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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– This article was published in The Morning Star

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Propaganda is not always obvious. No longer does it take the form of full-on jingoistic portrayals of the enemy, whoever it might be at any given time. The term is certain to bring up images of those hostile xenophobic posters from the First World War urging working people to sacrifice their bodies and lives for their respective ruling classes. Images, too, of dictators adorned with bouquets of flowers from adoring children will spring to mind.

Modern propaganda is a much more sophisticated beast than that of the early 20th century, but its results are no less effective. Its destructive reach extends way beyond the theatre of war and conquest, influencing heavily the decisions we all make every day as consumers. Not only are we indoctrinated into supporting rapacious wars around the globe, we are programmed on a mass scale to devote our lives to consumption, no matter what effect it has on our collective well-being. Propaganda today is presented to us along with the faces of well-known celebrities, displaying the latest crap we ought to buy. On television and in the print media, propaganda is pretentiously cloaked in airs of “objectivity” and “impartiality”.

The first BBC report on the unprovoked invasion of Iraq in 2003 reveals a lot. Plush words such as “precision-guided bombing”, “missile attacks” and “raids” were used to describe the actions of the US/UK invaders. Compare this with the tiresome language used to describe anyone other than western governments who use violence. The resistance movements in Iraq, Palestine, Vietnam, Nicaragua, Guatemala and all the other countries whose populations are considered by us in the west as non-people are always “terrorists”, “bombers”, “gunmen” and “murderers”. The invaders, of course, are “our boys”. Indeed, “imperialism” is a word rarely heard on the airwaves.

Reporting of the long-running occupation of Palestine is consistently ridded with propaganda, half-truths and lies. Mainstream outlets aim for “balanced” and “unbiased” reporting on this issue, as though there were a moral equivalence between occupier and occupied. Mainstream media is also intensely selective of what atrocities and injustices go reported or unreported. The suppression of the Solidarity movement in Poland in the 1980s was news. The genocide of more than a million people carried out by General Suharto, capitalism’s dictator, was not news. His crimes remain largely unknown in the west. He was “our” dictator. He provided “stability” to a volatile region, as did Gadaffi, Mubarak, Batista, Pinochet and the endless list of other dictators propped up by the West’s “democratic” governments.

During a visit to the United States, a group of journalists from the Soviet Union, awed by the passivity of western citizens, asked their American hosts: “How do you do it? In our country, to achieve this, we throw people in prison; we tear out their fingernails. Here, there’s none of that? What’s your secret?”

Following the pointless slaughter known as the First World War, the term propaganda had a negative connotation. Something new was needed to mould the minds of the population of the “free world”. Edward Bernays, a nephew of Sigmund Freud, is often described as having been the “father of public relations”. In his book, Propaganda (Bernays was quite explicit in his admission that he was a propagandist), he wrote: “If we understand the mechanisms and motives of the group mind, it is now possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing it.” This was called “engineering consent”, the aim of public relations.

Bernays was the darling of the advertising industry, which, of course, is propaganda by another name. His insights were sought by a range of corporations seeking to boost sales and profits. Among his most famous feats was the encouragement of large numbers of women to take up smoking, which had previously been seen as a masculine pursuit. Cigarettes were referred to as “torches of freedom” and smoking was said to be a blow against gender inequality. Sales of cigarettes skyrocketed. Bernays’ legacy of manipulation and dishonesty continues today in the modern advertising and public relations industries.

Barack Obama’s election victory in 2008 was one of the greatest accomplishments of propaganda since the Second World War. The world was greeted with ‘hope’ and ‘change’, with many expecting the closing of the Bush era to represent the end of imperialist America. It was, of course, all image and no content. It succeeded in raising the hopes of millions. This was the power of ‘Brand Obama’, which earned him the accolade of Advertising Age’s marketer of the year for 2008.

Since taking office, Obama has continued Bush’s wars and presided over the imprisonment of truth teller Bradley Manning. He has enthusiastically embraced the use of unmanned drones, which have slaughtered more than 2,000 people. According the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, at least 392 of the victims were civilians, 175 of whom were children. The people who were sold ‘hope’ and ‘change’ by Obama’s vast propaganda network have been sorely let down.

Following the crash of 2008, public and political anger across the globe was geared towards those who caused the crisis, namely, bankers and the rich. The crisis took the mainstream media by surprise, whose “impartial” economic commentators, having been thoroughly schooled in neo-liberalism, saw the boom of the 2000s as proof that capitalism had triumphed over all other systems. The agenda of the same “experts” who failed to foresee the crisis now dictates political discourse. The blame has been shifted onto low-paid public sector workers and those in receipt of welfare. “The deficit”, a term most people would not have heard discussed before the Great Recession, is now the big political issue of the day. Yet, for most of the population, it is a non-issue. Noam Chomsky correctly pointed out in his recent book, Occupy: “The issue is joblessness, not the deficit. There’s a deficit commission but there’s no joblessness commission.”

The mainstream narrative, pushed by the same gang of neo-liberal economists who failed to foresee the crisis, is tiring. The welfare state must be dismantled. Health care must be privatised. The public sector has to shrink. “There is no alternative,” we are told. Yet, if there are no alternatives, why do we bother having elections, parliaments and other supposedly democratic institutions? What’s the point of democracy if nothing can be changed, if we have to persistently bend to the will of “the markets”?

Aside from the broader political scene, our everyday behaviour, too, is heavily influenced by propaganda. We are now exposed to thousands of advertisements every hour of our lives. The aim of this wasteful industry, true to the legacy of Bernays, is to influence human behaviour on a mass scale. It plays on our most primeval desires and, among many people, seeds a constant feeling of deep dissatisfaction. It entices us to continue destroying the planet we rely on for survival for the sake of a short-term thrill, while at the same time driving us further into personal debt and diminishing our savings.

The existence of propaganda in the west is rarely acknowledged, yet its influence extends further than ever. Vast PR machines, invisible to the general public, dictate the news. Advertising invades our lives and rapacious wars destroy nations, which go misreported and, in many cases, unreported.

“The finest trick of the devil,” it was once said, “is to persuade you that he does not exist.”

– This article was published in The Morning Star

I’ve never really understood the world’s fascination with Irishness. During my time living abroad I have found telling people that I’m from Ireland automatically leads to a reaction of respectful awe. Many in the English speaking world seem to believe the notion that being Irish, a mere accident of birth, is somehow “cool”. Maybe it’s our attitude towards alcohol. Maybe it’s the music. Or maybe people just find the place curious. And a curious place it most certainly is.

Since 2008, the life of the Irish economy has been battered by austerity, imposed on the population by two successive governments on behalf of the world’s richest people. Much of the international commentary on the collapse of the ‘Celtic Tiger’ has focused on the seeming passivity of the Irish populace in the face of deep cuts in public spending, starkly contrasting with the heroic resistance of the Greek working class.

Last week, thousands of ordinary people rallied in support of former billionaire, now bankrupt, Seán Quinn in county Cavan. A number of well-know GAA faces attended the event, including Tyrone manager Mickey Harte, former Armagh manager Joe Kernan and former Meath manager Seán Boylan. Sinn Fein’s Michelle Gildernew described the treatment of Quinn as “disgraceful”, while, on the other side of the border, Mary-Lou McDonald was quick to distance the party from the disgraced businessman. The vile Michael O’Leary also voiced support for the convicted criminal.

Judging by the large crowd which had gathered in Ballyconnell, one would be forgiven for thinking that this was a man of upstanding character who had been gravely misunderstood. The facts, however, show an entirely different picture. The BBC’s Jim Fitzpatrick has detailed a considerable list of Quinn’s dubious actions, which is well worth looking at. Not only did he trade in “dangerous” derivatives to bet on the value of Anglo-Irish Bank, among other shady financial dealings, he borrowed money from Anglo-Irish Bank to buy shares in – you guessed it – Anglo-Irish Bank! Now, you don’t need to be a financial wizard to realise this is deeply corrupt.

Although he was already obscenely rich, Quinn had the sheer reckless greed to gamble billions in an attempt to make even more money, destroying his own empire in the process. His actions and the actions of his class of incompetent, selfish moneybags destroyed the Irish economy. Surely the people who attended this rally could muster up the wit to make the connection between the bitter austerity measures being imposed the most vulnerable people in Ireland and the activities of the likes of Mr Quinn?

The Ballyconnell rally reflects the rampant gombeenism and blind local loyalty that still infects Ireland. So long as one is seen to be a GAA fan, a mass goer or simply “one of our own”, serious misdemeanours, even crimes, are ignored. The significant minority in the country who have chosen to back Quinn should be reminded that, since Anglo-Irish has been nationalised (though it is now called IBRC), the debt he ran up is owed to the Irish taxpayer.

The spectacle of working people demonstrating in support of a billionaire whose class helped bankrupt a nation and force an entire generation to shoulder a colossal debt is not only puzzling but is, indeed, quite pathetic. “Bring back Quinn and let him create jobs”, read one ill-informed placard with the air of a grateful serf paying homage to his master. The working people who attended this rally would be better served demonstrating for the interests of their own class.

“Ireland is not Greece,” Finance Minister Michael Noonan once said. Indeed it’s not.

This article was published in The Morning Star

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conor blogs at www.dublinopinion.com/

Written more than a century ago, Jack London’s, The Iron Heel, endures as a very pertinent read. The dystopian novel, which later influenced George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four depicts the tyranny of a class of nihilistic super-rich, named ‘the Oligarchy’, imposing their brutal rule on the rest of humanity. The book’s protagonist, Ernest Everhard, is a fiery socialist whose life-cause is to take on the huge capitalist monopolies and the powerful state which safeguards them. Riddled with outbursts of rage against the profit system, the book’s reader could not fail to miss the parallels between the scenario set out in this book and the world today.

Politicians from the two main parties in the US bore the brunt of one of Ernest’s wonderful tirades, an eruption of anger which could be aimed at almost any parliament in the world today:

“You pompously call yourselves Republicans and Democrats. There is no Republican Party. There is no Democratic Party. There are no Republicans, nor Democrats in this house. You are lick-spittlers and panderers, the creatures of the Plutocracy. You talk verbosely in antiquated terminology of your love of liberty, and all the while you wear the scarlet livery of the Iron Heel.”

Although it has been true for a long time, the present Eurozone crisis has brought to the fore the unspeakable fact that national parliaments are no longer the main power-holders in the world. The blackmail and intimidation of the Irish people into accepting Angela Merkel’s ‘Stability’ Treaty was but the latest instance of a rabid financial system making big decisions against the interests of the majority of humanity.

In January, under the threat of a “financial bomb” going off in Dublin, the Irish state pitifully paid €1.2 billion to unsecured, unguaranteed, faceless bondholders at the now defunct Anglo-Irish bank. Two months previously, €720 million was forked out for the same senseless purpose, at a time when billions are hacked away from public spending. The fact that the Fine Gael and Labour manifestos pledged to “burn the bondholders” did not halt this grotesque looting of scarce public funds. Terroristic warnings of financial catastrophe saw to it that the desires of the Irish electorate were overridden.

Although Ireland reluctantly bowed to the intimidation of financial terrorists, the Greek people took a stand and rejected the social vandalism of austerity, much to the annoyance of the “markets.” Christine Lagarde, the head of the IMF, let her veil slip when she declared that it was time for the Greek people to “payback” and warned them “not to expect sympathy”. The world’s media were shocked by her callous outburst. They needn’t have been surprised, however, as cold-hearted arrogance is well within the tradition of this monstrous institution whose policies have spread poverty and hardship throughout the globe.

True to her economic fanaticism, Lagarde is capable only of acknowledging hard figures, while remaining totally oblivious to the destitution millions of people now face in Greece. And destitution is no exaggeration.  It has been reported that many schools in the country are no longer able provide physical education because children are fainting in class as a result of hunger. In April, retired pharmacist Dimitris Christoulas shot himself in the main square of Athens during morning rush hour after his pension was butchered by the fanatical austerity measures imposed on Greece by the Troika.  His suicide note read: “And since my advanced age does not allow me a way of dynamically reacting… I see no other solution than this dignified end to my life, so I don’t find myself fishing through garbage cans for my sustenance.” Later the same month in Athens, a university lecturer in his 30s hanged himself from a lamp post, a young student shot himself in the head and a priest took his own life by jumping off a balcony. One can only imagine the hopelessness these people experienced to be driven to these extremes. This is the human side of economics, beyond the endless chatter about “the markets” and those frustratingly dull, lifeless figures.

Before the Troika’s diktats, Greece had one of the lowest suicide rates in the world. Since then, it has doubled and is likely to continue to rise. The country has seen a 25% increase in homelessness over the past three year and 1 in 11 people in Athens rely on soup kitchens for food. Thanasis Maniatisan, an economics professor at Athens University, told the Guardian that Greece faces “a great humanitarian crisis, similar to that suffered in advanced economies during the 1930s.” The society of an entire nation is collapsing as a direct result of the financial terrorism perpetrated by the Troika. Lagarde remains indifferent.

Back in March, ECB chief Mario Draghi revealed the sheer short sightedness and utter stupidity of the powerful when he boldly declared that “the worst of the Euro crisis is over”. The path of austerity they have chosen to travel tragically underline this folly. Their self-styled solutions merely attempt to resolve the symptoms of this crisis, rather than the causes. Such is their blind fanaticism.

The aim of Merkel’s Treaty is to minimise state debt and restrict public spending deficits. Although these issues were not the causes of the Great Recession, and tackling them will certainly not improve the situation as Greece has shown, the austerity gang insists on continuing on its failed path. Far from being a problem of the public sector, the current crisis was caused by the excesses of the private sector. Before the notorious bank guarantee, Ireland ran budget surpluses every year for the previous five years. Even the usually right-wing Economist magazine commented:

“This fiscal focus gets things exactly backwards. Spain’s poor public finances, unlike those of Greece, are a symptom rather than the cause of the country’s economic woes. Before the crisis Spain was well within the euro zone’s fiscal rules. Even now its government debt, at around 70% of GDP, is lower than Germany’s. As in Ireland, the origins of Spain’s debt problems are private, not public.”

This crisis, particularly in Ireland, Spain and the United States, was caused by an uncontrolled housing boom, unregulated private banks and the 30-year long suppression of wages. The austerity zealots have turned a crisis of a runaway private sector into a crisis of public spending. This situation urgently needs reversed.

Doubtless, there are millions who would agree with Jack London’s character Ernest Everhard when he raged:

“The capitalist class has mismanaged. In face of the facts that modern man lives more wretchedly than the cave-man, and that his producing power is a thousand times greater than that of the cave-man, no other conclusion is possible than that the capitalist class has mismanaged, that you have mismanaged, my masters, that you have criminally and selfishly mismanaged.”

 

– This article was published in The Morning Star.

 

 

 

A common theme running through much of the world’s history is the prevalence of often bizarre and outrageous ideas that would never be granted any credibility in the modern age. Some of these ideas and doctrines, during certain periods of history, were seen by most people alive at the time as undeniable truths. For much of the last millennium, the divine right of kings was used to justify the perverted reign of Europe’s many monarchs. Those who questioned it were seen as seditious radicals on the fringes of society. Likewise, the doctrine of Manifest Destiny declared that the United States had a God-given right to expand westward on the North American continent, even if it meant the extermination of the native population.

Today’s prevailing delusion is not a peculiar religious dogma or indeed any crazed racist political doctrine; it’s the belief in the necessity of unending economic growth. Championed by almost all politicians and economists, the notion that the world’s economy can grow indefinitely comes up against one huge stumbling block; Earth’s finite resources.

The scientific consensus is that humans are causing our planet’s climate to change. The only thing that is really contested here is the degree to which it is taking place. And our collective obsession with never-ending economic growth, coupled with our addiction to heat-trapping fossil fuels, is a recipe for environmental disaster. Future generations, if there are any, are likely to be bemused at our economic system’s reckless short-termism.

Growth is a central component of the current economic system and is necessary for its normal functioning. It’s generally accepted that capitalism requires the economy to grow by around 3% every year to avoid a crisis, as we now know today. When growth stops, millions of people are thrown onto the scrapheap. However, when growth continues, the environment suffers. It’s an unfortunate fact, but when GDP increases, so do greenhouse gas emissions. This is an enormous obstacle which humanity needs to overcome in the very near future.

Economics is perhaps the most over-mystified field in modern academia. Many people feel intimidated by the figures, strange-sounding financial terms and, ultimately, its sheer dullness. Consequently, most people feel that they should leave major economic decisions to those “who know best”, much to the detriment of the rest of society.

Boiled down to its most simple form, economics is about human beings labouring to produce and exchange things that they want or need. In a sense, “economics” has existed for as long as humans have populated this planet, even if the term wasn’t articulated by our earliest ancestors. However, economics today is a very different beast. The attacks on living standards across the world, carried out on behalf of the powerful, testifies to the fact that people are now seen as objects whose sole purpose is to serve the interests of “the economy”, rather than the other way around. Environmental lawyer Gus Speth highlighted the blindness at the centre of this fanatical money worship when he said: “Economic growth may be the world’s secular religion, but for much of the world it is a god that is failing – underperforming for most of the world’s people and, for those in affluent societies, now creating more problems than it is solving.”

Economic growth, we are told, is the only way to improve our lives and to raise millions of people out of poverty. It’s believed that building and consuming more things makes our lives more fulfilling and enjoyable. But this view, although widely held, does not stand up against the evidence. Although the global economy has grown many times over the last few decades, very little of the wealth created has went towards lifting the world’s poorest people out of poverty. And in western countries, whose populations are the supposed beneficiaries of economic growth, depression and anxiety levels have increased massively as a result of stress and longer working hours.

Economic growth does not necessarily lead to increased life satisfaction. Indeed, most working people saw little benefit from economic growth over the past forty years. Since the 1970s, wages in the western world have stagnated as a result of the demise of effective trade unionism. So, while the economy was growing year-on-year, those who were creating the growth in production and wealth received nothing extra for their labour. To fill the gap in demand left by falling wages, working people were encouraged to obtain credit cards in order to buy things which otherwise could not have been sold. Thus, a growing consumer economy is necessarily built on huge amounts of debt, which clearly brings about its own set of personal and social problems.

The wisdom of promoting western consumer-based economies as models of development for the rest of the world is questionable at best. In their 2006 report, Growth Isn’t Working, the New Economics Foundation pointed out the stark unfeasibility of continuing to grow the global economy indefinitely: “For everyone on Earth to live at the current European average level of consumption, we would need more than double the biocapacity actually available – the equivalent of 2.1 planet Earths – to sustain us. If everyone consumed at the US rate, we would require nearly five.” Aside from the ecological impossibility of using growth to tackle poverty, the actual results have left a lot to be desired. The authors of the report also discovered the following:

“Between 1990 and 2001, for every $100 worth of growth in the world’s income per person, just $0.60 found its target and contributed to reducing poverty below the $1-a-day line. To achieve every single $1 of poverty reduction therefore requires $166 of additional global production and consumption, with all its associated environmental impacts.”

Rather than the wealth “trickling down” to the less well off in society, as Margaret Thatcher infamously believed, the tendency in capitalism is for the wealth to trickle in a most definitely upward fashion.

Beyond a certain point in any society’s development, economic growth ceases to contribute to general public well-being. Once people’s basic requirements are fulfilled, such as health care, a good social and family life, purposeful employment and adequate shelter, the urge for material goods diminishes. This is exceptionally demonstrated in Tim Jackson’s Prosperity Without Growth, which points out that people generally value having a productive role in society more than they value material commodities. Following the initial buzz of buying a new iPad or catching up with the new fashion fad, there’s little to suggest that we are any happier when we consume things. Indeed, the most visible facet of growth-based consumerism, advertising, encourages us to be deeply unsatisfied with our lives and with what we own. Life is never good enough unless you go out and purchase the latest crap the capitalist has to offer.

Fred Magdoff and John Bellamy Foster, in their 2010 book, What Every Environmentalist Needs to Know About Capitalism, made an important point when they wrote: “The emphasis on consumption has even brought about a change in everyday use. Instead of talking about the “people”, the “general population”, the “public,” or “humanity,” it is common to use the term consumer.” They continued: “Our humanity is being defined as our connection to commodities instead of to each other and our communities”.

Shopping is central to the workings of capitalism. The powerful need us to buy their junk to keep their system ticking over. That is why, in the days after the 9-11 attacks, US President George Bush urged terrified Americans, who were worried about the prospect of another Al-Qaeda attack, to get out their credit cards and start spending again in a bid to prevent an economic slow down.

Not only does economic growth fail to improve our happiness and wellbeing, it assists in the destruction and cooking of our fragile planet. The fetishisation of growth gets more cult-like by the week. There is no alternative, we are told. Any other system which has been tried out has failed. Capitalism gives people what they want. We must appease the markets. History ended when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. So goes the mundane mainstream narrative.

The task of this generation is to move the world beyond an economic system which views both people and planet as mere “externalities”. We need to build a system which views these things as more than trivial side issues which warrant only an afterthought. There is nothing to suggest that a non-growth economy, organised in a non-capitalist way, of course, would not prosper. The key is to reorganise the priorities of the economy and to plan production in a way that meets the basic needs of everyone while at the same time not destroying our species’ chances of survival on this planet. Of course, it will require a change in the way we currently live our lives and will present an immense challenge, but it can be done. To continue the way we are going risks disaster.

Kenneth Boulding wonderfully summed up the madness of the current economic paradigm when he quipped: “Anyone who thinks exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.”

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.

The news that RBS chief Steven Hester has turned down his obscene £1 million bonus has been welcomed by all shades of political opinion. “Banker bashing” has transcended the narrow boundaries of the left and is now part of mainstream discourse, with even millionaire David Cameron spouting populist rhetoric attacking certain behaviour in the City. Mr Hester, however, will have little difficulty getting by on his modest salary of £1.2 million. Perhaps this is the “restraint” that David Cameron is referring to when he harps on about “moral” capitalism.

It might well feel good to attack the activities of “reckless bankers”. However, the problems inherent in the economic system we currently live under run far deeper than that. Certainly, lending huge amounts of money to people who could never afford to pay it back and subsequently selling that debt on to other financial institutions is irresponsible, but this does not address what it is that is wrong at the very core of capitalism.

One glaring absence in most public debates about the economy is the key issue of what actually caused the current crisis. It’s almost taboo to highlight the fact that wages in general have been stagnating since 1980. With the advent of Thatcherism/Reaganism, the assault on organised labour became ever more intense. The defeat of the British miners and American air traffic controllers in the 1980s marked the beginning of the decline of the trade union movement in the two countries. This was mirrored across the world, not least here in Ireland. These anti-union assaults heralded the birth of the most modern form of capitalism; neo-liberalism.

Trade union membership in the UK peaked in 1979, with just over 12 million members. This number has fallen year on year since the beginning of Margaret Thatcher’s deliberate destruction of the British manufacturing industry. Today, just over 6 million UK workers are unionised. The picture in Ireland shows a similar trend. Irish trade union membership peaked in 1980, claiming 62% of the country’s workforce. In 2010, just before the Troika’s “bailout”, less than 25% of Irish workers were in a union. Young people, especially, are less likely to even know what a union is, let alone join one.

The effect decreasing union membership has had on society was entirely predictable; wages fell in real terms and working conditions deteriorated. Last week, a TUC report revealed a number of startling findings. The main one was this; had wages grown at the same rate that the economy was growing over the past three decades, workers in the UK would be collectively earning £60 billion more than they are earning today. The TUC’s Touchstone Blog has a very useful tool on its site called the ‘Incomes Tracker’, which all workers might want to have a look at. It helps put this great robbery into perspective. Say you are earning £21,000 per year. Had your wage risen at the same rate the economy was growing (and remember, workers create all wealth in any economy) you would be taking home a handsome annual salary of more than £32,000. Or, if you are taking home a modest wage of £14,000; you would actually be on a wage of £24,000 had your wages grown in line with the wider economy.

When the economy was growing, the rich were increasing their income accordingly. However, those who were actually working and producing things to make the economy grow received nothing extra for their labour. Despite becoming more productive, workers’ income stayed the same. In many cases, wages actually decreased in real terms. In the US, this reached extraordinary levels. Between 1979 and 2007, the richest 1% of Americans increased their income by 275%. In contrast, the bottom 20% increased their income over the same period by a mere 20%. While some union activists were preaching class war, the ruling class were busy practicing it.

And don’t think for a minute that the pain is now being shared out proportionally just because there is a recession; far from it. Last year the income of the directors of the top 100 companies in the UK increased by 43%. The thousand richest people in the UK fared even better. According to the Times Rich List the total wealth owned by this group of people has increased by 53% since 2009. They now own a combined wealth of more than £400 billion.

It’s increasingly likely that this deep inequality will lead to social catastrophe. There has been only one other period in modern history when inequality was as great as it is now; the decade immediately before the Great Depression.

The race to attack the incomes of workers highlights the sheer irrationality of capitalism. When wages are repressed, demand collapses, as the working class as a whole are unable to buy back to goods it collectively produces. This leads to millions of useful products rotting unsold in warehouses and factories. This is known as a crisis of overproduction. The solution of the capitalist class to overcome this problem is an inherently unstable one; pumping out credit. Instead of raising the income of those who create the products they want to sell, the capitalist class encourage workers to obtain credit cards and stack up mountains of personal debt. Rather than actually overcoming it, the best capitalism can offer is the postponement of a crisis. With personal, commercial and public debt all spiralling upwards over the past three decades, it was only a matter of time before this system collapsed.

However, things are likely to get worse. A lot worse. The internationally coordinated attacks on wages and working conditions, coupled with the destruction of the old social democratic welfare states, will cause consumer demand to collapse. This will lead to a vicious cycle of ever more job losses and company closures, which will collapse demand still further. Even Mervyn King, the Governor of the Bank Of England, has warned of the coming depression being worse than the 1930s. The coming years will see thousands defaulting on personal debts. House repossessions will become more common as people struggle to meet ruinous mortgage payments. The Euro is also on the verge of collapse, with some countries veering towards default. The fact is, the crisis of 2008 was merely a forerunner of a larger crisis about to come.

Tumultuous historical periods such as the current one often witness great calamity. In times like these, the stupidity of those in power should not be underestimated. Just look at the political response to the crisis. Almost all commentators are calling on governments to “get the economy growing again”, regardless of the impact perpetual growth will have on this planet’s fragile environment. We also hear politicians urging the banks to “start lending again” without questioning why we need to run an economy built upon colossal amounts of debt. And the best our geniuses in Stormont can come up with is a proposal to reduce corporation tax.

Despite the frantic efforts of the world’s leaders, no solution will be found to this crisis within the current economic structures. A radical reorganisation of society is the very least that is required to guarantee a decent standard of living for every human being on this planet. Anything less will bring us back to the conditions of the 1930s.

Over the past few months, the Leveson Inquiry into media ethics has dragged some of the lowest forms of human life into the public spotlight.  One of the most loathsome appeared before the inquiry earlier this week; former Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie.

MacKenzie, who described the setting up of the Leveson Inquiry as “ludicrous”, was editor of the quasi-fascist-leaning Sun for more than a decade, presiding over some of the most despicable acts of gutter journalism.  The most famous occurred in April 1989, when 96 Liverpool fans were crushed to death in the overcrowded Hillsborough stadium in Sheffield.  The Taylor Report, which was later set up by the British Government to establish the cause of the disaster, firmly pointed the finger of blame at the “failure of police control”. Kelvin MacKenzie apparently knew better, however.  Just days after the horrific disaster, MacKenzie conspired with elements in the police to shift the blame onto the Liverpool fans. “The Truth,” bellowed The Sun’s front page in huge black letters. Vicious, baseless smears, accusing fans of stealing from the dead and urinating on police officers, littered that particular edition of The Sun. To this day, a city-wide boycott of the paper remains in place.

Eddie Spearritt, whose 14-year-old son Adam died at Hillsborough, movingly told journalist John Pilger:

“As I lay in my hospital bed, the hospital staff kept the Sun away from me. It’s bad enough when you lose your 14-year-old son because you’re treating him to a football match. Nothing can be worse than that. But since then I’ve had to defend him against all the rubbish printed by the Sun about everyone there being a hooligan and drinking. There was no hooliganism. During 31 days of Lord Justice Taylor’s inquiry, no blame was attributed because of alcohol. Adam never touched it in his life.”

The evidence given to the Leveson enquiry by broadcaster Anne Diamond, highlighted last month by Private Eye, gives a disturbing insight to the working practices of Murdoch’s “favourite editor”.  Mrs Diamond told lawyers how she “had to flee hospital while in labour with her first child to escape a [Sun] reporter posing as a doctor”. Mrs Diamond was further harassed by the Murdoch paper while MacKenzie was editor after the cot death of her 1-year-old son Sebastian. Her evidence to the enquiry is perhaps the most unsettling yet. Less than an hour after baby Sebastian’s death, Mrs Diamond said, “our front door very quickly was surrounded with hundreds of newspaper photographers and reporters literally just sitting there waiting for something to happen, constantly ringing the doorbell”.  She spoke of one female hack trying to “rush” her front door: “She rang the bell and she had a big bouquet of flowers to give us and when the door had to be taken off the chain to accept the flowers she rushed in and two grown men had to push her back out of the door.”

It doesn’t stop there, however. Speaking about her son’s funeral, Mrs Diamond said: “We were at our possibly most private moment and we were long lensed at that point.”  She and her husband had written to every major newspaper in Britain requesting they stay away from the funeral after the media “circus” that surrounded the death of Eric Clapton’s son. She said:

“They all did, except one photographer who took photos of the funeral from the road. I don’t even need to say that that’s the most private moment you could possibly go through. Within a few hours of the funeral the editor of The Sun rang my husband and said, ‘we have a picture, it’s an incredibly strong picture and we would like to use it’. And my husband said, ‘No, we’ve asked all of you to stay away. No.’ And the editor said, ‘Well, we’re going to use it anyway. We’ll use it with or without your permission.”

The next day, The Sun, in its typical tasteless fashion, published the photograph of her and her husband carrying their child’s coffin on its front page.

This is just one example of how the warped Kelvin MacKenzie works. In his journalistic masterpiece, Hidden Agendas, John Pilger wrote: “MacKenzie is exactly what Murdoch wanted: someone with the ‘knack…an incisive and intelligent mind, quick to exploit the weaknesses of others and with a hard edge of cruelty which gave no quarter’.” These traits run through all of MacKenzie’s scrawling “journalism”. Whether his target is black people, dead football fans, hungry miners or refugees fleeing famine and war, MacKenzie prided himself in cruelly attacking the most vulnerable in society.  He sanctioned and participated in acts of gutter journalism that would make the recent phone hacking scandal pale in comparison.

It’s astounding that this malicious hack continues to be treated as a reputable commentator by many in the media.

It perhaps seems a bit inappropriate, but I could not help but laugh aloud as I watched the ridiculous scenes of elaborate public mourning being beamed on our TV screens from North Korea. There is something deeply unsettling about seeing crowds of otherwise sensible adults crawling along the ground weeping at the death of their “Dear Leader”. The demise of Kim Jung Il has been greeted across the world with mixture of joy and unease. Joy at the death of one of the planet’s most vicious, anti-human dictators, and unease at who will take his place.In my last blog, I spoke of the Orwellian tendencies of the West’s leaders, particularly when it comes to foreign policy. Now that people’s minds are very much focused on events in North Korea, the world’s last bastion of Stalinism, my assertion might seem exaggerated. However, I stand by what I wrote and believe it is a fair assessment of the West’s attitude to rapacious wars and colonialism.

North Korea is an exaggeration in itself. It’s an exaggeration of George Orwell’s classic book 1984. Almost everything Orwell wrote has been brought to life in this nightmarish, other-worldly state. Speaking after his visit to the country, the late Christopher Hitchens said:

“One tries to avoid cliché, and I did my best on a visit to this terrifying country in the year 2000, but George Orwell’s 1984 was published at about the time that Kim Il Sung set up his system, and it really is as if he got hold of an early copy of the novel and used it as a blueprint. Actually, North Korea is rather worse than Orwell’s dystopia. There would be no way, in the capital city of Pyongyang, to wander off and get lost in the slums, let alone to rent an off-the-record love nest in a room over a shop. Everybody in the city has to be at home and in bed by curfew time, when all the lights go off (if they haven’t already failed).”Kim Jung-Il’s ideology was based on his father’s “Juche” idea, a philosophy which promotes “self-reliance”. Stemming from this was his “military first” policy, which led to widespread hardship in the country. In the 1990s, more than 2 million people starved to death during an entirely avoidable famine.

It’s hard to believe that anyone outside North Korea would support this inhuman dynasty. However, a range of strangely named groups across the ultra-left have voiced their grief at the death of the dictator, regurgitating the propaganda of the state broadcaster who outlandishly claimed that Kim Jung Il died as a result of “working too hard for the Korean people”. For instance, the uber-Stalinists of the Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist-Leninist) sang his praises earlier this week. (And yes, that is their real name). On their website, Proletarian Online, it said: “It is with feelings of deep and profound grief that we have learned the shocking news of the sudden passing away of one of the world’s most respected and beloved anti-imperialist leaders, Comrade Kim Jong Il.” They aren’t the only ones. Chris Coleman, of the fantastically named Revolutionary Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist), expressed his “deepest sadness at the untimely passing of the great leader”.  Andy Brooks, the general secretary of the New Communist Party of Britain, described Kim Jung Il as devoting “his entire life to serving the Korean people”.

One wonders what forces these fundamentalist micro-groups to take these insane positions. What’s revolutionary about supporting a backward Stalinist monarchy? How does the Kim dynasty promote socialism in any way? Do they really believe this is a dialectical approach to world politics?
To finish off, I will leave you a selection of the freakishly Orwellian titles that were bestowed upon Kim Jung Il during his horrific reign, which I, with my strange sense of humour, found mildly amusing:

Sun of the Communist Future
Guarantee of the Fatherland’s Unification
Beloved and Respected General
The Great Sun of Life
Great Sun of The Nation
World Leader of The 21st Century
Peerless Leader
Bright Sun of the 21st Century
Amazing politician
Glorious General, Who Descended From Heaven
Invincible and Ever-triumphant General
Guiding Star of the 21st Century
Highest Incarnation of the Revolutionary Comradely Love
Dear Leader, who is a perfect incarnation of the appearance that a leader should have

Scary stuff.