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I attended Sinn Féin’s ‘Towards a United Ireland’ conference in the Mansion House yesterday (Saturday 21st January), which was an excellent event with brilliant debates on one of the most pressing issues facing us in Ireland today – the partition of our country.Contributions from Mary Lou McDonald, the unionist commentator Alex Kane and Cat Boyd of Scotland’s Radical Independence Campaign were particularly insightful. What struck me about the conference was the undeniable vibrancy that exists within Sinn Féin at the minute, something that’s lacking in most other political parties.

However, the conference highlighted many of the shortcomings of Sinn Féin’s vision for a united Ireland. Predictably, one of the arguments put forward by a range of Sinn Féin speakers in favour of a united Ireland was “tax harmonisation” and “foreign investment’, which actually means extending the gombeen tax haven economy of the south to our six north-eastern counties. If the price of ending partition is taking part in the one of the greatest injustices of our age – global tax avoidance – then it’s not something that’s going to engage working class communities, and justifiably so.

A few mentions were made about bringing in Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil into a broad coalition to achieve a united Ireland. There was even mention of “social partners” in an era when the bosses have ripped up social partnership agreements and are going on the offensive against workers’ pay and basic rights. This stems from the false idea that there is such thing as a “national interest”, which ignores the reality of class conflict within any given nation. FG and FF are the parties of landlords, developers and unscrupulous bosses. Indeed, just a few days ago, these parties prevented a bill being passed in the Dáil which would have made it more difficult for landlords to evict people and make them homeless. And recently Blueshirt beast Michael Noonan sang the praises of foreign vulture funds that are driving up rents and forcing families to sleep in cars and damp, miserable hotel rooms. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are not our allies and progressives have nothing in common with them. They’re our enemies of our people.

All that being said, Sinn Féin’s event was a positive one that will hopefully kick start a long overdue debate on the ridiculous division of our country. The main thing I took from it was to reinforce something I’ve been thinking to myself for a while. If Irish independence is seen as the cause of only Sinn Féin, it will never happen. A campaign for independence needs to be broad, encompassing socailists, trade unionists, feminists, environmentalists and other progressives including, of course, Sinn Féin. In order to do this, Sinn Féin supporters need to stop claiming that People Before Profit do not support a united Ireland, a falsehood repeated by Gerry Adams again yesterday. Whatever about the Socialist Party/AAA, whose views on partition is atrocious, People Before Profit have always supported Irish independence. Misrepresenting the views of people who are your natural allies will do nothing to build a mass movement.

The encouraging thing is, there are already cross-border campaigns today that can be built on; the campaign for marriage equality, for instance, as well as the struggle for abortion rights, the Right2Water movement and the huge demonstrations we saw all over the country in summer 2014 in solidarity with Palestine.

A campaign for our full independence needs to tap into the seething anger we are seeing here and across Europe against neoliberal capitalism. We need to be clear that our vision of Ireland is one that repudiates the counter-revolutionary Ireland of Blueshirts, landlords, priests and gombeens. We want to see a society that does not help multinational corporations to avoid paying tax; one that does not force families to sleep in cars; one where we have more to offer our young people than oppressive low-paid call centre jobs or the prospect of emigration; one that makes the necessary shift away from fossil fuels and towards green energy; a society where our children are not segregated at the age of four in order to be indoctrinated by religious institutions; a country that opens its borders to refugees fleeing war and famine, and puts an end to the inhumanity of direct provision.

Realising this vision of another Ireland is entirely possible, but it’s up to progressives to get the strategy right and ensure it happens in our lifetime. Otherwise, we’ll be left with the rotten sectarian colony in the north and the tax haven racket in the south for the foreseeable future. Let’s grasp the opportunity to build a radical independence campaign and change our country for the better.

Onwards to the socialist republic.

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Empires are far from benevolent creations. Their natural instinct is to pillage, steal, oppress, torment and kill. As institutions of great power, they have no inclination to heed reasoned arguments put forward by those who wish to end or at least ease their apparatus of repression. This is the obvious lesson taught by the history of empires, be they British, French, German, Belgian or American. Empires only treat subjugated peoples like human beings when they are forced to do so. Sometimes this comes from peaceful mass movements. More often than not, it comes from violent resistance.

Two events taking place thousands of miles apart – the Easter Rising centenary celebrations and Barack Obama’s visit to Cuba – reveal much about liberal attitudes to empire and the refusal to recognise these lessons. A recurring theme in both cases is that of “reconciliation” – the idea that the conqueror and the conquered are moral equivalents, both of whom are deemed to have committed wrongs that should be set right. This can be seen in recent media coverage of the US president’s visit to Cuba, which has been lauded as a “cooling of relations” between the two countries, as if the reality was anything other than one side subjecting the other to invasion and economic sabotage.  In this narrative, Cuba and the United States had a mutual falling out in the past and now they are starting to get along.

In the Irish scenario, the official line is that there was a peaceful alternative at the time that could have avoided the unnecessary violence of the Easter Rising and the War of Independence. We did horrible things to gain our partial independence, so we need to be “mature” by displaying remorse for these actions and honouring on an equal level as the people who set out to establish Irish democracy the British soldiers who fought to crush it at birth. Both sides have made mistakes; it’s time to apologise, and it’s time to move on. Or so the story goes.

In the case of Cuba, the supposed crimes of the socialist state are amplified in order to justify the creation of a blatant false equivalent. Socialist Cuba is apparently a nasty dictatorship that imprisons its citizens on a mass scale, where the police run roughshod over human rights and where elections are rigged in the interests of an unaccountable and powerful elite. Unlike the US, obviously.

The treatment of political “dissidents” – most of whom receive funding from the CIA, as well as other agencies that are openly aggressive towards the socialist system – are routinely invoked by western media outlets to underline this point. The Guardian this week uncritically quoted leading “dissident” Guillermo Fariñas on a story about the visit. It wasn’t mentioned that his first imprisonment was for beating a female health care worker, while his second term came after he attacked an elderly man. In the article, he described Obama, a man whose drones have killed thousands of defenceless civilians, many of them children, and arms Apartheid Israel to the teeth, as “the principal defender of democracy in the world”.

This is not to mention the litany of crimes perpetrated against Cuba. Since 1959, the US has invaded Cuba, attempted to murder its president on hundreds of occasions and sabotaged its economy. America’s terrorist campaign against Cuba, which included the bombing of a passenger jet in 1976, has killed more than 3,000 people.

Using the visit to show that Manifest Destiny is still alive, Obama asserted America’s divine right to decide the internal affairs of other countries when he demanded that Cuba reforms its political and economic system. The implication behind this is obvious; Cuba is the wrongdoer, not America; Cuba’s socialist system is the one that has to change, not America’s capitalist system; When the US and liberals call for “free elections”, what is actually meant is voting contests that occur every five years between superficial corporate-funded candidates; When they call for a “free media”, what they actually mean is a media controlled by a small number of oligarchs, like Rupert Murdoch or Denis O’Brien.

It’s Cuba that’s expected to change, not America.

In Ireland, these double standards have emerged in the state’s official 1916 centenary celebrations, which have been widely derided for frantically attempting to airbrush the country’s anti-imperialist history from existence. It recently attracted ridicule when a banner depicting Henry Grattan, Charles Stewart Parnell, Daniel O’Connell and John Redmond was erected in College Green. None of these figures had anything to do with the Rising or the democratic republican tradition that led it. In fact, Redmond actively opposed the Rising, denouncing it as a German plot and was at the time goading tens of thousands of Irish to their senseless deaths on Western Front. O’Connell, a rabid reactionary who opposed trade unions and fought against the mildest of restrictions on child labour, was harshly criticised by James Connolly in his seminal book Labour in Irish History. These are uncomfortable truths for Blueshirts.

The latest assault on history and the ideals of the 1916 revolutionaries has come in the form of a two-part RTÉ documentary written by Bob Geldof in which he contends that the Easter Rising “represents the birth of a pious, bitter and narrow-minded version of Ireland I couldn’t wait to escape”, while lauding IPP leader John Redmond as a “genius”. Geldof’s arguments are reflective of a broader viewpoint prevalent among Irish liberals and conservatives, in which the role of British colonialism is painted as benign while Ireland’s national liberation movement is seen as something parochial, fanatical and undemocratic. This view, often presented as the pinnacle of critical thought, sits comfortably with those like Geldof who prefer to genuflect to great power rather than challenge it. For them, Redmond is a safe symbol. He was a sensible moderate who nicely asked the British for a mild form of Home Rule. That he opposed voting rights for women and enthusiastically cheered on the slaughter of 11 million people is beside the point.

Contrary to the claims of Geldof and others, the southern state is not the product of the Easter Rising or the revolution which followed, and it’s precisely for this reason that so much effort has been put into rewriting the history of this period. The state that exists today is the product of a counter-revolution that began in 1922, which saw the Free State army crushing strikes, the rights of women shredded and the establishment of an oppressive Catholic theocracy. During the revolution of 1916 – 1922, women were active agents of change, playing a key role in both the national liberation and labour movements. Under Free State rule, their position was one limited to child bearing and housework, a product of Catholic fanaticism. The modern Irish state exists in its current form despite the revolution – not because of it.

Reconciliation should not involve fawning over the British monarchy or pretending that there is a moral equivalent between James Connolly and the men who tied him to a chair and shot him to death. True reconciliation would not be with the remnants of the British Empire, as fighting for independence is nothing to apologise for.

The only people who are owed an apology are those who have never been cherished equally as promised in the 1916 Proclamation. An apology is owed to those who have suffered as a result of the counter-revolution and the regime that has run the state ever since; the thousands of homeless made to sleep on the streets lest they interfere with the profits of landlords and developers; the women forced to travel abroad to safely terminate unwanted pregnancies; the unbaptised children denied access to education by intolerant religious institutions; the low-paid workers denied union representation; those who are denied proper health care because of the size of their wallets; the refugees forced to live in direct provision; and the travelling community that endures structural racism and is pushed to the margins if Irish society.

These are the results of a rigid class system that has benefited the Irish regime and its supporters. When James Connolly wrote in 1898 that revolutionaries “are ever idolised when dead, but crucified when living”, he could have added that their ideas are often killed and buried with them. For it was a similar type of system that exists today in Ireland that Connolly, Roger Casement and Helena Moloney railed against 100 years ago.

It’s little wonder that their ideals are being killed and buried yet again.

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.

It’s almost inevitable that in any discussion about socialism someone will claim that “humans are simply too selfish”. “We have always been like that and we always will be,” they would say. “That’s just the way things are, and you can’t change it”.

This argument is as hallow as it is predictable. It’s based on the false notion that humans are born inherently evil, selfish and violent. It’s a shallow argument which serves the ruling class well. After all, their system requires selfishness and extreme violence on a mass scale in order to operate effectively, for which the ‘human nature’ argument is intended to provide some sort of justification. Indeed, there were times in the past when slavery, racism and discrimination against women were all justified by the same ‘human nature’ argument.

The proponents of this argument associate ‘human nature’ exclusively with negative things, such as selfishness and greed. But they are far from the only characteristics that define our species. The more positive, and equally as important, ones such as co-operation, solidarity and friendship are generally ignored. If people’s actions were solely motivated by greed and selfishness there would be no such thing as charity; there would have been no money raised for the victims of the 2004 Asian Tsunami or other disasters; there would be no such thing unconditional parental love; there would be no friendship; people would not give up their lives for something they believe in; people would not protest against injustices on the other side of the planet. The list goes on.

The reason many people falsely associate ‘human nature’ with greed and selfishness is because the current mode of production encourages these features. Those who are wicked, ruthless and selfish do well under capitalism. Those who aren’t are usually disadvantaged. Because capitalism is the only system most people have ever experienced, they are lead to believe, wrongly, that greed and selfishness are the only human characteristics we can harness in order to run an economy. Attempts to organise society in a different way are simply “utopian” (Ironically, the people who attack us for being “utopian” also accuse us, at the same time, of wanting to subjugate humanity under some form of Stalinist dictatorship).

The ‘selfish’ argument also presumes that ‘human nature’ is something which is set in stone; that we are genetically programmed to be a certain way and nothing can change the way we are. Of course, this view is not one based on any form of evidence. ‘Human nature’ is not something static; our behaviour is almost entirely influenced by our social surroundings, and is in a state of constant change. That’s why a person alive today would be nothing like someone who lived 5,000 years ago. It’s also why someone brought up in a western society is nothing like a member of an Amazonian tribe. As Harry Magdoff and Fred Magdoff, of Monthly Review, said: “If human nature, values, and relations have changed before, it hardly needs pointing out that they may change again”.

What many people fail to recognise is the fact that capitalism is a relatively new historical phenomenon. Of the 150,000 years humans have populated this planet, industrial capitalism has been around for only 200 of those years. Indeed, capitalism in its modern, neo-liberal, form is only 30 years old. Many people find it difficult to understand that past societies were organised in countless different ways, many of them co-operatively, before the rise of capitalism. Likewise, we can organise ourselves differently after it goes. Throughout most of our history, humans have lived in hunter-gatherer societies, where there were no ruling classes. People who lived during these times would have viewed as totally alien the idea of a small number of individuals controlling a surplus produced by a larger group. Perhaps the most well-known case of a common ownership society (or primitive communism, as Marx described it) is that of the Native Americans. Here’s what Christopher Columbus had to say about them before their culture was destroyed by European settlers:

“Nor have I been able to learn whether they held personal property, for it seemed to me that whatever one had, they all took shares of….They are so ingenuous and free with all they have that no one would believe it who has not seen it; of anything they possess, if it be asked of them, they never say no; on the contrary, they invite you to share it and show as much love as if their hearts went with it.”

Many Native American tribes celebrated a festival known Potlatch. The ceremony involved the wealthiest in a certain area giving possessions away to the less well-off. The more you gave away, the higher your social status. Today’s culture of defining someone’s social standing by the number of flashy cars they own or how big their house is would be unfathomable to most Native Americans. In 1884, Potlatch was banned by the Canadian government after it was deemed to go against the Christian values of ‘civilized’ capitalism.

With the current economic system facing its biggest crisis since the 1930s, the ‘human nature’ argument is being raised now as much as ever. And it’s even more ridiculous at a time when working people are being asked to “tighten their belts” and sacrifice their living standards to pay back the debts of private banks. The fact is, only a relatively tiny number of people actually benefit from capitalism. How does it benefit anyone to work 60 hours a week for minimum wage just to pay their bills? How does it benefit anyone to have a boss? How do you benefit from capitalism when you are constantly threatened with unemployment? How would paying a high rent to a landlord for a run-down, inner city hovel benefit you? In my last article I showed how wages for the vast majority of people have stagnated over the past three decades, with many workers being left more than £10,000 a year worse off. How does capitalism serve the interests of these people?

Even more serious and disturbing is that more than 30,000 children have died over the past 24 hours because of preventable diseases. Another 30,000 died yesterday, and the day before that. They died because the capitalist market could not provide for even their most basic needs. Is dying from starvation or preventable disease in childhood just part of “human nature”?

Contrary to what is popularly believed, most people have a lot to gain from the replacement of capitalism with an economy based on common ownership. They will not have to labour half of their working lives to bankroll a class of idle rich. They will be able to run their own workplaces according to how they see fit and they will not be threatened with the destitution of unemployment.

Socialism is not about charity. It’s about the majority of humans taking control of their own lives. It would provide a massive increase in living standards for the majority of humanity and aims to promote the more positive human traits, rather than selfishness and greed.

Certainly, it would be true to say that socialism is the political self-interest of all working people.

It’s nearly two decades since former US President Bill Clinton used the famous slogan, “it’s the economy, stupid”.  The motto was a rallying cry for his Democrat supporters during his presidential election bid in 1992. Almost 20 years on, some may still identify strongly with these words. The economic situation facing the word today is a bleak one. Austerity is the order of the day. Public
services, jobs and a generation of young people are being sacrificed at the altar of the market in order to fill the financial black hole left by the banking system.

The economic crash of 2008 was the worst crisis capitalism has experienced since the Great Depression of the 1930s.  A complicated system of derivatives, credit default swaps and collateralised debt obligations, terms which 99% of people have little or no understanding, helped bring the world’s economy to its knees. The Korean economist Ha-Joon Chang described these obscure tools as ‘weapons of financial mass destruction’. Regardless, business continues as usual.

Since the crash three years ago, the world’s governments and central banks, among others, have been scurrying to find a way out of the mess. Repeated bailouts of Greece, and the enforced
austerity which comes along with the said “bailouts”, have achieved only increased misery for working people and a yawning national deficit. A series of quantitative easing (printing money out of thin air) and various stimulus packages in a number of countries have also failed. The chance of a double dip recession, or even a depression, is increasingly likely.

Despite what politicians and others say, this crisis did not fall from the sky. Pick up any socialist
journal from the past decade and you will see repeated warnings about the imminent economic collapse. These warnings were ignored by the powers that be, brushed off as the rants of a handful of ‘loony lefties’. Indeed, former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern urged those making the predictions to commit suicide.

The problem, which is rarely acknowledged in mainstream discourse, lies in the system itself. History shows us that the capitalist class will pay workers as little as they can possibly get away with. Indeed, the past four decades have witnessed a repression of wages, in direct correlation with the decrease in trade union membership. The tendency to suppress wages leads to decreased demand, as workers collectively cannot buy back the goods they produce. This, in turn, leads to overproduction. Marxist economist David Harvey described this characteristic as the “internal contradiction of capital accumulation”. To overcome this contradiction, especially in more recent times, people were encouraged to obtain credit cards and other forms of debt in order to buy things they needed, but couldn’t really afford. On top of this, an enormous global market emerged, to the detriment of genuine wealth-creating industries, solely to trade on these debts. It doesn’t take an economist to realise that this system is inherently unstable and crisis prone.

The latest crisis has further highlighted the irrationality of capitalism. Despite the fact that a primary
factor in the Republic of Ireland’s economic crash was an overproduction of housing, it seems increasingly ridiculous that there are thousands of people sleeping on the streets of Dublin. On top of that, recent figures released by the International Labour Organisation show that wordwide unemployment is hovering at well over 200 million.

The fact is the capitalist economists genuinely don’t know what do to escape from this crisis. Worryingly, most people seem to be looking towards the same economic “experts” who failed
to see the crisis coming in the first place for a solution. “Getting back to growth” is the usual maxim thrown about on the airwaves. To sustain itself, it’s said capitalism needs to grow at least 3% year-on-year. The effect that eternal growth at any cost would have on the environment is seemingly not an issue. When the banks went under, we bailed them out. When the environment goes under, there will be no bailout.

The dangers the latest crises in capitalism pose should not be disregarded. In all likelihood, Greece will default on its debts. This will have a profound effect on the rest of Europe, not least here in Ireland. The collapse of the Euro is a very real possibility, as is the disintegration of the European Union. War is another danger. History teaches us that, in times of severe crises, capitalism reverts to war and imperialism in search of new markets. War is a profitable venture, and big business will have no qualms profiting from the death and destruction that comes with it.

The need for a new system, which does not base itself on promoting war, greed and extreme inequality, is glaringly obvious. The system is beyond repair. Is it really beyond human comprehension to have an economic system run for the benefit of all humankind rather than a tiny elite?

This leads us to Lenin’s age-old question: “What is to be done?”

Unfortunately, socialists and many in the wider trade union movement know what they are against. However, many, myself included, struggle to define what they are actually for. This crisis should act
as a catalyst to open up a debate among socialists and other progressives to clarify what should be put in the place of capitalism. And just as importantly, how are we going to do it? Clearly, the old “Soviet” system is not one that is going to garner much support. We need a new type of socialism, and the time is ripe for the working class to start debating ideas on how to bring humanity forward.

In the words of the great British economist John Maynard Keynes;

Capitalism is not a success. It is not intelligent, it is not beautiful, it is not just, it is not virtuous and it doesn’t deliver the goods. In short, we dislike it, and we are beginning to despise it. But when we wonder what to put in its place, we are extremely perplexed.”

There are a number of questions which I would like to put out there, and hopefully some of my comrades will be kind enough to share their thoughts.

  • In the context of the North of Ireland, would building a new working class party be worthwhile? Consider the fact that the Stormont Assembly has no economic powers and its executive consists of a mandatory coalition.  Hypothetically, if a new party was to gain a considerable number of seats, would we just remain in opposition? What could be achieved by entering Stormont? Also counter in the fact that the North’s politics is deeply sectarian, rather than class-based.
  • How would a socialist society work? Will it be based on a central economic plan? Or would workers’ co-operatives be encouraged to take the lead? What other ideas are there?
  • Is the partition of Ireland a barrier to achieving socialism? Or can we do it in the framework of the UK?
  • How do we actually take the levers of power from the capitalist class? Is a mass movement necessary? Is a revolution necessary? Indeed, what do we actually mean by the term ‘revolution’?
  • What role can the trade union movement play in achieving socialism? Are they a vital part of the struggle?
  • What are the biggest barriers we face in changing society? How do we overcome them?
  • How do we overcome sectarianism? What are the main obstacles?
  • What form would a socialist democracy take? Would it be parliamentary or participatory? Are Workers’ Councils, such as those which existed in the early Soviet Union, a credible form of democracy?
  • Will people be receptive to these ideas? What is the best way for us to influence people?

All comments are welcome.