Monthly Archives: January 2014

Watery, Grave

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“Water that flows is money that gets lost” – El Roto.

The ‘spending on consultants’ story: you would get the impression that all there is to consultancy is a cadre of sharp suits and even sharper glasses rocking up to Irish Water Towers and coming up with a long list of things that senior public servants need to implement.

You might also get the impression there are people who already work in the public sector who know what they’re doing and could do an even better job, given the chance. The reality is a great deal more complex, I think: I doubt existing public sector entities have either the organisational capacity or institutional knowledge to implement the kind of infrastructure, in terms of technology and process, that would lead to the successful set-up of a commercial firm, which is what Irish Water is intended to be.

(To go off on a brief excursion, isn’t it strange to think of hydrogen and oxygen atoms as bearing a nationality? Isn’t it strange how water that reaches the island of Ireland which was formed somewhere overseas now gets classified as ‘Irish’ whereas human beings arriving from overseas can get imprisoned or subjected to slavery-like conditions or deported because they can never be Irish?)

The current focus of the press and politicians is on the figure of €50m, or €80m or €120m on the whole, but it may well turn out that the payment to these firms is in line with what is normally paid in accordance with public sector procurement guidelines.

What is interesting is the intensity of focus given to this particular aspect – the set-up costs- when there was scant attention and little public debate given to a) whether it was a good idea to charge for water in the first instance; b) the ramming through of legislation with utter contempt for even formal niceties in terms of oversight and debate from the political opposition. Also the decision by the previous government to refuse to recognise access to water as a human right at the United Nations was passed over in silence.

So the attention devoted to the spend seems to me a matter of finding out how well the door can be shut now that the horse has bolted. It is at this point -and no earlier- that the Oireachtas committees are being conferred the role of tough watchdogs: in ensuring that the commodification and commercialisation of water is competently dealt with. I imagine the outcome of this will be that the spending will be deemed to be partially though not wholly justified (because whilst the money paid might be close to the going market rates the Taxpayer always wants more Value For Money) with little attention given to the structures being put in place by the consultancy firms hired, e.g. do the structures mean that Irish Water is more or less likely to be privatised in future? Who is going to be responsible for running the business processes: will it be Irish Water employees or will it be outsourced firms? These firms are already very much engrained in the public sector at present, so a broader question would be whether the institutional logic imposed tends towards a greater commercialisation or privatisation of the public sector, or not. In fact, the ‘or not’ is superfluous: it is more a question of how far this brings us down the road away from citizens with rights towards consumers based on ability to pay. This is a fundamental question that neither Ireland’s political representatives nor its media establishment is equipped or inclined to ask.

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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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A dialogue on democracy and the republic – Part One

Originally posted on Irish Left Review, 29th October 2013. I will be publishing the second part either today or tomorrow.

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Renewing the republic, rebuilding the republic, a new republic, a Second Republic, how stands the republic: it all circulates in the verbal debris of Ireland’s political and economic crisis, but what does all this republic stuff mean nowadays? And what is to be done with it? I wanted to pursue the idea of the republic in relation to the wider Eurozone crisis. What follows is the first part of a dialogue with philosopher Juan Domingo Sánchez Estop on the idea of the republic.

Juan Domingo Sánchez Estop taught modern philosophy in the Universidad Complutense de Madrid from 1981 to 1986. He translated Spinoza’s correspondence into Spanish and, as a member of the Association des Amis de Spinoza, has taken part in seminars and congresses in France and Italy. He is currently working as a senior translator in the Council of the European Union and is specialized in foreign policy matters. He is an advisory editor of the review Décalages (on Althusserian studies). He writes in European and Latin-American publications on Spinoza, Althusser, modern philosophy and political philosophy. His latest book is La dominación liberal (Liberal Domination. Essay on liberalism as a power apparatus) (Tierra de Nadie, Madrid, 2010). He is currently linked to the Philosophy Center of the Université libre de Bruxelles, where he is preparing a PhD on Spinoza in Althusser. His blog, in Spanish, is Iohannes Maurus.

Irish Left Review: The explosion of the 15-M in the Spanish State in 2011 began with the slogan Real Democracy Now! as its focus. It appealed to the sense among growing sectors of the population that the existing political order, despite claims to the contrary, was not democracy, given that decisive political power rested with powerful political and financial elites. This conflict opened up between ‘real’ and ‘fake’ democracy -between the appearance of the multitude in public squares and the police forces sent in to batter and criminalise and protect the existing regime- in seems to support Jacques Ranciere’s assertion that ‘democracy is not a form of state’.

Juan Domingo Sánchez Estop: One of the main problems the 15M had to face after its sudden appearance is the lack of a real political culture. There was indeed an important pars destruens in the action and the reflection by the 15M: they recognized, after decades of the so-called “culture of the transition” based on the idea of a “consensus on the need for a consensus”, that no democracy could ever work without a real place for antagonism.

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Unfortunately, in post-Franco Spain, a tight consensus was imposed by both Right and Left on two basic tenets: that there is no alternative to market economy and that a very particular brand of representative democracy based on strict partitocracy, with hardly any direct political participation from the citizen, was the only game in town. Beyond these limits lay the Hell of economic “irresponsibility” and, even worse, the Hell of terrorism. All the anti-democratic features of the Spanish regime could be in some way or other concealed behind the “necessary compromises” of the “young democracy”, but after more than three decades, the much admired “young democracy” didn’t grow into an actually democratic form of government. In a country where the Left traded real citizens’ empowerment in for its integration in the system and a broad liberty in moral matters -as symbolized by Madrid’s “movida” and Almodovar’s films- everything remained quiet until the advent of the crisis.

There is no doubt that the 2008 financial and economic crisis revealed the regime as what it really is to large social sectors, mainly younger educated people, most of them the sons and daughters of working class families. For one month the 15M occupied the central square of Madrid, the Puerta del Sol, in some way imitating the north-African movements against tyrannical and semi-colonial dictatorships. People suddenly noticed a certain parallel between despotic oligarchical regimes and what until then had featured as a European democracy. Like in the neo-colonial world, the Spanish government acted in behalf of economic and financial powers entirely alien to the Spanish people, which saw itself obliged to pay back a debt it had never decided to take out. The very difference between what democracy is supposed to be, i.e., empowerment of the citizens and active participation in public decision-making, and the reality of an autocratic pro-finance regime became apparent. And people reacted.

This reaction had, in fact, a very important “epistemological effect”. Beyond the fact that people discovered that “what they call democracy is no such thing” (lo llaman democracia y no lo es), they added that “They” (those in power) “do not represent us”. People in the Spanish squares discovered that not only were the people currently in charge not representative of the social majorities, but moreover, that in no way whatsoever are people “representable’ by the parliament or the government. Democracy was certainly reclaimed, but not the sort prevailing in today’s Spain. People peacefully struggled in the Spanish 15M movement for a democracy which cannot be mere representation, and which needs the resistance of the people to be a real democracy. Machiavelli said in the Discourses on Titus Livius’ first Decade that freedom in the Roman Republic didn’t come from a perfect constitution, from a perfect order, but from conflict (tumultus) and resistance. Spinoza said the same in his Political Treatise. This line of thought, the materialist tradition of freedom, inspired many people with hardly any relation to philosophy. People were fed up of being considered as terrorists when not agreeing with the basic principles of the Spanish constitution of 78, and vitally needed to express their social interest in a political context where this interest has no legal means of expression.

When people discover and feel their own power, I think democracy ceases to appear as Rancière rightly says “a form of State”. Democracy is not a set of institutions under a legal constitutional frame, but the very existence of politics. Politics is not the mere management of a given population according to pre-established shares of power allowed to the different parts of society. This exhaustive sharing of the social parts and its conservation is not politics proper, but what Jacques Rancière calls “police”, a conservative action which reproduces the sharing as definitive. For democracy -or what amounts to the same thing, politics- to exist, there must always exist “a share of the shareless” in society, so that simply anyone could take part in decision-making, regardless of qualifications. In practical terms this means that the people who, against the views of their “legitimate representatives” and the “economic experts”, rejected the Spanish public debt or some part of the private debt related to housing as illegitimate, ought to be able to voice their opinion and to influence the public decision-making or, even to make their own decisions on their daily life in their neighbourhoods. 15M has not died: it suffered a mutation, into hundreds of smaller people’s assemblies and powerful social movements called “Mareas” (literally: Tides): the Green Marea for Public Education, the White Marea for Public Health Services, and the Plataforma against the evictions (Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca, PAH: Platform of people affected by the Mortgages) defending the right to housing.

ILR: As these cracks opened up beyond the Spanish State and emerged in the US with the Occupy movement, and as the ruling powers enacted a repressive response that treated democratic expression with clinical contempt, one of the most interesting responses to this event came in my view from Amador Fernández-Savater. He used the example of Michael Collins. To be precise, he used the character of Michael Collins in the Neil Jordan film of the same name. In Fernández-Savater’s view, the best response was to take a cue from Collins’s actions in the film: to act as if the Irish Republic was a reality. To combat the British Empire by ignoring it. To stop obeying their rules and invent our own. In short, that the best counter-attack was to create a new reality, hence the creation of ‘the Republic of the 99%’.

JDSE: Amador has developed a very compelling vision of the current Spanish movement, moving from his operaist theoretical roots. He makes a very interesting point in distinguishing (at least implicitly) two forms of revolt -both described in the Bible-, insurrection and exodus. Insurrection is the typical -often violent- overthrowing of a given regime by the masses, exodus is the fact of these masses leaving the country where a despot like Pharaoh or the Assyrian king oppresses them. Exodus means seeking another land in which to create the new nation, a promised land as Palestine in the Bible or North America for the Pilgrim Fathers. The kind of exodus Amador defends is an “on the spot” one where people under a given political rule just pretend to ignore it and give themselves new rules. I think this is possible in some limited locations and for some limited time. As long as a State and its State apparatuses exist, these will produce their typical effects of normalization and integration of atypical behaviours in the main social frame. They will, in other words, reproduce the prevailing relations of production. You cannot just ignore the State, not because there is such a thing as a transcendent personification of society as a non-divided subject, a Leviathan or its liberal surrogates. This is a completely imaginary entity produced, just like the smaller, individual subjects, by the ideological state apparatuses. But an imaginary reality is not uneffective, mostly when sustained by very material realities as the school, the police, the army, the market or, of course the family.

As long as all this continues to work in a more or less coordinated way, the “free areas” of internal exodus won’t be able to expand or even to survive long. Sooner or later, one has to neutralize or even reverse the functioning of these apparatuses, not by “taking power”, since power is not a substance but only a relation, but by occupying the space of representation, of government. This is the only way to prevent these apparatuses from destroying the free space of exodus. I think that just ignoring the fact of power, even if imaginary, is not enough: one has to occupy government. However, this occupation should be based on the dynamics of the “free territory” and subservient to it. It is completely absurd to impose a social change from top down as the socialist experiences tried to do. Even neo-liberal capitalism does not try to do so, and has long opted, not for direct command, but for indirect government of social cooperation, through the means of finance and debt. A “people’s” government should be in permanent negotiation with the social movements and its task would be more to neutralize the State apparatuses and the production of the image of the State resulting from the ideological apparatuses, than actually commanding. A good example would be what García Oliver, an anarcho-syndicalist Spanish leader, did first when becoming minister of Justice under the Republic: destroying all the police and legal files related to revolutionaries….

RMcA: From an Irish perspective, there is a bitter historical irony to Fernández-Savater’s suggestion. Michael Collins is the sanctified hero of the ruling party Fine Gael, which is a member of the European People’s Party, alongside the Francoist Partido Popular. The partitioned State that Collins helped establish was an authoritarian backwater that preserved many of the worst aspects of British rule, and built on them, with a panoply of repressive disciplinary institutions -slave labour laundries for women, industrial schools, censorship, and an economic regime that protected banking and major industrial interests whilst crushing and criminalising democratic aspirations. Today in Ireland there is much attention devoted to the idea of ‘renewing’ the Republic, or even creating a ‘Real Republic’. A great deal of this attention, however, merely concerns reforming the institutions of the capitalist State so as to curb its excesses.

JDSE: I think the historical figure of Collins was somewhat deformed and magnified in the film. He was presented as a heroic possibilist opposed to so many fanatics. I’m not so sure it’s the truth. Accepting Home Rule was accepting some form of continuity of the British colonial regime in Ireland, just as so many Arab or African leaders did after formal independence. The British State apparatuses as existing in Ireland were in no way neutralized, but they were used -by Irishmen!- for the same tasks they were originally designed for. When you go to Morocco -where I was born- you can perfectly recognize the installations of the colonial French or Spanish troops now occupied by Moroccans doing exactly the same and for the same social forces. Destroying a social or a colonial rule cannot be carried out from above. Liberation needs to take root in social movements and free spaces, and government should be subordinated to these. Otherwise a formal liberation or independence -or exodus- can always be reversed. Take for instance Venezuela: the main weakness in this radical transformation process is precisely that too much has been entrusted to State and leadership, and too little to grassroots organization. The result of this could be that if the opposition forces win the next election, the process could be reversed, all the State-managed commons could easily be privatized, which would not be the case it managed by communities and social movements. I think we should urgently explore the possibility of creating an entire non-State “public sector”. If you saw the last film by Ken Loach, The Spirit of 45, you can easily understand the rationale for this need.

ILR: In one of your blog posts, you stress that the greatest damage done to Spanish republicanism is the ‘confusion of the Republic with a form of State’. I think this applies to Irish republicanism as well. However, most European capitalist states declare themselves republics. Do you think the idea of the republic allows for the creation of a new reality beyond capitalism? And if so, in what circumstances?

JDSE: I think this confusion can be very damaging to the reasoning behind republicanism. A Republic is sometimes identified with the absence of a Monarch, which it does require, but this is far from sufficient. Spinoza says in his Political Treatise that the Dutch overthrew the Count of Holland but never established a Republic proper. In order to exist, a republic must be founded on something positive, and this is perfectly understood once you translate the Latin term ‘res publica‘ (the thing public) as the British classics of the XVIIth century did, as “Commonwealth” or better “Common-wealth”. There are two traditions of the Common-wealth, one which insists on the hyphen and on the “commons” and another one -without the hyphen- which insists on a form of government without a king. For short, let’s say that the hyphenated common-wealth is based on the commons and the non-hyphenated on property. The most common form of republic we have known in modern and contemporary Europe until today is the republic of the property owner. One should realize that the two kinds of republic are completely different. A proprietary commonwealth or republic has as its main task the regulation of conflict among private owners. Property creates competition and conflict, the “civil war” prevailing -according to Hobbes and the subsequent mainstream political tradition- in the “state of nature”. A power is needed to control conflict and avoid mutual destruction, and this is why individuals, acting as rational actors, establish a covenant creating thereby a sovereign, that is, a force which cannot be matched by any other particular force. The only basis for the political community is thus human hostility and the only common reality is the common source of fear and obedience created by the covenant. Very abruptly summarized this is -as Antonio Negri calls it- the “blessed line” (La linea benedetta) of European political thought.

But where there is benediction, there is also malediction, and, there is an underground line of political thought, the one represented by Machiavelli, Spinoza, the first Rousseau (the author of the Discourse On the Origin of Inequality, as opposed to the author of The Social Contract) and Karl Marx. This line founds the political commonwealth -not to be confused with the State- in material cooperation, not property. Once you start from cooperation, the question of the origin of the common-wealth becomes superfluous. Human life is based on cooperation, not in the exchange of property. This community always already exists, and this should not be deduced from an imaginary “state of nature”, rightly criticized by Rousseau as a mere legitimating projection onto the past of the current state of things.

Such a common-wealth is based on the commons, in some natural commons used by the community of producers, but also on the common knowledge and skills originating in productive cooperation. From this point of view, the State as a separate entity can be seen as an imagined transcendent entity produced by certain corrupt social relations of cooperation. The commons, in other words, communism as Marx conceived it, lies under every human society as its material ground. In some way all societies are communist, and every republic, even the republic based on property, is ultimately dependent on the productive commons, on the common-wealth in its original meaning. Therefore, I think this kind of republic of the commons, this original common-wealth, is not “a new reality beyond capitalism”, but a very originary reality, underlying even capitalism itself. In a certain way, neo-liberal, post-Fordist capitalism is perfectly aware of this -much more than mainstream leftists- since it bases its current model of exploitation not in the single worker organized by capital inside the factory, but on a self-organized network of social productive cooperation, self-organized by the workers. Of course, the neoliberal parlance would never say it this way, but would rather speak of “entrepreneurship” or “self-entrepreneurship”, but what Gary Becker and human capital theory describe is merely spontaneous human cooperation, captured in the networks of capital, mostly of financial capital and debt. Our future depends on our ability to transform productive self-organization in political freedom under a “hyphenated” Common-wealth.

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What I Think About The Reform Alliance

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A ‘reform alliance’: “Get your filthy hands off my belly!” – El Roto.

I have about as much interest in finding out more about the Reform Alliance as I do in having my head opened with a spade. But let me relate a few of the things that I do know about it, and hopefully leave it at that.

From a left wing standpoint, ideas about reform have particular characteristics. Reform may be concerned with introducing legislation that improves the living standards of the working class, or guarantees for marginalised groups, or setting limits to employer exploitation, or increasing democratic control over political administration.

From a right wing standpoint, ideas about reform usually concern the preservation of the status quo, or the restoration of ruling class power. So when we hear about ‘welfare reform’, this usually means changing the social welfare system in order to cut expenditure or entitlements. It also carries a strong suggestion of reforming the people who currently have an entitlement to welfare. So ‘welfare reform’ can take the form of ‘activation measures’, which is to say, measures to tackle the implied passivity of people who receive unemployment benefit, for instance.

So the idea of reform frequently carries an undertone -or an overtone, you can pick- of moral judgement. When you hear someone say, “he’s a reformed character”, that usually implies the person in question has abandoned his old habits, whether drunkenness or criminality or sexual lasciviousness, and undergone a process of rehabilitation that makes him tolerable to society at large. In this vein, you may wish to consider the fact that Brendan Howlin is the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. Not ‘Public Sector Reform’; just ‘Public Reform’. We might read into this that the purpose of his department is to reform the public sector and all the reprobates who work in it. We might also read into this that the purpose of the department is to reform the public. Perhaps the public needs reform. Perhaps they should stop believing they are entitled to things as citizens. Perhaps they should become customers instead (in fact, there are no perhapses about it, this is official policy, you can check). Perhaps the public needs dissolving, and a more slimmed down, nimble and less demanding public put in its place.

The mass media exercises a major influence over people’s ideas about reform, obviously. So throughout the last six years or so of economic disaster and social misery, it has trumpeted the need for political reform, as have Beelzebub knows how many political figures. Now there are a couple of obvious facts to bear in mind here. One is that Ireland’s mass media is right wing in its entirety (apart, apparently, from Hot Press, at least according to an Irish Times commenter who informed me it was a hotbed of leftist sedition). The other is that there has never been a left wing government in Ireland. The other -OK, this is more than a couple and this is not so obvious- is that the last number of years have seen policies introduced that increase profits and social inequality and deepen atomisation and poverty. The last one means that frustration with the political system, and with politicans in general, tends to bubble up, often in ways that are not necessarily in keeping with uprisings that seek left-leaning political change and greater equality in society, since this is not something many people have as a lived experience, but more in keeping with a nihilistic attitude towards social change: they’re all the same, nothing can be done, if it wasn’t for all these bankers and Jews and Lizards and migrants and fiat currency we’d all be sucking diesel.

So, the kind of political reform demanded by the mass media, given the fact that Ireland’s mass media is uniformly right wing, is the kind of political reform intended to keep things basically the way they are in terms of power relations and the implementation of orthodox -that is, neoliberal- public policy. And these ideas about political reform are shared by plenty of members of the political establishment, as you might expect. And -since frustration and hatred of politicians is a cause for concern from the point of view of the political establishment, if not necessarily the business establishment, which can always issue a set of crisply pressed blue shirts if things get too hairy- you will have initiatives, such as the Reform Alliance, which tart up the denial and removal of social rights that have typified the last number of years, under a new guise.

Remember, it is not that Ireland’s political establishment is opposed to the state, as per a common conception of right wing politics. On the contrary, it seeks to use the state for the purposes of the financial and business elites that it serves. The Reform Alliance, based as it is on a rupture within Fine Gael on the matter of abortion, simply wishes to continue to use the state to control women’s bodies. But since any removal of rights can, under the current regime, be characterised as ‘reform’, its central figures -whose convictions, it has to be said, differ very little from many Fine Gael members on the question of abortion- are treated by Ireland’s media as figures of probity and principle. Because ‘reform’ at present means rights must end, whether at birth or otherwise.

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Caustic Commentary At The Gates Of Hell

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“I’ve changed my principles, ideas, loyalties and promises, but I’m still the same person” – El Roto

I think Jack O’Connor is right to say that protest and ‘caustic commentary’ are not enough. I also think there is no point getting fixated on personalities at the top of the trade unions, since in so far as such figures counsel demobilisation and capitulation lest something even worse happen, this is because power structures demand such figures, not because they are particularly swinish individuals, which is neither here nor there. I also think that getting hung up in what such figures do or don’t say can have the effect of perpetuating a cycle of resignation.

I think Jack O’Connor is also right to highlight the need for ‘a coherent vision of an alternative paradigm informed by an egalitarian outlook based on equality’ (as if an egalitarian outlook could be based on anything else). I think he is right that the commitment to equality constitutes the dividing line. I also think some people of socialist and left wing inclinations have an unrealistic view of their own political capabilities if they imagine that any new paradigm can be forged without movements that appeal to lots of people who right now think politics amounts to voting for Labour or Fianna Fáil or even Fine Gael.

To paraphrase a hoary cliché, people are where they are. It may well be true, if not axiomatic even, that trade union bureaucrats are sell-outs. But if the only critique of the trade union leadership amounts to shouting “sell out!”, and, more broadly, to denunciation of the latest outrage or betrayal, then people will remain where they are. In fact, this kind of mere denunciation seems at times to operate, unwittingly, as part of a Texas Two-Step with the activities of the trade union leadership and the Labour Party, where they get to act rational and in command whereas their dance partners look bedraggled and struggling to maintain composure.

The key problem, I think, in the forging of any ‘coherent vision of an alternative paradigm’, is that the person who called for it today, and his colleagues and political allies, consistently operate in ways that dynamite the possibility of any sort of coherent vision being forged, through: support for projects intended to destroy any kind of collective solidarity (cf. support for JobBridge, support for the Property Tax, adopting a mercenary nationalism vis-à-vis the Fiscal Treaty); a political language that treats economic matters in precisely the same terms used by capitalist ideologues, with the fetish object of ‘the economy’ spoken of as if it were a naturally occurring entity that had nothing to do with human labour, let alone class exploitation; an unquestioning acceptance of Ireland’s electoral absolutism as eternally legitimate democratic rule, despite the scale of the assault on social rights and despite the unerring contempt for democratic norms shown by ruling elites, and despite the noxious depoliticising effects of such a system of political rule. There is simply no reason why anyone involved in these things will instigate the alternative paradigm O’Connor says he wants; on the contrary, most of them, like him, will seek to prevent it emerging.

No, protest and caustic commentary and the like is not enough, but when done right, it’s a good start, and without it, there will be nothing. Jack O’Connor says that there is a difference between making noise and making a difference. But the real difference they make is silence. Silence, despondency and hopelessness. We should avoid two-steps with these characters. There is no democracy without conflict, and calls for unity by people who are giving a reddish gloss to kleptocracy should be treated with derision. That still leaves the matter of the ‘coherent vision of an alternative paradigm’: well, the articulation of a democratic public opinion, a multiplication of channels of dissent and antagonism, and analysis that most people can understand and access, would be a good start. And, more generally, whether it relates to hospitals or schools or rivers or factories or whatever: isn’t it about time that we started to act as if we owned this place? Because the simple fact is: we do.

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The Fraudsters and the Facts

Let me return to the report published in Tuesday’s Irish Times, titled ‘Reports of welfare fraud up 2,500% since 2008‘, by Carl O’Brien. ‘New figures show a dramatic increase in anonymous tip-offs over suspected social welfare fraud’, began the report, which also claimed the ‘increase is welcome news’ for Joan Burton, the Minister for Social Protection.

The report was published together with a Harry McGee interview with Joan Burton -in which she claimed she wanted to make Ireland’s social welfare system more like Sweden’s- and an analysis by Carl O’Brien of the ‘soaring number of anonymous tip-offs’ that claimed ‘the population is happy to embrace a new culture of grassing on their neighbours’.

Moreover, O’Brien’s analysis, headlined ‘Crisis has cut qualms about informing on fraudsters’, claimed that ‘the number of anonymous tip-offs this year had reached 21,000 by November and may end up exceeding last year’s record of 28,000.’

Anonymous Reports

Since this is a news report, you would expect the 2500% increase to reflect current data. However, this is not the case.

Compared to 2008, the precise increase based on Department Figures for 2012 is 2584%, which is in fact closer to 2600% than 2500%.

But what is the picture for 2013? For a report published on the very last day of 2013, one would expect the 2500% to account for the trend into 2013.

The problem is, we don’t have the complete set of data – only 11 months worth.

The Irish Times reports that up to November, total anonymous reports for social welfare fraud stood at 21,000.

Based on this, we should be able to compare 2013 to previous years, in terms of monthly averages, as below:

Monthly Average

What we see is that the monthly average for 2013, for January through November, is significantly lower than 2012. Still a great deal higher than 2008, of course.

But the 2500% increase in the Irish Times headline, and the 21,000 reports made from January through November 2013 cited in the body of the text, are used as evidence to support the claim in the report of the ‘extent of the cultural shift’ over recent years. However, if the monthly average of reports has gone down since 2012, that means that the ‘extent of the cultural shift’ has diminished since 2012.

What is the % increase based on monthly averages, not yearly figures?

As we can see from the graph below, the % increase against 2008 figures for 2013 is not, as the report published on 31st December 2013 might suggest, 2500%, but rather 2094%, which is of course still a lot -assuming you think these figures are indicative of anything useful.

Average Increases

However, the drama suggested in the report – ‘new figures show a dramatic increase in anonymous tip-offs’ suddenly doesn’t appear all that dramatic.

In fact, the new figures suggest a drop off in anonymous tip-offs. To illustrate in terms of the annual rate of growth in tip-offs:

YearOnYearGrowth

It’s only if you treat 2012 figures as new -and they’ve been available at least since the 4th December 2013, when they were the subject of a parliamentary question that cited the 2013 figures to the end of October- that the drama is maintained.

Now obviously there is a caveat here. It may be that December is a very busy month on the whole for snitches. People may become increasingly resentful in the run-up to Christmas, and there may be a Christmas rush on anonymous reporting. Carl O’Brien claims in his analysis that the number of anonymous tip-offs ‘may end up exceeding last year’s record’.

Is this possible? The only month-by-month breakdown I’ve been able to find is for 2010. As you can see, there is no evidence of any Christmas spike for that year. It was November that spawned the monster.

2010The Irish Times report says that the ‘final end-of-year figure is likely to be significantly higher’. Well, significantly can mean whatever you want it to mean, that’s what makes it significant.

But in order for the 2013 figures to reflect anything other than a drop off in welfare snitching, there would have to be 7,000 anonymous reports of welfare fraud in December, or, to put it another way, a 268% increase on the monthly average for 2013. Carl O’Brien suggests this ‘may’ happen, though provides no evidence to support the claim, and there is no evidence in the public domain to suggest how it might happen. On these terms, I may make a surprise appearance in the Manchester United squad for the FA cup tie against Swansea this weekend.

However, the Irish Times treats the ‘increase’ not only as ‘welcome news to Joan Burton’ -in fact the 2012 increase is not news to Joan Burton; she herself reported the figures in an Oireachtas written answer on 4th December 2013 when she reported on figures to the end of October 2013 (19,301) as well, and it’s hard to imagine she hadn’t been aware of it well before that- but as a matter of current -not historical- fact.

Another interesting aspect to the report is that the vast majority of reports did not lead to welfare payments being stopped or reduced. This is not the emphasis given to the reporting, however. Therefore contrary to the claim in the analysis feature about fewer qualms regarding reporting on fraudsters, what the anonymous reports reveal is that there are fewer qualms regarding snitching on innocent and entirely legitimate recipients of social welfare payments. This is a trend that the Irish Times seems happy to celebrate -to the point of careless exaggeration- in its reporting, thereby acting as a willing foil to a Minister in a right-wing government who seeks to give the demonisation of poor people a social democratic gloss.

Who are the real fraudsters here?

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Show me your confirmation bias and I’ll show you mine

This is an extended version of a comment I left on an article by science writer and physicist at Oxford University Dr David Robert Grimes in the Irish Times. The article is titled ‘Ideological fixations can lead people to believe what they want to believe’. In it, the author describes how quantitative information ‘can be distorted by people’s political bias’, and how ‘ we are quite statistically innumerate and easily misled’.

largestnumber

Via OMG Science Is Like Totally Cool

It’s unfortunate that the author -who denounces ‘poor statistical reasoning in media’- has become a factor in the social phenomenon he has set out to denounce. He has used dodgy evidence to support his claim of a ‘vast gulf’ between what the public thinks is true and what is true in fact. If such a ‘chasm’ is indeed vast, the author has just widened it.

Let’s ‘think like scientists’, and evaluate the evidence for the claims made in this article ‘in a critical and detached manner’, as the author recommends.

To support his claim that there is a ‘vast gulf between what is popularly accepted and what is objectively true’, the author says ‘almost half the country are (sic) under the impression that politicians receive the most money from the public purse’. This evidence is from an Irish Times survey question, which reads as follows:

‘Which of the following groups receive the most from the public purse in terms of direct payments to them?’

48% of those surveyed answered ‘politicians’. The Irish Times said the correct answer was ‘Welfare recipients’. The author agrees.

But there are also excellent grounds for answering ‘politicians’. The majority of welfare recipients and the majority of public servants receive a lot less in direct payments from the public purse than an elected TD.  The question is unreliable, then, and so too is the relevant evidence provided by the author.

Why doesn’t such a question strike even people with considerable experience of scientific research as patently bogus? Why isn’t it obvious that such a question has been fashioned in order to confirm a particular conception of what and how the public thinks – indeed, what the public is?

It isn’t hard to imagine a plausible genesis of this question. Let’s momentarily cast scientific rigour to the wind, and speculate that it happened something like this. Political correspondent has conversations with politicians who complain to him about members of the public complaining how much they hate politicians, how overpaid they are, and so on and so forth. Political correspondent thinks some of the politicians he meets are dacent spuds and that the public, as is its wont, is being unreasonable. Political correspondent automatically dismisses possibility that calls for cuts to politician pay are based not on statistical innumeracy and ignorance, but a sense that someone who earns lots of money by everyday standards has no business taking decisions that impoverish those who are already struggling financially. Political correspondent thinks, what kind of a question can I come up with to measure the rabblement’s ignorance on this particular point? Political correspondent contacts polling company. Question is formulated.

Granted, it mightn’t have happened like this at all. It may just be that poorly formulated multiple choice guess questions with arbitrarily selected answers conform to the most respected scientific methods for establishing how well the public is informed. Which wouldn’t make such an approach any more reliable, but never mind.

The irony here is that the author’s dodgy evidence effectively supports his own claims about ‘our tendency to acknowledge evidence which agrees with our views and to disregard conflicting evidence’, and ‘ideological fixation’. If you’re convinced the public is poorly informed, you’ll seek out evidence that confirms this belief, even when the evidence doesn’t conform to the minimum standards of scientific rigour you might otherwise demand: what the author describes as ‘confirmation bias’.

The irony is compounded by the fact that his claims are published in the same organ that initially produced the dodgy evidence. It isn’t the author’s fault, but this is an organ which only yesterday published the headline that ‘Reports of welfare fraud’ –reports– had risen by 2500%. The detail of the article revealed that only 16 per cent of reports analysed –reports analysed, not reports on the whole- had led to payments being stopped.

In other words, 84% of welfare fraud reports analysed (there was no indication of the sample size) were based on nothing more than prejudice, a consideration that troubled neither the Department of Social Protection nor the Irish Times. (At the last time of checking, the report was also claiming that 8,350 was more than half of 21,000). By sheer coincidence, the same organ on the same day published a cotton wool-soft piece on the Minister for Social Protection, Joan Burton. Perhaps this tells us something about why the Irish Times might publish articles that confirm the view that the public is dangerously ignorant.

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