Editorial: Introducing The Citizen

The Citizen: Issue 1
November/December 2008

The Citizen is the new periodical of the Ireland Institute. Based in the Pearse Centre in Dublin, the Ireland Institute has been promoting the values of democratic republicanism through its lecture programmes and publications for a number of years. The Citizen is intended to provide a forum for analysis and debate of the issues facing Irish society today, and it will enable the Institute to develop its ongoing critique of political, economic, and social arrangements in Ireland and the world. As well as critique and analysis, The Citizen will also try to look to the future and suggest ways forward towards a better society. Throughout all of this work, republican ideas about active citizenship and the common good, freedom, equality, and solidarity will inform the argument and discussion.

This is a moment when real analysis and critique are needed more than ever. In the Irish media and public discourse, there has been both an ongoing process of narrowing the depth and range of news coverage and analysis and an increasing alignment of ‘Ireland’ with the West and Western interests. This has been accompanied by a wide acceptance of the tenets of neo-liberal ideology: there is no alternative to capitalism, and free markets, competition, deregulation (of capital), and small government are the essential keys to prosperity and success.

It has to be conceded, unfortunately, that those who oppose these processes and this worldview have not provided the type of counterbalance that is needed. There are obvious obstacles to getting a hearing in the mainstream media, and the forces of opposition to neo-liberalism are not at a very high ebb, but there has also been a failure to meet the needs of the moment with strength and vigour.

Some have succumbed to pragmatism in order to appeal to the broadest possible base, arguing their case on narrow grounds that do not challenge the underlying assumptions of the neo-liberal project, (we saw some of this in the Lisbon debate).

Others have failed to provide the type of in depth analysis of these neo-liberal assumptions that is necessary if we are to begin to challenge them meaningfully (we see some of this in debates about university fees or bin charges, for example).

Some have even come to accept the assumptions of neo-liberalism and merely argue for a fairer neo-liberalism (the social partnership process in Ireland has illustrated aspects of this). At this moment, the most urgent task for all of us who oppose these trends is to develop our analysis and understanding to the greatest extent possible and to build as wide as possible an audience and support base for the alternatives that this analysis will offer.

The current debate about the return of fees for third level education provides a good example of both the poverty of discourse and the opportunities to expand and redirect it. Taking place largely within the parameters of neo-liberal assumptions, this debate has bordered on the farcical at times.

In a context where employers have openly insisted that low paid workers will not be assisted during the recession, where the exploitation of agency workers has been widely exposed, and where the link between inequality and health has been confirmed once again, commentators and politicians argue with straight faces about whether an annual income threshold of €120,000 is too low for determining liability for university fees.

This is not serious debate, but it is a good indicator of where the acceptance of the neo-liberal agenda has taken us. The defence of class interests trumps any idea of the common good in a way that is more naked and untempered than under other modes of capitalism. Thatcherite claims that there is no such thing as society are extreme even for capitalist ideologues.

There are a number of fundamental social questions contained within the issue of third-level fees. In the debate as hitherto constituted, neo-liberal assumptions prevail. Education is viewed as a private good: the individual gains in a private capacity from education, and any social benefits are incidental and entirely secondary to personal private advantage. Therefore, education can be treated as a commodity, to be bought and sold like other commodities.

Because it has long been recognised that market capitalism is unable to provide basic living conditions for all members of society, states intervene to provide some support for those at the bottom. If university fees are restored, some provisions will be made for those from lower income backgrounds. This will ensure, as a commentator in the Irish Times put it recently, that only lack of effort or lack of ability will prevent any individual from succeeding in education and in the jobs market. This is the neo-liberal view of the world.

But we know that this is not true. From education to health to housing to social welfare, we know that exemptions and subventions for the poorer members of society do nothing to either produce the much touted ‘level playing field’ or reduce the inequalities that are part of the neo-liberal world. If education was treated as a social good that produced goods for society as a whole, then we would have the beginnings of a new approach to organising society that would benefit us all collectively and individually. Society would pay for education as a social necessity and reap the rewards of our collective efforts.

In the current economic dispensation, society would fund this expenditure from a progressive taxation system that taxed the richer members more. Republicans would demand a greater redistribution of wealth in society – wealth that is socially produced, of course.

Recognising education as a social good and necessity would also provide an alternative to the increasing commercialisation of universities and schools. The neo-liberal worldview accepts that education should contribute to economic development but downplays its equally important roles in social, cultural, political, knowledge, and personal development. But, of course, to recognise the essential connection between these goals and outcomes would be to recognise the essentially social nature of human endeavour.

It is only ideology that says that rewards in society should be so unequal: after all, the street cleaner, the waterworks worker, and the sewerage staff contribute as much to improved health and well-being in society as any specialist consultant, chief executive or government minister in the health service.

It is only ideology that says that human effort can only be incentivised by individual private gain in a competitive arena: the fact that all economic activity is necessarily social and that any invention or innovation has no value other than when it is realised and consumed socially is ignored, while recognition that social gain does not preclude personal gain but, in fact, includes and augments it is refused.

The Citizen intends to look at issues such as this as part of a broad, ongoing analysis and critique of the world human beings have created for themselves. It will insist on recognising the essential interdependence of all citizens and the necessity to place the common good at the centre of social and economic organisation. The parameters of debate within the constraints of neo-liberal assumptions will be rejected, and we will look forward to a world where co-operation and solidarity replace competition and individualism as the basis for human beings living together, advancing together, and thriving together.

Copyright © The Citizen and the contributors, 2011