Why have the Irish not revolted? Part II

imagesausterityIn my first post I qualified the view that there was something particularly weak in the resistance of Irish workers to austerity but argued that nevertheless an explanation is needed.  To develop this further we need to ask what this austerity has involved.

Some commentators would have a ready explanation.  In terms of the share of taxation in Gross Domestic Product (GDP), in terms of the share of Government spending in GDP and overall deficit as a percentage of annual value added there has not been ‘savage austerity’ so there has been nothing to rebel against.

Here unfortunately we have no choice but to enter the world of economic statistics where only the naive can expect clear objectivity and accuracy.

A post on the Irish Economy blog records that (adjusting the statistics for the well-known effect of foreign multinationals in the Irish State significantly overstating economic performance) living standards measured in GDP per person (in Purchasing Power Parity values) declined by 14 per cent from 2007 to 2011.  This is a bigger decline in living standards than in Portugal where the fall was only 1.6 per cent, in Spain where it was 4.9 per cent and Greece where it was 8 per cent.  In terms of national income (another measure) the drop was bigger – 20 per cent – and it will have fallen further since then.  It would appear that the relative quiescence of Irish workers needs additional explaining.

But does it?

Any Irish statistic that uses GDP is immediately suspect for the reason above but not only because of this.  GDP is a measure of value added which means the 2007 figure will include property produced at vastly over-inflated values.  Houses and offices built and priced at one value will have been shown subsequently to have been worth 50, 60 or 70 per cent less, or sometimes to be completely worthless.  A moment’s thought reveals that this is not a characteristic simply of Irish statistics but of measures of capitalist production everywhere.

When we think of the effects of the banking industry on measures of economic growth we again see that this measure is seriously distorting, not only because of the difficulties of capturing accurately what is happening, but because of the nature of capitalist production.  This takes place through the production of commodities whose real value is only realised after production. The value of these commodities is elaborated through the workings of the market which reveals the socially necessary value of output in a cyclical fashion.

For economists wedded to capitalism recessions are always the result of exogenous shocks outside the system or of purely irrational behaviour within it, which amount to the same thing.  For Marxists the cycle of boom and bust is how the values of commodities are established and then re-established in a constant process.  By nature therefore there can be no precise measure of value produced at any one point in time or over any one period.

In figures for GDP the distinction between use value and exchange value is absent never mind any accounting for how really ‘socially useful’ the use values produced are – ghost estates and weapons compared to commodities actually consumed by workers. This is to be considered on top of the well-known criticisms of measuring living standards by GDP.

There are alternative measures we can review but before we leave behind this discussion we should appreciate that what we have been looking at is not simple mismeasurement of economic activity but one form of the appearance of real contradictions within the system.

From the point of view of our particular investigation we can make two points.  That a critical review of some of the figures means the boom was not as boomier (to quote Bertie Ahern) as some statistics might appear to show and the recession not as sudden and complete a reversal as might first appear.  The expectation of more or less immediate revolt might therefore be less justified?  Other evidence however might suggest that such a view should be considered a relatively minor factor.

Secondly, the constant reporting of such economic statistics plays an ideological role such that workers must accept real changes to their lives on the basis of these statistics.  Workers are subject to such pressures not just in the recession but also in the boom – encouraged to get into unsustainable debt for example.  To the extent that they do the latter they are then under ideological assault to accept that they, along with everyone else, ‘partied’ and went on a ‘mad borrowing’ frenzy, as Taoiseach Enda Kenny has put it.

Some commentators might argue that a recognition of ‘guilt’ has played a role in short-circuiting resistance but the existence of such undoubted views is as much a result of demoralisation as a cause of the lack of resistance.

There are other statistics we can look at to see if there are material reasons for the lack of opposition apart from this particular ideological one.

What appears a more relevant statistic is called Actual Individual Consumption which encompasses goods and services consumed by households including government services such as education and health provision.  This would appear to show that between 2008 and 2011 living standards in the Irish State fell more than in Spain and in Portugal but less than in Greece or Iceland.

Actual Individual Consumption


2008 index

2011 index

Percentage fall


























This measure is made up of a component of GDP so is subject to some of the criticism above.  We have already seen that three different measurements of living standards result in reductions in living standards of 20 per cent, 14 per cent and over 8 per cent, depending on dates and the measurement adopted.

What we can say with certainty is that living standards fell abruptly and significantly due to the crisis and it is not obvious that the severity of the fall in any country determined the relative extent of opposition to austerity.  It is necessary before drawing any conclusions to look at what might be at least some of the components of the fall in living standards, not by any means only a result of the effects of Government austerity policies.

By one measure unemployment in the Irish State increased from 3.4 per cent in 2007 to 10.4 per cent in 2012, a tripling of the rate in only five years.  The economically inactive, which must contain many who have given up hope of getting a job, increased from 27.5 per cent of the population aged 15 to 64 to 30.8 per cent.

Using a different measurement unemployment in the Irish state was 13.5 per cent in January 2013 compared to 17.8 per cent in Portugal, 26.8 per cent in Spain and 27 per cent in Greece.  Clearly the crisis has hit the latter countries much harder than Ireland.  It is by no means clear that higher unemployment breeds resistance since its function under capitalism is to facilitate increased exploitation of the working class.  The mobilisation of the unemployed is not always for progressive reasons, which is one reason we have noted before that economic crises often breed reactionary movements.

Once unemployed some workers face the prospect of hardship and one measure of this defined as deprivation, or being without two or more basic items, has increased from 11.8 per cent of the population to 24.5 per cent in 2012.  The possibility of this is affected by the level of welfare an unemployed personmight rely upon and this is measured by the net replacement rate, or the payments due to the unemployed as a percentage of previous net income.  This obviously depends on whether the person has children or is married etc.

Net Replacement rates 2011


No children

2 children

Country Single person One earner

Married couple

Two-earner Married couple Lone Parent One-earner married couple Two-earner married couple
Republic of Ireland 50 81 75 64 75 81
Greece 49 54 75 58 63 80
Spain 79 76 90 77 75 89
Portugal 75 75 92 77 76 91


The table shows that Greece has significantly lower replacement rates than the other selected countries for most categories but that the Irish state’s is generally lower than Spain’s and Portugal’s.  It would not appear that the prospect of a more significant loss of income as a result of unemployment has spurred opposition in Ireland relative to that in Spain or Portugal.

The other obvious way workers cope with periods of unemployment is falling back on any savings that they have accumulated.  The following table shows the movement in net financial assets per person (€) in the various countries:




Republic of Ireland












Euro area (17 countries)




The table shows the Irish State to have the highest level of financial assets (though much below the Euro area average) and that this even increased between 2007 and 2011!  Since these figures say nothing about the unequal distribution of wealth and we know that many have suffered unemployment, cuts in wages or tax increases, it is clear that certain sections of Irish society are bearing up quite well.  In the other countries financial wealth fell and in Spain, but particularly in Greece, fell quite dramatically.

Such average figures hide as much as they reveal.  Average household disposable income in the Irish state fell from €49,043 in 2008 to €41,819 in 2011 but this was still significantly higher than in 2004 when it was €38,631.  Right wing commentators have often made the observation that incomes have often just gone back to such and such a date and we are all much better off than before the boom kicked off in the first half of the 1990s.  This is undoubtedly true for many but doesn’t provide an answer why as a class Irish workers have resisted austerity so weakly, unless the argument is that expectations have very quickly reduced.  Is this however another result of defeat or a contributing factor to it, or both?

Averages can obscure because it is precisely the unequal incidence of the effects of capitalist crisis that can have decisive political effects.

Unemployment has increased dramatically but its incidence is not uniform.  Employment in construction has collapsed, from 258,000 at the start of 2008 to 102,000 at the end of 2012, a fall of over 60 per cent.  Over the same period employment in the state sector fell from 417,000 to 381,000, a fall of 8.6 per cent.  The pitting of private sector workers against those in the public sector was a clear strategy of the Government, the employers and the media and it was quite successful.

But this has not been the only divisive effect of the crisis.  Rates of unemployment among young people in Ireland, just like other countries, have been much higher than the general rate.  In the Irish state the rate of unemployment among those less than 25 years old was 26.6 per cent in April this year while it was 42.5 per cent in Portugal, 56.4 per cent in Spain and 62.5 per cent in Greece.  These are truly staggering figures.  The rate of long term unemployment has increased from 29.2 per cent of total unemployment at the start of 2007 to 45.5 per cent at the end of 2012.  What this should remind us, is that unemployment is a divisive imposition of the effects of capitalist crisis that impacts not only on those without a job but also those in employment.  Emigration has returned and is continuing to increase, up from 87,100 in the year to April 2012 to 89,000 in the year to April 2013.

None of these figures illustrates the hardship caused by tax increases and public expenditure cuts that can affect the most vulnerable the most.  They do not include the effects on people’s experience of negative equity, the full effects of which have yet to hit home.  Here again it is younger people who are more likely to be in negative equity and to be in arrears in their mortgage payments.  And of course the figures do not tell us that the results of the crisis and austerity are to be here for a long time.

Over 32 people were unemployed for each job vacancy in 2012, while the figures for Spain and Portugal were 72.6 and 90.4 respectively.  The General Government Debt as a percentage of GDP was 117.6 per cent in 2012 while the 2012 EU Fiscal Compact stipulates that where this is above 60 per cent it must reduce by 1/20th per year.  In 2012 the in-year Government deficit was 7.5 per cent which means the debt was not getting smaller but getting bigger.  Normally optimistic forecasters are predicting that unemployment, as measured by the International Labour Organisation methodology, was only to reduce from 14.7 per cent in 2012 to 13.9 per cent in 2014.

So what are we to make of all these figures?

The fall in living standards has been significant even if not so sudden or large for some sectors of society as others and not on the same scale as some other countries such as Greece.  Certainly the disproportionate effects on young people and rise in emigration have blunted resistance but these factors exist on the same or greater scale in some other countries in Southern Europe where resistance has been greater.

It is not therefore the effects of the crisis themselves that explain the response even if these act to weaken certain social and political reactions.  The left wing economist Michael Taft has claimed that the ‘squeezed middle’, the 4th to 8th deciles of income earners, suffered declines in direct income in the five years leading up to the crash, gaining only as a result of social transfers.

During the boom the level of trade union organisation fell relatively as union density dropped from 46 per cent of the workforce in 1994 to less than a third in 2007, and only 16 per cent in the private sector.

Thus even during the most favourable circumstances, when workers are best placed to protect and advance their living standards, they were unable to do so with their own strength.  During recession such weakness is exposed.

Now they are subject to the vicious laws of the capitalist market and, as we said in the first post, short of overturning the system there is a limited amount workers can do about this without challenging the system itself.

During this post I have said that workers have not resisted austerity but in truth the great mass of unemployment, insecurity caused by mortgage arrears and negative equity, and the drop in personal consumption are not so much the result of the austerity policies of the Government, which of course have made things worse, but of the capitalist crisis.  This crisis can in certain circumstances be postponed or ameliorated by the State but it cannot be suppressed and certainly not by a State in bankruptcy.

When even during the boom large number of workers dependency on this state increased rather reduced and rather than their developing their own independent power, it can be little surprise that when the state turns round and kicks them in the teeth they are unprepared.

Some socialists argued again and again during the boom that social partnership, the vehicle by which the Irish trade unions hitched themselves to the State, was to be opposed not mainly because it prevented workers making gains in their living standards that they should but because it rotted away their independent organisation.  This has not just organisational consequences but political and ideological ones and it is to these that I need to look at next.

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