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Tag Archives: anti-austerity

A constant theme among leftists who regret the success of right wing populists is that the traditional left parties are responsible for their own decline in that they allowed themselves to become out of touch with … well, with whom? That’s never made entirely clear. Vague labels, however, are liberally sprinkled: working people, traditional supporters, working class, middle class, ordinary people, ordinary working people etc. The thrust of this approach is that the people they have in mind were there for the taking and the likes of Trump and the Brexiteers in the cases of USA and UK took them. Essentially it is an argument for some kind of left wing populism, i.e. tell these people something they want to hear so that they won’t be seduced by right wing populists.

The problem for a left approach like this becomes apparent when some of its advocates talk simultaneously of left parties returning to or sticking with their principles. Again, there’s no clarity, no attempt to discuss principles or indeed values. Without such discussion – without critical examination – a very important doubt is suppressed. The question that seldom, if ever, arises is this: What if traditional left values or principles are incompatible with telling those “ordinary people” what they want to hear? That is to say, there is a fundamental problem when “ordinary people” want, say, tax reductions, privatisations, more competition etc. etc. or even the impossible, say, the clock turned back and jobs, long-automated, restored.

However, there are just two groups being in touch with whom is fundamental to socialism.

Out of touch 1

The industrial working class was identified by Marx as having historical purpose because their values and progressive demands were universal and certainly not because they were a rabble easily seduced by leaders offering political baubles.* Their heirs are present today, more than willing to listen, more than capable of political argument, knowing well when they are being subjected to patronising bollocks or offered some factional, preferential crumb to be denied to others. No party in Ireland is addressing the working class. For sure, there’s no shortage of parties – sometimes with an upper class leadership – who think that raucous, rude, sneering, anti-establishment, ignorance and name calling is somehow working class but they ignore the real deal.**

A major preoccupation of the working class today is that their ambitions have now more or less been thwarted by the latest iteration of capitalism, i.e. I.T. and the disappearance of huge numbers of middle level, satisfying, well-paid jobs. There is no point in telling these people that those jobs can be resuscitated, or replaced in sufficient numbers by new similarly good jobs or that security in low paid, low-skill, low-status jobs will have to do. They are working class; they’ll see right through it. Anyone seeking their attention – never mind their support – better have a good argument or at least show that they live in the 21st century and understand the problem.***

Out of touch 2

Almost everyone who makes policy tends to be out of touch with the poor. There are two aspects to the failure. Firstly, economics based on rational choice either discounts or utterly fails to grasp the short time-scale necessarily of interest to those with immediate money problems. That is to say, those with insufficient money this week cannot seriously be asked to evaluate medium or long term possibilities. Secondly, well off activists and policy makers tend to sacrifice the poor to grand policy. That they could lose their income or that they are dependent on the state should be uppermost in debate but it seldom – if ever – is. Bluntly, the precarious position of the poor demands that they be the priority. Paradoxically, when it comes to this kind of neglect, socialists combine little excuse and a poor record. Their universalist and egalitarian thinking, together with the likelihood that they will know poor, working class people, should ensure that they be constantly aware of the poor and certainly of the different outlook of those with immediate money problems. The failure for socialists is most likely rooted in the revolutionary tradition and the commitment to grand schemes which subordinate the needs of a group – even the poor – to the greater project. However, in truth this is as right wing as it is left. When in the UK the privileged Jacob Rees Mogg spoke of short term deprivation over Brexit which would take perhaps 50 yrs to work out, he was not very different to the Irish anti-austerity leftists of some few years ago. They, when the Irish state had a mere three months’ money left to pay state workers and welfare recipients, wanted to reject conditions demanded by the state’s only lender. In that scenario they hoped something would turn up so that the poorest in the country could be paid; they wanted at best to gamble and at worst to sacrifice the welfare of the poor on a long term objective.

In touch

Having excluded the working class and the poor, there would seem now to be even less clarity on “being in touch”. Not so. In fact it’s pretty clear. What Irish socialists and in particular the majority in the Labour Party want is to be popular with those they see frequently either in media or in person. These could be the attendees at a large protest, a popular campaign waged by a civil society group to obtain a concession from the “political class”, attendees at a political clinic or those whose doors were selected for a canvass.

The common feature is that there is no intention to argue or convince anyone of anything. Indeed the only out-group seems to be the top 1% and they are usually to be sacrificed not for egalitarianism but to maintain the structure of inequality across the 99%.

A note to the declining Irish Labour Party

There are two possible routes to survival. Because they are incompatible a decision is required. Neither offers certainty of success.

The first is to engage along with every other party in the state – without exception – in the crowded, competitive market of “fairness”. Labour’s objective would be to get a slice large enough to ensure survival. While that course allows for marches and fists in the air, it’s a conservative, managerial position. It’s a competition in ideas and policies (which any rival can steal) aimed at issues. It’s a competition too to have one’s best issues accepted as newsworthy. There is no requirement to have an overall achievable objective and no requirement to argue for anything that would change the existing structure of inequality.††

The second is to look to the working class and universal values, and to argue for change in the conditions of the 21st century. This would put the Party out on a limb, i.e. unlike all the competitors in the fairness free-for-all. The doubt that absolutely has to be faced is whether or not there are sufficient voters open to that approach as would ensure the Party’s survival. The audience is comprised of the working class (In the meaningful as opposed to the polling sense) and others who might – sharing the participatory/republican outlook – be open to an argument for change.

In crude marketing terms it’s like this: When you’re on 3%, the choice of competing in the consumer market or of being more specialised and quality oriented is a difficult one.

The temptation is to do the familiar regardless of changed circumstances.

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These are links to my blog. Each expands a little on the respective points above

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

** https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2017/07/31/working-class-has-meaning-it-should-not-be-twisted-misappropriated-or-trivialised/

*** https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2018/07/10/getting-a-firm-grip-the-labour-party-jobs-and-the-working-class/

https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2012/09/18/fairness-has-become-the-conservatives-shield/

†† https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2017/06/21/its-odd-in-ireland-all-the-parties-like-grass-roots-campaigns-and-no-one-is-in-opposition/

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That old saying is the point of agreement between no-deal Brexiteers like Jacob Rees Mogg and Ireland’s old “anti-austerity” campaigners. It’s basic to political fantasists and many revolutionaries that the welfare of today’s living, breathing citizens can be sacrificed for some gain in the remote future. It’s a view pushed by the well-off and secure who will not be greatly troubled by whatever happens in the intervening years, and are prepared to tell ordinary citizens the soothing authoritarian lie: don’t concern yourselves, it’ll be alright; we know what we’re doing.

JRM is telling the UK that Brexit will take 50 years to work out. When the Irish state had just three months’ money left to pay welfare recipients and state workers, Ireland’s anti-austerity “leaders” tried to convince citizens that they should tell our only lenders to keep their money and we’d manage somehow.

This is literally “sinn féin”: “ourselves alone”, insular, proud, self satisfied. Poor or prosperous? That doesn’t matter; it’s a question for the future.

An aspect of the rise and break-up of the Syriza administration remains largely unexamined: Syriza was an experiment in left unity. The proposition was that if all leftists united behind an agreed programme, a left government could be elected. Leaving aside the need to enter into coalition with a right wing, anti-austerity party, the unity approach seemed to deliver. However, Greece is now in worse shape than when Syriza and its right wing partners came to power and Syriza has split. This outcome was predictable, if not downright inevitable. There were two related flaws from the outset. Firstly, there was the untruth (a clumsy term but it covers belief, lie and fantasy) that a government could end austerity without negative consequences and secondly, there was the belief among leftists that unity could encompass those who were essentially uncompromising. It was clear from the outset that an end to “austerity” could not be achieved and because compromise would be out of the question for components of the alliance, it was to be expected that Syriza would split.

Syriza sought election by offering to confront Greece’s lenders and secure deliverance from onerous bail-out conditions. So far, so populist and citizens voted for it in numbers sufficient to make Syriza the largest party in parliament. The rest of the Syriza election programme seems to have been virtually ignored.

Shortly after the government was formed a different tune was heard and there were reasons to be optimistic. Confrontation was out; deals and compromise were in. The time seemed to be right for Greece to assume leadership of the growing support for a more Keynesian Europe.

It has never been fully explained how the optimism too quickly drained away in acrimony. Finance Minister, Yanis Varoufakis, was insistent that Greece wanted to pay her debts and yet the descent into nationalism and simple anti-austerity “principle” happened.* These months reversed a modest economic recovery and pushed reform of European fiscal policy off the agenda. Then after the farcical referendum and the subsequent bailout deal the chasm between left reform and left revolt became impossible to ignore.

That chasm is a problem on the left and it cannot be papered over; it makes left unity impossible. In recent decades most leftists have abandoned revolution in any meaningful sense of the word but they’ve also worked to keep their distance from what they deride as mere social democracy. In refusing to join with the century-old tradition of those socialists who work on reforms through the parliamentary structures of the liberal state, they create the paradox of wanting revolutionary change without a revolution.

The tendency to underestimate that refusal to cross to the other side of the Marxist tradition is at the root of left unity wishful thinking.

In Greece the ironically named Popular Unity has walked off to oppose Syriza. Their aim remains to end austerity by taking Greece out of the deal with creditors. They exhibit, however, what might be termed revolutionary honesty because they now talk of leaving the Euro if necessary and of rebuilding the country.

The Greek experiment with Left Unity may have done lasting damage to the very idea of Left government in that the economy was damaged without producing any real change and without pushing through left reforms.

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* https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2015/07/06/its-not-plausible-that-the-publicly-expressed-argument-of-yanis-varoufakis-caused-this-crisis/

Before reading watch and listen to Yanis Varoufakis in this Youtube clip. He’s not talking revolution. He’s not even talking socialism. Indeed he’s on about that most liberal of fashions, value free, “evidence based” policies. How this could lead to a crisis requires explanation.

Ok, that was the former Greek Finance Minister making a persuasive case for old fashioned, liberal Keynesianism. This was a view that was growing in popularity in the public press and on-line in the months before the Greek election. Reading and listening to Syriza before the election it seemed that they were just doing the routine, familiar, populist anti-austerity pitch for votes. After the election they changed to an emphasis on negotiation and the sort of position outlined in this video. It was a very encouraging development and it raised the hope that Syriza might strengthen or lead the emerging consensus. That consensus was certainly not socialist or even mildly egalitarian but rather the creation of a functioning liberal economy – yes, ripe for leftward reforms but the left would defer that until a reasonably stable and prosperous liberal economy had developed. Clearly it would be difficult if not impossible to get a liberal deal of this kind through the Greek parliament without the support of the older centre-right and centre-left parties. However, somewhere during the months of negotiation the Keynesian position disappeared. Towards the end the German Chancellor insisted that any deal would have to be approved by the Greek Parliament. In doing so she inadvertently hastened the end of negotiations and saved Syriza’s unity. In the week before the IMF payment was due there were two sets of proposals: the creditors’ ultimatum and Syriza’s.  As the Greek Finance Minister insisted, there was nothing much between them. Then the P.M. decided on a referendum to accept or reject the ultimatum. There needs to be an enquiry into these negotiations because it is simply not plausible that the argument advanced by Yanis Varoufakis in this video caused a crisis.

In today’s Irish Times, Stephen Collins writes about media portrayal of the Irish economic experience. His title is “Things not nearly as bad as they are often portrayed”. I’ll leave it to others to make the justified response that inequality of income determines how bad things are in each citizen’s life. I want to draw attention to an interesting point that he makes: he says that there is a “dominant media narrative” in Ireland and that it is shared by “anti-austerity campaigners”. He is spot-on and he is saying something very important about an Irish paradox: “anti-establishment” has been assimilated and is part of the defence of existing structures of inequality.

This isn’t a new phenomenon. Fianna Fáil was built on local service, on taking account of what ordinary people said to a party which had consciously insinuated itself into every part of Irish civil society. This of course contributed to making clientelism essential for anyone seeking election but it also made it possible for a party to govern the state for the greater part of its history while being anti-establishment. This is neither mad nor a joke. On the contrary it is an easily understood system with a plausible political theory. In Ireland today the media and the anti-austerity opposition play their part within the system.

It goes like this. The “political class” are said to control unlimited finance. Deficiencies in public spending are caused by the stupidity and/or meanness of the political class. Progress is made by putting pressure on the political class to fund one interest group at the expense of another. Pressure is organised and managed by the anti-establishment comprised of journalists, advocates, activists and non-government elected representatives. The anti-establishment position deserves the older and more elegant label, bien pensant.

While it has nasty, inegalitarian outcomes, as a stable, conservative structure, it is fascinating. The term “political class” is now accepted by leftists. Everyone can disparage the political class and side with a disadvantaged group without ever having to consider priorities.

Oh yes, and the majority of the top 10% of earners can regularly be described as middle income, while no one laughs.