Monthly Archives: March 2014

Bod Delusions

I left this comment in response to an article by Vincent Browne in today’s Irish Times, which is titled ‘Painful truths about rugby culture‘. Browne’s article, which associated misogyny, homophobia and masculine hegemony with rugby culture, provoked indignant and dismissive responses.

TonyOReily
Tony O’Reilly, former Irish rugby international (via)

Why so down on the Browne? It’s clear the writer isn’t criticising the sport of rugby as such, but rugby culture.

We all know rugby in Ireland is still mostly an elite sport. Irish rugby culture is intertwined with Irish elite culture more broadly. The sport originates in elite institutions concerned with producing the ideal Christian gentleman: an individual who was a beacon of health, physically vigorous and morally principled, and loyal to his fellows. You still see that original ideal in the mediated presentation of Brian O’Driscoll and others as true gents: nice people, do a lot of work for charity and so on. And at the same time, they’re tough and single-minded competitors.

But we also know that the history of this whole world of physical vigour, moral probity and hail-fellow-well-met sportsmanship is also the history of icy cold calculation, masculine domination, institutional brutality and the subjugation of women. As the saying goes, the bigger the front, the bigger the back: polished gentlemanliness is the flipside of libidinous boorishness.

However, in the present, the ideal figure produced by elite institutions isn’t so much a Christian gent. It is a tough-minded entrepreneur, usually a man, pitting himself against all others in a war of all against all. And yet, he is bound to intense collaborative networks where each subjects himself and others to perpetual surveillance and appraisal.

This is the dominant culture, and it informs the celebration of the Irish rugby hero, whose image is fused with corporate logos and aspirational slogans. If you can’t take the pain imposed by this culture, it’s because you need to ‘man up’, or because you are not a ‘team player’, and in the final instance, it is the strongest and the fittest who survive.

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The Land of Boiled 7Up

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The other day I was in Tesco and they had t-shirts prominently on display for St Patrick’s Day. One of them read “You know you’re Irish if boiled 7Up is the cure for every illness”, or something very similar, and the first thing I thought was: am I Irish?

I have never heard of this in my life. Flat coke, yes. but never boiled 7Up. But flat coke is not particularly Irish. There are any number of countries around the world where people will swear by the medicinal properties of flat coke, as well as its reputed use as a drain unblocker by plumbers in the know.

When I remarked on this boiled 7Up phenomenon the other night, someone suggested to me that it may have to do with a time -now?- when getting a doctor to take a look would cost too much money as would proper medicines so self-medicating home remedies would always be to the fore. Hence you know you’re Irish because you’ve got an aversion to using professional health services because they cost too much.

On the way out of Tesco there was a charity effort. People were packing customers’ shopping. It was in aid of a very sick person’s expenses. Large amounts of money were needed to give this person vital treatment. So here were the volunteers, helping Tesco get their Saturday morning cashier lines cleared as quickly as possible, in exchange for customer donations. And I would never actually say this but Tesco were really setting me up to ask: have you tried boiled 7up?

Under what circumstances would you feel the need to know if you’re Irish or not? Do people wake in the morning feeling strangely self-conscious about their naked body and think: am I Irish? Do they find themselves unaccountably sucking up to Americans? Do they get overcome by the strangest feeling that the world -even the non-English speaking world- finds their accent sexy?

And why would you need to know? What would you do with the information that confirmed you were, indeed, Irish? Would you start evading tax? Start thinking about your mother as an especially amusing subspecies of mother? Start nodding sagely at the pronouncements of economists on TV?

What kind of entitlements would being Irish bring? What kind of rights would being a child of the Irish nation entail?

In Tesco, for example, where you are besieged by advertising at near every glance about how this carrot or that lump of meat is Irish, they use JobBridge to employ shelf stackers.

This, by the way, was a scheme brought in by a Labour minister. You may recall that the Labour Party campaigned for the Fiscal Treaty with big billowing tricolours on their posters: you know you’re Irish when paying off bank debt is more important than paying for hospitals and schools. You know you’re Irish if the cause of speculators is the cause of labour.

Another way of putting JobBridge is that Tesco, and firms like it, get some Irish people -the ones in government and their associates in the business world- to force other people -who may or may not be Irish, depending on how they use boiled 7Up- to work for slave wages. This helps keep the wages of the rest of Tesco’s staff down, to drive Tesco’s profits up in the low tax country it calls ‘Treasure Island’. (Every little helps.) You know: for Ireland.

Last week a video produced by Ireland’s tourist board was heavily circulated online. According to the video, one of the inspiring things about Ireland was the way the country had successfully emerged from a Troika bailout.

That is, Ireland’s government had successfully managed to demonstrate it would pay off private banking debt whilst undertaking internal devaluation, driving down wages and unravelling employment protections, privatising public services and cutting benefits.

Inspiring perhaps, but to whom, exactly? Well, speculators and accumulators, mainly, but also, it would appear, a great many one-dimensional enthusiasts for the official word on things. To such people, Ireland is inspiring because the war of all against all is the new normal.

So being Irish, on its own, doesn’t entitle you to much, I’m afraid. Not a decent wage, or a decent health service, or a democratic political system, anyway. In fact, it doesn’t seem to be a guarantee of anything. Maybe you know you’re Irish then, if when someone is robbing you blind, all you can think about is Mr Tayto and boiled 7Up.

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What kind of scapegoat is Bono?

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I’m going to take my cue from Harry Browne’s very fine article on Bono in today’s Irish Times.

The vulgar abuse may stem from people’s belief that Bono spends entirely too much time schmoozing with politicians – but maybe he is their victim as much as he is their pal. The cover of the new Italian edition of my critical book about Bono pictures him with a barcode across his face, an image that invites the reader to view the book’s subject as both a product and as a prisoner.

Internationally, Bono has been used to bathe statesmen (George W Bush, Tony Blair) and corporations (Apple, Amex, Monsanto) in the moral legitimacy that he earned over decades as an artist and activist. In Ireland of late, however, his service to the powerful is cruder: he is a sort of human shield, taking the flak for the sins of banks and State. He’s a scapegoat.

And ask the question – if Bono is a scapegoat, just what kind of scapegoat is he, apart from a fabulously wealthy one?

Let me say, first of all, that there are very good reasons for finding Bono unbearable and I have no interest in improving his public image. Just to get it out of the way.

I am going to focus on just one area: tax. Bono’s hypocrisy on tax is well known by now. He and the rest of his band moved their tax affairs away from Ireland because they wanted to make as much money as possible. So when they go on about being Irish, and about what Irish people think or what they are like, people get annoyed. Bono, if u so Irish, why u no pay tax in Ireland?

But not all critiques of Bono’s tax hypocrisy are undertaken for the same reasons.

Some people hate the idea of paying taxes altogether. They think it’s an injustice that a conspicuously rich and celebrated person should get away without paying taxes when they still have to. A lot of the time this sense of injustice comes informed by a sense that the law is the law and obedience to the State is a virtue.

Others think taxes are an essential obligation in democratic society, part of the social glue. Some of them might also recognise that an international tax regime that allows very rich people and the corporations they own to squirrel away their earnings, without paying tax, has the effect of suffocating the public finances of nation states.

Which position reflects the dominant public discourse in Ireland? I think it’s the former.

You can see this in the way there has never been a truly national health service in Ireland. But not only has there been no such thing, there is rarely ever even a discussion of why there has been no such thing.

You can see it too in the way there is no such thing as universal public education. Parents –I am one- have to pony up for textbooks and stationery and even basic school maintenance, as well as give of time in a voluntary capacity, to make sure that their child’s school can function properly. Meanwhile, the State pays for teacher wages in exclusive private schools that nurture and maintain privileged elites.

(This provides a vivid illustration of why volunteerism is so highly valued in Ireland: because it gives a communitarian gloss to a basic situation described by Adam Smith, often quoted by Noam Chomsky: the ‘vile maxim of the masters of mankind: all for ourselves and nothing for other people’)

When it comes to public debate on education, whose voice gets more hearing – parents, or the country managers of multinational corporations that employ a tiny proportion of the workforce and take advantage of Ireland’s favourable tax regime?

These corporations haven’t been subjected to any tax increases over the past five years of crisis. Rather, they’ve benefited both from a religiously defended low tax rate and lower unit labour costs, to the point of free labour laid on by the State.

Meanwhile, the burden on ordinary workers and their children –in terms of lower living standards and higher taxes, with a growing emphasis on indirect taxes- has grown.

It’s the corporation bosses, of course: managers who tell you the country needs more Flemish speakers for call centres, or more graduates who stand up straight when they’re talking to you, or more people ready to work at least thirty different jobs in their lives.

What all of this, and more, means is that there is little sense that you or I have an obligation to contribute towards the education of other people’s children.

We can extend this observation to health care, and welfare more generally. In a society with such a marked absence of mutual responsibility, in which paying as little tax as possible is part of official culture but PAYE workers are seen as a cash cow, there is ample room for resentment towards Bono.

Not because Bono is seen as standing in the way of a better society, however, but because he fulfils a particular role in popular Irish narratives about how such a society works. According to these narratives, the rich are rich because they are greedy and devious bastards, the poor are poor because they are lazy and stupid bastards, and ever was it thus for we ordinary punters in the middle.

So Bono provides a safety valve for venting resentment about a superficial feeling of injustice, but with the structural basis of that injustice well out of sight.

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Dan O’Brien vs Ballyhea: Why The Sunday Independent Still Wants To Eat Your Brains

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‘Propaganda’, by El Roto

Against my own advice offered last week, I want to look at a Sunday Independent article published last Sunday. It is by Dan O’Brien, former Irish Times economics editor and, presently, Chief Economist at the Institute of International and European Affairs, as well as a Sunday Independent columnist. It supports my thesis that the Sunday Independent wants to eat your brains.

The article is headlined ‘Demonstrators’ analysis of the bank bailout is deeply flawed‘. The article deals with the now-renowned Ballyhea Says No campaign. This campaign against the socialisation of private banking debt has been running for the past three years, with weekly marches against this imposition.

The organisers of this campaign have kept it going despite a media establishment that frequently asks why Irish people do not protest, but when it comes to actual examples of protest, does not want to know.

Ireland’s media establishment has frequent bouts of foaming indignation at some aspect of public expenditure. However, it has turned a blind eye on the whole to the funneling of tens of billions of euro in public money to unsecured private bondholders in Irish banks.

In so far as Ireland’s media establishment has addressed the matter of bondholder bailouts, it has been to present the payouts, even in the case of unsecured bonds, as a self-evident necessity, a situation impervious to political action.

Ballyhea

In spite of this, the Ballyhea campaigners have doggedly kept records on the sums involved in these operations, and sought to raise public awareness of the extent of the scandal.

The principal concern of Dan O’Brien’s article is not the fact of these bondholder payouts and their social cost in terms of health, education, welfare, jobs and lives. Rather, it is the ‘Ballyhea protesters’ analysis’ relating to the ’cause of the crash‘.

He doesn’t name any names. He doesn’t quote anyone’s remarks, spoken or written. He summarises these unnamed individuals’ analysis in the following terms:

The Ballyhea protesters argue that the underlying cause of the crash was a badly designed euro and a central bank in Frankfurt that did not do its job. They believe that when the consequences of these failures manifested in a banking collapse, the powers that be in the eurozone forced weak Irish governments to socialise the costs. On the basis of this analysis, they argue that justice demands other European countries repay the Irish state the approximately €65bn spent on the bank bailout.

O’Brien continues:

the Ballyhea protesters say that foreigners forced Irish governments to ensure that Irish taxpayers repaid all investors in the domestic banks

He characterises their argument in the following terms:

Blaming others for all our woes did little for this country over decades. Doing it again would be equally fruitless.

This foreigner-blaming would be fruitless because

the prospect of other taxpayers in Europe (many of whom have paid for bailing out their own banks) gifting Ireland €65bn is next to zero

Thus O’Brien has characterises the Ballyhea protesters as embodying both insular xenophobia and political naivety.

Ballyhea’s detailed position on bank debt can be found at this link. Its analysis of the origins of the crisis draw on analyses of Belgian economist Paul de Grauwe, quoted in the linked article, and Constantin Gurgdiev, to the point that, in so far as O’Brien sees Ballyhea’s analysis as ‘completely flawed from start to finish’, he is really taking issue with the analysis of De Grauwe and Gurgdiev.

There is no reason why O’Brien shouldn’t take issue with such analysis as he says fit, but he should at least outline who he is arguing against. He does not do this.

If you read the Ballyhea position, it is not at all a matter of ‘other taxpayers in Europe’ ‘gifting Ireland €65bn’. On the contrary, one of the concrete proposals, prominently featured, is

a levy on the finance industry that will see the billions their recklessness has cost the peoples of Europe restored to those balance sheets, perhaps that levy going directly to the ESM for redistribution to those countries affected.

You may think this measure is realistic, you may not. But it is a gross distortion of the expressed Ballyhea position to say, as O’Brien does, that Ballyhea expects a ‘gift from other taxpayers in Europe’.

(Unless, of course, you believe that ‘taxpayers’ is synonymous with ‘finance industry’. For someone who works as an economist for an entity whose foundation members include Goldman Sachs International and AIB (as well as SIPTU, curiously), it would certainly be an interesting explicit political position to adopt.)

Nor is it a we-poor-Irish-them-evil-foreigners position, as O’Brien suggests. On the contrary, the Ballyhea proposal, whilst recognising the particular burden placed on people in Ireland, acknowledges the need for a Europe-wide solution, and justice for other peoples of Europe.

Why the focus on Ballyhea, then? If their analysis is so flawed, why bother? Where was the need for Dan O’Brien to make such an egregious misrepresentation of their position?

Perhaps it has to do with prominent Ballyhea participant Diarmuid O’Flynn’s recently announced campaign to get elected as an MEP (as I understand it, he is not going to be endorsed as a candidate by the Ballyhea Says No group). O’Brien makes no mention of this salient fact in his article.

The fact that banking debt could appear as a contentious issue on the terrain of political institutions is, I think, a potentially significant development. Yes, left-wing parties also say they want to repudiate the debt, but this is only one item of their platform, and these parties have limited appeal in Ireland’s political culture.

By contrast, Ballyhea has been an explicitly non-party political undertaking from the start, seeking to unite as many people as possible on the matter of debt. It has won widespread respect for its integrity and steadfastness, with the occasional pat on the head from Ireland’s media, including in O’Brien’s article. But what happens if Ballyhea moves from inocuous mascot to a real political presence?

The broader European context is significant. Whilst O’Brien seeks to paint Ballyhea as ignorant Little Irelanders, they have actively sought to engage institutions at a European level in spite of political intransigence in Ireland. And contrary to the juxtaposition O’Brien offers between the Irish public and the rest of the body of European taxpayers, no such opposition exists in fact.

The matter of illegitimate debt is a political question across the European periphery, manifesting itself in various social movements, but also in political platforms such that of Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain. In fact, the country that has the most onerous private banking debt burden –Ireland- is the country in which the matter of illegitimate debt is least discussed.

Contrary to the image O’Brien conjures, then, it is he -and by extension, the Sunday Independent, and Ireland’s media establishment- who are the Little Irelanders.

O’Brien, as you would expect, sees things through the eyes of the Irish political and media establishment, in which there is no alternative plane of political activity to that of the European Union’s member states and their respective national governments.

In such a view, the national governments are the indisputable representatives of their citizens. This is the case even when these governments operate within a framework -a financial architecture and a set of supra-national political institutions- that destroy their citizens’ lives.

The simple-mindedness of this view can be seen in his admission that the bank bailout was an injustice, but that it was the result of ‘an Irish government – rightly or wrongly – doing what it believed to be in Ireland’s best interests’. This is a cock and bull story, from start to finish, but it is a myth that Ireland’s media machinery constantly reproduces.

To illustrate, here is a phrase: ‘the occupation of Crimea was the result of a Russian government -rightly or wrongly- doing what it believed to be in Russia’s best interests’.

Is there anyone in these parts who would not recognise such a phrase as an obvious identification, on the part of the speaker, with the Putin government in Russia?

Is there anyone in these parts who would believe that what the Russian government sees as ‘Russia’s best interests’ might coincide at all with what people at large in Russia see as their best interests?

The answer to both questions is No. This is because people hear stories about Putin and his oligarchs and the effect of their material interests over government policy.

In Ireland, however, many people are frozen in an illusion. The illusion is that a government that consistently prioritises the interests of the financial sector and property speculators and companies seeking to avoid tax, over the health and education and welfare of the population, is the population’s unimpeachably legitimate representative. Hence there is nothing that can be done. The public must pay the price for the speculative crazes of the financial elite, because it happened under a government that represented the public. In certain cases, this illusion is sustained through newspapers owned by a Malta-based billionaire who hates paying tax and is close to the incumbent government.

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But another illusion, which is equally important from the standpoint of those who make their living either from the privatisation of what is public or advocating such courses of action, is the sense of debt as an inescapable moral obligation. It is not. It is a political relation. Political relations can be changed. Sometimes this causes political upheaval, and sometimes it involves campaigns such as the one undertaken with such doggedness by those in Ballyhea. And anyone who seeks to tell you otherwise is either a con artist, a moron, or both. What is more, they want to eat your brains.

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The Day Bono Made Sense

Image via Dublin Opinion.

“The Irish people bailed the Irish people out”

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For once, Bono made sense, kind of.

Bono spoke these words at a meeting about people. The people in question were the European Peoples’ Party.

In French, ‘the people’ is singular: le peuple. In Spanish, it is also singular: el pueblo. Italian too: il popolo. In Irish it’s an pobal. In German, it’s das Volk. This word -the people- has a definite political meaning, in terms of a regime of political representation. However, in English, ‘the people’ works a bit weirdly. For instance, in The Leviathan, Hobbes says:

For though where the people are governed by an assembly, chosen by themselves out of their own number, the government is called a democracy, or aristocracy; yet when they are governed by an assembly not of their own choosing, it is a monarchy; not of one man over another man, but of one people over another people.

See what he did there? He starts off by saying “the people are“: “the people” is plural. But then he says “one people over another people”: so the people takes form as a singular thing, but when you talk about it, you talk about “they, the people”. It’s all a bit confusing, a bit Möbius. They’re one, but they’re not the same, as Bono might say.

And yet they are the same. At least, that’s how the European Peoples’ Party operates. For example, the Partido Popular, -the Party of the People- in Spain, was elected with the votes of 30% of the total number of registered voters in Spain. This 30% support was enough to give it an absolute majority in the parliament, and to act in the manner of what the cartoonist in El País by the name of El Roto describes as an ‘absolutist majority’: by reintroducing draconian abortion legislation, criminalising protest, destroying Spain’s National Health Service, and making it far easier for employers to sack people, and getting the police to batter lumps out of protesters, much in the same manner as An Garda Síochána beat lumps out of protesters down outside the European Peoples’ Party conference last night. And in doing these things, it claims to be doing so on behalf of ‘the people’. This, by the way, is what Hobbes calls ‘monarchy‘, and to be fair, Spain is also formally a monarchy, headed by an elephant-shooting King who was hand-picked by fascist dictator Franco as his successor.

In Hobbesian terms, what we can see happening in Spain, quite clearly, is one ‘people’ – the constituency of the rich, the oligarchs, the kleptocrats, Opus Dei and other sanctimonious right-wing Catholic formations-, ruling over another ‘people’ – the different peoples of Spain’s autonomous regions, the popular classes, migrants, and so on.

And so maybe this is what Bono is really getting at, when he says ‘the Irish people bailed the Irish people out’: one Irish ‘people’ – the broad mass of people who work for a living in Ireland- bailed out another Irish ‘people’- Ireland’s political and financial establishments, its ‘indigenous moneyed class‘, which includes, of course, people like Bono- in order to preserve an economic model based on property speculation and tax avoidance. The first ‘people’ bailed out the second ‘people’: in the form of unemployment, illness, emigration, the destruction of communities, falls in living standards; deprivation, poverty, and despair.

To me, this is the deepest thing Bono has ever said. In fact, deep isn’t the word. We’re not talking about depth here, but movement: perhaps a Möbius strip, or, as the people in Bono’s beloved France might say, un serpent qui se mord la queue, or, as my Granny might have said, a rabbit that eats its own pills. As long as those who comprise the first ‘Irish people’ see themselves as inescapably represented by the second ‘Irish people’, they are consigned to pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps for all eternity.

We’re one, but we’re not the same. It’s all starting to make sense now. Thanks, Bono.

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Towards An Absence Of Friends In Low Places

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In a response to yesterday’s post, James writes:

‘This is an issue which had stumped me once too, “how do we overcome positive and seemingly progressive capitalist rhetoric and promotion”. But I was reminded, as I now always remind my friends on the revolutionary left, that it comes down to material circumstances that individuals of the working class are faced with – these realities always overcome and contradict even the most comprehensive arguments in favour of capitalism – and fundamentally, the left’s response to those conditions. It would be abstract to most people to argue with the slogan “down with capitalism” on the streets, unless they are already sufficiently class conscious. Instead it is essential that we base a struggle that is relevant to the specific issues of the working class. At the moment, in Ireland for example, these would be water charges, austerity, women’s rights etc. These are the issues that are relevant for people, on which a consciousness can be developed. No propaganda can overcome actual material contradictions. No one will believe the most stringent political arguments in favour of a system which stops them putting bread on the table.’

It’s hard to disagree with this response, for the most part. However, I would say that the whole point of propaganda is to overcome actual material contradictions: propaganda in itself has a real material effect. James is right to move from the terrain of abstract and hypothetical conversations and onto the real situations in which people confront the fact that the logic of the system under which they live is geared towards their expropriation.

But this move is never inevitable. And it can it ever be a mere operation of mechanical reason: personal difficulty and humiliation can also lead to support for and consent to the most insidious and reactionary manoeuvres of the regime: against migrants, women, Muslims, Jews, people who depend on state benefits, and other potential “enemies within”.

When we talk about our conversations with “nice people”, or, for that matter, “individuals of the working class”, these are largely hypothetical scenarios that bear little resemblance to the ebb and flow of our encounters with others, which seldom take place under circumstances of our own choosing, and seldom the terms of debate of our choosing.

I saw a comment on a Facebook page yesterday about the article I wrote. It said that what I had written was typical of the condescension of socialists. I didn’t take the comment seriously. These comments can be a typical knee-jerk reaction when someone calls into a question a kind of life that you identify with. If you do it with some measure of intelligence and conviction, you’re operating with typical socialist condescension, and we all know that this led to the gulag. If you do it in confused and contradictory terms, you are operating with typical socialist soft-headedness, fantasy or stupidity, and we all know that this led to the gulag.

As it happens, I think people with far greater mental capabilities than me can fail to see the distinction between capitalism as an ideal and capitalism as a specific historical form with its own specific logic. You could put Stephen Jay Gould’s observation about Einstein into reverse: how is it that people with talent roughly the same as Einstein’s and who did not work in cotton fields and sweatshops but rather, the pinnacles of scientific achievement, could, unlike Einstein, be oblivious to the social system in which they were living, or compartmentalise their lives in such a way that they could ignore it?

Well, it is a distinction that is systematically blurred and obscured, I suppose, and anyway, it isn’t the sort of thing that crops up in casual conversation while you’re putting the bins out.

I take this more seriously, a remark from another reader:

‘I wish you’d addressed this in your response, because I think that after criticizing apologists for capitalism along *exactly the same lines as people criticize apologists for communism* – you might owe ‘these people’ a little more…? Unless, as you seem to imply, that unless people have read Marx, then they’re probably not worth talking to in the first place…’

It wasn’t my intention to dismiss certain people as not worth talking to. In fact, I’d find life unbearable if the only people I could talk to were people who have read Marx. What I meant to show was that capitalism and communism are not two comparable objects of consideration.

We can stand in a capitalist world and think about what communism might be. No-one has ever done the reverse. At best, they have some experience and awareness of certain aspects of life lived in ways that correspond to ‘from each according to their ability, to each according to their need’, or, have made imaginary leaps towards what a classless society where all classes have been abolished might look like. If not the latter, I think most people have such experiences from their everyday lives, including even most Garth Brooks fans.

What is more, I assume that under certain circumstances, even Garth Brooks fans could see the abolition of class society as not only desirable but necessary, and remain Garth Brooks fans for all that. Or, they might go some distance in that direction, but then decide tomorrow will never come, and turn back to their glorification of the splendid underdog, their ideal of a hierarchical society with high and low places where a classless society is the mere abolition of social graces. To take these possibilities seriously is called politics. However, the political encounter is seldom, if ever, one of our choosing, and repertoires from other times and places may not be of that much use.

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How to debate capitalism with a nice person without stabbing them in the face with a fork

In response to yesterday’s post on the Sunday Independent’s treatment of capitalism, Cian writes:

‘My concern is that the above general critique of capitalism, falls into a similar line of reasoning as those who attack anyone advocating socialist alternatives by pointing to Stalinist Russia or Maoist China…I read the general gist of that part.. to be saying that perversions of capitalism cannot be called out for what they are; that anyone promoting the idea of capitalism cannot defend themselves on the basis that those examples are failures/perversions of capitalism.

I fear that if anyone genuinely (having met some nice people arguing such, I believe they do exist) advocating organising society along capitalist/free market principles cannot call out what they see as perversions/corruptions of an ideal, people like me cannot advocate communitarian alternatives without being labelled a Stalinist apologist.’

I think there is a fundamental distinction that needs to be drawn here, between thinking about capitalism as an ideal, or as a political programme, and thinking about capitalism as –in the words of Ellen Meiksins Wood, ‘a historically specific social form, with its own systemic logic that distinguishes it fundamentally from other social forms’.

I’ve no doubt that there are nice people –indeed, far nicer than me- who have an earnest belief that the way things are is more or less the way things ought to be. What is more, they believe that in so far as there are things wrong with the world, it’s because the world should become more like how the benefit of their experience has informed them. They look back over the last few hundreds of years and see giant leaps in scientific and technical and human progress, and think: sure if capitalism produced this, why can’t we have more of the same, only better? They think about their own working lives and see how capitalist enterprises make useful things, and they consider their working relationships and think: I’m not so badly off, I do encounter difficulties here and there, but on the whole I think I’m better off than if I were living in North Korea.

I think such nice people, if they ever come across the likes of what I write here, think it’s the work of some sort of malcontent crank hell bent on the destruction of life as we know it. Where this kind of polemic works, I think, is with people who already have some sort of doubt about the viability of capitalism, on account of their own experience. My intent –when I decide I have one- is to water those seeds of doubt. So the kind of writing you read here won’t appeal, nor is it intended to appeal, to people who think things are more or less fine.

perfectsystem

As I see it there are a lot of people –not all of whom are monocle-wearing capitalist pigs- who are largely immune to the idea that rising poverty, high unemployment, imperialist wars, ecological devastation, social inequality, government policies based on maintaining a ‘good business environment’, extreme economic hardships for untold millions arising from the elimination of jobs in order to satisfy the appetites of financial speculators, and an incomprehensibly large pile of other things, are effects of capitalism as such. These are just things that happen when people do capitalism wrong. To be honest, I think it’s beyond my capacity to convince any given sample of such people otherwise.

But one of the reasons why I think I’m not equipped to convince such people –leaving aside the fact that I don’t own a vast media corporation and I give off a strong sense of failure if I’m standing holding a leaflet- is that these people do not think about capitalism as a specific historical form. They just think about capitalism as the way things are at the minute, and the way they have been for a while, and the only realistic horizon for the future.

Their working definition of capitalism, so to speak, doesn’t take into account the basic conditions of possibility for capitalism. It doesn’t take into account a confrontation between two classes –the appropriators and the producers- whose interests are fundamentally antagonistic. It doesn’t take into account the separation of the economic and the political that is essential to any capitalist regime. Capitalism is simply, in their eyes, what is.

And the implications for this, when it comes to Cian’s point, is that there can be no meaningful discussion of capitalism without a) the recognition that capitalism is a specific social form that has emerged under specific historical circumstances, and without b) the recognition of its fundamental attributes.

Let’s go back to the Sunday Independent article to illustrate what I mean. The article talks about a ‘we’ who have created capitalism, and could undo it if ‘we’ wish. But this ‘we’ is simply a fiction. Yes, capitalism as a system is the result of human labour. But there is no collective political subject, encompassing all those who live under capitalism, which decided to create capitalism, or which decides to maintain it. The political institutions in our society are the political institutions of capitalism, the institutions of a material order where the political and the economic have been separated, and in which class exploitation is the norm that governs production. Such a ‘we‘ is no basis for a discussion about what to do about capitalism!

baldwin

So, basically, when it comes to convivial debates with nice people who say they like capitalism about possibilities for human emancipation in the future, I don’t think such people should be stabbed in the face with a fork, but nor should they be let off the hook with the notion that capitalism is merely an ideal. Not least because this ideal –based upon the notion that capitalism is something that the entirety of humanity has freely accepted- is an effect of capitalism itself. Whether it proves worth your while engaging in such debates is up to you, though I suppose honey may work better than vinegar, if you can keep their attention for long enough.

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