I left this comment on a piece written by Brendan Howlin, Labour Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, in today’s Irish Times. The piece is titled ‘Labour must defend – not apologise for – its role in Government‘. In it, Howlin says that ‘as a social democrat my politics is [sic] defined by a sense of the State as a force for good’.
It’s hard to tell by Brendan Howlin’s remarks about the good State whether he is a political illiterate or a congenital manipulator.
The State isn’t an eternal immutable presence. It’s a social relation. How it operates depends on the correlation of forces in society as a whole.
The greater the social and political mobilisation on the part of the working majority, the greater the potential for democratic gains through the State. The Irish State, however, has protected the interests of the financial sector and an economic model based on speculation and tax avoidance at the expense of the working population.
Howlin’s Labour Party in Government has attended to the common interests of Ireland’s ruling elites whilst claiming it is taking a bullet on behalf of ordinary people. The suffocation of public finances to pay off banker debt; attacks on the working majority in the form of wage cuts, withdrawal of vital services, free labour schemes for employers, regressive indirect taxation measures that attack the poor whilst creating a tax regime that favours the rich even more, scapegoating and criminalisation of people dependent on social welfare payments. Labour has presided over all these things in government, and presented them all as measures in the public interest.
The effect of all this has been a drop in living standards for the majority, with things guaranteed to get worse if the current course of action continues. Labour has presided over these things with the connivance of its cronies in the trade unions, and, like any good conservative activist, its eternal counsel to critics on its left in this regard is to shut up because it will only make things worse.
It is undeniable then, that Labour has been a force for state activism, as Brendan Howlin claims, but it is a state activism intended to divide and demobilise, a state activism intended to remove the role of the state as a guarantor of democratic rights, and to strengthen its power as an organ of repression and expropriation in the service of ruling elites. In fairness though, it must be hard to see the State in such a light when it rewards you with a fat salary and a succulent pension for all your vandalism. Far more likely that you might conclude, instead, with your friends in the political and media establishment, that “L’État, c’est nous”.