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Monthly Archives: July 2017

Years ago when my friend, Eamon Tuffy, was the Labour Party candidate in Dublin West, something odd occurred at an election committee meeting and quite often it comes back to me. The constituency included Inchicore, the working class area in which I was reared; so my activism was personal as well as political. You see, Eamon has a Masters degree and some at the meeting felt that this should be kept secret, that it should not appear on posters and leaflets for fear it would alienate working class voters. When it sank in that they weren’t joking, I thought briefly that they were out of their minds. It took time to realise that their understanding of “working class” was different to mine. It is that difference that hinders socialist argument today.

Let’s talk briefly about my Dad, indeed about my extended working class family and all the similar families in the area. Those people all left school early and they all knew that to be a deprivation. They were all nevertheless educated, sophisticated, ambitious, thoroughly decent people, who held typical working class values. The idea that the likes of my Dad would be alienated by a candidate’s university education was not just preposterous but a gross, patronising slur on the working class.

Now, during the 70s and 80s it became clear that industry work and jobs had become so complicated that identifying the working class was no longer easy. Marxists could see that they had a problem and they had to address the composition of working class. Technology had dictated a virtual revolution in skills, professions and management. While manual work had decreased spectacularly, trade union membership had reached into areas – the professions, management, the very well paid – not previously regarded as workers. If the working class was to remain the engine of progress, its membership had to be recalculated or they would be too few to have much effect. It became customary to apply a range of material criteria like house ownership or education and recalculate. Depending on the criteria used, the outcome was depressing or encouraging in terms of the numerical strength of the working class.*

More or less contemporaneously the polling industry was growing, becoming more sophisticated and concerned with class. Media, marketeers and psephologists were anxious to know the views and habits of citizens categorised by income, education and employment. Eventually the pollsters labelled their categories uncontentiously as ABC1 etc. but in day to day conversation and in media their categories were discussed as indicative of class.

Class for Marxists and non-Marxists alike was now utterly materialist. If it had political implications, they were “objective” – divorced from messy considerations of values. I’ve written elsewhere on why Marx viewed the working class as progressive ** and I won’t go into it here. I should add too that I’ve not gone somewhere vaguely “spiritual”; values are materially determined. There is therefore no compelling reason to exclude them when identifying class, progressive groupings or progressive politics.

Some socialists today try to identify with, mollify and patronise citizens and groups whose expressed views are clearly right wing and sometimes shameful because they see such people and groups as working class.*** It is a mistake commonly made by socialists who do not originate in the working class. It is, moreover, an easy and attractive mistake. It is the way of popular media. 

The confusion is easy to explain. The greater number of citizens now self-identify as middle class partly out of simple snobbery but also to distinguish themselves not from the poor or from workers but from those they see as crude, abusive and overly aggressive. Unfortunately, in common usage and in conventional media this latter group has come by default to be mislabelled, working class. A badge of honour has been twisted and expropriated. The upper-class socialist finds aggression seductive. It is redolent of revolution with a willingness to take to the streets in opposition to the establishment. The price paid, however, is support for right wing positions that now characterise anti-establishment, alienation of those who hold traditional working class values and the abandonment of plausible socialist argument. 

In itself it is not a great problem for socialism generally that a few small parties – often dismissed as sects – sometimes led by upper class converts, create a bizarre right-wing parody of socialism. It becomes a problem when they are presented as perhaps misguided, foolish and incoherent but nevertheless representative of true socialism or leftism and their leaders as principled. Socialism then is portrayed as a thing of street politics, chanted abuse and implausible argument. It appears both alien and silly to citizens who are most open to coherent political argument – and that includes the sort of thoughtful, sophisticated, decent people who reared and made me: the working class.

 

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* The old maximizing approach of counting all who are paid a wage remains popular today: “In these days of identity politics and what you might call ‘the selfie-fication’ of political thought, Marxism remains refreshingly bracing in its view of the world. Distilled to its essence, whatever you think you are, if you aren’t an owner of the means of production or part of the mercantile bourgeoisie, you’re probably a proletarian. Wayne Rooney is a wage slave – albeit a very nicely off one – whereas George Osborne isn’t. Wayne can grow as rich as Croesus but he will never step across the threshold of the boardroom or the Bullingdon Club. Granted, this level of analysis won’t get you a first in PPE but it still strikes me as pretty sound.” – Stuart Maconie, http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/uk/2017/07/i-m-marxist-we-are-misunderstood-both-left-and-right

** https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2016/04/20/no-karl-marx-was-not-out-of-his-mind/

*** It is what has become of the once progressive term, anti-establishment, which now refers to a liberal, right wing, individualism, implacably opposed to state controls, taxation, trade unions, the educated, politics etc.

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It is generally commendable that people who take part in public discussion be open about where they are coming from. This is so that citizens can evaluate whether or not they have a particular interest in the outcome. The general requirement is that they be upfront and explicit about possible determinants of their views. We consider it normal, for example, to ask a member of a TV studio audience who offers an opinion, if they are a member of a political party. There is however one, glaring, secretive exception.

When pay or pay policy is discussed, most of those talking in the media enjoy salaries that are multiples of the average, never mind the minimum, wage. Unlike party membership, salary is kept secret or not considered a possible determinant of argument, a vested interest.** There has always been an excessively mannered reluctance to divulge or discuss a person’s income. Bluntly, there is a pretentious effort to ensure that personal income be considered strictly private. Now, the history of political communication, democratization and progress itself can be traced through issues being dragged out of the private realm into the light of politics. It is time that public debate took another intrusive step.***

Consider how newspapers frequently place a person’s age in brackets or how TV identifies, describes and classifies a contributor with an informative caption under their picture. Now, consider a debate about pay – say, a proposal to increase the legal minimum wage – in which contributors’ incomes appeared in brackets and in captions. If Josephine Bloggs, Economist with A, Professor of B, Economics Editor at C, Director of D or CEO of E, appeared to argue pay policy with her salary clearly shown, a more open, honest debate could take place.

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* I first made this suggestion in a blog in 2009. That was written at the height of a recession when pay cuts were a matter of constant discussion. I was prompted to modify and republish it by the sight of a well-off spokesperson for an employers’ advocacy group opposing a tiny increase in the legal minimum wage.

** Making interest clear is not normally an obligation placed on media workers.

*** My late friend, Peter Mooney, often said with a nod to Marx,‘The parameters of any debate in society are the parameters of the ruling class’.

Try this: Put some ice into a glass. Now fill the glass to the brim and watch what happens. The ice floats with some of it showing above the water level. As the ice melts, the water will overflow. Right? No, absolutely wrong! Melting ice will not raise the water level because, “Any floating object displaces its own weight of fluid.” — Archimedes of Syracuse.*

Yep, Archimedes. It’s as basic as that. Of course anyone who puts ice in their drink knows about this and anyone who has done Junior Cert. Science knows why.

Now, listen to this podcast of Newstalk Radio’s science programme, Futureproof, broadcast on Sat, 15 July 2017: http://www.newstalk.com/podcasts/Futureproof/Futureproof_with_Jonathan_McCrea/199154/Animals_adapt_to_Urban_environments_and_Reverse_Ageing

Not too far from the beginning there’s a discussion of the effects of global warming on the Arctic. Attention moves to an ice shelf the size of a county which has broken free in the Antarctic. Listen as a university scientist says that the melting of this huge iceberg will cause sea levels to rise. Notice that neither her colleague nor the presenter reacts, never mind corrects.**

The problem is not expert knowledge. The problem is a lack of basic knowledge which if widespread, makes citizen participation in debates about climate change impossible.

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* https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Archimedes%27_principle

** There is debate around the extent to which the more dense seawater will indeed rise when the floating freshwater melts. It will rise by a relatively small amount but even this is complicated by the intrusion of energy and temperature considerations. See here: https://www.skepticalscience.com/Sea-level-rise-due-to-floating-ice.html

It is understandable and indeed predictable that activists, having found that protest is utterly pointless, would resort to something else – something distinguished by the term, “effective protest”.

When activists express a desire to have effective protest, they make the point that protest is ineffective. That’s true. While an exceptionally large turn out or the attendance of normally compliant people may prompt a government to pause for thought, the days of authorities quaking when people decide to march are long gone. The talk now is of security and stewarding, with organisers looked upon as managers. Indeed, it is now usual to hear senior police officers say not only that people have a right to protest but that police will defend that right.

Long experience has revealed that protest is unthreatening but there’s more: protest has been institutionalised. It has become quasi-constitutional, a part of the way that politics is done. It is now an effective lightning conductor, discharging anger and resentment safely to earth. It is conservative, part of the management of dissent.

Political activists tend to enjoy protests. They rate them as good or relatively good and reminisce about protests they’ve attended. It’s a badge of honour to be able to claim attendance at some of the famous ones. It’s even a way of meeting up with old friends and comrades or resuming association under a respected banner.

It is not uncommon, however, for those activists who oppose this established practice to attend a protest, leave the main body of protesters and take an action thought likely to cause some disruption or a confrontation with the police. This would lead perhaps to a fracas which could be characterised as state opposition to protest. There have been amusing outcomes as when the confrontation stops traffic and prevents law abiding protestors getting home from their protest.

During the campaign against water charges comments on social media began to make an interesting distinction between protest and effective protest. Typically a protester would be told by a Garda to stand aside from the installation of a water meter and to protest nearby. This they would see as pointless since the objective was to prevent the installation of water meters. Standing aside with a placard was not deemed effective protest. Effective protest is aimed at preventing something or perhaps causing something to happen, while protest as facilitated by An Garda is essentially communicative – protesting about something.

It might seem sensible at this point to tidy up the terminology but it’s not that simple. The inviting course would be to distinguish between protest – institutionalised as communication – and direct action. Here’s the problem: since the controversy is essentially about widening the definition and therefore acceptability of protest to include actions that are not exclusively communicative, creating a distinction right here between protest and action would prejudge the outcome of the discussion.

Peaceful” seems to present a complicating factor. Many protest actions are now accompanied by chanting “peaceful protest, peaceful protest”. The proposition would seem to be that any action that does not directly offer violence is legitimate protest and should be defended by the state.

As mentioned above, examination of the institution of protest was brought forward in Ireland by activists opposed to water charges and the installation of water meters. They actively tried to prevent the work being carried out by standing into earthworks, blocking roads to contractors and slow marching in front of contractors’ vehicles. Leaving aside the claimed justification of acting on behalf of the people, the proposition here is that preventing or delaying work is legitimate protest and should be defended by the state. It’s by no means a new proposition; environmental activists have occupied tree tops to prevent projects that involved the destruction of the trees. Blockades preventing workers or supplies reaching a disputed site are quite common.

While they sometimes lead to violent clashes when police try to keep a road open, the blockade or slow march is now increasingly accepted as legitimate protest. The activist gets to make an effective protest which prevents, say, work happening for a time. The state accepts that protest will cause delays but projects tend to completion in the longer term and it is recognised as necessary to dissipate anger and opposition. Occasional clashes between protesters and police are inevitable as an accommodation is achieved between two accepted rights: the right to protest and the right to go about lawful business without hindrance. The currency here is essentially time.

The activists involved in the Jobstown protest directed at a visit by the Tánaiste (Deputy Prime Minister) to an educational conferral proposed that preventing or disrupting the visit or preventing the Tánaiste and her assistant from leaving was legitimate protest. The Director of Public Prosecutions disagreed and some were charged with illegally detaining citizens. This outraged activists who saw it as undermining the institution of protest. Indeed, in closing argument a defence barrister argued that the prosecution was an intentional assault on effective protest. In doing so, he ridiculed conventional protest as both old fashioned and akin to Father Ted holding a banner inscribed with “down with this sort of thing”. *

Two distinct arguments have emerged. Firstly, it is argued that a blockade preventing entry is not the same as preventing a citizen from leaving.** As the charging of the Jobstown protestors indicates, the State is intolerant of protesters detaining a citizen but this intolerance does not sit easily with police facilitating the slow marching of workers on a contested project trying to go home. Indeed, at Jobstown the slow march home was apparently negotiated between police and protest leaders/managers as an accommodation which would end the protest.

Secondly, a strange new proposition was advanced by a defence barrister: that because one of the detained citizens was a government minister she could be detained in order to ensure that she listened to the views of the protestors. In other words, the freedom of the minister to walk away from communication was contested. Like the slow march this could be developed into a peaceful accommodation: that a citizen can be detained in order to ensure that they hear some viewpoint. Again the currency would be time.

Now clearly there’s a great deal of pretence going on. On the state’s side there is a pretence that protest leads to change. In Ireland where decisions are subject to the delivery/pressure system, protest is just one pressure among many; e.g. interest groups, non-government organisations, sympathetic journalism.

On the side of the activists there is an implied pretence that if the state recognised a range of actions as protest, they would support the state. The reality is that since the state has assimilated protest, something else has to happen if the state is to be confronted.

In other words, one side says that protest is a right, encouraged, recognised and protected; the other side says any limitation on direct action undermines the right to protest. The two sides simply are not talking about the same thing.

Let’s take both at their word: that the state really does approve and encourage dissent, and that the activists do not seek confrontation but want to extend legitimate action beyond marches and standing with placards.

As suggested above the currency is time, delay. Negotiations are already the order of the day. The proposition is that activists may do as they wish as long as they are not violent. In many cases this will work out fine. A blockade of some engineering project is very likely factored into costs. Workers delayed by slow marches can probably be compensated by overtime payments. An extended list of accommodations might suggest that this is easily resolved but switching attention to different more basic examples of rights clashing reveals something far more problematic.

Leaving aside all question of violence like attacking an individual at whom a protest might be aimed or breaking up property, the extension of legitimacy (state recognition and protection) to all activity labelled protest could cede rights to groups at the expense of citizens. This returns consideration to the nub of the matter.

Citizens tend to be content to have rights limited in order to ensure public safety but this necessarily involves threat. It would be quite another matter if, say, freedom of movement were denied indefinitely or for a considerable period in order to defend a right to protest. While the state now negotiates with protesters, an authoritarian paradox emerges.

Should the institution of protest be extended to include all actions that a group or individual was willing to claim to be a protest, then a group or individual could rely on the state to constrain others. Thus the word “protest” – never mind “peaceful protest” – would trump all other liberties. Clearly no state with the slightest pretence to being liberal could cede such power to anyone willing to take action.

Rather than worrying excessively about what might happen – what obscure or mad action might be adopted to oppress fellow citizens – it might be better to consider codifying protest actions that are regularly claimed to be so, for example:

i) There is now no dispute over the protest march. It is a recognised institution.

ii) The sit down protest in a public street is disputed. It will normally be respected/tolerated by the state until it inconveniences a large number of citizens or a smaller number for a protracted period. Business interests tend to intrude as shops fear disruption of trading or the creation of the impression that going into town is subject to disruption.

iii) Slow marching is now virtually recognised by the state as a useful way of ending confrontation while allowing activists to feel that they’ve been effective in at least causing delay.

Come on, though, let’s be frank. If activists are committed to opposing the state, none of this is relevant because they must devise actions such that the state will oppose them. The position would seem to be that while protest is quasi-constitutional and effective protest can be accommodated, the last thing that anti-state/anti-establishment activists want is to be part of an effective lightning conductor, discharging anger and resentment safely to earth, part of the management of dissent. Though they frequently say that they are no longer interested in revolution, they still cling to some undisclosed role for confrontation and crisis***.

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* https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gT9xuXQjxMM

** In answering irrelevant questions at the trial of Paul Murphy et al, witness, Karen O’Connell, made an interesting distinction. She suggested that while blocking citizen entry is “peaceful protest”, preventing a citizen from leaving is not.

*** It’s hard to imagine what non-revolutionary street politics is about. It seems to be a compromise between joining that strand of socialism which opts for reforms within the system (frequently mocked as social democracy) and a revolutionary style/tradition without the substance. In practice it sides with all popular movement/sentiment including that which is right wing. It views class in terms of polling categories rather than political values and seeks to represent those it views as working class by putting pressure on the government/establishment/political class. Thus class is reduced to a pressure group and activists termed “hard left” operate within the Irish cargo/pressure system of politics. 

All too often journalists support the view that ISIS killers come from a dark, incomprehensible savagery and that they are utterly unlike the ordinary decent terrorists we used to know in the 20th century. After the 2017 murder of the children at the Manchester concert there was a harking back to the IRA bomb in 1996 which had fewer casualties but did more infrastructural damage.

Possibly the most egregious expression of this vile nonsense came from Stuart Maconie, writing in New Statesman.* He sees “no credible comparison” between the jihadi attack of 2017 and the IRA attack of 21 years earlier. Whereas the intentional selection of civilians as targets is an unambiguous war crime/crime against humanity, he clearly does not agree or he regards such crimes as sometimes understandable.

Certainly the likes of the IRA killed differently to ISIS but the argument that one is better or more acceptable than the other rests on two propositions that are utterly unacceptable. One refers to the respective methods of killing; the other to justification.

Firstly, it is argued by Maconie in common with many others that giving warning of a bombing and expressing regret afterwards is a preferable course of action. The proposition is that, having planted a bomb in a public place, giving the potential victims a sporting chance of escape and then expressing regret over the casualties, somehow makes those responsible a better class of perpetrator.

Secondly, there is the proposition that the opprobrium attaching to the selection of a civilian target should be proportional to how reasonable a cause the attackers espouse. Now, this is a thoroughly disreputable and selective form of outrage; it seeks the acceptance of war crimes in pursuit of a favoured end. Maconie is quite explicit. He argues that, while the IRA did not have the support of Manchester’s large Catholic and Irish population, their attack was not so bad because that population would have been familiar with the claims of Irish nationalism. He puts it thus:

These families and pubs and streets may not have sympathised with the IRA but their aims and their struggle would have been a familiar thread of family life and local culture. Those aims did not seem unreasonable to many: a united homeland, free of an occupying military colonial presence.

The ISIS attack on civilians, he reckons, was worse not because of the numbers or ages of the victims but because no “sane” person understands them:

By contrast, it is hard for anyone sane to comprehend what Isis or its deranged “lone wolf” sympathisers can possibly want beyond their own martyrdom and an end to what we think of as civilisation. It is a new dark age.

Certainly the ISIS mindset is dark, foreign and medieval. They don’t ever express regret and their bizarre methods of torture and killing in the Middle East alienate and frighten Western citizens. However, when it comes to bombings and shootings directed at civilians, they are precisely the same as the IRA.

All combatants select targets. They choose military, infrastructural or civilian targets. Civilians often die when a military or infrastructural target is attacked. They become in that awful phrase collateral damage. However, when civilians are targeted, an unmbiguous war crime is committed. When a public place is targeted, a perverse argument can be offered, pretending that it was a commercial target, that civilian casualties represent collateral damage and are regretted – and in any event a warning was given so that they had a sporting chance of escape. That’s complete bollocks. A developed country is rich in commercial, infrastructural targets often miles from human habitation. Targeting a public place is a carefully considered decision and it is a war crime.

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* New Statesman, 26 May – 1 June 2017, pgs. 26-27