The Political System and its Choices

5a279-handThis is an extended response to an article in today’s Irish Times by Philip Lane, Whately Professor of Political Economy at Trinity College Dublin, which is titled ‘High mobility of capital and technology means prospects of economy are unclear’.

This article is about the economic policy choices facing the Irish political system. Can systems make choices? Perhaps they can, but not in the same way as human beings. For example, the cistern in my toilet system may ‘choose’ to fill up with water because I have just flushed it. And it may ‘choose’ to stop filling up with water once the float reaches a certain level. But if I don’t flush the toilet, it does nothing; it just sits there.

In the same way, the ‘choices’ of the political system -however configured- depend on human agency, a fact obscured by this article’s terminology, and more broadly, by standard economics terminology. The ‘political system’ may confront a whole load of bells and whistles -such as the “preventive arm” and the “corrective arm” of European fiscal discipline. However, in the final instance, these contraptions are maintained and operated by people. And if we bear in mind that this is how they work, and that they are not a battened-down logical machine impervious to any intervention, then we will eventually confront the question: in whose interests do they operate?

Thus the presentation of the ‘choices’ of the ‘political system’ is a mystification, but so too is the notion that facing the ‘political system’ is a set of conditions which have nothing to do with politics, and which do not form part of a political project in their own right.

So, for example, the conditions of the Fiscal Stability Treaty do not form part of the ‘political system’ in these terms, even if they have been established by politicians -elected and, in the case of people like Barroso, unelected- alongside business lobbies, banking lobbies, and so on. Again, the idea of the ‘political system’ versus the objective conditions obscures the question of human agency, and of conflicting material interests, and it suggests that the scope of political action is a great deal narrower than what it really is.

If our understanding of political action is simply a small group of politicians acting in consultation with economic advisers -which is the way organs like the Irish Times present it- then our ideas about what is possible are similarly constrained. But no matter: the possibility of a different political system -one that responds to the needs of the population, and governed by a democratic public opinion, as opposed to one that acts in the interests of the top 1 or so percent- is always there. This is likely to mean thinking beyond the nation-state boundaries assumed as natural facts in much of what informs common sense economic thought.

And it means -at the very minimum- destroying the paradigm articulated in this article and more generally. Because, as Paul Krugman recently observed, ‘the austerity agenda looks a lot like a simple expression of upper-class preferences, wrapped in a facade of academic rigor. What the top 1 percent wants becomes what economic science says we must do.’ Ultimately, as even Krugman has come to recognise, these seemingly neutral and objective ideas are effective implements of class domination.

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