Trump Arrives (a Marxist hypothesis on the new power of capital)

Translation from Spanish of a piece by John Brown, published 10th November 2016.


The societies we live in today are capitalist societies. A capitalist society is a class society. In class societies, a minority sector of the population appropriates the surplus of material production. By surplus of material production, we mean that part of wealth produced in excess of what has to be allocated for the reproduction of the life of the worker, and the reproduction of the means of production necessary in turn for this. In every class society, without exception, the principle of the Chinese philosopher Mencius holds: “Some work with their minds, others with their bodies. Those who work with their minds rule, those who work with their bodies are ruled. Those who are ruled produce food, those who rule are fed.” What justifies the appropriation of the surplus, according to Mencius, is the fact that there are those who have the knowledge of how to rule, and those who lack it. This is the usual justification in a bureaucratic society in which the ruling class and the State are fused together.

In any case, whatever the justification given, the appropriation of the surplus also requires legal sanction, which translates into ownership of the means of production, and an amount of potential violence in order to give effect to the rights associated with this ownership. A feudal lord can be the owner of the lands that a worker cultivates, but in order to collect his tributes, he needs armed men. The appropriation of the surplus by the ruling class, depends, in non-capitalist class societies, on a political relation of dependence with regard to the sovereign or the lord, and on a capacity for armed violence. Ownership of the means of production, whether the land or any other means, is an expression of the relation of the worker’s dependence upon the ruling class or particular members thereof. The appropriation of the surplus, or in other words, the exploitation of the worker, is carried out through the two elements that determine the political relation: the law that legitimates ownership of the means of production (mainly land) and the personal dependence of the worker, and the violence that creates and reproduces the social conditions for the law to function.

In non-capitalist class societies, relations of class and exploitation are not only visible but are openly justified by ideology and by law. A lord exploits the peasants who work in his fields because he exercises over them a political domination that is open, legal and legitimate. Elsewhere, in such societies, it is not the owner of the means of production who controls them during their use in production. A peasant in a feudal regime controls the productive process autonomously, without the interference of the lord-owner of the land. The latter only intervenes in order to appropriate the surplus already produced, and does so from outside the production process.

In capitalism, as Marx shows in the first book of Capital, exploitation is inseparable from the production process, and as such has no direct connection to a relation of political domination. The worker produces in the same day of work, and in an indistinguishable manner, the part of wealth necessary for the reproduction of her life (of her ability to work) and the surplus appropriated by the owner of the means of production. This owner, the capitalist, controls the entire production process and combines in this labour power (the capacity of human individuals to work) with machinery and raw materials, with the object of producing commodities. During this process the body and the potency of the labourer dominate, at least temporarily, without there being a political dependency of the worker with regard to the owner of the means of production. The appropriation of the surplus as such becomes invisible, since the boss pays the worker for her “work” as stipulated in the contract and appropriates as a net benefit the value of the part of production that is not turned into wages, in paying off the means of production, payment for raw materials or reinvestment. The political and social domination exercised over the worker by the owning class is no less invisible than the exploitation itself

Political domination is not, under capitalism, an explicit condition for exploitation. This allows capitalism to divide social activity into two major spheres: an economic sphere that is considered autonomous and self-regulated, ideally without political interference, and a political sphere that is also autonomous in which in principle economic inequalities play no part. Classes are thus rendered invisible, and liberalism historically has boasted of having constituted a society without classes, in contrast to the feudal society characterised by its juridical institutionalisation and ideological legitimation of classes. This separation of politics and economics is not based, however, on the disappearance of social inequality, but rather its rendering invisible by means of law and ideology.

Under capitalism, as in any class society, there exists a direct relation between exploitation and domination, but the fact that the exploitation takes place within the very labour process, in the economic sphere, does not allow this relation to be seen. This relation between domination and exploitation is invisible because it occurs on two levels that are neither perceptible nor formalised by either law or ideology, nor are they present in the consciousness of subjects: in the microphysical realm of productive processes, discipline in the factory or other spaces of production (now blurred in many cases with spaces where one lives), and in the macro-physical realm of overall political domination by the ruling class or classes unified in the State. Both dimensions, which are invisible in the intermediate space represented by law and the market, function outside the latter and they constitute, in Marx’s terms, forms of despotism (factory despotism) or dictatorship (class dictatorship).

The invisibility of exploitation and domination does not prevent the worker, even if unaware of them, from feeling their effects in her own body. Within the framework of freedom provided by law and the market, each worker feels, in one way or another, the submission and physical and mental atrophy that a regime of exploitation involves. However much the submission to a work regime organised by a boss might be seen as normal and not as ‘wage slavery’, resistance to exploitation does manifest itself, at the very least, and still unconsciously, as rejection, boredom, laziness, sabotage, as material, corporeal resilience. Neoliberalism, by intensifying exploitation and extending the space for labour into the entirety of life’s activities, has eliminated neither this dark feeling of submission, nor the sad passions that constitute it, nor people’s resistances against it whether individually or collectively. There are classes and there is class struggle, however much these appear invisible to the naked eye and the microscope and telescope of historical materialism are required to bring them to light. This does not mean that these classes are subjects with perfectly defined interests of their own, nor does it mean that they have a political programme arising spontaneously or through their own essence. This is so much the case that resistance to domination by capital can even prove, within certain limits, useful to capitalist development itself. Without class struggle there would have been no large-scale industry, or machinery, or rational organisation of labour, or computers, or communications revolution. All these innovations correspond to capital’s need to maintain the submission of the worker, be it through discipline of her body (in the phases of industrial capitalism that lead to Fordism) or as control over life and ways of life (under the present, post-Fordist, capitalism).

In the political, too, which under capitalism appears as an autonomous sphere, the class dictatorship of the bourgeoisie and other capitalist classes demands the mobilisation on the part of the ruling minority of wide sectors of social majorities, specifically the exploited sectors. As Althusser reminds us, the ruling class, by being few in number in society, has never been able to exercise its domination on its own, and has always needed, within the frame of its political action, to recruit among dominated sectors. This does not only mean that the ruling class unified in its State generates obedience throughout the whole of society, but that it actively mobilises for its party -or parties- masses of people from exploited and dominated categories. In certain cases, this mobilisation has been combined with forms of social negotiation such as Roosevelt’s New Deal, or the Keynesian, ordo-liberal and social-democratic policies of Europe following the Second World War. In other cases, there has been no negotiation as such, and this has translated into the offer of unilateral protection from an authoritarian leadership, as in the case of fascisms.

The victory, with strong support from popular and working class sections, of Donald Trump, a multimillionaire, racist, xenophobic, sexist and socially reactionary businessman, in the recent North American presidential elections, is not, in this context, any surprise. Nor is the fact that he won wide support among sections of the white working class and petty bourgeoisie.  Given the impossible situation in which neoliberal capitalist rule, personified in the US elections by Hillary Clinton, found itself, unable to offer any kind of real social negotiation to popular sectors under attack from the neoliberal system of financial pillage, Donald Trump was able to portray himself as the candidate of resistance against globalisation, with a programme based on a rejection of free trade and the constitution of an ideological solidarity between popular and oligarchical sectors around the defence of a supposed North American white nation. The rejection of immigrants and free trade appears in Trump’s programme as the most widespread expression of rejection of the cosmopolitanism of globalised elites. In the same way, Ford, the foremost businessman in the automobile sector, and admired by Hitler, linked, in the 1930s, a common antisemitic and anti-cosmopolitan hatred of the Bolshevik Jew perverting the working class, which also included many poor Jews, and of the financial elite represented by a Jewish oligarchy symbolically associated to the name of Rothschild. Ford, however, had something to offer: a stable job and a decent wage in exchange for the obedience of workers under his despotic control. Ford, however, did not take up political roles and respected the separation between politics and economics that constitutes a pillar of the capitalist regime. This was possible in so far as the economy was a limited activity: material production and financial speculation had precise times, places and agents, and was territorialised in spaces such as the national economy, the factory, or financial centres. There were spheres of life that had nothing to do with the production of wealth. This model lasted until the 1970s, when it entered in crisis, no longer able to contain the demands for wages and rights from workers. Indeed, a wide section of workers played a leading role in revolts in major capitalist centres against the factory and its discipline, which converged with revolts of students and sections of the middle class.

Neoliberalism changed this situation entirely. In order to save capitalist profits, it destroyed the Fordist pact, making each worker a supposedly free economic agent, an entrepreneur. The relation between the worker and capital was no longer a collective negotiation as with Roosevelt’s New Deal or Fordism, but rather a strictly mercantile relation in which the worker is merely an agent of the market who submits to the conditions of the market. Labour and social rights fade away, and the State that had itself elevated collective bargaining into law, merely protects forms of individual contract. It did not take long for this to produce a redistribution upwards of wealth once the relation between wage incomes and capital incomes had been altered in favour of business profits, especially those of finance.

Elsewhere, the worker-cum-entrepreneur-of-the-self, increasingly lacking in rights, experiences the whole of life transformed into time and space for labour. Not only are the limits of the working day dissolved, but every activity, whether consumption, leisure or rest, is turned into a potential source of profits. Data exchanged through communications networks, as well as any other social activity, whether public, private, or even intimate, are turned into units of value that become the object of appropriation and trade for businesses. Nonetheless, the resistance, of workers now converted into a multitude put to work for capital, did not disappear. In fact, the demand for rights and social payments and the desire for access to consumption -indispensable conditions for the functioning of capitalism- were satisfied in the only possible and desirable way for finance capital: through debt. The debt crisis announced in 2008 that continues to work its effects put an end to this safety release valve. Easy credit was ended, and with it, the access to consumption of various goods for large sectors of society. The immediate consequence of this was a crisis in the system of political representation. It was no longer possible to maintain the illusion that debt was a merely economic reality and that the power of finance was not political, especially when the response of states to the crisis was a massive rescue operation for banks and financial entities. The illusion of a liberal State that gives economic agents a free hand such that the very creation of financial wealth for a few could generate positive (trickle-down) effects for the vast majority of the population, became evidence of a class power that imposed upon the population the payment of public and private debts that it had not chosen, or had no means of not choosing.

It is this ugly face of neoliberal political power that has been gradually showing its face in the near ten years of crisis that the system has undergone. This power has been turned directly into the collection agent for financial creditors, and as a consequence, for direct extortion of the surplus. In a way, neoliberal capitalism has returned to extra-economic forms of exploitation typical of pre-capitalist regimes. This produced a brutal crisis of representation: it is now impossible to make out as if the economy exists on the one hand and politics on the other. The economy is directly political and politics is exercised from the ruling classes and its State as a direct form of exploitation. Naturally, a situation such as this has eroded the democratic illusion in two senses: on one hand it has eroded the illusion, by showing the profound incompatibility between democracy and capitalism, but, on the other, it has eroded democracy itself, by turning it into something that broad sectors of societies reject, seeing in it only the form of their exploitation. The alternative presenting itself today is clear: either a democracy deployed against the capitalist order and its State; or a capitalist State highly personalised in boss-sovereigns such as Trump or Berlusconi, who impose capitalist rule in mafioso style, at once brutal and protectionist, offering protection in exchange for obedience, a global Corleone. Capitalism, following a long period in which it was able to play with the autonomy of the political and the correlative autonomy of the economic, is once again showing its nature, which, despite the disguise, was never absent, of a regime of class political domination and exploitation. Characters such as Trump or Marine Le Pen are the face of the new political regime of capital.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Twitter, ideology, liberals, fascism

I spent a little time going back and forth with someone who took issue with my single-item list of early warning signs of fascism (the only item on the list was ‘capitalism’). The context for the list was a host of things I’d seen getting shared outlining this or that feature that was supposed to indicate that fascism could be on its way, but none of them made mention of capitalism. This particular individual maintained that there was no evidence for the claim that fascism arises from capitalism, that capitalism was a pre-requisite for fascism.


A longer list

As it’s Twitter, it is quite easy to ignore the obvious (for example, that there is no fascism pre-dating capitalism, and that fascism has reached its highest expression in capitalist societies) and try to compel your interlocutor to answer things on your terms.

Also, given the brevity of the medium, it is quite difficult to make more elaborate points concerning such things as the class structure of capitalist society and the kind of world-views and orientations that wind up lending support to fascism.

The individual maintained that fascism was in fact anti-capitalist, and, therefore, how could capitalism give rise to fascism? Here, capitalism, by his lights, was not a historically specific social form (the term is Ellen Meiksins Wood’s) but rather an array of certain things -private property, market competitiveness, voluntary exchange (obviously ignoring any consideration of labour power), accumulation of capital- that laid the basis for the kind of society he viewed as desirable.

Moreover, part of the oppression conducted by Nazism in particular, as he saw it, was ‘oppressing and controlling the market’, ‘the market’ thus conceived as the instrument of human freedom.

The anti-capitalist rhetoric of Italian fascism and Nazism was treated as decisive evidence that fascism was anti-capitalist in character (corrollary: fascists always tell the truth) and even when I was pointed out how big business had been supportive of Hitler in the drive to eliminate the labour movement, his contention was that this had nothing to do with capitalism as such.

This kind of stance is a curious mirror image of the kind of criticism often levelled at socialists and communists: such that you can’t get off the hook for atrocities committed in the Soviet Union by claiming that it was not really communism, the insistence being that such societies really were communist and hence any actions carried out there were eo ipso communist.

If, from this viewpoint, the drive to liquidate the labour movement, for example, can be considered nothing to do with capitalism, one can imagine that slavery, colonialist expansion and imperialism can all be treated as by the by as well.

Capitalism, by these lights, is not a system based on class exploitation, but at best a set of instruments, political and economic, by which true freedom is guaranteed. Capitalism and human freedom, then, are roughly one and the same.

All this flies in the face of actual historical evidence, but given formats such as Twitter, the need to consider historical evidence is too all too tedious and trivial.

What prevails from such quarters, in its strongest expression, is the idea of capitalism as a reflection of human nature but one that by its own workings constrains the worst excesses of human nature and tends towards greater freedom. In weaker expressions, capitalism is a system that is good overall but since no system is perfect, there will always be adjustments to be made.

Moreover, if some of these adjustments, historically speaking, had to be won by organised labour and popular mobilisation, it is tacitly understood that there is no need for this kind of business nowadays since market rationality really has everything covered. By the way, this is the kind of argument capitalists made 200 years ago about the need for guilds and the like.

What also comes with this -and such was the case with my interlocutor- was the conception of fascism and communism as two sides of the same coin, or, too use a more popular image nowadays, two ends of the same horseshoe. Both are extreme ideologies into which the proper order may keel if one is not too careful, if one is insufficiently moderate. ‘Both ideologies’, according to him, should be viewed with ‘equal opprobrium’.

I imagine this all sounds quite familiar to a lot of readers, since it really just echoes standard representations in public debate, and prevailing common sense regarding contemporary history.

What was interesting, though, was that the individual in question, when I eventually looked at his bio, was of an atheist-rationalist disposition. And the timeline had a fair few links to stuff about wearing the hijab (bad), Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and also approving stuff about the Liberal Democrats, Ken Clarke on Brexit, some anti-Trump stuff too.

Standing back from it, it is a heady concoction: an atheist liberal centrist disposition that hunts out ‘extreme’ ideologies, seeing them at work in the heads of individuals, at a remove from historically specific material conditions and social arrangements. It is, however, a concoction at work throughout state security forces, political parties, newspapers, social media.

At one point I offered an excerpt from Neumann’s Behemoth to outline the importance of the profit motive in Nazi Germany, and the response was: well he would say that, wouldn’t he? That is, Neumann, a Marxist Jew who had fled the Nazis, was an unreliable source. No doubt any Nazi who read Behemoth would say something similar.

Perhaps the distance between a far-right preoccupied with invading Muslim hordes and ‘Cultural Marxism’, and a ‘centre’ that claims to uphold liberal democracy and moderation, is not as great as we might prefer to think.

What is more, this idea that ideology is mainly a matter of what goes on in people’s heads implies, as Lefebvre has it, ‘the private consciousness’, ‘deprived of a consciousness of the practical, historical and social whole’.

Lefebvre again:

‘Turned back upon himself, secure within some imaginary inner fortress, he is the plaything of every hallucination, every spontaneous or deliberate ideological illusion. The ‘thinker’, self-taught or not, concocts his own little personal philosophy; the ‘non-thinker’ interprets what he reads in books (or preferably in newspapers) as best he can; and then one day individualism begins to collapse (and not as a result of a crisis of ideas or ‘world views’, but because of a material crisis, both economic and political), and these erstwhile individualists rush headlong to form a crowd, a horde, urged on by the most insane, most loathsome, most ferocious ‘ideas’, leaving the last vestige of human reason behind, caught up in a collective mental fever: and we have Fascism, the Fascist ‘masses’ and Fascist ‘organization’.’

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Moments of Candour


‘If capitalism fails, we could always try cannibalism’

In times that appear indelibly marked by ‘post-truth’ and ‘alternative facts’, it’s hard not to feel some sense of gratitude towards figures in public life who are prepared to speak truthfully.

I’m referring to Nancy Pelosi, the House Minority Leader in the United States House of Representatives. When asked by a participant in a televised ‘town hall’ meeting about the fact that a majority of young voters in the US, according to a Harvard University poll, no longer supported capitalism, she said, of the Democratic Party:

We’re capitalists, and that’s just the way it is.

It’s hard, for me at least, not to appreciate the candour in the statement. It’s definitely much better than having someone equally committed to capitalism as the Democratic Party undoubtedly is, but preferring to mask this commitment by professing to be in favour of ‘freedom’ or ‘pragmatism’ or ‘pro-enterprise policies’, and leaving people with the vague impression that they might have some kind of inclination towards social justice.

What would happen if everyone like Nancy Pelosi, instead of preferring to hide behind euphemisms when not avoiding the matter of capitalism altogether, professed their belief in capitalism at every turn? What if they said, all the time: it is our highest calling to advance the cause of capitalism, and, therefore, we will not be bound by any commitment to anything by way of fundamental rights for human beings, be it in terms of health, education, safety, welfare, or work?

I’d like to think that this would be the beginning of the end for capitalism, since political institutions across the capitalist world would no longer be able to cope with the glaringly obvious gap between the interests of the representatives within and the interests of the class in whose interests they act on the one hand, and the public at large on the other. But that might not happen at all. For all I know, devotion to capitalism on the part of some might just lead to the ruthless and violent repression of all anti-capitalist feeling and action, and instead of capitalism garnished with democratic formalities, we would just have open tyranny instead.

If I weigh things up, an epidemic of such candour seems fairly unlikely. But then again, the head of state in the US at the minute is the archetypal capitalist pig. Whatever the lies that proliferate from his mouth and from his administration in general, there is something indelibly true about Trump, in how he embodies all that is rotten in capitalism: greed, self-obsession, arrogance, aggression, contempt for weakness, racism, patriarchy, ecological destruction, and so on. I should stress, the fact that a bad thing is true does not make that thing in any way good. But it is always better to have an accurate picture of what you are up against.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

RTÉ: United In Ignorance

rteunitedRTÉ, the state broadcaster, is running a story today on a trustee company linked to UNITE the Union applying for an exemption from social housing for a development at its former headquarters on Merrion Square.

What makes this newsworthy from the broadcaster’s point of view, is that the application was made at the same time as plans were underway for the occupation of Apollo House, with UNITE official Brendan Ogle in a prominent role.

The news report includes the detail that the property has toilet and shower facilities. The relevance of this detail to the story is that a group called ‘Hands Off The Homeless’, cited in the report, believes that the property ought to have been used instead of Apollo House, and that the fact it was not used made the Home Sweet Home initiative a ‘publicity stunt’.

Who are ‘Hands Off The Homeless’? No idea. But a commenter on this site yesterday made a relevant observation, before the news report and the group in question appeared on the scene:

‘Is it not time that those without a home are referred to as homeless people. The term ‘the homeless’ tends to depersonalise those who are already marginalised and treated with indifference by society at large.’

With this report we are back again in the territory staked out by Mannix Flynn on Liveline last week, but also in the territory staked out by a large degree of the coverage given to the Home Sweet Home occupation. To wit: the matter of homelessness is simply a technical matter, not a political one, and it is solved through charity and private initiative, not through political intervention. If you want to do something with regard to homelessness, you should be putting your hand in your own pocket, rather than expecting state agencies to do anything about it.

By staking out this territory, other areas are kept free of scrutiny. If all that is needed is charity, then there is no need for increased public funding for social housing. Nor is there any need to call into question how current public resources are being used to address homelessness.

What makes the UNITE detail particularly attractive to people who are sympathetic with the predicament of the powerful when their indifference to human need is highlighted is that it appears hypocritical, on the one hand, to support an action aimed at using public resources to tackle homelessness, and on the other, to engage in commercial activities that appear to narrow the scope for providing social housing. Few things whet the appetite of someone who hates trade unions more than the possibility of making them appear as bad as the political and economic elites they claim they are challenging.

There may well be a contradiction involved. But so what? Such a contradiction would not alter one iota the principal issue brought to the fore by the Home Sweet Home occupation, which is that the government favours the interests of property speculators over the interests of people in need of a home. Moreover, we are not told what the ground rules are for such a trustee company, and what it is obliged to do with its investments. It is only when you wish to avoid the principal issue that a contradiction such as this takes on any relevance.

In fact, unions -and individuals- engage all the time in activities that can contradict their stated political positions and broader activities. This is a fact of operating in a capitalist system. The question is: how do you evaluate the contradiction?

The thick strain of right-wing anti-establishment sentiment in Irish political life, tapped into by RTÉ’s reporting here, does not evaluate it at all. It merely barks ‘hypocrisy!’. According to these quarters, the ‘vested interests’, in which the trade unions are always made to figure heavily, have things all sown up, at the expense of the little man. The purpose of such sentiment is to sow disenchantment with trade unions and, consequently, with the defence of workers’ rights, including social rights such as the right to a home.

RTÉ’s concern over UNITE’s role in Home Sweet Home is hardly matched by an ongoing concern with workers’ rights, or the provision of public goods, whether public housing, education, or healthcare.

For example: on January 6th, in the midst of a full-blown hospital trolley crisis, the Sean O’Rourke show, RTÉ’s daily news and current affairs morning programme, had what amounted to a feature length advertisement for private health services in general, and for the Beacon Hospital in particular.

The feature was presented in terms of ‘how the private sector can help’ with regard to the present health crisis. They had the CEO of the Beacon Hospital in studio, an emergency ward consultant in Cork University Hospital on the phone who said he was a ‘committed public sector man’ who ‘believed in’ the National Health Service and Ireland’s health service but who had come round to the idea that ‘some sort of hybrid model’ was “the way forward”, and a rep from the national association of GPs who said she and other GPs encouraged their patients with private health insurance to attend private hospitals whenever possible. In effect, such programming means that when you pay the licence fee, you are also contributing to the local PR fund for disaster capitalism. The feature did nothing to examine the role played by the so-called ‘two-tier’ health system -which allows private operators to profit from the poor condition of public provision- in producing the crisis in the first instance, and, as with the housing crisis, addressed the problem, as ever, in terms of technical solutions.

There is a continuity between this kind of coverage and the UNITE story: addressing social crises means ponying up out of your own pocket and leaving the powerful and their political institutions well alone.

The real story of hypocrisy here is a public broadcaster affecting concern over homelessness as a cover for anti-union attacks. In fact, unions do a great deal to prevent homelessness, primarily through maintaining minimum standards for workers.

Given that the drive of RTÉ’s reporting is to undermine support for collective institutions that serve to protect basic social rights, it is also a drive for increased homelessness, and heightened reactionary ignorance.


Filed under Uncategorized

Home Sweet Home and Democracy


via Home Sweet Home Eire Facebook page

It could have led to ‘an intolerable situation in a democratic state’, according to Judge Paul Gilligan, had the Apollo House residents been allowed an extension to the deadline laid down by the court for vacating the building.

A corollary to the judge’s argument, however, is that homelessness is a tolerable situation in a democratic state. Homelessness: tolerable. Preventing homelessness: intolerable.

One might also observe that if direct action to end homelessness is intolerable in a democratic state by the judge’s lights, then it must also be intolerable in other kinds of state: judges in a fascist state would also deem infringements of private or state property rights to be intolerable.

So it’s not clear yet why the judge makes reference to democracy at all.

Perhaps it would be intolerable for the judiciary to interfere with government decisions, since this would undo the separation of powers set forth in Article 15 of the Irish Constitution, and, since Ireland is ‘a democratic state’, it would therefore prove intolerable within the scope of the constitution.

This would suggest that democracy exists only in so far as it inheres in a constitution, and that the Irish constitution is what defines democracy in the first instance. The Irish constitution emphasises that a democratic state is one in which the people have the right to ‘designate the rulers of the State’.

Even though ‘in final appeal’ it is the right of the people to ‘decide all questions of national policy’, the rulers rule and the people are expected to comply, regardless of whether or not or how much they took part in making the rules.

In actual fact, the vast majority of people have no role in the formulation of rules, and their everyday compliance is taken as proof of both their consent and the legitimacy of the rules. So when it comes to homelessness, or to any other social outrage arising through the application of the rules and by the actions of the rulers, the only acceptable course of action is to petition the rulers, or elect different ones.

All this amounts to a very narrow conception of democracy. In practice it means the rule of a minority over a majority. In no sense is it ‘government by the people’, which is commonly cited as a defining characteristic of democracy.

In fact, when people take action that amounts to ‘government by the people’, which is to say, deciding for themselves how life in common should be lived, this is bitterly denounced by the ruling powers, and by those who live by upholding the rules.

For example, on Friday’s Liveline, the organisers of the Home Sweet Home campaign came in for unrelentingly bitter criticism from Dublin City Councillor Mannix Flynn. According to him, those who had supported the campaign were ‘dupes’, and he took particular umbrage at the fact that Home Sweet Home might be breaking the law. He voiced his own experience in working with homelessness, and called into question the political credentials of ‘Mattress’ Mick Flynn, who was speaking in favour of the campaign and who believed that the occupation of Apollo House ought to continue in defiance of court rulings. In contrast to those involved in the campaign, Mannix Flynn said that he had been elected. Though charged with a venom rarely encountered in airwave debate, there was nothing particularly unusual about his perspective: breaking the law is wrong, leave things to the experts, and if you want to do something about the matter of homelessness yourself, you should either take your own private initiative in accordance with the law, or help charities who operate in this domain. And if you want to take part in politics, you should be standing for election.

Mannix Flynn pressed Mattress Mick to accommodate the occupiers of Apollo House himself. This was no different in approach to Fine Gael TD Catherine Byrne, who in the Dáil suggested that families ought to accommodate their homeless members. Thus private solutions -ones that do not disturb the rules that produce homelessness in the first instance- are the order of the day.

The overall effect of this is to de-politicise homelessness, and to confine it as far as possible to the private realm. In so doing, it strengthens the underlying relations of power that sustain homelessness. First, by refusing to interrupt the legal order, the speculative activities, and the housing policies that favour speculation and private enrichment over the right to a home, and secondly, by making individuals bear the cost of homelessness.

In the latter case, this means that not only are people enjoined to engage in charity rather than challenge the legal and political order, but it shapes the sense that those who do end up without a home are primarily responsible for their predicament. Moreover, it shifts the discussion away from the underlying causes of homelessness and its status as a political issue towards the question of whether proper order is maintained and how to get rid of the malcontents undermining proper order.

Flynn’s intervention also condemned Mattress Mick and the Home Sweet Home participants more broadly for encroaching on an area in which they had no expertise. That is, to intervene in public matters such as homelessness, one must be endowed with the necessary know-how and experience. But the know-how and experience that comes with attending to the needs of homeless people day-in day-out is an entirely different thing to identifying homelessness as a human scandal and a political matter.

Whatever the necessary work carried out by homeless charities in providing day-to-day vital supports, there is no reason to expect that these entities will challenge the overall order in which homelessness emerges, and a great deal of reason to expect that they will be at best subdued in their criticisms, reliant as they are on government contributions and private donations.

The most widely-heard voices, whenever a social crisis comes into public view, be it unemployment or homelessness or mental health or any other issue you care to name, are never the voices of those affected, but the voices instead of experts: politicians, economists, charity CEOs and psychologists. This does not mean there is anything wrong with expertise, or with a deep understanding of a particular area, but what it shows is that the only acceptable solutions to such crises, under the current order, will come by disregarding radical responses, by leaving it to the experts, by protecting the regime of property and by suppressing expressions of democracy deemed to threaten the status quo.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Homelessness crisis, property crisis

via @soundmigration

The bottom line is that property rights, including the right of rentiers and speculators to make a profit, must at all times take precedence over the right of people without a home to have their basic human needs met. In effect this means the law does not recognise the latter right at all. It is the right to profit from property speculation that produced the homeless crisis in the first instance, and measures taken by Fine Gael in government have done nothing to interfere with this right, and a great deal to strengthen it.
None of the outpourings of admiration for the deceased TK Whitaker I encountered yesterday were in any way diluted by considerations of how among the prime beneficiaries of the economy he is credited with bringing forth were bankers, builders and property speculators.

Instead, Whitaker was lauded as a figure whose free market inclinations and technocratic paternalism had brought prosperity to the country. It is no coincidence that Whitaker is remembered as rising above the fray of petty politics -he was never elected to public office himself, of course- and fostering a sense of order in the name of ‘public service’, ‘the national interest’, and the ‘common good’ that suppressed political conflict, particularly where trade unions were concerned. As trade unions are one of the most effective instruments for guaranteeing the rights of the working class to a decent standard of life -including decent accommodation- the ‘common good’ exalted by Whitaker’s admirers can only mean the suppression of the claims of working class people to a greater share of the wealth they produce. ‘Patriotism’ in this regard means making working class people get back in their box.

A quote from Whitaker doing the rounds, outlining the aims of his public policies, contains the word ‘eventually’: that once all these ‘free market’ measures are implemented, then everyone born on the island will be entitled to their share. This is of course a first cousin of the ‘trickle-down’ argument rehearsed ad nauseam by ruling elites across the globe, bent on their own enrichment on the backs of others, over the past four decades. The matter of precisely when this share will be apportioned must, of course, be left to the designs of the same ruling elites, and what their financial instruments tell them.

What the Home Sweet Home campaign centred at Apollo House in recent weeks has achieved is to undermine this prevailing notion that it is all a matter of waiting a bit longer, of depending on established institutions and their appointed experts to do as they profess. What is more, it has undermined the prevailing notion that the ‘common good’ is synonymous with property rights. It can hardly be expected to overturn such things altogether, or even conclusively resolve Ireland’s homelessness crisis, since the latter is a product of the property relations that the government, the courts and the press are concerned with upholding. But it has cast into sharp relief how spaces of mutual aid, solidarity and collective resistance amount to enemy territory for the ruling powers, and how recognising basic human needs, from the perspective of these powers is a “recipe for anarchy”, as lawyers pressing for the evacuation of Apollo House put it. That is, it cannot but produce fears of a crisis in property relations, in the prospects for making a killing off the misery and fears of others. Good: the greater the fears of such a crisis on the part of these powers, the greater the prospects of a decent and humane existence for all.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Notes on last night’s Claire Byrne Live

"Public opinion, c'est moi!"

“Public opinion, c’est moi!”

On last night’s show a debate on Europe’s refugee crisis was preceded by a standing ovation from the studio audience for members of the Irish Navy, who stood in line in full uniform.

The panellists for the debate were actor Liam Cunningham, government minister Paul Kehoe, and Irish Independent columnist Ian O’Doherty. I had started watching the programme out of curiosity after seeing tweets objecting to Ian O’Doherty’s presence on the show.

Ian O’Doherty -a dull-minded figure who poses as a Christopher Hitchens-style contrarian but without the allure of the turncoat, the ostentatious learning, or the mental dexterity that Hitchens had on offer – served up a farrago of racist talking points that originate with the far right. It was O’Doherty’s views that were allowed to frame the discussion, and Cunningham, and to a lesser extent Kehoe, were called upon to respond.

Of those who spoke from the studio audience, only the member of the far right National Party and the member of Christians Concerned for Ireland (who voiced the concern that hundreds of refugees had been arrested in Britain for crimes of “rape, etc”) were, as far as I can recall, afforded an on-screen caption detailing who they were.

If you were to press the programme-makers on their decision to afford Ian O’Doherty a platform, I suggest they would respond that they had sought to achieve a ‘balance’, that other contributors from the audience included a member of an organisation opposed to racism, a person with experience in aid work in Syria, and a woman living under Ireland’s Direct Provision regime. Pressed further, they might admit that controversy generates excitement and therefore viewing figures whereas informed debate is sterile. One imagines, moreover, that they would likely reject any suggestion that their editorial decisions produce racist effects.

In this regard it is interesting to consider not what O’Doherty had to say but what the presenter said. She repeatedly voiced the concern that resources devoted to assisting homeless people in Ireland might be jeopardised if the country took in more refugees.

Such proposed trade-offs arise with dreary regularity. It is always those most at risk, we are told, who are put at greatest risk when we wish to extend solidarity to others.

But even if we impose an arbitrary scarcity of resources in this way, the fortunes of the affluent are rarely, if ever, cited as the first port of call: it always falls, as if by nature, to those most at risk, who are supposedly now expected to take on even greater risk.

These economic trade-offs, of course, find a more vulgar expression in the notion that ‘we have to take care of our own first’. What all this hides from view is the fact of certain groups who will always already be taken care of.

It is not a question of racist cranks simply being given a platform. We should also ask: what kind of platform? In the case of the Claire Byrne Live show, we might best describe it as a pseudo-scientific wrapper.

Following the initial discussion, Claire Byrne said:

“We wanted to find out how people felt about this, so we asked our Claire Byrne Live – Amárach panel ‘Can Ireland cope with the planned intake of 4,000 refugees by the end of 2017?’”

Liam Cunningham, called on to respond to the results of the survey that showed a majority responding No, rightly pointed out that this was mere opinion. But Byrne insisted on how demographically representative the survey was. As if this could be detached from the actual question posed.

What does it mean, anyway, to ask “Can Ireland cope” with anything? Are we referring to Irish people on the whole? The State? The government? Are we speaking in terms of logistical assessments or mental resilience?

Since different people respond to such questions in different ways, the meaning of the question is ultimately established by the person who interprets the data.

In this case, Byrne was clear, or rather, clearly unclear:

“It’s about sentiment. Irish people saying “we can’t cope with this problem”.”

Well, how would she know? Where did the “we” come from?

Byrne, in her own mind, and likely at one with the producers of the programme, identified “Ireland” as “Irish people”. Hence it did not mean people in Ireland who are not Irish -a sizeable proportion of the population- and thus beyond the supposedly rigorous demographic scope of the survey.

But not only did “Ireland” mean “Irish people” here, but no distinction was drawn between the institutions of the state and people -strictly speaking, Irish people- at large. It’s doubtful that any such distinction could ever be drawn in a situation where the audience has just applauded members of the Navy in full uniform for making us all proud.

The overall effect of this concoction was to lend empirical weight -bogus, but weight nonetheless- to what O’Doherty was arguing.

If you want to trace the origins of the idea that “we have to look after our own”, with all the racist logic that emanates from it, it is best not to start with the likes of Ian O’Doherty or the National Party, but rather with those convinced they should be given a voice, in the supposed interests of ‘balance’.


Filed under Uncategorized