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It’s the Economy, Stupid! August 17, 2009

Posted by Garibaldy in The Left.
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Is the Left missing its biggest chance for at least a generation? That is the topic of a most interesting article in today’s Guardian that I think says a number of true and very important things that the Left as a whole needs to face up to. The article examines the viewpoints of a spectrum of people from the broad left. Its main hook is the author’s impression of the atmosphere at the British SWP’s Marxism 2009 event earlier this summer in London, but it also takes in the views of people like Jon Cruddas, and briefly discusses the problems posed for the left by the rise of green politics.

As the article notes, and as has been discussed here in the past, the most important structural factor that the British left faces is the collapse of the left as a social and cultural as well as a political force. What I mean by this is that for many working class people growing up in industrial areas or mining villages the left offered a complete philosophy and social habits that genuinely shaped many people’s everyday lives. It wasn’t just the working day, it was the trade union membership, the socialising in the workingmen’s or labour party club, and the culture of reading books to raise one’s political consciousness. The same was true in parts of Ireland (although obivously unionism complicated the relationship of NI’s proletariat to socialism). I don’t want to romanticise the past as obviously this was far from true of everybody, and there remained a very strong right-wing working class vote. But what we can say is that a whole culture of left-wing activism and self-education that was strong in the not so distant past has virtually disappeared. And it has weakened the left’s ability to reach out to people, as a collective consciousness and indeed a class consciousness has greatly weakened. The article puts it much more clearly than I have managed

Until well into the Thatcher era, the left in Britain was a complete and vigorous political world. It had a mass membership through the unions and the Labour party. It had credibility and charismatic figures: even establishment papers such as the Times feared and sometimes respected Tony Benn or the National Union of Mineworkers. And it had potent ideas from the likes of Gramsci and Marx and Keynes. All of these elements have decayed since the 80s; but none so damagingly, especially in the light of the financial crisis, as the left’s thinking about the economy.

In my view, this is the most important criticism in the article – that of the attitude of today’s left to economics. The article quotes an economist saying that “The left just gave up on economics”. There is a great deal of truth in this. It’s not that the a lot of the left doesn’t recognise the importance of economics – after all, Marxism is based on it. But as the further left has shrunk its capacity to produce detailed critiques and alternative policies has done so too. One of my favourite themes is that an overlooked part of the success of The Workers’ Party during the 1970s and 1980s was the Research Section under Eamon Smullen, which produced documents like The Great Irish Oil and Gas Robbery as well as material on the banks and the nuclear power industry. Whatever one thinks of these documents, they acted to convince people that this was a party that thought seriously about a range of issues. I just don’t see anything similar being produced today, at least not with the same reach. Michael Taft over on Notes from the Front and the Progressive Economy blog are doing a lot of good work, as is Conor Mc Cabe at Dublin Opinion, but unfortunately they have not had the same impact. Partly, I would argue, because they are not part of a political party that can marry an economic to a political vision (as one might expect me to argue), but also because the space and acceptance for left-wing ideas in public discourse has massively shrunk even since the 1990s.

If the far left is incapable due to issues of resources of producing the type of documents it once did, what of the centre left? The simple answer is that the centre left has all but abandoned any discussion of the economic basis of society. Instead of a material basis for its arguments, it has instead concentrated on “values”. So we hear a lot of discussion of fairness and equality, but no mention that equality of opportunity and merit are impossible when there are massive disparities of wealth that shape social, cultural, educational and job opportunities from before a child is born. Personally, I think this rot set in with 1968, the beginning of the period when identity politics became the focus for many on the left to the exclusion of material considerations. We can see this in many aspects of life. Not just in social democracy abandoning its belief in kenysianism for the market, but also in the intellectual and cultural sphere.

Gone (largely) are the materialists from the universities for example. Many who were on the left and who stressed the importance of economics and class in fields like philosophy, history, political science, even literature, twenty or thirty years ago have retreated into cultural analysis and explanations. I believe in the power of ideas, and the left has often in the past been too slow to realise the significance of ideology in the broad sense, but any analysis not grounded in material reality will not and cannot serve as a proper guide to politics. It is a shame that attempts to recognise the importance of ideology (often applying a version of Gramsci) ended up in the cul-de-sac of retreating from class politics, and consequently a decline into insignificance. The history of the New Left or of the CPGB in the later 1970s and 1980s typifies this pattern. People who began by seeking to apply Marxism creatively ended up in shallow cultural politics. Some of those who became involved in Democratic Left in Ireland are also excellent examples.

If the left in any form is to gain serious traction once more, we must apply ourselves to serious economic analysis of society. Not just in understanding how the crisis in the financial sector has left us where we are, but also to the issues of putting forward alternative programmes to those offered by the right in its various forms. There is also the issue of what the changing economic basis of these islands means for the left, and how we can engage with workers in an economy dominated to such an extent by the service sector, and including a much larger proportion of people from elsewhere, who are not part of the stable communities that once formed the social and political backbone of these islands. We are all aware of the issues – rising individualism, casualisation, falling trade union membership, fewer people involved in politics, or even interested in it. But we must put more effort into finding solutions. Again, the issue is put more succintly in the article.

“What is the underlying social force that’s going to be the basis of the left? In the mid-20th century it was the factory worker and the union member. There are far fewer of them now.” Solnit says: “I don’t see the networks in which great ideas circulate.”

We cannot claim that socialism will make a better society unless we can demonstrate how that can happen practically; unless we go beyond declarations of principles and fine words. Part of that struggle is to re-engage people with the idea of state-directed action. A large part of the problem for the left is not that there has been no resistance to global capitalism in its modern form since the rise of capitalism and the collapse of the Soviet Union, but rather in the forms that that resistance has taken. Somewhat like 1968, the mass anti-capitalist protests of the 1990s produced very little in the way of political change, and the radicalism of a great part of a generation was wasted. The rise of Green politics, especially in Ireland, has proven to be an obstacle to the re-establishment of socialism as an effective political force. Not only has it drained off activists with radical instincts, its message – sometimes more explicit, sometimes less – is that the environment is above traditional (for which read class) politics. The right wing instincts of many greens can be seen across Europe, and especially in our own coalition.

The rise of NGOs is another problem for the left. The sense that politics can be bypassed by direct agitation or work on single issues is fundamentally an obscurantist one. Ideas like the following will not and cannot re-invigorate the left as an alternative vision for the whole of society

“Actually, our society is full of alternative ways of organising things” – he cites the success of the Co-operative Bank, built on ethical investments – “but the left desperately needs a developed ideology . . . an analysis of society.”

The second part of the message is certainly correct, but anyone who thinks that socialism means ethical investments is probably not the person to provide us with that developed ideology. In a world where Cameron’s Tories can apparently creditably vie for the title of the real progressives in British politics or where Eamonn Gilmore says savage cuts in the public sector should be doable, then rhetoric will not be enough. Blair sounds like Cameron sounds like Cowen sounds like Kenny. But also sounds a lot like many of those further to the left. We need serious economic policies. Which means – certainly for people like me – that a lot of people on the left are going to have to start looking at economics a lot more thoroughly than we have done up to now. “We’ve had a hollowed-out generation of economic thinkers.” Time for us to change that.

Comments»

1. WorldbyStorm - August 17, 2009

I think that’s it in one. I was astounded to hear a week or two ago that the Labour Party has no internal economic policy development unit. A Labour Party? SF is a bit better, the rest of the left (bar perhaps the CPI, and some stirrings in the WP) dismal. It’s the old problem, it’s great to say we need to get to Z from A, but if you can’t explain how we go through B through Y then for most people beyond politics you’re wasting their time.

The problematics of the USSR has been a part of it, no doubt. In that it provided an alternative economic model, but when that alternative model collapsed it seemed to be undermined. And that it prove both an attractor and repulsor for the left. There’s also been a conceptual shift away from statism in all forms. But that never stopped previous generations of Marxists, leftists and progressives working through these issues in a coherent fashion.

As for working out ‘seriousness’… Ask for the educational policy document from a political formation. If they have one that deals both with the status quo and what they seek in detail then chances are they’re serious about these matters and they’ll be working through the processes and approaches necessary to change the society. If not…

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Garibaldy - August 17, 2009

I too am astounded that the Labour party has no economic policy unit. Lost for words in fact.

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Tim Buktu - August 17, 2009

I was astounded to hear a week or two ago that the Labour Party has no internal economic policy development unit.

Part of that is laziness, and dangerous laziness at that. The opposition finance spokespersons get privileged access to officials in the Department of Finance, so why bother arranging for separate advice. The serious dangerous aspect of this, of course, is that the advice comes from members and formers of the Dublin Consensus. (While I don’t claim that Joan Burton has led any great charge to the left economically, I think it is interesting to see that she gets under Brian Lenihan’s skin because she has a background in finance.)

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2. sonofstan - August 17, 2009

Can’t argue with much of that, really. You’re dead right about the near embarrassment concerning any mention of class in academia – a trendy topic these days all over phil. and especially cultural studies is ’embodiment’: lots of chatter about sexuality, body modification, eating disorders, illness and the like. Mention the one way in which most people, most of the time are ’embodied’ in the world – through their labour – and folk start shuffling away.

You’re also right about the death of an independent working class intellectual culture, and that may be to a large extent, the fault of the universities. Once, when the working classes had no prospect of going to university, they determined to make up the deficit. Now with at least the prospect of a decent education there, that determination has slackened. Sadly of course, once they get there, they view what’s on offer as consumers rather than as scholars – the way everyone else does – and miss completely whatever it was an education was once supposed to do.

I wonder, though, if more has survived than we might has suspected. I’ve been encouraged by the renewed militancy of trades unionists even in unlikely places (Thomas Cook for example), and you hear more unreconstructed ‘old’ socialism than you might expect from working (or ex-working) people than you might expect.

The important things are, as you say, to reinstate the economy in the political arena, and not allow professionals to make it appear like a science, governed by laws and not by interests. Secondly, as you say in the discussion of the Greens, we need to ‘de-ethicise’ politics: the left is not a coalition of the well-meaning – it needs to return to being the political instrument of working people against capital in all its guises.

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WorldbyStorm - August 17, 2009

That’s absolutely my experience too of academia. Get to root issues and… er… people don’t want to know. Indeed they’re almost blind to it – perhaps because in truth most academics come from relatively comfortable backgrounds so you get an odd duality of either starry eyed idealisation of the working class or an astounding ignorance. As for economics, well they just don’t want to know. And the result is a generation of people for who centre right nostrums are normalised as the orthodoxy and everything else is unwashed suspicious nonsense.

And that’s a great way you put it in your last paragraph, because this is – as ever – about class, not sentiment.
That said you make a very convincing point re militancy, although I’d have a slight caveat that some of that rides in on ‘rights’ culture. No harm in itself but with obvious limitations as to how far a struggle can be taken.

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Garibaldy - August 17, 2009

I guess the renewed militancy is the result primarily of the pressures of capitalism on working people. I’d say you are right that there is a greater survival of old left politics than we sometimes think, but those people are uninvolved for the most part. We must try to re-engage them.

I like the phrase ‘de-ethicise’ politics, and that the left is not a coalition of the well-meaning. Absolutely spot on.

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sonofstan - August 17, 2009

an odd duality of either starry eyed idealisation of the working class or an astounding ignorance.

I’ve never come across much of the former TBH! I have a mental compendium of naive/ stupid things students have said to me or to each other in class….. but unfair to trot them out.

More telling was a comment just before the last GE from a member of the Labour Party in UCD, a graduate student, early 20s, who said, with absolute sincerity, that the most important issues for Lab youth were civil partnership, pro- choice legislation and an end to the military use of Shannon. All fine causes but……..

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WorldbyStorm - August 17, 2009

I’ve heard that too, sonofstan, or stuff like it. Conspiracy theories wax large in the current era. The most mobilised students I’ve met have been those exercised by 9/11 being a massive conspiracy et al… A few have been a bit more sussed and actually link that sort of stuff into Chomsky et al, but it leaves for a weirdly de-ideologised context.

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3. Fergal - August 17, 2009

Garidaldy’s point on a vibrant working class culture is very relevant.Hasn’t the whole idea of language been completely and utterly corrupted over the last two decades of “it’s the economy stupid” nausea.Words have become devoid of their true meaning and this corruption permeates all aspects of life.This is where the left should be fighting it out.Take the whole NAMA farce.Nama is toxic businees full stop but in conversations it’s almost a member of the family!There’s Nama ,hope things work out well for him,come in and have a cup of tea,how can you say such bad things about poor ole Nama,he could be the 5th tellytubby,we’re all rooting for him.
Of course it’s the complete opposite and Nama is a tool of the rich and powerful for their class interests.The left needs to keep it simple while always emphasizing the primacy of the class struggle.

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WorldbyStorm - August 17, 2009

Well, as EWI put it on another thread, here’s the final hand-off from FF to their oldest bestest pals in the construction sector. So why wouldn’t they domesticate it!

You’re dead right, though.

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4. The Economy and the Left at Cedar Lounge Revolution « Garibaldy Blog - August 17, 2009

[…] Economy and the Left at Cedar Lounge Revolution By Garibaldy I’ve put up a long post on the need for the left to re-engage seriously in economic thinking, and in attempting to […]

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5. Tipster - August 17, 2009

On the other hand, there are no less than* three items in today’s Guardian on combating the excessive pay that top executives “earn” (a letter to the editor with over 90 signatures, a news article based on this, and an op-ed piece by Vince Cable).

That follows two articles in recent months on setting upper limits to wages (and, as I noted here some weeks ago, a ten-minute Bill for debate in the House of Commons in London on a maximum wage).

(I am amused by an error in the on-line caption to the news story — as of 11.10 a.m. anyway — which says “The pressure group Congress is calling on the government to …”. It turns out that David Begg hadn’t upped the ante — it should have referred to the pressure group Compass.)
_______
*Well, just three.

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6. Garibaldy - August 17, 2009

That;s a fair point Tipster, but on the other hand this is window dressing that dodges the real issues. When George Osborne can talk about this, then we can assume that it’s not a fundamental issue.

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WorldbyStorm - August 17, 2009

True indeed. On the other hand it does demonstrate just how far the debate in Ireland lags behind what is now entirely normal and more importantly respected discourse in the UK.

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Garibaldy - August 17, 2009

We’ll have to see if it materialises. Obama of course is making similar moves. We on the other hand are giving still more public money to those responsible.

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7. It's the Economy, Stupid! « The Cedar Lounge Revolution | welcome2green.com - August 17, 2009

[…] is the original post: It's the Economy, Stupid! « The Cedar Lounge Revolution var addthis_pub="welcome2green"; Posted under Green Politics Comments […]

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8. Garibaldy - August 17, 2009

Don’t seem to be able to reply to either son of stan or WBS after comment 2 but I think they are both dead right to point to how disappointing that type of attitude among young people is, even those who identify with the left. Of course, why would they worry about youth unemployment or child poverty.

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9. skidmarx - August 17, 2009

Perhaps the greater concern in the UK and USA over executive pay is because the disparities there are that much greater.
Lack of economic programme reason why young people aren’t marching en masse under banner of socialism? Or perhaps the low level of class struggle in the last couple of decades means there are limits to socialist appeal however devilishly clever the diagnosis of capitalism is.

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10. Garibaldy - August 17, 2009

I’d agree Skidmarx that class consciousness has been badly damaged over the last three decades, as I said in the article. But I do genuinely think that the entire left is suffering from the failure to produce a credible alternative economic meta-narrative (for want of a better way to put it), and shows no sign of doing so. When the left is talking the same language of responsibility and ethics that other groups are without also talking about organising the economy, then it loses its distinctiveness.

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11. 3 Pc Teak Wood Garden Outdoor Patio Lounge Chair Set | Garden Ideas Reviews - August 17, 2009

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12. dmfod - August 17, 2009

the far left do have a different message to Labour etc. but have difficulty getting it across due to people misguidedly hoping Labour will come up something – why not support and contribute to the far left if you really want to offer an alternative?

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WorldbyStorm - August 17, 2009

I know I don’t, and I doubt Garibaldy, has any such hopes about the LP. But I do think there are balances of forces that mean that critical criticism of the LP is necessary in the absence of the far left having a sniff of state power in the near future. The LP is more than likely going to shape the next government. I think it’s entirely reasonable to critique them on that basis.

As for supporting the far left, absolutely, but the same calculation comes into play, and reality is that there seems to be in the main a dearth of economic analysis and understanding there.

If you look at my comment #1 I critique both the LP and the far left for precisely that failing which both share.

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13. Garibaldy - August 17, 2009

Dmfod,

I have great hopes of neither the Irish nor British Labour parties (nor social democrats anywhere else for that matter). But both attract quite a lot of support from left-minded people, and we should try to influence them as far as we can in a left direction. I pretty much feel the same about the trade union leaderships.

I am active in the far left, as have been or are most of the commenters here too.

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14. Eugene Mc Cartan - August 17, 2009

Worldbystorm.
Just to let regular visitors to your discussion forums know that the Communist Party of Ireland has just published its analysis of both the global economic crisis and with a more detailed look at the development of the economy in this state both before and since partition. The documents outlines some ideas in relations to possible ways forward. It is titled “AN ECONOMY FOR THE COMMON GOOD – A strategy for a new direction” it will be launched within the next two weeks.

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Worldbystorm - August 18, 2009

Eugene, I’m genuinely glad to hear it, and also glad that I managed to put in ‘perhaps the CPI’ in post #1! If it is okay with you I look forward to posting a copy here.

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15. Thoreau - August 17, 2009

This thread is discussing one symptom of a more extensive disease.

In reality, economic policy is no longer a competence of the Irish government – adoption of the euro was the last stage in the process of divesting the state of the ability to exert meaningful influence over the Irish economy.

If economic policy is no longer determined by a government elected (however infrequently) by universal adult suffrage, but rather by EU directives prepared by unelected commissioners on foot of instructions received as a result of deals cut by ministers meeting in conclave behind closed doors – as these directives are subsequently interpreted by the ECJ – it is inevitable that economic policy will disappear from mainstream politics.

Instead, politics will concern itself with those areas that remain a national competence: social welfare, the health service, housing, public transport, education, etc. None of these are trivial, but none of them begin to compare with the direction of the economy in terms of importance.

The process leaves socialists – for whom the public ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange was their very raison d’etre – wrong-footed. Either they pretend that the bodies to which they seek election possess powers which they clearly don’t, or they too focus on secondary issues.

But the political system as a whole is diminished by the process and begins to atrophy. Parties become increasingly indistinguishable, the media debate personalities rather than policies, membership figures decline right across the political spectrum, public apathy and cynicism grow, a sense of powerlessness and fatalism spread.

The state itself is hollowed out.

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sonofstan - August 17, 2009

Thoreau,

I don’t disagree, but isn’t one of the lessons of the banking crisis here that we actually – within the areas of competence left to us – screwed up much more than almost anyone else within the EU? and the solution remains in the hands of our government, although, as you hint, the one instrument available to countries with a sovereign currency is not open to us.

Also, while I agree about the state being ‘hollowed out’ in something like the way you describe, I’m not sure if the EU is the chief culprit – ‘neo-liberalism’ as ideology and practice is much bigger than that: if also more amorphous.

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Worldbystorm - August 18, 2009

But in Ireland all this predated the euro, or indeed accession to the EEC, as was. I don’t disagree with you that it’s another factor, but I remember Nick Cohen when he was good saying that at the end of the day the state was still the most powerful actor and could sway international capital… and surely the way international capital has gone cap in hand in the past number of months proves this entirely.

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16. Garibaldy - August 17, 2009

I’ve a lot of sympathy for what you’re saying Thoreau, but the process we are discussing predates entry to the Euro, and also affects countries like the UK that are not part of the Euro. I also suspect that should a country’s government decide to say start investing in public owned startup or to nationalise important parts of the economy there wouldn’t be a whole lot the EU could practically do about it if the will was there.

I’d say personally that the current crisis proves the power of the state in that the freemarketeers rushed to it for rescue.

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17. Garibaldy - August 17, 2009

I’d agree with sonofstan’s point about neo-liberalism too

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18. dmfod - August 17, 2009

with reference to what was said earlier, the far left analysis of the current crisis exists, it just isn’t being publicised, listened to or taken seriously. it isn’t that socialist arguments don’t exist or aren’t being made, but that they lack support and a wide audience. that’s what decades of the left’s decline have resulted in. there’s no easy wonderful new way of making the arguments that will suddenly persuade RTE, the Irish Times or the Sunday Independent that socialism is a good idea so why not help us broadcast our ideas, nor is there any easy way to reach large numbers of people and win them over to ideas widely regarded as outmoded and tarnished by association with gulags. the fact is most people’s instant response to the idea of socialism is that it failed. this supposed truism is constantly reinforced over and over again in mainstream culture and media comment lest anyone forget and start getting notions.

it will take loads of hard grassroots person-to-person work in concrete struggles to overcome the sort of status-quo supporting common sense propagated by the media etc. everyday – there’s no easy way around this, though some more creative thinking would admittedly be a help to the far left. this again is something that will be helped by new arrivals with a fresh perspective and one of the few positives of the current crisis is that people are more open to seeing the contradictions of the capitalist system when they’re being turfed out of a viable job just to increase profits in companies like Thomas Cook. we can’t expect a crisis to automatically lead to a left revival without working for it, but chances are far better now than they have been for years – it should be a time of excitement and optimism for the far left rather than gloomy introspection – movements can grow very quickly once some momentum is generated, but it will take a lot of hard work first. the bigger the movement gets, the more the opportunity to to devote time to fleshing out economic arguments and the better the chance to publicise them.

i found the guardian article to be almost preparing for failure without even trying on the grounds that the left is so small and its ideas are so old and all the brightest people went to go analyze popular culture or become postmodernists blah blah. movements ebb and flow so it is hardly surprising if after decades in abeyance the left looks a bit shit – this doesn’t mean it can’t be rebuilt though – historical examples of revived movements abound e.g. 2nd wave feminism and even religious fundamentalism. just because something seems old and hackneyed to long standing activists doesn’t mean it can’t catch the imagination of a new generation – i genuinely think it’s mainly a question of getting the ideas out there and the current situation in Ireland is uniquely conducive to this – at least in my living memory.

the criticism of the LP is a bit pointless in my view – they would only change if a large force to the left of them existed, in which case aiming things at them would be a distraction. likewise the union leaders don’t need to be influenced, they need to be replaced.

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Worldbystorm - August 18, 2009

I don’t know if that’s absolutely correct about an indepth analysis existing. I’ve spent some of the day trawling sites of our leading further left fractions and to be honest what I’ve come up with has been thin stuff indeed.

As regards replacing the LP or TUs… well yes, but within the timeframe that is necessary, a big ask.

That said I entirely agree with you on a number of points. There is no doubt that spirits should be higher. This is the educative moment and groupiis have to use that. In terms of the Guardian article, I agree there is an element of failure there, or at least fatalism.

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Mark P - August 18, 2009

You are confusing the presence of an analysis with the presence of a programme of reforms designed to rescue Irish capitalism. The far left certainly has the first. It doesn’t have the second – but that’s not our job.

The socialist left have a programmatic response to the crisis of capitalism: a socialist transformation of society. In so far as we put forward demands for reforms, and we do, we put them forward to encourage, further and generalise working class struggle not as a plan of action for a Keynsian Ireland.

I think that a lot of the frustration on this thread comes from the absence of an actual reformist party of the left in Irish politics. In its absence some people here seem to want either the neoliberal Labour Party or the Marxist left to take its place. The problem is that the Marxist left don’t have the creation of a better functioning capitalism as their goal and the Labour Party are no more left wing than the other establishment parties.

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WorldbyStorm - August 18, 2009

Mark P. I don’t think so. I’m arguing that it is necessary to demonstrate the intentions clearly of political formations, not merely what they want to do but how they intend to change things in the process. I think it’s explicitly the function of the far left to do that. And I note that the most successful far left party the WP did precisely that in the 1980s.

And unfortunately while saying that there is a programmatic response, which is true in one sense, isn’t sufficient. People want clear detail. How to go from A to Z as I put it earlier. How it affects them in their communities, workplaces, their schools, their entertainments and so on. None of that has anything to do with Keynes (even if I wish the Keynesians were less half, or even quarter-hearted about their supposed area of expertise).

I certainly don’t want a reformist party of the left in the sense you describe one. I want a party that can straddle revolution and reformism with a tilt towards the former, again perhaps something like the WP did for some time in the early 1980s but without the clear problems that it encountered. Perhaps something like the Left party in Germany, perhaps not. I don’t think, that said, that it is unreasonable to hold the LP to the values it says it promotes i.e. social democracy of whatever stripe.

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19. Garibaldy - August 18, 2009

I’d agree that the article was negative about the prospects for the left. But I thought that the criticism about the left failing to engage with economics was a very important point. Because I think it is largely true. Like you say there are good reasons for this. But at the same time, there is something seriously wrong when those most committed to a materialist conception of history are not doing the hard work on the facts and figures. We need to address that.

This should, as you say, be a propitious time for us. But the state is just not figuring in public discourse as an agent of economic change. We can say the state should create jobs, but until we can say how, it will be easy for the right to paint us as unrealistic.

As for the LP and the trade unions. They do need to be replaced. But that is a long-term project, and so a more practical immediate approach is to try and push them to the left as far as we can.

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20. sonofstan - August 18, 2009

You are confusing the presence of an analysis with the presence of a programme of reforms designed to rescue Irish capitalism. The far left certainly has the first. It doesn’t have the second – but that’s not our job.

That’s fine Mark, but the analysis itself will not topple capitalism. Instead, the economy will ‘rescue’ itself somehow, and, left to the vested interests, that rescue will involve the evisceration of services – health, education, welfare – that working people depend on, and, using the mantra of ‘sharing the pain’ will involve more pain for us, very little for them.

In that context, the left at the very least, has a duty to it’s constituency (real, as in the people who vote for it, imaginary, as in the people whose interests it wishes to represent) to fight for a different way of doing it.

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21. Socialism or Barbarism! - August 18, 2009

We have tried to provide some rigorous analysis – although there is little confusion at this stage as to the causes of the crisis.

Check out:
http://www.revolutionaryireland.com/2009/05/deepening-crisis-of-irish-economy.html

There are some recommendations in this:
http://www.revolutionaryireland.com/2009/04/socialist-response-to-irish-economic.html

There are also articles on the Bord Snip report – we were first to analyse this and with substantial detail. We also have a post criticising the LP’s neo-liberalism. However our focus right now is the crisis in left republicanism and building the revolutionary left.

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WorldbyStorm - August 18, 2009

Thanks SorB… and that’s good. Just, you’re like ourselves, not a party.

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22. Garibaldy - August 18, 2009

“The socialist left have a programmatic response to the crisis of capitalism: a socialist transformation of society. In so far as we put forward demands for reforms, and we do, we put them forward to encourage, further and generalise working class struggle not as a plan of action for a Keynsian Ireland.”

That’s fair enough Mark. But to give an example I saw somewhere else today. An FF supporter was able to criticise one of the left parties for calling for construction programmes but without giving details regarding numbers of schools to be built etc, and say that this was just waffle. That criticism could apply to practically all the left, which is why I haven’t named the party. Without the type of detailed policies I am talking about, it costs us credibility with people who might be attracted to far left politics, but worried that it will forever remain fringe. If we can show we are practical people with practical solutions, then we are more likely to capture more people, and from there the transformation of society is more likely. Concrete policies can help us break out of our ghetto.

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23. John Green - August 18, 2009

“de-ethicize politics”? Wow. If you aren’t able to present your policies as a remedy for injustice, you’ll get nowhere. Candidly asserting that your party is nothing except a weapon to seize political power on behalf of your class doesn’t generate the trust it once might have.

And I’ll confess that whenever I hear someone refer to the politics of 1968 as a retreat into identity politics, the first thing I do is check their identity. 😉

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sonofstan - August 18, 2009

Equally, you don’t fight injustice simply by being a good person and hoping that others will be good too. Any remedy for injustice may well involve individuals acting in locally unjust ways. What i object to about the ethics-isation of politics is the reduction of political action to cooperative individualism rather than collectivism – if we all recycle assiduously and all donate 10% percent of our incomes to aid for the ‘third world’ then the planet will be saved, and poverty ‘made history’ (if ever a slogan needed reversing…….). Institutional change simply does not come about through multiple ‘changes of heart’.

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24. Garibaldy - August 18, 2009

I asume SoS meant remove the idea that ethics is a replacement for class politics, instead of part of them.

I identify myself primarily as an opponent of identity politics :p

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25. John Green - August 18, 2009

ha ha. touchay! But “SonofStan” is presumably male, thus my (very) small joke.

I took him to mean “the left is not a coalition of the well-meaning – it needs to return to being the political instrument of working people against capital in all its guises.”

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sonofstan - August 18, 2009

Clearly i should stay out of this : ) not getting what my Y chromosome has to do with anything?

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Garibaldy - August 18, 2009

Yes, who asked you?

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26. John Green - August 18, 2009

Hi SoS. Nothing at all. It was Garibaldy who made the comment about identity politics; I was conflating your two posts.

I think from your clarification that Garibaldy’s interpretation of what you meant is correct. I do think though, FWIW, that (re)turning the left to being “the political instrument of working people against capital in all its guises” is a restrictive definition of “the left,” reducing its focus to economic injustice and, presumably, presenting economistic solutions. Where that leaves sexual, racial, and other forms of injustice and oppression remains to be seen. Or am I surrounded by vulgar Marxists? 😉

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27. WorldbyStorm - August 18, 2009

Not at all, John you’re absolutely right they are a central part of it, but… this is an economic crisis – the first the left has faced since the Thatcher/Reagan period – and yet uniquely it seems utterly ill suited to tackle it. Which means brushing off the tomes on economics again.

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28. sonofstan - August 18, 2009

Or am I surrounded by vulgar Marxists?

Probably……

“the political instrument of working people against capital in all its guises” is a restrictive definition of “the left,” reducing its focus to economic injustice and, presumably, presenting economistic solutions.

Well, if you look at Garibaldy’s original post, what he asked for was that the left do at least this, not necessarily only this. Surely, now, more than at any time since the 30s, it’s what we need to be doing?

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29. Thoreau - August 18, 2009

In my earlier contribution I wrote that adoption of the euro was the *last* stage in the process of divesting the state of the ability to exert meaningful influence over the Irish economy. I recognise that the process began much earlier than that.

Since the Maastricht treaty in principle, and even earlier than that in practice, the EU has been committed to “the principle of an open market economy with free competition”. That phrase is embodied in the Nice Treaty currently and is again repeated in the Lisbon Treaty: it represents in a nutshell the essense of the European project.

Garibaldy’s assertion that if the Irish government decided to “nationalise important parts of the economy there wouldn’t be a whole lot the EU could practically do about it” is unreal. Any such action would be in breach of EU treaties or EU directives. Try to nationalise telecoms, for example, and you will be in breach of directive 90/338/EEC, legislate for a state monopoly of electricity generation, and you will be in breach of directive 96/92/EC, and so on. If a member state were to breach a directive in such a flagrant manner it would be immediately hauled before the ECJ and subjected to punitive fines and other sanctions.

As an EU member state, Ireland has about as much discretion to socialise its economy as the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic had to privatise its economy. They might have got away with increasing the size of private vegetable patches in collective farms; we might get away with a keeping a nationalised postal service – although I wouldn’t count on it.

A socialist economic policy cannot be pursued within the EU. It is a legal impossibility. This is the elephant in the living room of Irish left-wing politics.

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WorldbyStorm - August 18, 2009

Those are very valid points you make about directives… But even that said it doesn’t matter because the consensus is that we are a member and will remain a member of the EU. And the popularity of same is increasing. So we have to start working towards reshaping them. And that requires strong efforts to combine with other left progressive forces to rescind those directives.

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Garibaldy - August 18, 2009

I understand the point about the directives Thoreau, which is why I mentioned the necessity for political will at the same time. If I recall correctly – and I mightn’t be doing so – both the French and the Germans went beyond the convergence criteria without punishment.

A comprehensively socialist economic policy is impossible within the EU I agree. But there are lots that can be done that would build towards a more socialist economy still. And we have socialised important parts of our economy, just as everyone else has. Unfortunately, not on the right terms.

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Thoreau - August 22, 2009

Aha! Now I grasp the strategy.

We have to “start working towards reshaping” the EU directives that stand in the way of a socialist transformation of the economy in combination “with other left progressive forces”. Once the red flag has been raised over Leinster House there’ll be a guaranteed 7 votes out of 345 in the council of ministers on the side of socialism. Why, we’d only need another 166 or so to start rescinding directives.

Admittedly, those are Nice figures and under Lisbon our voting strength would be somewhat reduced, but given enough political will I’m sure all such procedural obstacles can and will be overcome.

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WorldbyStorm - August 22, 2009

Thoreau, while very valid it does seem like a counsel of despair. Given the structures in place and the strength of the forces underpinning them what strategy do you propose that can ameliorate the situation in the near to mid term?

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Garibaldy - August 22, 2009

In response to Thoreau’s comments above here. There is no disagreement that any serious socialist (or perhaps even old-school social democratic) government in any country is going to meet hostility from the EU. Whereas he seems to be suggesting that the first priority of the left must be withdrawal from the EU in order to be able to build a more socialist economy, the rest of us are arguing to do what we can at the present time.

It is unrealistic at the present time to raise the demand for withdrawal from the EU. It is not unrealistic to demand that the state starts to take a greater role in our economic life. The banks are already effectively nationalised. There is one of the commanding heights of industry that can be taken over within the current framework. We’ve seen other EU governments violate EU rules by tying subsidies (themselves most likely violation of the strict rules) to staying within national borders. Membership of the EU of course restricts economic freedom. But there are numerous examples of governments breaking the rules and getting away with it. Hence my point about political will.

Any socialist government would be looking to withdraw from the EU. But the idea that we can’t change large factors of our economic circumstances because of the EU is simply not the case. As WBS says, to throw up our hands and say we can’t change anything until we change everything is impractical and defeatist.

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30. John Green - August 18, 2009

The people who gave up on economics were those who thought it began and ended with Marx, particularly the parties of the far left. The rest of the Left continues to generate all sorts of economic theorizing, from Naomi Klein to Giovanni Arrighi to Sylvia Federici to Michael Albert to Antoni Negri to David Harvey and beyond, and the materialists can still be found in the universities if you know where to look, only they now combine economics with social, political, sex, cultural and gender analysis because they understand that economics permeates and is permeated by all these other aspects of human life.

I think maybe you’re looking in the wrong place.

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WorldbyStorm - August 18, 2009

Again, no disagreement, just that in order to counter in this state the right wing consensus it seems reasonable to offer a strong and coherent economic policy alternative that encompasses a range of areas and indeed draws upon those names you mention.

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31. Garibaldy - August 18, 2009

John,

I think that the materialism in those who attempt to blend the analyses tends to go out the window, though there are some who can blend the lot.

Of course the type of issues you mention must be addressed by socialists, but not at the expense of the core of society, the economy and the distribution of wealth. Which is what I feel has happened in far far too many cases.

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32. John Green - August 18, 2009

Hi WBS–

No disagreement on that either, only on what constitutes “coherent”! 😉

Hi Garibaldy–

I agree with you too, although it depends what you mean by the “core of society.” It’s my belief that the purpose of any society is the reproduction of people of a particular type or types (in order, usually, to perpetuate a system of exploitation), and that types that do not fit the required model are deliberately discriminated against in a whole variety of ways, including economically. Debates over the economy and the distribution of wealth generally don’t deal with things like wages for housework, an examination of other forms of unpaid labour, the cost to society of the loss of the commons and extraction of natural resources, nor why any of these are not usually considered part of “the economy.” I don’t mean to say that traditional economic analyses don’t have their role to play, only that for the Left to provide a “coherent” economic solution, they have to integrate all these aspects if they are to offer a genuine alternative.

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WorldbyStorm - August 18, 2009

As it happens I’m strongly in agreement with you here and as i think we discussed before, Andre Gorz for one was concerned hugely with the issue of unpaid labour and how a socialist society would engage with that. I still think his thoughts stand up on that score. And certainly despite the idea that he is somehow post-Marxist I would see his ideas rooted in the pragmatism Garibaldy and I would champion as well as the revolutionary reworking of society, and not in an utterly statist fashion either.

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33. Garibaldy - August 18, 2009

I couldn’t agree more on things like housework, and environmental factors will have to play a much greater role than they have done up to now. Although I think it might be a little unfair to the left to say they haven’t touched on these issues. Just to pick up on the issue of women in society. We see lots of complaining about stick thin models or what have you – and absolutely we should. But the same people tend to complain a lot less about the pay gap and low paid work among women. That’s what I mean about identity or perhaps cultural politics missing out on the core issues. I agree with what you’re saying about the need to integrate.

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34. John Green - August 18, 2009

Hi WBS–

Yup, Gorz it was. Nothing wrong with being post-Marxist. 😉

Hi Garibaldy–

I get what you’re saying. There’s plenty of bemusement to go round about the way the middle classes hijacked or at the very least used the women’s and civil rights movements for their own ends. There was/is a socialist alternative, however, as you rightly point out, and I’d trace it back to the soixante-huitard thinking of people like Cohn-Bendit, Castoriadias, and, subsequently, Gorz (and NOT those wankers the Situationists).

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WorldbyStorm - August 18, 2009

Agreed, it’s the destination, not the vehicle. Although needless to say I’ll usually trust one built up by Marxists and post and ex Marxists of the left and just those on the left than other vehicles… 🙂

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WorldbyStorm - August 19, 2009

I always thought they were sort of interesting. After all, a movement that can influence music in the way they did… sorry, that’s in response to you cogadh

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cogadh - August 19, 2009

Out of interest, why were the Situationists ‘wankers’?

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35. Myth Story From Padang, West Sumatera - August 19, 2009

[…] It’s the Economy, Stupid! « The Cedar Lounge Revolution […]

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36. skidmarx - August 19, 2009

Can those vehicle come back to life like the Trabant?
http://in.reuters.com/article/entertainmentNews/idINIndia-41802720090817

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37. WorldbyStorm - August 19, 2009

Yes! Yes they can!

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38. John Green - August 19, 2009

Hi Cogadh–

They were splitters!*

*Not Raoul Vaneigem, though. He was ace.

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39. Urban_Underclass - August 21, 2009

Given the current total failure of our right wing economic system, and the earlier total failure of the Soviet system, I’m personally inclined to think that all schools of macro economic thinking are simply opinions, points of view, wishful thinking.
Maybe someone needs to write a new book on the subject, one that starts with proven left wing micro economic systems like Credit Unions and Co-operatives and extrapolates from there into a macro economic system.

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40. WorldbyStorm - August 21, 2009

That may be very close to the truth U_U.

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41. Jim Monaghan - August 21, 2009

Has anyone read Kieran Allens latest analysis. As far as I know he is the only far leftist to engage on economic issues. I would be interested in critiques of this and others. I find most left economic stuff as moralistic and not “real”.This is especially true of reformist stuff. ” if only bankers etc were not so greedy”. To me that is the nature of the beast.
The initial question is who is to pay. Nama and the rest of the taxes and cuts seems to me a policy that the poor and the relatively poor will pay. The refusal of judges, senior Civil Servants etc.to forego some of their ridiculous wage rises is an illustration of this.

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42. Thoreau - August 22, 2009

Garibaldy writes that “The banks are already effectively nationalised. There is one of the commanding heights of industry that can be taken over within the current framework.”

I couldn’t disagree more. The state has nationalised the empty shell of Anglo-Irish Bank, bestowing its bad debts on the public in the process. The state may yet follow the same course of action in relation to other bankrupt banks. This may be socialism for the bankers, but it isn’t socialism for the people.

What an EU member state will never do (because it cannot) is establish a state monopoly in the banking sector. So the question is this: how can the left put economic demands at the centre of its programme when the Irish state has been divested (or, more correctly, has divested itself) of its powers to direct the economy?

My answer is that it can’t – unless it also puts the re-empowerment of the state (and thereby the re-empowerment of its citizens) at the centre of its programme. In this way, the struggle for liberty – the struggle to roll back the process of euro-bureaucratisation and to expand the political sphere – can go forward hand in hand with the struggle for equality.

Whether that struggle culminates in an Ireland outside the EU, or in a transformed EU, only the course of events can determine.

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WorldbyStorm - August 22, 2009

But again, in terms of the balance of forces arrayed in support of the EU project in this society, how do you propose a short to medium term strategy to achieve the goals you seek (which by the way are precisely the goals I seek too)?

And I generally agree with your analysis of the banking sector. That said I think it is possible to contravene EU directives successfully as France and Germany have (as noted by Garibaldy). Indeed if we look at France we see a society which in many areas is actually closer to pre-Thatcher UK than any of the other large states in Europe in terms of the strength of the state, its role in economic activity, etc.

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Garibaldy - August 22, 2009

I agree entirely that the banks have not been nationalised in the way we would like to see, as I noted in an earlier comment. But the fact remains that the state in several countries in the EU has taken possession of huge parts of the banking sector without a peep from the EU. You are correct to point out that I am failing to make the point about a monopoly of banking or many other industries. But there is the power to have prominent state companies and tough employment laws that can better people’s conditions, and be a vital basis for building for the future.

And in all honesty, when the time comes that a radical socialist government in Ireland is considering these questions, I suspect that the EU would be fairly far from the top of their priorities or concerns.

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Thoreau - August 24, 2009

It’s perfectly true to say that the balance of forces in this society support the EU project; one might as well say that the balance of forces in this society support “an open market economy with free competition”. The task facing the left is to build a majority for an alternative vision of society.

Socialist economics must form the core element of that alternative vision but the struggle for democracy – the struggle to wrest back power for the elected representatives of the people – will also be important.

Comparisons are odious, and historical comparisons may be the most odious of all, but in terms of democracy our current situation bears comparison with that of the German empire before 1918. Then there was universal (male) suffrage, the most advanced system of social welfare in the world, a powerful trade union movement, a Reichstag dominated by the Social Democrats; crucially, however, neither the electorate nor the legislature controlled the executive.

As citizens of an EU member state we have as little control over the policies adopted by the ECB, the council of ministers and the commission as the Kaiser’s subjects had over their rulers a century ago. Despite the existence of universal, secret, equal suffrage, the Reichstag then and Leinster House now are little more than glorified talking shops. The disconnection between power and politics has undermined public confidence in the latter.

The next round in the struggle to reverse the process will be fought on October 2nd.

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43. Identity Politics Good. Class Politics Better. « The Cedar Lounge Revolution - August 23, 2009

[…] at the University of Illinois at Chicago. The article touches on some of the themes raised in this recent piece I wrote on the necessity for the left to concentrate on economic issues, specifically the failure […]

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44. Class Politics Versus Identity Politics « Garibaldy Blog - August 23, 2009

[…] at the University of Illinois at Chicago. The article touches on some of the themes raised in this recent piece I wrote on the necessity for the left to concentrate on economic issues, specifically the failure […]

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45. “Tony Blair’s great legacy has been to achieve Margaret Thatcher’s ambition” « The Cedar Lounge Revolution - January 24, 2010

[…] the fact is that the left itself has turned away from the centrality of economics, as we discussed here and then here last August. Essentially, the Labour Party in both Britain and the Republic has […]

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