Monthly Archives: August 2014

John Bruton: Buffoon Iconoclast

The two reasons for John Bruton’s current public prominence in Ireland -his endorsement of John Redmond as an Irish political hero, and his guffawing appearance in front of Irish American legal and business elites where he said governments would have to “default” on their obligations to public welfare provision- are closely related.

Before looking at the relation between the two, however, it’s worth wondering why he’s given any attention at all.

Someone in the Irish Times letters page yesterday rebuked Bruton for celebrating Redmond and denigrating the Easter Rising, saying that it was thanks to the latter event that Bruton had become Taoiseach of an independent republic. But wait. Why would an independent republic pay any heed to what a former political leader had to say when it is for no apparent reason other than the fact that it is he who is saying it?

Since his career as a public representative ended, Bruton has consistently appeared on RTÉ as an eminence grise. On Ireland’s public broadcaster, where the fact of being a former Taoiseach accords Bruton the gravitas his own intellect could never muster, his current role as finance lobby mouthpiece is passed over in silence, and he is allowed to recite Thatcherite dogma as the revealed truth without a hint of a challenge. Needless to say that this is a broadcasting imbalance that has yet to trouble the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland.

Classical republicanism would have it that both political leaders and the citizen body as a whole are required to cultivate the virtues. The idea that citizens ought to entertain the frenzied historical flatulence of a patent mediocrity such as Bruton would be alien to any republic worthy of the name.

Bruton’s public interventions, on the matter of state commemorations and in particular the matter of the 1916 Rising and John Redmond as the true Irish hero of the period, have been facilitated by a press committed both to the worship of power and status and to the denigration of democratic dispute and critique.

If Bruton’s opinion is deemed reliably newsworthy, it is because it articulates strong currents of feeling already present in Ireland’s media establishment. These include: fear of Sinn Féin in government and of militant Irish republicanism; a sense of duty towards the utterances of Very Important People, and Irish State Notables in particular; and an anxiety to create a coherent and all-encompassing State narrative that minimises controversy and maximises a quietist neoliberal consensus.

Bruton’s ejaculations are reminiscent of so-called ‘revisionist’ historians and commentators, and they are particularly reminiscent of his former adviser Eoghan Harris.

A central concern of Harris’s career as a media manipulator has been what he calls the slaying of sacred cows. By Harris’s lights 1916 would be one such sacred cow. The idea that states should provide universal health care or universal pensions would also fit the bill. The act of slaying such sacred cows in public can appear quixotic, but it has the effect of loosening up public opinion and shifting the bounds of public debate further onto your own terrain.

This kind of iconoclasm is presented as the gesture of the brave outsider, the obstinate dissenter. But iconoclasts are by no means outsiders by definition. It was quite common, as Milton noted, for Greek rulers to carry out acts of iconoclasm in order to restore the populace to the way of the true religion.

In this case, Bruton’s iconoclasm is conducted from his position ensconced amid Ireland’s financial and economic elites. The true religion in this case is private property and capitalism, and the ‘sacred cow’ to be slain is, quite simply, democracy.

The exaltation of Redmond as a secular saint, then, is precisely because of his status as a public representative who was content to offer up the multitude for slaughter on the altar of Empire, and who felt unbound by any sense of democratic obligation. As the political figurehead for Ireland’s finance lobby, which is ever anxious to turn the State into an organ of greater repression, greater exploitation, it is small wonder that Bruton looks upon Redmond as a role model.

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The Imperatives of The Housing Market

HOMES A range of 1, 2 and 3 lives dedicated to paying them off

A range of 1, 2 and 3 lives dedicated to paying them off

I had a look this morning at a report from the Economic and Social Research Institute, the independent body that gets paid by the government to do research. The report is titled ‘Bubble, Bubble Toil and Trouble? An Assessment of the Current State of the Irish Housing Market’. (‘With apologies to Mr. William Shakespeare.’ O teh lulz)

I was drawn to the report via a headline in the Irish Times concerning the report ‘ESRI says house prices 27% below real value’. According to the headline, price isn’t an indicator of true value. The true value here, mind you, isn’t the object’s use value as opposed to its exchange value; it’s just the value that the object ought to have if things were different. And things ought to be different, not because I want them to be so, but because things really are different! The real state of things is not reflected in prices. The falcon of house prices cannot hear the falconer of the economy. Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?

This ‘real value’ touted by the Irish Times is a tantalising prospect for those who might be inclined to buy a paper with a property supplement, or use the Irish Times-owned to buy a house. This idea of ‘real value’ could have a transformative effect on the perceptions of your dilapidated abode, turning shit into gold.

To be fair, the precise measurement used by the ESRI is not the “real house price” but the “fundamental house price”. This isn’t a ‘real’ value at all; it’s a notional value, an indicator of something. Nothing wrong with that per se. The “fundamental house price” ‘constitutes the price which would be suggested by fundamental economic variables in the economy such as interest rates, unemployment rates, demography and housing supply’.

The thing is, these fundamental economic variables have no fundament of their own: interest rates, unemployment rates, demography and housing supply are all determined by politics, not natural law. You could come up with a “fundamental interest rate” or a “fundamental unemployment rate”, based on your own criteria of the gap between what is and what certain other fundamentals you identify ought to suggest.

You could say, OK, these are the actual interest rates, but given a planet of finite resources, the prospect of ecological catastrophe, the class war orientation of the European Central Bank, the way Mario Draghi combs his hair, the “fundamental interest rate” is in fact x.

None of this is to say that the ESRI data is wrong, but that the data rests upon subjective political judgements that have been normalised as established objective facts. Certain things have been identified as important, and others have been marginalised.

To put it another way, there are fundamental political assumptions behind the selection of fundamental economic variables. These political assumptions include that we are concerned here with a capitalist economy where housing is, above all a commodity, and that State policymakers must fulfil the needs of a nation of property owners in keeping with the logic of the market, and in the interests of that fetish object par excellence, ‘the economy’.

It isn’t in the report’s scope to address questions about who is doing the buying: to what degree are people buying houses to meet their own housing needs, and to what degree are they buying them as investment opportunities? Are they buying them on their own, or as part of consortia? Rising income per capita may well cause house prices to rise, but the distribution of that income; the distribution in the proportion of income spent on accommodation; and the source of that income, all determine who drives those house prices upward, and for what purpose.

The ESRI uses real house prices (that is, house prices adjusted for inflation, not the price of real houses as opposed to imaginary ones), unemployment, income per capita and population to create a forecast house price model. Its report discerns credit constraints operating on banks in the Irish market, and hints that what is happening now, in terms of house price inflation, is the response to ‘movements in fundamental variables’.

So, if unemployment and interest rates fall, if incomes rise and the population goes up, the demand for houses will rise and this will cause the price to rise. This, according to the report, is roughly what is happening now, and is separate in the ESRI’s mind from the phenomenon of excessive lending, which in their view has to do with ‘financial market liberalisation’.

Whilst media outlets that derive income from property sales and from stimulating the sensibilities and appetites of an owner-occupier demographic might be cock-a-hoop about the prospect of house price rises based on the correctness of fundamentals and the proper functioning of the housing market, the ESRI report itself is not so sanguine.

It soberly counsels that increasing house prices are not necessarily inevitable or desirable. It claims that keeping housing affordable is ‘imperative‘. But the imperative isn’t down to the fact that high accommodation costs have an impact on living conditions, or that being forced into debt in order to keep a decent roof over your head is a form of exploitation.

Rather, the imperative is on account of the need to ‘maintain the competitiveness advantage that has been gained in recent years’. I’m not sure what this means. Maybe it means that a housing bubble could produce wage inflation. Or maybe it means that workers in your Googles and your Facebooks won’t come and live here if they’re paying through the nose for a shared toilet without a window. Whatever it means, the ESRI’s solution to this problem is supply. But not just any kind of supply: ‘significant increases in housing supply in the locations where there is market demand’.

Where there is market demand‘: but market demand is a function of ability to pay. Those unable to pay remain outside the equation. That includes, ceteris paribus, some 90,000 households in need of social housing. One could argue, I suppose, if pressed, that 90,000 households in need of social housing are part of the imperative in maintaining Ireland’s competitiveness advantage: as a signal of what happens when you’re not competitive enough yet to be an owner-occupier.

Of course, the State can actively determine the nature of market demand, but there is no mention of this in the report.

Rather, key challenges for policymakers presented in the report have to do with aligning ‘key housing indicators’ with ‘market fundamentals’, and ‘smoothing the cycle in the market’: it may all sound wonkish and bland, but it’s music to the ears of people who want a properly functioning stream of profits arising from property sales and speculation, and economics and politics kept safely away from each other.

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The Disproportionate Focus on Israel: A Thought Experiment

A quick thought experiment. Let’s say for the sake of argument that supporters of Zionism are correct. Let’s say there is indeed too much focus on Israel by comparison with other places. Or, if not too much, let’s say it’s a disproportionate focus.

Why are people speaking out and taking to the streets about Israel bombing Gaza? Shouldn’t they really be turning their attention to Syria or Mosul instead? Let’s imagine that Syria and Mosul are equally if not more serious than the terrorising and massacre of Palestinian children in Gaza. If this is true, why would there be any point in taking to the streets about these issues? Unless it consisted of a cry of impotent rage, the point, in these parts, would be to compel politicians and government officials to act in a particular way vis-à-vis these places.

Now, what is the reality in Western societies? The reality is that Western governments are strongly supportive of imperialism, and, as we can see with Israel, strongly supportive of the US’s gendarme in the Middle East. Israel operates with wanton cruelty and complete impunity and total disregard for international law. Appealing to such governments to ‘do something’ (unspecified) about Syria or Mosul would be to recognise them as moral agents. In fact, their general track record in the Middle East and their backing for Israel and its murder campaign against Palestinian innocents indicates they are no such thing. On the contrary, they are complicit in Israel’s crimes. Hence such an appeal -to act on Syria or Mosul, say- would, in essence and effect, be an endorsement of wanton cruelty and complete impunity, and a reward for supporting Israel.

So you can see why Zionists encourage people to look elsewhere. Because it helps Israel get away with murder, and frames its backers and accomplices as decent moral agents.

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We need to talk about Zionism

The Irish Seanad reconvened for an special debate on Thursday 31st July, on the situations in Gaza and Ukraine. Some of the interventions from the speakers were informed and engaged, and others were muddled and lacking much of a point. There was near unanimous condemnation for Israel’s slaughter of Palestinians in Gaza. Several senators called for sanctions against Israel.

The call for sanctions was rebuffed by the current Minister for Foreign Affairs, Charlie Flanagan. Flanagan has been criticised for what Fianna Fáil senator Averil Power described in the debate as his ‘ardent support’ for Israel. In the debate he was anxious to stress how consistent his own stance as Minister has been with that of previous Irish ministers and governments. On the matter of sanctions he said that “as a small trading nation, Ireland will only consider sanctions as part of UN or EU measures.While we would like to think otherwise, the reality is we are too small to affect matters on our own as far as the imposition of economic or social sanctions are concerned.” The official Ireland that gloriously “punches above its weight” when it comes to negotiations in the general interest of US and EU elites is notably too puny to do anything when it comes to doing anything that might jeopardise sweet smiles from above.

Though Flanagan had clearly got a lot of help to set out his stall, in light of the public anger arising from Ireland’s abstention on the resolution at the UN Human Rights Council on the investigation of war crimes in Gaza, he flailed around in the bumbling and incoherent manner that has characterised his time at Foreign Affairs. He said that “Israel has a right to exist and defend itself”, and felt the carnage in Gaza needed to be weighed against “the attitude of Hamas towards the treatment of women and the imposition of Sharia law in certain parts of the region, about which we might not be so vocal”, a position that no doubt gave people in the Israeli embassy cause for a celebratory drink.

It seems fair to say that the Seanad debate came about as a result of a sincere desire to address the situation in Gaza politically, given the fact that the Dáil would not reconvene to discuss it, and given the public anger arising from Ireland’s subservience to EU interests at the UN. Although the public did not abolish it when it had the opportunity, lots of people are unsure what the point of the Seanad is, given its lack of legislative power. Some of the contributors to the debate, David Norris and Marie-Louise O’Donnell in particular, made eloquent and impassioned attacks on Israeli actions in Palestine. They were undoubtedly making the most of the official platform afforded to them to keep the issue in the public eye, and to hold the minister responsible to account. I find it hard to fault the use of the Seanad for this purpose, whatever my doubts about the wider usefulness of the Seanad.

But for all that, and the calls for sanctions are no small thing, I was struck by the overall lack of critical intellectual substance. Particularly striking was the absence of any mention of Zionism, or attempt to understand Israeli actions in terms of racism.

The absence of any mention of Zionism probably reflects a wider ignorance in Ireland of the history and contemporary reality of Palestine and Israel. You get the feeling that for a lot of people, the reflex on hearing the word ‘Zionism’ is to imagine that it is some sort of exotic insult directed at Israeli Jews, rather than the correct name for the historical phenomenon that brought the State of Israel into being. Zionism is manifest in every aspect of that State’s actions, including its continuing dispossession, oppression and murder of Palestinians, its view of Palestinians as a “demographic threat”, its drive to demonise Palestinians, to prevent their voices from being heard, to cast them as terrorists and the first waves of a dark demonic sea of Islamic barbarism.

It says a lot that Ireland’s supposed elite political chamber proved incapable of naming this reality. Many of the representatives were heavily critical of Israeli actions whilst simultaneously reciting stock Zionist phrases such as “Israel has a right to defend itself” or “Israel has a right to exist”. If you cannot name it as a reality, you cannot address it as a political problem.

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