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Years ago when my friend, Eamon Tuffy, was the Labour Party candidate in Dublin West, something odd occurred at an election committee meeting and quite often it comes back to me. The constituency included Inchicore, the working class area in which I was reared; so my activism was personal as well as political. You see, Eamon has a Masters degree and some at the meeting felt that this should be kept secret, that it should not appear on posters and leaflets for fear it would alienate working class voters. When it sank in that they weren’t joking, I thought briefly that they were out of their minds. It took time to realise that their understanding of “working class” was different to mine. It is that difference that hinders socialist argument today.

Let’s talk briefly about my Dad, indeed about my extended working class family and all the similar families in the area. Those people all left school early and they all knew that to be a deprivation. They were all nevertheless educated, sophisticated, ambitious, thoroughly decent people, who held typical working class values. The idea that the likes of my Dad would be alienated by a candidate’s university education was not just preposterous but a gross, patronising slur on the working class.

Now, during the 70s and 80s it became clear that industry work and jobs had become so complicated that identifying the working class was no longer easy. Marxists could see that they had a problem and they had to address the composition of working class. Technology had dictated a virtual revolution in skills, professions and management. While manual work had decreased spectacularly, trade union membership had reached into areas – the professions, management, the very well paid – not previously regarded as workers. If the working class was to remain the engine of progress, its membership had to be recalculated or they would be too few to have much effect. It became customary to apply a range of material criteria like house ownership or education and recalculate. Depending on the criteria used, the outcome was depressing or encouraging in terms of the numerical strength of the working class.*

More or less contemporaneously the polling industry was growing, becoming more sophisticated and concerned with class. Media, marketeers and psephologists were anxious to know the views and habits of citizens categorised by income, education and employment. Eventually the pollsters labelled their categories uncontentiously as ABC1 etc. but in day to day conversation and in media their categories were discussed as indicative of class.

Class for Marxists and non-Marxists alike was now utterly materialist. If it had political implications, they were “objective” – divorced from messy considerations of values. I’ve written elsewhere on why Marx viewed the working class as progressive ** and I won’t go into it here. I should add too that I’ve not gone somewhere vaguely “spiritual”; values are materially determined. There is therefore no compelling reason to exclude them when identifying class, progressive groupings or progressive politics.

Some socialists today try to identify with, mollify and patronise citizens and groups whose expressed views are clearly right wing and sometimes shameful because they see such people and groups as working class.*** It is a mistake commonly made by socialists who do not originate in the working class. It is, moreover, an easy and attractive mistake. It is the way of popular media. 

The confusion is easy to explain. The greater number of citizens now self-identify as middle class partly out of simple snobbery but also to distinguish themselves not from the poor or from workers but from those they see as crude, abusive and overly aggressive. Unfortunately, in common usage and in conventional media this latter group has come by default to be mislabelled, working class. A badge of honour has been twisted and expropriated. The upper-class socialist finds aggression seductive. It is redolent of revolution with a willingness to take to the streets in opposition to the establishment. The price paid, however, is support for right wing positions that now characterise anti-establishment, alienation of those who hold traditional working class values and the abandonment of plausible socialist argument. 

In itself it is not a great problem for socialism generally that a few small parties – often dismissed as sects – sometimes led by upper class converts, create a bizarre right-wing parody of socialism. It becomes a problem when they are presented as perhaps misguided, foolish and incoherent but nevertheless representative of true socialism or leftism and their leaders as principled. Socialism then is portrayed as a thing of street politics, chanted abuse and implausible argument. It appears both alien and silly to citizens who are most open to coherent political argument – and that includes the sort of thoughtful, sophisticated, decent people who reared and made me: the working class.

 

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* The old maximizing approach of counting all who are paid a wage remains popular today: “In these days of identity politics and what you might call ‘the selfie-fication’ of political thought, Marxism remains refreshingly bracing in its view of the world. Distilled to its essence, whatever you think you are, if you aren’t an owner of the means of production or part of the mercantile bourgeoisie, you’re probably a proletarian. Wayne Rooney is a wage slave – albeit a very nicely off one – whereas George Osborne isn’t. Wayne can grow as rich as Croesus but he will never step across the threshold of the boardroom or the Bullingdon Club. Granted, this level of analysis won’t get you a first in PPE but it still strikes me as pretty sound.” – Stuart Maconie, http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/uk/2017/07/i-m-marxist-we-are-misunderstood-both-left-and-right

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

*** It is what has become of the once progressive term, anti-establishment, which now refers to a liberal, right wing, individualism, implacably opposed to state controls, taxation, trade unions, the educated, politics etc.

While there are no details as yet as to the motivations of the murderers of the English soldier at Woolwich, the web is already alive with opponents and defenders of Islam. More significantly for those of us who value public discourse, many thoughtful and tolerant people are taking the position that Islam – and by extension all religion – is not a problem. Paradoxically it is this kind of blanket tolerance that can lead to trouble.

For as long as religion is “respected” in public discourse, particular religions will be attacked because of the actions and statements of their most extreme adherents.

When we discuss values and matters concerning values, religion has to be ignored and certainly cannot be allowed become a trump card. For example, debates about abortion cannot be side-tracked by stuff about respect for catholic beliefs and nastiness to gays cannot be permitted because the speaker believes in Islam. When a society takes seriously claims that something should be or not be because God or a prophet said so, it encourages belief as opposed to argument. Every single cruel, divisive and – yes! – inegalitarian belief should be hauled out from under religious cloaks and tackled.

When that has been established, we can say with some confidence that an act of barbarity had nothing to do with religion.

In Ireland no one minds very much whether one believes in God or the form one’s God takes. Everyone has spent time trying to find a transcendent anchor for being and meaning. While it is certainly true that many – perhaps most – people find it difficult to argue that universal human values can exist without God, they are more than uncomfortable with the notion that different gods and different groups of religious adherents seem far too frequently to permit or encourage unkindness, cruelty or brutality. Some people avoid confrontation by taking refuge in “culture”; anything is permitted as long as it is sufficiently foreign. Leaving aside the question of abandoning suffering millions to their culture, Ireland’s relatively recent move to a multicultural society has brought the issue close to home. However, the problem lurks too in the folds of the controversy over faith schools.

The problem with religion is not God. It’s revelation. Finding God or feeling it necessary to crucify one’s reason does not lead to cruelty. That path starts at the feet of those who claim to be messengers; that God has told them what people must do, that God has inspired them or that they are particularly capable of interpreting the mind of God. Here is authoritarianism, the erection and maintenance of rules which are not subject to continuous argument – in short, savage certainty.

There are two debates:  i) the existence and nature of God; and ii) the creation of political values and rules to support those values. The two debates can of course be linked but not when the purpose is to avoid argument or to claim that noxious doctrines should be taught to school children.

In Ireland, as the Catholic Church declines, there are many who argue that it is essential to maintain schools with a “Catholic ethos”. Behind the Catholic stance are smaller but growing religions – like Islam – which are happy with their power to run a school according to a particular “ethos”. However, what is meant by “ethos” is not exactly public.

As long as great care is taken to avoid frightening them, there is little to be said against teaching children about, say, God, saints and sacraments. Moreover, religious schooling often features preparation for popular family events like first communion. Debate, therefore, about school ownership and management structures tends to emphasise the harmless and the happy. The contentious power to teach values is seldom mentioned and a thorough exploration of what might be taught is avoided. Most opponents of religious schooling either fall for this or are just as myopic; they charge off into today’s variant of the age-old debate over the existence of God.

The problem with faith schools is not management structures or ownership. The problem is not even God. The problem is the teaching of values. A post from “Anne Marie” in an Irish Times on-line discussion is typical of the confusion. (The discussion followed on from the article by Breda O’Brien, “Time for parents to ask the primary question” in The Irish Times of Saturday, August 7, 2010.) “Anne Marie” – making no distinction between religion and ethics – wrote approvingly of a school in Brussels: the choices available are “Catholic, Protestant, Jewish or Islamic religion or non-religious ethics”. So far, so tolerant but when someone wants to teach a child, say, that God sees different roles for men and women or that homosexual behaviour is wrong, it must be PREVENTED in schools. This is not denial of freedom. Everyone is encouraged to argue among adult citizens but children must be protected. It is crazy to allow any doctrine – no matter how nasty – to be taught to children as long as it can be claimed to be religion.

Now, most values taught in religious schools are either positive and progressive or at worst do no harm but some are daft and/or cruel, and – no matter what their parents want – little Irish citizens should be protected while at school from malicious nonsense about, say, equality, family, homosexuality etc. Anyone using the term “ethos’ should be required to say what it means in practice and if it includes cruel doctrines which decent people hope have been consigned to history, then it must be made clear that freedom means arguing with adults.

The Irish government wants to reduce the public pay bill by 10%, about 20Bn. Discussion about how this might be done has been limited to familiar themes. The only nod to decency has been mention of leaving the salaries of poor public workers untouched but even this has been challenged as “unfair” to poor people employed by private companies. In these strange economic times why not indulge in the luxury of radical thought?

 

If we open discussion to hitherto unthinkable possibilities, it might lead us to reconsider our values. There may be a progressive but challenging way to reduce the public pay bill. Let’s consider putting a ceiling on the income of rich public employees. This course has advantages beyond reducing the total pay bill. It makes a statement about and begins to address excessive inequality in Ireland but it will make no one poor. Moreover, the conventional argument for outlandish pay, that high earners will defect to jobs in the private sector, no longer applies. Let’s calculate. How much would be saved if no public worker received in excess of, say, E200k per annum? Perhaps the number of workers that well paid is too small to make a significant saving. Let’s then calculate for 150 and 100. Going any lower might begin to push into the terrain of radical egalitarianism but 100k is more than twice the average industrial wage and five times the minimum wage.