western reality: the bloody repression of the Spartacist uprising in Germany (1918), the dismantling of the popular revolt of the worker councils in Italy during the ‘biennio rosso’ (1919-20), etc. To avoid the predictable effects of frustration and to keep actively aspiring toward social change, one must reimagine revolution.

The war of movement is only successful, Gramsci considers from prison, wherever society is relatively autonomous of the State and civil society (as he calls those institutions inter-related with state power: the judiciary, the media, etc.) is primitive and shapeless: for example, Russia. But in Western Europe, by contrast, civil society institutions are highly solid and act as “trenches and fortifications that protect the social order. It seems as if an economic catastrophe has opened a decisive breach in the enemy position, but it is merely a superficial effect and behind this there is an efficient line of defence”[ii].

Gramsci criticises “historical mysticism” (revolution as a miraculous flaring up) and economic determinism (the supposition that economic collapse will unleash the revolutionary process), and theorises another strategy, another image of social transformation: the ‘war of positions’. The key feature of the war of positions is the assertion and the development of a new vision of the world. In every gesture of everyday life, Gramsci says, there is an implicit vision of the world (or philosophy). The revolution spreads a new vision of the world (and hence other gestures) that little by little empties out the power of the old vision and finally displaces it. This process is what Gramsci calls ‘building hegemony’. There is no power that can last very long without hegemony, without control over the gestures of everyday life. It would be a domination without legitimacy, a power reduced to pure repression, to fear. The taking of power must be preceded, therefore, by a “taking” of civil society.

Christianity and Enlightenment.

To illustrate this other idea of revolution, Gramsci resorts to two examples: Christianity and the Enlightenment. It’s rather curious: he uses a religious reform and an intellectual change as models for thinking the political revolution he longs for. In both examples, the determining element of change is a new definition of reality.

In the case of Christianity, the idea that Christ has risen and there is life after death. Christianity organises itself around this “good news” that entails infiltrating all the cracks of the old pagan world. What is interesting here is that the first Christians ignore power. Rather they act in such a way that power finally comes to them, which happens with the conversion of the emperor Constantine in the fourth century AD. The lesson of the first Christians would be: do not fight directly for power, extend the new conception of the world of which you are the bearer and thus power will finally fall (into your hands).

In the case of the Enlightenment, the idea of equal dignity for all persons as beings endowed with reason. The Enlightenment is the movement that disseminates this idea, in salons, clubs and encyclopaedias. Finally, Gramsci says, when the French Revolution occurs, it has already been won. Those in power have no legitimacy because the new conception of the world has silently replaced the old one, leaving the powers of the Ancien Régime offside without them barely noticing. The lesson of the Enlightenment would be: revolution is won before the revolution is carried out, in the process of elaborating and spreading a new image of the world.

These are the examples mentioned by Gramsci, who died in prison in 1937. But the 20th century leaves us others no doubt a lot closer to us. Let’s consider for example the gay rights movement. A movement simultaneously visible and invisible, formal and informal, political and cultural, which completely transformed common perceptions about affective-sexual difference and ends up achieving as an effect changes on a legal level. Or the black movement for civil rights. Martin Luther King explained that the irresistible strength of the movement was the overcoming of profoundly interiorised feelings of inferiority through confrontation with the oppressors on an equal to equal basis (for example in campaigns of civil disobedience). This uprising of dignity would bring with it in addition changes to the laws of the country.

Thus the war of positions, in contrast to the war of movement, is an infiltration rather than an assault. A slow displacement rather than an accumulation of forces. A collective and anonymous movement rather than the operation of a centralised minority. A form of indirect, everyday and diffuse pressure rather than a concentrated and co-ordinated insurrection (though be careful: at no moment does Gramsci exclude  recourse to insurrection, but he subordinates it to the building of hegemony). And it is based above all on the elaboration and development of a new definition of reality, that is, explained in the words of the philosopher Cornelius Castoriadis, of “what counts and what does not count, what makes sense and what does not, a definition inscribed not in books, but in the very being of things: the acts of human beings, their relations, their organisation, their perception of what is, their affirmation and search for what is right, the materiality of the objects they produce, use and consume”.

The 15-M as cultural revolution

Let’s return now to the first scene, bearing in mind these notes of Gramsci’s. I think if fifty persons are able to stop an eviction it is because (to some extent) it has already been stopped. That is, because the 15M, understood as a new social climate and not as an organisation or structure, has redefined reality. What before could not be seen (the very fact that there are evictions) is now in sight. What before was seen (normalised) as a ‘routine procedure for mortgage non-payment’, now appears before us as something intolerable. What was presented to us as inevitable now appears as something contingent. The 15M climate places in crisis, in Gramsci’s terms, the civil society institutions associated with the State: police officers who refuse to attend evictions, magistrates who take advantage of any legal loophole in order to favour evictees, journalists and media outlets that empathise with and amplify their messages, etc.  Ultimately, fifty people, in direct connection with the 15M climate, both in the what (what they are struggling for) as in the how (the forms of struggle), are not merely fifty people. They are accompanied by millions, who are invisible. It is what philosopher Alain Badiou calls a “majoritarian minority”. An agent of change: capable of spreading it because it itself is contaminated.

We can thus define strength, returning to the question we asked at the beginning, as the capacity to redefine reality: what is decent and  indecent, what is possible and impossible, what is seen and unseen. The 15M climate no doubt does not have much power (whether physical, numerical, institutional or economic) but it does have strength. It is not merely a social or political change, but also -and most especially- a cultural (and even aesthetic) transformation: a modification in perception (the thresholds of what is seen and unseen), in sensibility (what we consider compatible with our existence or intolerable) in the idea of what is possible (“sí se puede“).

The importance of this has not been grasped very well by those who criticise the excessive “emotional” slant of the 15M, starting with the famous sociologist Zygmunt Bauman. Because it is precisely that which we vaguely call affective or emotional -that is, the unconscious basis of our life in common- that can move someone to consider someone else who lives far away as a neighbour and to stand outside her house to protect her from an eviction. The feeling that the life of each person is not confined to oneself but is rather interconnected with many other lives unknown (“we are the 99%“).

Politics is not first of all a matter of denunciation and raising awareness, because there is no straw that breaks the camel’s back, and bad things can be tolerated indefinitely. Rather it is a kind of changing of skin, through which we become sensitive to this or allergic to that. It does not entail convincing (speech) or seducing (marketing), but rather of opening up all kind of spaces to make an experience of another way of life, of another definition of reality, of another vision of the world. In the fight for hegemony, one’s skin -yours, mine, everyone’s- is the battlefield.


[i] In the original, fuerza, which equally translates as ‘force’.

[ii] Translator’s note: I have translated quotations as they appear in the original article, rather than seeking out the corresponding English language source

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Lions should cease feasting on antelopes: a comment on political reform

I left this comment on an article in today’s Irish Times by David Farrell, professor of politics at the School of Politics and International Relations at UCD. The article is titled ‘More can be done to bring Dáil into present century’.

What would it mean to bring the Dáil into the present century, as the author says? If we say the Dáil needs to be modernised, that means there are social and political realities that need to be addressed. What, then, is the current social and political reality reflected in the fact that the Dáil is subservient to the Government, as the author rightly points out?

Last night reports came through of the latest Troika review. The Irish Times cited an unnamed official who said that in the past 15 years she or he had never seen anything like the ‘remarkable degree of commitment and implementation’ on the part of the Irish Government to the Troika programme: a remarkable commitment, that is, to the implementation of massive austerity. In an interview with RTE’s The Business last Saturday, economist Mark Blyth outlined in stark terms what the consequences of austerity are: the destruction of the social fabric, and permanent damage to a country’s productive capacity.

US economist Dean Baker memorably referred to the IMF as ‘the real black helicopter gang’: an organisation unaccountable to any democratic authority, counselling the destruction of welfare provisions won through popular democratic struggles whilst failing to ‘find its voice when the issue was the junk securities from Goldman Sachs or Citigroup that helped to fuel the housing bubble’. So whilst Enda Kenny huffs and puffs about the Seanad’s failure to put a brake on Ireland’s property bubble, he is ‘remarkably committed’ to implementing the economic policies of entities who are little more than enforcers of finance capital. This commitment, by the way, is enthusiastically supported by Ireland’s media institutions and its mainstream political parties, a fact that seems to escape the enquiring minds of political science.

In such a context, judgements that ‘the government should let the Dáil breathe a little’ in the interests of a ‘a properly functioning democracy’ is rather like saying lions should cease feasting on antelopes in the interests of a horizontal vegetarian order in the animal kingdom, only a bit more daft. The government has no interest in democracy. Witness Enda Kenny’s demonisation of people thrown on the scrapheap by policies his government supports: it’s in their DNA to be unemployed! You cannot seriously talk about a government doing anything in the interests of democracy when the head of that government views society through a lens that marries 19th Century Social Darwinism with 21st Century marketing spam.

Articles on political reform such as this one, of which there have been twenty billion in the Irish Times since the onset of Ireland’s economic crisis, merely serve to hide the fact that Ireland’s democracy has been evacuated of any substantive content, not that it had much to begin with. However, they do suggest that political science has nothing to say about how the destruction of a country’s social fabric affects the quality of its democracy. That is a stark vision of politics for the 21st century.

 

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Murdering the ‘Stay-at-home dad’: Comment

This is a slightly edited version of a comment I left on an article by Jennifer O’Connell, in today’s Irish Times, titled ‘Give me a stay-at-home dad over a Master of the Universe any day’. The original comment seems to have hit the potty-mouth filter, on account, I think, of the word ‘crap’.

I think the ‘stay-at-home dad’ should be murdered, a stake through his gobbledygooey heart.

I notice the author talks about ‘stay-at-home mothers’, not ‘stay-at-home mums’- and rightly so. There’s something sickly sentimental and patronising about describing someone who engages in long hours of unpaid domestic labour as a ‘stay-at-home mum’.

To call someone a ‘stay-at-home mum’ suggests that the best way you can reward people who collectively provide billions of euro in effective subsidies to business every year, through the unpaid work of raising and educating children, is to give them a box of Terry’s All Gold and a night off the dishes every now and again.

What is more, the ‘stay-at-home’ descriptor serves to reinforce the perception that domestic labour is not real work, since ‘stay-at-home’ implies a ‘go-out-to-work’ corollary.

Sheryl Sandberg’s vision of an equal society, approvingly cited here, is a terrifying totalitarian nightmare: heteronormative atomised bourgeois domesticity under  surveillance from financialised corporate tyranny. Untrammelled class exploitation concealed beneath a veneer of horizontal Facebook ‘Friend’-ship.

Does Sheryl Sandberg’s vision of equality entail recognition of labour unions that protect workers’ rights? Does it entail payment for domestic labour? In my rear timeline it does. Facebook is a corporation that makes profits from of the product of unpaid labour (yours and mine).

Sandberg’s big idea of ‘Leaning in’ really means doing more stuff for free and kissing the ass of people higher up the ladder of success while kicking the crap out of whatever sap lies a couple of rungs down. And it just so happens that doing stuff for free is an equal opportunities occupation in this environment. You can transcend gender stereotypes as much as you like, just as long as you don’t pose any challenge to the Masters of the Universe, daddy-o.

Thus the ‘stay-at-home dad’ is merely the inversion of a man in black with a Meinkampf look.

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