Monthly Archives: July 2015

Doing The Right Thing: Questions for the Immediate Term in Greece and Ireland

"EU experts trying to decipher the meaning of one enigmatic word..." - El Roto, El País, 9th July 2015

“EU experts trying to decipher the meaning of one enigmatic word…” – El Roto, El País, 9th July 2015

Greece remains a guinea pig for experimentation by European elites. The objective is now to test just how far one can take the project of crushing the democratic aspirations of a people, to test how easy it is to get people to imagine that democratic resistance is futile.

A key element in this project is a media apparatus that refuses to recognise that this is even happening, as if this course of events, this sadistic punishment -that is all the more delicious to its perpetrators through their grandiose proclamations of disinterested probity- were as natural as the sun rising in the morning and setting in the evening. I left this comment on the Irish Times website in response to an article by Suzanne Lynch, the paper’s European Correspondent, titled Syriza’s grandstanding makes situation infinitely worse for Greek people.  

What makes this piece remarkable is its studied failure to question the role of the European Commission and the finance ministers and heads of state of the euro-zone member states. They have engineered Greece’s predicament. They have done so to issue a warning to social forces throughout Europe that might challenge their economic and social policies.

The point of their actions is to make abundantly clear that there is no alternative to neoliberalism, no alternative to placing the health of the financial sector above the health of the population. But not only that, the point, as Mark Blyth points out in Foreign Affairs, is to blame the Greek population for refusing to bail out Europe’s big banks.

Suzanne Lynch’s article presents this position –which inflicts enormous violence not only on the population of Greece but on the working class populace of Europe more generally- as a self-evident, self-justifying fact. ‘In the immediate term’, she writes, ‘the question should be if the current government… is doing the right thing by its people’.

Really? Given that this is the Irish Times, and not the Greek Times, does the immediate term not demand some questions about powers that lay claim to democratic legitimacy whilst laying waste to Greece’s economy and society through calculated sadism executed on behalf of big banks? For does it not follow that if they can do this to Greece, they can do it to anyone else? And what does it mean for the Irish government to join in on this feeding frenzy?

This entire article is a bucket of power-worshipping ordure that blames the victim for not doing enough to protect itself against its assailant.

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Rabbitte at Rest

I listened to the RTÉ interview with Pat Rabbitte yesterday, dealing with his impending retirement as a public representative come the next election. It reminded me of the one and only time I saw Pat Rabbitte. It was in 2012 and I was walking west along Pearse Street. He, along with various other besuited individuals, was standing outside the Institute of Chartered Accountants, with a glossy brochure about the Labour Party. It was one of the party’s centenary events, and a fitting enough venue. Rabbitte was standing with his snout aloft, slightly apart from the others though listening to them talk, as though he smelled adulation on the breeze, or truffles.

Rabbitte gave his smug sententiousness free rein in the interview with Sean O’Rourke. He poured scorn on Syriza’s “magical thinking” and chided O’Rourke, when the latter challenged him on the recent cuts to lone parent payments, as having fallen prey to the arguments of the “ultra left”. It was the position of the “far left”, he also said, that the European institutions operated in the interests of financial and economic elites, not the peoples of Europe.

Rabbitte did not spare himself laurels either. He said that he was the most “rational and pragmatic” politician there was. But neither rationality nor pragmatism are virtues in themselves. One can operate a concentration camp with the utmost rationality; indeed, that is usually how they work. One can be pragmatic about when to use torture to best effect.

‘Pragmatism’ and ‘rationality’ appear in Irish public political discourse as cardinal virtues. What these words really mean is unquestioning acceptance of the free market belief system, and an embrace of capitalism as the way, the truth and the life. Of course, there are succulent incentives for those willing to put their beliefs into political practice.

Later yesterday on RTÉ Radio, Olivia O’Leary gave a fulsome –and yes, I do know what that word means- tribute to Rabbitte. It turned out, according to her, that Rabbitte was something of an innocent. Perhaps it was this innocence that led him to warn, whilst Labour Party leader, of the threat posed by the “40 million or so Poles” who might be inclined to come over to Ireland and “displace” Irish workers. O’Leary said she would miss “Pat” – for some reason Rabbitte never got onto the first name terms enjoyed by “Joan”, “Bertie”, “Enda” and so on- and whilst applauding him for his long march rightward through the institutions, she compared him to “Lenin”, the “father of the Russian Revolution”, who, like Pat, also liked the idea of electricity. She didn’t mention he had launched her book a few months back, mind.

It may well have been rational and pragmatic of Pat Rabbitte to position himself first of all as a radical who sought to “win state power for the working class”, and then as the weather-beaten voice of experience implementing right-wing policies and dumping from imperious heights on any possibility of a political alternative. But eyeing up the stupendous pension pot that rewards good and faithful servants to capital such as he, this most rational and pragmatic of beasts must surely feel a shiver of magic.

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Continued Adventures of an Involuntary #Liveline Listener

joeduffyBy little more than bizarre coincidence, I found myself listening to a few minutes of Liveline for the third time in five programmes. Today’s excerpt concerned a text poll on the matter of a third bailout for Greece.

As I tuned in, Duffy was on the cusp of revealing the result. He was speaking with an Irish person based in Greece who appeared to be advocating some kind of solidarity from Ireland. With a certain amount of relish, he revealed that 66% of people texting into the programme had said No: Ireland should not pay money into a third bailout.

Before he revealed the result, he made the qualifying statement to the effect that it was only a rough poll and something of a self-selecting sample. Nonetheless, he continued, previous polls conducted on such a basis had proven to be reflective of general public sentiment on a range of issues.

If you were to press Duffy or his producers about the use of such polls, they would claim they are only seeking to reflect what is already there. They would deny that they are trying to influence the political agenda in one way or another.

Such denials would mean nothing. The decision to launch a poll on a political matter is politically motivated. How you word the questions is shaped by your political worldview and what you consider politically important. That is not an accusation levelled at Joe Duffy: it is an inescapable fact.

Let’s consider the effects of asking this question, and presenting it. First of all, whilst Joe Duffy says that his phone-in polls reflect public opinion, it’s far more accurate to say that they shape it. There is no ‘true’ position held by people that pre-dates him asking the question. But once the poll question is asked, people start thinking about the issue in the terms set, and, if they are so motivated, give their answer accordingly. Then, when the result is broadcast, people interpret the result as reflective of what certain people ‘really’ think.

If you are sitting at home broadly sympathetic to Greece, a poll result that tells you a majority of people disagree with your view will make you feel as though you are up against it. It may confirm your worst suspicions about what people think. It may lead you not to bother expressing any kind of solidarity.

Similarly, if you hear that a majority are against a bailout for Greece, and in the same terms as the right-wing constituencies of North European nation-states who look upon the Greek population with racist suspicion and moral condescension, you may feel buoyed. If you are a political party apparatchik with Fine Gael or Labour, for example, you may think that your strategy of putting the boot into the Greek population as a proxy for your own local enemies is bearing fruit.

In the course of the discussion on Greece two days ago, Joe Duffy asked Trevor Hogan whether Ireland should hold a referendum on participation in a third bailout for Greece. He was adumbrating the political perspective of the right-wing constituencies of North European countries. He was also expressing the outworkings of the institutional logic of the European Union and its Constitution. The European Union is, by its institutional design, supposed to be a union of nation-states competing against one another, ratcheting down labour conditions and social rights, and struggling to fashion jurisdictions as accommodating to big business as possible. All this, as well as the awareness that solidarity with Greece serves to undermine the establishment in Ireland, was neatly smuggled in to the question he asked today.

But perhaps the most audacious tacit proposition contained in Duffy’s question is the idea that there is a democratic political collective known as ‘Ireland’ in control of own destiny. In this ‘Ireland’, there is, of course, no class antagonism. Sure Joe Duffy should know: he’s from Ballyfermot!

Duffy is forever alive to the fears and discomforts at play in the collective unconscious of Ireland’s political and business elites, and he always knows the right questions to calm their nerves. Liveline is a programme that is forever on guard to the danger of people getting ideas above their station, specifically, the idea that politics is anything other than a matter for professional politicians, punctuated by the occasional vote. And it stands guard over other ideas: for instance, the idea that whatever the government does is legitimate by virtue of the fact it is the government; the idea that An Garda Siochána is good because it is the police force; the idea that ‘abroad’ is first and foremost a place where decent Irish innocents get ripped off by unscrupulous foreigners come the holidays. The biggest thieves are, of course, are a lot closer to home. And their modus operandi is, as any Garda can tell you, to keep you talking at the front door while their accomplice sneaks in the back door.

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#Liveline and RTÉ, the anti-public public broadcaster

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Earlier this afternoon I caught part of a discussion on Liveline, the phone-in show on RTÉ, Ireland’s public broadcaster. There was an Irish woman called Susan, who was married to a Greek person. She was outlining her view, in the most trenchant and animated fashion, on the Syriza government, and the situation in Greece more generally, in light of yesterday’s seismic No vote in the referendum on whether to accept the Troika proposals of more austerity without debt write-downs.

There were three other people engaged in the discussion, Trevor Hogan the former rugby international, and Eamonn Walsh, the former Dublin South West TD for Labour, both of whom were sympathetic to the No vote and the position of the Syriza government, and another woman, whose name I did not catch, who also appeared sympathetic.

One of the considerations to the fore was the idea that Ireland ought to contribute in some shape or form to assistance for people in Greece. Today’s headline in the Irish Daily Mail is that the Greek No vote is going to cost Ireland -or perhaps Ireland’s taxpayers, I can’t recall the exact headline- €1bn. Susan’s point, such as it was, was that there was already enough money in Greece to pay for all debts, but that the country was so endemically corrupt, so mired in a culture of bribes and tax evasion, that any assistance provided by other countries was ultimately a case of the Greeks hoodwinking everyone else.

In this regard, Syriza, after 5 months in power, had done nothing. It could, she claimed, clamp down on the corruption of public officials, but it had not done so. It had in fact caused the tax take to fall. What was more, Trevor Hogan and Eamonn Walsh, in advocating some kind of solidarity from Ireland, were in fact making the problem worse. When Eamonn Walsh said that half of Greek households were dependent on a single pension, she told him this was rubbish, and that he was, in fact, lying. Where is your source for that, she insisted.

When someone is put under pressure and accused of lying, especially on a live broadcast, the natural impulse is to be guarded with a response, especially when you do not have the figures to hand. And Eamonn Walsh was unable to cite the source. But here -thanks to Twitter- is one such source of the claim: ‘According to a study last year by an employer’s association, pensions are now the main – and often only – source of income for just under 49% of Greek families, compared to 36% who rely mainly on salaries.

Another thing that Susan claimed was that the re-opening of ERT, the public broadcaster closed down under the previous New Democracy-PASOK coalition government, was, given the extreme straits of Greek public finances, comparable to the purchase of a flat screen TV. Flat screen TVs are, of course, a symbol of unwarranted luxury associated with the undeserving poor. As comrade Sheamus Sweeney notes: “Why is the purchase of a flat screen TV still being used as an example of feckless largesse? THERE IS NO OTHER TYPE OF TV! Unless you’re some weird hipster with more money than sense and the entire collection of Moonlighting on VHS?” (Sheamus has allowed me to quote him on this on condition that I do not call him a prick. I am happy to refrain from doing so for the purposes of the quote.)

Joe Duffy, the presenter, had nothing to say about the suggestion that public broadcasting was a luxury for feckless fraudsters.

Here, Susan was mounting an attack on the idea of public broadcasting altogether. As the Irish Times Greece correspondent Damian Mac Con Uladh reported on Saturday, there was an overwhelming media campaign conducted in favour of a Yes vote in the referendum, with little coverage granted in general to the No campaign, and a ‘barrage of doomsday ads’, according to the New York Times, which noted that it was only ERT, the public broadcaster, that had given significant coverage to the No campaign. Despite the overwhelming media mobilisation for a Yes, the OXI vote won, and resoundingly so.

Duffy was quick to emphasise on Friday’s programme, which also related to Greece, that “nobody wants austerity”, which is a strange way to characterise the stated position of the European Commission, the European Central Bank, the IMF, the Eurogroup Finance Ministers, the overwhelming majority of so-called “centre-right” and “centre-left” parties throughout Europe, to say nothing of the likes of Goldman Sachs, Deutsche Bank, Citigroup, assorted ratings agencies, the business press, most European newspapers, and so on, and on.

Though all these entities and groupings have consistently made public demands for the stripping away of public services and the introduction of regressive tax measures that amount to an attack on the living standards of the vast majority and a net transfer of wealth to the richest in European society, Duffy maintained on several occasions on Friday’s programme that none of them really want it. He has a far more benevolent view of these people than they have of themselves.

Whilst Duffy had proven himself capable of defending the interests of pro-austerity constituencies far more than they themselves might even request on Friday, he was incapable of playing even the meekest of devil’s advocates against the tirade of the caller –whose “we have to look after our own” rationale for denying solidarity to Greece finds echoes in sentiments expressed by right-wing nationalists both in Ireland, and, in the shape of Golden Dawn vis-à-vis migrant populations, in Greece itself- even as she launched an attack on his own raison d’etre as a broadcaster.

Were Duffy’s stances out of keeping with the RTÉ coverage more generally, that would be bad enough. But the entirety of the panel on the Marian Finucane show yesterday favoured a Yes vote in the elections. And what this tells us, plainly so, is that RTÉ’s news and current affairs coverage, whatever claims it makes for itself, whatever its fine words about balance, bias and objectivity, operates in keeping with a right-wing ideological agenda.

As another friend observed, in light of the RTÉ coverage, if ever RTE comes under an existential threat from a hostile government, and tries to rally the public to its cause, it will find itself abandoned like Niemoller’s everyman- having abandoned the public itself.

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Corruption in Europe

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Ireland’s media is full of moral justifications for subjecting poor people in Greece to even harsher deprivation in order that the country pay off its debt, regardless of the consequences of such deprivation, regardless of the capacity to make the payments, and regardless of the legitimacy of the debt. Even if it is conceded that the so-called ‘bailouts’ have been for banks and not the populace, it is still maintained that the latter must pay up, because they are collectively guilty: either of not paying taxes or of “corruption”.

The underlying suggestion is that the populace of Greece is congenitally, endemically corrupt, and that it must be subjected to the purgative of further austerity. But this is scarcely different from the moral justifications used to defend austerity and bank bailouts in Ireland. And so, when they talk about Greece, they are also talking about Ireland, in projective identification with the market gods.

But this operation is itself deeply corrupt: it presents an entire populace as lacking in moral fibre or control over its appetites, when in reality it is simply impossible for any society to keep going, to stop from imploding into atomised war of all against all, without the fundamental decency of a great many. And whilst the focus of recent days has been on supposed food shortages in supermarkets and ATM queues (when soup kitchens and destitution have long been an established reality) what is systematically ignored -it would interfere fatally with the morality play- are the networks of solidarity and resistance that operate beyond market rationality and protect many people from destruction altogether.

What is disgusting -and corrupting, if we take it to be true- about remarks such as those of Irish Times political correspondent Stephen Collins, who describes Greece as “in the gutter” by contrast with virtuous and upstanding Ireland, is the gross lie behind it: the resistance of Greek people is an act of upright decency and dignity. It occurs in the face of threats and robbery by kleptocrats who preach obedience to market rule, regardless of the consequences, as the highest virtue.

Among such kleptocrats is Collins’s political sensei John Bruton, who attempts to parade his auctoritas as a former Taoiseach, thereby hiding his role as a mouthpiece for the same financial powers grinding Greece -and large part of Ireland- into the dirt. We are in a world turned upside down when a spongiform monstrosity such as Bruton can be allowed stand in judgment over the Greek government and Greek people generally for refusing to pay unpayable debts ad infinitum, and insisting that their pensions be maintained, when this same braying moral catastrophe has openly called for governments to renege on their pension commitments, all the better for his paymasters in the financial sector to reap further succulent profits out of other people’s suffering. This is the corruption laying waste to the social contract in Europe, and we all have our part in standing up to it.

People like John Bruton would like nothing better than for the populace in Ireland to conceive of themselves as a people apart from others in Europe. Not least because a sense of isolation and powerlessness produces discipline, but also because it keeps the power structure of the European Union intact: a union of political and economic elites, collaborating across borders, with the broader population of each member state enjoined to obey diktats presented as in “the national interest” but which in reality correspond to the common interests of elites across Europe.

They applaud the punishment of Greece, not only, as has often been pointed out, because any let-up on the punishment would spell trouble for the political parties of oligarchy, the so-called ‘political contagion’, and not only because any sort of resistance to neoliberalism is simply intolerable, but because solidarity in Europe, for them, ought to be the preserve of those at the top. It is intolerable for them that people at large might begin to think in terms other than obedience to the nation-state, their own private gutter. Given a choice between internationalism and racism, such ‘Europhiles’ will plump for racism every time it threatens their standing.

It is intolerable for them that we might be gripped by the sense that we have far more in common with the average everyday person in Greece or Spain or Italy or Germany, for example, than we do with some retired politician on a stupendous pension, or some billionaire media mogul who got rich from the privatisation of national assets. For if we were ever gripped by such a sense, we might act on it. And if we did, what would happen to their Europe? What would happen to their world? OXI!

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Joan Burton and Solidarity

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The other day, Joan Burton, deputy Prime Minister of the Irish government, and leader of the Irish Labour Party, said

“Solidarity with Greece comes at a price”.

Joan Burton’s remarks are very similar to the recent words of Spanish Prime Minster, and political descendent of dictator Francisco Franco, Mariano Rajoy. He said, on the matter of Greek debt:

“it is one thing to show solidarity, but it is quite another to show solidarity in exchange for nothing.”

On RTÉ radio with Sean O’Rourke the other morning, Joan Burton sought to draw a distinction between a debt write-off for Greece and the decision to write-off debt for Denis O’Brien.

She said –as O’Rourke asked her about a Dáil intervention from Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams- what hospital does Gerry Adams imagine we would take €350m or €1bn away from?

As Burton set about an incoherent lecture on international economics –some people are allowed to lecture, you see- O’Rourke asked:

“What hospital lost out when O’Brien got his €300m write-down?”

Burton responded:

Well, I won’t go into that in detail…

In fact she didn’t go into it at all, and O’Rourke didn’t press her on it, for whatever reason. So let’s go into that detail.

To be honest, I’m finding it hard to work out whether Denis O’Brien got write-downs from the State-owned IBRC, for his business acquisitions, to the tune of €250m or €300m. Sure what’s €50m? But I am clear on the fact that Denis O’Brien purchased €100m of debt that was due to Ulster Bank for €35m. This gave him control over the Beacon Hospital in Dublin.

The Beacon Hospital is a private hospital. Once O’Brien took control of the hospital, former Taoiseach, Minister for Finance and Minister for Health Brian Cowen was appointed to the board. So the Irish State was effectively subsidising Denis O’Brien’s purchase of private hospitals and a former Taoiseach.

No hospital -no publicly-owned hospital, anyway- lost out, and Denis O’Brien’s new hospital won big.

No contradiction, then, between, on the one hand, the Irish State refusing to lend money to Greece unless it implements further austerity, and, on the other, the Irish State effectively subsidising someone who wants to own private hospitals.

But what’s interesting is that both of these things are seen as solidarity: For Burton, providing a loan conditional on robbing poor people of their means of survival is a form of solidarity. For O’Brien, making a profit out of the pain of others is an act of national solidarity.

As O’Brien wrote in the Irish Times:

‘When the foreign buying of Irish assets was at its height, I decided to buy a number of companies to keep some of them Irish, to preserve and grow employment and to seek opportunities for these businesses to develop in Ireland and overseas. These included Siteserv, Topaz, Beacon Hospital and others.’

In both cases, the solidarity, as we can see, is restricted to a caste that is already privileged: to bankers and European political elites in the case of Burton’s solidarity, and, in O’Brien’s, to himself, first of all, and then to people who view healthcare as a commodity and means to a profit.

It is wrong to say that what Burton and Rajoy describe as solidarity is no such thing. It’s more accurate to say that their declarations are an act of solidarity with the class they both serve under the guise of pretending to represent a nation.

It’s important to stress that Burton’s declarations on solidarity are not an aberration. They typify the party she leads. For example, when the Greek bailout was announced in 2010, Ruairi Quinn, a predecessor of hers as Labour Party leader, went on national radio to say:

“we’ll be borrowing it about 3 percent and we’ll be lending it on to the Greeks at 5pc. So in fact we’re going to make a bit of money out of this.”

According to such a conception of solidarity, payday loans are solidarity. Slumlords show solidarity with tenants facing homelessness unless they cough up to meet their exorbitant rent demands. Organ traffickers who pay cash for the kidneys of desperate individuals are, on this basis, Burton’s soulmates in kleptocracy, and Burton, with her enthusiastic support for policies designed to tear the collective solidarity of the poor and precarious to shreds, is but an upholder of the right of one nation to make a killing off another.

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