How Not To Win A Class War

Perhaps the most persistent myth of the bargain basement cod-sociology which keeps Irish media pundits ticking over is that of the Celtic Tiger as a societal phenomenon. I’m not even referring, in this instance, to the political expediency of this myth, although this is manifest; sure, some of us bought up half of Western Anatolia and purchased a fleet of limos for our grand-niece’s communion, but then others took a weekend in Copenhagen when there was perfectly good dirt to grind themselves into, so we all lost the run of ourselves. Can’t we just call it quits and move on?

In reality, however, the Tiger was the material expression, at an opportune moment, of a culture which had long preceded it and has long survived it. The cult of neoliberalism, Irish-style, was not a product of the boom, nor of the housing bubble, nor of Italia ’90, nor an intellectual construct of the Progressive Democrats. It was not even a consequence of Fianna Fáil’s innate sense of entitlement to droit-de-seigneur over the Irish people. The supremacy of the market had long been impregnably implanted in the minds of the opinion-formers of Irish society (i.e., the ones with the airtime and column space to propound their views unchallenged.)

One of the most striking aspects of this development, however, was the almost complete failure of neoliberalism, as an ideology, to take root within the populace at large. Even as chapter and verse resounds from the lips of its prophets, the language employed is the language of solidarity, of unity, of justice. Greed is not only not good, it’s very, very bad, and moreover, it’s everywhere. Greed is defending one’s pay and conditions in the midst of an unemployment crisis. Greed is temporarily withholding non-essential services from the public. Don’t you know there’ s a war on?

So why has the media onslaught against the public sector, and workers generally, been so unremittingly triumphant? Some people bought into the false equivalence of solidarity and unconditional capitulation, as propagated by the likes of Pat Kenny, Eamon Keane and Independent Newspapers, undoubtedly. It’s a shoddy scapegoat that finds no takers.

Strikingly, however, the instrument used to smite the public sector was not one crafted from the precepts of neoliberalism, but a specious appeal to a debased form of egalitarianism. There was no suggestion that these people had job security, or pensions, or relatively decent pay because they’d fought for and earned those things, as elsewhere in the economy. Their sin was the sin of privilege. Right-wing commentators used to have a phrase for this approach; they called it the politics of envy. But that was in another country, and besides, the wench is dead.

However, there is also a smaller, though significant, element at play here, which is worth exploring simply because it’s substantially overlooked by those on the left.

I grew up during the last great recession in the 1980s, in what was probably the most deprived (settled) community in the entire country. Unemployment was ubiquitous, a natural condition of life that barely registered as a vicissitude, like head-lice in the 1950s. Heroin was consuming the neighbourhood from the inside out, although to innocent eyes it was simply “drugs”, something that happened between huddles of furtive young men in stairwells.

The chief certainty one absorbed from a remarkably early age was that life comprised one long struggle against the government and its confederates. Far from being cosseted in the bosom of a doting welfare state, the relationship was defined by antagonism. They begrudged you every penny, every second of service, and they made sure you knew it. Nor was there any serious recourse to collective struggle; there were no unions for the unemployed.

To anyone under the age of thirty in those days (certainly under the age of twenty) the notion that the clerk in the rent office, the woman in the labour exchange, the guy from the ESB who cut off your supply, that any of those people could conceivably be on your side was not just laughable, but offensive. And as for guards and teachers…

Of course, these were all false impressions. None of these underpaid, under-resourced public sector workers were responsible for the low-level violence of compulsion which the state inflicted upon the poor, nor (under constant attack themselves) did they have the leeway to act on their sympathies. Though undoubtedly corners were cut in Dublin 11 which would not have been cut in Dublin 4.

Because familiarity doesn’t breed contempt, contempt breeds contempt, and the contempt of the state for the urban poor was boundless and vicious. In addition to which, the state (then as now) was masterfully adept at bringing a kind of degenerated Marxist method to bear against different sectors of the working class, lest they should come to recognise their common adversary.

In many areas of the city (I can speak only for Dublin), that experience of the 1980s has not only inculcated a genuine apathy towards politics (and not the kind one hears invoked when turnout drops half-a-per-cent in a given constituency), but also a steadfast, instinctive aversion to the agents of the state and all their works and pomps. This lingering resentment has done for class identification with public sector workers amongst the urban poor what aspirational allegiance to the ruling class did in other parts of the population.

The consolatory fact remains, however, that the Irish people have never endorsed neoliberalism on its own terms, and when invited to do so (McDowell’s PDs, the Lisbon campaign that was fought on the treaty), have resoundingly declined. It is no wonder, therefore, that the neoliberal offensive has been so elliptical in pursuit of its goals.

The other night, some character called Niamh Lyons from the Daily Mail appeared on Vincent Browne’s show to preview the morning papers. She described the proposed Croke Park deal as “manna from heaven” for the public sector, evidence of which was that the “hardline militants” in charge of the unions had endorsed it. I hesitate to say that she believed any of this, because a basic level of intelligence must be present before one can be meaningfully said to believe anything. However, hers was not the most depressing contribution.

That came from our old friend Joan Burton TD, who refused (despite repeated entreaties spanning half an hour) to support or oppose the deal. Her contortions mirrored those of her party leader Eamon Gilmore, who refrained on the basis that “[it was] not the function of politicians to get involved in an industrial relations issue such as this.”

That the leader of the LABOUR Party can come out with a statement like that demonstrates the water-tightness of the neoliberal consensus which defines Irish politics. It also demonstrates the necessity for a left alternative to avail of these open goals, not just on an electoral, but also an intellectual basis. The neoliberal right haven’t won the argument; there hasn’t even been an argument.

After all, with enemies like Gilmore, Burton and the union leadership, who needs friends?

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4 Responses to “How Not To Win A Class War”

  1. What they say… « The Cedar Lounge Revolution Says:

    […] 15, 2010 Posted by WorldbyStorm in Economy, Irish Politics, The Left. trackback Here’s a post which sums up pretty much my own thoughts and I’d recommend anyone to read it. But I’d […]

  2. theconscientiousobjector Says:

    The reason for a lack of arguments couched in neoliberal language is because republicanism still retains its hegemonic position.

    Also, you have to remember that the bourgeoisie in Ireland is largely inbred and ossified, so it was never even capable of taking up neoliberalism on it own terms (even those who could be said to be neoliberal ideologues). Instead, the small coterie who control Irish society merely looked at what was considered ‘best international practice’ (which meant whatever the Brits or the US were doing) and tried implementing that. This means neoliberalism in Ireland is merely the ideological equivalent of hand-me-down clothes.

  3. The Laborious Labours of Mickey D « Circumlimina Says:

    […] Circumlimina THE BLOG THEY WANT TO BAN « How Not To Win A Class War […]

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