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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