Archive for the ‘Principles of Political Economy’ Category

A brief note on courage

July 6, 2015

Since Ireland’s pro-austerity Fine Gael/Labour coalition came to power in 2011, it has prided itself on having the courage to take tough decisions. It supporters in the media (which is to say, the media) have adopted the refrain with the dreary gusto of a monastery at prayer. Variations on the theme rattle off the presses and ooze from the airwaves, as commentators gush over the government’s capacity to inflict suffering with impunity. Editorials drip with pious warnings against the dangers of yielding to populism, and the entire commentariat has taken up residence in a parallel Ireland, wherein the bitter medicine of austerity has effected a miracle cure.

Over the past four years, the ruling elite has attempted to mould reality to the contours of its simplistic Thatcherite morality tales. Having failed, it has simply declared reality altered by decree. Unemployment figures are trumpeted as though mass emigration and the herding of citizens onto free labour schemes never happened. Ministers crow about protecting social welfare rates even as they accept plaudits for slashing them to ribbons.

The Labour Party has taken particular pride in its willingness to ravage and curtail the lives of those who traditionally form its core vote. Emboldened by praise from big business and the media, there appears no natural limit to the party’s inexorable drift towards the furthest fringes of the European right. The party contains committed ideological extremists such as leader Joan Burton, but the majority of its parliamentary contingent are simply vacuous automatons, random assemblages of molecules with just enough coherence to vote through a benefit cut. For all that, their calculated viciousness should not be underestimated, excused or forgotten; malice is often little more than stupidity run to seed.

And yet still, from the government benches and the newsrooms, comes the shrill, aggrieved demand that these architects of social catastrophe should be applauded for their courage. The distinction between tactical ignorance and outright delusion has long ceased to be meaningful in Irish politics, but a brief primer on the nature of courage seems to be in order here.

A basic prerequisite for any act of courage is the element of sacrifice or personal risk. There is nothing courageous about an extremely well-paid politician severing the financial lifeline of a single parent (unless you’re a believer in the immortality of the soul). That is not a “tough decision” for anyone except the victim. There is no bravery and no honour in skewering the poor, the sick, the elderly and the helpless when you have the ardent support of the wealthy, the powerful, the entire media and every financial and governmental institution in Europe, with the full repressive might of the police and the judiciary standing by, ready and willing to come down like a ton of bricks on the merest flicker of resistance.

It takes no courage to deprive a disabled child of vital supports if, should it cost you your seat, there is another one waiting for you behind the desk of a grateful multinational. None of that is courage, and no amount of ideological alchemy can ever turn it into courage. It is the opposite of courage, the most abject and contemptible cowardice.

By contrast, the decision of Greek voters to defy explicit, well-grounded threats from every locus of unearned power in Europe was an exemplary act of courage. It will not go unpunished by a vindictive European elite, and will be condemned as irresponsible by those who rattle their drums on behalf of the big battalions. But listen closely to their sneers and their scorn, because you might just detect a note of terror.

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2+2 = Shut Up

February 2, 2011

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.

The Red Scare begins

November 28, 2010

And who’s behind it? Why, the Pink PDs, of course! From the blog of Labour Dún Laoghaire/Rathdown county councillor Richard Humphreys.

STATEMENT BY CLLR RICHARD HUMPHREYS
Labour Party Councillor for Stillorgan
Friday, 26 November 2010

“UNITED LEFT ALLIANCE” WOULD WRECK ECONOMY – HUMPHREYS

Cllr Richard Humphreys, the Labour Party Councillor for the Stillorgan Ward, has said that the prospect of the hardline “United Left Alliance” holding the balance of power after the next election “should strike terror into the hearts of every rational voter”.

“This collection of radicals, hardliners and Trotskyites are posing as a reasonable alternative when they are nothing of the kind. They are political snake-oil salesmen, peddling an unworkable voodoo economics that would wreck Ireland’s economy for decades. In my view this grouping is an attempt to piggyback on the popularity of the Labour Party and to sell an extremist message in the process.” Humphreys said.

“I would strenuously urge voters not to gamble with their pensions, their future or their children’s future by letting this grouping anywhere near Leinster House. Most of their leadership appear to be candidates who were rejected by the People in the last general election and I fervently hope that the People will do the same this time.” Humphreys said.

According to their website, this grouping’s economic policy is as follows: “We reject the so-called solutions to the economic crises based on slashing public expenditure, welfare payments and workers’ pay. There can be no just or sustainable solution to the crisis based on the capitalist market.”

“Any political grouping that rejects the market – the only economic system which works – deserves to be dismissed out of hand as economic illiterates. Obviously the market needs to be regulated, but this group of has-beens would try to turn the clock back to before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and institute a Utopian command economy which would destroy individual liberty and entrepreneurship.”

“If this grouping got the balance of power with a mandate to oppose any cuts whatsoever in expenditure, including the welfare and public sector wage bill, they would drive the country to bankruptcy and destroy whatever hope there is of recovery from the recession. I see nothing remotely “left-wing” in destroying any hope of jobs or recovery – the inevitable result if this hardline grouping gets anywhere near the levers of power.”

“The other policies of this group would be equally disastrous to the country. Their policy that Ireland should “Give asylum seekers the right to work“, seemingly automatically, would allow asylum seekers including those with completely bogus claims to overwhelm the Irish jobs market, severely prejudicing Irish citizens as well as non-nationals who are legally present in the state. It amounts to an “open borders” policy of a kind which would savagely drive down employment, wage levels and labour standards and would lead to a massive increase in illegal immigration.”

“It would be one thing to suggest that asylum claims should be processed rapidly, and those still in the system after say 6 or 12 months could be eligible to be considered for limited and conditional work permits in specific circumstances. But as usual, the hardline left rejects any such nuanced possibilities and puts forward an extremist policy which would lead to economic chaos.”

“I urge voters to take a long cold look at the extremist policies of the “United Left Alliance” and to reject them as utterly toxic to Ireland’s economy and society, as well as presenting simplistic solutions which are entirely misleading.”

“The Labour Party has worked hard to present an honest and workable alternative to Fianna Fail’s policies and we will continue to do so in the months ahead.” Humphreys said.

If there’s one thing to be said for Councillor Humphreys, it’s that he doesn’t deal in ambiguity. In his attitude to the market, socialism and asylum seekers, he merely articulates explicitly what is implied by the obfuscations and evasions of his superiors. I’m sure the poor and the afflicted will acknowledge that Richard Humphreys SC, BCL, LLM, PhD shares more empathy with their plight than those who have stood shoulder-to-shoulder with them in their struggles against his kind.

Cllr. Humphreys represents the dominant, nay, hegemonic, current within the Labour Party. If its apologists remain implacable in their defence of a party which has stationed itself defiantly on the wrong side of the picket lines whenever the interests of workers, the poor and the unemployed have been ravaged, then their eyes need some kind of industrial-standard descaling.

(Thanks to Cde. Aidan for bringing this to my attention.)

Quote of the Day

August 6, 2010

Anglo Irish Bank’s chief executive has said the bank guarantee will have to be extended because the financial system has not yet stabilised.

Dude, we’ve been telling you that for about 150 years.

Some recommended viewing

July 20, 2010

A round-table on The collapse of Neoliberalism and the future of Socialism today from Croatia’s Subversive Film Festival back in May. Fairly heavyweight panel featuring Samir Amin, Zizek, Lebowitz and Mikhail Ryklin. (The discussion is all in English.) Interesting to hear Zizek’s very wrong perspective on the EU.

Here’s one I made earlier…

June 26, 2010

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Labouring the point?

June 23, 2010

To those few, those happy few, who esteem themselves regular readers of this blog, my views on the Labour Party, and the nature of the “alternative” offered thereby, will be well-known. At the risk of doing what’s written in the title, however, I wanted to bring something I just happened upon to (marginally) wider attention.

I’ve been having a wee dig in various registers of members’ interests. Nothing obviously untoward leaps out. Mary Harney owns shares in A.I.B. and B.O.I. Willie O’Dea owns shares in multiple African diamond-mining operations, as well as other oil and mining companies at home and abroad. There are no significant diamond resources in Chad, as far as I’m aware, but it’s easy to see how a possible conflict of interest may have arisen for a Minister of Defence elsewhere.

I’ll spare the blushes of the Dublin City councillor who, in declaring shares in Cadbury, listed Nature of Business as “Sweets” (ah, screw him, it was Dr. Chameleon himself, Bill Tormey.)

The most striking entry belonged to Ruairi Quinn, and is notably absent from the profile on his website. In the Dáil register, we find the following:

8. Remunerated Position ……. Chair, Fund Advisory Committee: 4th Level Ventures, 75 St. Stephen’s Green, Dublin 2.

4th Level Ventures was a new one on me, so I took a toodle to Google and found the following depressing glimpse into the future of education.

The website’s masthead reads “Commercialising Academic Research”, and the company identifies its role thus:

4th Level Ventures is a €20 million Venture Capital Fund managed by Dolmen Securities. Founded in 2002, we are focused exclusively on investing in companies whose Intellectual Property arises from third level education institutional research. We are sector neutral, our expertise lies in the commercialisation of technology.

Our primary objective is to commercialise the business opportunities that arise from university research. In Ireland, this output is being boosted by Government investment of €2.5bln for science research from 2002-2006.

Ruairi Quinn is Labour Spokesperson on Education and Science.

Despatches from the wacky world of neoliberalism

April 23, 2010

Well, I was just going to post about the Commission for Energy Regulation’s latest shenanigans in relation to the ESB, but I find that a Mr. Barry Cannon has done so far more eloquently in the IT today.

Madam, – The new orders from the Commission for Energy Regulation (CER) restricting the ESB’s pricing regime are beyond comprehension. It seems that in order to achieve a “free market” in electricity supply, a supposedly “good thing” for the electricity user, the State, through the CER is forcing the ESB to keep its prices artificially high.

Furthermore, on recommendation from the Competition Authority, the ESB has been ordered to call itself something else, in order to force us sentimental types who are irrationally attached to it, to choose “cheaper” options. Hence the majority of us who remain with the soon not-to-be ESB are being forced to pay higher prices, so that through the magic of the “free market” we can eventually pay “lower” ones. These somersaults of logic would bamboozle even the craziest of Lewis Carroll’s characters.

This, of course, has nothing to do with supplying “cheaper” or better electricity services to Irish citizens, and is instead an EU-mandated, ideologically driven strategy to break up this highly successful Irish State-run company, in order to eventually prepare it for privatisation.

Privatisation of the electricity service will not mean better deals for citizens, but instead cosy cartels between giant European oligopolies, such as E.ON, which give the illusion of choice while charging us more for less. Furthermore, it will remove the few democratic controls we have over this most strategic of services, with negative effects on jobs and equal conditions of access to electricity.

What we need is not more of this State-sponsored “competition”, but a successful, State-owned, citizen-controlled energy company, charged with providing sustainable, clean and affordable energy in an equitable manner. As for those ideologues, in the CER and elsewhere, that hatched up such a harebrained scheme, I say, to quote the Queen of Hearts “off with their heads!”. – Yours, etc,

BARRY CANNON,

Park Terrace, Dublin 8.

Put that in your pipe and privatise it, Madam!

It really is quite an extraordinary insight into the neoliberal schema. The pretence that privatisation is being pursued to achieve a better deal for the consumer is here even flimsier than usual. Essentially, electricity prices are being kept artificially high because those thrusting, streetwise, ballsy private operators can’t keep up with the supposedly bloated, inefficient, chronically inept public service provider.

I guess sometimes you have to screw the consumer in order to save them.

Keeping The EU Safe From Democracy

April 19, 2010

Charles Smyth

If you thought that was the job of the European Commission, then you’ve been doing the chap above a most unwonted disservice. That Randian superman is none other than Charles Smyth, leader and Pan-European Director of Northern Ireland’s Procapitalism party. Furthermore, “because Charles Smyth holds British and Irish nationalities, Charles Smyth is the leadership for the party (Procapitalism) in Great Britain(GB), Northern Ireland(NI) and the Republic of Ireland(ROI).” Nice work if you can get it!

Despite a rousing mission statement which includes the slogan “Procapitalism: In the vanguard to keep the EU safe from democracy”, Mr. Smyth garnered just 22 votes at the last Assembly elections in Belfast South. The good news is, though, that he’s going to try again at the forthcoming Westminster election, with a singular hodgepodge of a manifesto which arguably places him to the left of some of the major parties. Hopefuly, Splintered Sunrise will get around to him in the course of his indispensable guides to the Norn Iron constituencies.

Charles also has an amply-stocked Youtube account, featuring some of those run-on sentences which double back over themselves like the route of the old 36a. His latest vid, posted after a lengthy hiatus, is coincidentally entitled The Madman Returns.

Anyway, the reason I’ve descended into Séarlas’s lonely furrow is to tenuously support my point that capitalism qua capitalism has never found an audience in Ireland. (I warned you it was tenuous.)

Before I go, I want to proffer a generously-proportioned shout-out to my compañeros at the Red Writers blog, who have kindly invited me to contribute. Our political perspectives differ slightly, but you’ll find at least three flowers blooming there, and wonderful blooms they are. Comrade Ian is outlining a timely and compelling socialist alternative to economic chaos, and Cde. Automatic Writing has this provocative and intriguing critique of the No Platform campaign from an anarchist perspective. Well worth checking out.

Meet the new boss

April 5, 2010

...same as the old boss.

This Week in Ireland has a rather eye-opening interview with Labour spreadsheet-botherer Joan Burton, concerning NAMA and her masterplan for the economy (should Richard Bruton fall down a pothole, or the president have an attack of dyslexia.)

Those who consider Labour a redeemable or, heaven help us, progressive force should really give it a listen. Essentially, Joan’s programme amounts to:

*Tailoring education to the needs of multinationals
*Retaining Ireland’s barely-there corporate tax rate
*Combining the above with propitiously lower labour costs (these were “out of line” during the boom, dar le Joan.)
*Introducing innovative new thinking to the welfare system (anyone who’s ever been on the dole knows that when politicians start talking about innovation, you begin to eye the copper jar.)

So there you have the bold reform agenda of the left-most component of the next government. An economy entirely dependent upon FDI, crafted in the image of multinational corporations, with regulation reserved for wage levels and welfare.

See you all back here in 2020?

EDIT: Oh yeah, I forgot to mention the part that tickled me most. Joan likens the ongoing burden of NAMA to “war reparations.” Well, JB, that’s precisely what they are. There was a class war, and your side won.