Reforming the Northern Ireland Economy – A job for the State

No_Entry_to_Joy_Street_in_Belfast,_Northern_Ireland,_1974The following two articles originally appeared in the newspaper of the Irish Socialist Network.


Northern Ireland got a new Finance Minister in August, Simon Hamilton from the DUP, and he made a bit of a splash in his first major speech.

He noted the well known facts that around one third of the workforce is in the public sector and two thirds of economic output is in the State’s hands.  However, instead of simply deploring these figures and blaming an inefficient and bloated public sector he said that the public sector can help the economy grow and not simply hold it back.  He said that what was needed was a reformed public sector that was more efficient.  And who could disagree with that?

Let’s skip for the moment what he means by reform and efficiency.  Surely socialists are in favour of reforms and efficiency? Aren’t we?

Well, the answer has to be yes.  Socialists are in favour of change.  In fact we want so much change that this requires not only reforms, not only radical change, but revolutionary change.  Of course we know the DUP aren’t advocating this but that doesn’t mean we don’t welcome change that involves genuine reform that, for example, improves efficiency.  And yes, we are in favour of increased efficiency.

In fact we are socialists because we believe a socialist society is a higher form of society than capitalism and is higher because, among many other things, it is more efficient.  Such efficiency could eliminate the need for unnecessary work, reduce the burden of work that does need to be done and create enough wealth so that poverty is eliminated and everyone has a standard of living that can satisfy our reasonable needs.

Simon Hamilton also said that he is in favour of alternative models of service delivery – like mutuals, cooperatives and social enterprises.  In other words public sector organisations or companies run or owned by the people who work in them.  What could be more socialist than firms or state bodies owned and controlled by workers?

Some might think this is a very naive approach to what Simon Hamilton is saying.  Surely he isn’t advocating the sort of reforms we would want?  Since when did the DUP become socialist and advocate workers’ ownership as a solution to economic underdevelopment?

Well there is a reason for the above approach and we can appreciate this reason when we compare it to the reaction of the trade unions to his speech.

I got a copy of the speech through a circular by my trade union NIPSA.  The letter from the General Secretary of NIPSA, Brian Campfield, noted the references to different models of public service delivery but said only that the view of NIPSA is that these would be detrimental to the interests of the union’s members and to the general community.

Of course Hamilton referred not only to cooperatives but also to ‘partnering with the private sector’, which is code for privatisation.  (You see! I’m not so naive!)  But this is only part of the story and not the most important part either.

Sticking only to the question of privatisation, which of course we should vigorously oppose, presents only a negative answer.  When our class enemies propose change our answer isn’t that things should stay as they are, but just be funded better.  We don’t defend the current state – or public sector as many call it – we want it changed just as much as we want the private sector changed.  We want the whole capitalist system changed, not just big private corporations but the bureaucratic state that supports and defends the corporations.

Socialists don’t look at the current state as a model for socialism. It’s bureaucratic and undemocratic.  I’ve worked in various bits of it for nearly 30 years and I haven’t had any meaningful say about how I do my work in all that time.  I have a boss, in fact I have loads of bosses, and I don’t have any say over who they are or what decisions they make.  How could this be any sort of socialism?

Socialists are socialists not only because are we against the present set-up but because we actually have an alternative – something positive to say.   So when the DUP says the present state is in need of change the first thing we should say is yes – and here is what it should look like.

It is much easier to be against things but much harder to say what you are for; even harder to explain what the alternative is and harder again to put it into practice.  That’s why when we see an opportunity to say we have an alternative and explain what it is we should grab it.

Part of the current weakness of socialism is that we, like the majority of people, are against how things currently are – with unemployment, inequality, crap jobs and the stress of everyday life – but we haven’t fought for the socialist answer that demonstrates the alternative.

Instead socialists have often been seen as defenders of the status quo – opposing privatisation but not offering any alternative to how the state delivers services, except to demand that it gets more money to do it.  Instead we are often seen as demanding solutions that don’t offer any radical change to the present system.  A better funded and bigger state is often how our alternative is presented, not just by our enemies but by ourselves!

The economy in the North of Ireland is well know as a bit of a basket case and the big size of the state sector is not the cause of it but is an expression of it.  This is also pretty well known by many.  It should be a big clue that a big state is not the answer.

Simon Hamilton thinks the public sector can be a vehicle for changing this situation and ironically the trade unions agree with him.  They just have slightly different ideas about how this can be done.

Socialist don’t agree with this and so don’t agree with Simon Hamilton or the standard trade union view.  In my next article I’ll explain this a bit more by looking at what else Hamilton said in his speech and what the standard left response has been.


When the new Finance Minister in the North said that the public sector could be a vehicle for developing the North’s economy, instead of being simply a drag, this was welcomed.  But with suspicion that this might mean privatisation.  There was also concern that he was continuing to boast of his party’s record of supporting low taxation.  In response the NEVIN economic think tank, sponsored by the trade unions, called for adequate levels of taxation; that is it was calling for increases in taxes.

What attitude should socialists take to this argument?

First of all we should recognise that states all over the world have involved themselves in promoting economic development, some more successfully than others.  Nationalists of all types are in favour of the nation state promoting its own economy in competition with other states.  For much of the last century this type of political programme was held up as ‘national liberation’. More and more state ownership was and still is presented as socialism.

It is very hard to see how the Northern state could ever be one of the successes.  State led economic development elsewhere has been successful to a point but the Northern State is dysfunctional.  Behind the rhetoric what is being proposed is not state led development but state enablement and facilitation of growth, but it is doubtful if the Northern State could even make progress with this.  Instead it will at best be reduced to attempting to lower taxes and entice a few footloose multinational companies to invest, based on a bucket of state hand-outs.

How desperate this has become was illustrated at the beginning of October when £3.3 million was given to a call centre company to promote nearly 1,000 jobs.  Half already existed, no capital investment was being made by the company and it had previously closed in Derry two years ago with the loss of 1,000 jobs.

The Northern Ireland Assembly hardly meets, it discusses things it can do nothing about and hasn’t a clue about what to do about things it can influence.  The Executive meets but has nothing to talk about since the DUP and Sinn Fein can agree nothing except to give hand-outs to multinationals.  But state led economic development requires much more than this.

It is doubtful if this is understood.  The DUP is a party of small businessmen who see the state and taxation purely as red tape and expense.  The need for the state to provide high class infrastructure and a well-educated and healthy workforce is all far removed from their immediate concerns with ‘how much tax do I have to pay?’

However a recent report by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development records that in Northern Ireland (and England), 16 to 24-year-olds scored  266 on average in a literacy test, which put them third from bottom in a 24-nation league table.  In numeracy, 16 to 24-year-olds scored 257 – putting them fourth from the bottom.

Sinn Fein thinks the economy would be great if there were only one Irish economy rather than two but there is not even an inkling that a united economic state might result in benefits for the larger Southern bit to the detriment of the smaller Northern bit.  It’s called uneven development.

A policy of relying on the state in the north for economic development looks hopelessly improbable not least because the state hasn’t been able to modernise itself never mind anything else.  The new minister, Simon Hamilton, announced the creation of a new Public Sector Reform Division but there is no strategy.

It is recognised that innovation comes from people but in his speech all he can do is ask the question – “and how do we motivate our public servants and unlock their ability to innovate?”

Don’t expect an answer.  Workers won’t get paid any more and they won’t be trusted with ownership or control over their own workplace or job.  And if you’re not trusted to control your own job how could you be trusted to make truly transformative changes to society?

One ideological supporter of capitalism once wrote a book with the interesting title ‘Why most things Fail’.  It noted that most companies fail sooner or later.  While the capitalist state will accept that this or that capitalist enterprises can fail there is one capitalist undertaking that cannot be allowed to fail, ever, because it protects the rest.  That is the state itself. Only the most trustworthy can be entrusted with state power which is why the DUP and Sinn Fein don’t really have it.  What they have are the powers of a glorified council and they don’t even exercise the powers they have.

If workers were really to be given the power to develop a new economy there would still be many failures but the powers unleashed would ultimately lead to a new society.

This however isn’t the model of state economic development on offer or championed by any nationalist party.

The Northern state has failed but unfortunately for Sinn Fein so has the Southern State.  The nature of the capitalist state everywhere is that it cannot give workers the autonomy or freedom to take risks, innovate and try to change society, for example by promoting workers’ cooperatives.  Such economic power might sooner or later form the basis of a rival political power.

In other words state led economic development is nothing to do with socialism, which is the power of the working class.  And ‘national liberation’ tells us that the key problem is liberating a state in the oppressed nation instead of liberating the working class of the oppressed nation from the state – foreign and domestic.

This means workers have no interest in supporting many of the measures usually associated with such a programme, including tax increases, which will inevitably hit them hardest, or supporting local industry against foreign as if it was somehow ‘ours’.  Socialism is not the growth of the existing state or its accretion of more and more powers.

Simon Hamilton’s proposals on privatisation are widely recognised as bad news but the bureaucratic state is not the alternative.  If the Northern economy shows one thing it shows this.

Employee ownership and capitalism

{3E6643C4-0E2F-4C4C-B00C-DB42B68D2316}Img100Beyond the Corporation: Humanity Working, David Erdal, The Bodley Head, London, 2011.

The author of this book has an unusual pedigree.  He was born into a family which owned its own business from the year Charles Darwin was born, in 1809.  As a child he did not lack for money and joined the firm in 1977, at which time 1,500 people were employed in the company.  In 1985 he became its effective Chief Executive Officer.  In between he had led a rather different life, getting a job as an unskilled labourer on a London building site after leaving university

Through this real life experience he leant what thousands of Professors of economics are not – that it is employee’s work that creates wealth – and that the key to a company’s performance is leadership and commitment; leadership and commitment from everyone in the organisation.  That leadership is important should be readily understood by socialists.

He is therefore a strong advocate of employee ownership and the book presents his own experience of turning his family business into a workers’ cooperative and his own views on the benefits of such ownership.  He notes that because workers are so used to being ignored and exploited even the most minimal change, such as being allowed to own shares in the company, have positive effects in boosting productivity and performance.  He also notes however that such schemes transfer no real influence.  He is therefore clear that what is necessary is ownership because without ownership there is no real control.

Employee owned businesses do better because their workers are better trained, contribute more to the business and are more adaptable to change.  They generally do not suffer from underinvestment, do not lack ‘entrepreneurial’ spirit and do not exhibit shirking as workers monitor each other’s work effort.  Academic studies show them to be more productive and, while business problems are not solved by employee ownership in itself, or prevent strategic mistakes that may threaten the company’s existence, employee ownership will help the company survive longer.  If you own something you will look after it better.

He contrasts this with the views of traditional economists who, with no evidence, in fact against the evidence, claim that employee ownership will witness workers extract cash at the expense of the long term health of the business, take too long to make decisions, will see them avoid difficult decisions and witness the performance of  their business decline

In contrast he claims that the participation of everyone in decision making, and everyone being equally affected by the decisions made, makes for better decisions.

In his quest to turn the family company into a workers’ cooperative he was repeatedly told by finance advisors and other professionals that this was not a good idea.  The Market is always right – by definition.

He quotes one supporter of employee ownership who complains that workers normally have none of the rights associated with ownership, such as information, participation and control, and that while capitalism is good at creating capital, it is lousy at creating capitalists.

The view that cooperatives make capitalists of workers is one also heard from trade unions and argued as a reason to oppose workers’ ownership.  The author provides many examples of real employee ownership where workers have struggled with issues of productivity and competitiveness and where jobs have had to be cut because of threats of wholesale closure.

However the view that the Market is inimical to workers’ cooperatives is interesting because  in strict logic this is obviously not the case while it is also not the view most widespread on the Left, which is that workers’ cooperatives are simply not an alternative to capitalism because the market does not disappear and therefore capitalism does not disappear.

But it is not at all that simple and the hostility of some defenders of the market to worker owned companies is perfectly rational.

Irrespective of this the author notes that every generation throws up experiments with workers’ ownership but that most often this is not the result of the initiative of the workers themselves but arises from existing owners, from unusual individuals who stand against prevailing orthodoxy.  Who, from ideals of fairness, from appreciation of the contribution made to the company by workers, or realisation that the company can do better under their ownership, seek to transform ownership of their business.

Among the many issues arising from the idea of employee ownership, access to finance is often held up as the insuperable barrier to a business owned by those who work in it.  However the author notes that millions of small businesses do get access to finance, that most companies finance themselves from their own resources or can get started on the basis of the business itself, with funding based on sound business plans or backed by existing assets.  Or, in the case of the Mondragon cooperative in the Basque country, the workers can set up their own bank to finance their other cooperative initiatives.

This he contrasts favourably with the massive funding of mergers and acquisitions by private companies, which have a consistent record of failure, and the funding of property and other asset bubbles.  Mainstream dismissals of the viability and efficiency of workers’ cooperatives ignore the actual history and experience of capitalism as opposed to the mythical equilibrium properties of mathematical models of the market that exist nowhere outside of the models.

The massive increase of executive pay is ridiculed as an example that explodes the glib justifications of the market – that high pay for those at the top is simply the outcome of the interplay of supply and demand.  The demand for executives has not increased exponentially in line with pay but demand, fuelled by the cult of the capitalist exhibited in the growth of business schools and the MBA, alongside TV programmes such as ‘Dragon’s Den’ and ‘The Apprentice’, has seen supply multiply.  So why has the price risen?

Even if it could be argued that the demand for executives lies behind massive increased remuneration (to use the prevailing argot) the market is then supposed to increase supply to drive down prices to an efficient level.  Why hasn’t it?  Is it not working or is it rather that this is not how it actually works?

In the race to justify the rampant growth of inequality we now read about the ‘winner-takes-all’ society, which states baldly that market competition rewards those who win not those who come second or third or the rest.  The problem with this of course is that it is contradicted by the reality in which executive failure is still handsomely rewarded.  More worryingly for its proponents it contradicts the claim that the market rewards efficiency and is fair even minimally.

The author rejects many of the fashionable corporate claims.  For him employee ownership makes companies work better and their workers lead happier lives.  The contract of employment, which a worker signs, removes his right to his own product and pretends that he or she is a thing that can be rented.  Through case studies he argues that ownership make workers feel different – just as capitalism says it is supposed to!  But, he asks, why should such an effect be restricted to a few?

He has had enough experience to acknowledge the difficulties, not just of creating cooperatives but of running them.  How do you ensure workers’ actual as opposed to nominal participation and how do you deal with sometimes unrealistic expectations?  How do you overcome apathy among the workers?  After all, it is necessary not just to limit and control power exercised at the top but also necessary to ensure that it is wielded to effect at the bottom.

He addresses these questions and gives some practical answers, such as ownership being held collectively and not individually by particular workers.  This, he claims, has been the mechanism that ensures longevity of cooperative enterprises and obstructs private capital inserting itself and gaining control.  He acknowledges however that there is no obvious answer to what he calls the corporate governance problem.

It is exactly this question that is addressed by this recent blog post.  It is also only a Marxist approach that can address some of the apparently incongruous workings of capitalism that the author points up, such as why does it limit ownership of capital and not spread it around?

For a Marxist the obvious reason that capitalism does not encourage workers’ ownership is that by restricting such ownership capital compels workers to sell their labour power to those that do own capital and impels them to work on their behalf.  If all production was owned by workers then clearly an individual capitalist would be unable to compel anyone to work for them.

If all production was owned by the workers then equally clearly such production would be geared to what the workers wanted to produce and not to what capitalists believe would make them the most profit.  On both accounts production for profit would end.  Capitalists could find no one to provide the unpaid labour on which profit is based and the enterprises owned by the workers would have no incentive to pursue wasteful or aggressive competition aimed at forcing other enterprises out of business.  In fact they would have every incentive to collaborate in order produce in a way that met their collective needs.

When ownership becomes collective workers will feel differently but this simply demonstrates the truth of Marx’s claim that capital is not a thing but a relationship between capitalists and workers in which the unpaid labour of the latter expands the capital belonging to the former.  When workers own all the so-called capital it ceases to be a relationship between an owner and a worker, between an exploiter and exploited, and ceases to be capital.  When ‘capital’ is owned by everyone it ceases to be owned by anyone in particular so ceases to be capital.  This is why, unrealised by the author, the extension of workers ownership would spell not the expansion of capitalism but its ending.

Again and again the author reflects on how difficult it can sometimes be to get workers to think and act as owners of the enterprises they work in.   For Marxists this is indeed a big problem and is what we mean by saying that we need a revolution to change things, including changing the workers themselves.  Because a revolution is about transforming the lives of the working majority, which they can only do themselves, this includes transforming the vast amount of their lives they spend at work.  Probably unlike the author, we believe there are all sorts of obstacles and impediments put in workers way to gaining control of production, impediments that require workers taking political action to remove.

Production is only one aspect of how society works and attempting to take control of it requires ultimately taking control of the rest of society as well.  Taking control of society as a whole also reinforces the activity of workers control within the workplace.  It is also the Marxist case that ultimately no permanent and stable workers ownership or control can succeed unless the workers also control the state to defend such ownership.

There is therefore a real contradiction between workers cooperatives and capitalism, pace the author of this book, and equally no contradiction between cooperative production and revolution, pace the left opponents of workers’ ownership.

To be continued

Why have the Irish not revolted? Part IV

gustave_dore_fourth_circle_dante_infernoIn much of Europe the workers movement developed in the latter half of the 19th century and first half of the 20th through industrialisation, the growth of trade unions and socialist parties and the radicalisation caused by two world wars, in particular by the first.  The socialist movement often led the struggle for democratic rights and freedoms and gained support as a result.

The Irish experience has been different, leading to a working class with a lower level of class consciousness.  While Ireland started to industrialise early it was thrown back by the development of superior industrial development in Britain.  What industrialisation did occur was small and mainly concentrated in the north east of the country.  Defeat and brutal repression of Ireland’s bourgeois revolution in 1798 led to a bitterly divided working class with the most extreme reactionary ideology dominating the most advanced industrial area.

The land question was denuded of its radical potential by this counter revolution and by the effects of the catastrophic famine in the middle of the19th century when, in a population of over 8 million, around a million died and a million emigrated and the population began a decline that did not reverse until the 1970s.  The number of agricultural labourers fell by 700,000 from 1845 to the early twentieth century, the number of small farmers was halved and the cottier class almost wiped out.  All this could only but weaken the potential base for a radicalised land movement.

The result of all this was that when the national movement erupted in the first decades of the twentieth century in a battle for an independent state it was dominated by middle class revolutionaries who subordinated workers’ interests with the demand that ‘labour must wait’, which has been pretty much the policy of Irish republicanism since.

The new truncated statelet these most conservative of revolutionaries created was dominated by the same economic subordination as that which preceded nominal independence, resulting in economic growth after foundation of the new state at very much the same rate as before its creation; and a polity not much different than before except for the role of the new Irish bourgeoisie that often proclaimed its Catholicism more than its nationality.

The working class in its majority never broke from this political class and the socialist movement has been small and peripheral.  The Second World War passed the Irish State by and during the 1950s emigration was higher relatively than it had been almost 100 years earlier, sapping all social classes of vitality and energy.

The Irish State caught the tail end of the world-wide post war economic boom and the workforce in industry increased from 259,000 in 1961 to 363,000 in 1981.  Overall however there was little increase as the numbers employed as agriculture continued to decline.  This growth in the working class led to some limited revival in socialism reflected in the Labour Party claiming ‘the 70s will be socialist’ before that decade came and went  and republicanism being genuinely influenced by socialist ideas, although of a Stalinist-type that did not offer any real alternative.

This period saw a large growth in the number of strikes so that at one point the Irish State had the highest number in Europe (see below).


It also witnessed huge demonstrations against the high taxes imposed by the State on the working class, which amounted to 87 per cent of all income taxes in 1978. In 1979 over 150,000 workers demonstrated in Dublin with many thousands in thirty other towns including 40,000 in Cork.

At this point the Irish State’s model of economic development began to collapse. World-wide economic crisis, a weakening of foreign investment and bankruptcy of indigenous industry led to massive unemployment, renewed emigration and a ballooning State debt.  That the Irish working class and small socialist movement were unable to offer an alternative to the resulting capitalist restructuring and political offensive should not surprise.  There was no successful resistance and alternative created anywhere else.

The defeat of the tax struggles in the late seventies and early eighties and the inability to take advantage of ruling class political disarray, evidenced by repeated general elections in the first few years of the decade, plus the mass unemployment and emigration during the decade, weakened the working class both materially and politically.  The graph of strike activity above clearly shows a steep decline from the 1970s from which there has been no recovery.  It was in these circumstances that social partnership was imposed in the late 1980s.

Partnership signalled the move away from bargaining with the employers and State through militant action and acceptance that when the solvency of the State was in question this took priority.  Beginning in 1987 a series of deals were negotiated that meant accepting major cuts in pay and state services in order to reduce the massive State debt.  The parallels with today are obvious.

There was resistance to social partnership but it came in its most militant form from outside the trade unions and the trade union leaders were decisive in its relatively smooth introduction.  This defeat of militant workers action and acceptance of the prerogatives of capitalism was, as we have said, not at all unique to Ireland.

Across the world the ability and willingness of the working class to fight back in defence of its interests was set back.  Strike statistics are only the most graphic measure of this development.  Taking 42 countries and looking at the period between 1981-85 and 1996-2000 the number of countries in which strikes increased was 8 while there were 34 countries in which they declined.  In the group of countries in which strikes had risen the increase was only 5,183 while the reduction in strike numbers was 63,657 in the group of countries in which there was a decline.

In the Irish State the annual number of days lost in strikes fell from over 580,000 in the 1970s to 26,650 in 2005.  In the latter year there were only 15 strikes and only 10 in 2006, in which only 7,352 working days were lost, the lowest since records began in 1923.  In 2007, the last year of the boom, there were only 6.

As a percentage of the employed workforce trade union membership fell from 56.2% in 1987 to 42% in 1998.  Separate figures record a reduction from 46% in 1994 to 35% in 2004 while the Irish Congress of Trade Unions has admitted that density continued to fall, being lowest among young workers.  Where unions did exist member participation dropped and some of the features of bureaucratisation long normal at higher levels of trade unions infected union representatives further down the ranks.

All this occurred during an unprecedented boom in the economy, the period of the Celtic Tiger, when GDP growth ranged between 7.8% and 11.5% from 1995 to 2000 and between 4.4% and 6.5% from 2001 to 2007.  From 1990 to 2007 total employment grew from 1.160m to 2.112m, an increase of over 80%.  While incomes fell during the 1980s they grew rapidly during the Celtic Tiger.  The historical working class was recreated in many ways as a result of rapid economic growth both quantitatively as a result of falling unemployment, immigration and increased labour force participation rates and qualitatively as a result of the increased employment of women (whose number grew by over 125% from 1990 to 2007) and an influx of foreign workers.

The Irish working class was recreated as a result of a boom fuelled primarily by foreign investment, which excluded unions from its workplaces, increasing corporatism and bureaucratisation of the unions that did exist.  This within a world in which the historic goals of the working class movement – from progressive reform of the capitalist system to the view that it could be replaced – was increasingly discredited through the fall of Stalinism and defeat and retreat of workers struggles and the claims of social democracy.

The boom saw no political strengthening of the workers’ movement even as unemployment fell and the class objectively, at least in numbers, grew enormously.  As we said at the end of Part 3 capitalism is a revolutionary mode of production that recreates the working class.  In the Irish State it did so in a way and in circumstances that did nothing to overcome the historic political weaknesses of the class.  Indeed the trade unions became weaker as they bought into social partnership and the view that the interests of workers, State and bosses were best aligned.  Even the historic nationalist politics that has been hegemonic became encapsulated in the need to have a low corporation tax for US multinationals.

Lack of a strategic alternative, among other things, brought about defeat of the large struggles of the 1970s.  Unemployment, emigration and prolonged economic crisis brought an assault by the State on working class living standards and did so in such a way that it survived, even prospered, when the economy recovered and entered into a boom.  Social partnership sold the working class into sacrifices to bail out the State from bankruptcy and made the workers subordinate even when the boom gave them the conditions in which they could have recovered their strength and learnt to advance their own interests.  Instead, in so far as social partnership was later abandoned it was abandoned by the State.

The nationalist politics of the working class, the partnership with the state and the agreement of workers to sacrifice themselves on its alter came together in the reluctant acceptance of workers that they must bail out the banks and accept austerity when the economic crisis finally broke.  This dependence on the State can be seen in two other ways.

In Part 2 we noted that 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.  Social partnership involved a deal between the trade union leaders and the State/bosses in which workers refrained from industrial action and accepted lower than potential pay rises in favour of tax cuts.  This was not just the case in the final years of the boom but was the line pushed almost from the start – a policy that became more and more explicit as the partnership deals were negotiated.

Thus not only did the workers movement become denuded of any militant initiative but it became more and more dependent on the state, and this was true not only of public sector workers but of workers in the private sector as well.  Gross average industrial earnings grew by 25% in real terms in the 15 years between 1987 and 2000 but take home pay rose by 60% for a single person and 58% for married because taxation was cut.

Mainstream economists, in 2000, also reckoned that these tax cuts were regressive because they were largely achieved through reductions in tax rates, which favoured those on higher incomes.   It is well known that the State became excessively reliant on revenues from a credit boom but what this shows is that social partnership, and the whole strategy of the trade union leaders, was just as reliant.  But really, how could it be otherwise?

The second way this dependence increased can be seen in the simple growth of the state itself, true in all countries and not just of Ireland.  ‘The Economist’ reported that the average size of the state had grown from 12.7% of GDP in 1913 to 47.7% in 2009.  Even in the UK after decades of Thatcher and New Labour the size of the state remained around 44% from 1980 to 2005.  This translates into widespread and increasing dependence of the population on the state, which has become the supposed solution to every and all sorts of problems.

Such massive growth could not fail to have deep impacts on society at the ideological level and the ruling ideas that infect the working class.  Neoliberalism hasn’t done away with the State and neither has it weakened illusions in it.  The Irish State now presides over the world’s biggest property company (NAMA) after private capital made a mess of it.  The State is now the means by which the debts created by this private capital are made good by the working and middle class.

One business journalist has quantified some of the ways in which this dependency is transmitted:

“Irish Budget 2014: Half of Ireland’s population is on welfare and when recipients of child benefit, farmers dependent on public subsidies which are effectively welfare, accounting for 81% of average farm income in 2012; legal services costing the state about a half billion euros annually; public payments to doctors; a raft of corporate welfare schemes and the public service itself, at least while Karl Marx is likely to be disappointed that a few remnants of the failed communism experiment only remain, in Ireland there is a shining example of the halfway house known as socialism or to put it in non-ideological terms, dependency on the State.”

As we can see, he paints the growth of the capitalist state as somehow a practical example the ideas of Marx, and who can blame him?  It’s the view of most of the Left as well, who constantly call not on the working class to solve its own oppression but for the state to do it for them.

The journalist gives a host of facts that demonstrate the growth of dependency on the state -from the growth of social welfare expenditure from €9.5m in 2002 to €15.5m in 2007 when the crash came and to €20.7m in 2012.  The number of social welfare beneficiaries rose from 1.5m in 2002 to 1.6m in 2007 and 2.3m in 2012.  Of these 486,000 were on the Live Register.

He notes the increased number holding medical cards; the direct subsidies to private industry and agriculture – mostly to the biggest operators; the tax breaks for business and the direct procurement of goods and services from private capital.

However the bottom line with the austerity offensive is that the Irish State became bankrupt and could not afford to continue this, so introducing harsh cuts and tax increases.  The question we have sought to address is why Irish workers have not resisted, or resisted so little and to so little effect.

We have seen numerous reasons for this – from the historic weakness of the class; the recreation of such weakness in the defeats of the last few decades; international developments that have demonstrated the hardly unique character of the experience of Irish workers in this respect, and the particular role of trade union and political leaders, which again is far from unique to Ireland.  Only a few weeks ago I listened on the radio while a professor of economics in Madrid noted that commentators in Spain were wondering why Spanish workers were not reacting more angrily to austerity compared to their Portuguese neighbours.

The experience of Irish workers reflects the weakness of indigenous capitalism which the growth of foreign direct investment has not significantly altered.  The latter has only reinforced the weakness of Irish workers – they have hardly even attempted to unionise in the multinational sector and appear to have bought into the view that they must live through nine circles of hell before the proud Irish race will ever succumb to a headline corporation tax rate higher than 12.5 per cent.

Finally we have seen the very direct dependency of so many on the State that has just bankrupted itself bailing out the banks.  Unable to stop them doing so, in fact not even being asked if they agreed, and fed crap about the ‘cheapest bailout in history’, the working class was left with a choice – bail out the state it depended on for jobs and welfare or default when the only people in place who could carry out this policy was the same State that was demanding they pay up.  Without a mechanism to enforce default, even if that is what they wanted, and without an economic and political power base outside of dependency on the State, the choice was pretty clear, even if there could have been struggles that could have made it messy.

Put simply – how could workers tell the State to get stuffed when it relied on it so much?  The Left has peddled nonsense that the State can be made a means to redistribute wealth such that only the rich pay for capitalist crises but the workers haven’t bought this and some of the Left that calls itself Marxist is not actually supposed to believe it either.

The defeat inflicted on workers in the last five years should cause a rethink.  Renewed declarations of faith will not do.