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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.

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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.