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Tag Archives: equality of income

Well, it’s happened before so it’s hardly surprising that we’re returning to consideration of “hard choices” and “austerity”. All the signs are that the established left will again play a part in ensuring that debate and courses of action will be limited, and will help to guarantee “austerity” while striking an “anti-austerity” pose.

What they most assuredly will not do is ask, “Are there other hard choices that we might consider, choices that might be unthinkable outside of a crisis?” or agree, “Of course public spending will have to be cut in order to preserve a functioning state.” and then ask, “How can public spending be cut in such a way that it primarily affects the rich?”

The rich? Deciding who is rich will always be controversial but something blunt can be said.

The majority of the rich work a neat trick. They exclude themselves by defining the rich as belonging to the 1%. Then for the majority of the rich the obvious way to preserve their privileged position is to say, take from the 1%. That’s fine but their corollary, that nothing must change until the 1% are tackled, is not fine. It’s evasive nonsense of course but oddly enough it is generally supported by the left.

Ordinary people – those on low incomes or the average industrial wage or the median income or even a fair bit above that—would not come to an easy agreement on what constitutes rich but it’s safe to suggest that all would regard as rich someone having an income of 150k p.a. The majority would regard an income of 100k as qualifying. Many would go lower. The point is that ordinary people think that rich reaches far lower than that 1%.

The established left disagrees. They will not interrogate the terms “hard choices” and “austerity”. Why? Because exploring, then listing, an expanded range of hard choices would draw anti-austerity activists into a real assault on a structure of inequality which is within reach of change. It’s much more agreeable to target the 1%, the banks, corporations, tax exiles etc. Indeed any curse of God thing can be targeted as long as the structure of relative advantage is maintained.

It’s likely that there are many hard choices beyond the conservative ritual but how about this for just ONE extra hard choice: let’s choose to place a ceiling on public service pay such as would achieve a required saving in public expenditure. Howls! Why the howls? Because it wouldn’t be … wait for it … fair. Ah, “fairness”, a notion most suited to operating within an established set of rules. It’s the word used to maintain relative advantage. It’s a refuge for conservatism.

There is too a variation on fairness and it is expressed in a self-absorbed take on equality. It defends inequality in public sector pay by saying that change cannot be applied to public sector workers in isolation, that nothing should happen until incomes in the private sector can be similarly treated. As a form of argument this is often encountered in a very different realm; it is used against putting war criminals on trial. In this regard it goes like this: no war criminal should face charges unless all face charges because to do otherwise would be …yes, unfair. Whether it is used against reforming income inequality or protecting monsters, it is a bizarre, conservative argument, deployed to prevent progress.

Then there’s what might be termed, decile defence. It has become routine to segment the range of income into deciles. The implication is that a top income ten times the bottom is normal, established. Moreover, not everyone in that top segment is a mere ten times; it includes much greater multiples. Uncritical discussion is how normalisation works. When a leftist deals with – discusses in any way – a ten tier ordering of income and does so without a word of criticism, they aid its normalisation; they take up a conservative position.

There is no question of saying that the establishment of decent or sane multiples is a panacea. What is odd is the degree to which anti-austerity by opposing all cuts has become conservative; it defends the incomes of people who are among the top earners in the country.

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?