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You’ve come across it many times in the media: a journalist or interviewer full of admiration for the principled socialist and full of hostility for the socialist in government who has made compromises.

The objective of the conservative or liberal journalist is to help prevent left wing reforms. This journalist, faced with a compromised socialist – usually one in a position of power to make a reform or to withstand the pressure to impose market solutions – and working in a media climate of tender feeling towards the harmless idealist, sees a smart, attractive and ultimately dishonest approach: use the idealist to discredit the real threat.

 

METHOD

The trick is to portray leftist reformers and reforms as at best lacking integrity and at worst a complete betrayal.

i) Make the harmless the ideal

This is done by presenting an uncompromising socialist as morally superior and absolutely incorruptible by virtue of being true to his or her principles.

ii) Get a leftist to do conservative and liberal dirty work

Set up the uncompromising (“principled”) socialist to attack reform-minded socialists as apostates who have sold out.

iii) Make left failure a virtue

Present years of fruitless, uncompromising talk as self-sacrificing success.

 

Looks like everyone is a winner … well, yes, apart from socialists and those who would benefit from their reforms. The right wing journalist and their privileged audience get to show how much they approve of socialist principles – if only they weren’t so impractical! The “principled” socialist gets to reassure everyone that revolution is out of the question and in return gets public recognition and appreciation, and encouragement to remain pure in their anti-establishment.

Dear Brendan,

When it comes to Labour’s approach to the next general election, I disagree profoundly with you. However, let me be clear from the outset that in the next election I will vote Labour and then transfer to Fine Gael. I will do so for the reasons that you outlined in your Irish Times article.* It is very important not to risk what has been achieved. So, how then do I disagree with you? I disagree on a more fundamental level. I disagree with your political outlook – your view of Labour’s purpose in entering coalition. In brief and I don’t mean to offend, I find you unnecessarily liberal and insufficiently socialist.

You see three main reasons for Labour being part of a new government: i) that proportional to its strength in the next Dáil, Labour will push FG in a leftward direction mostly to do with tax relief and improving state services; ii) that Labour has a particular interest in increasing employment; and iii) that Labour will try to have the 8th amendment to the constitution rescinded.

With the possible exception of i) these three are not specifically socialist and could be championed by any half decent liberal party. Indeed if the tax relief is given to middle earners as “middle” is currently understood and if income relativities within state employment remain unchanged, none of the three is specifically socialist.

Before looking at the three in a little detail it would be right to say why liberal as opposed to left ambitions are just not enough. The first reason is that we’re talking about the Labour Party and if it doesn’t have explicitly left ambitions, it has very little purpose. It becomes a caring liberal party among a number of liberal parties all of whom exist to advance liberal ambitions. Secondly, if Labour doesn’t offer left ambitions to the electorate, left voters have no one for whom to vote. No leftist would be attracted to FF or FG and no decent person would vote SF.** There is a group of small left parties but they offer no more than protest. Indeed their function in Ireland is to act as a lightning conductor for unhappiness and dissent.***

Turning now to your reasons for entering government, when Labour talks in clichéd terms about tax relief for low and middle earners, it sounds like every other party in the country. This is because “middle” is not to be taken literally. In Ireland and indeed in Britain “middle income” includes the majority of the rich.**** I can say this because I regard the top 10% of earners as rich and their inclusion within “middle income” as a distortion of public discourse.

When Labour talks about expanding state services without expressing an intention to change pay structures within state employment, the party again sounds like every other party. Worse than that, it expresses an intention to maintain the practice of becoming rich – entering that top decile – through public service. It also shows disdain for those who object to rich public servants along with ludicrous pensions and for those who take seriously the notion that apart from a good standard of living, being a public servant is not primarily about maximising income.

It is hard to be critical of a Labour Party minister being enthusiastic about job creation. Indeed in present circumstances it might be hard to be critical of anyone being enthusiastic about job creation. That’s the point: everyone is in favour of job creation. Liberals are very much in favour of job creation; they call it trickle-down economics. You and every party member know that that creates inequality and that it would be quite simply evasive to say that redistribution and/or labour law must wait until near-enough full employment is reached.

Having opposed Labour’s involvement in liberal objectives, it might seem strange that I would support your ambition to rescind the 8th (“pro-life”) amendment to the constitution. Labour has, however, considerable history on this, being the one party right at the outset to refuse extreme Catholicism its demand to insert a ban on abortion into the constitution. Opposition to this and the sorry, cruel mess it created has been a feature of the Party’s recent history. That campaigning to delete the 8th amendment might attract liberal voters is a bonus but fundamentally it is the moral thing to do.

This amendment then should be the one point of contact between liberal Ireland and the Labour Party, a shared ambition.

What then of your two other ambitions? They are liberal and could be decent. The problem is that in themselves they support, if not promote, economic inequality, specifically inequality of income.

Labour could turn firmly left by stating a modest ambition to reduce inequality of income. This would also drive a left-right wedge into Irish political discourse and at the same time give voters who dislike the existing structure of inequality something for which to vote.

What then of coalition? Few journalists seem to realise that Labour cannot enter coalition without the approval of a full delegate conference. Regardless of what happens by way of voting pacts or suggestions, if the numbers after an election suggest a coalition which includes Labour, there will be negotiations to reach an agreed programme for government. In other words, journalists are failing to emphasise that Labour is precluded by its own rules from doing other than campaigning alone.

However, it is no longer credible to ask for voter support for a whole raft of policies and say that implementation will be proportional to whatever numerical strength the party achieves at election. Voters need to know in advance that if Labour enters coalition something particular will happen no matter how many or few Labour TDs are returned.

We are therefore talking about preconditions. They have to be few and focussed – and this is crucial: they have to be divisive.

The liberal one is already chosen: a government supported referendum to remove the 8th amendment from the constitution. Alone that’s neither sufficient nor leftist. The problem with the other ambitions, remember, was inequality. A second pre-condition should be a programmatic reduction – year on year over the lifetime of a government – of inequality of income.

There’s no reason to be side-tracked in controversy over measurement. Of course there is a number of measurements of inequality from which to choose but let’s not mess about; we all understand the basic objective.

The reduction demanded cannot be big or coalition could be refused by any liberal partner. Each year’s target for reduction will have to be modest. The point is to set Ireland on a radical new path to reduce inequality of income, to make the totality of government policy subject to this modest ambition, to place income inequality at the core of public discourse, to divide Irish society on the question of inequality and to give socialists and mild egalitarians something for which to vote.

Brendan, I’m not dismissive of this government’s achievement in restoring a liberal economy. I’m very aware of the threats to that progress. I’m not opposed to coalition; on the contrary I see it as the only route to leftward reforms. However, it’s time now to set out on that route: nothing revolutionary just a noticeable change in direction.

_______________________________________

* http://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/brendan-howlin-labour-and-fg-can-provide-state-with-vital-stability-1.2342504?fb_action_ids=10206995868311751&fb_action_types=og.recommends&fb_ref=.Ve1SQV6jS3M.like

** This might seem merely provocative. That is not the intention and I will argue it at length in a later blog.

*** Lightning conductor is an apt metaphor because these parties function along with media, activists and advocate groups to attract and conduct dissent harmlessly to ground, and maintain the structure of inequality.

**** https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2009/10/09/middle-income-and-a-distortion-of-public-debate/

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.

I use FB quite a lot. I behave there much like I do in the wider world. I use it to stay in touch with family, friends and acquaintances. I’m kept informed of events. I see and share interesting pictures. I really enjoy the spoofing and slagging of some very bright people. Significantly, I also participate in debates there. Now, if “debate” has any meaning, at least some of my FB fiends must have views quite different to mine.

Here’s an interesting proposition: As social media increasingly replace the open web for many people, those among them who value debate, who recognise their need to be confronted by contrary, challenging viewpoints, will have to choose at least some of their on-line friends very deliberately. Because a constant, unrelieved, cosy consensus is not what they want, they may have to seek out antagonistic friends. Perhaps I mean agonistic friends but let’s not quibble.

I’ve been a student of Political Communication for a long time now – since I was introduced to it by Brian Farrell (David’s dad) the best part of thirty years ago. I’d be embarrassed to say how long it took me to realise that I was studying Citizenship.

The conventional view is that there are two very basic approaches to being a citizen: the liberal approach and the republican approach. The liberal wants to choose privacy, to be left alone to enjoy life untroubled by debates, public controversy, politics generally, and wants to be informed only if decisions are to be made which might affect that private way of living. The republican by contrast wants to be involved in all matters affecting the direction of the republic. The two approaches of course are no more than models – extreme ends of a spectrum of participation. However, a citizen cannot avoid taking a decision on roughly what is to be their degree of participation and by implication what ought to be the practice of others.

By inclination I find myself well over towards the republican end. I try to be tolerant of those who want to avoid involvement or to keep it to a minimum and I try to encourage citizens – especially younger citizens – to be discursive, argumentative, involved. This tends to annoy those who would prefer a quieter life and it draws them into what they most want to avoid: a controversy and a basic one at that. They argue that no one wants to hear contrary information and argument, and that those who hold contrary views should keep them to themselves.

Now, in the period dominated by mass media – i.e. before the arrival of ICTs – this dispute centred on the concept of public service. One view was that the market should determine content. If consumers created a demand for news, controversy, opinions, challenges, then a supplier would meet that demand. If not, then there was simply no demand and to insist on supplying such material was authoritarian waste. The opposing view was that this content constituted a public good and in the event of a market failing to deliver, supply should be secured by regulation or by a state provider, e.g. a national public broadcaster.

Things have changed considerably as the web – especially social media and apps – has grown in significance.  Nowadays the web can be essentially liberal in that content is increasingly tailored to suit the individual. What the individual requires is determined by looking at real preferences expressed in purchases and on-line activity. With the help of algorithms a person on-line need never be troubled by the new, the contrary, the challenging. Indeed on FB a click will remove from Friends anyone likely to disagree, question or challenge in any way.[1]

While social media provide a communication environment which is the liberal citizen’s dream, they make life difficult for the republican citizen. Their design protects the user from the new, the challenging, and the serendipitous. It could be argued that while people increasingly leave older media and come to rely on social media, their attention will be drawn to a rich array of exciting material recommended by friends. However, that would happen only if at least some friends were not of a like mind. No, a citizen who chooses to rely on social media and who wants to participate in public controversy – i.e. who really does want to be a republican – will have to make an effort.

The republican citizen on FB will have to examine his/her list of friends, likes etc. specifically with a view to being challenged. He/she will be aware that while talking to like-minded people about agreeable or personal matters is important and pleasurable, it is not enough. The republican citizen needs Facebook friends and contacts with whom to have strong disagreements. There is just one way to address that need: seek out those with whom one disagrees or those who are likely to say or do something new and challenging and send them a friend request.

However, the republican on FB will run into a problem. The problem is that not all – perhaps very few – putative antagonistic friends will want debate. The republican will learn that liberal citizenship is probably the majority position. It may come as a surprise that dislike of challenge is not confined to conservatives. Many who take up seemingly progressive positions don’t like it either. The republican will have to cope with disappointments. The friend who puts forward interesting ideas but “unfriends” (or should it be “defriends”?) anyone who posts a counter argument regarded as threatening to his/her dogma or assumed status will have to be written off and replaced.

Decades after Herbert Marcuse spoke of the role of media in closing down the universe of discourse an almost perfect medium for tedious liberal communication has developed. Of course it doesn’t signal the end of discourse, politics, participation but it does mean that a republican will have to assume greater responsibility for creating his or her own debating chamber.


[1] I’ve restricted this discussion to social media but the use of apps takes the user a further step away from the riches of the open web.

Deciding for whom to vote in the Presidential election has been relatively easy for me. Candidates fill my list of preferences from the bottom up by failing a series of tests. My tests start with the elimination of apologists for murder, then move on to a demand that a candidate rise above the trivial, that a candidate be honest and have integrity, that a candidate be liberal on matters of sexuality etc. and that a candidate not be blind to policy outside of markets and liberal business orthodoxy. As the others fill up the bottom of the list, Michael D. Higgins remains to take my number one.

However, not everyone – probably not even a majority – would agree with my tests or the order of priority in which I put them.

Imagine that you are conservative on what might be called, personal morality, but you are liberal on business matters, that you demand honesty and integrity, that you despise the trivial in public discourse and that you are utterly opposed to political murder. Now, you come to vote in the presidential election and your views have to be prioritised because you can’t find a candidate with whom you identify. Here’s a probable hierarchy which you might erect: Test 1. A candidate must oppose political murder; Test 2. A candidate must be honest and have integrity; Test 3. A candidate must not trivialise politics; Test 4. A candidate must favour liberal markets; Test 5. A candidate must support “family” values. After tests 1, 2 and 3, just two or possibly three candidates remain. The two obvious survivors are Gay Mitchell and Michael D. Higgins. A possible third survivor is David Norris. * This is interesting because it suggests that you will vote for a Christian Democrat (Gay Mitchell) and express a preference for a socialist (Michael D. Higgins) over the others. Assuming that Gay Mitchell will be eliminated, you will have contributed to the election of a socialist!

Of course I accept that this is a presidential election and that routine tests of suitability do not appear above. I’ve assumed that all of the candidates know how to behave in public and either know or can learn the constitutional requirements.

* I find David Norris doubtful not because I question his honesty but because increasingly I fear that he is trivial. Now, it may be argued that we live in a post-ideological age and that he is a typical issues candidate. That’s not an argument that I want to address here. For now, consider me a dinosaur who still wants a clash of great ideas, contested notions of the good society etc., and I’m also a dinosaur who has grown weary of people claiming to be anti-establishment, while steering well clear of offering an overall perspective.

 

Journalists have become far too prone to cooperation in the development of  Orwellian Newspeak. An example is the use of “political class” in public discourse about Ireland’s economic crisis. Firstly, talk of a “political class” is an evasion of a responsibility to take sides. It is support for an old, old FF stance: “Sure, we’re all rogues and you may as well vote for us because we’re affable rogues.”  This is dangerous nonsense and SF etc. are clearly aware of its possibilities.

Secondly, to place blame exclusively on any group of politicians – even FF – is to suppress what really happened in Ireland and make the necessary degree of reform less likely. A very real danger is that far too few people will fall in the process of change. Look at it this way: What if most of the prominent FF TDs lose their seats and a banker or two goes to jail, and the Irish rest happy that sacrifice had been offered? Well, then the army of fools and rogues who created and contributed to this mess could hold on to their positions and inflict their stupidity on Ireland in the future. I am not saying this as a socialist advancing an alternative. I am saying that as liberal/capitalist policy goes the FF creation of a construction bubble was foolishness on a hitherto unimaginable scale, BUT they were far from alone in its creation.

Ireland is suffering the consequences of a global problem but is also suffering the consequences of a carefully considered, willfully created boom based on building. The problems have been plain for years. Anyone with an eye in their head could see the rash of houses in under-populated areas, the crazy number of furniture stores along major roads, the glut of hotels and the competition to buy “development” sites at virtually any price. Only a complete fool could have failed to see that this was unsustainable madness. Now, over those years it was possible for people with different degrees of public profile, power, influence etc. to speak out. (No, to scream out and repeatedly!) Why would those in such positions stay quiet? Well, if they didn’t see the problem, they’re too stupid for any position of responsibility; and if they did see it and remained silent – say, for a quiet life or career reasons – they lack the integrity necessary for any position of responsibility.

There should be a clear out well beyond the fall of a few FF politicians and the sacrificial jailing of a banker or two. I’m not talking about ordinary people who behaved foolishly and invested their savings in property and other scams, or bought houses at prices they could ill-afford. I’m talking about those who are PAID TO THINK. Let’s take the management of banks for example. It’s not unreasonable to demand that banks be run by people of moderate intelligence and integrity. We certainly should not tolerate anyone – from branch manager and upwards – who did not speak out. “Sensible people in the banking and finance industry must have felt intimidated by the tide of nonsense in support of the clearly unsustainable; they must have had to weigh good conduct against career prospects.” Oh, here’s the complete blog entry (it’s short, I promise): https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2009/12/31/appointments-in-irish-banking-and-finance/

Let’s take journalists and broadcasters as another example. I recall the constant urging of young people towards ruin (to “get on the property ladder” as soon as possible) and the urging of ordinary people to try to acquire a property “portfolio” because it was a “no-brainer”. No, I’m not referring to the property supplements.

Similarly, it’s not unreasonable to demand that other categories be people of moderate intelligence and integrity. Make a list starting with senior civil servants, teachers, commentators, senior managers . . .

It’s possible to salvage a test from this Irish-made fiasco. Prominent people were tested for ability and integrity. Those who failed should leave the stage and live quietly in modest comfort – and have the decency to remain silent.