A year of Covid-19 (1) – following ‘the science’

On 20 April last year the lead story in ‘The Irish Times’ was a report of research led by an Irish scientist that there may have to be repeated waves of Covid-19 epidemics until enough of the population is infected to provide herd immunity.  At best there would be three more infection cycles before 60 per cent was infected, enough for immunity.

It reported intense debate on the subject, with World Health Organisation epidemiologists warning that there was no proof yet that having the infection would confer immunity for a significant period of time.  Later, when it was apparent that immunity did occur, the response was that the level of antibodies recorded in previously infected cases declined more or less rapidly so that immunity would also decline.  This however did not take account of the body’s reduced need for higher levels and its newly acquired capacity to ramp up again if required; it also did not take account of the role of T-cells in fighting infection.

The point however, is that herd immunity was not dismissed as beyond the pale and was not considered a euphemism for mass murder.  In fact, as the link to the debate below records, herd immunity is not so much a strategy as an outcome, the inevitable outcome of defeating the pandemic.  That it has been understood as anything else illustrates the impairment of critical thought that has accompanied the physical restrictions introduced by lockdown.

Throughout the pandemic, governments in Ireland, Britain and elsewhere have been keen to demand that people follow ‘the science’ (as they put it), backed up by certain scientists or doctors, usually on the state payroll, who have given authority to government policy even when it is sometimes reported that they don’t agree with it.

The appeal to authority, the idea that there is one ‘science’ with one rational direction available to policy makers, the unwillingness to debate, and repeated charges of lack of transparency; all these are very far from any scientific approach.  The debate here on what the correct approach should be is an example of what has not been presented to populations.  The effects of this have been many and not always acknowledged.

I recently had a disagreement on Facebook with a supporter of a ‘Zero-Covid’ strategy, who refused to accept our differences were political, claiming that there was a psychological issue involved with my approach (along with some other remarks I have committed to amnesia).  The alternative that I argued, of focused protection of the vulnerable and opposition to generalised lockdown, was not received as a legitimate one to be considered, but simply one to be condemned and damned as so mistaken as to be the product of some psychological imperfection.

What was remarkable was that the principal issue facing the world was argued as something above, beyond or otherwise disassociated from politics.  Marxists, and this guy is one of long standing, are supposed to base their ideas on the reality that science, morality and all aspects of human behaviour are permeated with politics.  Science has its political aspects and the actions of the Government and state obviously does, especially when they involve drastic restrictions on human activity.

So, to regard Covid-19 as a non-political issue is absurd.  That such an argument could arise on social media is not at all surprising since everything under the sun appears on it.  In this case however the response is not uncommon, and is a mirror reflection of the approach taken by almost all Governments, which is to deny legitimacy to any questioning of their policies.  We can see this clearly for example in the pathetic ‘opposition’ of Keir Starmer, whose only point of disagreement is that the lockdown policy of the Government has been implemented incompetently and incompletely.

The policy of inducing fear into the population is ably assisted by a willing media seeking the simple and the sensational, through stressing the lethal nature of the virus; repetition of statistics on cases, hospitalisation numbers and patients in intensive care; the numbers with ‘long-Covid’; the prominence given to sufferers among the young, and of course the rising number of deaths.

This goes along with a determined policy of down-playing the specificity of those most under threat, and claims that the virus is either out of control or will utterly swamp the health service.  The fear generated has enough truth behind it to get acceptance of actions that would in normal times have generated heated opposition; including cancelled urgent cancer operations and a policy of isolation of individuals that admits that increased domestic abuse and enormous deterioration in mental health will follow.  The cumulative effect in generating fear is to dampen and discourage further the exercise of people’s critical faculties.

Instead of opposing all this, much of the left has echoed it and amplified it, as my minor Facebook argument illustrated.  This Left demands stricter and longer lockdowns and ‘zero-Covid’, i.e. no cases and no deaths from Covid.  To state that there is an alternative approach to generalised lockdown, and admit that some deaths will almost certainly result, is to damn oneself out of one’s own mouth.  How dare you advocate a policy that accepts any deaths!

We will, for the moment, leave aside the obvious truth that the current lockdown policy has abysmally failed to prevent avoidable deaths, and that the ‘Zero-Covid’ policy has yet to indicate what injury and deaths would flow from its implementation.  It has failed to admit that it would have to be enforced; that the state would have to do the enforcing and that it would have to apply much enhanced powers of coercion to attempt to achieve it.  An additional result would be to limit further the space for open debate on different approaches and alternative futures following the pandemic.

The policy of the Left has not been to encourage scientific debate but to back one element of the consensus view that lockdowns are the answer.  The problem here is that there has been far from a free debate on what the best approach to dealing with Covid-19 is and not, as the left would have it, a refusal to follow through on what is so obviously the right, or rather only, one.

These two articles, here and here, show that there is no single and unequivocal scientific approach that supports lockdown.  Rather, there is an intensely political debate within the scientific community that has suffered from, but resisted, restrictions on discussion.  The result of the attempt to impose a single approach has been the development of what has been called ‘groupthink’, censorship and self-censorship and something of a climate of fear, in which critical thought is seen as criticism of the scientific establishment, which might be damaging to the careers of those who engage in it.

The inevitable uncertainties generated by a new viral infection requires engagement with the issues that the political establishment does not believe the population can handle, something the media reinforces with its superficial treatment of every issue.  The mechanisms and apparatus that circumscribes political argument has been easily employed to narrow debate on the right approach to dealing with the pandemic.  The idea that the issues around it are non-political is, to repeat, ludicrous.

This political debate has been grossly distorted by an anti-scientific assault by the far-right, typified by the often-imbecilic antics of Donald Trump, with his alternative denial of the virus, its importance, his success in dealing with it, and his recommendation about drinking bleach.  The mass base of scientific ignorance he mobilised in the US has been reflected everywhere to a greater or lesser extent.  The effect on rational criticism of the prevalent lockdown approach has been to prejudice reception of it and create a barrier to its discussion.  Sections of the left have joined in, unwittingly contributing to the anti-scientific shut-down of rational debate.  As with so many issues, the opposition to lockdown by sections of the right, whether of the crazed anti-vaxxers or libertarian conservatives, has been the cue for some on the left to take an opposing view.

We are over a year into the pandemic, about a year since it hit Europe, and there is no excuse for lack of debate on how to deal with it. Only episodically has one taken place in Ireland and like everywhere else, any alternative to lockdown has been subject to condemnation. It has had its own share of far-right sceptics that have made the task of challenging the lockdown consensus harder; but the fact is that the policy of lockdown has failed, and the experience of the last year has proved it, which is what we will review in the next post.

Forward to part 2

Is learning from Brexit possible?

Last week the ‘Financial Times‘ revealed that the Tory Government is working with big business on plans to tear up those workers’ rights enshrined in EU law.  This would include ending the 48-hour limit on the working week; changing rules on work breaks and ending the inclusion of overtime pay in holiday entitlements.  This is the list reported but there are undoubtedly others.

That this was one purpose of Brexit and its likely effect was both predictable and predicted, it comes as a surprise to no one.  Yet large swathes of the Left in Ireland and Britain supported it, although much less vocally in Ireland because it is so unpopular.  In any case their support for it has assisted putting in place these projected attacks and is indefensible and inexcusable.

An analysis of why they took such a position would have to look at such things as an originally opportunist position becoming hard-wired into their politics; their nationalist perspective arising from the view that the nation state will introduce socialism and come to embody it; general simple-minded opposition to the EU on the shallow grounds that it is a creature of capitalism, and the strong tendency to have a more concrete idea of what you are against than what you are for.  There’s also a large dose of ignorance and stupidity involved.

The significant role of stupidity first hit me when I read that left supporters of Brexit were complaining that the negotiations on the British side were being conducted by the Tories.  Further examples became clear when they, like the rest of the Brexit movement, demanded a harder Brexit as the only one worthy of the name, and for the same reason – there was no point otherwise.

Now that even a blind man can see what the future invites, what are the chances that this left will reconsider its support for Brexit and the political approach that led to it?  What might this involve?

Well, much of this left also supports Scottish nationalism, which perhaps should be no surprise since this too involves an obviously nationalist project that harbours illusions in a separate capitalist state.

In the weekend’s ‘Irish Times’ Fintan O’Toole has a long article on Scottish nationalism that is quite good.  It notes that in 1979 the referendum on devolution and creation of a new Scottish parliament couldn’t even get 40 per cent of the Scottish electorate to support it.  Now opinion polls show majority support for independence.  O’Toole looks for reasons for the change.

The first is the decline of the Empire that Scots played such a prominent and profitable role in creating, before it shrunk to the extent that many middle class Scots saw potential for better career opportunities in a separate state.  Some on the Left present this opportunist turn as some sort of anti-imperialism.  That some Irish accept this is where another heavy dose of stupidity comes in, although again, a common nationalist outlook is a more adequate political explanation.

The second reason is the growth of the idea that Scotland is more progressive than England (Wales hardly ever gets a mention), an idea O’Toole correctly describes as a ‘myth’.  This is traced to the idea that Thatcher and her policies came to be seen as an imposition on the country from outside rather than as a class-based assault on the whole British working class.

This isn’t really an explanation, more an outcome – why did Thatcherism come to be seen as a rallying cry for Scottish nationalism and not British working class struggle?  The venom of nationalism is now so prevalent in the bloodstream that even when English and Welsh workers try to move to the left, through the Jeremy Corbyn leadership of the Labour Party, the Scottish left prefers its own nationalism and opposes it.

O’Toole notes the mass opposition of 70,000 Celtic and Dundee United fans during Thatcher’s attendance at the Scottish cup final in 1988.  Many Celtic fans, traditionally a base of support for the Labour Party, are now ardent nationalists.  Again, their existing (partial) identity with Irish nationalism assisted the switch, although with just as little justification.

O’Toole notes that the Scottish National Party tacked to the left in order to garner support from those opposed to Thatcherism, but Scottish nationalism is not a complement to Celtic supporters’ residual Irish identity but a dilution of it, if not a rival.  Recent criticism by the SNP government of the actions of Celtic Football club and praise for Rangers may mainly be a piece of opportunist tacking to a part of the electorate it hasn’t had success with, but it is also politically consistent with any idea of Scottish nationalism.

What O’Toole doesn’t cover is the employment of constitutional solutions by the Labour Party to cover up for its hostility to a militant class opposition to Thatcherism.  Ultimately this played into the hands of the more aggressive nationalists, but then the Scottish Labour Party was even more venal and rotten than the rest of the party.

The third reason advanced by O’Toole is that Scottish nationalism is very much bolstered by the rise of English nationalism.  How else, for example, can you account for the popularity of the SNP Government’s handling of Covid-19 as opposed to widespread criticism of the Tories?  Objectively, the differences are much less than the similarities and both have a very poor record in terms of deaths, making the same mistake of seeding care homes with infected discharges from hospitals.

The Tories have repeatedly used the rise of Scottish nationalism to attack the Labour Party, which plays very well for the SNP. It can hardly be a surprise that nationalist division encourages divisive nationalism.  Yet this too seems to have escaped much of the British left, which supports Scottish nationalism but deplores English nationalism, except for the most degenerate Stalinist section that is now buying into it.

Why do they not get that the former has helped the latter?  Why do those who did oppose Brexit not see the parallels with Scottish nationalism, both movements championing the magical powers of ‘national sovereignty’?  Did they really miss the absence of a Scottish component of the Corbyn movement, the potential base of which had already been partially vaccinated against left politics by nationalism?  Do they really think that the left of the nationalist movement in Scotland was the equivalent of the Corbyn movement in the rest of Britain; ignoring the project of the supporters of Corbyn being to move the Labour Party to the left while the most distinguishing mark of the left supporters of Scottish nationalism is the militancy of their nationalism?  Do they also have to actually witness its full reactionary effects before they discover that nationalism really is not the friend of the working class?

An analysis of why these socialist have taken such a position would have to look at such things as an originally opportunist (but successful looking and therefore trendy) position becoming hard-wired into their politics; their lapse into a statist conception of socialism and mistaken assumption that national separation is the default democratic position of socialists; general simple-minded opposition to the UK on the shallow grounds that it is a creature of capitalism, and the strong tendency to have a more concrete idea of what you are for when it doesn’t actually entail any element of socialism.  Not to mention that dose of simple stupidity.

If the Left that supported Brexit had any idea what mistake it had made in supporting leaving the EU it would be revising its support for nationalism of the Scottish variety.  It would even wonder whether any newly gained national sovereignty for Scotland might unleash demands for workers sacrifice for the newly won ‘independent’ Scotland in the same way the Tories seek to make Britain competitive against the EU.

Of course, it can be argued that Scotland voted against Brexit and a separated Scotland will seek to join the EU; although this is not an argument open to supporters of Brexit.  But even in this case, the point is not that the EU is something in itself that socialists should support, rather it is to be accepted as an exemplar of the progressive development of capitalism, which to the extent that it is progress is also progress towards socialism, as it increases the international socialisation of the forces and relations of production.

The point is that this internationalisation of capitalism, that by this fact brings forward the grounds for socialism, only does so because it strengthens the potential unity of the working class across nations.  It is exactly this unity that Scottish nationalism opposes and destroys.

We have seen this above; through its arising upon the bones of the defeated British working class movement under Thatcherism, and its opposition to workers seeking to mobilise to the left under Corbyn: its opposition to spreading this movement and assistance to those also opposed to it in the rest of Britain.

There is very little indication that the Brexit supporting left has learnt any lessons.  Although it may be viewed as early days, it is a sign you aren’t stupid when you can see the policeman’s truncheon falling and you decide not to put your head in the way, rather than wait until it cracks your skull, whereupon you declare the need to defend yourself against police brutality.

The Left and Covid crisis

The policy of lockdowns has been approved by many on the left, with the additional argument that they have not been strict enough.  Some appear to believe that pandemic induced crises necessarily open up opportunities for revolutionary crises.  These are considered opportunities to mobilise the working class to resist attacks on its social position and turn it towards socialism.  Crises then become both the necessary and sufficient condition for political revolution.  What these sufficient and necessary conditions might actually be is not considered.  That question has been answered and is no longer a question.

Previous crises have not entailed socialist revolution, but rather than investigate why this is, the approach has been to lament the weakness of the revolutionary left and the treacherousness of existing working class leaders.  Crises therefore are expected to do much of the heavy lifting of working-class political consciousness, allied to an unexplained rise to prominence of revolutionary organisations.  Rather than see such crises as occasions of potential radicalisation which must be based on prior conditions giving rise to class consciousness, this consciousness is assumed to arise from crises itself and the spontaneous activity generated.  This latter activity is then fed by Left economic and political demands that further radicalises it.

This process however requires prior development of the working class, including organisation and consciousness which already disposes the working class to defend itself through ‘spontaneous’ mobilisation that rests on some prior socialist consciousness.  We know that a lack of such consciousness has not been overcome by crisis in itself because of previous decades of defeats of working-class struggle; from a sober assessment of current working-class consciousness and passivity, and from appreciation that the last real revolutionary period rested on this prior development of socialist organisation.  Of course, many struggles in this period were betrayed by reformist and Stalinist leaderships but these betrayals had precisely the effect of setting the working-class back decades.  It’s why continuing opposition to these political trends in the working-class movement is a continuing imperative.  But it is wrong to simply repeat the explanations of previous defeats that happened decades ago as applicable now to much later generations.

In demanding a more stringent lockdown the purveyors of this general view rally behind the most lurid and sensational predictions of the effects and deaths that will be caused by Covid. The pandemic itself has become a ruling class conspiracy – “as far as the ruling elite is concerned, if the old and infirm die and allow for further cuts to pensions and health care, that is to be regarded as a positive good.”  As has been pointed out: across the world capitalist governments have spent fortunes in response to the pandemic.  If their objective has been to save money they have failed abysmally. In Ireland and UK the state has borrowed billions and seen their debt mushroom as a result.

If their favoured policy of total lockdown requires emulation of the approach of China, Australia and New Zealand etc., as some have claimed, then why are these countries not also in on the conspiracy?

This left appears oblivious to the cost of lockdown in terms of deaths, illness and social and economic loss; and sliding over who suffers these costs: from the lost jobs, education, domestic violence and damage to menial health.  It may point to the massive and wasted expenditures on testing and tracing systems that don’t work, and from failed and corrupt contract awards for PPE etc., but what has facilitated this?

They don’t stop to consider how their approach supports the politicians and state bureaucrats who cancel cancer and other life-saving treatments in order to protect their politicised health choices, and a health system that is failing and for which these politicians and bureaucrats bear responsibility.  Instead, their demand for lockdown puts the onus on the population to accept the most restrictive forms of social control and denial of civil rights, opposition to which is another one of their conspicuous silences.

Instead they oppose the opening of schools, though children are not at significant risk and infections in schools are low (see here and here and here).   One organisation dismisses schools as a “child-minding service’ employed to force parents into work, oblivious to this being a service that many parents are very glad of. It complains of trillions going to corporations but ignores that this is a product of lockdown; or do they believe that the state would give money to furloughed workers and not corporations?  What would happen if they didn’t, would all these corporations survive?

This organisation proposes committees that “would provide the means to organize a Europe-wide general strike to compel the closure of schools and nonessential production and allow workers to shelter at home.”  A stay away from work in order to get paid to stay away from work!  Since when did the capitalist class pay for an indefinite general strike? And how would one be organised with the mass of workers at home and socially distancing?  How would any revolutionary potential of a general strike be realised, i.e. acknowledging that society cannot simply close down but must continue to run, raising the question of who runs the economy – who rules?  How would this be possible unless major sections of the working class were actually at work?

“Massive resources must be invested to provide a high standard of living to everyone throughout the pandemic, including the resources required to maintain online learning for students.”  But how could anything be invested if the workers required to deliver the investment are to stay at home?  Or is this yet another essential section of the working class that must work – like so many the total-lockdown supporters refuse to acknowledge.

“The claim that there is “no money” for such measures is a patent lie. Trillions of euros have been handed to the banks and corporations in bailouts since the beginning of the pandemic. The resources exist, but they are monopolized by a corporate and financial oligarchy.”  The utterly un-Marxist idea is again advanced that money can equal “resources” and that pieces of paper are of use without human labour to deliver the real goods and services for which they are exchanged.  And anyway, isn’t the monopolisation of productive resources by a separate class not called capitalism?

Indeed it is, which once again demonstrates that every intervention by the ultra-left telescopes into demanding the overthrow of capitalism.

“The fortunes of the rich must be expropriated and the major corporations transformed into public utilities, democratically controlled by the working class as part of the socialist reorganization of economic life on the basis of social need, not private profit.”  But how are “the major corporations” to be put under the control of the workers unless they are actually at work?

As we know, Covid-19 is a specific threat that must be defended against.  When advocates of total lockdown call young people having a party ‘granny killers’ they acknowledge this reality.  Yet the pretence is still made that everyone is equally threatened at least to such degree that no strategy must distinguish between those who are old and/or otherwise vulnerable and those who are relatively young and healthy.  Students must go home, schools must close and young people socialising is an existential threat.

What this does is weaken the protection of those most at risk because it calls into question any restrictions.  If there really was no significant differential impact then many thousands of young people would have died. They haven’t.  Many working class people, as I have noted in previous posts, and here in a previous comment by a reader, are ignoring the rules when it suits.  The left advocates of complete lockdown are really now following Bertolt Brecht when he said – should this left not just elect a new people?

Most people however do register the greater threat to older and vulnerable people but rather than this being informed, encouraged and organised it has more or less been ignored by the authorities when it comes to organisation of the response.  Tightening restrictions affects everyone, and in some ways young people more, and undifferentiated relaxation exposes older people more because it cannot be admitted that they should still be shielded or socially distanced; just in case everyone decides that is the way it should stay, that this is the correct approach that should now be implemented and those in charge have got it wrong.

This approach has failed in Ireland, Britain and across Europe and further afield.  Part of the left doubles down and says the lockdown is not tough enough, without weighing up the cost or admitting that total lockdown has never actually been implemented because it can’t.  You cannot close down society, which relies on the continuous labour of millions of workers.  Admission that ‘essential’ work must continue never admits the enormous extent of what this entails given the development of the forces of production and division of labour involved.

A blanket threat in many ways protects the authorities from blame for failure because Covid-19 becomes an all-embracing indiscriminate threat that is difficult to defend against because of this character.  It allows them to introduce harsh social restrictions and coercive powers that for most people are totally unnecessary, and which some on the left who, were they consistent, should support because (1) they should endorse a fair claim to be necessary and (2) totally warranted given the assumed threat.  What could be more important that saving lives?

The longer the pandemic lasts the more incredible become the demands for total lockdown and ‘zero-Covid’.  The failure of existing restrictions has been too great to inspire notions that just more of the same will be both successful and at an acceptable cost.  Given the attacks stored up for the future, there will be plenty of time to reflect on the lessons.

Civil Rights and Socialist strategy 4 – the failure of the Left

 

In looking back at the civil rights movement Eamonn McCann argued that “the left had a lot of influence in the early days of the civil rights movement. We frittered it away. No question of that. We frittered it away. We have to learn lessons from that and look back.”  In doing this on the fortieth anniversary of 1968 he wrote that “in the long run, we didn’t punch our weight.”

McCann also noted the weakness of republicanism in Derry in the 1960s, which won less than 3,000 votes in a constituency with more than 25,000 Catholics in 1966, while in West Belfast IRA leader Billy McMillen came fourth out of four with just 6.3 per cent of the vote in 1964.

However, McCann also made the point that the radicals of around twenty to thirty in Derry were weak – a “relatively small, raggedy band of socialists”; “no sizeable socialist party was built from the experience, no distinctive socialist current emerged”. “What was needed . . . were clear ideas and coherent organisation, which wasn’t our strong suit.”

He complained that it was difficult to engage in political debate within the Derry Citizens’ Action Committee, with anyone raising class politics denounced as splitting the all-class unity of the Committee.  He remarked on the radicals “blithe disregard for organisation and structure, because we had underestimated the depth of the sectarian division and the hold of nationalism on the Catholic community, because we had not been engaged in building a serious socialist party.”

McCann states that there was no clarification of differences, with “little serious effort to draw a line of demarcation with nationalism.’  This was especially needed in 1969 as the anger of youth flowed “through unimpeded among nationalist channels, eventually, into the IRA.”

He noted the way barricades were thrown across the entrance to Catholic areas, which he saw as confirming sectarian division, and the absence of the organised workers’ movement from the civil rights struggle.  In relation to the latter “we were too far out in front. [We] had lost contact with the main formation of the class and the only institution in the North which organised across the sectarian divide, the union movement, in which we might have grounded ourselves, or cleared ground for a new departure.”

McCann does record that in the 1969 Stormont election Peoples Democracy “was able to address mainly-Protestant workforces, emphasising the class basis of its hostility to unionism . . . but given the spontaneous nature of the socialists’ main organisational expression – the PD – and the absence of clear-cut ideas, the militancy came across as much as a reflection of gut opposition to the Northern state as of conscious adherence to socialist politics.”

He quotes Bernadette Devlin, after she won a by-election to become a Westminster MP –“there may not be 30,000 socialists in this constituency, but it has a socialist MP.”  As he also records, “events had been rushing forward, pell-mell, helter-skelter, at a pace never previously experienced in stultified Northern Ireland, hurtling, as we thought, towards a possibly imminent resolution.  It was vital not to be left behind.  So no time to stop, analyse, synthesise.  In the blur of activity, we missed the moment.”

“This is not to say that if we had all been hardened revolutionaries with clear ideas, working patiently, efficiently to build a revolutionary socialist party, things would have worked out very differently”, acknowledging the historical weight of communal rather than class allegiance and the failure of the official labour movement.  His “realistic possibility” was one of “recruiting relatively rapidly from angry, urgent working class youth” and “entering 1969 not as a hubbub of socialist individuals but as a serious socialist organisation, capable of taking on and competing for popular support. . .” (all quotes from ‘Socialism and 1968’, in ‘Spirit of ’68’ edited Pauline McClenaghan)

If we review this argument, we can see that it isn’t altogether consistent.  It is argued that the left did not punch its weight but began the struggle as a “small, raggedy band”.  Before civil rights agitation took off the group was presented with a perspectives document that acknowledged their poor prospects, with the great mass of people seeing “religion, not class, as the basic divide in our society.”

Elsewhere he notes that although the left played a prominent role in organising marches; putting out leaflets and bulletins; running a radio station and in standing as candidates in  elections, that during their speeches “when the people were applauding [it] was not so much what we said but the way we said it.”  He notes correctly that prominent involvement in mass agitation did not mean that they had real political leadership or, as Bernadette Devlin put it – she was a socialist MP but not elected by socialist constituents.

McCann argues in his book ‘War and an Irish Town’ that mass influence is meaningless “unless one is in the process of forging a political instrument necessary to lead such agitation to victory . . .” and “we have learned that it is impossible to do that if one is not forearmed with a coherent class analysis of the situation and a clear programme based on it.”

Both of these are claims are true but his later assessment that things might not have worked out very differently had this been the case – and it can be argued that socialists at the time did argue vociferously for a socialist approach – nevertheless is also true.  These two requirements posed by McCann were not enough and their absence itself needs explanation, not simply in terms of the failures of individuals involved.

Perhaps they could have done better, as we can all have done better in our political careers, but this does not make our failure to do things as best they could be done the cause of wider failure by the movement or the class.  The point of this series of posts has been to understand what happened in order to do better now, but what happened was the outcome of forces much stronger than the left input into these events.

The left perspective document in 1968 quoted by McCann was not wrong to note the strength of sectarian division and the unionist and nationalist politics that divided workers within the North.  As I have noted a number of times, the short duration of the civil rights struggle, as well as its very uneven development, meant there was little time to challenge the historically developed political consciousness already imbued within Irish workers.

And this partially explains why republicanism, despite its obvious weakness in Belfast and Derry, was able to grow rapidly while the left did not.  Irish republicanism is not an alternative to nationalism but simply a variety of it, its most militant manifestation.  The transformation of consciousness required to move from support for the Nationalist Party to Republicanism is qualitatively different from one required to move from any sort of nationalism to socialism.  It should be recalled that, for many Catholic workers, this move to more militant nationalism was not made until republicans stopped being republican, in the traditional militant sense, and had given up armed struggle.

McCann notes that it was difficult to engage in debate within the Derry Citizens Action Committee (DCAC) because this would be denounced as political and divisive of Catholic unity.  He also argues that not enough was done to distinguish the socialist case from the nationalist one.  But there is ample evidence of socialists arguing the case for class politics through many of their interventions, and while their failure to build a significant socialist organisation was something that might otherwise have been achieved, this outcome was not primarily due to their failure to distinguish themselves as socialists.

Both McCann in Derry, Bernadette Devlin in her election campaign, and Peoples Democracy generally, were all loud in their opposition to green capitalism and their support for working class unity.  They failed because of the strength of its division, and while as Marxists this may be regrettable to have to admit, it is not at all incomprehensible. The difficulty of intervening in the DCAC that McCann noted did not make refusing to enter it an answer, but reflected the consciousness not only of the middle class leadership of the DCAC but of the Catholic workers it led, as McCann himself has noted.  The difficulty also remained outside the DCAC and most leftists joined it (although it would appear with little influence) because they feared isolation outside it.

The forces overwhelming the small and divided socialist movement, as McCann appears to recognise, were the events that “had been rushing forward, pell-mell, helter-skelter, at a pace never previously experienced in stultified Northern Ireland, hurtling, as we thought, towards a possibly imminent resolution.”

A whirlwind of events can sometimes suggest more fundamental changes occurring than actually are, and that requires analysis, which McCann notes was missing.

But this is still true today, with this lesson still unlearned, with the left now bigger but no nearer building a genuine working class party, which requires not just a much bigger mass membership but a class conscious class from which to draw its ranks and a democratic culture that can provide the analysis with which it can take leadership.

Today the left in Ireland, and not not just Ireland by any means, is still too much impressed by action and not by the consciousness that drives it, and is in turn derived from it.  Honest and sober analysis still escapes it, with support for Brexit a particularly egregious example of a mistaken political programme.  Even when criticising what he sees as the failure of the left in the late sixties to build a serious socialist organisation he repeats the idea that what was needed was to recruit “rapidly from angry, urgent working class youth”, themselves the product of the “pell-mell, helter-skelter” of events that the left sought to keep up with.

As these lines are posted mass demonstrations and riots are taking place in the US following another racist killing by the police.  References have been made to this being an American ‘revolution’ when in fact we are a very long way from the American working class posing a socialist revolution,  Presenting the missing ingredient as a revolutionary party begs all the questions about the nature of the working class and its movement from which it alone can be created.

The erection of barricades to separate Catholic areas under attack from the RUC and loyalists, symbolising for McCann the obstacles to unity between Catholic and Protestant workers, is testament to the strength of sectarian division but does not make their erection mistaken.  Hence the tragedy.

His speculation that socialists might have grounded themselves in the trade union movement, but had become separated from it, does indeed argue correctly for an orientation by socialists to the working class as it is, and not to counterpose one’s own sectarian interests, organisation and programme to the workers own movement, but McCann himself notes the passivity of the official movement and its effective abstention from the civil rights campaign.  To reverse this would have required a fight inside the trade unions, against its leadership, and this could only have succeeded in a struggle in which socialists had won the support not only of many Catholic workers (from nationalism) but also Protestant workers (from unionism).

No one can claim that this could have been achieved in a few years; it is the work of many years and involves forces greater than exist within the six counties.  In the meantime it could not have been wrong to orient to those willing to campaign for democratic rights in order that they might be directed to such an orientation.

That there is still no settled view on what socialists should have done in 1968 – 69 is not surprising since this is largely fed by what socialists think we should be doing now.

Back to part 3

Forward to part 5

Civil rights and socialist strategy 3 – the weakness of the left

The strategic differences that existed and discussed in the previous two posts had implications for the tactics to be pursued, although the relationship was not straight-forward.

In order to appreciate the different viewpoints, it is necessary to look at the balance of political forces in the civil rights movement and in particular the strength of the left and its potential influence and power.

We have already noted the weakness of the political influence of the wider labour movement in previous posts but it is important to recall it again as it is the primary candidate as the mechanism by which a working class and socialist strategy could have been pursued.

While the Northern Ireland Labour Party and trade union movement passed a few resolutions supportive of civil rights no trade union affiliated to NICRA and neither the industrial or political wings of the movement would mobilise their membership in support.  The reason is obvious.

The members of the trade unions were not a different species from the majority of workers who voted unionist, nationalist, or on occasion the very homeopathic socialism of the NILP; and, of course, others were apathetic and unpolitical as is the case everywhere.  The trade union movement reflected this, with a survey in 1959 revealing that Catholics were 46% of branch secretaries in the mainly unskilled ATGWU, 12% in the AEU, 9% in the Association of Supervisory Staffs, Executives and Technicians, and 0% in the Boilermakers.  Of 53 unions surveyed and 379 branch secretaries, 80% were Protestant.

This is not to employ sectarian prejudice that assumes a person’s politics, including a trade union rep’s, can be read across from their religious background, but it is unfortunately the case that in the majority of occasions this is true, and is precisely the problem.

One might expect this not to be so much the case with trade union representatives, precisely because they have sought active participation in the union, but this doesn’t get away from the problem, because all trade union reps are acutely conscious of their role as a representative of their members and are careful not to tread too far from those whom they represent.  Where radical motions are passed at trade union branches this often reflects the influence of a few activists carrying a room consisting of a small fraction of the membership.

For most union officials the primary concern is the organisation within which they hold a position and the primary concern of the members they represent is wages and conditions.  In the North of Ireland there is strong pressure against raising political issues that would upset working relationships, and the trade union apparatus is keen that this remains the case, with policy not usually going beyond platitudes.

The problem of course is that the ‘unity’ then trumpeted is weak and subject to official public opinion relayed through the state and employer, and then imported through the trade union apparatus.  What this unity very definitely isn’t is socialist.  That it exists is not unimportant, in fact it signals a general and widespread aversion to conflict, especially sectarian conflict, but it is not the grounds on its own for creation of a radical alternative, and can only be presented as such by those with a willing blindness and by denuding this alternative of all political content.  The utterly reactionary content of unionism and its unsuitability to play any role in a trade union meant it only occasionally intervened in the scope of trade union affairs, which facilitated the weak ‘unity’ existing.

The very partial exception to lack of direct labour movement involvement in civil rights agitation was Derry, which was the second city in Northern Ireland and had a Catholic majority, and where the local Labour Party was central to the early civil rights struggle.  It was also in Derry that the civil rights movement exploded onto the stage and thousands of people were repeatedly mobilised.  If intervention by the left would make any difference, then Derry was as good a place for this to happen as anywhere.  That it didn’t should be taken into account when weighing the different arguments.

The prominent socialist and civil rights leader Eamonn McCann has written that almost all of those involved in organising the October civil rights march were “socialists of one sort or another.”  They were involved in the Derry Labour Party, but despite the blatant sectarian discrimination and poor housing the local trades council barely took up the latter, condemning the corporation but refusing in June 1968 to receive a delegation from the Derry Housing Action Committee.  It opposed a harsh fine imposed on its members as a result of a protest but would take no real action.

Civil rights did not come before the council until the month before the October 1968 civil rights march, when a delegate wanted to know what its position on it was.  It was agreed to have a special session if the council was invited to participate and to wait until its observers reported back on a march organising meeting.  It then decided that it “supported the establishment of equal civil rights in Northern Ireland for all citizens regardless of class or creed” and “participation . . . should be left to individual trade unionists”, before turning to the question of a pedestrian crossing at Westland Street.”

It played no role in a number of spontaneous strikes by Catholic workers that followed the October march, especially during 18 – 19 November, but decided to pledge support to the moderate Derry Citizens Action Committee and did not seek representation in it, although it did agree to send delegates to a NICRA meeting in Belfast.  Following the O’Neill reforms that month it went back to where it had been before, with economic and social issues to be pursued through official union and Government channels.  At its annual general meeting in April 1969, Billy Blease, who was a senior officer of the Northern Committee, told the audience to concentrate on the ‘real issues.’   As has been noted before, the Citizens Action Committed had more influence over Catholic workers than their trade unions.

McCann notes that no sizable socialist party was built from the experience of building the October march and “in the long run, we didn’t punch our weight,” but he also describes those involved as “our relatively small, raggedy band of socialists’, who had “a loose style of organisation . . . coalescing on an ad hoc basis against the wishes of party leaders and without fretting about the contradictions which all knew must be lurking.”

In his book ‘War and an Irish Town’, McCann states that “the leftists involved carried out no clear political struggle within either organisation [Labour Party and Republican Club].  We could not, because what we shared was not a common programme but a general contempt for the type of politics which prevailed in the city.”

He records that an attempt had been made to “codify our ideas’ in May with a ‘perspectives document’, which stated that ‘the situation which confronts us is not promising.  The great mass of the people continue, for historical reasons, to see religion, not class, as the basic divide in our society.”   What was required was a socialist party but he notes that “any perspective of building a clear-minded political organisation in opposition to the dominant tendencies within the Labour or Republican movements was forgotten in the frenetic round of breaking into empty houses, organising pickets and encouraging individuals to stand up to the landlords and local bureaucrats.”

Neither the labour movement as a whole, at least in its attitude to civil rights, or the radical socialists on its periphery, were in a strong position as the campaign exploded into a struggle on the streets.

Back to part 2

Welcome to my World

Image result for boris johnson and dup

When I discovered that Boris Johnson’s proposals for a new exit deal from the European Union would require the approval of the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly, I thought to myself – welcome to my world!

The thought of the Unionist veto applying not only to this little corner of Ireland but also to the whole UK and even to the rest of Europe – wielded by that very incarnation of reasoned moderation and altruistic benevolence – the DUP!

What poetic justice that all the rational and sensible advocates of just such an arrangement in my miniature polity were now invited to subject themselves to the same enlightened principle of majority rule, while acknowledging the limitless legitimacy of Unionism and its glorious traditions.  The rules of trade between the entire UK and the EU Single Market would be exposed to the approval of the DUP; and just in case they had all been on a fully paid up holiday – paid for by some generous dictator – they could change their minds every four years.

Every four years the rest of Europe would wait with baited breath while the DUP decided whether it wished to continue “regulatory alignment” with the Single Market, knowing that the EU had agreed with the British Government proposal for “a firm commitment (by both parties) never to conduct checks at the border in future.”  The rest of the world would also hold its breath to see if, given EU unhindered access to the UK market and UK unhindered access to the EU Single Market, they might not also employ world trade rules to demand similar unimpeded entry.

I pictured horrified faces in the offices of State across Europe and in the corridors of the Brussels bureaucracy.  But surely they would continue to show their solidarity with the Irish Government and the Irish member State?  And surely since this state has considered such a mechanism so good that the whole EU-UK exit deal had to revolve around protection of the Good Friday Agreement, which made unionist consent a bedrock principle of the one holy and indivisible peace process, this couldn’t be such a bad idea?

The excellence of such arrangements is so obvious – who could demur to such an obvious meretricious solution?  So, who then could dispute the reaction of the DUP to criticism of this arrangement from the Irish Government?

Of course, it would have to be admitted that DUP denunciation of Irish Government leaders seemed a teeny bit hypocritical, when it stated that Simon Coveney was “obstructionist and intransigent” and that he exhibited “a majoritarian desire to ride roughshod over unionism.”  Similarly, it might seem slightly awry for the DUP to say that the Taoiseach and Tánaiste were “ramping up the rhetoric” and that the former would “go down in history as the Taoiseach who restored a hard border.”

I have to admit I wasn’t sure if this last accusation was actually a complaint, or whether it was only in the sense of saying – that’s our job.  In any case, with such comments, and Boris Johnson promising to be a model of “gelatinous emollience”, and Jeremy Corbyn saying that “no Labour MP could support such a reckless deal”, I thought the whole world had turned on its axis in the wrong direction.  It was as if there was a new eleventh plague, in addition to frogs going “up on you and your people and all your officials” threatened in Exodus, one that would prove the truth of the DUP’s almost biblical politics.

Of course Marxists want the world turned upside down and now it seemed as if it was, maybe just not the way we might have wanted, although some who describe themselves as Marxists, but who support Brexit, seem to believe that turning things upside down is not only necessary but also sufficient – no matter how the fan has spread the shit, as long as it has hit it.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that the deal proposed by Boris Johnson is the sort of dog’s dinner that any sensible dog would turn down.  The EU saying it is “unconvinced” is like a lottery winner saying he’s not persuaded of suicide just yet.  Saying it “did not fully meet the agreed objectives of the backstop” is true, in the sense that the remaining ‘gap’ is similar to me entering the marathon at the Olympics to be informed that Woody Allen was correct when he said that “80 percent of success is showing up.”

In other words, the proposed protocol cannot be considered as a serious candidate for a deal acceptable to the EU, and Johnson knows it. This is then believed to be evidence of his desire for a no deal, but given the safety net provided by the parliamentary opposition through the Benn Act requiring him to ask for an extension, this is not the case.

Johnson has been able to put together a proposal that commentators knowingly note is not a proposed deal with the EU but with the ultra-Tories, Brexit Party and DUP; a deal that supports his Brexit credentials in the upcoming general election.

It also has enough scope, given Johnson’s idea of consistency, for further amendment after any return to Government following an election to allow him to strike a deal with the EU. The detail, so far unpublished, might provide clues to this possible direction of travel.

Removing the DUP veto with some nebulous consultation with the Irish natives in the North will suffice to replace the ridiculous notion that a zombie assembly will dictate the integrity of the EU’s Single Market; and strengthening the Irish Sea checks would be necessary to allow the North to be in a separate customs territory with the EU.

Meanwhile the left in Ireland continues with business as usual, rolling out the same solutions that they have been advocating for decades but without the least prospect of them being applied to meet the problems that are arising right now.

So, the Socialist Party recognises that “a no-deal Brexit will bring enormous hardship for working-class people. Reports, including from the government, have indicated that anywhere from 40 -100,000 job losses can be expected in the south of Ireland.”  But all it can do is call upon the trade union movement to carry out an ‘action plan’ for which it has shown not the slightest sign of planning to act.  How could this be considered a real alternative to job losses, as opposed to the usual propaganda?

The Party calls for nationalisation and a break with the system without it registering that nationalisation is not a break with the system and is not socialist. The Party has just undergone another split but with neither side mentioning this approaching “enormous hardship” in their statements.  If they can’t take their own warnings seriously . . .

People before Profit criticises Unionists for wanting a hard border but not for Unionist support for what is giving rise to this hard border.  Instead it blames the EU and the Irish Government – “both the EU and the Irish government will claim that they are not to blame for imposing this border – the responsibility lies with Britain.  But once they erect border posts on the Southern side, this will give the British Tories the excuse to follow suit. It will not matter then who started it – we will have to live with a strengthened form of partition.”

Who, or rather what, started it was of course Brexit. People before Profit state that the DUP’s Sammy “Wilson and his Tory friend Johnson should be told that there will be mass peaceful civil disobedience to take down many of the border posts they erect.”

But how would this prevent the thousands of redundancies due to the import of cheaper products originating outside the EU that might come in through the North; or the cheaper imports to Britain that Irish producers cannot compete with; or the decline in demand from the UK as its economy declines?  How would taking down customs posts avoid the need for certification of regulatory and customs checks that business will require to ensure that final sale to consumers or wholesalers demonstrates compliance with safety and other regulatory requirements?  How will turfing these posts avoid all the costs that will put small business out of business?  Protest politics, to which this left is in thrall, has no answer to how to actually run a society as opposed to just allowing people to express how unjust it is.

When this politics does actually look to an alternative it calls for the politicians and state it declares to be the problem to provide the solution, through ‘pressure’ and, of course, nationalisation.  One might have thought that the role of nationalisation in saddling the Irish people with the gambling debts of the banks would have made them think twice before repeatedly trotting out nationalisation as a working class solution.  But apparently not.

It is obvious to everyone but this left that the solution to the problems created by Brexit is not to have Brexit at all.  But, of course, these people supported Brexit and are responsible for it.  That they don’t like its results, that they say it isn’t what they voted for (and you don’t hear them say this very often anyway), is neither here nor there.  Who cares what was going through their heads when they voted for Brexit?  What they thought they were voting for was not what was on offer, but they still voted for it, and what’s more, their claims not to support it is belied by their continued support for it!

The objective logic of the reactionary character of Brexit imposes itself on both its left and right supporters through the fantasy character of their promises and their professed plans to make it work.  Johnson is by all accounts not convinced Brexit is a good idea but he needs it, at least for now, to achieve his personal ambition through satisfying the dying fantasies of the Tory faithful.  So we have the dog’s dinner of a Protocol, which the EU refuses to take seriously.

The DUP supported Brexit because it chimed with all their backward instincts while cleaving to the imagined power of a once-mighty imperial Britain they regard as their only bulwark to their reactionary position in Ireland.  But they also understand that Brexit has weakened the appeal of Unionism in the North and have shifted to accepting some regulatory checks down the Irish sea.

The non-solutions to Brexit put forward by the Brexit supporting left demonstrates that they too have no way for this support to deliver on their declared objectives.  If they took their politics the least bit seriously, they would be praying that Jeremy Corbyn deliver his ‘good’ Brexit.

This however would demonstrate their own impotence and dependence on the reformist politics their existence is meant to be a standing repudiation of. It would also tie them to the fortunes of a failing project that is failing precisely because of its support for Brexit.  Were Corbyn’s proposed deal to be achieved it would be on the basis of an agreement with the EU devil and all its creations – the Single Market and Customs Union.  It would be Brexit in name only and this is no more what this left claims it wants than do the ranks of the Tory and Farage parties.

Brexit cannot deliver what its supporters claim.  How appropriate then that it should seem to founder on that other great failure – the Good Friday Agreement.  But illusions die hard.  To paraphrase something meant to have been said by Keynes, some people can remain irrational longer than their illusion can remain in existence.

 

Brexit and Ireland – part 3

The North of Ireland is the weakest part of the UK so should expect to be hit most by Brexit.  Local news has reported two companies as already shifting operations to the Irish State in preparation for the UK leaving.  The EU is the North’s largest export market and while for the UK as a whole, for the period 2004 to 2014, the share of exports going to non-EU countries has grown more than that to EU countries, this has not been the case for Northern Ireland. Since it has been pointed out that some agricultural products can pass across the border numerous times, the scope for tariff and non-tariff barriers to stifle this trade is significant.  Such tariffs generally range between 6 and 22 per cent

While for the three years reported in this paper, the share of EU exports going to the EU has been around 50% for the UK, it has been around 60% for Northern Ireland (NI). In terms of cross-border trade, exports from the North to the South are more important to the North than exports to the North are for the South.   Foreign Direct Investment uses Northern Ireland to export into the rest of the EU so any exit will hit this investment and this employment.

Finally, there is the loss of EU funding, especially for farmers, not that this seems to have prevented many unionist farmers from voting for Brexit.  The UK Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs estimated that direct payments to farmers under EU Common Agricultural Policy subsidies represented 87% of annual farm income in NI.

Brexit could impel the UK into trade based on World Trade Organisation rules, just when the US under Trump signals that it may ignore these rules when it doesn’t suit.  China is also reported to be breaking WTO rules but the length of time it takes to rule on any breach and the potential for retaliation are strong impediments to enforcement.   In any case the UK is already failing to manage its trade and might be fined billions of Euros by the EU for failing effectively to police the existing EU rules.  Hardly an endorsement of its ability to look after its own borders after Brexit.

The new US administration is hailed as a potential alternative to the EU even while Trump threatens to restrict and withdraw US investment abroad.  You know Brexit is a disaster when the nationalist policy of the Trump administration is put forward as the alternative, but more importantly you know how stupid the Brexit idea is in the first place when you admit you need an alternative and don’t already have one.

If Brexit makes no sense in the North it scarcely represents an advantage to the South.  It may benefit from firms relocating from NI and Britain but this is likely to be relatively minor compared to the disruption to trade with the UK, which is worth over €1 billion per week.  Exports from the Irish agri-food sector to the UK amount to over €3 billion or over 50% of that sector’s value.  The Irish State has the biggest share of exports going into the UK of any EU country, so has the greatest exposure to potential reduction of this trade.  It also has one of the biggest numbers of its citizens living in the UK of any EU country, exposing them to the threats to their rights the Tories are deploying in an effort to get a better deal.

Merchandise exports from the Irish State to the UK were over 25% of such exports in 2015 while services traded to the UK were nearly 19% of such services.  It has been estimated that in 2014 200,000 people were employed as a direct result of exports to the UK, or over 10 per cent of employment.   Again any reduction in markets could lead to reduced employment, wages, tax receipts and thus state-funded services.

In this respect, it is interesting to note that many of the economic forecasts of the quantitative economic impact of Brexit show greater falls in wages than in economic growth generally, which is no doubt a feature of the models but which shows that it is assumed that workers will pay most from Brexit.

None of this is particularly surprising and most people just get numbed by too many figures.  The effects are recognised and the question is how these are to be mitigated.  The Tories talk about opening up Britain to the world, but this world includes a growing protectionist US; a more powerful China that has already forced a British climb-down over a nuclear power station; Japanese car companies who have done the same; a Commonwealth that is supposed to welcome a return to a 21st century British Empire, and the rest of the world, much of which is part of trade blocs that the British are rejecting.  Given this context, were Brexit to go ahead, the direction of the British state will be less under its control than it was inside the EU.

Similar problems will face the Irish State if Brexit goes ahead. Up to now it could straddle a growing relationship to the EU with historic but declining dependence on the UK; and it could do this while acting as if it was the latest State to join the Union, that is the union of the United States of America.  Brexit threatens the second and Trump threatens the third.  The first is threatened by the nature of the type of Brexit that may occur and by being squeezed by the US and Britain.

If controls on immigration that are under the authority of the EU and British impede migration to the UK, the importance of this migration will decline relative to the Irish State’s greater trade with the EU, making it more attractive to enter into the Schengen area to facilitate such trade.  Entry into the Schengen area for any reason would make problematic any more favourable Irish migration arrangements with the UK compared to others, who might object to less favourable arrangements for their own EU citizens. Either way migration links to Britain could suffer, and such migration (just like that to the US) has always been a safety valve for the young fleeing a country that is regularly unable to promise it a future.

So, if the UK leaving the EU will hurt both Irish States, it is hard to see the sense in advocating that the Irish State also leave.  Unlike in Britain this policy is really confined to sections of the Left and more ‘radical’ nationalists and republicans.  But at least it is consistent with the latter’s nationalism, while how the Left expects workers to become more internationalist while their country becomes more isolated is another sorrowful mystery; even the Tories recognise the need to develop international links.  But why would European workers rally to a movement that declares that the problem is their ‘foreign’ capitalist states and not its own.

But of course, some new orientation to the world would be necessary for an Irish State outside the EU and there is really only one immediate candidate – back to the loving embrace of the similarly isolated British State, ludicrously trying to re-live its imperial youth.  A death-embrace of two states simultaneously pursuing a race to the bottom as a low wage, deregulated, offshore tax haven.

In doing so an Irish State would suffer badly, and just like the economic models relating to Brexit, we can be certain that it would be Irish workers who would suffer most for the nationalist fantasy that is Irexit.  The idea that something progressive or even socialist could develop out of such a project is preposterous.

The Euro area is by far the Irish State’s biggest trading partner, €109 billion in combined exports and imports in 2013/2014, compared to €52 billion for the UK.  Much of the foreign direct investment in the Irish State is because of its access to the EU market and could be expected to leave if it left the EU.  Foreign owned companies account for more than 20 per cent of employment while they dominate exports.

The Irish State would have to create a new currency, especially if (in the very unlikely event) its exit was motivated by the nationalist Left, which regards the Euro as a devil incarnate.  Establishing the credibility of this currency would require massive austerity while failure to do so would guarantee massive inflation.  In either case living standards could be expected to plummet.

In both parts of Ireland Brexit and Irexit is and would be a disaster.

The Left supporters of Irexit would have to find a new name for the above description of the results of Brexit and Irexit, as dismissing it as another ‘Project Fear’ wouldn’t quite cut it, as the experience of attempting to destroy capitalism by destroying capitalism only became a reality.

How ironic that it is the ideological supporters of capitalism itself that are inflicting this damage, rather than the relatively irrelevant proponents of Lexit.  Not only is this Left’s programme of breaking with the EU being implemented by the likes of UKIP, Tories, the Daily Mail and The Sun but the nonsense of a ‘progressive’ Brexit is being pursued by Corbyn’s Labour Party.  And we can see how useless that is as well.

Rarely does this Left get such an opportunity to see its big policies implemented. Unfortunately, it’s unlikely they will learn anything from their errors, since they seem barely to recognise that what they have wanted is actually being implemented.

Concluded

Back to part 2

 

 

 

Brexit and Ireland part 1 – the Irish Left

irexitI have just read that various police forces in Britain have taken steps to prepare for a spike in racist and ‘hate’ crimes once Article 50 is triggered in March.  It is also correctly predicted that the course of the negotiations will present numerous opportunities for nationalists and racists to turn the failure of these negotiations to deliver on their fantasies into attacks on foreigners.  What the Tories will do verbally in attacking the EU it can be safely assumed that nationalist street thugs will do with their fists.

The reactionary outcome of the Brexit referendum is so obvious that it is simply grotesque and monstrously stupid that those sections of the left who supported Brexit still see it as progressive.  How dim or blinded by political dogma does one have to be not to see the link between the rise in racist attacks and the encouragement given to racists by the Brexit result?

The reactionary consequences of Brexit are glaringly obvious yet the process is being touted by it supporters in Britain as the way forward for the left in the rest of Europe.  The reactionary dreamers of a long lost imperial glory want to go back to the past while left supporters of Brexit imagine that a massive step back to the past will somehow represent a great leap forward into the future.  One of the few difference between the former and the latter is that the former makes more sense!

The European left have the luxury of watching the British events from one remove, but it is not the only advantage that they have.  Having witnessed the dire outcomes of Brexit they should stand firmly against their own states seeking the nationalist short cut to a non-solution though exiting the EU.  They too, just like British workers, must be alert to any weakening and diminution of their rights arising from the Brexit negotiations.  Of course, were Brexit the progressive outcome claimed by some we should expect a boost to workers’ rights from the negotiations, but the ridiculousness of such a thought only exposes the idea as incredible.

This is particularly the case for Irish workers whose state has the strongest links to Britain and could be most immediately and directly affected.  Yet even in Ireland the same left supporters of Brexit trot out the same ignorant arguments in favour of the decision; despite the increased xenophobia, despite the increased racist attacks, despite the massive shift to the right in the agenda of the Tory government, and opposite incoherence of the Corbyn-led Labour Party.  Despite all the evidence that the consequences have been reactionary the Brexit-supporting left has learned nothing.

The basis for their support for Brexit is the same mistaken arguments of their co-thinkers in Britain. Thus, they say that “the EU is run in the interest of Europe’s bosses and bankers.”  It is “deeply undemocratic, anti-worker, racist and regressive.”  Yep, mostly very true, just like the Irish State itself, which is the alternative to the EU that they put forward.  The nation state that doesn’t even include all of the nation is the alternative to the increased unity of the various states which determine the EU’s policy.  Apparently this is because although the EU cannot be reformed, the Irish State can.

In fact the Irish left must be applauded for making their illusions in nationalism so clear – that their opposition to the EU is based on their belief that the various capitalist nation states can be reformed and become the route to socialism.  The task across Europe is “to bring Left governments to power which will nationalise industry, while the EU would only be “a fetter on a future left-wing government.”

Capitalist state ownership and its political power is presented as socialism without an inkling that socialism is the power of the working class, which it is the capitalist state’s function to suppress and repress.  This complete misunderstanding of what socialism is about means that there is no conception of how it can arise from the current system.

It is correctly recognised that the EU is an attempt to “overcome the limitations of the nation state, to allow the free flow of capital and labour so as to maximise profits as well as forming a more powerful geo-political bloc.  The withdrawal of one of its major economies represents a profound blow to these ambitions.”

This apparently is what makes Brexit progressive.  It’s as if the objective of socialism is to restrict the free flow of capital and to frustrate the maximisation of profits.  It is probably news to these socialists that this is not the objective of socialism.

Capitalism presents its own barriers to the free flow of capital and the maximisation of profit, and which are expressions of the contradictions of capitalism pointed out by Karl Marx 150 years ago.  The point of socialism is to resolve these contradictions through the birth of a new system, not to intensify capitalist contradictions as an objective in itself.

On the other hand, it is an objective of socialism to support “the free flow of labour” and it is the objective of socialism to “overcome the limitations of the nation state”.  In fact, one objection to capitalism is that it has so far proved unable to do this.  Socialists do not seek to go back to the nation state but forward beyond it based on the steps that capitalism has already taken.  The first is called freedom of movement, an elementary democratic right and vital to workers’ unity, and the second is called socialist internationalism, the idea of which the Brexit left seems totally innocent.

Finally, this Brexit-Irexit left want to land a profound blow against “forming a more powerful geo-political bloc” by forming a Lilliputian bloc of one.

This left proclaims that it voted for Brexit “not because we have anything in common with the nationalism and xenophobia of the likes of UKIP” but because the EU is neo-liberal etc.  But this is obviously untrue.  The proposed Brexit referendum was sufficiently to their liking that they voted for it, called on everyone else to vote for it, still support even now and call for other countries to emulate it.  Nothing in common?  Is all this just a coincidence then?

What they both have in common is a nationalist conception of politics that is centred on the professed progressive potential of the nation state.  Both seek national independence as a prerequisite for progress and state intervention as the key to it. Totally the opposite of the socialist view that unity across nations is the key for workers and the nation state an obstacle to this.

Even in terms of the specific role of increased state spending, the views of this left are not so far from some of the proposals for increased spending presented by those other nationalists Trump and le Pen.  The tide of reactionary nationalism that these two and the Brexiteers represent threatens trade wars justified by rabid jingoistic rhetoric and sabre rattling.  The world has been here before in the twentieth century.  Giving a left gloss on this growth of reactionary nationalism by tail-ending it is a massive mistake, only reduced in effect by the relatively small forces advocating it.

The Brexit-supporting left is oblivious to their own role in the growth of this nationalist politics.  It minimises the xenophobic and racist content of the Brexit referendum by claiming that the Remain campaign was also anti-immigrant, ignoring the difference in degree and importance of such ideas on each side.  How quickly the murder of a Labour MP by a nationalist fanatic is forgotten!  How likely was this to have arisen from a supporter of the Remain campaign?

This left doesn’t even believe its own excuses – acknowledging that “the majority of ‘Remain’ voters did so for very positive reasons – in opposition to the xenophobia and inward-looking nationalism of the forces which dominated the official ‘Leave’ campaign, expressing a desire for unity across national borders.”  A desire expressed in freedom of movement within the EU, a freedom ignored completely in the series of analyses reviewed for this post.

All this exposes the hollowness of proclaimed opposition to rising anti-immigrant prejudices, prejudices fuelled by the decision they supported and still support.  Political positions have a logic outwith the sincerest of intentions – it’s commonly called the road to hell being paved with good intentions.  But even here the articles can’t help skirt with prejudice by talking of the “strain” caused by immigration and “the real concerns over the effects of immigration.”

This left presents frankly delusional claims that Brexit has been good for the working class – “opportunities are posed for the working class to organise and assert their interests” and “the working class can now more easily shape the course of events than it could within the glass prison of the EU.”

But in the real world the increase in racist attacks continues and reactionary nationalist rhetoric intensifies.  The Tories threaten to create a low-wage, low tax and deregulated free market paradise off the coast of Europe – a threat to British workers and to all of Europe’s workers – not an opportunity.

Most directly and immediately it is a threat to Irish workers.  After all, who else occupies the low tax, low regulation, super-business friendly niche that the Tories threaten to move into more obviously than the Irish?  My goodness, we even speak the same language.  Of course, the Irish State is inside the EU, which is a great attraction to US multinationals, but this does not help trade barriers for Irish-owned industry buying or selling into Britain, when Britain leaves the EU.  So, what better solution than for the Irish state to leave the EU as well?  After all, this fits the Trump agenda into the bargain.  Just a pity that this particular nationalist agenda also presents its own threats to the Irish ‘model’ of development.

Whatever way you look at it the nationalist agenda espoused by the Brexit-loving Irish left doesn’t offer any solutions to Irish workers.  But then, the Brexit left knows this itself:

“The bosses in Ireland will attempt to go on the offensive against the pay and conditions of workers in an attempt to make Irish exports more “competitive”, in the context of Sterling devaluing against the Euro. In short it is workers in Ireland, both public and private sector, who will be hit by the economic fallout of Brexit. Already the ESRI have talked of wage cuts taking place of between 4-5% for up to 60,000 workers. There have also been reports that the government may seek to attack the pay of public sector workers.”

So “it is workers in Ireland . . . who will be hit by the economic fallout of Brexit”.  But sure, wouldn’t it grand all the same?

Forward to part 2

Unity all round after the election

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Speculation continues about the formation of a new Government and that Fianna Fail and Fine Gael will collaborate to ensure that it will be more or less stable for however long.  It would be a disturbing thing for many if the ship of State were to sail too long without what is considered to be the captain.  The Left repeats that there are no differences between the two parties and that they should unite, making it easier to present the opposition as the Left.   In doing so they remind me of regular sermons from Catholic and Protestant Churches in the North that its politicians should get over their differences, to which the latter’s reply should be – “ok, you go first.”

It is not that the Left are wrong, they are correct.  The historian Diarmaid Ferriter quoted Seán O’Faoláin in 1945 saying that “Irish politics today are not politics; our two main parties are indistinguishable not because their political ideas are alike but because neither has any political idea at all – warriors of destiny and race of the Gaels – silly romantic titles that confess a complete intellectual vacancy as far as the reality of political ideas are concerned.”

This is something of an exaggeration – he’s wrong to say that the two parties’ ideas are not the same.  There are no ideological differences between them and this is only partly due to their respective ignorant assumptions that they don’t have any ideology in the first place; they do, and it’s called nationalism, which is very good at hiding and accommodating reactionary ideological views, often under the cover of left wing opinions.

But the long dominance of the two parties, with meagre ideological convictions to motivate them and stunted political ideas, rests on a population reared on a similar basis.  Of course the parties have gone a long way to create the lack of political development in the population but both have deeper roots borne out of the country’s lack of economic and social development for much of its history and the resulting political weakness of its working class.  This in turn has resulted in a politically weak labour movement.  An examination of this was written some time ago and I don’t intend to repeat it here.

The point is that the two civil war parties are both creations and creators of the population that supports them and that they have governed.  The rebound of Fianna Fail despite its calamitous performance as the previous Government only arises because of its continuing deep roots in society, roots that give it a permanence, which while not invariable and everlasting, nevertheless gives it a strength that can sustain major blows.  This reflects the nature of class society in Ireland and the social structure that grants endurance to the Fianna Fail clientelist machine and its nationalist ideology.

The Left would normally be built on similar permanent features of class society such as trade unions and other political movements but these are themselves politically weak and do not involve the majority of the members in regular joint activity.  This only takes place among union members when at work and mainly in their role as employees and not as trade unionists.  The roots of the union movement have particularly atrophied, as with social partnership there is little need for shop-floor or office activism when the relationship between low and high level reps and management and State sorts out everything important.  The Left has grown but mainly in localities through electoralism, not in the unions and not through rebuilding an active labour movement.  Ephemeral campaigns are no substitute for the permanent structures on which the right wing parties are based.

One mechanism that lies wholly within the Left’s power to build is a real political party; as we noted at the start the fragments could unite and stop throwing stones at Fianna Fail and Fine Gael while still in the greenhouse.  An obvious lesson of the elections, which shouldn’t need an election to be discovered, is the need for unity.

Unfortunately the AAA/PbP grouping showcases a left that comes together for the purposes of elections while tolerating and defending disunity outside them on the basis of tactics in campaigns and dogmatic political traditions and theories that they often don’t even adhere to.  The AAA/PbP is not only based on unity but also on a split within the previous United Left Alliance.

So even attempting unity is a major task that threatens the component parts because they may lose control.  But any attempt to maintain control would only frustrate the potential, the creation of which a united party is meant to release.  The point would be lost.

As I have said before, the capacity of the component organisations in a united working class party to contain large numbers of workers is very much open to doubt and in my view could only be successful if their dogmatic and undemocratic culture was dissolved, shattered or whatever simile is best applied to the process that would see it disappear.

Part of this ought also to include rejection of ideological assumptions that rest on unquestioned parroting of political views that should burn in the mouths of anyone claiming to be Marxist.  The day before the election I was listening to Today FM and Richard Boyd Barrett of People before Profit telling listeners that even those not on the Left regard the AAA/PbP as “good for the Dail”, as if it were ever any job of Marxists to be good for the institutions of the capitalist state.

Here was me thinking their duty was to expose the hollowness and pretence of capitalist democracy, not to pretty it up and sell it better than its real owners.

A further example was provided by an ‘Irish Times’ interview with the retiring (as a TD only) Joe Higgins of the Anti-Austerity Alliance, who stated his faith in statist ‘socialism’ by saying that the solution to the financial crisis in 2008 was to take the banks into (democratic) public ownership, which was more or less what was done with their effective nationalisation, but which also meant taking ownership of their unpayable debts.  The idea that the socialist answer is working class, cooperative ownership was not mentioned.

No wonder so many commentators have felt able to allege that Fianna Fail “stole the left’s clothes”; a reflection of the grubby character of the clothes rather than the daring of Fianna Fail.  A promise by the latter to legislate for workers’ rights to ownership of their place of work would really have been a bold and brave step, one the Left itself hasn’t contemplated.

A left that claims to be Marxist believes that it can and has held out against the world wide right wing trend of the last decades and the even longer period of absence of revolutionary circumstances in the most advanced capitalist countries.   Of course it has not and had it done so it would, ironically, disprove Marxism, which believes that social consciousness is determined by social being, including political consciousness being conditioned by material economic, social and political circumstances.   Not simply by ideological fealty to a particular set of theories.

It would be strange if, this being the case, small and weak political formations were not subject to such forces and extraordinary if there were no examples of its effects.  Once again, ironically, the disparagement of the need for ideological debate is one such example.

While the divisions on the right are built upon denial of common ideological views that are actually there, the divisions on the Left are due to presumed ideological divisions that aren’t.  This presumption helps prevent the required political debate necessary to develop the politics of the Left beyond reformist politics that facilitate allegations of theft.

Back to part 1

Voting in the 2016 election

aaapbp imageAs we head into the last ten days of the general election campaign the failure of Fine Gael’s strategy of ‘stability or chaos’ tells us not only that a majority would like to see a new Government, something explicitly polled and confirmed, but that there really is no threat of chaos that Fine Gael can hold itself up as protection against.  The liberal author Fintan O’Toole has cited pursuit of foreign investment, membership of the EU and a ‘consent’ approach to the national question as the reigning consensus.  Even if we added such things as social partnership, fake neutrality and unwillingness to challenge the Catholic Church this consensus holds.

So even after a full scale crisis, encompassing banking meltdown and the approach of sovereign bankruptcy, plus a grossly unfair transfer onto the majority of the reckless gambling debts of a privileged minority, the Irish working class is not threatening to overturn the existing political order.  Not that this is a shock, having voted into office the traditional Tweedledum alternative of a Fine Gael-Labour coalition to the thoroughly but not completely discredited Fianna Fail Tweedledee in the last election and then confirmed its choice in the 2012 austerity referendum.

This current vote will again demonstrate that elections will usher in no fundamental shift in the political power of the working class without a previous shift in its economic and social power and how to achieve this is hardly apprehended never mind understood.  Instead, it appears that the only stable configuration of parties that could form a Government after the vote is a Fine Gael/Fianna Fail coalition, although opinion polls put them at just under 50 per cent of the vote.

So while nothing fundamental will change, and the inability of Irish workers to break from the rotten political culture of the Irish State is once again confirmed, this does not make the election unimportant.  A marriage of convenience between the civil war parties would be a step forward in removing the false alternative they have claimed to offer for the best part of 90 years.  Nor is the search for some sort of alternative by many workers without importance, even if most seek it in independents who are utterly dependent on the rotten political culture that is often seen as the problem, and in newer versions of the old populist nationalism that has already failed them.

The most striking expression of this search for an alternative is the potential vote for left parties made up of the Anti-Austerity Alliance/People before Profit Alliance and others such as Clare Daly and Joan Collins.  Irish workers should be encouraged to vote for this left alternative.

As regular readers of the blog will know I have many criticisms of the politics of this left and I do not consider their political programmes either adequate or Marxist, in fact not even socialist, except in the popular understanding of what socialism means, in itself a misunderstanding that these parties unfortunately only confirm.

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The manifesto of the AAA/PbP Alliance puts forward a mixture of increased state intervention into the economy and redistribution of income through taxation.  The first involves an increased role for the existing capitalist state, which in the form of taking over of the banks was a weapon against the majority, while the second is predicated on existing property relations, the redistribution of income presupposing the existing ownership which alone can allow such a redistribution to take place.

It is however an alternative in the sense that it breaks from the right wing consensus and in doing so opens up space for a debate on more radical alternatives.  It impinges on the current choices of private capital and by seeking to protect workers from the worst ravages of the system increases their social power, which should also increase the scope for their political development.  That ultimately this Keynesian programme will not work, as indeed some of its authors admit, does not currently matter since it will not be called upon to be implemented.

The problems created by the view that the limited programme will be naturally outgrown by the need to go further, in order to realise even the limited aims of the proposals offered, remain but will therefore not be exposed.  The fight for more radical change based on a strategy centred on electoral and parliamentary success, but without the necessary building of the working class’s social power, will prove disastrous, since it fights precisely on the terrain favoured by the political and social forces that are the bulwarks of the current system.  No amount of rhetoric about support for a left Government from mass action outside the Dail makes up for the weakness of seeing the state as the mechanism for social and economic transformation.

Nevertheless the left’s alternative creates openings and if even minimally successful would create more favourable political and social conditions for the political development of the working class.  The organisations involved would not be able to cope in their existing form were masses of workers to join them, seeking to make them vehicles for their political advance.  These organisations would be changed more by a large influx of workers than the workers would be changed by these organisations.  Already their sometime declared revolutionary politics has been diluted by their electoral activity and hasn’t withstood the necessity of knocking on doors and asking for votes.

The less than revolutionary character of their programmes is due to their inability to conceive of revolutionary politics in a non-revolutionary situation, reflected in the low level of political consciousness of the workers from whom they have sought votes.  In this the left are not an obstacle but not much of a help either, certainly not as much as they should be.

The lack of democracy and dogmatic character of the left organisations would shatter if masses of workers raised within them the real questions facing the construction of socialism.  This lack of democracy is not primarily because of undemocratic restrictions, such as lack of rights to organise political tendencies, but because the memberships see no fundamental problems that need debate in the first place; despite or perhaps because of the lack of any revolutionary success.  For them the strategic questions have already been answered.  However for workers this might not be the case.

The Left are now recording around 10 per cent in Dublin and such a result would be a significant step forward.  Such results do not however confirm the strategy of seeking creation of a Left Government as the way forward, and given the political and economic crisis of the last decade may be seen as a relatively poor return.  What the left offers however is a class identification even if somewhat diluted.  This is evidenced in their ideological background, their manifestos and subjective intentions. On this it may be possible for something more adequate to the tasks to develop.

A vote for these left candidates is therefore important and would strengthen the resistance to existing austerity.  It would place the existence of an alternative on the political agenda in a much more elevated way and make it the subject of increased debate.

The question then arises whether a vote for Sinn Fein should also be called for.  After all, I have previously argued that the difference between the policies of Sinn Fein and the Left is one of degree – greater state involvement and greater redistribution but no fundamental change in property relationships.  I noted that involvement of Sinn Fein in a left electoral alliance would add some credibility to the perspective of electing a Left Government, which is the left’s own perspective, and I recommended that the left seek agreement with Sinn Fein on the platform for such a potential alliance and future Government.

However, the pursuit of some sort of agreement was put forward in order to better expose the limitations of Sinn Fein’s claims or alternatively to lock them more effectively into an agreement of more substance.  In the event this approach was not attempted and neither objective can be said to have been achieved.  There is no real left alliance regardless of Sinn Fein signing up to the principles of Right2Change or agreements on voting transfers.

Sinn Fein is therefore standing as a purely independent party and can only be judged on its own credentials.  In the North it has been tried and tested and has not only failed to offer an effective fight against austerity, or alternative to it, but has actually implemented it in coalition with one of the most right wing parties in Europe.  It is a purely nationalist party that abandoned its core rationale a long time ago; it has no class perspective, even of a limited kind, and its interventions in actual struggles against austerity have been opportunistic.

Of course it can be argued that the smaller organisations of the left have the luxury of not having been tested either and their constant refrain of betrayals of the working class have been made without themselves having withstood the pressures of office.  Indeed my argument has been that their reformist and electoralist strategy puts them precisely in the position of those such as Syriza in Greece that they have condemned for selling out.

There is however a difference between those who have been tested and failed and those who have not.  A difference between those who offer some perspective of struggle, even if subordinated to electoral and parliamentary calculations, and those for whom such calculations are everything.   A difference between those whose politics are purely nationalist and those whose policies are limited to the nation state by virtue of other weaknesses of their political programme.  A difference between those for whom the working class has some independent political interest and those for whom it is simply a sociological category denoting the poorest sections of society.

There should be no vote for Sinn Fein even though a strong showing for it would also reflect opposition to austerity and pursuit of an alternative.  While it is possible that the working class could develop its political strength and its class consciousness through left organisations, in my view the possibility of doing this through Sinn Fein is excluded.  A strong vote for Sinn Fein is as likely to lead it into coalition with Fianna Fail as it is to result in increased pressure for concessions to workers.  This is more so the case because of the lack of any alliance of Sinn Fein with the left, for which of course the fault lies also with Sinn Fein itself.

Workers in the Irish State should therefore vote for the Left.