A Good Week For Car Theft Analogies

In a curious coincidence -perhaps the release of the latest Grand Theft Auto game put the thought in the air- both a piece I wrote last week and yesterday’s speech by SIPTU President Jack O’Connor used the analogy of car theft to illustrate the predicament of unions in the current crisis.

I wrote this about the so-called Haddington Road agreement:

To call what happened at Haddington Road an ‘agreement’, as nearly everyone does, is an blatant instance of newspeak that masks the underlying violence. Imagine I turn up at your house and say, I will burn you out of your home unless you hand over the keys of your car. Then, when you hand over the keys, I declare -and you declare- that we have reached an agreement. This was the same dynamic operating in Haddington Road: either you sign up to this, or we impoverish you even further.

Yesterday, Jack O’Connor said, of the wider predicament:

But there are no each way bets in class warfare – it’s winner takes all.  This was the bitter lesson learned by our comrades in Britain when some of them staked all in a once off pitched confrontation during the so called “winter of discontent” in 1978/79.   They ended up with eighteen uninterrupted years of Thatcherism for their trouble – which saw the reversal of a major proportion of the gains made by the Labour and Trade Union Movement there since the 2nd World War.There is more than one way of fighting a war.  It’s like being accosted by a band of armed robbers on a remote Country road on a dark, wet, winter’s night, demanding your car on pain of your life.  You can mix it with them in the hope of overcoming them or give them the car and suffer the misery of carrying on – on foot.  You can get another car but you can’t get your life back.  No-one could reasonably accuse anyone of being unprincipled for making such a decision.

There are similarities in the analogy, but there are differences too, which I think are worth reflecting on. Jack O’Connor thinks that you can adopt a position in a situation of asymmetrical class warfare that will allow you to recover what was lost at some point in the future: if you can get another car in the future, you can get another welfare state, or a political constitution with strengthened social and labour rights, for instance. In theory, this may be true, depending on how you conduct the political struggle.

The crucial difference between his analogy and mine, however, is that I think the way you think about such a loss constrains your actions. So I say ‘when you hand over the keys, I [the thief] declare -and you [the victim] declare- that we have reached an agreement’. That is, you accept the thief’s terms of thinking about the incident as the correct way to proceed from there. You are not just a victim of physical violence and material expropriation, but also of symbolic violence.

In political struggle, the words we find to speak about our predicament are not some kind of pedantic frill to concrete acts: they are an essential element of that struggle. When it becomes a habit to talk about the ‘Haddington Road Agreement’ -which is how Jack O’Connor refers to it in his speech, we are acquiescing in the terms imposed by the dominant discourse, subjecting ourselves to another form of expropriation.

It’s easy to find other examples. When we talk about a ‘bailout’ for Ireland, we are talking about a process of stripping away public services and driving down wages as a means of protecting profits, but ‘bailout’ presents the EU, the IMF and the ECB as benevolent entities. Or when we talk about the additional ‘adjustment’ or ‘correction’ to government finances in the forthcoming budget: the devastating effects on those people who are already impoverished or at risk of poverty are hidden from view, and we are concerned instead with an antiseptic technical exercise that is unquestionably ‘correct’.

I am not a fan of Jack O’Connor and I have a lot of fundamental disagreements with what he says in his speech, not least what I’ve hinted at above. But I think it’s worth pointing out some fundamental points of agreement, to illustrate what I’m getting at here. He says:

These days it is popular to represent that collapse in terms of the result of the actions of a handful of greedy bankers who grossly overstretched themselves aided and abetted by some corrupt or incompetent Politicians.  This is to limit the blame to the misdemeanours of a few, thus exonerating the system itself so that it can trundle on regardless.

He goes on to say:

There are indeed people who should serve long terms in jail for what they did, but jailing them will not fix the fundamental contradictions of the free reign of unbridled free market capitalism.

And I agree with all of this (with the exception of the hedged bets in the final phrase ‘the fundamental contradictions of the free reign [sic] of unbridled free market capitalism’. Would a more ‘bridled’ capitalism have any fewer contradictions? No, because capitalism is a system based on class exploitation, on the fundamental contradiction of two classes with antagonistic interests, a fact, incidentally, glossed over by the concept of ‘social partnership’). Jack O’Connor recognises that the problem of the current crisis is systemic, not one of things going awry.

However, in his recognition that the problem is systemic, he resorts to the language, the authority and the values of that system in order to advocate a way out, even as he claims that ‘the value system of William Martin Murphy and his kind has failed spectacularly’. From the perspective of William Martin Murphy and his kind, the value system has been a stunning success. And this isn’t just Jack O’Connor’s problem. In his speech, O’Connor says:

I also want to acknowledge all those down the years through whose efforts our Union has remained a force for Fairness at Work and Justice in our society.

‘Fairness at Work and Justice in Society’ adorns the enormous banner draped over Liberty Hall in commemoration of 1913.


I do a fair amount [no pun intended] of translations and have a reasonably good grasp of a few Romance languages. However, I don”t know how to translate the distinction between fairness and justice.  In Spanish, ‘fairness’ translates as justicia. In Catalan, justícia. In French, perhaps équité (thanks, Google Translate), but also justice. In Portuguese, justiça. I don’t know any Greek at all, but the Google translation for fairness is δικαιοσύνη, and the translation for justice is δικαιοσύνη. Besides, does anyone actually understand the distinction in English?

That may be a problem for a common political language with the countries of the Eurozone periphery, but it is also a problem because ‘fairness’ has close associations with the capitalist system that Jack O’Connor says he would like to oppose: fairness is, to all intents, the justice borne of a “blind faith in the myth of the Market” (O’Connor’s words). Think “fair market value”. Fairness may indeed be the word people use in an intimate social setting -in the family home, for instance- to describe a situation of justice and equity. But it’s also a watchword of most right wing ideologues and political parties, including Fine Gael, precisely because of this.

Another problem with the slogan is the way in which it suggests a distinction between work in the formalised workplace – subject to contractual conditions – and all the work carried out, often unpaid, in order for society to reproduce itself. Most of this work -caring, domestic labour, raising children- is performed by women.

In Adam’s Fallacy, Duncan K. Foley stresses that ‘the logic of commodity exchange is opposed to moral logic in both its principles and its conclusions. But more important, the reality of commodity exchange and its laws tends to defeat moral action’. That is, a moral appeal to a shared sense of fairness with the capitalist class is doomed to failure. This means that a different logic has to be imposed by human agency. But such logic can’t come into being if it’s predicated on the same terms of reference as those of commodity exchange, of capitalism.

There’s no ready-made vocabulary to be called upon in order to set in train a different logic, what Michael D. Higgins might call a ‘new emancipatory discourse’. For such a thing to happen, imaginative ways need to be found so as to break with the terms imposed by the Master. It isn’t just a matter of the right words, but of finding words, images, sounds, actions that illuminate different ways to think, and of developing a critical approach to what there is.

This is hardly something that is alien to the labour tradition in Ireland, by the way. In 1915 James Connolly -who wrote poetry and songs himself and whose prose is full of vivid metaphors and analogies- was writing about how MJ Barry’s ‘Bide Your Time‘, about 1848,

‘breathes revolutionary feeling and democratic spirit in every line, yet the sum total of its effects at the time was to tighten the hold of the enemy upon this country, and to hold the people in leash until the opportune moment was passed’.

Which sounds rather familiar, when you think about it.


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