‘Socialism for the rich’ became a popular phrase in recent years. It refers to the way the rich have all kinds of mechanisms for mutual support and solidarity, and the way this is reflected in government policy.
The vast machinery of speculation owned by the wealthy was saved, and at the expense of those whose labour created their wealth. The astronomical debts racked up by private banks were loaded onto the backs of the working class. The latter would pay for them through wage cuts, longer working hours, cuts to vital public services and privatisation; and through the heightened exhaustion, stress, mental illness, unemployment, strained relationships. And a never-ending litany of tiny everyday personal humiliations, if people had the time and the means to recount them.
Neoliberalism seeks to demolish any form of collective solidarity that becomes an obstacle to the logic of the market. But it also seeks to develop forms of collective solidarity that embrace the market as the way, the truth, and the life.
Just as neoliberalism demonises those who become the obstacle, it mobilises common feelings of sympathy, respect and veneration for the demolition experts. CEOs, ‘entrepreneurs’, economists, personal finance experts, small business owners, first-time buyers, parents who only want the best choice of school for their children, consumers who want the best private health insurance policy for their needs: all these and more form part of neoliberalism’s community of the living and the dead.
Professional politicians are a special case: when they prove tough enough, brave enough, ambitious enough, to ram through legislation that serves the logic of the market, they are celebrated and welcomed. When they seem incapable of doing so, or when they get in the way, they are bitterly denounced.
The threat to this neoliberalism’s community of the living and the dead –since where we are now is always moving towards everything our forebears struggled to create- comes from the seething mob, from the begrudgers, from those lacking the intelligence to see the righteousness of the path neoliberalism lays out in front of us, and from those lacking the manners to respect the way things are done under neoliberal rule.
Although neoliberalism mobilises common antipathy towards the role of government, it is only the role of government in areas that support or maintain collective solidarity. In so far as government exercises its powers to enforce neoliberal rule, it will be viewed sympathetically.
Rebellious behaviour is encouraged under neoliberalism, provided it is rebellion in favour of the logic of the market, in favour of the general will of money. On the other hand, disloyalty to the State –the primary instrument of neoliberalism- is actively discouraged, and common sympathies are mobilised in the call for greater repression and surveillance.
In Jobstown, Dublin, on Saturday afternoon, a woman was confined to her car for two hours. Insults were shouted. A water balloon was thrown. The car was rocked back and forth, and people banged noisily on the roof of the car. Following Garda intervention, and negotiation among the protesters, the woman was allowed to leave.
On the scale of things, on the scale of the massive structural violence inflicted by austerity policies in Ireland, this was nothing. Nothing. That did not stop a host of figures from Ireland’s political and media establishment, but also a good deal of polite society, from weighing in against the protesters, with terms like “scum”, “mob”, “fascists” liberally cast around.
In this regard, Joan Burton is a beneficiary of socialism for the rich. The concern for her wellbeing is a product of the indignation felt by the rich –and those who identify with them- when they feel that one of their own has come under attack. They look at her and ask themselves what if it was them, or what if it was a member of their family. The sympathy is second nature.
By contrast, the protesters who surrounded the car are an amorphous, menacing swarm. They are not people like “us”; they are not brothers or sisters or people struggling to pay bills or people enduring any kind of humiliation or hardship who have found a common cause together. The fact that they have appeared in public view, that they have stopped the normal order and flow of things where those who rule are treated with respect and those who are ruled maintain a harmless distance, becomes cause for instinctive outrage.
The idea that they might be stopping the car, and even hurling insults or a water balloon, because the government represents the interests of the rich whilst expecting to be treated like dignitaries, is beyond the bounds of polite conversation and contemplation. Joan is right because the State is right because the markets are right and because we are right, and that is that, and anyone who disagrees is an enemy of democracy. This, as I was saying the other day, is what demophobia looks like.
The focus on the Socialist Party TD for the area, Paul Murphy, and on his role in the protests, is in keeping with this fear of the mob. What is outrageous about him, from this perspective, is not that he is an elected representative and hence not behaving like the genteel legislator he ought to be, but rather that he is from a relatively comfortable background. And as such, he is a traitor to the cause of socialism for the rich.
People from relatively comfortable places, according to this line of thinking, have no business finding common cause with people from Jobstown, since the latter do not know their own minds: people like him should become accountants and vote Labour and remain respectable members of society. And if people in places like Jobstown do irrupt into our line of vision, it isn’t because they have decided among themselves to mobilise because they have had enough, but because they have been led astray. They are there to be led; they are not there to take part in politics, and if the Gardaí have to batter them, well, that’s regrettable, but they’re just restoring proper order, after all.
And the trouble for Ireland’s political and media establishment, and also a good deal of polite society, is that this “mob” is not planning on going away soon. And deep down, they know it, and they are scared. Hence it is easier and more productive to focus on a single brick than to contemplate the crumbling foundations beneath them.