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David Cameron visits NuneatonWhen the British Conservative Party announced at its 2013 conference that it had the interests of “hard-working people” at heart, they invoked a mantra long propagated by an out of touch political class. “Hard-work”, we’re often told, is a positive thing in and of itself, regardless of its social effects or the impact it has on the individual actually carrying it out. The term, employed in the rhetoric of both the left and the right, is rarely challenged and forms much of what is viewed as “common sense”. Hard work is seen as a virtue, a service to the nation and an ideal to aspire to.

Yet, when we are honest with ourselves, most of us hate work. It’s why Mondays are grim and Fridays are awesome. It’s why we spend most of our week days watching the clock in eager anticipation of 5 o’clock, all the time wishing our lives away. The person who claims to enjoy “hard work” is either a liar or intensely boring. A recent Gallup poll found that, across the globe, only 13% of people actually like going to work. This is unsurprising, given that work for most people under capitalism is often low paid, unrewarding, stressful, degrading and tedious.

There is nothing noble about coming home from work mentally, physically and emotionally exhausted. Neglecting your friends and family in favour of helping your boss make more profits is not virtuous. And restricting the time you spend on developing talents such as music, art or sports because of your excessive working hours is not only detrimental to you personally, but is also detrimental to wider society. How many people with the musical potential of Jimi Hendrix have been unable to develop their talents because they had to spend the majority of their life in a factory? How many potentially great writers have been unable to express themselves like George Orwell or Oscar Wilde because the bulk of their energies were channelled into working in a supermarket?

Since the onset of the financial crisis in 2008, trade unions and the left have argued for the creation of more jobs to tackle unemployment. Yet, in doing so, they have failed to highlight one of the most absurd contradictions of capitalism; the fact that there are 200 million people unemployed across the globe, while those who are in employment are generally overworked. Rather than increasing the number of jobs, we should be arguing for existing jobs to be shared out while simultaneously reducing the length of the working week.

The New Economics Foundation (NEF) recently outlined a strong economic, ecological and social case for reducing the standard working week to 21 hours – something that has the potential to resonate in the 21st century. Less work can assist in the fight against climate change and allow us to live more sustainable lives. The fast-pace of our working lives forces us into many environmentally and socially destructive habits. We drive cars because they are deemed to be more “convenient” instead of using less carbon-intensive public transport. And instead of growing our own food, many people consume nutritionless ready meals and packed vegetables which, as the NEF shows, are grossly more damaging to the eco-system.

Trips abroad can also become more ecologically friendly than the carbon-intensive short-term holidays of modern capitalist society. As it stands, most people can only avail of two or three weeks away from their jobs at any one time, meaning slower modes of transport, such as trains, are not a viable way of visiting a foreign country. If workers were given the opportunity to take a number of months off at one time, in exchange for working extended hours at another time of the year, what is to stop them getting a train to Beijing or a ship to New York? The mass use of airplanes merely emphasises the sheer rush and intensity of modern life, as people seek to maximize the amount of leisure they manage to squeeze into the meagre time they have away from work.

In 1930, British economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that technological advancement would allow people in the 21st century to enjoy a 15-hour work week. Leisure time, it was suggested, would become so plentiful that people would struggle to find enough activities to occupy themselves. Yet, despite a rise in productivity and the abundance of material goods, these predictions failed to materialise. Across Europe, the average working week stands at 41.6 hours, and that doesn’t include time spent commuting to and from work.

The ‘work ethic’

Negative aspects of any class society, such as inequality, ecological degradation and social deprivation, need to be justified or excused by widely propagated myths in order to be sustained. The excessive working hours endured by most people is justified by the work ethic, as exemplified in the Conservative Party’s condescending slogan lauding “hard-working” people (the inference being that those deemed not to be “hard-working” are less deserving and less eligible for political representation).

The worship of work is as old as capitalism itself, and it is under the unique characteristics of capitalism as a mode of production that the work ethic takes hold. Under slavery and feudalism, work was seen as a negative thing, something that was bestowed upon humans from God as punishment for ‘original sin’. Ancient societies in Greece and Rome saw human labour as something to be avoided at any cost. Work was for the slaves — the lowest rungs of society. Before capitalism, most labour was done out of necessity. In feudal Europe, for example, peasants produced their own food and the surplus was passed onto the lord who owned the land. Since the production of huge surpluses was not necessary, people enjoyed extended periods of leisure once they produced what was needed. Work did not define individuals, as is the case today; work was merely a means to an end.

The Protestant Reformation challenged the traditional idea of work, with Martin Luther arguing that God’s Will could be fulfilled by individuals working hard. Labour was seen as a service to God, an outlook which helped to normalise the long, gruelling working hours which defined the Industrial Revolution. These ideas proved useful for an economic system which was based on, as Marx wrote, production “for production’s sake”. Max Weber, who coined the term ‘the Protestant work ethic’, argued that the rise of these ideas ensured that capitalism would surface in Europe before it would in any other part of the planet.

The work ethic transformed over time, gradually becoming more secular to reflect societal values. Where people once served God, we now aim to be seen as “contributing” to society, a perverse form of social Darwinism under which humans beings must justify their existence through “hard work” before they can benefit from the fruits of civilisation. The unemployed, the elderly and the disabled are seen as a “burden” on society, living a life of luxury at the expense of the mythical “taxpayer”.

In the United States, the ‘American Dream’ played on the unrealistic aspirations held by many working people, who were conned into believing they could one day be millionaires, provided they put in the work. During the World Wars and the subsequent recovery, the population was called upon to work in the ‘national interest’, a term which has been resurrected by the right following the global financial collapse of 2008. Today, as Sharon Beder pointed out, “the work ethic is promoted primarily in terms of work being a responsibility both to the family and the nation”. She went on to explain:

“As we begin the twenty first century work and production has become ends in themselves. Employment has become such a priority that much environmental degradation is justified merely on the grounds that it provides jobs. And people are so concerned to keep their jobs that they are willing to do what their employers require of them even if they believe it is wrong or environmentally destructive.”

The capitalist work ethic is often used as a vicious weapon of class warfare. It dehumanises us and commodifies our very being. We are not seen as individuals with aspirations and interests; we are mere beasts of burden, with the sole life purpose of “working hard”. Our lives should not be defined merely by productivity nor should we have to justify our existence by proving to others our ability and willingness to “work hard”. Human progress is about overcoming the need for human toil as much as is practicable, and this is a case the left needs to make. As the great Scottish trade unionist Jimmy Reid once quipped: “A rat race is for rats. We are not rats. We are human beings.”

This article was published in the Morning Star

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Next month, the leaders of the world’s eight richest countries will convene in County Fermanagh to hammer out how meddlesome foreign policies and a destructive economic doctrine known as austerity will be implemented over the next twelve months.  The G8 summit has been accompanied by an imposing mixture of merriment, glee and propaganda, revealing much about the state of Northern Ireland’s obedient local media.

The propaganda takes both a positive and a negative form.  On one hand, “business leaders” hail the summit as an enormous boost for the local economy, the silver bullet needed to rejuvenate a rural county long forgotten by policy makers. Absurd claims of a tourism boost go largely uncontested in a buttering-up process intended to encourage the population to notice only the pleasant side of deficit hawks, war criminals and a mafia gangster.

On the other hand, a malicious smear campaign has been orchestrated, lumping entirely peaceful protesters together with dissident republicans and fictional “anarchists”, who are said to exist in their thousands. The purpose of this is obvious. People are being intimidated with the threat of arrest and imprisonment if they take part in any counter demonstrations. The ‘liberal’ local Justice Minister, David Ford, has set aside an entire wing of the maximum security Maghaberry prison for “rioters” while the PSNI have employed the use of surveillance drones, remarkable by the fact that no main party in Stormont has so far voiced any concerns.

Press releases issued by the PSNI and local government have, predictably, been regurgitated by a local press eager for an easy news story. In a bizarre front page article earlier this month, the Irish News reported that “thousands of anarchists” were intending to take over buildings in Belfast during the summit. The scaremongering is blatant. Yet, any analysis explaining why many people feel the need to protest against the G8 is glaringly absent in the vast majority of news reports. Of course, little of this is surprising.

Since the end of the conflict in the north fifteen years ago, a new “common sense” has taken hold. The public sector is said to be “bloated” and the only remedy for our weak economy is to lure foreign investment by radically slashing taxes for the rich. The politics of green and orange is overlapped by an economic consensus which contends that “the markets” know best, taxes should be minimal and the role of the state is merely to facilitate the successful operation of private business.  Dublin academic Conor McCabe, author of Sins of the Father, describes this as the “double transition” – a transition towards both peace and neo-liberalism. “Eastern Europe, South Africa and Northern Ireland,” he wrote, “are all unique in terms of the dynamics of their history and geography. What they have in common is that they found themselves as societies in transition at a time when economic thought had solidified around neo-liberal principles.” To oppose an administration which has overseen a doubling of unemployment in six years is to oppose the ‘peace process’. “Sure it’s better than the Troubles,” is the popular reaction.  

The adherence to neo-liberalism is clear to be seen in the approach of politicians and mainstream commentators. “I think this will be a brilliant advertisement for Northern Ireland,” gloated David Cameron when the announcement about the summit was first made. “I want the world to see just what a fantastic place Northern Ireland is – a great place for business, a great place for investment, a place with an incredibly educated and trained workforce ready to work for international business”. Northern Ireland is no longer a country (not that I ever accepted that it was); it’s a business and should be run as such. The economy should be, above all else, “competitive” – a euphemism for low wages and high profits. So goes the conventional narrative.

Despite this apparent negativity, the G8 summit is an opportunity to challenge this tedious narrative. On Saturday, June 15, thousands will pack the streets of Belfast to demonstrate their opposition to the policies of those attending the summit. On the following Monday, another rally will make its way from Enniskillen towards the Lough Erne Hotel where the summit is being held. The smears and intimidation shouldn’t discourage anyone from attending either protest.

As well as these demonstrations a four-day festival of political discussion, comedy and music will take place in Belfast. Organised by activists from ICTU Youth and the Belfast Trades Council, the ‘Another World is Possible Festival’ is an opportunity for discussion, debate and activism. Highlight speakers include George Galloway and Tariq Ali, as well as trade union leaders from Nipsa, UNISON and Unite. I feel honoured to have taken part in the organising of this festival, particularly since we have received solidarity greetings from John Pilger, Noam Chomsky, Richard Wolf and others. The potential is there to inspire people to become involved in trade unionism and socialist politics who wouldn’t otherwise do so. The festival can begin to challenge the trite politics of Stormont, confront the dogma of “the markets” and build a movement for change. Ignore what is claimed in the media. This is not about damaging property or throwing bricks at the police. This is about the age old working-class principles of action; education, agitation and organisation.

We deserve a better kind of politics – and a better media, for that matter. If you’re angry at unemployment, cuts, bank bailouts, austerity, emigration, the divide-and-rule tactics of conservatives, racism, war, imperialism, inequality, the destruction of the environment, lousy wages, over work, immoral corporations, poverty, hunger or unrepresentative politicians, this festival is for you. No one’s political activity should be confined to sitting on an armchair screaming at the evening news. Everyone has the ability to change society. We don’t need to wait on odious sycophants such as Bono and Bob Geldof to raise the issues which affect the bulk of humanity. We have the ability to empower ourselves.

Another world is possible.

For a full listing of events, visit www.anotherworldispossiblebelfast.org or follow the festival on Twitter @AntiG8Protest

This article was published in the Morning Star

DublinAirportT2DeparturesGeneric_largeThis week, rivers were dyed green, tricolours hoisted high and rebel songs passionately belted out as millions around the world celebrated whatever tenuous link they have with Ireland. On Saint Patrick’s Day, everyone is Irish. Yet, for me, and many others, the festivities over the past number of years have been marred by a bleak spectacle all too common in Ireland. Mass emigration has returned to the country at levels higher than they were during the 1980s. More than 87,000 people left the south of the country last year, bringing the total number of emigrants since 2008 to more than 200,000. With youth unemployment currently hovering at around 25%, this is hardly surprising news.

Those of us still living in Ireland don’t need figures to confirm what we know from first-hand experience. The impact emigration has had on places such as my home town, Lurgan, can be clearly seen in the half-full local bars, boarded-up shops and hallowed out sports clubs. On a personal level, emigration has taken a considerable toll, with some of my closest friends now living in Australia, Scotland and England, having escaped the depressing prospect of unemployment. Celebrating your Irishness can be a somewhat empty affair when those who you grew up with are scattered around the globe.

Last year, I left Ireland to teach English in South Korea. My departure was not so much a result of unemployment, but the result of another crisis affecting the country – the low wage crisis. Despite working full-time, I made just enough money to pay for heating, groceries and rent. Like thousands of others, my disposable income was non-existent and, consequently, I had no savings to speak of. In contrast, my South Korean employer paid me a handsome salary as well as the rent for a furnished apartment. I earned enough money to save, travel and enjoy life. Why would I not make the move? Thousands of others around the country face similar choices.

At a time when the austerity zealots are looting the economies of Europe, the imposing fact that wages have not risen in real terms since the 1980s remains the great taboo, largely unspoken in political discourse. Along with Thatcher and Regan’s suppression of trade unions came the predictable fall in the proportion of the planet’s wealth owned by working people. A example of this was starkly laid out in a report commissioned by the TUC in 2011, which found that had wages in the UK grown at the same rate as the wider economy, British workers would collectively be earning £60 billion more than they earn today. Similar results can be found in countries across the globe, not least in Ireland. Combined with the extortionate rents or crippling mortgages which line the pockets of landlords, bankers and property developers, it was only a matter of time before repressed wages became a wider societal problem.

Yet, the ‘solutions’ being proposed on both sides of the border address none of these issues. The Fine Gael/Labour coalition in the south has shown itself to be disturbingly obsessed with the will of the markets, proving themselves to be the Troika’s ‘model students’. In a society where reactionary Catholicism is rightly being marginalised, money has become the new religion. “The markets” are the new gods to be appeased, economic “experts” the high priests to be obeyed. The language used by those who worshiped the gods of Olympus is resurgent, with daily media reports on how “the markets” react to global events. Like Zeus, “the markets” can be “upset” by or “approve” of the actions of us mere mortals. “Sacrifices” must be made to please the gods or we could incur their wrath. In his St Patrick’s Day address to the US Chamber of Commerce, Taoiseach Enda Kenny boasted of these “sacrifices” made by Irish people at the altar of austerity. In a letter to the Irish Times last month, just after the Croke Park II negotiations, one university lecturer explained the impact these “sacrifices” have had on him and his family:

“Once again the government and the unions have betrayed us – as it happens as a public servant I earn exactly €65,0000. Currently with all the deductions from my salary I take home €29,000! From that figure – just to be able to get to pay my mortgage and get work and back each day it costs me €14,900 a year – that leaves my family with €14,100 to live on.

“The new pay cut of 5.5% will reduce the €29,000 by €3,575 this means I will take home €25,425. So I will now have the grand total of €10,525 for my family to live on! In the next 2 years I will have 2 college age children – the average registration fees will be about €3,500 each per year! This means that as a college lecturer I will not be able to afford to send my own children to college. I haven’t been able to tell them that there’s little point in them studying hard in the leaving cert as no matter how well they do it will take a miracle for them to be able to go to college.”

This is the reality for many in the south of Ireland today. It is the inevitable result of the fanatical dogma which recoils in horror at the thought of billionaire financiers suffering losses on dodgy gambles while, at the same time, not batting an eyelid at the spectacle of a generation of young people fleeing a country which offers them no opportunities.  In the north, where the situation is little better, insecure, depressing, low-paid jobs in call centres and supermarkets are presented as the pinnacle of economic development, the dividend of a decade of peace. While our political classes busily applaud themselves for their ‘peacemaking’ and being the ‘good boys’ of Europe, young Irish people now find themselves in a situation where they are more welcome in far off places like Sydney, New York and Seoul than they are in Dublin, Cork or Belfast.

What a disgrace.

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More than 100,000 people took to the streets around Ireland on Saturday (February 9) to demonstrate against the €64 billion bank debt which has been forced onto the country’s population. The protests, organised by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, marked the end of a busy week in Irish politics, which saw the publication of a report into the barbaric Magdalene Laundries, the liquidation of the former Anglo-Irish Bank and the announcement of a supposed “deal” on the hated promissory notes. Basic democratic standards took a hit on each occasion.

Although the population have been subjected to a relentless campaign of government spin and misinformation, those who attended Saturday’s rallies were well aware that the “deal” presented to the population earlier in the week was merely an extension of the calamitous bank guarantee which Brian Cowen and Brian Lenihan condemned this country to. As a result, Ireland will pay for almost half of the total cost of Europe’s banking crisis, with every citizen coughing up €9,000 – compared to a European average of €191. Over the next 40 years, because of our political class’s dread of seeing billionaire speculators suffer a loss, the country’s population will witness hospital closures and mass emigration in order to repay a loan which they never took out. This is the incessant “no bondholder left behind” approach so eagerly adopted by Fine Gael, Labour and Fianna Fáil. “We are not going to have the name ‘defaulter’ written across our foreheads,” boasted Taoiseach Enda Kenny. “We will pay our way, we have never looked for a debt write-down.” The only concern this government has with paying off an illegitimate debt, it seems, is the timing. It will now be paid off over four decades instead of one. So much for a “deal”. So much for our “partners” in the ECB.

The political class in Ireland have long been infatuated with the wealth of foreign capitalists. Since partition, our economy was built around the goal of attracting “foreign investment” rather than the development of native industries. Economic policy was constructed around the desires of the wealthy, more so than most other European nations, a situation which continues to the present day. It is the enduring continuation of “trickle-down theory”, the folly long promoted by Ronald Regan and Margaret Thatcher which contends that the more wealth those at the top accumulate, the more those at the bottom will benefit. The global stagnation of wages in the midst of rising CEO pay over the last three decades is proof of its failure.

Despite the gravity of last week’s events, as well as the wider drive for austerity in general, the ICTU leadership succeeded only in completely neutering the message of Saturday’s rallies. A comedian, a rapper and musicians dominated the stage outside Government Buildings in Dublin in what seemed to be a deliberate attempt to depoliticise the protest. The crowd was entertained rather than radicalised by an uninspired display devoid of any political content. Its success in entertaining those in attendance was affirmed by the droves of protesters who departed the rally early.

The overall message of the demonstrations was carefully crafted by a trade union leadership determined to pursue a social partnership model which has immensely weakened the movement. The ire of the top brass was directed solely at the EU/ECB/IMF Troika, and not the government which has chosen to implement their policies, betraying pre-election promises. Rather than demanding the outright repudiation of a debt that we have no moral obligation to pay back, the ICTU leadership is content to call for a “better deal”.

Bland, apolitical campaigns which fail even to inspire otherwise enthusiastic activists are unlikely to reverse the drop in trade union membership we have seen over the past number of decades. The opportunity to send out a radical message on Saturday was entirely squandered. This is a somewhat unsurprising consequence, given that this same leadership failed to take a position on the Fiscal Compact Treaty last year which enshrined austerity into EU law.

As we approach the centenary of the great class battle which occurred during the Dublin Lockout, the contrast between Larkin and Connolly and the present leadership couldn’t be greater. It’s time for change.

This article was published in The Morning Star

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Nye Bevan wasn’t far off the mark when he said: “No amount of cajolery, and no attempts at ethical or social seduction, can eradicate from my heart a deep burning hatred for the Tory Party. So far as I am concerned they are lower than vermin.”

On Tuesday (January 8), the Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition took another step in their ideological assault on Britain’s welfare state, capping benefit rises to 1% a year. Having run a shameless, but ultimately successful, misinformation campaign to pitch those in work against the unemployed, the Welfare Reform Bill was passed through parliament against the feeble and unprincipled opposition of the Labour Party.

Despite the spectacle of a front-bench of millionaires, many of whom inherited their wealth, laughing and sneering as the bill passed through parliament, the move will enjoy a certain level of support among working people. Almost everyone has been subjected to a friend or colleague decrying fictional neighbours who live in mansions and drive BMWs, despite never having worked a day in their lives. This false consciousness, which sees low-paid working people direct their ire at the unemployed, is widespread. It’s a convenient distraction for bosses who refuse to pay workers a decent wage. One woman, interviewed by Channel Four news on the night of the vote, complained that she had not seen a pay rise “in years”. “Why should they [the unemployed] get more?” she asked. The fact that she didn’t criticise her boss is indicative of how deeply ingrained this attitude is.

What is rarely mentioned by politicians and media figures is that the vast majority spent of benefits goes to people who are in work. Indeed, more than 60% of people affected by Tuesday’s benefits cut have a job. Research carried out by the British TUC confirmed this and showed that those who tend to complain most about benefits are usually the least informed on the subject. It was found that on average people believe that 41 per cent of the welfare budget goes on benefits to unemployed people. The actual figure is 3 per cent. It also found that benefit fraud amounts to a mere 0.7% of the welfare budget. The £1 billion which the state loses due to benefit fraud is a small matter when compared with the £70 billion which goes missing as a result of rich people evading their taxes.

A vast array of vocabulary now occupies the airwaves in any discussion about welfare. “Cheats”, “scroungers” and “workshy” are among the terms used to dehumanise those who cannot be accommodated by the capitalist system. “Skivers and strivers”, the most recent terms used by the Con-Dem government, are particularly disturbing and insulting.

That a media campaign orchestrated by a gang of millionaires has had such a resonance among working people is more than depressing. Stoking up bitterness among those in work against the unemployed is part of an on-going and deliberate effort by the Conservative Party to divide our class; private sector against public sector; union against non-union; immigrant against native; young against old. The anti-welfare crusade has even instilled a sense of shame among those who legitimately claim benefits. Sarah Teather, one of the few Lib Dem MPs who voted against the bill, said:

“People who come to my constituency office these days for help with some kind of error in their benefits often spend the first few minutes trying to justify their worth. They usually begin by trying to explain their history of working and that they have paid tax. They are desperate to get over the point that they are not like other benefit claimants – they are not a scrounger. It is perhaps a feature of the way in which the term ‘scroungers’ has become so pervasive in social consciousness that even those on benefits do not attempt to debunk the entire category, only to excuse themselves from the label.”

Along with the insistence that some poor people are “deserving” and others “undeserving”, we are expected to believe that the less well-off will only work harder when they are given less money while the wealthy will only work hard if they are given more money. The rich are well aware of the existence and importance of class, despite their claims to the contrary. In attacking wages, social security and working conditions, they are waging a class war against the vast majority. It is no mere coincidence that those who opposed the creation of the welfare state in the first place are now attempting to dismantle it, without even the semblance of a mandate.

The problem is not with the benefits system; the problem is an economic system which consistently fails to provide employment or hope to a significant section of the population. Globally, there is a lot of work which humanity needs to carry out. Investment in alternative energy sources should be a pressing concern, along with an expansion of social housing and improvement of the public transport system. Yet, with all this necessary work needing to be done, the capitalist system has consigned more than 200 million people around the world into enforced idleness.

Our class squabbling amongst each other has given a free pass to those seeking to undo the gains made by the labour movement over the past 60 years. The NHS is being privatised, social security is being decimated and living standards for working people are falling. We all need to realise that attacking the living standards of others, whether unemployed or public sector workers, will not improve our own lot. We need to unite and we need to organise.

This article was published in The Morning Star

Socialism and economic democracy

For many, capitalism is synonymous with democracy. It’s said to provide people with the freedom to ‘choose’ and empowers consumers. It’s popularly believed that, since we in the west are able to vote once every four or five years, we live in healthy democratic societies in which the people are sovereign. This notion of democracy is a glaringly shallow one, however. Under this setup, one’s average democratic input amounts to around two votes every decade – not exactly power of the people. During the long periods in between the occasional election, we live under the almost total domination of our bosses.

Capitalism is a profoundly anti-democratic system. Workplaces, where we spend the majority of our lives, are run on an authoritarian basis, with workers given almost no say on how production is organised. Key investment decisions are taken by unaccountable, unelected wealthy individuals in pursuit of private profit, while employment of human labour is subject to the whims of “the markets”. Although we enjoy a certain amount of political democracy – and that is not to be taken for granted – we live under what is essentially an economic dictatorship. A key political task for socialists in the 21st century is to highlight the lack of democracy which exists when it comes to economics. A deeper and more participatory form of democracy should be strongly advocated. As journalist Peter Tatchell said: “We expect political democracy. Why not economic democracy too?”

Democracy under socialism necessarily means economic democracy. Those who work in a certain organisation should be entitled to have a say on how it is run on the basis of one person one vote. Managers should be elected and decisions made democratically. This may sound unrealistic to many, who have been conditioned to believe that only those with “special talents” have the ability to run economies. Paul Foot did an admirable job of tearing down this common assumption when he wrote about US industrialist Howard Hughes. Describing him as a “mediocrity”, he wrote:

“He started life as playboy and ended it as a lunatic. He had no ability at all. Yet through a mixture of luck and the ability to read a balance sheet, Hughes became the boss of a gigantic financial and industrial empire. He was able, almost alone, to nominate the President of the United States, Richard Nixon, who also had no ability, knowledge or skill of any kind. Howard Hughes designed an aeroplane which crashed and directed a film which was a monumental failure. He couldn’t do anything which mattered. Yet he made the decisions. The list is endless. Successful capitalists, almost to a man, are not people with any natural ability. Yet they decide what the experts do…They decide that engineers must build the Concordes. They decide that physicists must work on nuclear weapons.”

Given the current state of the world’s economy, it is clear that those who control it are unable to carry out their task in a humane, logical and sane manner. If the economy was organised democratically, would the results really be worse than what we are experiencing at present? Should we really expect to see the same level of economic chaos, environmental destruction and extreme inequality which occurs under the existing system? With the proper training, experience and education, there’s no reason why most people would not be able to acquire the skills necessary to help organise an economy. As David Schweikhart asked in his pioneering book, After Capitalism: “We deem ordinary people competent enough to select mayors, governors, even presidents. We regard them as capable of selecting legislators who will decide their taxes, who will make laws that, if violated, consign them to prison, and who can send them off, the young ones, to kill and die in war. Should we really ask if ordinary people are competent enough to elect their bosses?”

Actually existing economic democracy

And rather than abstractly theorise about what form democracy would take under socialism, we can look to real life examples – worker co-operatives. They are practical living alternatives to authoritarian capitalism and serve as vital tools in educating working people on how the economy operates on a daily basis. They have a proven track record of success, many of which would be the envy of capitalists the world over, and show that production can be carried out without bosses looking over the shoulders of workers.

One of the world’s largest and most successful worker-led co-operatives is the Mondragon Corporation. Based in the Basque Country, it is currently the sixth largest company in Spain and employs almost 100,000 people. And with an annual revenue of around €15 billion, it’s certainly not a small operation. Mondragon is entirely different from a modern corporation, however. All decisions are made by the workforce, who collectively own and control the firm, with job creation being seen as a key pillar of the organisation’s ethos. Writing for Yes magazine, Georgia Kelly and Shaula Massena, reported on what happened when the corporation was faced with difficult financial times:

“The worker/owners and the managers met to review their options. After three days of meetings, the worker/owners agreed that 20 percent of the workforce would leave their jobs for a year, during which they would continue to receive 80 percent of their pay and, if they wished, free training for other work. This group would be chosen by lottery, and if the company was still in trouble a year later, the first group would return to work and a second would take a year off. The result? The solution worked and the company thrives to this day.”

This stands in glaring contrast to the common spectacle of authoritarian companies who close down factories on a whim in order to exploit cheaper labour in the developing world. Had Mondragon’s principles of fairness and solidarity been existed across the economy, wages would not have stagnated, trade unions would not have been supressed and, most likely, we would not have experienced the crisis we are going through now. And since wages are set democratically by the workforce, Mondragon’s top executives receive a maximum income of six times more than the organisation’s lowest paid members. This is a remarkable figure, considering that Apple CEO, according to the Fortune 500 list, this year received 6,000 times more than the average worker at his company.

Although Mondragon and other co-operatives are not explicitly socialist, they do provide a model which progressives can emulate. It is part of a wider movement springing up around the world and is a living alternative to the workplace totalitarianism which most of us are subjected to. They give a small glimpse of what work life, as well as democracy, could be like under socialism. While acknowledging the important role they can play we must also, however, recognise their limitations. Ultimately, co-operatives are obligated to operate within a capitalist market. As such, they are unable to overcome some of the greater problems caused by capitalism, such as the destruction of the eco-system and the chaos which comes from the unplanned use of resources. They should be seen primarily as a living example of economic democracy and should be employed as a tool to challenge the legitimacy of capitalism.

A post capitalist society should ensure that workplaces are organised democratically. They should, however, be part of a national economic plan, which treats both human well-being and the survival of our ecosystem as top priorities. As has been argued previously, the most practical way to ensure the fairest allocation of resources is with a central economic plan worked out on a democratic basis.

Nora Castañeda, president of the Women’s Development Bank of Venezuela, summed up the economic goal of socialism well when she said: “We are creating an economy at the service of human beings instead of human beings at the service of an economy.”

Part One can be viewed here.

“The working class demands the right to make its mistakes and learn in the dialectic of history. Let us speak plainly. Historically, the errors committed by a truly revolutionary movement are infinitely more fruitful than the infallibility of the cleverest Central Committee.’’
Rosa Luxemburg

The demise of the Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellite states was greeted triumphantly by right-wing commentators the world over as evidence that capitalism, as a system, had defeated “socialism”. Francis Fukyama’s refrain, which has now become a sort of cliché, that history ended with the collapse of these states has now been shown to be remarkably short-sighted. Although socialism has yet to make much of an advance in Europe and North America, despite years of crisis, the current period is one which has exposed both the moral and financial bankruptcy of capitalism. The collapse of “actually existing” neo-liberalism has created fertile ground for progressives to offer long term solutions to the world’s political, economic and environmental problems.

The repression which occurred in the Eastern Bloc has long blackened the name of socialism. The inefficiencies of these economies, coupled with Stalinist totalitarianism, repelled many from supporting revolutionary change. The aberrations which occurred in these states are seen by a significant number of people as the natural outcome of attempts to build an alternative economic system. However mistaken this view may be, it is a genuinely held fear which needs to be addressed by socialists. Concrete alternatives, as well as a realignment of our political priorities, are required if we are to successfully renew socialism in the 21st century. These are issues I hope to address in the following articles.

The problem with capitalism

Before exploring the possibility of renewing socialism, it’s necessary to define the system we want to replace. Capitalism is an economic system in which the majority of the means of production – factories, workplaces, natural resources – are privately owned. Under this system, commodities are produced not for their use value, but to be sold in exchange for money. And because they do not own any means of production, the people who produce these commodities – workers – labour in exchange for a set wage paid by the people who do.

The case against capitalism is a strong one. The fact that 6 million children under the age of five die every year as a result of starvation and malnutrition on a planet with a food surplus should be enough to persuade anyone that the current economic is system is deeply flawed. The extreme level of inequality which exists is also disturbing. The Walton family, who own Wal Mart, possess more wealth that the poorest 40% of all Americans, while the world’s three richest individuals control more wealth than the poorest 600 million. The most pressing issue facing our species at the minute, however, is the environmental crisis. Capitalism, with its internal need to pursue unending economic growth, is unlikely to put an end to the destruction of our ecosystem. Surely humans are capable of building a better system than this?

No other system in human history has produced as many goods and as much technology as capitalism. For a minority of human beings, mostly in Europe and North America, it has improved standards of living, albeit on an extremely unequal basis. However, capitalism’s economic insanity shows that this system can no longer play a progressive role for humanity. It is a grossly illogical system, which allows thousands of people to sleep rough on the streets while countless homes lie empty. It is a system under which 200 million people are prevented from working, while those with jobs are, more often than not, overworked. It’s a system which wastes colossal amounts of human and natural resources on socially useless industries, such as advertising and, of course, war. In short, it is a system of economic anarchy.

The Soviet experience

If the left is serious about socialist ideas resonating among the general population again, a frank and honest appraisal of what occurred in the Soviet Union must take place. As well as condemning the many crimes committed under Stalinism, it’s also important to recognise the achievements of the planned economies. History is very rarely as simple as what is taught in schools. For example, life expectancy in China before the 1949 revolution was 35. Today, it is 73. Russia also went from being an underdeveloped, peasant society in 1917 to a world superpower which defeated Nazism in 1945. On top of this, free healthcare, free education, housing and full employment were provided to citizens. Even during the Great Depression, the USSR retained full employment. These things would not have happened without a centrally planned economy.

Following the October Revolution in 1917, the young Soviet State found itself in an extremely precarious position. Crippled by a world war which had taken the lives of millions of Russians, and a culturally backward society, the task of building socialism there was always going to be an uphill battle. The civil war, during which fourteen imperialist armies invaded Russia, physically decimated country’s working class, resulting in the political destruction of the institutions of workers’ democracy – the soviets. This gave rise to a powerful ‘Red’ bureaucracy which history now knows as Stalinism.

The problems in the Soviet Union were not caused by central planning per se, but by the fashion in which the bureaucracy carried out that planning. There was no democratic input on the part of the workforce and discussion was stifled. Industrialisation occurred at a rapid pace, causing much needless human misery. Socialists should not reject out of hand the idea of central planning because of the failures in the USSR. It is clearly the best way of ensuring that resources are distributed fairly and the needs of society are met. When faced with enormous difficulties, even capitalists agree with this. During the Second World War, the US and Britain planned production. Churchill and Roosevelt knew fine well that the “free market” could not meet the needs of the war effort.

Socialism, if it is to mean anything, should be about workers’ control and mass democracy. Clearly, these things did not exist for very long in the USSR, so to describe this state as “socialist”, in my view, is wrong. The tiresome argument that Marx and Engels would have endorsed this repressive system should not be taken seriously. As Tony Benn once said: “The Marxist analysis has got nothing to do with what happened in Stalin’s Russia: it’s like blaming Jesus Christ for the Inquisition in Spain.” And although it should not be regarded as socialist, neither would it be fair to describe the USSR as capitalist. Granted, there was most certainly a privileged elite at the top of Soviet society with superior access or education, health care and housing, but the means of production were controlled by the state and there was almost no inherited wealth.

What should also be acknowledged in this discussion is the devastation which the restoration of capitalism has caused in the former Soviet states. In a report for the World Bank in 1999, Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, wrote: “For eighteen of the twenty five countries [of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union] poverty on average has increased from 4% to 45% of the population…and life expectancy in these countries on average has fallen even while world life expectancy has risen by two years.” Between 1992 and 1994, Russia’s GDP collapsed by 42% – a bigger collapse than what the US experienced during the Great Depression. Suicide rates doubled and infant mortality was comparable to some third world countries. Russia’s “market reforms” had an immense human cost.

Previous attempts to build socialism failed. That does not mean, however, that future attempts are doomed to inevitable failure as well. Capitalism’s overthrow of feudalism, which required a number of revolutionary attempts, did not come about overnight. The same may be true for socialism. Rather than taking a dogmatic approach, like some on the left have done in the past, we must learn from both the mistakes as well as the achievements of history and act accordingly.

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There are many issues which lay bare the subservience of Ireland’s political elite to the edicts of international capital. The bank guarantee of September 2008; the handing over of natural resources to multinationals; the miniscule tax rate levied on corporations; a crippling austerity agenda which continues to stunt the country’s economy – the list goes on.

This week saw yet another bleak day in the state’s history when gombeenism ran roughshod over common decency. On Monday (October 1), €1 billion was handed over to unguaranteed, unsecured bondholders of Allied Irish Bank, which is 99% owned by the state, as part of a pitiful bid to appease “the markets”. The Fine Gael/Labour coalition has claimed ignorance over the identities of these and other similar recipients of Irish state funds, although the list is widely known to include financial institutions such as Goldman Sachs, Deutsche Bank and Barclay’s. By the end of this year, a total of more than €19 billion will be paid to speculators who gambled in the boom years and now refuse to take a loss. In 2013, more than €17 billion of state money will be squandered in the same way.

This enormous transfer of wealth takes place against the backdrop of the largest spending cuts in the state’s history. In the demented political sphere of Ireland, where the nation’s economy is seen as a mere tool to service the needs of multi-national corporations, closing A&Es, reducing the wages of teachers and slashing allowances for disabled people are seen as “tough” decisions. Increasing corporation tax and forcing the super-rich to take a loss on their gambles are, apparently, weak decisions. A 15% unemployment rate on top of mass emigration, it seems, is the tolerable price to pay in the appeasement of “the markets”. Sacrifices must be made to save the European financial system, we have been told.

For all their talk of “injustice” and “unfairness” earlier this year, the GAA stars who rallied behind disgraced former billionaire Séan Quinn have remained remarkably silent on this particular issue. The handing over of scarce public funds to nameless professional gamblers merits no public demonstration of anger from Joe Kernan, Mickey Harte or the others who chose to support a corrupt billionaire. Nor were they as outspoken when Ireland’s economic sovereignty was handed over to the IMF in 2010.

Diarmuid O’Flynn, a hurling reporter for the Irish Examiner, has filled the void left by these sports stars and, of course, many other journalists. RTÉ, the national broadcaster, failed to report on Monday’s €1 billion bond payment. O’Flynn is one of the organisers of a weekly demonstration in his home village of Ballyhea in County Cork against the bondholder bailout. Now into its 84th week, the Ballyhea protest is a small glimpse of indignation among a population which has been renowned globally for its tame acceptance of harsh cutbacks. O’Flynn’s blog, Bondwatch Ireland, is an excellent source of information for those seeking to find out the true scale of the toxic debt plunged onto the nation’s shoulders. A result of meticulous research, the site details on a weekly basis the upcoming bond payments due at Ireland’s state-owned banks. Irish journalists should be well advised to consult the site.

Many of the attempts to explain what caused Ireland’s economic collapse have been muddled, causing much confusion around the issue. Some commentators point to the “cute-hoorism” prevalent among the Irish ruling and political class, while others highlight the outright criminality which existed at the top of Ireland’s banking sector. All of these arguments carry weight, but ultimately fail to provide a thorough explanation.

Ireland’s problems transcend its own national boundaries. Although all of the above were certainly contributing factors, the country’s collapse was part of a global calamity. Since the 1970s, capitalism was transformed from its Keynesian model towards a more radical neo-liberal one. Trade union influence diminished, financial markets were deregulated and public assets were privatised. Ireland was long touted as the “success story” of this economic arrangement.

The rise of neo-liberalism saw an unprecedented concentration of the world’s wealth into increasingly fewer hands. The demise of trade union movements in much of the west resulted in falling and stagnating wages for most workers. In order to make up for the loss of income, people were forced to take on ruinous amounts of debt to secure some of life’s basics, most notably in Ireland’s case, a home. The bursting of this credit bubble was inevitable.

In 2011, the British TUC released a report revealing the extent to which the incomes of workers had stagnated. It was found that UK workers would be earning a combined total of £60 billion more had wages increased in proportion to the growth of the wider economy. The same is true in many other countries. In the United States, the Irish bourgeoisie’s ideological home, this inequality occurs to an unnerving degree. The poorest 50% of Americans own a mere 1% of their country’s wealth, while the richest 1% own more than 34%. Or, to put in another way; the richest 1% of Americans own 34 times more wealth than half of all the American population combined. One family, the Waltons, who own Wal Mart, now possesses more wealth than the bottom 40% of Americans. Such is the economic model our rulers aspire to.

During the boom years, with its unregulated financial markets and low tax rates for corporations, Ireland was held up as the poster boy of neo-liberal capitalism. The Celtic Tiger ran riot as the worst off in society were left behind. On 24 September, the Simon Community reported that homelessness has increased in Dublin, with more than 2,600 people seeking the housing charity’s assistance. This situation continues alongside the sordid spectacle of up to 400,000 empty homes scattered around the country – many of them owned by the state’s ‘bad bank’, NAMA.

Just as many of Ireland’s problems were rooted in a global system, so too do the seeds of a solution lie in other parts of the world. Although afflicted with a notoriously parochial political system, the population would do well to note the actions of people in other parts of Europe. Following its own crisis in 2008, Iceland refused to repay the debts accumulated by private banks, to the fury of the neo-liberal “experts” and “the markets”. Depositors’ money was guaranteed but private investors were forced to take a loss. These are real “tough” decisions. Iceland now has an unemployment rate which is less than half that of Ireland’s, and a growth rate of 3%. This political courage needs to be combined with the resistance of the kind shown by trade union movements in Greece, Spain and Portugal. Neutered as it is by a subservient ‘social partnership’ model, the Irish trade union movement, with honourable exceptions of course, has so far failed to inspire mass action. The leadership of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions even refused to take a position on the EU Austerity Treaty in May.

Ireland’s socialisation of private losses is a national scandal which remains so far under-reported. It’s astounding that many fail to make the connection between this and the array of cuts to public services taking place right now.

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On August 9, an article in the Belfast Telegraph warned readers that Northern Ireland faced an impending economic “meltdown”. Accountancy firm KPMG’s Eamonn Donaghy, described in the report as “a top financial expert”, argued that the region’s economy was not sustainable without reducing corporation tax to 12.5%, in line with the Republic of Ireland. Mr Donaghy is one of a long list of “experts” regularly carted out by the local media in support of the tax cut.

Unimaginatively held up as the saving grace of a battered economy, all four main parties in the Stormont Assembly have rallied behind the appeals of these “experts”, whose collective failure to foresee the worst economic crisis in 70 years should, by all rights, consign them into obscurity. The prevalent narrative of the issue is a pleasingly simple one – low taxes will attract business to the region, and this investment will create jobs.

Reporting of the issue has been extraordinarily one-sided. Representatives of banks, finance firms and other multinationals are given considerable space in the Irish News, the Newsletter and, of course, the Belfast Telegraph. In the article mentioned above, Mr Donaghy was treated as a well-informed, unbiased commentator. Nothing was said of the fact that his firm, KPMG, would stand to gain a great deal from the tax break.  “In every other country where corporation tax rates have been significantly cut,” Mr Donaghy said, “positive economic benefits and job creation has happened.” The names of these countries were not mentioned and no evidence was provided to back this up.

Pot of Gold or Fool’s Gold?, a thorough report carried out by Tax Research UK’s Richard Murphy, demolished the case for cutting corporation tax. Promises of job creation were shown to be a hopeful gamble with a large immediate cost. As a result of a previous EU court ruling, a minimum of £300 million will have to be cut from Stormont’s block grant from Westminster if the tax rate is reduced. On top of that, not a single new job can even be guaranteed. Murphy’s findings were given little attention by the local press.

Parties from both the unionist and nationalist sides, notorious for inter-communal bickering, have been remarkably united on this particular issue. The conventional wisdom states that north is “over-reliant” on a “bloated” public sector, which requires a “rebalancing” of the economy. However, the private sector-led recovery promised by David Cameron has not happened in Britain, and there is little reason to believe it will occur anywhere else anytime soon. It marks a curious juncture in Irish politics when nominally centre-left parties, Sinn Féin and the SDLP, adopt a distinctly Thatcherite economic platform.

The blueprint of Dublin’s notorious tax haven, the International Financial Services Centre, once dubbed “Lichtenstein on the Liffey”, looks set to be replicated north of the border. “For Northern Ireland,” Murphy wrote in the Guardian, “the problem will be that of all tax havens: fly-by-night companies that have no intention of creating real jobs, and whose sole aim is to park profits in the province before moving them on to another tax haven as quickly as possible will be those attracted by this policy.” He continued: “That policy has virtually bankrupted the Republic. Why on earth would anyone want to replicate it?”

Advocates of this corporate welfare have, on occasion, been surprisingly candid. When he addressed the Northern Ireland Affairs committee in 2011, CBI NI chair Terence Brannigan admitted: “There is no guarantee [of job creation] and it would be totally misleading of me to sit here and say that I could guarantee you. I couldn’t guarantee you anything.” Former unionist MP – and millionaire – John Taylor, now Lord Kilclooney, told the House of Lords that “95% of the population of Northern Ireland who are not company directors would be worse off”.

Recently described by Taoiseach Enda Kenny as the “cornerstone of the economy”, and deemed politically untouchable, the 12.5% corporate tax rate has long been a solid feature of southern Ireland. Claims that it “attracts jobs” are easily dismissed. Dell’s abandonment of its Limerick plant in 2009 and the current unemployment rate of 15% testify to this. The country’s reliance of foreign investment merely underlines the failure of our economy to develop in a sustainable way. Conor McCabe, in his 2011 book Sins of the Father, rightly points out: “Given such a modest effect on the Irish economy – 7% of total employment and approximately €2.8 billion in corporation tax – why is foreign direct investment constantly put forward as the prime objective of the State’s economic policies and strategies?”

Suggestions by proponents of the tax cut that the Celtic Tiger was fuelled by the 12.5% rate, too, are groundless. It was, at best, a secondary factor in causing the boom in the south of Ireland. The Irish state had an overall lower tax base with many loopholes which could be exploited by big business – something the North could never duplicate while it remains under the jurisdiction of the UK.  More important to foreign investors than a low corporation tax during the boom years was Ireland’s highly educated, English-speaking workforce, its proximity to mainland Europe and its lack of government regulation (along with widespread corruption carried out in the interests of capital).

The refusal of multinationals to pay their fair share should be challenged, not accommodated. A race to the bottom serves only the interests of the super-wealthy. Reducing what is already one of the lowest corporation tax rates in Europe is not going to stem the effects of the Great Recession, no matter what business “experts” contend. Tax cuts don’t develop economies or create employment – they create tax havens.

Neo-liberal solutions will not solve a neo-liberal problem.

– This article was published in The Morning Star

Ever since the bank guarantee of September 2008, there have been countless attempts to explain the implosion of the Irish economy. Most of these explanations have taken a moralistic attitude, laying the finger of blame at the greed and recklessness of those at the tops of the financial institutions which laid waste to a decade of prosperity. There may well be some merit in these views, but the roots of the current crisis run much deeper than a handful of people behaving badly.

This week I finished reading what was undoubtedly one of the best accounts of what happened to the Irish economy four years ago. Published last June, Conor McCabe’s Sins of the Father takes a thorough and serious look at the causes of the country’s economic collapse. Although I own a copy signed by the author himself, Sins of the Father had been sitting on my bookshelf for almost a year before I bothered digging into it. Upon finally reading it, I regretted putting it off for so long.

Sins of the Father is much more than a mere chronological description of how the Irish economy imploded; In the book, McCabe charts in an easily accessible manner the deeply flawed and deformed way in which the Irish economy developed since the partition of the country, taking the reader right up through the bank guarantee, the creation of NAMA and the humiliating EU-IMF bailout of November 2010. Although Fianna Fáil was politically butchered by voters in last February’s general election for their role in the crisis, this book shows how successive governments since the state’s foundation laid the foundation for Ireland’s catastrophic economic collapse.

The book, which is less than 300 pages long, is divided into five subject areas, all of equal importance; housing, agriculture, industry, finance and lastly, the Fianna Fáil/Green Party government’s response to the financial crisis.

The chapter on housing, I found, was a particularly fascinating one, which convincingly demolishes the myth of a ‘property-owning’ gene in Irish DNA. McCabe correctly points out that the high rates of private ownership was a direct result of the political decisions taken by successive governments which consistently prioritised private ownership over much-needed decent public housing schemes. The fundraising organisation Taca, set up by Fianna Fáil in the 1960s, brought into light the shameless cronyism that existed between the political class and property developers, speculators and landlords.

Also wonderfully detailed in Sins of the Father is how Irish governments helped to fuel the rampant property speculation and booming house prices which plagued the country for the last number of decades. High prices opened up a new debt market for banks, while Irish people were forced into taking on ruinous mortgages in order to secure a home. A booklet issued by the government in 1967 advising citizens on home ownership told readers that “the amount you borrow should not be more than the 2½ times your annual income”. By 1998, house prices were almost eight times higher than the average industrial wage. At the height of the boom, McCabe found, “Irish property prices were between eleven and fifteen times the median wage”.

Another aspect of the book which I found not only interesting but profoundly relevant is the author’s criticism of Irish governments’ obsession with foreign investment, to the detriment of the state’s own indigenous industry. He points out that the benefit of having multinational companies based in Ireland was much lower than is often portrayed, stating that the “profits are repatriated to their country of origin”. He continues: “Given such a modest effect on the Irish economy – 7% of total employment and approximately €2.8 billion in corporation tax – why is foreign direct investment constantly put forward as the prime objective of the State’s economic policies and strategies?”

Sins of the Father, McCabe’s first book (and hopefully not his last), admirably challenges many of the lazy myths which pass for economic discussion today and should be seen as a vital resource for those seeking to understand why the Great Recession has had such a profound effect on Ireland.

Conor blogs at www.dublinopinion.com/