Concrete Radicality

Beyond perpetual opposition.

When Joe Brolly met Georg Lukács

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Joe Brolly wrote an interesting article on the commodification of sport in this week’s issue of Gaelic Life. It’s a topic that crops up frequently as a critique of capitalist culture, from the Against Modern Football movement to combat the pricing of working-class fans out of the game, to controversies over the proliferation of performing-enhancing drugs in elite sport, to debates over whether college athletes should unionise in the United States.

Brolly, a former Derry footballer turned RTÉ pundit, explores it in the context of the amateur GAA and specifically men’s gaelic football. His thesis is that the increasing commercialism of the GAA leadership is driving the sport towards professionalism, instilling a will to win that is sapping the love of the game from the players and producing private bodies which are enriching the few at the expense of the many.

What he’s describing is similar to a process philosopher Georg Lukács called “reification”. This is where human relations or properties are transformed into human-produced things, given a value independently of and surpassing people themselves, and eventually coming to govern our lives. This distorts human relations, forcing us to interact with each other in terms of things rather than as people ourselves, producing a commodity fetishism. The pre-eminence of economic relationships over social relationships also causes a generalised condition of alienation, where we feel divorced from the work we do, the parts of life we enjoy, each other and even ourselves.

Interestingly, Brolly’s analysis reminds us that these processes do not happen in isolation or simply as economics. They are effected by the latent culture. So, in the GAA, commodification is buttressed by existing ideology like the “doctrine of club and county” and “strong community expectation” which produce a “loyalty” to the organisation and make deviating from its line difficult.

Ideology plays an important part in the GAA, which as well as being one of the largest amateur sporting organisations in the world has also, as an institution, often been on the side of conservative forces in Irish politics. In certain respects sport has a similar social function to religion, bonding communities, giving them rituals to share and establishing a sense of tradition – even if anyone who has attended Catholic mass would tell you sport’s entertainment value is a good deal higher. But any organisation of that kind that lasts under capitalism will have the GAA’s contradictions – partly playing a role in reproducing the system, partly providing ordinary people relief from its hardships.

And so on the one hand you have an organisation of over a million members, operating on a communitarian ethos, rooted in local communities, with a genuine sense of ownership for the grassroots, and at the same time its assets are over €2.5billion, many fans are priced out of its biggest games, its former leader sits in the European Parliament with Fine Gael and its most notable moment in 2014 was when it tried to force through a series of multi-million dollar concerts against the wishes of a working-class urban community.

Brolly’s description of the merits of the GAA, an organisation that teaches us “the joys of community and the great satisfaction that comes from collaboration and hard work”, echoes what Liverpool greats said about their sport in the past. Bill Shankly said that football was about “everyone working for each other, everyone having a share of the rewards”. John Barnes said that “for 90 minutes, regardless of whether you are Lionel Messi or the substitute right-back for Argentina, you are all working to the same end.” Both compared this ethic explicitly to socialism.

While there are important critiques of amateurism and volunteerism – for instance, how they are used by projects like David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ to replace entitlements with charity – Brolly correctly identifies the connection between professionalism and capitalism. Whereas under amateurism sport can be enjoyed for sport, with winning its own reward, professionalism means that competition becomes dominant. Winning is no longer about sport but about earning – if a player fails to achieve they could lose their jobs, which means losing their means of subsistence.

But capitalism wins consent by hiding its reduction of all human endeavour to profit. You talk instead in general terms about business, markets, entrepreneurship, trade, wealth, things that imply a greater social utility. Or, when you’re running an amateur organisation, as Brolly points out, you talk about “broadening participation”… through television deals with Sky Sports. Likely to broaden the market for a product, maybe, but not increase participation in a sport.

Below are some segments from Joe Brolly’s article, Saving the GAA, Part 2. A digital version of the full issue can be bought from Gaelic Life for just over €1 here.


In the wake of [my last] column five current county footballers contacted me. What I had written chimed with their experience.

They described how rehearsal and repetition had made the game joyless. Worse, their lives are being micro-managed.

They are constantly tired. They suffer from dreadful boredom. One said that he would feel guilty if he socialised. It was easier not to. Every one of them talked about the pressure to win and the fact that their real lives were deemed to be irrelevant.

In each case, I asked whether they wanted to go public. In each case, they declined. They did not want to appear disloyal.

They did not want to provoke the hostility of team mates or management. One of the boys told me he was on a scholarship and could not bite the hand that feeds. […]

Young men tend to have tunnel vision. College and u18 football is itself highly professionalised so they are already well groomed by the time they hit senior level.

And when everyone else is on the hamster wheel, then there’s nothing to complain about and no-one to complain to.

Our amateur games are supposed to be a life-enriching experience, that teach us values of fairness, the joys of community and the great satisfaction that comes from collaboration and hard work. They ought to (and once did) imbue us with life skills.

The whole point is to provide an overwhelmingly positive experience. But, what was once a healthy past-time has been entirely hijacked by an obsession with winning. And, when winning is all that matters, nothing else does. Of course, we play to win. But winning at all costs is a negative, immoral, unhealthy philosophy, on and off the field. […]

In 2000, then GAA President Sean MacCague, who was a leader, warned of the dangers of a culture of professional sport and said that this was a challenge that must be systematically resisted. Instead, since then, the leadership has sat in the Titanic, hob nobbing in first class as we drift towards the Titanic.

There has been no attempt to combat the professional practices that have taken hold of the game. USADA’s landmark report on sport in America True Sport: What We Stand to Lose in our Obsession to Win identifies an unchecked culture of ultra competitive coaches as one of the critical problems. “Coaches who place too much value on winning contribute to an unsportsmanlike environment. And these coaches have the potential to push the psychological, emotional and physical limits of their players to the point of harm, creating a hostile environment.” Which is exactly what is happening in our county game. The paid manager has time on his hands and resources at his disposal. He duly creates a professional, full time regime for his players. Paid to win, this is his sole focus. […]

In October 2010, Paraic Duffy, the most powerful man in the GAA, said “the problem I have is that if we state amateurism as a core value and that players and managers shouldn’t get paid, we have to do that.” That “if” re-sounded around the country. At the 2011 congress in Mullingar, then president Christy Cooney memorably called such payments as “a cancer running through our organisation”. You have to say it was a lovely bit of rhetoric. In January 2012, Duffy’s report, GAA Amateur Status and Payments to Team Managers was released. In it, he set out two options. “Implement fully the Association’s amateur status” or “introduce a sys-tem of regulated payments to county managers”. He concluded with the astonishing words “I do not advocate one option over the other.” The guardian of the GAA’s ideals publicly expressing indifference as to whether managers should become professionals, thereby envisioning a two tiered system where the county game becomes semi-professional. […]

Commercialism has after all become the dominant principle at national level. The deal with SKY was done covertly. Only a few people were involved. Congress – supposedly the ruling body of the GAA – was ignored altogether. The fact they would have overwhelmingly rejected the move meant that it had to be done on the QT. Our ideals were by-passed, replaced by nice rhetoric about “broadening participation”.

Never mind the established fact that watching elite sports emphatically does not increase participation. A systematic review by the British Medical Journal after the London Olympics concluded that ” there is no evidence that watching the Olympics increases participation.” The House of Commons Education Select Committee reached exactly the same conclusion, deriding the idea of an “Olympic legacy” and concluding that what stimulates participation is voluntary effort, resources, coaches and facilities.

The point is that the obsession with the county game is entirely self defeating. As Margaret Heffernan wrote in her remarkable book A Bigger Prize, “Trickle down doesn’t work in sport. Focussing resources, rewards and celebrity on the top few doesn’t help anyone.” As the Socio-Economic study of the impact of the 2000 Sydney Olympics (2001) concluded ” the only pastime that was more popular after the Games than before them was watching the TV.” Nielsen figures show that a paltry 50,000 viewers in the UK and NI watched the All-Ireland football final on SKY.

Locked into this self defeating cycle, the leadership have lavished money on the GPA, a free market limited company (the current deal is worth €8.75m over five years) , who in turn have enriched a handful of elite players. It is easier to appease them than take them on, an option that would require a strategy and a pair of balls. Again, the current leadership’s approach to this issue is consistent with them harbour-ing a vision of an elite, professional game. Welfare should be dealt with by the GAA, not a limited company with a vision a world away from ours. And by that I mean real, holistic welfare. Not the back-patting, superficial kind used by the GPA as a shield against criticism. […]

But [simple solutions] might mean less money. Wherein lies the problem. Capitalism has seduced the current leadership, to the extent that the option of protecting the club players, the county players, the members and the noble ideals of the association is seen as radical and unreasonable. Those who object to this drift to-wards dysfunction are castigated as cranks and backwoodsmen. “True Sport” concludes with the words ” To save sport, those in a position to reinforce its intrinsic values must be vigilant and persistent in communicating those values.” We can see the iceberg. If we can find a captain with courage, it’s not too late to turn.”

Citizen Economics

6263217601_1193d1cbd7_bDemocracy or the markets – you decide.

Budget time is really the only window where citizens in Ireland are encouraged to engage in economic debate. Even then the space of time is too short and the range of topics too narrow to make much impact. When it ends, and for the other eleven months of the year, economics is the preserve of technocrats.

That is a serious problem. Economics is the study of how things in our society are produced and distributed. Leaving it to experts comes with a big cost for democracy. Yet, while many people feel comfortable engaging in debate about politics in the Middle East or presidential elections in the United States, there is a reticence to talk about economics.

Part of this is down to economics as a discipline, which has become increasingly removed from day-to-day life. The primacy of the market as a means to resolve problems has led to the rise of ‘market scientists’ – the authoritative voices on running an efficient economy. The language deployed by these experts is deliberately exclusive. Certainly they are unlikely to start discussions of economics with parables about pin factories, as Adam Smith did in The Wealth of Nations.

Yet they dominate economics discourse. When economics is discussed with any substance in the mainstream press ‘market scientists’ from universities, think-tanks and finance houses are given extensive reign to make objective statements about the common good. Research by Julien Mercille has shown that between 2008 and 2012 77% of commentators on austerity in mainstream newspapers were from “elite institutions”.

Another factor leading to the retreat of ordinary people from economic debate is the narrowing space for democracy in the economy. The democratic sphere only extends to areas where there is or could be public or common ownership. Outside of this decisions are made by private individuals or organisations. As wealth concentrates into fewer hands, fewer economic decisions are made with public participation.

This has bred a cynicism about what can be achieved by discussing economics. With capital increasingly breaking free from the claws of democracy – and mobile enough to defeat strikes – people have come to accept that social problems can only be resolved by appealing to private individuals and organisations to solve problems profitably through the market. And so we accept our diminution from citizens to consumers.

But this must be reversed if we are to build a politics in Ireland that can reclaim our society from the political establishment, gombeen businessmen and international finance. Joan Robinson, one of the great economists of the twentieth century, was once asked why people should study economics. She replied, “so that economists can’t fool you.” What she was calling for was a kind of citizen economics.

If we are to construct a movement where people are agents as opposed to pawns in the hands of power we will have to create space for a broader, more emancipatory discussion of economics. To that end I suggest five assertions citizens can make in the economic sphere that can help alter the direction of debates:

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1. Economics is political

Mainstream economics discourse thrives under the pretense that power in the economy lies only with the policy wonks and business suits. This is not true.

On policy, take the commodification of a public resource in the water charges. There is widespread opposition to this policy – and this Saturday’s demonstration is expected to be large. It is possible to suggest quick fix solutions to provide for the abolition of these charges. The €300 million they will take in could be accounted for by the kind of wealth and capital acquisitions taxes proposed by Unite and the ICTU’s pre-Budget submissions, for instance. But that won’t happen. Why?

Because economics is political and power concedes nothing without a demand. An organised opposition is far more important than any shovel-ready alternative. A mass water charges campaign that imposes costs on politicians for continuing on the current path stands a chance at having them overturned. Making a compelling argument to Enda Kenny doesn’t.

Similarly, the question of the national debt. Ireland’s media has been in thrall to various government attempts to get “a deal” on the debt in Europe in recent years. Yet, in 2014, here we sit with a national debt over 120% and €8 billion in interest repayments alone this year (more than the total cost of the last two Budget adjustments combined!).

By contrast, in Spain and Greece popular movements have propelled political parties to the cusp of power who have debt audits in their programmes. This is likely to open up the question of debt in Europe again in 2015 – something which no debate with Mario Draghi could achieve.

2. There is more than one way of thinking about the economy

In recent years students of economics across the world have been challenging the narrow nature of discourse in their universities with campaigns for what is called “post-crash economics”. Ireland could desperately use a post-crash economics movement – especially as so many of the experts invited to discuss our economy today are the same ones who advised us off a cliff in 2008.

But the aim of the post-crash movement is broader than exposing the spectacular failure of mainstream economics during the recent crisis. It is to argue for diversity in the discipline. The kind of ‘market scientist’ approach I described above is a product of a particular way of thinking about the economy – the neoclassical school. That is only one school among many. In fact, in a recent book Cambridge economist Ha-Joon Chang identified seven schools of economic thought.

So why does one of these schools have such predominance – especially after it was proven to be flawed so recently? Citizens should demand a diversity of economic analysis from their media and education institutions, especially public ones. No more single experts being given free reign to make objective claims about the economy as if there were no competing ideas.

3. Wealth is created by us

One of the most pervasive aspects of mainstream economics discourse is the idea that wealth is privately created and then expropriated by the public through government taxes. This is the notion that underpins the narrative of ‘wealth creators’ and ‘job creators’, whose taxes we must constantly cut to make our societies run.

This is a nonsense – and particularly important to any kind of citizen economics. If we truly believe that wealth is created by these people, how could we but see ourselves as insignificant in the economy? If the economy grows by providing the wealthy with bigger and bigger shares of the pie and then letting wealth ‘trickle down’ on us, then what kind of worth could we have?

The truth is the inverse of this. Wealth is publicly created and privately expropriated. Our planet provides it through resources. We create it through our labour. Our governments create it when they invest to improve the productive capacity of our economies. Business people might do some useful co-ordination – getting factors together at a given place and time – but this function wouldn’t be too hard to replace, if we really wanted to.

What’s more likely – that the 1% of the world who own nearly half of the world’s wealth created it? Or that that they managed to take it from the people who did?

4. No democracy without economic democracy

The most important project of right-wing politics in the modern era has been to divorce economics and politics; property rights and political rights. This divorce may have made sense when the opposition to democracy were feudal aristocrats who ruled by decree – but it doesn’t make sense when the greatest barrier to democracy today is organised business interests.

After the last great economic slump the British Labour Party produced a manifesto which accused big business of behaving like “totalitarian oligarchies within our democratic State”. Much the same situation pervades today. The concentration of wealth at the top of society has restricted democracy and made clear that democracy is only really possible where the people have ownership. If you don’t have the capacity to own something in common, you can’t decide its direction in common.

The greatest mistake progressive movements ever made was accepting this right-wing division between the economy and politics. When social-democrats stopped talking about the essence of the economy – who owns what, what kind of things are to be produced, how they will be distributed – and focused instead on redistribution in the form of taxes, democracy started on a long downward trend. Consensus developed that the key decisions in our society would be made by private wealth.

Real citizenship means the right to decide. You can’t have that if economics – which determines work, pay, the quality of services, etc. – is off the table.

5. Economics doesn’t have to be hopeless

As democracy retreated in recent years it took with it the horizon of the possible. This has left many people feeling that they have little agency over social problems – something austerity governments have emphasised to their own ends. But actually there are plenty of possibilities, we just have to get organised to make them come into being.

Take Budget 2015, for example. Minister Noonan is promising there will be no “giveaways”, the Fiscal Advisory Council is cautioning “prudence”, Fine Gael and Labour are locked in debate about which kind of tax cuts to introduce. Meanwhile Unite has produced a proposal to: abolish direct provision, abolish the water charges, invest €500 million in social housing, create 10,000 public childcare places, and put thousands of unemployed people back to work. Sounds pretty good, right? And they are operating within the narrow confines of the Austerity Treaty.

A great deal is possible if we make them do it.

Argentina’s default: finance decides, the population abides

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Today a vulture fund based in the Cayman Islands representing a tiny, super-wealthy élite has thrown an economy serving 43 million people into chaos.

In 2001, with the country in crisis, NML fund bought bonds from Argentina. Their strategy was to acquire defaulted sovereign debt issues at a very low price, only to later demand the totality of the payment via a judicial process. Their mark-up today would be 1,608%.

In the period since, between 2005 and 2010, over 92% of bondholders with this debt restructured. But the vulture funds held out. As Argentine Economy Minister Axel Kicillof said, “the vulture funds don’t negotiate: that’s what makes them vultures.”

The case went to the US Supreme Court, with Argentina arguing that a pari passu clause meant that they could not advantage certain bondholders over others. Unsurprisingly, because it is a den of financial interests, the US Supreme Court ruled in favour of NML and ordered Argentina to repay the full $1.3billion. This created a precedent that opened Argentina up to a further $15billion in debt repayments, which would have wiped out most of the state’s dollar reserves.

As the European Nordic and Green Left statement this week said, “The recent decision of the Supreme Court of the US not only creates difficulties – or perhaps makes it impossible – for Argentina to continue servicing its restructured debt, it also strikes at the stability of the international financial system in as much as it constitutes a precedent that can hinder other sovereign debt restructuring processes in the future. Because, if during a voluntary negotiation such as the one Argentina carried out, in which more than 92% of its creditors agreed to swap their defaulted debt (for new bonds with a considerable haircut), any creditor can demand and charge the total owed on that debt, what are the incentives to enter into a similar restructuring in the future?”

This forms part of an international régime, from the US to Europe and beyond, where the interests of private finance are placed above all others in the economic sphere. The refusal to create any sensible mechanisms for resolution or negotiation at an international level – let alone a collective action clause that might force holdout minorities to accept widely negotiated terms – is a symptom of the dictatorship of the markets over our societies. As was the case when Ireland was warned that “a bomb would go off in Dublin” if senior Anglo-Irish bondholders were not repaid. We are living in an era of gunboat democracy – where finance decides and the population abides.

There may soon be a challenge to this régime in Greece, where Syriza are favourites to win the next general election and promise to fight for a renegotiation of the EU-IMF memorandum and a restructuring of sovereign debt. There had been hope that the risk of contagion from a Greek unilateral default would force European Union policymakers into accepting a deal – but this Argentine situation is a bad omen. International financial interests, with the connivance of complicit states and transnational bodies, have threatened an entire region with a lost decade. They have done this for the sake of a principle, that the interests of private finance must come first. And for a sum of $1.3billion. Greece’s sovereign debt is around $480billion.

After the US Supreme Court’s decision Argentine President Cristina Kirchner made a speech discussing the state’s history with debts imposed by international finance and enforced by the west – it could be translated to most Latin American states. She said that debt had been “without a doubt the most powerful trap we had been in keeping us from growth, the development of Argentina, it created poverty, backwardness, homelessness, a lack of infrastructural development, investment in education, in science.” She detailed the cycles of debt crises which have plagued the country since the 1970s, finishing each with an explanation of how it led to the next and the words, “but that wasn’t the end”.

The states of peripheral Europe are now in a similar cycle. As Oscar Guardiola-Rivera remarked in 2011, Europe has colonised itself. These same processes of debt penury, austerity, financial crisis and forced under-development that Europe once imposed on Latin America and South-East Asia have, since 2008, returned closer to the core – to Greece, to Italy, to Spain, to Portugal, to Ireland.

There are examples in states like Ecuador of how to break free from this cycle, but it requires negotiation. By forcing a default international finance is now delivering a message to Latin America through Argentina: sovereignty will not be allowed. With the Greek situation lurking around the corner, the states of the European periphery should take note.

Charlie Flanagan Shills for Israel

Newly Appointed Ministers Sworn Receive their Seal of Office

Today Gaza saw one of those incidents of such barbarity and horror that they come to overshadow all others in Israel’s periodic massacres in the Strip. Four children from the Bakr family – Ahed (10), Zakaria (10), Mohd (11) and Ismail (9) – were killed by an Israeli mortar round while playing football on a beach. Images of their disfigured bodies quickly spread on social media. Guardian journalist Peter Beaumount recorded the entire episode in this moving article. He also detailed how Israeli gunmen fired at fleeing civilian survivors, prompting journalists to shout at them “they are only children.”

That act brought the total number of casualties in Gaza to 212 – in just eight days. A few days ago the UN estimated that 77% of those killed had been civilians, with the latest deaths that figure will rise above 80%. When the death toll was 138 we knew that 36 of those killed were children. That figure is at least 40 now – and probably much higher. In addition, 1,370 homes have been destroyed and aid agencies say hundreds of thousands are without water, with a crisis imminent.

Against this backdrop, and questioning by TDs Pádraig Mac Lochlainn, Mick Wallace and Clare Daly, Ireland’s newly-appointed Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan gave the government’s response to the situation.

Flanagan is on the record as being pro-Israel. He believes, “Israel has been demonised by an Irish media slavishly dancing to the Palestinian drumbeat for decades.” He described their record on human rights “progressive”. He condemned Trócaire’s call for goods produced in illegal settlements in the West Bank to be banned by the Irish government. He called it “bias and partisan”. He spoke out to reject the TUI’s motion in support of boycott, divestment and sanctions.

Yet little (if any) of this was mentioned by the Irish media when he was appointed as Minister for Foreign Affairs. Nor was his record of opposition to minority ethnic, specifically Traveller, rights – something for which Ireland has been condemned by the UN’s racism committee. Nor even was his father – Oliver J. Flanagan – brought up, or his legacy of support for the persecution of Jews in Germany during the Second World War. The inclusion of that could be seen as blaming a son for the sins of his father but for Charlie’s staunch defence of the man’s political record as “someone who refused to be silenced”. He was portrayed “unfairly” by the “Dublin liberal media” apparently. Of course, those tropes have histories as defences for racists.

Today it is Israel that has neo-Nazi mobs beating up peaceful protestors and parliamentarians calling for genocide against Palestinians. And Charlie Flanagan has been given the reins of the Irish government to support them.

And so he did in the Dáil, producing an even worse performance than his predecessor Eamon Gilmore who had blamed both sides “equally”. Flanagan, in fact, blamed Palestinians for initiating the conflict, saying Israel’s onslaught was “in response” to rocket attacks. He said Israel’s missiles were aimed at Hamas military targets, implying that any civilian deaths were unintentional. He repeated Israeli propaganda that their aim is simply “quiet for quiet”, or peace in other words, rather than the collective punishment and mass murder of the people of Gaza. He blamed the continuation of the Israeli bombardment on Hamas – saying they were uninterested in a truce or ceasefire, without ever mentioning that their demand is an end to a seven-year illegal blockade which has turned Gaza into an open-air prison. Then he had the gall to say the government was on the side of international humanitarian law.

If we had a government which stood on the side of justice its response to Israel’s latest massacre, its continuing occupation and colonisation of Palestinian land and its utter contempt for international law would be clear and simple. First it would expel the Israeli ambassador and sever all diplomatic ties, as Venezuela did after the 2009 massacre. Then it would pass a law mandating full divestment from Israel and a ban on any form of trade, in line with the anti-apartheid acts passed against South Africa across the world in the 1980s.

Both of those things the government could do tomorrow. But it chooses not to.

Charlie Flanagan once said of the situation in Israel and Palestine that “the truth must be told.” Well, the truth is that in failing to act, maintaining normal relations with Israel and repeating its propaganda on the floor of our parliament Charlie Flanagan and the Irish government side with those who kill children on the beach in Gaza. And worse, they make all of us they claim to represent complicit in these crimes.

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Fr. Peter McVerry on Homelessness and Capitalism

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In an interview last weekend that attracted considerable media attention Fr. Peter McVerry warned of a “tsunami” of homelessness coming down the line in Ireland. The problem, he said, had “never [been] so bad” with at least six people being made homeless every day amid a record-low level of social housing construction and sky-rocketing rents. And it was likely to get worse.

Unsurprisingly, given their commitment to resurrecting an economy with property speculation firmly at its core, Fine Gael and Labour have continued Fianna Fáil’s policy of sacrificing housing to the market. The performance of the Labour Party is worthy of particular attention. The failure of a Labour housing minister to build anywhere near the level of social housing our own state recognises it needs is scandalous. There has been a 92% drop in the number of social housing units constructed since 2007 – when it was already insufficient – and Jan O’Sullivan plans to build just 700 more in the coming years despite 90,000 families being on housing waiting lists.

Add to this Minister Joan Burton’s insistence on the Week in Politics that the solution to the problem is to put more money in the pockets of private developers, and her department’s insistence that they will not even restore rent allowance to the level they cut it from to help people afford runaway rents and you get a picture of a party that just does not care that people are going homeless to prop up private profits. Remember, eighteen months ago this government was warned in no uncertain terms that these cuts would force people into homelessness. And they have done nothing to stop it. Rather, as Fr. McVerry says, they have spent their time “blaming the poor for being poor”.

In his interview Fr. McVerry lamented the failure of domestic policy to challenge the primacy of the market in housing provision, but he also did something more significant. In a move that was less remarked upon by the press he contextualised Ireland’s housing crisis within the context of an ideology and politics “imposed on us… by the global capitalist system.” This is an important contribution to public discourse that should be noted and expanded upon by the Left, particularly because his identification of globalisation as the motor engine of a race to the bottom is key – it is the dynamic we have to overcome if we are to build a socialist alternative.

Below I transcribe excerpts from his interview on Sunday with Miriam, beginning with the Irish housing crisis and ending with a discussion of capitalism.

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Miriam O’Callaghan: Good morning Peter, you’re very welcome. I wanted to talk to you today because the situation right now in terms of homelessness is at crisis level, you feel, isn’t it?

Fr. Peter McVerry, S.J.: In all the years I have been working with homeless people it has never been so bad. We are, I would say, beyond crisis at this stage. There are six new people becoming homeless every day. Those are the official figures, it may be more than that. And the difficulty is that there is no exit out of homelessness any longer. The two traditional exits out of homelessness were, first, into social housing – but there is a dearth of social housing, the building of social housing dropped dramatically during the Celtic Tiger years and has never been recommenced; the other exit was into the private rented sector – but certainly in the cities, and particularly in Dublin, that’s out of reach now for homeless people because the rents are escalating, they are going through the roof, and the demand for rented accommodation far exceeds supply.

Not only can homeless people not get into rented accommodation but people already in rented accommodation are losing it because the landlord is coming along and saying, “the rent next month is going up by two or three hundred euros.” If you’re on social welfare that’s €50 per week, you can’t pay that. Rent supplement isn’t going to increase to allow you to pay that. So people in rented accommodation are losing their accommodation and becoming homeless.

MOC: Do you ever, therefore, despair that it’s forty years since you started out becoming a champion for the homeless, and forty years on you’re telling me it’s worse than you’ve ever known in?

PMV: It’s frustrating. I don’t despair because you have to keep going and often the little you can do for homeless people means so much to them. But it’s very, very frustrating. I now am in the situation, probably for the first time, where lots of homeless people are coming to me and saying, “look, I have nowhere to sleep, I was left out to sleep on the streets the last three nights because there were no beds, can you do anything for me?” And I’m saying, “I’m sorry, I can’t do anything for you. There are no beds.”

The typical image we have of homeless people are drug users or alcoholics or people with mental health problems. The new homeless people are ordinary people like the rest of us. For example, we had two young people – nineteen and twenty-one – who had left home because of their father’s violence, neither of them drank or used drugs or smoked, they both had Leaving Certificates, they went to get accommodation and were told, “sorry, there are no beds, here’s a sleeping bag” and were sleeping in a railway station. We rescued them and managed to squeeze them in somewhere into our accommodation but that’s the new profile of homeless people: ordinary people who just have no accommodation available and can’t access accommodation because they just don’t have the money.

The other typical homeless group now are families. Again I had a phone call at half-ten at night a couple of weeks ago, a mother was saying “I’m sitting here on a park bench with my three children and I’m told there’s no accommodation for me.” It has never been like that before. In all the years that I have been working it has never, never been so bad. And while we now have a crisis, I believe, of homelessness there’s a tsunami of homelessness coming down the road. There are expected to be up to 35,000 home repossessions over the next few years. That means the banks are taking over the houses and 35,000 families are going to be out on the street looking for accommodation. There are also 40,000 buy-to-let mortgages in arrears. The banks are going to repossess a number of those at least and the tenants are going to be turfed out because the banks don’t want to become landlords, they just want empty possessions so they can sell the houses and get some of their money back.

The tragedy is there are no exits out of it. There’s a dam at the end of the river and this torrent of water is coming down, and there’s no way out. I think it’s quite frightening. And ultimately, I think – because of the changed nature of homelessness, these are ordinary people who will vote and their families will vote – I think this whole issue of housing and homelessness could actually bring this government down.

MOC: How do you explain though, both to them [homeless people] and yourself, and you are a man of God and a Jesuit, how unfair this world is? If God is so good, why is the world such an unfair place?



PMV: That’s a deep theological question. I think we are made free. We’re free to love. Nobody wants to be loved by a robot. God had only two choices: he could make us robots programmed to love – but who wants to be loved by someone programmed to love? – or he could give us freedom to love. And, of course, if you give someone freedom to love then automatically they have freedom not to love. The pain in the world is caused not by God but by us and by spirituality God is asking each and every one us us to try to undo that unfairness, to take that responsibility, to reach out to people who have had a bad deal in life, to people who are suffering and on the margins, to try to change things for them. That’s the responsibility I feel and I believe that’s what God is asking of me.

MOC: But do you rail then against a system in western Europe that is becoming a more unequal society?

PMV: Absolutely. I really despair for the future very often. I think we are becoming a much more unequal society. We are blaming those who are poor for being poor. The values we live by are predominantly, it seems to me, imposed on us by the economy, by the global capitalist economy and that economy demands that governments and countries support big business. So that in Ireland if you had a left-wing government who were really concerned about the poor and were going to put money into the poor, big business would see Ireland as a country that was not favourable to investments and would disappear somewhere else. So really, I think, in this global capitalist economy governments are trapped. They have got to bow to big business or else they will go somewhere else. And that means that the poor are going to be even further marginalised into the future.

What has been the Meaning of the Labour Party?

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Phil Prendergast MEP has kicked off what I expect to be a prolonged and tedious ‘public conversation’ about the future leadership of the Irish Labour Party.

Tellingly Prendergast’s critique of Eamon Gilmore focuses not on the austerity policies he has supported nor on the decision to enter government with Fine Gael in the first place but rather on his failure to inflict hardship competently without losing support. Apparently Gilmore has been guilty of a “chronic inability” to deal with crises in government. Joan Burton – who has used her Department of Social Protection brief to oversee the workfarisation of welfare in Ireland, introduce cuts to dole payments for young people, set the Gardaí on welfare recipients, normalise unpaid labour, impoverish lone parent families, cut rent supplement in the middle of a devastating housing crisis, etc., etc. – is “dynamic” by contrast.

Prendergast’s position isn’t surprising. As I said in my last blogpost the politics of the Labour Party are more-or-less what their constituency wants. The dissenters we will hear from in the coming weeks, particularly those who are about to lose their seats, want Labour to continue to do what they are doing – just a little better.

But, of course, there will also be people who hold out hope that Joan Burton’s ascension will herald a more left-wing Labour Party, one that returns “to its roots”. For these folks, I’m afraid, disappointment lies ahead. And I think it’s worth expanding on my previous post to discuss why.

On the subject of Burton herself, Richard McAleavey put it very well: “only the most deluded Labour loyalist or lap-frotting political correspondent will imagine that Joan Burton would substantially change the Labour Party or its policies… Burton taking over would only prolong both the delusions of the party faithful and political anoraks, whose calling in life is to pretend that electoral horseraces are the lifeblood of democracy.” But the real reason why Labour won’t change appreciably under her tenure isn’t limited to her deplorable politics – it’s that Labour’s current position is, in fact, true to its roots.

If we’re to see a revival of left-wing politics in Ireland it’s important to be clear what the Labour Party represents, not just in the present but historically too. There are many examples over decades of the nature of Labour’s politics of mediation: working to subdue resistance, protect the status quo and facilitate the reproduction of Irish capitalism. But nothing illustrates this better than its formative period, the truth of which also helps to dispel the myth that it was the party of Larkin and Connolly.

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The Labour Party was founded as the political wing of the trade union movement in 1912 by Connolly, Larkin and the more conservative William X. O’Brien [See edit]. In truth, and this is avoided by many commentators, Connolly and Larkin represented a minority faction in the leadership of the labour movement at that time. The period before the Dublin Lockout in 1913 usefully juxtaposes the position of the conservative majority and radical minority in that leadership. When the British government banned assembly in the city centre intended to protest William Martin Murphy’s ban on union organising the Labour Party and trade union leadership organised a march in protest to Fairview instead – a toothless charade. Larkin and the minority of radicals organised to appear in Sackville Street despite them, an occurrence which produced Bloody Sunday.

In the run up to 1916 too the leading figures in the Labour Party tried to reign in the Citizen Army’s activities. O’Brien, to his credit, gave Connolly cover – supporting his army in the defence of striking workers beforehand. But thereafter the leadership of the Labour Party, who hadn’t supported the Rising, distanced themselves from Connolly and the ICA and the ITGWU released a statement reducing them to mere tenants in Liberty Hall and pointing out that “not more than half the Citizen Army were members of the ITGWU”.

In 1919 the workers of Limerick took over the fourth largest city on the island. At the beginning of the Irish War of Independence the IRA tried to liberate Robert Byrne from RIC custody in the city after a hunger strike, resulting in the death of both Byrne himself and a police constable. In response the British military imposed martial law on the city – a move the Limerick Trades and Union Council responded to with a general strike and the establishment of a Soviet. It printed its own money, organised the workplaces, and distributed food throughout the city. As Conor Kostick outlines in his book Revolution in Ireland the Labour Party and trade union leadership were crucial in the undermining this experiment in workers’ democracy – rejecting their plea for a national general strike and containing widespread popular support among workers to advocate for a settlement with the authorities.

Imagine: a nationwide general strike at the beginning of the Irish War of Independence. It really could have changed the course of history.

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But instead, as it had done consistently, the Labour Party spurned the opportunity to lead in Ireland’s revolutionary decade. When we remember Éamon de Valera’s alleged injunction that “labour must wait”, it is often forgotten that this mantra was embraced by the leadership themselves.

But the Labour Party was to organise a general strike some three years later – in protest at the occupation of the Four Courts by the anti-Treaty IRA. While Jim Larkin had denounced the signing of the Treaty from his jail cell in New York the Labour leadership, ever keen to maintain the status quo, supported it. The Treaty copper-fastened the counter-revolutionary alliance between Irish capitalists, bourgeois nationalists and the Church that signalled the final nail in the coffin of the socialist dream of Connolly and Larkin, O’Casey and Markievicz, Hannah Sheehy-Skeffington and Liam Mellows.

As the Citizen Army man put it in Ken Loach’s Wind That Shakes the Barley, “‘the simple truth [is that] this Treaty puts Ireland into the hands of Murphy, Griffith and their like, who are copper-bottomed capitalists that will continue to exploit the landless, the unemployed and the poor every bit as much as their British counterparts.”

When the Left and progressive forces lost the battle in the revolutionary era a century ago we were betrayed by a complicit Labour Party. And, our own failings not withstanding, Labour have played a crucial role in making sure we never contested power again subsequently.

In fact, William X. O’Brien, who eventually dropped all pretenses of radicalism to become the predecessor par excellence to Jack O’Connor, was proud of the Labour Party’s role in the foundation of the reactionary Free State and their partnership with Fine Gael of the day, remarking: “I heard W.T. Cosgrave say on one occasion that we showed a good display of courage and thought that the Dáil could not have functioned if we had not been elected and gone into it.” He subsequently resisted Jim Larkin’s attempt to gain leadership of the party on his return from exile in 1923 – sidelining, suing and eventually ejecting him.

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Last night I came across this excellent graphic by Michael McBride of Liam Mellows – who was executed by the ancestors of those who the Labour Party share power with. It prompted me to dig out this essay by Mellows, written while he was awaiting execution, which begins by characterising the role of Labour at the time of the Civil War.

The People’s Republic (1922)

The Irish Labour party held a large demonstration in Dublin to protest against ‘militarism’, that is against the Volunteer soldiers who were standing in defence of the Republic against British Imperialism and its dupes in Ireland. The Irish Labour party did not define its attitude to British militarism when the Treaty was forced down the throats of weak-kneed Republican deputies under the threat of “immediate and terrible war”. The Treaty was accepted by those deputies and their followers “under duress”. The Irish Labour party, swallowing all its pretention to be out for a Worker’s Republic, has also accepted the Treaty and is now working cheek-by-jowl with the imperialist and capitalist groups in Ireland through the Free State’s so called parliament in an attempt to crush the Irish Republic in blood.

The means at their disposal for the new military have been given them by the British Government. The Irish Labour party talked glibly of a Worker’s Republic! It still pretends to have as its objective the establishment of such a state. Veiled threats of ‘a big stick’ it intends to wield some day are thrown out for the credulous. Professing to be against militarism its leaders try to delude the movement into believing that at some future date they will head a revolution.

Labour played a tremendous part in the establishment and maintenance of the Republic. Its leaders had it in their power to fashion that Republic as they wished – to make it a Worker’s and Peasant’s Republic. By their acceptance of the Treaty and all that it connotes – recognition of the British monarchy, British Privvy Council and British Imperialism; Partition of the country and subservience to British capitalism – they have betrayed not alone the Irish Republic but the labour movement in Ireland and the cause of the workers and peasants throughout the world.

It is a fallacy to believe that a Republic of any kind can be won through the shackled Free State. You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. The Free State is British created and serves British Imperialist interests. It is the buffer erected between British Capitalism and the Irish Republic.

A Worker’s Republic can be erected only on its ruins. The existing Irish Republic can be made the Worker’s and Peasant’s Republic if the labour movement is true to the ideals of James Connolly and true to itself.

The Irish republic represents Independence and the struggle has a threefold significance. It is political; it is intellectual; it is economic. It is political in the sense that it means complete separation from England and the British Empire. It is intellectual in as much as it represents the cultural expression of the Gaelic civilisation and the removal of the impress of English speech and English thought upon the Irish character. It is economic because the wresting of Ireland from the grip of English capitalism can leave no thinking Irishman with the desire to build up and perpetuate this country an economic system that had its roots in foreign domination.

Ireland does not want a change of master. It would be folly to destroy English tyranny in order to erect a domestic tyranny that would need another revolution to free the people. The Irish Republic stands therefore for the ownership of Ireland by the people of Ireland. It means that the means and process of production must not be used for the profit or aggrandisement of any group or class.

Ireland has not yet become industrialised. It never will if in rejecting and casting off British Imperialism (and its offspring the Free State and Northern Parliaments) the Irish workers insist that a native imperialism does not replace it. If the Irish people do not control Irish industries, transport, money and the soil of the country then foreign or domestic capitalists will. And whoever controls the wealth of a country and the processes by which wealth is attained, controls also its government.

Ireland, if her industries and banks were controlled by foreign capital, would be at the mercy of every breeze that ruffled the surface of the world’s money-markets. If social capitalism flourished a social war such as now threatens practically every country in Europe would ensue. Ireland therefore must start with a clean slate. The Irish Republic must be the People’s Republic.

EDIT: Niamh Puirséil, author of The Irish Labour Party 1922–73, corrects me that while “the ITUC passed a motion to establish a party in 1912, a party wasn’t actually established until 1914.” I had been relying on the 1912 date because Connolly, Larkin, prominent left-wing historians and the party itself use it as their date of foundation but I’m happy to defer to her superior knowledge in this area.

I’m confident that the political lineage I describe here is consistent.

We Are All Philosophers

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Antonio Gramsci died seventy-seven years ago today.

This from his introduction to Marxist philosophy in the Prison Notebooks:

“It is essential to destroy the widespread prejudice that philosophy is a strange and difficult thing just because it is the specific intellectual activity of a particular category of specialists or of professional philosophers. It must be first shown that everyone is a “philosopher”, by defining the limits and characteristics of the “spontaneous philosophy” which is proper to everybody. This philosophy is contained in: 1. language itself, which is a totality of determined notions and concepts and not just of words grammatically devoid of content; 2. “common sense” and “good sense”; 3. the entire system of beliefs, superstitions, opinions, ways of seeing things and of acting, which surface collectively under the name of “folklore”.

“Having first shown that everyone is a philosopher, though in their own way and unconsciously, since even in the slightest manifestation of intellectual activity whatever, in “language”, there is contained a specific conception of the world, one then moves on to say, one proceeds to the question – is it better to “think”, without having a critical awareness, in a disjointed and episodic way? In other words, is it better to take part in a conception of the world mechanically imposed by the external environment? By one of the many social groups in which everyone is automatically involved from the moment of their entry into the conscious world (and this can be one’s village or province; it can have its origins in the parish and the “intellectual activity” of the local priest or ageing patriarch whose wisdom is law, or in the little old woman who has inherited the lore of the witches or the minor intellectual soured by his own stupidity and inability to act)? Or, on the other hand, is it better to work out consciously and critically one’s own conception of the world, be one’s own guide, refusing to accept passively and supinely from outside the moulding of one’s personality?

(Artwork by Maser)

What is the meaning of the Labour Party?

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During elections it makes a certain sense to describe Labour as sellouts because some of those who voted for them in 2009 or 2011 (myself included – ten Hail Marys) would not have expected them to hammer workers, the unemployed, the elderly, students, women, migrants and the young even harder in government than Fianna Fáil.

But, with their impending demise in May’s elections, I think it’s worth discussing what Labour in government has been about. In my view they are neither treacherous sellouts nor, as per Jack O’Connor’s delusions, “fighting at the gates of hell”.

Their support for austerity represents the interests of a section of Irish society – those who benefit from mediating in class conflict.

This is indicated by their slogan: One Ireland. As Eamon Gilmore summarised it in his 2010 conference speech, “this is not the time for division or conflict, this is a time where we must all pull together… One Ireland of employers and employees, farmers and business people, private sector and public sector.” In an era of historic class war initiated from above this kind of false mutuality is, as Slavoj Zizek might say, pure ideology.

Before the 2011 general election Labour’s base was mixed – middle-class and working-class – but with the former predominant, especially in the membership and leadership. Labour in government has represented that constituency, whose social position is one of mediation between capital and labour.

Some, like bureaucrats in the civil service, trade unions, semi-state bodies and NGOs seek rent from this mediation. Others, like professional and management workers in the public and private sectors have jobs that rely on administering capitalism. And a spattering of the self-employed and small-business owners occupy positions that place them in precarity if the economic order is challenged.

Labour’s leadership may have wanted mercs and perks but it was the party’s membership that voted overwhelmingly for them to enter government. By taking up the role of sub-contractors for austerity this constituency hoped to have their interests served. And – surprise, surprise – many of them have.

Ideology is not reducible to material interests alone but they play an important role in its formation. And so most of those not in the mediating bracket, like “blue-collar” workers and the unemployed, have abandoned Labour. This is why they will be decimated in working-class communities next month.

But the majority of its middle-class base has stuck around which is why, accounting for the traditional local election backlash, Labour will likely hit between 6 and 7% in May. This is down significantly from their tally of 19% in 2011 but it isn’t annihilation. Labour’s vote in 1999, 2004 and 2009 was 10%, 14% and 14% respectively.

The genesis of this post is that I had been considering starting a blog for the local and European elections detailing the litany of atrocious things that the Labour Party have done in government. With the hope (however many people it reached…) that 2014 might see the dismal enterprise buried altogether.

I think partly this was motivated by a half-formed misconception that, as the social-democratic party linked to the trade union movement, and one which was established by James Connolly and Jim Larkin, the Labour Party in Ireland was the party of the working-class. It isn’t, of course, and hasn’t been for some time.

The reality is that what remains of Labour’s vote is pretty much voting in their interests. They are allergic to Sinn Féin, who are associated with a violent, revolutionary past, and to the Trotskyist parties. Equally they haven’t been adequately accommodated into Fianna Fáil’s cross-class populism and wouldn’t benefit from pure Fine Gael Toryism.

In the longer term, if the Left in Ireland is to build a hegemony, many of these people will have to be won over to a proper socialist project. But in the immediate reminding them of how Labour has screwed workers and the unemployed won’t do much good – they are satisfied to be one or two pegs farther up the ladder.

The Community of Fr. Peter McVerry

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Although the council that bestowed the award was not fitting of the man, I was delighted to see Fr. Peter McVerry given the freedom of Dublin this week – coinciding with the thirty-fourth anniversary of Bishop Óscar Romero’s death in El Salvador.

For those not familiar Fr. McVerry is a Jesuit priest who works with the homeless in Dublin. He is also a rarity in the Irish Church for espousing a left-wing Christianity.

This is an excerpt from an interview he gave to Kandle in 2009:

“I grew up with a very traditional understanding of Catholicism. God was somebody who was a judge and Jesus came as a teacher with moral guidelines. If we followed those guidelines we would be rewarded with a place in Heaven. The Church was the interpreter of those moral guidelines.

“Then I started to work with homeless young people and they totally challenged everything I had believed. What is the Good News that I have to bring to young people? Is it that there’ll be a place for them in Heaven? I don’t think that’s particularly attractive to homeless people who are worried about the here and now. It certainly wasn’t that God was a judge because, while some of them commit crimes or do things that would be considered wrong, they are young people who have had appalling childhoods – victims of violence, abuse and neglect. To my mind, if there is a God, and I believe there is, then God is compassion and these young people must have a special place because they have been victims of appalling crimes.

“They challenged me and I came to read the Gospels in a very different way. For me now what Jesus came to do is to create a community. The community would have two characteristics. One: it would meet the needs of everybody in the community. Everybody was to put their lives, who they are, their talents and resources at the disposal of the community and at the service of those who need it. And the model for that was Jesus himself who gave everything he had, including his own life, for his brothers and sisters. The first characteristic of the community that Jesus founded was that we live for others and not for ourselves.

“The second characteristic was that it is to be for everybody. There was to be nobody who was marginalised, looked-down upon or treated as second-class. Everybody was to be equal. […] I would like to be able to say to homeless young people that there is a Christian community who will make sure that you are no longer homeless, no longer hungry, no longer looked-down upon, despised or unwanted – would you like to come and join that community? Now we’re a long way from that when we look at the Christian community but that is the ideal, that’s what Jesus was about. That’s what I want my life to be about – trying to create opportunity for people who are on the margins, poor or hungry. The Gospel is Good News to them not because there will be a place in Heaven for them but because there is a Christian community who are looking out for them and will meet their needs.”

I think it should be said plain: the community described above is the antithesis of capitalist Ireland. On the contrary it offers a framework for a democratic socialist society.

We live in an Ireland socially, culturally and politically dominated by the business class – a tiny fraction of the population who own the means to reproduce society. The social vision embedded in their ideology has been almost totally hegemonised over the public imagination, instilling a belief that there is no alternative against the backdrop of a Left unable to appeal to any significant portion of the people.

But what Fr. McVerry articulates above, and puts into practice in his work, does offer a glimpse of an alternative. It would be hard to imagine more divergent social visions than the class domination and ruthless individualism of Irish capitalism and a society where “everybody was to put their lives, who they are, their talents and resources at the disposal of the community and at the service of those who need it.” Significantly Fr. McVerry emphasises that this should be created now, rather than waiting for the afterlife, and that it should not have a subordinate class.

As folks will know, I am a dialectical-materialist and an atheist. I don’t expect that to change. But I greatly admire Christian socialists whose radical egalitarian tradition predates ours by many centuries. It is my view that a socialist project worth its salt must be vibrant and diverse, and make common cause with those who share Fr. McVerry’s vision of a socialist community.

Congratulations to Fr. McVerry on his award. We should be deeply grateful for the work he does to help victims of market forces in Ireland. If the Left is to achieve its aims we’re going to need to take inspiration from that work and do much, much more to serve the people. We will also need to reach out to people like Fr. McVerry to build alliances for radical change.

Because the community he describes is not our present. If it is to be our future we need to build an engine of social transformation. We need a movement.

Class and wealth in Ireland

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I had been meaning to write an article on this topic but haven’t been able to find the time so far and the road for the next few months is rocky. So, this blogpost will have to do.

I’ve been looking at Credit Suisse’s 2011 Global Wealth Databank numbers on Ireland with questions of wealth and class in mind.

First, a quick primer on class:

There are problems associated with defining class by wealth. The predominant liberal discourse on class tends to define it in two erroneous ways. Firstly, as an identity: “this person is working-class because they wear tracksuits, come from a certain area and speak in a certain way.” Secondly, by simply dividing societies into categories by virtue of income alone (A, B, C, D, E) in an approach sometimes called socioeconomic class analysis. Often this involves the use of the term working class as a synonym for poor (DE category).

These are wrong-headed approaches.

Class is important because it is the relation on which capitalism is built, and capitalism is the system by which the world we live in is reproduced. Liberals tend not to pay much attention to the existence of capitalism, which may explain why their definitions of class are weak.

So – what is class under capitalism? The class society in which we live is predominantly (there are sub-divisions, we’ll come back to this!) divided into those who own the means of production and those who labour for them: the capitalist class and the working class.

The working class is the class socialists focus on because it is the majority that, through its labour, produces the wealth in society. A worker is best understood as someone who relies on their wages to survive.

The capitalist class is a minority that owns the means of production and so controls the process of social reproduction. They use this ownership to extract a profit – a certain percentage of the value produced from the labour of workers – this is the basis of capital. If you are a worker capital is wealth you have created expropriated by your exploiters and then turned to oppress you.

So, as David Harvey says, class is best thought of as your “positionality in relation to processes of capital circulation and accumulation”.

The question of how we define the means of production is also important. When socialists talk about capitalists as a “property-owning” class it is a very specific kind of property we’re referencing: value-producing assets. Almost everyone owns private possessions – and they can keep them in a socialist society!

But property that interacts with the circuit of production should be socialised. Otherwise private tyrannies will control the world in which we live – political, economic, cultural, educational – and the majority will be required to rent themselves to these people for a wage to survive.

On to class and wealth in Ireland:

One of the problems with Credit Suisse’s methodology from a socialist point of view is that it measures net wealth as a category exclusive from the definitions I proposed above of value-producing assets. Its formula is: (financial wealth + non-financial wealth) – debts = net wealth.

Despite this we can make rough judgements on the basis of its findings about class divisions in Ireland if we acknowledge net wealth’s relationship to the means of production.

Another of the problems is that it measures individual adults (aged 20 and above). Certainly, not all of these will interact with the process of capital circulation and accumulation as workers or capitalists.

Nevertheless its breakdown of wealth in Ireland in 2011 suggests very clear divisions.

Here are its numbers (wealth is expressed as a percentage of the total):

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In other words:

  • The top 10% in Ireland owns almost 60% of the wealth
  • The bottom 50% own less than 5% of the wealth

If we think about this in terms of a social division between those who own productive assets and the proletariat we can be clear that the top 10% is in the former category and the bottom 50% is in the latter.

The other categories would be disputed and need examination that specifically analysed net wealth for its productive asset component. What we have in this ‘middle section’ is a 40% chunk of the population which owns roughly 36% of the wealth. If I was to venture a suggestion I would say that deciles 9, 8 and most of 7 would be at least petit-bourgeois – roughly, small business owners or management who co-ordinate the implementation of capitalism.

On the basis of these numbers one could propose that our constituency as socialists is 60/5% of the people – those who do not own means of production and would benefit enormously from a redistribution of wealth.

This is a majority of people who are not served by the political or economic system in Ireland.

That is a system run of, for and by the 10% who own 60% of the wealth of the country.

This is clearly not an exhaustive study of class in Ireland in the early 21st century, but I think it provides a useful basis for a conversation.

EDIT: An economist friend of mine contacted me to make me aware that Credit Suisse’s numbers have been challenged, including by UCD economist Seamus Coffey here. It is his opinion that there is no authoritative data available on wealth distribution in Ireland. 

He further adds that age is an important factor to consider in the distribution of wealth, noting that it may explain some of the accumulation in the 6-9 decile region better than petit-bourgeois status, referencing this document.

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