Can Ulster Unionism be left wing?

Flags of the Left?

In this week’s Belfast nationalist paper ‘the Irish News’ their regular columnist Brian Feeney put forward the claim that Protestant unionist workers had been duped into believing that being left wing was also to be ‘disloyal’.  Presumably these workers can therefore be left wing and ‘loyal’.   Indeed this is the thinking behind recent proposals within the United Left Alliance to build a “new mass working-class party in Northern Ireland to unite the working class against sectarian division and against the right-wing austerity of the Assembly Executive.”

An obvious objection to the ULA proposal is that it claims to stand for workers unity while accepting the division of workers created by partition.  The only way this can be justified is by accepting unionist claims that such workers unity should not exist.

A smarter unionist might claim that the unity of Irish workers would break the unity of the workers in Northern Ireland with those in Britain.  The problem of course is that Irish workers unity is sacrificed for a unity that does not exist.  There is in reality no genuine UK workers unity because most British workers regard those from Belfast, Derry and Enniskillen as Irish.  No carnival of reaction predicted before, and confirmed afterwards, by partition is likely upon the separation of the North of Ireland from Britain.

So we are back to the repeated collapse of what often passes for socialism in Ireland before the veto on workers unity demanded by unionism.  If such unionism is inherently and unavoidably reactionary then it is clear that such a veto should be rejected.  It might only be accepted if it could be credibly claimed that Feeney is right – Protestant workers are merely duped into believing that being left wing is also to be ‘disloyal’.

Unfortunately Feeney gives enough examples of the reactionary character of real unionism, as opposed to the pretend hypothetical unionism that at no time and nowhere has existed, to demonstrate that a different sort will never exist.  He records the mass expulsions of Catholic workers from the shipyards by sectarian unionist mobs in 1912 and 1920 when around 2,000 were expelled in the former year and thousands more in the second.  Crucially he also notes that 500 Protestant workers were also expelled in 1912 and 1,800 in 1920.  These were ‘rotten Prods’ who failed to demonstrate their true credentials by not being bigots.

Feeney notes that these Protestant workers refused to put an ‘ethnic’ solidarity, in reality a sectarian solidarity, in front of any other.  Some supporters of the ULA are presumably content that Protestant workers can accept this sectarian solidarity while being ‘left wing’.  If they did not put this sort of sectarian solidarity first then there could in principle be no objection to proposals for the unity of the whole Irish working class.  Proposals within the ULA that avoid this conclusion are in practice accepting that sectarian identity must be accepted and accommodated.  In other words sectarianism must be accepted and accommodated.  Protestations to the contrary can in reality be dismissed.  Political positions have consequences and in this case these are quite clear.

Feeney records the words of Peter Robinson of the DUP that ‘the unionists of Ulster were a distinct people entitled to determine their own future.’  Since the most right wing forces will always be the most vigorous defenders of this position acceptance of it necessarily means acceptance of the leadership of Protestant workers by the most reactionary bigots.

As to the cogency of Robinson’s claims – the unionists of Ulster were happily the unionists of Ireland until they could no longer garrison it all whereupon they then demanded not that they determine their own future but that the imperialist power did.  This then amounted to the seizure of both more than the territory within which they were a comfortable majority and less than would include all the Ulster unionist people they claimed they were.  The character of the movement that expressed this people politically became evident when it came to determining not their own future but that of the large Catholic minority they took with them.  This minority was subject to sectarian pogroms and systematic discrimination for nearly half a century before a civil rights movement exposed the irreformibilty of this unionist movement.

We can go back to Feeney’s claim that Protestant workers have been duped into believing that being left wing is ‘disloyal’.  It is obvious that they have not.  For what is it that unionism claims that there must be loyalty to?  Loyalty to what?  Well – to Queen and country!  To a monarchy and an imperialist power.  To partition and division.  To a state based on a sectarian head count.  To the rights and privileges of Robinson’s ‘distinct people’.

How could you possibly be left wing without being disloyal to all that?

Apologists on the left for capitulation to unionism put forward the final argument that we must accept unionism because the vast majority of Protestant workers are unionists.  In fact it is this very fact that makes opposition to partition absolutely necessary.  Opposition to partition is not necessary despite the unionism of Protestant workers but because of it.  It is not possible to break their commitment to this reactionary political programme without defeating it and it can only be definitively defeated by destroying the state power on which it bases its power.

The state of job creation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Taxing Capitalism

Turner’s ‘The Slave Ship’

A press statement by the United Left Alliance last week, just before the Dail went on its long summer holiday, reported on Richard Boyd Barrett of the ULA who  ‘challenged Taoiseach Enda Kenny during leaders questions over the “gross inequality and unfairness” in the manner in which “the pain of austerity policies has been imposed on the least well-off and most vulnerable sections of Irish society, while the wealthiest people in the country have been protected and in some cases have actually increased their incomes.   All the promises in the programme for government about “protecting the vulnerable and to burden sharing on an equitable basis” have now been fully exposed as hollow. The government have constantly claimed they have no choices, that austerity and pain for ordinary people was a tragic necessity.  Only people power, protests and strikes can challenge this obscene injustice.’

Boyd Barrett is correct to tear into the policies of the government, which favour the rich and places the burden of austerity on the rest of us.  He is absolutely right that this is not inevitable and that there are choices.  Above all he is right to demand taxation of the rich in order to press this home so that workers should not meekly accept that they suffer while the rich escape.

In my last post I criticised the ULA’s tax proposals but not for any of these reasons.  They were criticised for the idea that they could really take the wealth off the rich, that this could fund real protection against austerity, that the rich would not fight back and that the state would not help them do so.  Above all they were criticised because they were put forward as being practical, realistic and reasonable because they could be implemented by the state, when in reality all these things are determined by class struggle against the rich and the state. All the points made by Richard Boyd Barrett can be supported precisely because they are all arguments for and within the class struggle.  While I may disagree that “only people power, protests and strikes can challenge this obscene injustice” this difference is one of strategy to be adopted by workers, which is of a different character than criticism of a policy based on explicit reliance on the state.

In such strategy the excuses that the rich will evade tax would be turned against the state to demonstrate its incapacity to enforce a fair and just tax system as perceive by the majority.  The evasion by the rich would then be held up as a reason to demand expropriation of the source of their wealth and for refusing to pay for austerity in their place.

The policy of taxing the rich is not however what really stands out in the ULA taxation policy.  What stands out is the dog that does not bark, for what is most distinctive about tax policy in the Irish State is not its protection of the wealthy but its policy of minimal taxation of corporate profits.  This is such an article of faith of the political system that there appears almost universal agreement that while children, the sick, elderly and disabled should suffer from austerity the richest corporations in the world should be protected from even the most modest changes to their taxation.  The result is that the taxes paid by them have become voluntary contributions to facilitate the pretence that they are subject to rules and laws like everyone else.  Yet the ULA budget proposals simply note that the policy of taxing multinationals at an effective rate of 4 – 7 per cent has failed to develop a sustainable economy.

Some US multinationals pay even less than this.  Two years ago it was reported that Google paid only 2.4 per cent on non-US earnings that were routed through Ireland to Bermuda.  Apple is a pioneer of a tax strategy called ‘Double Irish with a Dutch Sandwich’ which routes profits through Ireland, the Netherlands and onto the Caribbean.  The deliberate lack of controlled foreign company legislation allows the Irish State to collaborate with notorious tax havens to produce such results.  Microsoft was reported in 2005 to have made a profit of over €682m on its Irish subsidiary and paid no corporation tax at all (as did Symantec between 2004 and 2005).  The company at the heart of this tax structure was based in a solicitor’s office in Dublin.  Facebook has five subsidiaries here but only two are required to publish accounts.

These tax structures and systems are not only used by big corporations but also by the world’s corrupt dictators, its non-resident multimillionaires and its international criminal organisations.  The offshore tax system, which should include the tax-dodging activities in Dublin’s International Financial Services Centre, has been described by Raymond Baker of the Washington Global Financial Integrity organisation as “the ugliest chapter in global economic affairs since slavery.”

This massive tax avoidance is central to the Irish taxation system yet it is ignored.  There are no proposals to raise the headline tax rate, not even for Irish companies many of whom pay no corporation tax either.  No proposals for controlled foreign company legislation, steps to tackle transfer pricing or suggestions to close tax breaks for holding companies.  All the ULA proposals are aimed at individuals not business or corporations. Why?  Why is there no proposal to increase taxation of multinationals?  Or proposals to tax the IFSC through which billions are routed in speculation every year, the sort closely associated with the recent global financial crash?

Perhaps the reason is revealed by the justification given by the Revenue Commissioners for continuing with a policy of encouraging corporations to set up their Headquarters in Ireland even though they recognise many pay no tax.  They justify it on the basis that these companies may increase real investment later.  It is therefore not just fiscal policy that is predicated on minimal corporate taxation but what is laughably called industrial policy, in fact the whole hope of economic growth to get out of the current slump. In essence the reliance on foreign investment is a testament to the continuing failure of native capitalism and a profound expression of its weakness.  On this weakness has rested a weak working class and on it sits a weak left, unable to present a convincing policy of taxing multinationals lest they pack up and leave and add perhaps another 100,000 or so to the ranks of the unemployed.

Would this be the result of an increase in corporate taxation?  The truthful answer is that this would probably depend on how much it increased.  Multinationals locate in Ireland for many reasons including market access to the EU, a relatively skilled and compliant workforce which speaks English and a general pro-business environment.  The left can hardly claim that increased tax will not endanger the location of these multinationals because it cannot credibly claim that it would support the continuation of a pro-business political environment which, among other things, ensures the exclusion of union organisation in most multinational plants.

Instead the ULA concentrates on income taxation and in doing so proposes measures that are radical only quantitatively but not qualitatively, in other words they are not in themselves socialist measures.  Proposals for increased taxation of the rich have to some degree gone mainstream, supported even by millionaires, conscious of the need to fund their state.  A financial transaction tax has been supported by Bill Gates and increased income tax by billionaires Warren Buffett and George Soros.  Of course the support of the rich for increased taxation goes nowhere near where the ULA would go.  It should however also not be forgotten that in Ireland as recently as the 1980s there was a marginal tax rate including PRSI of 72.5 per cent. In the US during the cold war a tax rate for income ranged up to 92 per cent and was still as high as 70 per cent in 1980.

In other words taxation does not get to the heart of the matter and the way in which it does not was explained by Karl Marx in his ‘Critique of the Gotha Programme’:

“it was in general a mistake to make a fuss about so-called distribution and put the principal stress on it.  Any distribution whatever of the means of consumption is only a consequence of the distribution of the conditions of production themselves. The latter distribution, however, is a feature of the mode of production itself. The capitalist mode of production, for example, rests on the fact that the material conditions of production are in the hands of nonworkers in the form of property in capital and land, while the masses are only owners of the personal condition of production, of labour power. If the elements of production are so distributed, then the present-day distribution of the means of consumption results automatically. If the material conditions of production are the co-operative property of the workers themselves, then there likewise results a distribution of the means of consumption different from the present one. Vulgar socialism (and from it in turn a section of the democrats) has taken over from the bourgeois economists the consideration and treatment of distribution as independent of the mode of production and hence the presentation of socialism as turning principally on distribution. After the real relation has long been made clear, why retrogress again?”

What matters fundamentally then is the mode of production.  The ULA concentrated in its budget statement on measures purely to do with distribution.  It did however raise the question of production and the way it did it will be looked at in the next post.

 

Taxing the Rich

In its 2011 budget statement the United Left Alliance (ULA) pointed out that while unemployment and taxation of workers had gone up, net financial assets of households had increased by €45 billion between 2008 and 2010, which meant that while many workers’ living standards were taking a hammering the wealthy in society were actually getting richer.  They therefore called “for a radical shift in taxation policy so that those with the real wealth pay according to their ability to pay.”

We all know the arguments against such a policy – higher tax rates, especially for those at the top, will discourage work, investment and business creation.  It would be tempting to dismiss such arguments except that Marxists believe that it is profits that regulate the operation and performance of the economy.  Surely reducing the returns to profitability would reduce capital accumulation and economic growth?

Research has shown however that the massive reduction in top tax rates in the English speaking world has not led to improved economic grow compared to countries without similar tax cuts.  The reduction of top tax rates, which were over 70 per cent in the 1970s, by over 40 percentage points in the US and UK has not witnessed any more impressive growth there than countries which have not reduced the rates by such enormous amounts.

This could be because high tax rates are not  the disincentive claimed, that those affected are often not capitalists, that most profits are reinvested and not subject to income tax anyway, and that profits are determined by much stronger and more fundamental forces than taxation of individuals or taxation in general.  Many people believe that those earning astronomical amounts of money simply want more of it because they are greedy, obscenely status conscious and engaged in grotesque exhibitions of conspicuous consumption.

The ULA has put forward plans to raise taxation on the rich in order to “use the money for a state funded programme of job creation.”  They state that the top 5 per cent hold 46.8 per cent of all wealth and have total net financial assets of €219.3 billion.  These figures are taken from Credit Suisse ‘Global Wealth Report’ in November 2011.  Elsewhere they quote a figure from the Central Statistics Office which estimates total net financial assets of €117 billion in 2010. If we assume non-financial assets (property) as 53 per cent of the total this would give a total wealth of €249 billion and that of the top 5 per cent at around €117 billion, over €100 billion less than they calculate from the Credit Suisse report.

It should be kept in mind that all economic statistics are estimates and subject to all sorts of errors.  One thing they are not is exactly right.  The Central Statistics Office has revised its GDP figure for last year by €2.6 billion while the Department of Finance double counted and found itself €3 billion better off.  How much more is this the case when the very rich seek to hide as much of their wealth as possible, which varies as the various markets go up and down, including the stock markets and currency markets. Looking at the Credit Suisse report I calculate the wealth of the top 5 per cent at ‘only’ €185.7 billion instead of €219.3 billion.

One more check available that I am aware of is to look at the ‘Wealth of Ireland’ report published in 2007 which recorded it at the height of the boom.  If we assume a fall in property prices of 50 per cent and its estimate of the share of the top 5 per cent at 40 per cent we arrive at a figure of almost €206 billion.  This however excludes the fall in value of shares, which dropped by 47 per cent between September 2007 and November 2010.  If we assume that equities were 40 per cent of financial assets the value of wealth becomes €188 billion.  This discussion only goes to show the uncertainty involved.  We will therefore go with the ULA budget statement number of €219.3 billion without any illusion that it is exactly right.

The ULA proposes an annual wealth tax of 5 per cent which would bring in roughly €10 billion a year (219.3 times 5%).  It also proposes that those earning over €100,000 should have their taxes increased.  These people, it says, have a total income of €20 billion and paid €4.86 billion in income tax.  This should be increased by a further €5 billion.  The ULA also sets a target of an additional €2 billion to be taken from the super-rich tax exiles.  Thus an extra €17 billion would be raised per year which, allied with refusal to pay for the bank debt, would be used to reverse cuts in social welfare, abolish the Universal Social Charge, increase tax credits for workers and reverse cuts in health and education etc.

There are five reasons why this won’t work

Firstly the sums involved.  The proposals above, where they to come in on plan, would raise €17 billion yet the budget deficit in 2010 excluding the bank bailout costs was €17.4 billion.  There would therefore be no room for closing this deficit while also funding the state-led investment programme of over €5 billion per year, which the ULA statement said was to be partly funded by tax increases. This also ignores reversing the €12 billion of cuts etc. which took place before and during 2010 in order to arrive at a deficit of ‘only’ €17.4 billion at its end.

The second is the nature of the wealth. Roughly half the wealth is in financial assets and half in property.  The financial assets will be in cash and bits of paper like shares which can be sold for cash.  To turn this wealth into money that can be used to pay workers to provide services, reverse workers’ tax increases and procure services it will be necessary to sell these bits of paper after the wealth held as cash is exhausted.  The value of these bits of paper, such as shares, may very well fall if a lot are sold at one time or it is known that they cannot be held and sold at what might be considered by their owners as the most favourable time.  The value they are held and valued at may therefore be greater than what could be got in a sale.  Everyone is familiar with this because of NAMA and the property collapse.  How much more of a problem is this for that half of assets which is property?

And there is an additional issue.  Who would the State sell these assets to?  Workers, self-employed, farmers and small businesses are in no position to buy these assets.  In fact only Irish and foreign rich would be in a position to buy.  But when we consider this for a moment, how would the Irish rich afford to buy these assets when these assets are being taken off them in the first place?  This leaves only foreign capitalists.  Putting it like this, selling off Irish assets to foreign capitalists to finance State expenditure doesn’t look too much different from what the Governing parties want to do.  Perhaps it is proposed that they too are taxed on Irish assets, in line with the policy on taxation of Irish assets held by tax exiles, but this then only puts them in the same position as the Irish rich.  Why buy assets that are going to be taken off you in tax?

Making the most simple assumption that a wealth tax would remove an equal amount of the wealth each year, with a wealth tax of 5 per cent the total wealth of the rich would be cut in half in ten years.  Ten years later it would be gone.  Even with wealth growing at say 2.5 per cent a year, and a wealth tax that took 5 per cent of what was left from the previous year, the wealth of the rich would still be halved in less than 23 years.

In other words this is not sustainable and anything not sustainable collapses long before the final step is taken.  An unsustainable tax base based on property is replaced by an unsustainable tax base constructed on wealth taxation.  The ULA proposes that those earning over €100,000 pay an additional €5 billion in taxes above the €4.86 they are currently paying, on a total income of €20billion, doubling their taxes and moving to an effective tax rate of half of income.  The ULA give the example of the top 0.5 per cent who have a current average after tax income of €400,000 each, which after the implementation of the ULA proposals would reduce to €166,000 each.  This is a reduction of 58.5 per cent in income.  This won’t work because of reason four.

The ‘Sunday Independent’ rich list published in March this year records that the richest man in Ireland is Pallonji Mistry, an Indian tycoon with Irish citizenship, worth €7.4 billion. How long does anyone think he would hang around if he thought the Irish State was going to take half his wealth off him within ten years and reduce his income by nearly 60 per cent?  How many others of his fellow rich would do exactly the same as him?

The ULA have said they have plans to get €2 billion extra out of Irish tax exiles and propose various measures to get this €2 billion.  Unfortunately they have said that “it is impossible to predict the revenue which would be generated by the above measures” which is tacit acknowledgement that they have little confidence that these measures could be effective.  They refer to the US and its expectations that its citizens will pay US income tax on earnings abroad but the Irish state is not the US state.  It says that its demands are reasonable but whether workers believe them to be or not, the rich do not and become tax exiles to avoid tax.  They will not be swayed by ‘reasonable’ demands that they pay up and the ULA knows this.

The ULA has said that even if such people move liquid assets out of the country, as will non-exile tax payers, the tax can be taken from the value of their fixed assets in Ireland.  But this leads us to the problems involved in reason two above.  The idea that the wealth of the rich can be taken by taxation is fine only if one believes that they will not resist with every weapon in their armoury.  The budget statement mentions that there is an investment strike by private investors as if it were some wilful act and not a perfectly rational response to the recession.  Yet serious attempts at taxation of the rich really would produce wilful acts and private investors would use their ownership of assets to reverse investment and sabotage the economy.

Marxists have always been aware that in the class struggle the capitalist class have usually demonstrated much higher levels of class consciousness than workers and their superior organisation will see them able to avoid a great deal of taxation, especially when it becomes worth it.  Their success in this is guaranteed by reason five.

The ULA have stated that “it is a matter for government which has Department of Finance, Revenue Commissioners, Central Statistics Office etc at its disposal to devise legislation to reach the target revenue of 10 billion from the top 5 % and that, in particular that the homes, farms and pension funds of those outside the top 5% be exempt.”  But this is the State that has given rich tax fraudsters two tax amnesties on top of all the various tax incentives and loopholes!

As a Marxist I believe that the state is an instrument to defend and protect the capitalist class, that it is therefore a capitalist state.  I believe that the bail out of the banks even at the cost of bankrupting the state itself is testament to how far it will go to do this.  The recent history of attacks on the working class in order to spare the rich are further examples and are the result not of a policy whim that can be changed but a result of the structure of the state, economy and society.  The proposals of the ULA rely on all this being mistaken.

I remember listening to Today FM and an American writer on financial affairs, whose name I did not hear, being interviewed about the situation in Ireland.  He remarked that Ireland was no more corrupt than many other countries but that what really set it apart was that no one ever seemed to get punished for all the corruption.  Yet the tax plans, and others, of the ULA depend not only on the Irish State not defending the rich but instead actually defending the working class.

The taxation proposals of the ULA are clearly presented as eminently reasonable and practical.  However what is reasonable is decided by class struggle and class struggle means they are not practical.

Default on the debt – part 3

How would a policy of default be implemented?  There might appear to be two ways for this to be achieved.  The left could demand it as part of a manifesto to win a majority in the Dail whereupon this majority would implement the policy.  This is however neither immediately realistic, practical nor will the Irish State allow workers to use the machinery of the State to challenge the capitalist system, which is what a left default would represent.

The second is that we think pressure can be put on the existing State to repudiate at least part of the debt and lessen the demands for austerity.  The Irish State already wishes to get concessions from the EU and ECB but on a very limited scale and with all the strength of a beggar asking for change.  However no amount of pressure will get the Irish State to break with the EU, IMF or the US.  If any significant concessions are ever offered it will only be in response to either recognition that the interests of European capitalism as a whole, or the Euro project, is threatened (which is why we now have the latest deal)or if a socialist movement threatens to do more than repudiate the debt. We are nowhere near the latter situation and it is not the current perspective of the left, which is the subject of these posts.

From a Marxist perspective repudiation should not be sought in order that the existing capitalist economy should grow, although that is a better capitalist alternative for workers than the existing policy – if it could work.  It should be part of a strategy of assisting the creation of a working class alternative that will ultimately overthrow this economic system and the state that defends it.  We should not seek salvation from a Keynesian alternative that seeks to grow the capitalist economy because Keynesianism seeks only to postpone austerity and to effect wage reductions through inflation.

The role and place of the demand for repudiation must therefore be dependent on the stage of development of the creation of this workers alternative.  We are neither at a point where the majority of the population actively seeks repudiation of the debt or even believes it a necessity and nor are we at a stage where a large movement is building up support for such a demand.  Most importantly we are not at the point where the working class in in a position to reject the necessary laws of capitalism and present itself to society with a new alternative.  By alternative I mean not absence of debt through repudiation but an alternative to the capitalist system, of which debt is a symptom.  And by ‘present itself’ I mean not promises that things will be better under socialism, but be in a position to show actual examples of workers power in the economy and society. The demand to repudiate the debt is therefore currently limited to an educational role, a propaganda role.

This does not mean that it is unimportant. The argument on debt is important in supporting opposition to austerity, which is the only way at present that workers can actually counter the effects of the debt and in effect seek their own means of repudiating it.  It plays a role in persuading workers that ending austerity is not only desirable but possible.  The wider and deeper the opposition to austerity the more convincing this argument will have to be.  The wider and more successful opposition becomes the more other elements of the programme become important, but we will take these up one by one as we proceed.

In relation to debt repudiation socialists are regularly challenged on the effects their proposals would have on the workings of the capitalist economy.  It has already been claimed that repudiation of the debt would lead to a flight of capital and virtual collapse of the banking and credit system and that, absent outside help from those just told to take their losses, it would lead to severe economic dislocation.  The crisis would intensify across Europe and beyond and lengthen and deepen the recession.  The reputation of the Irish State as a haven for multinational business and as a site for financial speculation would be in tatters.  The loss of capitalist confidence on its own would increase unemployment.  This of course does not affect in the least the purpose of our demand for debt repudiation, which is to win workers away from acceptance of payment for the crisis and for the debts of the State.  As we have seen above, we do not actually currently control any mechanism to repudiate the debt.

Nevertheless the arguments against repudiation of the debt and the effects such repudiation would cause are not false, they are not a lie, or a simple blackmail because in large measure they are true.  Repudiation of debt by a Russian or Argentinian government determined to get back into the markets by assaulting working class living standards do not provide the model for a working class default beyond countering arguments that it is in itself simply impossible.  While for socialists they do not outweigh the necessity to persuade workers to take no responsibility for the crisis they do expose the need not just for a socialist opposition but for a socialist alternative.

For Marxists, as we have said, the achievement of socialism is based not on sound and logical argument but on necessity.  If the socialist alternative is not practical then it will not succeed and will certainly not win the working class to take it up as its own programme.  This is the underlying reason we pointed to for the defeat in the referendum – that we are as yet far from having a real alternative – practical ,immediate, in place right now, contesting for hegemony because it is widely if not yet universally recognised as a real, potential, living alternative.

Sine this alternative is the working class taking ownership and control of the economy, the state and society as a whole we have to answer a very simple question today, right now: is the working class poised to take ownership and control of the economy to counter the sabotage of the capitalist class as we repudiate the debts to its big cousins in the European Banks?

That is the working class as it presently exists in reality; not an idealised one that resides in books or in abstract slogans, but the working people in your street, your neighbourhood and your workplace?  Have they been readying themselves to take over the running of the economy and the state; have they already taken over, or are in control of some workplaces?  Are they perfecting their organisation?  Have they been debating the necessity to do so, the requirements of doing so, the burning necessity to do so – to carry out a veritable revolution?  If not then we currently have no answer, or no practical answer, to the capitalist charge that what we propose, if implemented right now, would simply cause chaos.

That we, the working class, are not yet ready to take over society is obvious because we can see this every day if we live within working class communities and work alongside other workers.

A fatal answer to this current weakness is to seek salvation through a non-working class solution which at first glance might look more ‘practical’ or ‘realistic’: calling on the State to do what can only be done by workers.  Calling for nationalisation when what we stand for is ownership and control by the workers, not the capitalist state.

Instead of such ‘short cuts’ to a different destination Marxists recognise that we need to put forward a comprehensive programme that addresses the needs and interests of the working class and that repudiation of the debt, which is not even a specifically socialist measure, is only one element of this.  It is necessary to place any specific demand within an overall programme that represents a real alternative.  This does not mean that we need always to proclaim a veritable shopping list of demands or that specific and often very limited struggles and demands are not where we really are at.  It is to understand and be able to explain how any particular struggle fits within a global alternative.  As we have said, this alternative must assume a living corporeal reality to count as a real alternative and not simply a logically coherent programme.  The beginning of a living alternative based on a coherent programme is defending the working class by supporting its resistance to austerity and renouncing its responsibility for the causes of the austerity.  Only on such resistance can an alternative be built.

In addressing the austerity inflicted to pay off the State’s debt the left has recognised the necessity for a wider alternative by calling for the continuing budget deficit to be made whole by progressive taxation of the rich.  In our next post we will look at this part of the left alternative.

One more issue merits being addressed in the context of the Marxist approach to the state’s debt.  This is the call for an audit of the debt.  The burden of the bank debt was placed on the workers’ shoulders in order to pay bondholders, but who are or were these bondholders?  Who got paid in full or is awaiting payment that is a hedge fund used by the fabulously wealthy who bought the bonds at a huge discount or who already had insurance for default?  Who is the recipient of this huge transfer of wealth from working people? This is an elementary demand and is not an alternative to repudiation.

For example, what if we found that it was a workers pension fund that held the debt?  Then we could say to them – let’s talk about what effect it would have on your pensions of us not paying this debt.  What arrangements could we come to which would recognise the legitimate claims of both sides?  What if this pension fund was privately managed and subject to the normal charges by its managers which excluded the control of its members or even knowledge of what mangers were doing? Then we might say – ok, we recognise that we should not deprive you of your pensions but we have no obligation to fund the huge charges that allow the financial services industry to pay its managers and bosses salaries and bonuses that are counted in the millions.  We will take ownership of our debt if you, the workers of this pension fund, take ownership of this fund and do not use it to speculate against the living standards of other workers.

Such a debt audit is thus not a call for justification of the debt but becomes a call to action – a workers’ enquiry to determine its ownership and its beneficiaries now and in the past.  A call to action to repudiate what is not legitimate in our eyes and accept what we believe is legitimate by demanding the actions that make it so.

The argument will come back that this debt is subject to rules of confidentiality that are imposed by market exchanges in foreign countries.  Ok then, the debt we still owe should not be paid until we know who we are paying, that it is the appropriate amount and does not involve an unfair redistribution of wealth from workers to international spivs.  If the bondholders have already been repaid we still want to know who walked off with our money since we are still paying for it and we weren’t asked for permission in the first place.

The demand for an audit is a demand for the books to be opened on international finance and is the first step to taking it over.  The very first step in this would be bank workers doing a ‘Wikileaks’ and releasing all the emails and documents relating to the debt guarantee and repayment.  What an education that would be, especially the howls of condemnation from the powers that be – despite this being our money that is being paid over, our banks that we are supposed to own and our Government and State which are supposed to be defending our interests.

The demand for an audit is entirely legitimate; it is the first step to control and to demonstrating the legitimacy of repudiation.

Default on the debt – part 2

This post was largely written before the latest initiative of the EU, which has been hailed by Government parties as a major breakthrough for Ireland although we can be confident there will be no slacking in the austerity programme.

The devil in these deals is always in the detail, or so the cliché goes, but this is only partially correct.  The deal will also do little to reverse the austerity agenda in Europe, which is the big picture, and without this the crisis in the Eurozone will not be resolved.

The plan appears to involve the funds in the European Stability Mechanism going straight to the banks instead of the National State beforehand, thus avoiding the immediate burden on the State through increased sovereign debt and pressure on interest rates.  This was demanded by Spain and Italy and Germany has backed down.

The Irish now hope to piggy-back on this to get similar treatment, except this approach would have to be applied retrospectively as the EU demanded exactly the opposite in the Irish deal.  Since the Irish State owns the banks the debts of the banks are the debts of the State, which workers are expected to pay.  Michael Noonan has claimed that when the EU takes over lending to the Irish banks it will take over the asset side of the banks as well, in other words it will own them.  Whether this would involve the EU owning the shipwreck that is Anglo-Irish and Irish Nationwide is an open question and the deal may mean no more than extending the repayments and a little lower interest rate.

In any case socialists must exploit any concession to demand more, as the post below argues, and should draw attention to the concern in the EU statement about the sustainability of the Irish debt to demand that it be repudiated.  The post below is mostly about the tactical way this may be put forward and is therefore timely.

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So what should socialists demand now?  Should we demand repudiation of all the debt even that incurred before the economic crash?  What would be the rationale for this?  Should this include the debt currently being piled up to pay for day to day expenditure on public services?  Should we limit our call to repudiation of that part of the debt that is a result of the bank bailout, or add to this the pension savings wasted on buying the banks?  Who do we take this latter money from since it involves an arbitrary decision on who the state would otherwise have borrowed from instead of using the pension reserve?  In other words default on a sum of money that wasn’t actually borrowed!

It might be that some socialists believe that it is a betrayal of the working class if we do not always demand repudiation of all the debt, although these socialists would still be ignoring costs of bailing out the banks that didn’t result in debt creation while including repudiation of debt that had nothing to do with the banks.

But this brings us back to our point about socialists more or less ignoring the private debts bearing down on workers while not demanding that they be defaulted on. Is this a betrayal of the working class also?  One possible answer to such a charge is that to seek this as well would be to conflate two questions, that of the burden of debt generally and of the specific austerity drive resulting from the explosion of State debt in particular.  This would seem to me to be a valid argument.   It has to be recognised however that in making this argument we are making a political judgement.  It is not primarily about the absolute effect of debt on workers.  It is not a moral argument.

It should therefore be accepted that it may also be permissible to demand repudiation of the bankers’ debt while not believing that it is politically best at all times and in all places to call for rejection of all the debt.  This might be because doing so might no longer allow particular emphasis to be placed on the argument about acceptance of the bankers’ debt.  While it may be claimed that the huge deficits incurred, and to be incurred over the next number of years, are more or less a direct result of the bankers and developers crash we would be obliged, if we accepted this logic, to still accept payment of the debt that was not the result of the financial crisis.

In the end however the left must accept that whatever the advantages of propaganda in opposition to the debt of the bankers, or specifically on the promissory notes, this can really only be a matter of presentation for propaganda or educational purposes.  It cannot represent a deeper policy or strategy.  If successful this approach would anyway have to recede and give way to stronger arguments if it proved successful in winning workers to reject paying the debt.

To agree that the debt created by the budget deficits are simply an indirect result of the banking crash, if not the direct result of assuming banks’ gambling debts, means not explaining what has just happened.  This crisis is not ultimately the result of gambling debts but an abnormally large crisis of overproduction which is a form of crisis that is anything but abnormal in capitalism.  In other words the deficits are the result of a capitalist crisis and socialists should not be diverting workers from this fundamental truth by claiming it is the result of individual bankers or individual banks.

This is also true of the direct debts of the banks themselves that the left has prioritised.  In the last analysis the irrationality of the behaviour of Anglo-Irish and Nationwide banks etc is simply an expression of the irrationality of the system as a whole and it is this we want workers to learn.  The obvious greed, recklessness and stupidity of the individuals and banks involved must be held up as typical examples of the whole rotten and bankrupt system not particularly egregious exceptions.

So if we highlight the direct debt of the banks as the centre of a campaign to repudiate the debt this in no way means acceptance that workers have a duty to pay any of it, any more than we think workers should take responsibility for any other result of a capitalist economic crisis.  It is a matter of what we think are the political demands that will allow workers to come to an understanding of the causes of the crisis and mobilise in their own defence.  This is the decisive criteria for determining the demands that socialist should raise in respect of the debt. It is a tactical decision how we raise the question of debt repudiation, although it’s only a question of tactics if we reject responsibility for any of it.  It is rather like prioritising resistance against some particular item of austerity while not thereby accepting any of it.

We are not at the point where we can realistically hope to build a movement on the basis that workers do not accept any responsibility for the actions of the Irish State.  Identification with this state is derived in no small way from nationalist and bourgeois illusions in its legitimacy.  So the point is to break these illusions, not engage in political projects that assume they have already been erased.

If we believe that the debt is still so large after repudiation or amelioration of the bankers’ debts that the austerity demanded to repay it, or to narrow the State’s budget deficit, will still cripple workers then it would be wrong to accept this debt.  In this case it might be necessary to use the fight over the bankers’ debt as only one step to challenging payment of any of the debt.  (This might be the opportunity provided by the latest putative deal)  We would then be making clear that workers face a choice – acceptance of the legitimacy of the state’s demands or the legitimacy of their own needs.

Arguments around the origin of some of the debt arising from the banks would then play a subsidiary role to the contention that we simply can’t afford to pay these debts and will not pay them.  These arguments however might greatly assist this larger purpose.

This is the situation we are now in.  The level of debt is simply not supportable and the word restructuring will be applied where the word default would be more accurate.  When this happens it should be exploited to discredit the whole exercise, especially the bank bailout, and to push forward the demand for further debt repudiation.

This brings us to what the status of this demand is: why do we demand it and what role does it play in our socialist alternative?  After all, repudiation of the debt is not in itself a socialist demand.  Two of the most recent defaults have been by Argentina and Russia and neither of these were part of a socialist project but rather part of a policy that inflicted deep suffering on millions of workers.

We demand repudiation because of the suffering it inflicts and because if it is accepted workers cannot be in a position to create their own alternative.  We demand it because it puts the needs of workers before the demands of the capitalist system.  We demand it to give workers the opportunity to break with their illusions in ‘their’ State, whether derived from nationalist beliefs in the legitimacy of the nation state or illusions that the state is democratic and legitimate.  If this can best be approached today by putting to the fore the debts being paid on behalf of the banks then this is legitimate and appropriate.