Skip navigation

Tag Archives: working class

It’s very easy to be glib about the approach of those Irish left politicians and parties who prefer street agitation to participation in government.

Despite their relatively small size, a great deal of attention focusses on the “real left”, “socialist left” or “hard left” parties who refuse to countenance any form of support for a government which includes “right wing parties”, never mind entering into coalition government. A journalist/interviewer asking them if they are involved merely in protest rather than wishing to govern is failing to grasp the significance of what is happening. On the one hand these leftists are stating their traditional opposition to liberal parliamentary democracy – a position based in long standing theory – but on the other hand they are stating their role within the system.

Supporting and fomenting popular protest without due regard to its political content – i.e. whether or not it is right or left wing – while discrediting and distancing themselves from parliament, makes revolutionary sense. While it is certain that socialist revolutionaries still exist, it is decades since I’ve met one. I’ve tried but in recent years my discussions with, let’s call them, militant socialists have failed to discover a revolutionary.

There are many who use the word “revolution” but their use is meaningless within ordinary political discourse. When questioned about their intentions, i.e. when asked explicitly if they want to overthrow or break the existing political system and replace it, their replies are pretty consistent. They tend to be shocked, suspicious or hurt and they deny any revolutionary intent. They are essentially playing with the word. They don’t mean a revolution in the conventional sense; they don’t want to create a crisis during which they will seize power and rule for the common good.

Neither do they want to join the socialist tradition which seeks reforms through parliament.

This approach is by no means thoughtless. On the contrary it is a developing strand of leftism with old and deep roots. Historically, left revolutionaries viewed the bourgeois state as irredeemable, to be smashed and replaced by popular, local, grass-roots institutions run by workers. The revolutionaries had no time for socialists who favoured a parliamentary route of winning elections in order to govern in the interests of the masses or gradually to create socialism by reform piled on reform. The former went their way and governed huge areas of the world but fell into a rapid decline in the late 20th century especially with the disintegration of the Soviet Union. The latter went on to become part of the establishment, supplying Labour and Socialist Party governments, especially in Western Europe.

Reducing parliament to an area of struggle alongside street protest makes little sense without revolutionary intent. However, for activists who have spent so long decrying slow reform by way of parliament as mere social democracy, the abandonment of revolution and integration with the Labour/European Socialist mainstream, would probably seem a humiliation or even some kind of betrayal. They have come to, however, a solution – a workable compromise and yes, I’m afraid, it’s yet another third way – which maintains the trappings and style of revolution while becoming integral to the cargo/pressure system of politics. That system is one which has long dismissed universal objectives or political values as a basis for policy and instead operates by way of competing groups (some interest and some geographic, a polyarchy) which exert pressure on the government/political class/establishment to achieve a higher priority in state spending or delivery of infrastructure against rival groups. Leftists who have little or no time for parliament and government have found a niche: they now compete to represent workers not as the working class making universal demands but as a group confronting the establishment in pursuit of favourable treatment.

Apart from single-issue independents, it is new and fresh in Ireland to take explicit pressure group campaigning into parliament and to be seen to be confronting government rather than participating – even as loyal opposition. Should this course be successful, imitation is inevitable.

It’s a paradox really: that without revolution, revolutionary socialists have established a role within the cargo/pressure political system, a system that has the support of the overwhelming majority of Irish citizens. Stated bluntly, they are now conservatives. The task of achieving reforms aimed specifically at changing the system and at altering the structure of inequality then falls to socialists who will demand such reforms as the price extracted for governing in coalition with supporters of the system. They will be decried in and out of parliament by those who prefer that political decisions and priorities be determined by the constant struggle of competing pressure groups and they will unfavourably be compared by establishment journalists to “principled” or “real” socialists – the “hard left” – who strike revolutionary poses while dependably supporting the cargo/pressure system, campaigning like all other parties for delivery to a locale or preferment for a group. Sadly, that group seeking preferment is what they are making of the working class.

Advertisements

Because it is in the constituency of a government minister the probable re-opening of Stepaside Garda station faces an outpouring of contrived disapproval. It is argued that reopening at Stepaside would be a disgraceful political stroke and no way to establish priorities in state provision. Gimme a break! In my local area (Lucan, Co. Dublin) another minister has been instrumental – or so she claims – in “delivering” a different “cargo”, a swimming pool. She has been praised for her efforts and her rivals are envious. A local on-line magazine sees delivery of cargo for the “local community” as the sole criterion when evaluating elected politicians. Moreover, politicians are regarded as an undifferentiated group, political values or ideology simply don’t feature. Leaflets from potential candidates and elected representatives almost without exception talk about getting stuff and supporting campaigns to get stuff; an over-used slogan is, “Delivering for the people of Lucan”. All of these deliverers are fighting an “establishment” which it is feared is delivering elsewhere.*

In short, Minister Shane Ross, is doing precisely what the overwhelming majority of the citizens see as his job. He is operating the Irish political system of cargo/pressure. If Stepaside Garda Station reopens, his rivals will be hopping mad, his reputation for delivery will be secured and his chances of re-election considerably enhanced. Now, Stepaside is a relatively prosperous area and very likely has a relatively educated electorate. We’re not therefore talking about poor people who will “sell” their vote for some personal or local advantage. They are just like the people in Lucan and other places who either think there is no other way of prioritising or who have thought about politics and see the Irish system as prefereable.

There is, however, some sense of shame. Otherwise the audience for ritual condemnation of “stroke politics” would be tiny but there is no substantial, real opposition. Ireland has a functioning, conservative system, supported by the overwhelming majority and one which no political party opposes.

It gets worse.

Ireland has regulated political lobbying and lobbyists. The idea was to take this shady activity and make it transparent. The lobbyists and their companies are of course pleased; they’ve been institutionalised (No, they’ve been quasi-constitutionalised.) made respectable and given professional status. They can say honestly that they are essential to the political system. In truth the reason a dodgy, undemocratic process of influence was not banned is that it’s integral to the accepted political system.

It gets worse still.

Many of those who would wield influence beyond that of a citizen consider themselves advocates and reject the idea that they are lobbyists. They argue that because their employers are not big business but charities, non-government agencies etc. and because their demands are praiseworthy, they are altogether different. Their demands are indeed different but in terms of wielding influence greater than that of a citizen, they are the same. Moreover, they are salaried professionals using their skill to operate within the system.

Then there’s the staff at independent stautory bodies. The Competition and Consumer Protection Commission (CCPC) is charged among other things with advocating in favour of competition; it even has a Director of Advocacy.**

Do you think it couldn’t get worse?

At this point it becomes very, very serious because the cargo/pressure system has absorbed activists and they are not only happy about it, they also continue to believe they are anti-establishment. There might have been a time when a citizen motivated by political values or by an alternative view of what constitutes the good society, would join roughly like-minded people in a political party. The idea being to effect change by the parliamentary route. Today such a citizen would be decried as “establishment” and would likely face opposition to assuming the label, “activist”.

Political parties per se are now often rejected. That rejection reduces the liklihood that the orthodox will be challenged by a coherent view of a different good society. We now experience a tyranny of issues and if your issue is not recognised or if you want to talk about matters larger than issues, there is little chance that you’ll gain a place within public discourse.

The label political activist today is generally accepted without question. People become political activists. Some are full time. Others mention it in their portmanteau of occupations which helps express an identity. It is assumed that they favour social justice and that they are anti-establishment.

The political activist of today selects issues, becomes part of a campaigning group or joins a political party which is resolutely not an establishment party, a party of government. The objective is to force the establishment to concede on an issue which generally speaking and after a familiar struggle it does but always without damaging the system. Following a concession or “victory over the establishment”, activists refocus and attention turns to another issue. It is a stable, conservative system and processing or resolving isolated issues constitutes orderly management.

I’ve argued in an earlier blog that the Irish system prefigured or was at least well prepared for the arrival of

what some commentators see as a new form of democracy, a democracy changed so as to accommodate a near universal disdain for politics with citizens and politicians sharing what Peter Mair has called an ‘anti-political sentiment’.*** The term refers to the abandonment of any kind of universal objective and the decline of traditional forms of parties which represented such objectives. This is nothing less than the replacement of the demos with shifting civil society groups and alliances, together with “rational” or “practical” approaches to policy – doing whatever works without recourse to divisive debate about values or long-term objectives.

Apart from occasional outbursts of mock outrage over stroke politics this all works very well and has widespread support. Conservatives see little change. Members of the government can campaign for cargo to be delivered to their constuency and their re-election may depend on it. The influence of the rich and powerful is now codified, transparent and quasi-constitutional. Charity can lobby for a bit more. Media can accommodate and aid the campaigning of the causes they favour. All can make demands without being asked at whose expense they should be satisfied. With almost everyone keen to be seen as anti-establishment, real dissent is rare and unlikely to be effective. On the left revolution has been abandoned and the working class reduced to a campaigning pressure group.

I wrote some time ago, “In Ireland all of the political parties represented in parliament support the political system in which priorities are set, decisions are made, infrastructure is positioned by way of campaigns which put pressure on the government/political class. They may differ on campaign issues and interest groups favoured but there is no opposition to the basic system.”I’ve argued the need for at least one opposition party, prefereably a leftist party and I’ve suggested that Labour has the credentials and the motivation to risk taking this course.ᶲᶲ  The risk is very real because the number of republican/participative citizens who oppose the established cargo/pressure system is unknown.

________________________________________________

* A Cargo Cult is a group which believes that if proper ceremonies are performed shipments of riches will be sent from heaven.


** https://www.ccpc.ie/consumers/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2017/10/Org-chart-Oct-2017.pdf

*** https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2016/03/01/ireland-is-a-leader-in-mairs-anti-political-sentiment/

https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2017/06/21/its-odd-in-ireland-all-the-parties-like-grass-roots-campaigns-and-no-one-is-in-opposition/

https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2016/06/12/time-for-labour-to-think-before-taking-the-familiar-path/

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.

 

________________________________________________

* 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.

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.

________________________________________

*

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

I was listening to an interview on RTE Radio 1 this morning with the Ceann Commhairle of the Dáil. He mentioned that he received many complaints from citizens about the boorish behaviour of some TDs. He worried about the impression that this behaviour gave to thoughtful citizens. He also said that he had taken aside some of the TDs who indulged in shouting and abuse, and told them that in terms of gathering support, what they were doing was counterproductive that people were not impresssed and were critical. He is wrong.

There are citizens who reject talk, debate, reasoned argument. Indeed they despise politics. They don’t want to change society. They want someone to stand up for them, to shout for them, to put the boot into all that they despise.

It is true that most of these people – though not all – are poor. It is also true that they are not working class but that’s an argument for another day. The point is that there is an appreciative audience for abuse and there are politicians who aspire to lead cynicism and opposition to discursive politics.