The Citizen: Issue 2
Author: Ann Kelly
As Gordon Brown, the man who claimed only a short while ago that his economic policies had overcome the inherent tendency of capitalism to slump and boom, faces the inglorious end of his political career, the economic crash has failed to dent his indomitable ego. Not just Brown and Brian Lenihan, but many contemporary economists predicted a similar outcome. The ‘social market economy’ had transcended both ‘state socialism’ and rampant neo-liberalism. In fact, what both the social market economy and neo-liberalism have in common is the supremacy of the market, the supremacy of capital over labour – that capital has greater rights than labour. The persistent denial of the inherent instability of capitalism has proven once again to be an illusion. That those who peddled this absurdity should be regarded as having the competence to continue as political leaders or university professors is astounding. Like Alice on her journey through the looking glass, we are expected to believe six impossible things before breakfast. There is a difference, of course – our Humpty Dumpties are still sitting on the wall.
Over the last six months, since the economic crisis hit hard, particularly over the course of the European Parliament and local elections, it has become clear that the Irish establishment has not managed to find agreement as to the possible solutions and a way forward out of the crisis. They are still arguing over the extent of support for the National Assets Management Agency and over further investment in and greater control over the six banks and financial institutions that have required the government guarantee scheme and perhaps, as a final resort, nationalisation.
Part of this is pure electioneering, with the main opposition parties exploiting the manifest incompetence of the government, although there is no evidence that they are capable of managing any better. Before the crisis hit, they were peddling the same rosy view of the everlasting crisis-free economy, as their election manifestoes for the last Dáil elections demonstrate.
The terms and structure of the debate in both the Dáil and the national media show the narrowness of the parameters within which the discussion is taking place. The discussion remains dominated by the usual hired guns: economists employed as spokespersons for banks and stockbrokers, the financial journalists who peddled the economic orthodoxy for the last decade, and university professors who have been teaching the same drivel. How can any one look critically at their record and still regard them as objective or impartial?
Refusing to confront the fundamental causes of the crisis, they present it as the result of the rogue activity of a few wayward bankers and speculators. No serious effort has been made to discuss or explain the real nature of the crisis. Anyone who would hazard an informed opinion on this topic is, to say the least, severely discouraged as that would challenge the very system itself. Discussion of how to find a way out of the crisis while being afraid to address its fundamental nature has an unavoidable air of unreality about it.
The hired guns have been attempting to shape public opinion into believing that the policies currently being developed are the ones necessary to get us back on track and on the road to recovery. The aim of these policies is to cushion the blow for banks and big business, and only afterwards consider the public welfare. ‘We must first of all save the banking system,’ they say.
But, clearly what has been established is who will pick up the tab for the chaos that the Irish economy is currently collapsing into. The Irish establishment may not have found a common approach to move forward, but one thing they all agree on is that working people will have to pay the price and those who currently have economic and, thereby, political power will remain on top if and when the crisis eases.
There is a consistent attack on worker’s pay, pensions, and working conditions, not only by companies in financial difficulties, but also as part of a concerted class offensive. Public service workers are told that because workers in the private sector are suffering, they must also take a pay cut or even lose their jobs. They call it ‘sharing the pain.’ A kite being flown is that the minimum wage is too high and that unemployment benefits must be cut to force workers to accept lower wages. Now that the local and European elections are over, expect to hear more of this.
What is taking place is a class offensive on an ideological level, which effectively goes unrecognised and unresisted. The strategy of the ICTU has been exposed as never before as hopelessly lost and confused. Trade union officials can be seen scrambling around outside the Department of the Taoiseach, like errant school children outside the principal’s office waiting for whatever punishment will be doled out, because within their hearts they have swallowed all the guff that Irish workers have priced themselves out of the jobs market and that the unions must take responsibility for that.
On 24 March 2009, the Irish Times lectured in its editorial that ‘organising a one-day strike at a time of such unprecedented crisis is national sabotage. The sooner the ICTU calls off such destructive action, the better.’ All the media carried the same message: don’t sabotage or destroy; be patriotic and accept that you have to share the pain. All the political parties in the Dáil joined the chorus. Once again Labour was told to wait – and it duly obliged.
This overwhelming consensus is reflected across the board, embracing all the establishment parties in the Dáil and the broadcast media, from the state-controlled RTÉ to privately controlled radio and television stations. A similar ideological approach is seen in the national print media, from the Independent News and Media Group to the paper of ‘record,’ the Irish Times. The consensus is that we are all to blame and we should all be made to carry the burden and pay for the crisis.
Public sector workers are subject to constant attack; while private sector workers, themselves under sustained attack from their employers, are invited to look resentfully at the presumed better conditions of the public service. The Fine Gael party, in particular, treats the public service as a burden on the state rather than a service to the community. Radio talk shows demonstrate the success of this tactic in dividing workers.
It is true that public service workers are better organised in trade unions and have in some cases secured better wages and conditions, though at the height of the boom this was not generally the case. The much abused benchmarking, for example, was at the time a catching-up with the private sector. With a failing economy, private sector pay and conditions were indeed harder to defend, partly because of the relative weakness of trade union organisation there. This, in turn, is a consequence of the ‘social partnership’ strategy. So, what, in fact, is being peddled is that in order to roll back the advance of all workers, workers in the public sector have to lose (the wages and conditions of all workers are undermined in the process).
It is at times of crisis that we sometimes get a glimpse of the true role of the establishment media and the means by which the ruling class maintains its ideological dominance, manipulating the consciousness of the mass of people in order to corral and shape their thinking. Once again, we can observe the Irish Times showing its hand when in an editorial piece it advocated taking full advantage of the current crisis to attack the public sector. It stated, ‘Serious reform of the public sector, too long shirked by all the political parties, was never more necessary. An economy in crisis presents a political opportunity to achieve reform.’ (Irish Times, 26 May 2009)
The Irish Times would have the Irish people believe that if they take massive pay cuts, accept the filleting of their health services, accept overcrowded schools as an acceptable place for learning, and agree that the reintroduction of fees for third level education is about everyone sharing the pain equally, then they will somehow contribute to the solution of the economic crisis. The truth is that this has always been their objective and they wish to use the crisis to achieve it.
The pain and anguish of the bankers and the property speculators who loaned or borrowed billions and who now need the taxpayer to come to their rescue and bail them out is the result, the media would have us believe, of the actions of a few ‘rogue banks.’ They present the case that the economic interest of a small class is, in fact, the national interest – that their interests and the national interest are one and the same, that anything that would jeopardise the interest of this powerful minority is not for the common good.
How do we explain and understand why working people and small businesses have been convinced that we should to bail out the banks and speculators and that their children and grandchildren should pay the bill.
While Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael articulate the views of small and medium business owners, they implement in practice the interests of big business, bankers, and transnational capital. This subservience has been amply demonstrated in the way the government’s economic policy (especially the last budget and even more so the next) is supervised by the European Union; specifically by the European Central Bank, the EU Commission, and the German government. As Brian Lenihan put it, they expressed support for his policies.
ISME (Irish Small and Medium Sized Enterprises) is noted for the most reactionary anti-working-class views it expresses, calling for a reduction in the minimum wage and unemployment benefit, for example. But, small and medium enterprises are also exploited by big businesses such as Tesco and by the banks.
As Connolly put is so well over ninety years ago, ‘governments in capitalist society are but committees of the rich to manage the affairs of the capitalist class.’ In fact, they have no ‘national interests’ other than to maintain the status quo.
The political agenda is shaped by the economic difficulties of this small powerful class, which is, in fact, to blame for the crisis. We are expected to empathise with them, show solidarity with them, and take their heavy load and carry if for them for the next twenty or thirty years. How do they manage to shape people’s consciousness and get the majority of working people to buy into this nonsense?
The dominant ideology is still powerful, well organised, and effective. What has been happening day in and day out is very intense class struggle with little opposition or counterstruggle. In fact, this form of class struggle goes unrecognised. The traditional view and presentation of class struggle by some on the left is one of workers heroically struggling on the picket line against uncaring bosses; flashbacks to the Dublin of the 1913 Lockout; or, more recently, the British coal miners in the life-and-death struggle to save their industry and their communities. They glory in the struggles of the past, but pursue policies of class collaboration in the present.
Modern capitalist society has created very effective and targeted means to ensure ideological conformity. In Ireland, the government has established a whole range of bodies and organisations to create the impression that we have a ‘national dialogue’ and ‘consensus’ on major economic and social questions. Bodies like the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) are clearly taken by organisations such as the ICTU as being non-aligned and objective, above the clear class division within society, as if their conclusions were ‘value free.’
Despite the many reports published, it would be very hard to find one that actually called into question the very nature of society or the fact that the current crisis is not unique but inherently characteristic of capitalism itself. Capitalism has always oscillated between slumps and booms – in recent years the boom was maintained by blowing up the credit bubble a bit more every time there was a problem: everyone can now see that this made the crash a lot worse when it came. The establishment pundits never address the central question at the heart of capitalism, that it is a system based upon the exploitation of one human being by another and that greed is presented as an abiding virtue.
As the recent elections have shown, the majority of the people continue to accept the establishment consensus, although the success for socialist and left-independent candidates shows some disaffection with the political system itself, perhaps a beginning of a deeper change in people’s consciousness. There may be a deepening economic crisis, but, as of yet, there is no political crisis as people switch from Fianna Fáil to Fine Gael or Labour, all of whom present policies that in reality have little difference between them. There is no evidence that a Fine Gael-Labour government would behave any differently – the budget would still be written under European supervision and serve the same class interests.
If we are to challenge the political status quo, we must question the ideology of the system. One consequence of the dominant role of the mass media in shaping our consciousness and our understanding of the world is the weakening of collective discussion and the sense of involvement in organisation that trade unions once provided, before the days of social partnership. We miss the organisational skill and ideas that union activists brought into their communities. Social consciousness has been weakened by the individualism promoted by the media.
The people who own and control the press and television have become more ruthless and mendacious than ever before; likewise, the ideological and political influence of business interests in our universities and other educational centres is more explicit – witness the direct sponsorship by such as Smurfit and O’Reilly. The investigating journalist and the scientific researcher have always been under pressure to conform and not rock the boat; today, the pressure is much greater.
All the resources of the mass media, the establishment academics, and the politicians are being mobilised to force through the Lisbon Treaty in the second referendum, against the interests of the Irish people and the interests of the working class of Europe.
The establishments across the European Union are continuing to push ahead with the ratification of this treaty (which will enshrine into law the discredited economic and social policies that have contributed greatly to the current crisis) and the militarisation that goes with it, making the struggle for a just society in Ireland and Europe even more difficult.
On the other hand, the rejection of the Lisbon Treaty in the first referendum showed that their control is not absolute, and a second rejection would stop this process in its tracks and give the peoples of Europe an opportunity to re-assess the direction in which the European Union is developing. The EU makes acceptance and implementation of neo-liberal economic policies a condition of membership, the very policies that have led to the current economic crisis. It promotes the ideology and the interests of the small class that reaps the benefits of the huge inequalities and unfairness in our societies. Defeating Lisbon a second time would be an important staging post in this ongoing class struggle.
Ann Kelly is a member of the Communist Party of Ireland