northern-irelands-lost-opportunity-the-frustrated-promise-of-political-loyalism

Violence, disruption and intimidation have been common features of the on-going loyalist flag protests in Belfast. For most people, the movement that sprang up in December has its roots in a sectarian ideology and represents a deep crisis in unionism. Coming at a time when it is particularly relevant, a new book written by Pittsburgh University professor Tony Novosel has begun to challenge many commonly held preconceptions about Ulster loyalism.

Northern Ireland’s Lost Opportunity: The Frustrated Promise of Political Loyalism, published earlier this year, charts the development of working-class loyalist politics in the 1970s. Novosel’s book contends that, rather than fulfilling the stereotype of “neo-Nazis and bodybuilders”, a significant group of Loyalist prisoners in Long Kesh began to formulate their own political programme, independent of middle and upper-class unionism. At the centre of this were UVF leaders Gusty Spence and Billy Mitchell. “The basic idea of the book is that the stereotype of loyalists being nothing more than neo-Nazis does not hold up,” said Novosel. “Sure, like all stereotypes there’s some truth in it, but it doesn’t hold. The book looks at this question. The book argues that there was a progressive political strand within Loyalism. This point tends to throw people off, I find.”

Novosel first visited the north at the height of the conflict in 1973. He admits he knew very little about the causes of the war, but set about to study it. Since then, he has visited Ireland more than 50 times and began researching his new book in 2006. Before carrying out his research, Novosel admits going into the project with a negative view of loyalism. “I thought of loyalism as nothing more than fascism,” he said. “To outsiders like me, they were Neanderthals. We thought of them as being similar to the Afrikaners in South Africa. This is very much a common opinion. For instance, I remember at the beginning of the project, a friend of mine asked me what I was researching. I replied ‘loyalist political thinking’. His immediate response back was, ‘do they think?’. That’s the general attitude that’s out there. However, when I started speaking to the people involved, I saw a very different picture. It’s something that’s difficult to take in at first.”

In researching the book, Novosel conducted extensive interviews with leading Loyalists such as David Ervine, Billy Hutchinson and Hugh Smyth, as well as combing through documents produced by the UVF, UDA and Red Hand Commando. Clearly written and free of academic jargon, Novosel’s book is an intriguing study of a subject area that has previously been largely neglected by historians of Ireland’s recent conflict. Indeed, the lack of information available about loyalism initially prompted Novosel’s interest in the topic. “I was fascinated by loyalism precisely because I knew so little about it,” he said.

At the outset of the book, Novosel condemns the hundreds of atrocities committed by loyalist paramilitaries, but presents the “progressive” wing of loyalism in a largely positive light. “Understanding does not mean condoning,” the author keenly points out. The second chapter of the book details how mainstream unionist parties “manipulated” loyalist groups for their own aims, accusing elements within the Official Unionist Party of conspiring to resurrect the UVF in 1966. He also reveals a number of remarkably progressive documents formulated by the UVF in the mid-1970s, which advocated power sharing between unionists and nationalists – a position mainstream unionists would have rejected outright at the time.

Novosel even goes as far as claiming that there were “socialist” and “social democratic” currents within loyalism. However, considering the majority of the UVF’s victims were Catholic civilians, as well as the group’s flirtation with fascist organisations such as Combat 18 and the National Front, it’s possible to argue that Novosel is guilty of reading at face value the claims of Billy Hutchinson and others with deeply reactionary past records. Despite these uncomfortable facts, along with its uncritical support for the British army and empire, Novosel insists that there is “no contradiction” between loyalism and progressive politics. “Going back even before the Battle of the Somme, there had always been that military tradition among working class Protestants,” he said. “They were prepared to defend the empire on the same basis that Old Labour supporters in Britain were prepared to do the same. They felt that the social gains were greater in Britain than in Ireland and wanted that to remain within that state. There was a feeling that the welfare state and everything that came with it would disappear in a United Ireland. Many loyalists saw themselves very much as Old Labourites. It’s not hard to reconcile that with socialist values, in my view.”

The arguments in Novosel’s book are well developed and present a thought-provoking view on a complex and a very much under-studied subject. Although it can be viewed at times as overly sympathetic to an ideology which uncritically supports monarchy, empire and imperialism, Northern Ireland’s Lost Opportunity is a valuable piece of research on an interesting – and important – aspect of recent Irish history.

Northern Ireland’s Lost Opportunity: The Frustrated Promise of Political Loyalism, by Tony Novosel. Published by Pluto Press (2013)

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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.

Loyalist protesters demonstrate against restrictions on flying Britain's union flag from Belfast City Hall in central Belfast

After three months of intimidation, sectarian hatred and disruption, the protests surrounding the removal of the union flag from Belfast City Hall appear to be slowly ebbing. Before the council vote in December to fly the flag on designated days only – in line with England, Scotland and Wales – few would have thought the discontent would have lasted as long, particularly when there are more pressing issues at hand. Those taking part in the protests have been treated with a mixture of fear and ridicule. In the distinctly insular society of Northern Ireland, many believe the situations we face represent a departure from the real world.

In the run up to the flag vote, the DUP and UUP distributed thousands of leaflets around east Belfast attacking the Alliance Party for supporting the Sinn Féin/SDLP measure. It was a sinister ploy by the main unionist parties to oust Alliance MP Naomi Long from the East Belfast Westminster seat, which she took from Peter Robinson at the 2010 general election. Historically, when crises arose, bourgeois unionism whipped up sectarian tensions in order to deflect criticism from the failures of their misrule and incompetence. This was cynically played out again in December. Previously, the DUP and UUP raised no concerns about the union flag being flown on only designated days in Lisburn, Craigavon and, indeed, Stormont itself. It proved useful in diverting attention from the DUP’s dismantling of the Housing Executive.

The mainstream unionist parties quickly lost control of the “movement” which sprang up around the flag issue to more radical and, at times, fascistic elements. Residents in Short Strand have borne the brunt of loyalist intimidation and violence, with illegal parades being facilitated by the PSNI on a weekly basis. Yet, there is nothing overly uniquely “Northern Irish” about these protests. A quick glance at news and election results from around Europe show an alarming increase in support for the far-right, with disadvantaged and alienated people seeking simple solutions to complicated problems. The rise of the Greek Golden Dawn party is perhaps the most disturbing. Notable, too, is the popularity of Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party in the Netherlands, the True Finns and the National Front in France.

The Belfast flag protests are symptomatic of the shift to the right of small, yet not insignificant, sections of the working class across Europe. The far right are able to provide easy answers to people looking for them and can dangerously redirect their anger towards the wrong targets, whether they are immigrants, native Muslims or, in the Irish case, the “other side”. It highlights the dangers which lurk in the background if the political conversation continues to be dominated by the right. Failure by the left and trade unions to provide a radical alternative to austerity and corporate domination of public affairs leave open the possibility of people’s anger being harnessed by more reactionary forces.

The response to naked sectarianism on Belfast’s streets by the four main parties has been, at the very best best, unimaginative. Backin’ Belfast, a £600,000 publicly funded advertising campaign, was set up to reverse the losses made by businesses in the city as a result of the protests. Little has been done to challenge the anti-democratic, fascistic nature of the protests. Even less has been done to challenge the sectarian nature which lays the basis of the northern state. Instead, people have been encouraged to do their drinking, dining and shopping in Belfast. The alternative to sectarian hatred, apparently, is mass consumerism.

The public faces of Backin’ Belfast have been pub owners and retailers, such as Michael Deane and Colin Neill,who have lamented the loss of trade suffered by city centre bars and shops. They want an end to the protests, not because of the sectarianism on display at the demonstrations, but because they want to get back to ‘business as usual’. The fact that the pub and retail trades in Belfast are notorious for their gross exploitation of young workers goes largely unnoticed. Perhaps people would be able to afford to eat in Deane’s restaurant and shop in River Island at the weekend if bosses in these sectors paid their staff a living wage. Student blogger Aisling Gallager articulated this point excellently when she wrote:

“I am not #BackinBelfast- I can’t afford to. Neither can most students. Whilst students were not the main focus of this article, I’ll stick to what I know best- students are struggling to get by as it is, and with £9k fees for GB students in Queen’s University, halls that are more expensive than the basic loan, and a severe lack of part-time jobs (and those employed taken advantage of horrendously by their employers), students shouldn’t be shamed into spending more money than they can afford.”

The peace process should be about more than facilitating the needs of business owners; it should be about creating a better society, free from both bigotry and exploitation. It won’t be easy, and I don’t claim to have all the answers. But what’s absolutely certain is that tacky PR gimmicks such as Backin’ Belfast will not overcome the sectarianism which exists in the north.

This article was published in the Morning Star

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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

2975186_1352784608Amidst all the pageantry and spin of the US presidential election, you may have missed the news of Adnan Farhan Abdul Latif’s untimely death. The 36-year-old Yemeni citizen died in September, languishing in solitary confinement after spending eleven years in Guantanamo Bay. Amnesty International reported in 2009 that he had suffered from “a number of physical health problems, including a fractured cheekbone, a shattered eardrum, blindness in one eye, a dislocated shoulder blade, and a possibly dislocated knee.” Adnan endured almost eleven years of this torture, embarking on a number of hunger strikes in protest against his treatment. He was never charged with any crime.

Latif’s grim death cell, to which he was consigned without even the semblance of due process, seemed a world away from the nationalistic, patriotic, flag-waving fanfare surrounding Barack Obama’s inauguration ceremony last month. Comments in support of gay rights during his speech were held up as evidence by the liberal media as having shown the president’s “progressive” tendencies. The presidency of Barack Obama, however, has been anything but progressive.

Throughout American history, there has been a remarkable continuity in foreign and domestic policy among successive administrations. Domestically, the economic system was skewed heavily in favour of those who already enjoyed enormous wealth to the detriment of those who had least. The vast prison system devoured the lives of millions of US citizens while, on the foreign front, the American Empire’s “right” to bomb, pillage, loot, occupy, torture, murder and maim wherever in the world it wished went unchallenged – a modern adoption of Manifest Destiny.

Despite his promises of “hope” and “change” back in 2008, part of a deceiving PR campaign for which Advertising Age named him marketer of the year, this continuity remains unbroken under Obama. Since day one, his administration has been packed with Bush-era war criminals and Wall Street lobbyists who helped crash the world’s economy. What’s clear is that even when the figurehead changes, the system ticks as normal, regardless of any soft piecemeal reforms. Contrary to the image portrayed in all the phony television debates and public personality clashes which surround each tedious election, there are many more issues which unite the Democratic and Republican parties than divide them.

The sinister nature of the Obama administration can be seen on a number of fronts; from the children murdered by his drone attacks in Yemen, Pakistan and Afghanistan to the sponsoring of Israeli terror and an array of military dictatorships. At home, repression has increased on a massive scale. No case highlights this more strikingly than that of Bradley Manning, the alleged Wikileaks whistle-blower. He was accused of having leaked footage of a US Apache helicopter massacring at least 18 unarmed people – including two Reuters journalists. For this, Bradley Manning faces the prospect of spending the rest of his life in prison. The soldiers who murdered 18 people, of course, are lauded as “our boys” and “heroes”.

Locked in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day, deprived of sleep and refused access to clothing, the treatment of Bradley Manning is testament to the cruelty of the American state against even its own people. Juan Mendez, who investigated Manning’s case for the UN, told the Guardian: “I conclude that the 11 months under conditions of solitary confinement (regardless of the name given to his regime by the prison authorities) constitutes at a minimum cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment in violation of article 16 of the convention against torture. If the effects in regards to pain and suffering inflicted on Manning were more severe, they could constitute torture.” Manning’s treatment, according to Obama, is “appropriate”.

Abroad, Obama has continued and expanded Bush’s wars of aggression. His enthusiastic embrace of Bush’s drone strategy, according to the Bureau for Investigative Journalism, has led to the murders of as many as 891 civilians in Pakistan. Of these, 176 were children – some as young as three – blown to pieces by machines controlled through a computer screen in Nevada. “The same person who attacked my home has gotten re-elected,” said Mohammad Rehman Khan, a 28-year-old Pakistani who lost his father, three brothers and a nephew in a U.S. drone attack a month after Obama first took office.

The false dawns offered by political liberalism are apparent – mild reforms at home, mass terror abroad. Invasion, occupation, violation of national sovereignty, summary executions, internment, torture and murder. These things all occurred under Obama, yet the reaction has been minimal. Where are the mass protests which erupted onto the streets after similar outrages perpetrated by Bush? Where are the calls for his arrest, which were so common during Bush’s terms? Disturbingly, Obama’s apparent sophistication and ‘hip’ liberalism appear to have absolved him of war crimes in the eyes of many.

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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

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Armed republicanism has once again raised its unwanted head in my home town of Lurgan, defying the will of the vast majority of the people in the area and the rest of Ireland. 54-year-old David Black was gunned down on November 1 while traveling to his work at Maghaberry Prison. Mr Black’s killers are believed to have driven alongside his car on the M1 before opening fire with an automatic weapon, hitting him several times. He died at the scene.

The latest murder comes 18 months after 25-year-old PSNI officer Ronan Kerr was blown up by an Oglaigh na hEireann car bomb in Omagh, a killing which was as pointless as it was callous. Murders such as these achieve little besides satisfying the bloodthirst of the perpetrators and increasing state repression. Given the devastation which the families of the victims experience as a result of these groups’ actions, the lack of public explanation is striking. They are devoid of a greater strategy for achieving their professed goals and appear to possess little or no political understanding. For them, Perfidious Albion is the source of Ireland’s ills. The use of ‘armed struggle’ is just as central to the existence of these groups as the achievement of full Irish independence. For them, the means is an end in itself.

The methods of these groups also reveal a deeper disturbing tendency. In recent years, particularly in Derry, dissident republicans have attempted to present themselves as the moral guardians of the nationalist community. Under the guise of Republican Action Against Drugs, they have embarked on a self-appointed crusade against the drug problems plaguing working class areas, doing so by mutilating teenagers and young men through the act of shooting them in the kneecaps. For all their “revolutionary” pretentions, these groups have adopted a distinctly reactionary and thoroughly unenlightened response to recreational drug use.

Predictably, David Black’s murder was widely condemned by politicians, trade unionists and other public figures. The likelihood of dissident republicans heeding this outrage, however, is low. Bland condemnation was hypocritically articulated by British Prime Minister David Cameron, whose army is currently involved in the rapacious occupation of Afghanistan. He is consistently silent, of course, about the terrorism perpetrated by his erstwhile allies in Washington. The use of unmanned drones in Pakistan to murder “suspected militants”, often a euphemism for defenceless children, goes without comment. This episode also highlights the double standards which exist in our media. David Black’s death was rightly described by the BBC as “murder”. However, on the rare occasion when civilian deaths at the hands of western forces are reported, the words used invoke a more humane and clinical version of slaughter, such as “air strikes” and “raids”. In the eyes of our media, British and American soldiers do not murder – they are merely involved in “military operations”. Terrorism is only wrong when it occurs on a small scale, it seems.

And so, for all of this, another family is torn to pieces and yet more alienated working class youth tied up in the activities of these groups will, in all probability, face lengthy prison sentences. All part of a futile campaign with no possibility of succeeding. The heavily armed Provisional IRA, with its considerable communal and international support, ultimately failed to achieve a British withdrawal from Ireland. A campaign of sporadic murders with no end game in sight carried out by a number of tiny groups with miniscule support is highly unlikely to achieve the same goal.

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.