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Whingers, whinging and the Irish Times. Or there is no alternative… but wait, there is no solution either. January 6, 2009

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Irish Politics.

The Saturday editorial in the Irish Times provided food for thought. Considerable food for thought. Enough to get conceptually stuffed. Because, under the heading: No time for whingers one could read that…

WHAT A difference a year can make. None but the most pessimistic jeremiahs could have foreseen the speed and depth of the financial crisis which has engulfed the world. The excesses of free markets, lax regulation and a smattering [sic] of fraud are blamed but it may take a lot longer to say definitively what has happened: after all, the precise causes of the Great Depression are still a matter for academic debate some 80 years later.

Meanwhile, we have to live with the consequences. We have gone from the Celtic Tiger to an era of financial fear with the suddenness of a Titanic-style shipwreck, thrown from comfort, even luxury, into a cold sea of uncertainty. Many people have already lost jobs and all or part of their incomes and it appears that many more will do so over the coming year. Many others have also seen their wealth, however large or small, held directly or through pension funds, decimated by share-price collapses and the property crash…

Anyhow it notes that:

The world has changed – is changing – again. The era of liberal economic policies which began in the early 1980s in the US and Britain is at an end. It took a decade or so to reach Ireland and, allied to our decision to embrace the euro, led to another decade of unprecedented economic growth. The Celtic Tiger was of considerable benefit to the vast majority of people, increasing their wealth and their options and choices. It brought the country the enormous social, cultural, and economic benefits of a growing population. It put an end to the debilitating and depressing effects of the steady loss to emigration in previous decades of a large section of practically every new generation of young people.

Remarkable stuff. So our boom was simply down to ‘liberal economic policies’. Nothing there then about a reasonably highly educated and skilled English speaking workforce positioned on the edge of the continental economic hegemon and deftly tilting between Boston and Berlin as and when it suited. But put that aside for a moment.

Ah… let me get this straight… although great – from the perspective of the IT – clearly it was problematic. How problematic?

It did not, of course, solve all our ills and it certainly had its excesses and sillinesses. But it did not cause us to lose our “soul” nor introduce greed to us: greed has been endemic in Irish life for a very long time, sometimes wrapped in the cloak of politics, whether it was the land hunger of past generations in the green flag of nationalism or, occasionally, the selfishness of workers in powerful positions in the red flag of syndicalism. The common epithet that “we blew the boom” is largely meaningless other than as an indication that the speaker disapproved of the way things developed.

Hmmm… so greed can be typified by two examples, either ‘green flag nationalism’ or ‘red flag syndicalism’. As the cynical laughter of those of us who actually know what the word syndicalism means and how inapposite its application (even with the word ‘occasionally’) in the above paragraph and to the Irish labour movement (small ‘l’) subsides perhaps we can consider how there is no mention of the systemic greed evident quite beyond green flag ‘nationalism’, that of our financial sector, or a commercial sector that is being comprehensively shown up for what it is by new entrants to the market and so on and so forth. But since these latter two are far from the IT editorial hit list no mention of them. None at all.

The boom has left us with many advantages, including a level of wealth which, in spite of the recent depredations of the markets, is still greater than at any previous time in our history. The truly important thing now is not to sink into the fatalism – and even satisfaction – that lies behind much of the public, including media, reactions that ricochet from recession chic to apocalyptic doom. The end of the world is not nigh: neither, to the disappointment of some, is the end of capitalism. The main danger is that we slip into the ways and mistakes of the past which left Ireland a country of old people and of economic failure for most of the 20th century.

Do go on…

The Government’s first responses, particularly in its sly budget targeting of the sick and the old and the sleight-of-hand tax increases by much more than the nominal rate of the income levy, showed a knee-jerk return to the failed policies of old. Some of the reactions to it were also of a similar ilk. The protests of teachers and their recruitment of students in their campaign, for instance, were redolent of the successful public sector campaigns of the 1970s and 1980s to protect themselves from any changes in conditions or status, campaigns which contributed to high levels of emigration and the near shutdown of the economy by the end of those decades.

Right… you’re saying the Budget was wrong, but so was the response. This is all very odd. Firstly, tax rises are now regarded as necessary across the developed world as an instrument of revenue. It’s going to happen in such former bastions of ‘economic liberalism’ as the US and the UK. It’s going to happen here as well (and in a form somewhat less varnished than the levy), eventually. But… the IT sees that as a ‘knee-jerk return to the failed policies of old’. That the IT is unable to comprehend that we’re not in Kansas (or Boston) anymore is lamentable. But not entirely surprising. Secondly, remind me again about these ‘successful public sector campaigns of the 1970s and 1980s’. I’m not entirely sure what the IT is referring to, or how that somehow links into high levels of emigration and the near shutdown of the economy. I’m not entirely entranced by the old OSF notion of innate Irish capitalist crapness, but one can’t look at the history of an independent state on this island without wondering why they seemed to be such a supine bunch.

Those policies may be unfamiliar to anyone under 35 these days, who may be tempted back to the past by talk of an era where there was allegedly less greed, more caring, and more “soul”. But they should remember that was the era when most of the tax evasions, planning corruption and clerical paedophilia – revealed in recent years by tribunals and prosecutions – took place, not to mention the sordid sectarianism and violence of the Northern troubles.

Now that too is just odd. Here we are offered a smorgasbord of troubles that afflicted our benighted state and told that…

It was an era, like most of the 20th century in Ireland, when vested interests from the professions to the public sector dominated political decisions, creating monopolies, suppressing competition, and reaching too readily for protectionism.

Is this a tenable analysis? The Irish public sector remains, as it has done, rather limited by international standards (the real problem today is not that we spend too much on our public sector, in international terms we’re tend towards the lower end of the scale. It is that our far-sighted government never thought to solidify revenue streams to support expenditure and is unwilling to mimic the measures that the US and UK consider to be financially sustainable in this time of crisis). The idea that it is a single all-devouring entity voraciously leaching resources is near laughable. And consider too the weakness of the self-defined left in this state. But to argue that the – again weak by international standards – unions have somehow exercised a death grip on our state and economy is near nonsensical. It also cuts across the partnership analysis that the IT supported for so long, since effectively it was only in the late 1980s that the social partners seriously worked together, for worse, but also for better. But to somehow link in the North and clerical abuse is egregious nonsense and presumably done for nothing more than effect.

Still, it continues…

Capitalist monopolies are at least transparent in their self-interest: the self-interest of other monopolies, whether of labour or professions, is no less real and no less inimical to the public interest.

Okay – put aside the notion of ‘labour monopolies’ (what precisely does that mean?). This may sound like Marxism 101, but there are certain issues as regards disparities of power between the above elements that make the above analysis rather threadbare. Professions are capitalist monopolies – near per definition. There, I said it. It feels good. And in this society who harbours the wealth, the influence and the power? Ah yes. The professions and the capitalist monopolies and capitalist non-monopolies. And look, it’s not just me saying this, but voices from the centre-left onwards. And who tends to have lesser influence. No, tends is too kind a word. Who has lesser influence?

But let’s not parse this too closely (or let’s, since the IT felt it deserving of a full column)… since now let the eschatological fear mongering begin.

The choices we make now may well dictate the fate of the country for a generation. More than ever, we need all our political parties to keep their eyes firmly on the big picture, not just on party advantage and the next election. Failure to do so in the recent past was exemplified by the defeat of the Lisbon referendum; failure to do so again now may have even more disastrous consequences.

It may indeed, but in this bizarre and pessimistic… er …jeremiad it just seems strange to mention Lisbon.

What we all need now, electorate as well as politicians, is to maintain a sense of balance, to avoid witch-hunting and selecting scapegoats, and to refrain from sinking into the comforts of victimhood and blaming others – to which our history has left us so prone.

Avoid scapegoats? Motes, eyes and beams come to mind, since the whole piece has tendentiously set up the ‘red syndicalists’ as scapegoats.

It is an apposite time to look again, openly and honestly, at some of the old attitudes, shibboleths and detritus of history which are no longer either useful or applicable. As we head towards a century of independence, it is a good time to take a fresh look at our goals and beliefs, at our assumptions and presumptions, at out-dated mindsets ranging from attitudes to partition to old socialism.

But what precisely is on offer? Nothing bar a small word-flurry…

It is a time to be tolerant and inclusive, not small-minded and self-interested; to look forward to the future, not hark back to a largely fanciful past; to be open-minded and confident, not fearful and reaching for part solutions.

I’ve mentioned before that Simon Hoggart of the Guardian has a sometimes entertaining technique where he notes that the true worth of any piece of writing or a speech is to reverse the words in sentences. Try it with the above and see how empty it all is. Who, bar a tiny fringe, argues for small-mindedness? And how odd that in a piece still underpinned by the tenets of economic liberalism (‘capitalist monopolies are transparent in their self-interest’… yeah, sure) it chides others for looking back when it itself is utterly in thrall to a system that has buckled beyond repair over the past year. It cannot criticise the conduct of the boom because it was a cheerleader of same (as those of us who’ve followed its decline over the past decade will know all to well), was viscerally connected to those who oversaw the boom, those who made no provision whatsoever to deal with the day when, as was inevitable, the boom would end.

What is being recommended by the IT? They do not say. In a context where the economic tools of ‘old-socialism’ are being appropriated by the centre right and the former paragons of neo-liberalism the cognitive dissonance must be awful. And here this dissonance is on display, a seething cauldron of discontents. Since the economic premises it was previously founded on have shattered what is left? Little but an emotional boosterism. Shoulders to the wheel. But for who, and why?


1. Mark P - January 6, 2009

Toxic shit from a toxic paper. I actually find the IT unreadable most of the time these days.

One of its few interesting articles today, on much the same subject, did at least do us the favour of revealing that the Labour Party, like Fianna Fail and the rest of the right wing consensus parties is calling for wage cuts. Which should at least put some of the articles you see from leftish fantasists calling for the Labour Party to make this or that reformist response to the current crisis into some kind of perspective. Arguments for the Labour Party to take a radical, pro-working class, approach are akin to arguments for Fine Gael (their preferred senior coalition partner) to do the same, or just as significantly, to calls for an army of goblins and fairies to march on Leinster House. It’s delusional stuff.


2. KevanB - January 6, 2009

’capitalist monopolies are transparent in their self-interest’

I think it was Robert Tressell in the Ragged Trousered Philanthropist who told us to be working class capitalists. As I read that book as a little kid fresh out to work and clutching my first Union ticket I thought it was a good idea.

I have never managed a monopoly but I have managed at least to be transparent.

The person who wrote the leader problably had a glass of decent claret in hand as they shoveled down the beans and eggs whilst penning it.

Whilst not finding the It totally unreadable it has, of late taken to the greatest load of old waffle which would be laughed at over this “capitalist’s” supper table.


3. WorldbyStorm - January 6, 2009

Very true, both of you.


4. CL - January 7, 2009

“tax rises are now regarded as necessary across the developed world as an instrument of revenue. It’s going to happen in such former bastions of ‘economic liberalism’ as the US and the UK.”-Not true. Such a move would violate the basic tenets of Keynesianism which the capitalist class is now using as a way out of the current crisis: massive fiscal (budgetary) deficits as a means of boosting demand. Obama has proposed a $300 billion tax cut, and Brown has cut the value added tax.
The Irish state dilemma is somewhat different: its budget deficit for 2009 is projected to be close to 10% of GDP: this the largest Keynesian stimulus in the capitalist world. But it must resort to international borrowing to do this. Given the size of the deficit, and the guarantee and bailout of the banks, the solvency of the Irish state could well be in jeopardy. Hence the need to increase revenue and reduce the deficit.
Your comments, generally, on the Irish Times editorial are apt. The Irish ‘political class’ are clueless as to the cause of the present crisis, and they see no way out except to wait for an ‘upturn’ internationally. Gilmore’s mimicing Obama as Gaeilge is not a policy either.


5. Crocodile - January 7, 2009

‘The only fair way of addressing the crisis is to insist that the rich or relatively rich pay for it, and that those not rich or relatively rich are protected through improved social welfare, health and education.

And by rich I mean anybody earning above twice the average industrial wage, which is around €40,000. So all of us earning over €80,000 must pay, we alone must pay. Pay through the tax system.’

From Vincent Browne’s column in Wednesday’s IT.


6. Joe - January 8, 2009

Fair enough stuff from Browne there I’d say.

The IT has gone to pot since Kennedy took the editorship. A bit off topic, but it redeemed itself somewhat yesterday by publishing Ed O’ Loughlin’s piece on Gaza which detailed clearly the recent history of Israeli war crimes there.


7. D.J.P. O'Kane - January 8, 2009

Fair enough stuff from Browne indeed, but he’s wasting his time if he thinks the IT reading classes will take a blind bit of notice of it. ‘What we have we hold’ is their motto. And they fully intend to make the rest of the country pay for the crisis they produced; and they’ll probably get away with it as well.


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