2+2 = Shut Up

Remember the soundbite culture? That dread confluence of shrivelling attention spans and light-speed telecommunications which was enfeebling our political discourse, reducing it to a hollow exchange of vapid one-liners?

Well, something strange has happened. Far from circumscribing the arena for political debate, technology and new media have exploded it into unguessed-at dimensions. More platforms, more airtime and more vectors connecting politicians to the public exist today than at any period in history. But here’s the really weird part. Rather than expanding to occupy the space available, this vast playground of ideas, the parameters of political discourse – particularly in Ireland – have begun to contract at a more accelerated rate.

TV3’s Tonight With Vincent Browne is a cult favourite amongst politically-minded insomniacs (where “cult” denotes the intersection of the inept with the eccentric.) As the 30th Dáil wheezed its last, TWVB’s producers responded by placing the show on a war footing, extending its running time to a gruelling eighty-five minutes. This, one might have thought, would be as manna from TV heaven for put-upon politicos perpetually hurried and harassed by the skin-tight deadlines and dumbed-down formats of contemporary current affairs broadcasting.

But not a bit of it. Jostling for elbow-room beneath the handkerchief which covers their collective policies, representatives of Labour, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil typically exhaust their repertoire of platitudes within ten minutes, leaving Vinny B to his exasperated onlooker shtick, before everyone rounds on the sacrificial leftist, should one be present. There ensues for the remainder of the show a protracted and exhausting stalemate, as panellists explore their fluency in the lexicon of meaninglessness which has become the lingua franca of the Irish political class.

The inanity of these hapless marionettes is entirely understandable; where the only politics practised is the negation of politics, only this self-nullifying language of non-expression is appropriate. Brian Cowen did not have a communication problem; he simply had nothing to say to us. His messages were for other ears.

The charge most commonly laid against those who violate or intrude upon this conspiracy of inertia is that of “economic illiteracy.” This notion was discussed in some depth at CLR recently. The term itself is interesting; one would tend to favour numeracy, rather than literacy, as the natural descriptor for a rudimentary understanding of economics. The anomaly is not, I think, accidental (nor is it a simple lapse of, well, literacy.) Because, of course, we’re not dealing with numbers here at all, and certainly not pure economics. We’re dealing with politics, the politics of the allowable.

Let’s pursue the literal-minded path for a moment and consider the concept of literacy itself. Most of us achieve literacy by careful, patient and meticulous instruction, social and private, formal and informal, whereby we become aware of the empirically incontrovertible fact that b-o-a-t spells boat. The literacy demanded of political actors in Ireland is of a different nature; it consists of accepting that boat is spelled b-o-a-t simply because Múinteoir says so. Moreover, boat, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, can be spelled x-v-j-r or z-x-b-p if the moral of today’s lesson demands it.

The “real world” with which socialist demands for increased taxation of the wealthy, public ownership of natural resources and the democratisation of society are supposedly incompatible is a strange place. For all its obdurate faith in its own reality, it is evidently not the same reality inhabited by the broad mass of the Irish people (which at least affords the consolatory possibility that Irish politics makes sense on some unseen quantum level.)

It’s a reality in which the terms of surrender dictated by the EU and IMF can someday be satisfied. It’s a reality in which a country crippled by a brief visitation of moderately severe weather can shed frontline public sector staff in their tens of thousands and continue to function.

If it’s not the same reality which called forth the property bubble as a sustainable basis for a national economy, it’s certainly an adjacent one. Far from Le Corbusier’s machines for living in, the houses of the Irish property bubble were signifiers and ciphers, the painted backdrop to a fantasy world which existed only in the collective imagination of the elite.

But why discard such a useful narrative when you can simply tweak some variables and press it back into service? The from-my-cold-dead-hands tenor of discussion surrounding Ireland’s giveaway corporation tax rate presents just such an opportunity. Here, the eminently prudent course of extracting a reasonable sum from the profits yielded to multinational corporations is disallowed, unconscionable. Because logic is a blunt instrument in the hands of the illogical, the departure of Dell to Poland, where corporation tax is significantly higher, is either regarded as a vindication of present policy, or simply disregarded.

The shrill, finger-jabbing insistence upon long-term economic certainty which follows representatives of the left from studio to studio is never present in this debate. This is all the more jarring because, in this instance, we are solidly within the realm of what-whens, not what-ifs.

What happens to an economy mainlining Foreign Direct Investment to survive when a corporation tax cascade drives rates on the European periphery to 10%, 5% and (ultimately and inevitably) 0%? What happens to a country cursed with the most anaemic capitalist class in Europe when the multinationals leave in the wake of such a stampede, driving wages and domestic demand down as they go?

When all the nuclear options have been exhausted, when there are no more utilities to sell off, no more corners to cut, what then? While state investment, public ownership and planning remain taboo, and the “educated workforce” stop being educated, how will flesh be cultivated on those bare bones? Not even the most idealistic proposal of the most utopian socialist could compete with the chimera that is the “knowledge economy”, a placeholder to fill the cavernous gap between capitalist logic and the unthinkable.

Counterposing the radical alternative to the dark shades and shadows of the Austerity Front is the task of socialists in the present election campaign, but it must be done boldly, explicitly and candidly. They have in their favour the profound and irrefutable truth that the radical alternative is the only alternative.

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7 Responses to “2+2 = Shut Up”

  1. itsapoliticalworld Says:

    Very good post, D D. We’ve had two years of intense political and economic discussion since the Bank Guarantee: at the beginning of this General Election campaign, the old school is played out and perhaps need only be monitored to observe behing the scenes shredding, bank bailout and board-stuffing.

    The main life I can see in this GE thing will be in the quality of the heckling, the content of the “Independent and Others” campaigns and above all the unfolding events of the North African uprising in the background.

  2. michael burke Says:

    Very good post.

    With the aggressive insistence of those that know they are wrong it is asserted that 12.5% led to hgher FDI. In fact it fell substantially.

    http://socialisteconomicbulletin.blogspot.com/2011/01/corporation-tax-cuts-dont-lead-to_23.html

    That shouldn’t be a surprise, the same thing happened when the 10% manufacuring rate was introduced. Now, why woud Irish firms and their political representatives insist on somethng that does not not beneft the economy and lowers government revenues- yet benefits them?

    • DublinDilettante Says:

      Hi Michael, thanks for the comment, it was held in the spam folder for some reason. I’d urge everyone to read Michael’s post and the subsequent discussion for more on this topic. Not only is the post itself informative and fairly definitive on the myth of low-low corp tax as the decisive factor in FDI, but the comments indicate how much resistance exists to the mere suggestion.

  3. Captain Rock Says:

    The myth of Vincent the left-winger shouldn’t last too much longer. He has the same favourite panellists, with the same arn’t I funny hectoring style week after week. Radical my hole.

  4. bandaid Says:

    I’ll just leave this here.
    http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/finance/2011/0523/1224297547043.html

  5. thealienhand Says:

    I know this post is ancient, but I only just read it, and thoroughly enjoyed doing so. Excellently written. You have a great flair for illustrative analogy, in this case “boat spells boat except when it doesn’t”. If I had a hat it would be off.

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