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The Dáil cannot sack the Garda Commissioner. That’s the prerogative of the Government. Now, if we want to change that – i.e. to make it that a Commissioner’s job is at the pleasure of the Dáil – let’s discuss it and if it’s desirable, make the change.

Let’s not, however, mess about asking the Dáil to vote no confidence, calling on the Government to act, and pretend that this doesn’t usurp the power of Government.

Assuming that the backers of the Dáil motion are not fools, unable to appreciate the significance of their move, then their motive must be to put two institutions of the state at loggerheads. There is a pattern here of trying to damage the wider (small ‘c’) constitution. Remember that there was an attempt to legislate for abortion in case of fatal foetal abnormalities, knowing that the move would be unconstitutional. Moreover, on water charges the Dáil is moving towards instructing the Government to act illegally.

Anti-establishment is no longer a matter of opposing the entrenched position of the rich or the structure of inequality. It has more or less changed sides. It is now a matter of opposing the established way of doing things, the slow processes built up over many years on which reform and progress, depend. This anti-establishment is no place for a socialist. Indeed, socialists must resist the temptation to strike a faux-revolutionary pose and oppose the thoughtless barbarism of the new anti-establishment.

In the matter of the Dáil motion aimed at removing the Garda Commissioner the best outcome would be a decision that it is not a matter for the Dáil, second best would be a majority abstention, leaving the “anti-establishment” with a ridiculous victory, and third would be to defeat their motion.

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.

We were discussing the YouTube material posted by activists opposed to water charges. I opened my laptop to show some videos in support of a point that I was making. Having viewed a number of these videos, my companion said something which made me sit up and pay attention:

Karl Marx must have been out of his mind.”

What?”

He pointed at the screen, “Marx must have been out of his mind if he imagined that lot would change the world.”

What do you mean?”

Would you look at them and their antics, the working class. Either he was mad or taking the piss.”

It looked bad for Marx, the crude abuse, the chanting, the provocation, the ridiculous attempts to feign injury.

He wasn’t talking about them”, I heard myself say fractionally before I realised that in this company a cogent response would be expected rather than a glib and hazy denial.

Ok here goes. It’s about “teleology”, an interesting word and a fascinating concept in history and for politics. The Greek “telos” translates as “end” and in teleology we have the idea that human history is progressing towards some ideal or developed end. Thus a person – a king, a general or the likes – or a group taking action can be seen as doing history’s work, pushing society towards its purpose. The important figure in this way of thinking is Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) and Karl Marx was his student.

Now when Marx writes that all history of hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle, it follows that some class must be doing history’s work by being progressive and others not. In an industrial capitalist society he saw an historic role for the working class: to secure comfort in food, drink, shelter and clothing before moving on to pursue politics, science, art, religion, etc. (This is more Engels than Marx but never mind.)

It is more common today to talk in terms of belonging to a socio-economic grouping defined by reference to a person’s occupation or that of a parent/guardian. These are the categories (11 in all, according to the Irish Central Statistics Office) familiarly used by pollsters and denoted A to J inclusive plus Z.* Unfortunately for the plausibility of left argument the lettered labels are often abandoned and one or a group of these categories is described as working class. This leaves “working class” open for anyone to define not in terms of historic purpose but in terms of categories devised for statistical research.

Once “working class” has been detached from its Marxist significance, anything goes. Any group can be said to be working class and any demand expressed by members of that group can be regarded as progressive.

It becomes worse when aggression or an aggressive pose strikes a nostalgic chord, a reminder of abandoned revolutionary ambitions. The scene is now set for socialists to praise and support reactionaries who should be resisted, to ignore the views of citizens who proudly consider themselves working class by reference to their culture and values, and who are likely appalled by the demeanour of some activists seen as crude, foul-mouthed, overly aggressive, intolerant and inane.

So, no, Karl Marx wasn’t out of his mind. For him and for those of us privileged to have been reared working class it means a lot.

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*

A – Employers & Managers

B – Higher Professional

C – Lower Professional

D – Non Manual

E – Manual Skilled

F – Semi-skilled Manual Workers

G – Unskilled Manual Workers

H – Own Account Workers

I – Farmers

J – Agricultural workers

Z – All other gainfully occupied

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/

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.

It’s no wonder that market liberalism is almost unquestioned in Ireland. Liberals know how to use state power and institutions. Socialists in government need to watch them and see how it’s done.

Have a look at this: “The National Competitiveness Council was established by Government in 1997. It reports to the Taoiseach on key competitiveness issues facing the Irish economy and offers recommendations on policy actions required to enhance Ireland’s competitive position.” – http://www.competitiveness.ie/aboutus/

The establishment of a state council has institutionalised competitiveness as a permanent objective of government.There’s a lesson to be learned: The establishment of a state council is a way to institutionalise X as a permanent objective of government.

The Labour Party is now in Government lumbered with political argument from a state council for competitiveness. If the left is capable of learning how to use the state, this is what we need to see before this government leaves office:

“The National Council for the Reduction of Inequality of Income was established by Government in 2015. It reports to the Taoiseach on key issues causing economic inequality in the Irish economy and offers recommendations on policy actions required to reduce inequality of income in Ireland.”