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The recent death (August 25th) of Neil Armstrong, the first person to walk on the moon, prompted quite a bit of discussion. Now it’s prompted this short piece which makes the point that the Apollo project has a lesson for Ireland at this time, i.e. just before the Irish state at last gets access to some limited investment capital.

Back in the day there were arguments against Apollo, that the money would be better spent in other ways. However, Apollo was a big, big project which asked new questions, pushed research, came up with answers and materials, and left an engineering legacy scattered across the U.S.

From a political perspective there is a tendency to see Apollo as a cold war project trying to give America a lead in the great technology race of the time or as an attempt to wave an American flag in everyone’s face. All of this can be true but still hide a more useful truth. What is usually forgotten is that Apollo was a state objective, that it was state funded and state managed. If it is viewed as an economic and development success, it is telling us something. It is telling us that despite protestations to the contrary, the US can adopt socialist approaches and that they are effective.

Ireland will have limited capital. What seems to be about to happen is that entrepreneurs, innovators and ideas will compete for a slice of the money. This is a depressingly familiar approach. Most people know that it will result in waste but it’s hard to argue with nonsense when it’s expressed in the only terms that receive attention but terms that have been drained of all useful meaning. Only in some mad, neo-liberal fantasy does a bag of money of itself call forth enterprise, innovation and ideas. That wasn’t the Apollo way and it shouldn’t be the Irish way.

In the real world of projects success is tied to effective management. That means breaking the big job down into its constituent manageable parts, then delegating, contracting and controlling finance until bit by precious bit the parts come together. On anything remotely of a national scale research, innovation and enterprise will start with a major project – a huge idea – and a considerable budget. Realisation of the big idea requires that same disciplined project management but writ large and it relies on defining the building blocks, costing and financial controls. The building blocks are projects in themselves necessary to the big idea. They can be to do with manufacturing or building but in the early stages they will mostly be to do with research and development, trying to solve a problem, to find a way of doing something that hasn’t been done before or in a way that hasn’t been tried before. Each building block for the big idea is put out there for innovative companies to see. Then they compete to convince the management of the big idea that for a price they can solve the problem and deliver. The successful companies then get finance and are expected to deliver; over the course of their work they will be regularly progress chased. This is the Apollo way. It’s the sane, business-like way, the complete antithesis of scattering money among entrepreneurs and hoping for some undefined good outcome.

In a nutshell the idea is to deliver on some enormous but useful mission and in doing so, fund and drive a plethora of development projects that will leave a legacy of expertise that will survive long after the realisation of the big idea.

Here’s the fundamental problem: Ireland doesn’t have a big idea. There’s no Irish equivalent of “going to the moon”, no obvious Apollo. Ireland too seems to be particularly cursed with just one view of capitalism and enterprise: that of feeding SMEs as if they were all the same. However, a talk with any small manufacturer or developer reveals a keen awareness of thriving by serving a larger operator which generates projects requiring answers.

What is needed is a fresh look at state enterprise (That will mean abandoning the tired orthodoxy which limits public discussion today.) and a search for one or a small number of national projects. Defining a national project means looking at what Ireland wants to achieve with limited capital. The conventional approach would be to build or install labour intensive things. However, Irish commentators witter on about research, development, knowledge economy, hubs, expertise etc. Clearly building and installation – while they might deliver useful infrastructure – are not enough. What is needed is a huge project which keeps installation of imported technology to a minimum, which will generate many, many new/original technical problems – the sort of problems that can be addressed locally so as to create and leave a coherent pool of expertise and active companies. Ireland needs to be the site of expertise in an emerging industry or the site of expertise in a new approach to an older industry and one way to do that is the Apollo approach to a national project.

When discussion goes down this road, it can be hi-jacked by yet another piece of tired conventional Irish wisdom: that because we live on a green, windswept island surrounded by choppy seas the simple answer is renewables. There might be a big idea left there on which a new industry could be built but clearly development of wind and wave technology now has limited scope and the bulk of technology will be imported.[i]

Taking the argument beyond this point and giving examples risks the ridicule of conservatives and cynics. It also risks diverting the discussion away from the proposed method and into a limited discussion of the respective merits of big ideas. Suggestions are for a later debate. For now the debate involves two very different approaches: the familiar neo-liberal approach of scattering investment money versus a much greater degree of care with scarce capital.

[i] While nothing like the Severn potential exists in Ireland, there may be possibilities in becoming expert in small scale tidal energy but that’s for discussion if and when the argument presented here can be carried.

As the likelihood of Labour participation in government approaches certainty, old and divisive views resurface. We are back yet again to opposing coalition with liberals and conservatives. This time it is wrapped in a desire to make common cause with fringe leftists but this too has been seen before: remember the rise of the Workers Party. Let’s separate the two ( i. The question of coalition with FF or FG; and ii. the question of coalition with small leftist parties) and then finish with a proposal.

The question of coalition with FF or FG.

Yes, it is true that coalition has disappointed Irish socialists. Yes, it is true that coalition has underachieved. Yes, it is true that coalition did not significantly alter the structures of power and inequality in Ireland. BUT yes, it is also true that coalition is a tactic not a political perspective or even a programme. Two points need to be made. Firstly coalitions involving Labour have not been failures. Secondly, the extent to which they disappointed socialists may have been due to a lack of thought and imagination among socialists themselves.

The weakness of and danger to Labour in coalition has been the lack of a clear political ambition in preparing for coalition. The problem today on the left is the same as it was in the 70s/80s when Labour was tearing itself asunder over coalition: there is no coherent leftist objective. The best argument on offer is that leftist policies are more likely to restore the kind of prosperity which Ireland enjoyed before “the crisis”.

These arguments are compelling and deserve support. It is clear that familiar socialist approaches offer a better chance of recovery and have the added attraction that they give a degree of protection to the poor. The liberal arguments which stand against them are essentially daft and will not achieve the liberal goal of a prosperous society. In short, Labour retains its status as the political wing of St. Vincent DePaul and becomes the fount of Keynesian sense and decency. This is an honourable position but it is not enough.

Ok, following an extended period in which market fundamentalism became the religion of the chattering classes, it is relatively progressive to offer mildly distributive policies which will stimulate growth but – again and particularly in a time of unprecedented openness to ideas – it is not enough.

TASC’s open letter is an excellent example. It seeks to maintain and expand a functioning economy by way of avoiding cuts in public spending, and stimulating investment including public infrastructural projects. It calls for a measure of equality by way of taxing wealth and high income, and by way of fighting poverty/low income. Frankly, only a maniac would argue against this. It must be done but it is not enough for a party needing to be inspiring and unique. 

It is time to offer something imaginative, something progressive, a different social objective. This is a variation on Rosa’s view that the purpose of a socialist party is to advance the policy that no other party can: Let’s make increased equality and particularly greater equality of income the objective of all policies. In other words, unless a policy will SIGNIFICANTLY NARROW THE GAP between high and low incomes, let’s leave it to liberal or conservative parties.

Think about it. The reason for voting Labour and the price of coalition with Labour is real change: the measurable and significant flattening of income levels.

The question of coalition with small leftist parties.

There is a strange belief among some Labour members that small means socialist or at least in some sense progressive and that an alliance would somehow lead to a left of centre majority. This fantasy sits easily with a strong opposition to dealing with liberal and conservative parties and is encouraged by journalists who are essentially egalitarian but antipathetic to Labour. They are, however, aware that by far the largest bloc of progressive politics in Ireland is the Labour Party.

A basic problem is that even if there were a real meeting of minds within this group, the numbers don’t amount to anything like a majority.

There isn’t, however, a meeting of minds. Coalition with such groups is at least as daunting as with either FF or FG. The explicitly socialist groups dislike Labour and tend to cleave to doctrines and analysis which addresses earlier manifestations of capitalism than that which we now face. The media appearance of their arguments serves to deride socialism, making socialism appear silly and irrelevant. Other parties are simply not socialist or even predominantly leftist. They certainly have socialist members who have subordinated their leftist sentiments to another project, be it environmentalism or aggressive nationalism. Incidentally, the same could be said of members of the two major parties.

Radical or redundant

Forget fantasies about building a coalition of leftist splinters. Forget liberal and conservative policies and leave them to the parties to whom they belong. The sensible approach for Labour is to seek coalition NOT on the basis of anything like easily agreed policy but on the basis of policy that a liberal or conservative party could not possibly initiate.

A drive for greater equality and particularly equality of income would be popular and inspiring. In Britain even David Cameron is aware of public sentiment. He has called for a ceiling in public service pay of 20 times the lowest pay. Figures are up for debate but how about 10 times in the public sector, in companies in which the state has ownership and in companies awarded state contracts?