Sectarianism in Belfast. What’s new?

On July 12 this year a loyalist flute band marched past St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Donegall Street near Belfast city centre.  They stopped at that particular point by “pure chance” and started walking round in circles playing a tune known as the Famine Song, which contains the line “the famine is over, why don’t you go home?”  This song is sung by supporters of Rangers Football club in Scotland and refers to the large Irish and predominantly Catholic immigration into Scotland from the 19th century onwards.  It has been found to be both sectarian and illegal by the Scottish courts.  According to the band and their political apologists they were merely playing a pop song.  Perhaps it was again mere chance it doubles as a sectarian anthem.  Perhaps also those allegations of an attack on a cameraman filming this Orange version of the X Factor are also mistaken.

On this basis the Parades Commission, a quango established by the British government to adjudicate on contentious parades, decided the band could not take part in the loyalist parade last Saturday, which was to pass the same church.  The other bands were also only allowed to march by a single drum beat past the church.

Unionist politicians were outraged and issued a statement, along with assorted flute bands, denouncing the Parades Commission, saying they were running out of adjectives to describe it , so they gave some nouns instead – “arrogance”, “incompetence” and “general ignorance”. This statement was signed by prominent members of the Stormont Government who claimed that they could no longer let the Parades Commission do untold damage to the peace process. “Violence” would potentially ensue, they said.

So on Saturday the loyalist flute band at the centre of events marched as normal and played the normal sectarian tunes that are the staple of these ‘kick the pope’ bands, as did many of the rest. The normal sectarian insults were hurled, which are surprising only to those terminally stupid or naive.   The police did nothing that anyone could notice to prevent this.  Well, not exactly nothing: there is a picture of one policeman using a loudhailer to tell the passing bands that they were really not allowed to do what they were doing.  This robust action will no doubt be followed by the police warning burglars by megaphone that they are breaking the law when they are seen to break into someone else’s house in broad daylight. Through the Police Federation the police later complained of being caught in the crossfire, presumably between those intent on breaking the law and those who were, well, how shall we say it, wanting it upheld?

There were minor scuffles and one apparent loyalist from Scotland was arrested for running through a nationalist protest, although this was blamed by one unionist politician on a republican.

So we have a loyalist coat-trailing exercise in bigotry, defended by the most senior unionist politicians who warn of violence, which stokes up the adrenaline of the street level bigot but allows the unionist politician to deny any responsibility when the lighted match touches the blue touch paper.  The police wring their hands and the nationalist politicians talk about getting it all sorted out through talking.  You have to be very, very young not be aware that this record has been played a thousand times before.  So what’s new then?

Well what is new is supposed to be – everything!  We have a new peace process, a new political settlement, a new Government and a new coalition between the “two sides”.  Belfast has a new skyline with lots of new visitor attractions welcoming tourists, which is still a relatively new concept to Belfast.  We have new cafes and restaurants and art galleries and a new generation too young to remember ‘the troubles’ and which just wants to live in peace and has no time for this sectarian stuff.

But we have been here before.  Belfast in the 1960s was also a ‘happening’ city with a burgeoning night-life whose young generation was hailed as no longer interested in the sectarianism of the past.  The sixties brought new life, hope and light even to Belfast and not just the streets of London or San Francisco.  New housing was being created that was demolishing the slums that had no inside toilet and entries that doubled as permanent rubbish tips.  Some of this new corporation housing promised mixed estates and a new Unity Flats was built at the bottom of the Shankill Road only a couple of hundred yards, if that, from St. Patrick’s church.  Unity Flats was so called because it was to contain both Protestant and Catholic tenants, sharing the one space in harmony.

We all know, or at least have some vague idea, what happened at the end of the sixties.  That swinging decade that even moved in Belfast was very new and modern but Belfast was incapable of accepting civil rights, including fair allocation of housing and jobs and equal voting rights.  Instead it burst into violence, with Orange parades which were hyped up by unionist politicians and a police force that could not subject violent bigots to the normal restrictions of the ordinary law.  Of course this violent explosion hasn’t happened yet and in my view isn’t going to happen, not yet at least.

The mutual exhaustion of the contending political forces has not yet ended and been reversed.  The unionist leaders are attempting to exert pressure that might eventually usher in their preferred model of unionist-only rule but they are not in a position to force a confrontation that would see the British Government accede to their demands. It is not impossible that a violent eruption might occur that goes beyond unionist plans but it needs a realistic objective and the aim of getting Sinn Fein out of government has not yet become the unifying campaign theme within unionism and loyalist organisations that is required.

Instead the provocative and vitriolic sectarianism endorsed by unionist politicians in the highest offices of the Stormont administration erodes the faith of nationalists in the new deal. The approach of Sinn Fein to the recent events has been relatively muted and resembles nothing so much as the old SDLP approach which so many nationalists rejected by supporting the old (republican) Sinn Fein.  Here too however there is no unified project beyond staying in office and doing nothing to jeopardise the electoral prospects of Sinn Fein in the South.

The real republicans can attempt to take advantage of the disillusionment with the Sinn Fein reaction to the sectarian provocation and can build up their support base but what is their political project?  In so far as it simply involves a renewed armed campaign it only strengthens the ideological hold of the peace process even while more and more people, subconsciously at first, begin to wonder when exactly this process, like every other, is going to end.  The traditional republican policy isn’t credible except as a form of protest but outside of an overarching strategy this republicanism isn’t in a position yet to mobilise a large political opposition.

A large scale sectarian provocation might accelerate these trends and the planned large loyalist parade on 29 September past the same church certainly has the potential to be such a provocation.  It might at the least drive home the lessons of last Saturday if it goes ahead as the parade did then.

The condemnation by two Protestant church leaders of the sectarian behaviour of the loyalist bands shows how vulnerable the loyalists are to criticism.  It is their solutions and that of the Catholic Church that is the problem.  They both want to set the rulings of the Parades Commission as inviolable.  The Catholic Church is worse because it calls for special measures to apply when the parades pass a place of worship conveniently setting themselves up as victim, potentially privileged  protection in future while turning a blind eye to the fact that a sectarian march is a sectarian march no matter where it passes. Its vitriolic bigotry is no more acceptable a hundred yards from a church than right in front of it.

What is needed is an anti-sectarian campaign that is unafraid to name sectarianism when it sees it and is not seduced by the siren calls for equality of traditions, including mutual respect for each other’s culture.  There can be no equality for a tradition based on sectarian supremacy or respect for a culture soaked in bigotry.  Such a campaign would target not just loyalist parades but the sectarian policy creeping into housing policy and the recent discriminatory employment practices of Sinn Fein.  It would challenge the trade unions to take a principled stand and, at least in principle, should be capable of uniting much of the small left. The ULA could take the lead on this in the South by making it an issue on the floor of the Dail as the clarion call for an all-island campaign.  To do otherwise is to turn one’s back on sectarianism while claiming this as the means of opposing it.

The main task would be to rip away the protection of the current sectarian arrangements that are more and more revealing their true colours by refusing to subordinate anti-sectarianism to the demands of the peace process, however this is defined.  What sort of peace is it that allows, even sanctions, the displays of sectarian bigotry on display in Donegall Street on Saturday?

The state of job creation

In my last post on the politics of the left I questioned proposals on state investment as the answer to unemployment.  In this post I want to look at this further.  The Nevin Economic Research Institute (NERI), an economic think-tank affiliated to the Irish Congress of Trade Unions has published a similar proposal to that of the United Left Alliance (ULA).

Its paper is entitled ‘An Examination of the Effects of an Investment Stimulus’ and its research shows that an investment stimulus of €1 billion would create about 16,750 short term jobs and between 675 and 850 long term jobs.    In the longer term the competitiveness of the economy is increased so that the economy grows, which increases taxation, which more than offsets the interest cost of any loan to fund the investment in the first place.  This means that “overall there is a long-term permanent decrease in the government deficit as a result of an investment stimulus.”  This is what has been referred to often as growing our way out of the crisis and debt problem.  NERI therefore proposes a phased investment stimulus of €15 billion over 5 years.

The net cost per job created, at around €34,500, is nearly the same for both the NERI and ULA proposals.  The paper by NERI sets out more fully its assumptions so it is fair to assume that these are not dissimilar to those of the ULA, which in any case we can also fairly adduce from the ULA proposals themselves.

In order to arrive at its estimates the NERI researchers use an economic model.  Like all models these require assumptions as to how the economy works and therefore how the parameters of various economic variables interact, e.g. how imports will increase given a certain increase in income as employment increases.  This is calculated from historic data from the Irish economy.  The HERMIN model used “combines Keynesian short term features with neoclassical longer term features.”

This is a problem, or rather there are two problems, not perhaps so much for the presumably Keynesian researchers at NERI but for the ULA, whose biggest components claim to be Marxists.  The Marxist analysis of the way capitalism works is very different from the Keynesian or neoclassical one.  Unfortunately, through the budget proposals of the ULA and their similarity to those of NERI, the policy proposals of the ULA display much affinity to Keynesian economics.  We have noted this already in their definition of the problem as being one of insufficient demand, which is also the view of Keynesian economists.

For Marxists this is indeed a feature of the current crisis, indeed of all crises.  Where the difference lies is that Keynesians think that this problem can be put right by state-led investment while for Marxists the lack of sufficient demand is really just one expression of deeper problems but not the fundamental cause of the crisis, which will not be put right by expansion of state expenditure.  This fundamental difference is invisible when the proposals of the ULA and NERI are compared.

For Keynesians the capitalist economy can reach equilibrium, where demand for investment funds and its supply are equal, in a situation where there is nevertheless massive unemployment, both of people and resources.  The autonomous action of the state in increasing investment can solve this problem and bring the system back into an equilibrium that resolves the unemployment problem.  For Marxists state investment can at most postpone the crisis but is not itself an answer.  By contrast the ULA present it as part of the answer.

For Keynesians the autonomous action of the state can provide a solution because the system can reach equilibrium and investment can be the driver of the economy to this equilibrium.  As the Keynesian Minsky puts it –“Investment and government spending call the tune for our economy because they are not determined by how the economy is now working.”  That a model shows state investment to be self-financing when that model contains Keynesian assumptions can hardly be called convincing. Keynesianism believes that “if entrepreneurs can only screw themselves up to do enough investment, it will eventually justify itself, since the income generated will absorb the excess capacity.” (Robin Mathews in ‘The Trade Cycle’)[i]

On the other hand Marxists see this type of statement as an example of bourgeois economists overwhelming tendency to assume that the capitalist economy works like a socialist one; that all production will more or less fulfil a useful role.  After a crisis based on massive construction expenditure that powered a phenomenal boom and then bust, this is just an incredible assumption.  The NERI and ULA proposals are based on further infrastructure spending by the same state that encouraged the last ‘stimulus’. That NERI believes this will lead to long term growth is again built into the neoclassical assumptions of the model.  Neoclassical economics assumes that capitalist markets are totally free and efficient.  A model built on such long term assumptions could hardly show anything else.

Neoclassical economics assumes that production is efficient and finds a market and that growth is the result.  Marxism makes no such assumptions but instead demonstrates the contradiction at the heart of an economy determined, not by autonomous investment, but by the pursuit of profit.  The recent massive overproduction of infrastructure was massively profitable, which is why it continued for so long.  The contradiction between this profitability and real need; the contradiction between the limitless expansion of capital and the limit of the market, was suspended temporarily and resolved temporarily by the expansion of credit.  When this expansion of credit can no longer continue the limits of the market are exposed and massive overproduction , which inevitably involves massive over-accumulation of capital, is revealed.  Keynesianism’s answer is to continue the accumulation because investment will find its own market and in any case can be autonomous within the system, as we have seen.  Marxists believe on the contrary that the accumulation of capital is determined by profit and lack of it may see accumulation shudder to a halt and collapse.

In a contest of economic ideas, between neoclassical economics where crisis are not supposed to happen and are self-correcting when they do, and Marxism, in which overaccumulation driven by super-profits is periodically inevitable, the real world has given a decisive confirmation of the latter. In a contest in which Keynesianism can assume investment creates its own demand and is self-financing and Marxism which points out the contradiction in production between use and profit, the empty office blocks and ghost estates are again striking confirmation of the truthfulness of the latter.  So why oh why would the left want to promote Keynesian solutions?

There is absolutely no reason to believe that a renewed burst of construction spend would not create new imbalances.  Perhaps the left believes that because the state carries out the spend it does not have to earn a profit but this is false for a number of reasons.

First it has to pay for the investment.  If it takes out a loan it will have to pay it back and if the investment does not create tax revenue by promoting further private capitalist investment it will not raise the necessary tax.  In these circumstances taxation would have to come instead from workers or business, which would remove the stimulus that has been created.  If the investment does stimulate or facilitate private investment then this only confirms ULA reliance on the state promoting capitalism as the way out of crisis.

Although the ULA does call for €5.3 billion of state investment in modern industry it calls for much more, €26 billion, to be invested in infrastructural investment.  In fact even some of the modern industry investment is in infrastructure.  Such infrastructural investment is normally not competitive with the main private capitalist industries but complimentary to it, facilitating it to make profits.  By making such spend central to its economic alternative the left, subconsciously no doubt, evidences the inadequacy of its alternative and subservience to capitalism.

An alternative is that state investment is directed to the production of goods and services that people actually need and want and are prepared to pay for.  This would indeed be competitive with private capitalist owned industry but this is not what is proposed by NERI or the ULA.  Instead either taxes or the promotion of private capitalist production through helpful infrastructure is proposed.

In our last post on this we questioned the policy of reliance on state investment given its history of incompetence, even in areas of no great complexity or requiring no great innovation.  The left sometimes excuses this (why?) as the result of subordination of the public sector to private capitalism.  And the answer to this is yes, that is what the capitalist state is for.  It is not for creating competition to private capitalism so why would the left demand that it does?

Even if the specific proposals of the left, in the particular circumstances that Irish workers face, are not practical this is not the main objection to them.  The main objection to them has possibly more force where they actually to work.  For if they worked, even if only temporarily, they would be both a diversion from creation of a socialist alternative and some evidence that this alternative is not needed.  The success of state industry would be the success (temporarily) of state capitalism.

The successful development of capitalism has been facilitated by the state many times and it may be argued that the more recent, and quicker, that development the more it has relied on the state.  This may be true going back through the development of every new major capitalist power from Holland in the 17th century, to Britain in the 18th, Germany and America in the 19th and 20th, the Asian Tiger economies of the late twentieth century and the Chinese of the 21st century.

The socialist alternative is something very, very different from this but the left’s fixation on the power of the capitalist state is strong and we shall look at the question some more.

[i] The quotations above are taken from a new paper that compares the Marxist explanation that the capitalist economy is driven by profit with the Keynesian alternative of the role of investment – ‘Does investment call the tune? Empirical evidence and endogenous theories of the business cycle’ See link.


Visiting Dachau

Some years ago I read a book ‘Against all Hope’, by Hermann Langbein, an Austrian who had fought in the Spanish civil war against the fascists.  It was the story of resistance in the Nazi concentration camps by one who had been prisoner, including in Dachau and Auschwitz.  I had anticipated being inspired by stories of this resistance but was instead humbled by the most common of all resistance activities – the struggle to survive.  So when I went on holiday to Germany I wanted to visit a concentration camp and did so by going on a guided tour to Dachau, just a short trip outside Munich.

There it was driven home that such was the indescribable oppression, for some survival was not the form of resistance taken.  Instead a number of prisoners ran onto the grass at the perimeter of the camp and were literally cut to pieces by heavy machine guns from the guard towers.  As our guide explained, this was not so much suicide as the one and only act of self-affirmation some prisoners felt they could take.  In every other respect they were crushed; ripped of dignity and of control of every aspect of their lives.  Every part of existence conspired against all hope.  For survivors this choice of their fellow captives was not an act of cowardice but an assertion of the only freedom they felt that they had left.

Our guide was a young Irishman who was serious and perceptive and through the numerous answers to our questions demonstrated a deep knowledge of not only the Dachau camp but the associated history, including that after liberation.  His intelligence was demonstrated not only in the questions he answered but those he did not.

He pointed out that the pictures on display were taken by the SS guards.  In these the viewer looks down on the prisoners who are in regular rows with adequate clothing.  We cannot see their eyes which are in shadow.  We see shaven heads.  As he later explained; when prisoners first arrived they took their clothes off, were doused in  often searing pesticide, had their hair cut by blunt shears so ineffective the prisoners doing the cutting often simply ripped the hair off.  Then they were shaved.  If they did not work quickly enough their hands would be tied behind their back and they would be hung from beams in the shower room. Only the location of the beams’ insertion into the wall is now still visible.  In this position their shoulders, elbows, wrists and arms would often break.  In a camp dedicated to work or death this, I imagine, could only have one outcome.

The new prisoners would then have to rush to grab clothing and clogs before leaving this area.  Our guide gave the example of one young prisoner who grabbed a jacket so small only one button could be closed, trousers too short by a distance and two clogs, one which was half the size of the correctly fitting one.  This prisoner described his clothing as continued torture throughout his captivity.  Worse, such circumstances increased the danger.  Anyone that stood out in any way; who attracted the notice of an SS man for any reason – an unfastened button or a new high number – risked the danger of deadly attention. This could, for example, mean an SS guard throwing a prisoner’s cap onto the grass and being ordered to retrieve it.  Stepping onto the grass meant machine-gunning from the guard tower while refusal to follow an order meant death.

He explained that we could not go into the guard towers because the survivors of the camp, responsible for its existence today, require that visitors cannot go anywhere prisoners could not go.  It would not be possible to view the camp from the viewpoint of the guards, not because the experience of prisoners in some way was to be recreated, but because no facility that would allow neo-Nazis to seek some sick thrill would be provided.

He told the story of the three hundred Luxembourg policemen who refused to swear allegiance to Adolf Hitler and who were sent to Dachau as punishment.  When they arrived they were ordered to do so again in the main square.  When they again refused seventeen were selected at random and executed.  The same ritual was held every year.

He told the story of Hans Beimler, the Communist Party member, who became a special prisoner held in the ‘Bunker’, one of the few remaining original buildings in the camp.  He escaped by killing his SA guard, putting on his uniform and walking out of the camp.  A few years later he died in the battle for Madrid during the Spanish Civil War.

He told the story Johann Georg Elser, a religious worker who was a keen defender of workers’ rights who had voted for the Communist Party until 1933. In 1939 he planted a bomb in a Munich beer hall where Hitler was due to speak.  Hitler was due to fly back to Berlin that night but because of fog it was thought he should take the train so he left earlier than planned.  The bomb missed Hitler by 13 minutes.  Elser was caught, severely tortured by the Gestapo, and incarcerated in Dachau.  Hitler planned that when the war was won he would be put in front of a show trial and executed.  Just a few short weeks before the end of the war Hitler ordered the killing of Elser and he was shot in the bunker at Dachau.

Our guide did not sentimentalise the camp or its prisoners. He pointed out the hierarchy within the camp and the persistent policy of dividing the prisoners.  What was most new, to me at least, was the history of the camp since the end of the war.

This was symbolised by an art work in the camp showing the different symbols – pink , red or green triangles or two different coloured triangles overlapping each other so that they looked like the star of David, used to identify and mark the different categories of prisoner.  Our guide cautioned us not to regard the prisoners in this way or to take the view that this was in many ways an accurate categorisation, even in its own degenerate terms.  Unfortunately this art work has some missing coloured triangles because of current objections to their inclusion in the memorial.  I can’t claim to have a confident recollection of what these were but they may have included the black and green triangles of ‘asocial’ and criminal prisoners.

Our guide pointed out that the concentration camp was only a relatively small part of the whole and the much larger part was the SS training camp.  Today it is a training camp for the German police.  In 1972, for the Munich Olympic Games and because of the widespread media attention this would bring, the authorities knocked down parts of the site and built a mound between this training camp and the concentration camp.  In this way it would not be possible to view the training camp and it would perhaps not arouse questions.  This is now covered in grass and trees today.  A campaign involving survivors succeeded in getting part of this removed so that today you can see, but not enter, this camp, and see one of the original but otherwise unremarkable buildings still in existence.

At the far end of the concentration camp lie three churches as memorials to the victims.  Due to cold war politics the thousands of Soviet Union soldiers possibly murdered at the camp are represented by a Russian Orthodox church outside the perimeter.  The Jewish religious site is smallest and situated in the farthest corner from the entrance.  The Protestant one is in the other corner to the left, larger but low level and of a similar grey concrete colour as the foundations of the barracks in their two rows, which are all that is left of the original buildings.  The Catholic church is by far the largest, siting in the middle of the other two in a grass site with trees.  Our guide pointed out that plans were afoot at one time to cover the rest of the site with grass and trees but again campaigners stopped this.  While not explicitly expressing this, the contempt for this attempted simultaneous appropriation and erasure was clear.

The final part of the visit was to the new crematorium which contained a gas chamber.  Our guide stated that historians disagreed whether this chamber was actually used but that survivors affirm that is was used on a number of prisoners.  What is not in doubt is that so many were murdered in Dachau that the original policy of carrying many of the dead in trucks into Munich for burning could not be continued and new crematoria needed to be built to destroy the thousands killed.

Beside the gas chamber and crematoria was a memorial in three languages vowing never again.  As our guide thanked everyone for coming to visit Dachau he noted that in Bosnia it happened again.  For me the danger of it happening again is an inescapable potential within capitalism.

Holidays are a time to recharge the batteries.  There is more than one way of renewing the energy to continue the struggle for socialism and forever making never again a reality.

Workers rally in support of Millionaire Quinn

Ireland is in the throes of an economic slump with official unemployment at nearly 15 per cent despite emigration.  Severe cuts are being inflicted on essential public services; there are large cuts in take home pay and glaring inequality as the wealth of the richest in society has actually risen in the last few years.  So how do we explain that in one corner of Ireland four thousand of the plain people of Ireland demonstrated in support of a man who was very recently the richest man in the country and who was at the centre of a disastrous attempt to buy the most rotten of Ireland’s very rotten banks?

In a small corner of County Cavan thousands demonstrated in support of Sean Quinn as he dodges and dives to keep large bits of his foreign property empire out of the hands of the successor to the Anglo-Irish Bank from which he took out loans to buy the property but is now unable to pay back.  The property was security for the loans and now that he can’t repay the loans the State, through the Irish Bank Resolution Corporation (IBRC), wants the property.  In effect the local population was demonstrating in favour of Quinn holding on to this empire by underhand and devious means ,to keep it out of the hands of a state bankrupt and making huge cuts that affect those demonstrating as much as anyone.

In this he was supported by a local and high-profile priest, by a local Sinn Fein MP and by a number of senior and well-known figures within the Gaelic Athletic Association.  The columnist Kevin Myers once wrote that he could imagine Ireland without Fianna Fail, without the Irish language and without the Catholic Church but he could not imagine it without the GAA.  Especially in most of rural Ireland that is how important the GAA is to local society.  It is such a huge and varied organisation that it cannot be said that the GAA as a body supports Quinn but the members present were too numerous and prominent for the relationship to be simply dismissed.  Sean Quinn’s brother Peter is an ex-President of the Association and a further ex-President Sean Kelly, a Fine Gael MEP, also issued a statement in support.

I was having a conversation in the car with my other half when she said that they all had one thing in common – they were all men for whom it is always about them.  When I also pointed out that it could be said they were also all quite well off, Catholic or ‘culchies’, she thought for a moment and said – no, it’s all about them being men with their masculine egos.  Then I said that the worst aspect of all this was that so many ordinary people had come out to support him but she disagreed with this as well and said they were demonstrating because he had given them work.

Quinn is by far the biggest employer in the area with cement and glass businesses, a large hotel and latterly branching out into insurance.  It was his €2.3 billion gamble on buying Anglo-Irish Bank that brought this business empire down.  There seems little recognition locally however that not only has he sought to deprive the state of much needed funds and caused an increase in everyone’s insurance premiums required to pay for his mistake but he gambled with people’s jobs to enrich himself when he was already filthy rich.

Now, while claiming through tears, that he is a victim, a man with plain needs and modest life style he has ensured that his relatives have been paid hundreds of thousands of Euros from the Russian property companies that he is trying to keep hold of. The wife of his son has, for example, been paid €320,297 after tax by a Russian company owned by the Irish State while being a part time receptionist at a motor dealership in north Dublin.  Yet people on a fraction of this came out to declare that he has been hard done by!

For some the demonstration of support is but the latest expression of a long lived Irish slavish mentality that has much in common with peasant attitudes of supine deference to a local feudal Lord. The great and the good declare the Lord one of us and the serfs oblivious to their real interests blindly obey their masters and betters.  Such a view however is only possible from outside.

Cavan and Fermanagh are not some atavistic backwater with ignorant peasants innocent of the sophisticated ways of the modern world.  What is in evidence is not some centuries-old peasant tradition of subservience.  The rural location gives some apparent justification to such views but the industries they work in are modern, few make money directly from the land and they are as educated as anyone in the country.  What is expressed is a particularly personal and local phenomenon of dependency which characterises the whole country and which is only particularly noticeable because of the scale of the local dependency.

The obvious power of the Quinn family in economic terms has been extended naturally into an ideological and social power over the local community and become repulsive to many only because it is so personal and accentuated by the local circumstances.  Expressed in a rural idiom it is easy and tempting for others to ridicule and mock but such acerbic criticism has much bigger targets if it were only to look.

In what way is the subservience of some of Cavan people any different to the subservience of all the people of the Irish State to an unholy trinity of State, banks and property developers   who have placed on their shoulders a debt so huge that their children will be paying for it for decades to come?  In what way is the willingness to support the local Lord any different from the near universal political agreement across the State that the richest multinationals, including speculative financial institutions, should shape economic and social policy, despite the economic disaster they are so closely associated with, while the poorest and most vulnerable must suffer?  If the slavish dependency of some people in Cavan offends so much why doesn’t the much greater dependency of the whole country not also?

The exhibition of subservience witnessed in one part of rural Ireland is not to be excused.  It must be understood and above all recognised as simply a particularly obvious reflection of the exploitation and oppression of the working people of Ireland.  In this respect it is fundamentally no different from the position of workers anywhere.  The notion that Quinn gave people work is accepted as fact just as capitalists employ workers while workers are employed.  But Quinn didn’t give people work, the people gave work to Quinn and he gave them back an amount of money worth less than the work they provided.

Under a system of private ownership by capitalists of the means of production it is nearly always the case that it appears that the capitalist gives work to the workers, and it is not that this is a pure illusion.  In a very real sense workers do depend on capitalists for jobs, which they create and destroy regularly.  This dependency and its results become obscene in some circumstances but it exists everywhere.

It’s time that working people, some of them, started to put forward an alternative, starting with the left and not one that presents the state as the fountainhead of this alternative.  The alienation of people in Cavan from this state (and the banks it supported), easily pictured as a remote Dublin cabal, is a distorted reflection of what would otherwise be a healthy impulse.

After all, for socialists the alternative to Quinn is not the Irish Bank Resolution Corporation, is it?

Back to the Future? – the State to deliver jobs?

Before it went on holiday the government announced the stimulus package for the economy that many in opposition had demanded. An additional €2.25 billion is to be spent over the seven years to 2018 on roads, schools, a new college site in north Dublin, primary health care centres and Garda headquarters. The government claimed it will create 13,000 new jobs and is designed as a stimulus to the economy that will promote growth.  Green Party leader Eamon Ryan got it right when he said the “plan is a throw-back to the last century when the only way Irish politicians knew of stimulating the economy was to pump money into the construction industry.”

Unemployment is 309,000 or over 440,000 if you include part time, seasonal and casual workers entitled to Jobseeker’s benefits or allowances.  The stimulus will therefore not stimulate very much.  The chief Economist for the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) nevertheless said it was “an important step in Ireland’s recovery.”  The Irish Business and Employer’s Confederation (IBEC) welcomed it in almost identical words saying it was “an important first step in helping to restore domestic demand in the Irish economy.”

The feeling of déjà vu became overpowering when the Minister announcing it, Labour’s Brendan Howlin, had to ‘explain’ why road projects were going ahead in his own constituency.  His Department was also unable to provide a journalist with any cost/benefit analyses for individual projects, which are always nice to see even when they begin ‘once upon a time’.  A commentator described one road project as “largely a vanity project” and that it “never added up even at the height of the boom.”

The money will come from what’s left of the National Pension Reserve Fund, so workers will know their future pension money is being craftily spent.  Some will come from the European Investment Bank but it’s not clear how much.  Some will come from the sale of state assets.  This is where the state buys duff things from the private sector – like banks – which cost it a lot of money and sells good stuff – like companies that make profits – which also cost it money.

No spanking new construction project would be complete without the involvement of the banks and they too will be involved, although again it isn’t known by how much, but since these are funded by the State this doesn’t really matter that much.  Finally, to complete the story, much use will be made of Public Private Partnerships, a partnership where one partner gives money to the other, for example when roads don’t have the traffic that was predicted but one partner gets paid anyway.  Again we don’t know the figures but we’re not expected to get much exercised over this because it’s all for a good cause, although it’s the usual story of being bribed by your own money.

Fianna Fail complained that many of the announcements would have no effect for six years, which might have been a good thing had it applied to their own policies.  They complained that some of the announcements were bringing back projects that the government had just cancelled, such as the Grangegorman project, which inspires confidence that planning by the capitalist state will continue to be used as a weapon to discredit socialist planning. The word planning might however be going a bit too far since Howlin said it would be nice to give the new jobs to people from the Live Register and also to apprentices who haven’t finished their training, but “I don’t want to promise  that that can be done.”   It’s wonderful how governments can promise to spend billions of workers’ pension and tax money while saying that they can’t promise that it will deliver what it’s supposed to deliver.  The sense of building new health facilities while preparing to get rid of health staff and of building new college facilities while cutting the number of lecturers seemed not to have been questioned by many.

The Irish State doesn’t have a great record when it comes to investment.  It bought 700 electronic voting machines for €55 million and they didn’t work.  It wasted money on hospital co-location, decentralisation and €100 million on the ‘Bertie Bowl’.  It commissioned a PPARS IT system for the health service with an original budget of €9 million in 1997 which ballooned to €120millin in 2004 before being pulled in 2007.  The Auditor General reported that the roads programme which was supposed to cost €5 billion ended up costing €20 billion.  The high-technology Media Lab Europe set up jointly with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was to focus on the development of digital technology but went into liquidation within five years with consultants describing its output as “mediocre, “surprisingly weak” and “dismal”.

The United Left Alliance’s budget statement stated that “the current crisis cannot be resolved without a state led programme of investment.”  It proposes a reversal of cuts in capital spending and an emergency state programme of infrastructure investment costing €26 billion to get 150,000 back to work.  If we assume unemployment at around 310,000 this would still leave 150,000 unemployed. What happens to them?  The programme is to last “for at least five years”.  What happens after that? The economic contraction has already been going nearly five years and the slump could continue five more.

The ULA wants to employ workers’ private pension funds just like the government wants to use the pension funds of public sector workers.  The ULA wants the latter money, €5.3 billion, to fund investment in modern industry and it rejects privatisation.  Instead it wants state companies to carry out this investment.  If successful this might make some further dent in the unemployment total and at the cost of job creation estimated in its infrastructure programme this would reduce unemployment by perhaps 30,000. Of course there would be further multiplier effects but this depends on the overall performance of the economy.

It is the assumption around this performance that motivates both the proposals of the government and the ULA.  As we have seen, the bosses organisation IBEC, and also ICTU, see the problem as one of insufficiency of demand and the government’s stimulus “an important first step in helping to restore domestic demand in the Irish economy.”  The ULA say “direct government job creation through public works is necessary to promote effective demand and halt the deepening crisis.”  The government, bosses, trade unions and the left offers a similar analysis of the problem and a rather similar remedy.  Of course the trade unions and left oppose privatisation but state ownership in itself is not socialist. What we have, as in the sphere of taxation, is a difference of quantity in the measures being proposed, not a difference of quality.

What the ULA proposes, based apparently on a Keynesian analysis of the problem, is not socialist although, if successful, would have a big impact on defending workers’ living standards by reducing unemployment and defending its welfare entitlement, take home pay and public services.  Were its proposals to succeed they would go some way to providing a capitalist alternative to the policies of austerity although they would do little to prevent the regular future occurrence of capitalist crises.

Lest it be thought this judgement too harsh let’s go back to just one proposal of the ULA, that of using workers’ pension funds.  This is a proposal that the capitalist state that has saddled the working class with an unsupportable debt and denuded its state pension fund, imperilling the pensions of future workers, should also take a chunk of workers’ private pensions, and it with its sterling record of investment and economic management.  In effect it’s a capitalist expropriation of workers funds with no more than a promise from a politician for comfort, and a few Irish workers have had letters of comfort from the Irish State before.

The workers should take over management of their own pension fund?  They should promote worker owned firms to address the problem of unemployment?  Heaven forbid!  That sounds like socialism.