How deep is the division created by partition?

In an article in the ‘Irish Times’ a couple of weeks ago Andy Pollak, Director of the Centre for Cross Border Studies and a former Irish Times journalist, takes up the observation that “interest among people in the Republic these days in Northern Ireland is minimal.”  “As somebody who lives in the South and works in the North, my experience in recent years, as the economic and financial crisis has come to dominate public discourse, is that southerners largely don’t want to know any more.”  Since previous interest was taken mainly to be revulsion at the violence and gratitude that it was “up there” and not “down here” this might not seem a new issue.  In fact both reflect how deep is the division that partition has created after nearly a century of existence.

Pollak quotes the young woman in the audience of the RTÉ Frontline programme during last October’s presidential campaign who attacked Martin McGuinness: “As a young Irish person, I am curious as to why you have come down here to this country, with all your baggage, your history, your controversy? And how do you feel you can represent me, as a young Irish person, who knows nothing of the Troubles and who doesn’t want to know anything about it?”

First we must say that this is indeed a strong illustration of the division that exists between North and South of the border; all the stronger because of the happy ignorance that is displayed.  On the other hand this happy ignorance demonstrates that the division which she articulates is really an expression of the unity that she is so ignorant of.

Happy ignorance?  Well yes.  The young woman speaks of coming “down here to this country” which is actually the same country, while being a different state.  She mentions “all your baggage, your history, your controversy” without appearing to be aware that the State she lives in shares much of this baggage, history and controversy.  After all, is she not aware of the history that includes the War of Independence, the Civil War (mainly in the South) and baggage that includes Catholic Church domination of society that involved systematic and widespread abuse of thousands of women and children that still resonates today?  Is she not aware that ‘the troubles’ had its worst single episode of violence in the Southern State carried out partly by agents of the British State?  Happy in her ignorance because she herself declares she “knows nothing of the Troubles and . . . doesn’t want to know anything about it.”

The disconnect between this young woman’s understanding and real history is perhaps an example of the invention of nations that don’t exist, or sometimes later do come into existence.

Pollak says that “opinion polls over the past decade or so show that a bare majority of people in the Republic now say they want a united Ireland: for example, in the 1999-2000 European Values Survey, just 54 per cent of people favoured unity.”  He quotes one University College Dublin student as saying: “Neither of us want Northern Ireland: neither us nor the UK government. I’d say if you asked the majority of Irish people – yes, nationalists, out of a sense of allegiance, might say they wanted a united Ireland – but it’s really far more trouble than it’s worth.  I mean, to integrate Northern Ireland into this State – why would you be bothered? The status quo satisfies everyone.”

Let’s take this statement bit by bit as well. The UK state doesn’t want Northern Ireland?  A very common opinion but one that is impossible to square with the experience of the British State spending billions of pounds and engaging in a long counter-insurgency campaign in order precisely to keep hold of the Northern State.  We will not go into the reason why here but let us recall that Britain left previous parts of empire extremely reluctantly.  Why hasn’t it left this bit if it actually wants to in this case?

So “yes, nationalists, out of a sense of allegiance, might say they wanted a united Ireland – but it’s really far more trouble than it’s worth.”  What trouble might this be?  Well we know that just as partition was imposed on the Irish side of the Treaty negotiations on the basis of the threat of immediate and terrible war so we know that partition today must be unquestioned because of the perceived threat of loyalist violence.  A loyalist violence that the last thirty years have shown the British State is quite happy to support and sponsor.

Uniting Ireland? “Why would you be bothered? The status quo satisfies everyone.”  This is the decisive question.  Let’s start from the end and go to the start – “the status quo satisfies everyone.”  This is the status quo that includes the literal bankruptcy of the Irish State and its admitted loss of sovereignty over its economic affairs.  The more or less complete loss of respect and legitimacy of fundamental pillars of the Southern State – politicians, Catholic Church and crucial State institutions.  Yet  “the status quo satisfies everyone!!?”

I would bet that many UCD students are very far from satisfied with the status quo but that they don’t see their dissatisfaction with the Southern State as having anything to do with partition.  If it’s not part of the problem then why would opposition to partition be seen as part of the solution?  What we have is graphic demonstration of the division of the Irish people that partition has caused that satisfaction is expressed in a State which many are in despair of because its problems are not seen as having anything to do with the other bit of the country divided.

That the domination of the Southern State by outside powers, who have dictated that their banks must be protected by the Irish people bailing them out, is not connected at all with the political rule in the North of the foremost political power in Europe most enmeshed with banking is the result of a number of factors.

The first is that such is the seeming power of these outside forces they seem almost like a force of nature, or if not, then an unalterable fact of life.  The second is that when there has been opposition either to the Northern State or to how the Southern State exploits its citizens this opposition has made no attempt to link the two questions.  The third is the more or less complete absence of any force that wants to do this.

Instead workers have been able to react only to the more immediate appearances of their oppression. This appearance is framed as a political question by the State, which is often the mechanism for enforcing it and sometimes by the putative opposition putting forward the state under different governance as the solution to oppression.

This importance of the state in distorting socialist politics has been a theme of the blog so far.  For most people, including what passes for militant opposition, the necessity of fighting two States is one too many.  In fact consistently fighting one is one too many.  That is how deep the division created by partition is.

Survey on Scottish Independence

Having written the post on Scottish independence and a United Ireland last week, by coincidence this week the British Social Attitudes survey reported on attitudes to Scottish independence in Scotland and the wider UK.  It has prompted me to note a couple of other issues that should be taken into account by socialists when considering this question.  The survey reported that 32% of people in Scotland support Scottish independence, nine points higher than in 2010 but two points lower than in 2005.  So we have seen a significant increase but still very much a minority view which historically has been the case.  Since no majority demand for independence is being made just why would socialists support it?

The creation of new nation states is not a demand of socialists and may be supported only if it has some progressive social and political content – such as removal of oppression – that (unfortunately) takes a nationalist form.  As the reality of a referendum vote becomes nearer the reactionary content of the demand for Scottish independence becomes clearer, including low corporate taxation, retention of the monarchy, staying in NATO, retention of the pound sterling and financial regulation from London.

The demand for independence also feeds on what is a positive impulse – that the closer the levers of state are the better, which is why the survey also recorded that 43% of people in Scotland wanted Holyrood (seat of the devolved administration) to make “all” decisions.  The higher figure emerged in a question in which the word “independence” was not used, and where a second option on so-called devo-max – more power short of independence – was given.  The report also said that people were, on balance, relatively favourable to the concept of independence.

The report also recorded that those in England surveyed who said Scotland should leave the UK had increased to 26% from 14% in 1997.  This might be linked to the view that Scotland gets more than its fair share of public spending, which increased to 44% from 32%.  From such views it is not an enormous leap to believing that the problem of cuts in services can be ameliorated by reducing the spending in Scotland.  Such are the divisive results of playing with nationalism.

Some supporters of Scottish independence justify this support by claiming that Scotland is a more left wing country and that it would have a more left wing government if not encumbered with the Tory majority in England and Wales.

There are two problems with this argument.  The first is that setting up the answer as a nationalist one is not progress, especially as we see more and more that the content of independence is reactionary.  Secondly the argument accepts that English workers can just, how shall we put it, get stuffed by their Tory majority.  The thought of seeking to use the claimed left majority in Scotland to leverage a wider left majority, it’s called workers unity, doesn’t appear as a consideration.  This has negative effects on English workers’ consciousness which again is more or less ignored by left wing Scottish nationalists.  The evidence of this we see above.

The argument has been advanced that what is at stake is the integrity of the UK state and that socialists are not defenders of this state.  This is quite true.  It is claimed that what is involved in Scottish independence is precisely this question.  This is only half true.  It is also claimed that the objective of socialists is to break up the UK state.  This is not true.  The objective is to create a workers state.  Scottish independence means not only breaking up the UK state but putting forward the creation of a smaller capitalist State as the solution.  A socialist one? This is not true at all.

The SNP-run Scottish government is planning to hold a referendum on independence in autumn 2014.  Socialists should oppose Scottish independence in this referendum.

Scottish Independence and a United Ireland

Peter Robinson, the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party and First Minister of the Northern Ireland administration made a speech last week about the attitude of unionists to a possible vote in Scotland for independence.  He didn’t think it would succeed and argued that there was no conflict between “one’s regional and national identity”.  Because the North of Ireland is just a region, and unionists believe themselves to be British, Robinson made the basic mistake of describing Scotland as a region when it is of course a nation.  The issues his speech touches on are interesting in a number of ways, especially the question of a United Ireland.

Firstly he states that even if Scotland voted for independence, he was confident “it would not alter Northern Ireland’s desire to maintain the link with England and Wales.”  But why England and Wales?  Why not Scotland?  We have all had to suffer the manifest nonsense of the existence of an ‘Ulster-Scots’ people with an Ulster-Scots’ language and an ‘Ulster-Scots’ culture yet nary a thought appears when it might seem there is a choice to be made between Scotland and the rest of Britain as our wider home.

This is of course because the ‘Ulster-Scots’ movement is a sectarian invention designed to prove the absolute and complete difference between the Irish, who have a real ancestral language, and can be taken as Catholic, and those who are not Catholic and support partition.  This is necessary to provide some legitimacy for this partition and the existence of the Northern State.   Marxists understand that all nations are inventions, it is just that one invented almost overnight on the basis of a non-language and another nation’s cultural heritage, whose purpose seems to fill in successful grant applications, is not very convincing.

The reason that an independent Scotland is not considered as the unit to which the Northern State must be subordinated is that it is too small and would not have the resource and power to enforce any challenge to the Northern State’s existence.  If that means sacrificing the blarney about kinship with Scotland, who cares?  After all didn’t unionists dump the identity of ‘loyal Irish’ when the majority of the Irish people decided they weren’t loyal?  And wouldn’t many also dump the loyalty to the Queen part of ‘loyal to Queen and country’ professions of faith should, heaven forbid, the British change their law, allow a Catholic to be head of State and the next King or Queen start believing in the doctrine of transubstantiation?

What matters is the existence of an outside power with the means to defend their claim to a privileged position within the population they have lived with for around four centuries.  Behind all the various labels they and others have attached – loyal Irish, Ulstermen, Ulster-Scots, British, British-Irish, Northern Irish – what is really sought is a designation that doesn’t make it quite so obvious that what is being claimed are sectarian rights.

The project tentatively raised in recent speeches by Peter Robinson about reaching out to Catholic unionists died a death when he recently supported sectarian loyalist parades past a Catholic Church in Belfast.  The attempts to dress unionism up in non-sectarian colours always fail.

A corollary of this is that those supporting Scottish independence because it will undermine Irish unionism are wrong because this unionism relies on State power directed from London, not any purported emotional or familial attachment to Scotland.  Equally the idea that because independence is sought on the grounds of democracy in Ireland, in the form of a United Ireland it should be supported for Scotland is also wrong.

For Marxists the objective is the unity of the working class across nations.  If it is not united, by definition it cannot act on behalf of its interests as a whole.  National divisions often prevent this unity.  To remove the salience of such divisions it is necessary that nations reflect no decisive material divisions beyond cultural ones that can be accommodated, involving difference without division.  For this to be the case there must be equality between nations.

Self-determination of nations is a means of ensuring that any nation suffering national oppression is able to escape this oppression and stand in a position of equality.  For small nations this is impossible in an imperialist dominated world so questions of nationality often frustrate international workers unity.  Nevertheless the removal of national divisions is also a process intrinsic to capitalist development and socialists must support the erosion and removal of divisions among workers due to nationality.

In Ireland partition has divided workers North and South and within the North on the grounds of religion. The removal of partition may be seen as part of a democratic process to remove the foundations of this division.  In principle partition and its associated divisions could just as well be undermined by a united polity across Britain and Ireland.  History has demonstrated that it is just this ‘unity’ that created and fostered this division in the first place.  A united and separate Irish State is therefore a legitimate project which could further the removal of divisions within Ireland and which socialists should recognise as progressive on this basis.

In Britain there is no real or substantive division among workers based on being English, Scottish or Welsh.  Creation of separate states, such as would  happen with Scottish independence, would however go a long way to creating the material foundation for such divisions. This would set back considerably the struggle for workers unity.

Scottish independence and a United Ireland do not have political dynamics that are at all similar and to believe so is in my view a mistake.  How do we know this?  Well this is one experience of Irish history that does have direct relevance to Scotland.  The creation of a separate state has deepened the divisions that existed in Ireland before partition because it created a new one.  This new one is also now strong and it is not one that is conducive to workers unity.  I’ll look at this in the next post.

The State and Stockholm Syndrome – Part 2

Today the State is inflicting attack after attack on working people but just like sufferers of Stockholm syndrome many people keep coming back to ask it to protect them.

It is not that this is an idea with no rational content at all.  It does have a basis in reality but not one that justifies the political positions of some of the Left.

Last week on RTE news some disabled people were interviewed protesting outside the Dail at cuts to personal assistance, without which they might be forced into hospitalisation or else left to suffer appalling neglect.  Their protest was a powerful demonstration of the enormous dependence some of the most vulnerable have on the State and the capacity of that State to mistreat them appallingly.  While the media and others basked in the achievements of Irish athletes in the Paralympics in London the Irish State was preparing to shaft disabled citizens at home.  The protests succeeded in getting a U-turn on the proposed cuts and a rare but welcome victory.

This is but one example of the welfare state which is what the Left has in mind when it defends the state.  Where the right wing scream private good and public bad the left has often responded by defending public services and with declarations of the evils of the private sector.

Opposition to welfare cuts and to cuts in education and health services should not however imply any wider defence or support for the state or ‘public sector’.  The public sector is a large bureaucracy that has no democratic content, often providing poor and inefficient services.  The state training agency FAS is just one outstanding example of the corruption and wastefulness of the provision of services by the State. These are run by a capitalist state, in the interests of capitalism, by bureaucracies totally unaccountable to working people.  Why on earth should there be any inclination to defend what we are not responsible for? What we have no control over? That should rightly be criticised by us for its often bureaucratic waste of our money?

And this is the point. It is working people who pay for the welfare state, not the rich and not capital.  In a paper written some years ago the Marxist economist Anwar Shaikh sought to examine the argument that excessive welfare provision caused economic stagnation and unemployment.  In the course of this he demonstrated for six major countries (US, UK, Australia, Canada, Germany and Sweden) that this was not the case.  His central finding has relevance to our own argument, which was “that social benefit expenditures were financed out of the taxes paid by recipients of these very expenditures: in other words, by and large, social welfare expenditures were self-financed.”

The capitalist state taxes workers and then bribes them with their own money while liberals loudly declare that taxation is somehow progressive, even left-wing, and should be increased to improve welfare servicers and boost the economy.  Workers are expected to uncritically support this as if ‘the State’ is paying for something when it is actually they that are doing so.  The key question of ownership and control of the services provided by the state is ignored and the debate is framed in terms of the supposed ‘socialist’ position of ‘tax and spend’ and the right-wing position of cutting taxes and privatisation.

This framework has been used by the right to push privatisation, presenting it as the only alternative.  But it isn’t, and opposition to privatisation is not itself an alternative to the failures of health system or education systems that consistently betray those most in need of their help.  Too often the woeful character of state services has been defended in some misguided belief that defending state ownership is defending the workers delivering the services.  Such an error is rarely made when the unsatisfactory nature of services or products produced by workers in the private sector comes under similar attack.  It is against this background that the State seeks to divide private sector workers against public sector workers and portray the trade unions, often accurately enough, as primarily interested only in the latter because that is where their own bureaucratic power base resides.

While socialists must oppose privatisation as a solution to the inefficient provision of services we should never confuse this with support for or excuses for poor State delivery of services.  Too often the attacks on the working conditions of those employed to deliver these services are made prior to privatisation, or prepared prior to privatisation, by the state itself.  Nor is it true that state ownership guarantees better delivery of services.  The appalling neglect of older people in care for example has taken place under both private and state provision.

So what we have then is the provision of welfare state services which workers pay for but which are delivered often bureaucratically, with no democratic control and often in oppressive ways, such as the means-testing of welfare recipients.  Many workers delivering the services conscientiously do their best but this is despite rather than as a result of how they are organised and managed.  Simply demanding more welfare ignores all this and ignores that it is workers who pay for it.

Many are happy to pay because they care about the services provided and have in the past or will in the future benefit from them.  The provision of unemployment insurance etc. limits the devastation to living standards consequent on redundancy or sickness.  It puts a floor under the minimum wages capitalists can demand, which is why they always want it reduced; but fundamentally it is necessary because a pool of unemployed is necessary for capitalism and this pool must be of sufficient quality to take up employment when it is available.  Welfare capitalism is necessary for the capitalist system as a cost effective way of preserving the quality of labour power.  It is not fundamentally about delivering on the human needs of people.

The large growth of the capitalist state sector, from an average in the OECD (advanced capitalist countries)  of 27 per cent of gross Domestic Product in 1960 to 42 per cent in 1988 (statistics from Shaikh paper), has been the material and ideological power base of social democratic ideas that the capitalist system has been or can be reformed, if not into socialism, then at least something ‘different’ or along vague lines of ‘another world is possible’.   The limited standards of the services provided and endemic insecurity under which welfare recipients live are one testament to the limits and precariousness of this social democratic vision of reform.

Workers expected to row in behind demands to defend a large state should be aware that this sector has grown in recent years because of the state’s role in preventing a financial collapse pushing the whole capitalist system over a cliff. In Ireland, as in many other countries, workers are having to pay for it through tax increases and service cuts.  The last thing workers need is the idea that the State is something neutral that can be captured to represent its interests.  Yet this is the present perspective of much of the Left who have diagnosed the current situation as first of all a ‘crisis of working class representation’.  That is, a crisis of the social democratic illusions that once had hegemony over many workers, although to a much lesser degree in Ireland, who have suffered mainly from capitalist populism.

This dependence on the State as part of the fundamental programme of the Left is the ideological explanation for the electoralist strategy now so much a feature of the Left.  It is no accident that the need for a United Left Alliance was suddenly seen before the general election.  Having made the electoral intervention the need for unity was then considered by some as no longer so strong and the promised progress to a real party has evaporated.  We know when it will come back, if it’s not too late.

If this is at least one of the ideological origins of the chronic electoralism of the Left it must still be explained why this has happened given the parallel ideological notion that what the Left organisations want is a revolution in which the working class seizes state power.[i]

Whatever about the belief in revolution this has not been a practical proposition for many years: during the Celtic Tiger boom or the social and political defeat of workers during the previous couple of decades.  So, while often preaching revolution in the future, as a matter of pure practicality it has done what is actually possible.  Given its ideological confusion on the role of the state and having no conception of revolutionary politics outside of a contest for state power the Left has degenerated into electoralism.

The contest for state power by the working class in a long period where the working class has not been interested in such a project has become a reformist contest for state power which resolves into just getting elected to parliament.

The real Marxist attitude to the state, as opposed to dependence on the state for solutions, which I have looked at here, here and here for example, will be the subject of future posts.

[i] I realise that the Socialist Party has political roots which eschew this traditional Marxist view in favour of a perspective of a Left electoral victory, leading to majority in Parliament passing legislation nationalising big industry with the support of mass mobilisations, this allowing the introduction of what they believe to be socialism. But this has always been a relatively hidden revision of Marxism that is disguised by what is presented as a rather rigid orthodoxy.

A Case of Stockholm Syndrome* – The Left and the State

In two recent posts, here and here, I have criticised proposals of the United Left Alliance (ULA) that rely on dealing with unemployment through a state investment programme.  I have also made criticisms of tax plans of the ULA, which again rely on state action for their implementation.  The state is clearly extremely important to the left alternative proposed by the ULA.

The Socialist Party in the general election called for nationalisation of all the banks and their being run democratically under public control and management. It demanded that the state take the economy and natural resources into democratic public ownership in order to plan the development of a real manufacturing base.   It called for a government based on working class people that implements socialist policies and puts people before profit.  All eight of its proposals involved state action or the need to get the left into the state and into government.

The ‘Alternative Economic Agenda’ of the People Before Profit Alliance was constructed in a similar manner.  It has eleven separate elements and again all rely on the state taking action on behalf of the working class or ‘people’ in general.  Their demands include creation of one good state bank; creation of a State Construction Agency for infrastructural investment; expansion and reorientation of the public sector away from a corporate agenda and general reliance on the state to develop the economy.

These demands for the State to take action to defend working people must be taken at face value.  It is not possible that these demands are raised in order to expose the State and rid workers of their illusions in it because very few workers actually expect the State to take over the economy and run it for the benefit of working people.  The illusions peddled are those of the Left itself, for what is presented is the ideal objective which they aim for and which workers are called upon to endorse.  Except of course that state ownership is not socialism and the Left knows it, or rather will claim to know it.  The problem is that the means – capitalist state ownership – is supposed to lead to an end that is not capitalist state ownership.

When I say that the left knows that capitalist state ownership is not socialism I mean that it knows well the statements of  James Connolly including – “state ownership and control is not necessarily Socialism — if it were, then the Army, the Navy, the Police, the Judges, the Gaolers, the Informers, and the Hangmen, all would all be Socialist functionaries, as they are State officials — but the ownership by the State of all the land and materials for labour, combined with the co-operative control by the workers of such land and materials, would be Socialism… To the cry of the middle class reformers, ‘make this or that the property of the government,’ we reply, ‘yes, in proportion as the workers are ready to make the government their property.’ Workers’ Republic, 10 June 1899.

Engels put it similarly in ‘Anti Duhring’ published just over twenty years earlier -“… since Bismarck adopted state ownership a certain spurious socialism has made its appearance here and there even degenerating into a kind of flunkeyism which declares that all taking over by the state, even of the Bismarckian kind, is itself socialist. If, however, the taking over of the tobacco trade by the State was socialist, Napoleon and Metternich would rank among the founders of socialism. If the Belgian state, for quite ordinary political and financial reasons, constructed its own main railway lines, if Bismarck… took over the main railway lines in Prussia, simply in order to be better able to organise and use them for war, to train the railway officials as the government’s voting cattle, and especially to secure a new source of revenue independent of immediate votes – such actions were in no sense socialist measures. Otherwise the Royal Maritime Company, the Royal Porcelain Manufacturer, and even the regimental tailors in the army, would be socialist institutions.”

We only need to recall that the enormous austerity that working people are suffering is due to the state’s budget deficit and the state’s debt burden to understand what Irish workers should think of ‘their’ state.  It wasn’t the collapse of the banks that placed this debt on the backs of the workers, it was the State that placed this debt on the backs of the workers through guaranteeing all their liabilities and then effectively nationalising them.  Yet nationalisation of the banks has been a left demand for years and still is today.  Yet this nationalisation is precisely the mechanism used by the State to bail out the capitalists involved directly and the whole system indirectly.

Nor is such a purpose unusual for nationalisation.  In fact I can’t offhand think of a nationalisation that wasn’t meant to benefit capitalism and didn’t place a burden on workers.  The rhetoric about dependence of many working people on the state for jobs is no different in essence from that of the supporters of Sean Quinn who have been dependent on him in the past for employment.  Anyone on the left who argues that the State is somehow democratic and has duties to working people no longer believes that the capitalist state is above all the defender of the capitalist system.  That this is what is its defining role.  But for the Left it would appear that holding the belief that the capitalist state is both a defender of capitalism and cannot be reformed and that it can provide all the things that are demanded in Left manifestos are not two mutually exclusive ideas that cannot both be true.

I am reminded of F Scott Fitzgerald’s remark that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”  Some in the left appear to go one better and actually sincerely believe two opposed ideas at the same time.  My view is that this is dysfunctional.

*Stockholm syndrome, or capture-bonding, is a psychological phenomenon in which hostages express empathy and have positive feelings towards their captors, sometimes to the point of defending them. (from Wikipedia)

to be continued.