The Limits of Charity (and Comment Facilities)

I didn’t leave this comment on the Irish Times this morning because after writing it I found that they have lowered the character limit to around 400 characters. It’s a comment on an article by the president of St Vincent De Paul, Geoff Meagher, imploring the government to bring austerity to an end. 

An article published by the Irish Times, written by the representative of a charitable organisation calling on the government to go easy on the poorer sectors of society is, I suppose, part of the annual window dressing for the budget spectacle, a salve for the conscience of the Irish Times’s target demographic.

Weighed against the forthcoming deluge of atomising features on WHAT THE BUDGET MEANS FOR YOU! AND YOUR FAMILY!, I doubt it will have much of an effect in raising awareness of the socially destructive consequences of the government’s economic policies, which are being pursued with grim tenacity and, of course, presented as a self-evident inevitability by a compliant media.

One of the objectives of the austerity policies presently under implementation, in Ireland, in Britain and in other Eurozone countries, is to do away with the welfare state and social rights that characterised the postwar period in Europe, and leave in its place a regime based on charitable provision and philanthropy: a regime that dignifies the rich, humiliates the regime’s victims, and solidifies a hierarchy based on social inequality, a kind of paternalistic neo-feudalism. I recall a leader article in the Irish Times last year, in the immediate wake of yet another budget that offered up the welfare of the poorest sectors of society in sacrifice to the gods of the Market, sermonising about the importance of charity.

Perhaps it is not a bad thing at all, then, to read the president of St Vincent de Paul citing the words of the 1916 proclamation about equal rights and equal opportunities for citizens. The exaltation of charity in Irish life, and the constitutional provisions that talk about how the State’s social institutions should be informed by charity, run counter to the 1916 proclamation, in which establishment politicians piously affirm their republican faith. The way the State’s politicians profess allegiance to the proclamation of the republic at public ceremonies whilst making Ireland a haven for profiteers and a stop-off point for torturers echoes the hypocrisy of Catholic religious orders beating children senseless whilst wearing a crucifix around their necks.

What we are witnessing now, with the systematic paring back of social rights, the conversion of citizens to mere customers, and the removal of public services in order to protect private profits, is the basic contradiction between the capitalist system -which is based on class exploitation- and the possibility of equal rights and equal opportunities, or of the social solidarity contained in the phrase “cherish all the children of the nation equally”.

When the author says that ‘everyone should be involved’ in the changes needed for a country with social justice at its core, I can only agree. But that means talking about capitalism, and we shouldn’t expect the political establishment or Ireland’s media to facilitate the process.

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