What does ‘Progressive’ mean in Ireland? The 1950s saw the formation of a small socialist party called the ‘National Progressive Democrats’. Its founders included Noel Browne, who, as Minister for Health in the Fianna Fáil – Clann na Poblachta coalition government, had sought to introduce the Mother and Child Scheme.
The scheme, which Browne and others hoped would lead to a system of universal health care in Ireland, along the lines of the National Health Service in Britain, was seen by the Church hierarchy as ‘a ready-made instrument for totalitarian aggression’.
No-one remembers the ‘National Progressive Democrats’ these days, save historians and political anoraks.
But everyone remembers the Progressive Democrats. This was a band of Thatcherite fanatics who, with some skill, staked out a space in the public mind for the idea that what was truly ‘progressive’ was to give free rein to market forces, under the veneer of doing away with corruption in political life.
- It was progressive to insist on the need for inequality as the basis for progress;
- It was progressive to create a ‘good business climate’ by slashing the top rate of tax and employers’ PRSI;
- It was progressive to make sure that public expenditure did not rise beyond the rate of inflation, that is, it was progressive to shrink public services;
- It was progressive to cheer on the US destruction of Iraq and denounce anti-war protesters as in league with Saddam Hussein;
- It was progressive to view free GP service as an idea of the “loony left”, according to Michael McDowell.
- It was progressive to create ‘public-private partnership’ gulags. Whilst casting himself as the scourge of the corrupt, McDowell oversaw the forking out of €50m in public money, twice the market price, for Thornton Hall, the intended site of a mega-prison, currently used to grow vegetables.
And not only was all this progressive: it was democratic. No matter how much it deepened inequality, no matter how much it undermined living standards, no matter how much it stripped away the possibility of what were considered matter-of-fact social rights in other Western European countries, such as universal and free public health care and education systems, it was democratic because it would be implemented by an elected government with the Rule of Law on its side.
A few months ago, pre-Renua, Lucinda Creighton was asked her views on the need for a new political party. She said that parties did not need to aim to exist in perpetuity. Rather they could appear on the scene, shape the political agenda in the way they wished, and then disappear once they had achieved their aim. This is what happened with the Progressive Democrats. And although the party has disappeared, the entire political establishment is now Progressive Democrat. Not in name, but in orientation.
Yes, they say, we know we shovelled tens of billions of euro in public money the way of private speculators, but the markets wanted your sacrifice, and now, thanks to our skilled negotiation, they have rewarded us with some sunshine from above. Now we can reward you for your forbearance, and pay ourselves €150K a year, at least until a succulent number in the private sector comes calling.
The Department of Finance pumps out propaganda claiming that progressivity in taxation is the same thing as public policy aimed at securing social equality. The Minister for Health opens private Accident and Emergency wards, touts for private health insurance scams…and on Twitter he compares himself to Aneurin Bevan.
The Labour Party leader says James Connolly would be proud of her party’s achievements, while calling water charges protesters ‘fascists’ and aiming torpedoes at the principle of paid labour through schemes such as JobBridge. Forget Syriza, we are the genuine article, the Labour Party says, and sets up its new docklands headquarters ensconced among corporate law firms and banks.
Behind this Krakatoa of lies and bullshit, there is a harsh and bald reality: these people are neither progressive nor democratic. Of course, they would rather kneecap themselves than admit this. Despite enormous public pressure, first on the household charge and now, even more furiously, on water charges, they have fought tooth and nail against those who called into question their claim to democratic legitimacy, they have avoided any kind of rational argument since they would be conclusively defeated, and they have even resorted to dawn raid spectaculars against protesters.
If this were Putin’s Russia Ireland’s press would call the spectaculars a ‘crackdown on dissidents’. But here, the press backs the crackdown and cannot countenance the idea that it might be a form of political repression. Did someone say ready-made instruments for totalitarian aggression?
As I said, no-one remembers the National Progressive Democrats. What did ‘National Progressive Democrat’ mean, anyway? They spoke a different language then. The past is, of course, a foreign country.
Did rights mean something different then too? It is one thing to claim the right to something. It is quite another to muster the might to win it. Who could be against a right to health, or a right to education, or a right to debt justice, or a right to housing, or a right to decent work?
You could approach Leo Varadkar or Joan Burton or any member of the current cabinet, and they would tell you, yes, I support the right to all these things. If they were feeling candid, they might add …provided you’re able to pay for it.
You want the right to health? Pay your private insurance.
You want the right to education? You already have it, as long as you pay tuition fees, voluntary contributions, school books…and for teachers in elite schools.
You want the right to decent work? Pay for your right to education, and work for free for a few years!
You want to be free from the demands of capitalism? Simply fulfil these capitalist demands!
The rights enumerated in the Policy Principles for a Progressive Irish Government document -to water, to decent work, to housing, to health, to debt justice, to education, and to democratic reform, unveiled at the conference organised by the Right2Water unions the other day, are essentially a set of social democratic demands that will need a lot of fleshing out through discussion and consultation. You can’t talk convincingly about equal rights for all, for example, whilst ignoring the glaring fact that the Irish State denies women basic bodily autonomy.
But crucially, no-one in power these days –especially those who are neither elected nor accountable- is in any mood to cede to such demands, as we have seen in the case of Greece. The public is presented with a choice at election time: either do what big business and the markets want, or go to hell. In such a situation, fairly basic social democratic demands, properly articulated, with a public prepared to fight for them, can carry revolutionary potential because by and large they fly in the face of the logic of profit and the priorities of finance capitalism.
Given these facts, any electoral initiative that cannot confront today’s ready-made instruments for totalitarian aggression, any electoral initiative not prepared to single out the operators of those instruments –whether politicians, bankers or oligarchs- as anti-democratic criminals, is not worth the effort.
If we take our cue from the 1867 proclamation cited at the beginning of the Right2Water document, neoliberal capitalism does not ‘maintain equality’: it destroys it, systematically. Under neoliberal capitalism, you are not expected to associate so as to ‘protect one another and share public burdens’, as this proclamation puts it, but so as to exploit one another (and oneself), and heap the burdens onto those weak enough to deserve them. Any electoral initiative incapable of speaking to these facts, incapable of promoting a sense of solidarity and popular unity in the face of such a system, really isn’t worth the effort.
There really is no middle ground any more. Either you are on the side of capitalism and are content with consigning democracy to a minority pursuit from a far-off country, or you are on the side of real and substantive democracy, and, by extension, international socialism. Which side are you on?