In 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.