The debate on socialist strategy and the Irish Left – Part 5

The strategy of attrition proposed by Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien proposes democratisation of the existing state through electoralism. They pose the question of the existing state as “whether its form in the advanced capitalist countries is so antithetical to socialism that it is of little use in the project of socialist transformation. But what is this form?”

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I have tried to answer this question in the last post by setting out that the form the state takes is an expression of its role in resolving class conflict according to the rules of the capitalist system.  The rule of law performs an ideological role by disguising the rule of people, a particular class of people.

The capitalist state is adept at hiding its class nature as does the economic system itself because the rules of the state are universal in the same degree as the laws of the capitalist economy.  To challenge either is to invite economic, social or political collapse – unless one has a real, practical and concrete alternative.

The class character of society is not hidden from Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien but the class character of the state is, so that they consider democracy as something that is devoid of any essential class character.  There is only more or less democracy; not ‘bourgeois’ democracy or ‘proletarian’ democracy.

Presumably as the state becomes more democratic it reflects more and more the interests of the majority working class within society and if this were the only distinction between their view and that of classical Marxist then it might be argued that there would be differences only of terminology and views on the possibility of such democratisation.

Unfortunately this is not the case because their view of a democratised state leaves out the essential content of workers democracy, which because it is the rule of the vast majority of a class whose interests lie in the abolition of all oppression and exploitation, leads not to the perfection of the state but to its disappearance.

So the answer to their question is Yes, the “form [of the state] in the advanced capitalist countries is . . . antithetical to socialism [so] that it is of little use in the project of socialist transformation.”

The post by Revolutionary Programme sets out the views of Marx as to what a working class state might look like including the revocability of the elected, their working class membership, the working character of the elected body and the payment of the elected at a workers’ wage.

Much of the functions of the present state, such as education, would no longer belong to the state proper but would be functions of society.  Other functions would also be abolished in their present form such as the standing army and become a workers’ militia staffed by workers for short periods.  Hierarchical structures would be reduced and eventually eliminated while those at the top of certain functions would be elected and thus cease to be directly accountable parts of the state but an accountable part of the wider society.

Such a state that immediately begins to wither away is incompatible with the existing state which distinguishes itself by characteristics that are precisely opposed to these.  The capitalist state stands above and apart from society, apart from its ‘vested interests’, and prides itself on its hierarchical and bureaucratic character, its rules, its procedures and pure administrative logic.

Its staff pride themselves not on what they have in common with wider society but their professionalism that separates them from it.  Its representatives, elected and non-elected, require ‘adequate’ remuneration so that they aren’t vulnerable to corruption from it.  Their position must be insulated from popular pressure especially in choreographed periodic elections when extra care must be taken by the non-elected through entering a period of purdah and the elected have a few weeks in which to attempt to manipulate political debate.

Those who make laws must not be infected by their application.  Hierarchies are required to discipline and train the state’s staff in the rigours of bureaucracy.  All this is cemented by an ideology that eschews particular interests that actually do exist in favour of the interests of the state itself or the interests of the nation, which do not exist, except to hide the interests of the nation’s ruling class.

Such a state can only be separate and stand above and apart from society because society stands apart from the functions of the state.  This can only happen when society is characterised by the ownership of its productive powers by a small class and by the existence of a much larger class without ownership of any productive property and thus in little or no position to assert rights or interests within society or have them reflected by the state.  If the latter did the state would disintegrate through the struggle of incompatible interests.

Thus whatever impact working class struggle has on the workings of the state it is relatively minor and certainly cannot transform it into a mechanism for advancing the socialist project.

Where the productive powers of society, including its factories, offices, warehouses, transport, hospitals and schools are the collective property of society and controlled and managed by its members the possibility exists for the functions of the state to merge with this society.  Under capitalism no such possibility exists.

This is why the alternative democratisation proposed by Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien, of the state becoming the tool for the socialisation of production, does not succeed.  Even by doing so it does not cease to stand above society, above the working majority, who continue to work for it and not for themselves.   The state cannot therefore socialise society as it ‘socialises’ production.

For them the ‘herculean’ task becomes one of “learning to guide a large bureaucracy into a democratic mode of operation.”  In the same breath they say that it is “only in certain forms of organisation and under certain conditions that their (workers) capacity is actually realised.”  Unfortunately large bureaucracies are not one of them.  In fact such bureaucracies are the antithesis of free and democratic organisation.  How do you guide the democratic operation of bureaucracies without them either ceasing to be bureaucracies or ceasing to be guided?

The Stalinist states, the capitalist states, and the workers organisations in capitalists countries are all evidence of the incompatibility of bureaucracy with workers democracy.  Elsewhere in their argument Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien recognise this but unfortunately the logic of their position compels them to propose the employment of bureaucracy to extend democracy within the existing state.

I am reminded of the quote by Lenin, exasperated by the growing bureaucratisation of the new workers’ state: “If we take Moscow with its 4,700 Communists in responsible positions, and if we take the huge bureaucratic machine, that gigantic heap, we must ask: who is directing whom? I doubt very much whether it can be truthfully said that the Communists are directing that heap. To tell the truth, they are not directing, they are being directed.” (Works, vol. 33, page 288, our emphasis)

The working class is now more cultured than was the Russian working class of the 1920s but the state bureaucracy is now also much larger.  Besides the impossibility of steering a large bureaucracy to democracy, why would one want to? Surely the task is to remove bureaucracy in the way described by Marx and removing functions from it to be democratically run by the workers as part of the rest of society?

The strategy of Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien to achieve such democratisation of the state through a political party seems wilfully to ignore the lessons of the degeneration of the Russian revolution.

Their proposals do not undermine bureaucracy but are inevitably built on its own principles since it is the state which they propose must be at the “centre” of democratisation.

So, for example “the state could mandate various banks to invest according to certain criteria which have won support through the majority socialist party.”

How could the state mandate the banks in any sort of sensible way as to how or where to invest?  What rules, which the banks already have, would they devise and bring to bear that those seeking money would not then present in a tick-box manner simply to get the money?  The lending decisions of the banks would therefore have to be monitored.

The decision of where to invest would now involve two parties where previously one existed.  But it is argued that it is the socialist party that will know what these rules should be although how a political party will know this is a mystery.  So we actually have three parties involved now where one existed before and we get more bureaucracy.

What we don’t get is any idea that workers taking control of production should establish their own banks and, being directly involved in production and finance, might have a better idea about where to invest.

But no, it is the state “by using its legislative and judicial functions in a pro-labour way . . . which promotes workers’ self-activity.”  As an example they argue that a bureaucratic ‘independent’ judicial process must decide whether workers can take over their workplace and create a cooperative enterprise.

“Workers would not be handed the products; the socialist militants would still have to persuade the workers in each enterprise to seek their legal right. Independent jury tribunals can decide in these and other cases between employers and workers. Assuming the juries are randomly selected, as they are now, then the working class will make up its majority, thereby facilitating pro-labour judgments. Of course, if the tribunals were to return consistently anti-labour decisions, we would have good evidence that support for socialisation was waning.”

Everything I have said about bureaucratic rules and the supposed independence of the state is employed to enforce dependence of workers on the state even when they seek to establish their own ownership of production.

Again the idea that workers should be free to establish their own cooperative production free from state interference seems alien to this idea of a rules-based socialism; for what is more rules-based that judicial proceedings where those with the greatest resources (the capitalist) argue and frustrate those with far less resources?  The reality of class justice in current society, which also has working class juries, seems to be lost on Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien.

To be continued.

The debate on socialist strategy and the Irish Left – Part 4

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As part of the Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien argument that the state is not essentially a capitalist one they state that society is more complicated than it once was.   Implicitly they must be arguing that it is less fully capitalist since the state now performs functions that workers should be defending.  Indeed they go much further than this:

“A further reason for not smashing the existing state is that we need it. . . . The modern state is needed for the simple reason that it performs socially necessary functions without which a technologically advanced, densely populated society would collapse. And compared to the pre WW I state, today’s one runs vastly more essential services like healthcare, education, food and pharmaceutical safety regulation, environmental controls, provision of infrastructure, and a civil and criminal justice system.”

“If those functions go unfulfilled by a future socialist polity, the day-to-day experience of life for everyone will quickly degrade leading to an erosion of support for the socialist government (or polity). Court summonses for drink driving, to take just one example, will have to be issued under a socialist administration just as much as they would under a capitalist one. In theory, the state justice system can be replaced by popular tribunals but rules of procedure, expertise in summarising and arguing the law, administrative clerks and the like cannot just be recreated at will. The legal norms are the product of a long, messy, and less than edifying social evolutionary process. Limited as they may be, they have the under-appreciated virtue of actually existing — not a trivial accomplishment.”

The last part of this long quote is particularly bad, with it having more in common with Edmund Burke than Karl Marx.  It is also amusing that they choose what might seem an everyday and unremarkable state function such as enforcing road traffic laws since we have just seen how the Irish State through the Garda have torn up thousands of penalty points. Even in performing such a humdrum function the state exhibits its propensity to bias and corruption.

As for the response to their overall argument, it is not the point that certain state functions, or rather certain functions currently carried out by the state, should not be done.  The question is how and by whom and for what purpose?

When we look at how the current state performs these roles we can see how it does so in subordination to the capitalist economic system.

We shall do this ‘logically’ but it should not be forgotten that the historical evolution of the state shows how it acquires its capitalist character.  So for example, as Marx pointed out, the growth of the state and the debts of the state became a powerful means of developing capitalist accumulation.

When capitalists turn money capital into productive capital they need to buy labour power capable of carrying out certain tasks effectively and efficiently.  Workers need to be healthy and with increasing levels of education to carry out increasingly complex tasks.  Even routine and boring tasks are not completely devoid of training.

The capitalists could try to pay for the health and education of their own workforce by themselves.  Unfortunately if some capitalists did this other capitalists would not and would then poach the healthy and skilled workers educated and kept healthy by competitors.  Such is one of the contradictions of capitalism.  Much better then to socialise the cost by getting the state to provide health services and education.

The market provided by the health and education services can then be milked by capitalist providers of health and education products such as drugs, medical equipment and hospitals and schools built through Private Finance Initiatives.

This then costs the health and education services more than necessary and results in either poorer quality services or higher taxes. And although these taxes are paid overwhelmingly by workers, who pay for the welfare state, the capitalists prefer cheaper and effective health and education services so that the value of labour power they pay for does not decline by higher taxes on workers’ income putting pressure on them to raise wages to compensate.

So the contradiction within capitalism isn’t removed, it is just displaced.  Getting the state to carry out functions doesn’t resolve the contradiction between seeking healthy and skilled workers and keeping down the costs while trying as much as possible to make these services easily exploitable commodities subject to direct capitalist provision.

The capitalist system doesn’t find it easy to negotiate through these requirements so, for example, it constantly reorganises the NHS in Britain, boosts then restricts private finance, changes school governance one way and then another and seeks to make working class children more suitable for employment while trying to limit the costs of educating them.

But all these changes of policy and seemingly confused changes of direction within state provided services are not direct examples of struggle between a progressive state and private capital but expressions of the contradictions of the capitalist system itself.

They do not reflect the pressure of the working class as against that of capitalists, although the working class will have its own views and interests bound up in such issues.

In Ireland and in Britain the working class has not been so weak for a very long time and while welfare is being tightened it is not being abolished.  Were welfare states the simple result of the balance of forces between capitalist and workers we would have expected much greater changes.

When the capitalist has bought labour power the state does not generally intervene in their prerogatives or that of their managers and then only if these are challenged by workers.  Factories and offices however generally don’t work without infrastructural facilities such as roads, transport, water and power and sometimes the state provides these or regulates the private companies that do.

Again the desires the private companies that do can often conflict with the needs of the private companies that use their services.

When production has ceased and the goods and services need to be sold to workers or to other capitalists the state intervenes by setting minimal standards, including contract laws and customer protection legislation, and supporting trade through tariff reductions, provision of insurance and sponsoring trade promotion.

When money is recovered from sales it goes into the financial system in one way or another and once again the venality of this system is a problem not just for workers but also for certain capitalists who would like the state to increase credit to business, reduce charges  and make the financial capitalists less privileged.  Opposition to ‘parasitic’ finance is not the monopoly of the left but has been a theme of the most reactionary movements in history.

In summary the main functions of the state as it has developed both reflects the needs of the growing capitalist system and reflects its contradictions.

An historical analysis also undermines the view that such aspects of the state as welfare, the ‘welfare state’, are examples of working class influence on what the state does.  The first steps in welfareism were taken by Bismarck in Germany, by the Liberal Party and Conservatives in Britain and a welfare state exists in the Irish State where there has never been a social democratic government of any type.

The argument that state functions have to be carried out for society to function is true but this does not support the Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien argument but exposes their strategy, for it is not technical aspects that define state functions but the social relations of production that define the roles that are performed.

Were the state to start to carry out the economic functions currently performed by the capitalist class and on an international basis it would undermine the functioning of the capitalist system itself and would lead to economic dislocation and collapse.

This would happen because of the sabotage of the capitalist class itself, because of the internationalisation of capitalist production which the nation state cannot substitute for without enormous economic regression and because the state cannot carry out the economic functions of capitalism without either being the capitalist itself or it beoming the sort of society we saw in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.

This sort of society proved unviable. It collapsed almost everywhere and is no model to emulate where it has not.  The inability of the state to substitute itself for capitalism both shows that it is not the road to socialism, or socialism would also be unviable, and that it is workers’ owned means of production that is.

In other words the functions carried out by the state that are recorded above are necessary for society to work without severe economic regression but only in so far as the society is a capitalist one.  Too little state intervention and the economic system will regress but too much and it invades what are more properly tasks of private capitalists.  The contradictory nature of capitalism, the bureaucratic rationality of aspects of state functioning and ideological disputes all mean that the concrete operation and role of the state is constantly in dispute.

The working class has an interest in who wins (temporarily) in this struggle but it does not take sides but advances its own powers to impose its own solutions upon the system and its state by ultimately replacing both.

The functions of the capitalist state are therefore performed because of the way the capitalist system works and are performed in a way determined by that system.  Just as the way the capitalist system works seems natural so does the workings of the state and the respective roles that they both have. All seem natural.

The economic system produces what Marx calls commodity fetishism where the attributes of people become the attributes of things.  The productive relations formed by people to produce the things they need become requirements of ‘the economy’, which has demands which people can’t control but can only accede to.

The actions of the state are complimentary to this economic system so that what it does not do – the activities of the capitalist class – also seems natural.  Just as capitalism delivers economic growth the state is seen to distribute the fruits of that growth.

The need of the former for the services of the latter become, as in the argument of Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien, mere technical functions that must be performed regardless so that the class character of the state is not at all fundamental.

These technical requirements however only exist because of the capitalist nature of the mode of production and would not exist as they do in another mode of production.  For example under a socialist mode of production health services, education, product safety and infrastructure provision would not be carried out by the state or any state-like body.

The capitalist character of the state is therefore reflected in a number of ways.

So for example, the claim that the state is autonomous is also held to be proof that it is not capitalist.  But to the extent it is not autonomous it directly reflects particular (capitalist) interests and for socialists the fact that it does in general exist autonomously from society is also demonstration that it exits separate and opposed to it, including from  the vast majority of society, particularly its working class.  Under the new society no body autonomous from society with any political powers would exist.  The powers of society would be wholly integral to it under socialism.

We have seen that what the state does and does not do demonstrates its capitalist character.  Under a new society it will disappear and no coercive body above or autonomous from society would exist.  The state, as Marxists have claimed, will wither away.

The personnel of the state are carefully selected, vetted and trained.  In Britain the most important forces declare loyalty not to the people but to the Queen.  In Britain and Ireland and elsewhere there is no greater crime than those committed against the armed forces of the state.  Witness the media coverage of killings of Garda for example.

The most senior positions in the state are almost invariable held by members of the most privileged classes and their rank and position within the state cements this where it does not create it.  Many can make a lucrative career on the Boards of capitalist corporations when they leave state employment.

The bureaucratic and hierarchical structure of the state reflects its need to insulate itself from democratic control and accountability.  When it needs to enforce its wishes it acts with force and decisively, it is hard.  When it evades accountability it appears as a blancmange, a maze and an impenetrable system in which no one appears to know how things work and no one is responsible.  One may as well try to pick up mercury with tweezers or cut through water.  Excuses are offered that we have asystemic failure but no one in this system made up of people is responsible.  Once again the actions of people become the property of things.

Laws are broken by the state so we have an enquiry.  When laws are broken by workers they are put in jail.  In no other country in Western Europe more than Ireland is it less credible to believe that the state is a neutral upholder of the law.   A cursory examination of the actions by state forces in the North of the country would explode the most ingrained prejudices, except of course the North of Ireland is always held up as a place apart.  And so the state always upholds the law except when it doesn’t.

The state is also a nation state so right from the start loyalty to it immediately involves division, the division of the working class, even when the workers belong to the same firm and would be out of work were their fellow (foreign) workers to fail to carry out their labour as they should.  The state teaches dependency on it not on the cooperative labour of the working class of all countries without which “a technologically advanced, densely populated society would collapse.”

The symbols, rules, hierarchies, uniforms, traditions and ideology of the state all make it inimical to working class self-emancipation from the rules symbols, rules, hierarchies, uniforms, traditions and ideology that oppress it.

In the final part of this post I will look at the argument that the state is, on the contrary, the mechanism of working class liberation.

The debate on socialist strategy and the Irish Left – Part 3

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“Marxists see the state as a form of class rule. It is not a free floating entity above the messy reality of class conflict but rather a tool for suppressing the exploited, that is, an organisational tool of those in control of the means of production. For much of history, this is essentially an accurate description and it remains fundamentally true to this day. In Ireland alone, the continuous and truly massive transfer of wealth from workers to capitalists arising from the latter’s losses in property speculation is a graphic illustration of the balance of class power.”

“. . . But modern society is more complicated than pre-capitalist social formations. The exploited are not as powerless and thus have gained a measure of influence over the state itself, the degree of which depends on the balance of class forces at any given juncture. The strength of the working class in Europe over the 20th century is reflected in the significant gains that it made, winning concessions on everything from maternity pay to lower retirement, from national health services to a reduction in militarism.”

“The western state is open to influence by other sectors. That is, it is dominated by capitalists and will, when push comes to shove, tend to favour their interests rather than those of other sectors. That tendency, however, demonstrates not that the state is intrinsically structured to deliver capitalism but that the social dominance of the capitalists manifests itself in the political choices made by those who control the state. Capitalist control of the investment process is key because most states are dependent on capitalists for a functioning economy, which itself is necessary to keep its population relatively satisfied and to generate income via taxation.”

“The state’s own capacity to reproduce itself, then, is dependent on capitalist investment but importantly it is not itself a capitalist formation as is proven by the existence of non-capitalist sovereign powers throughout history. The state, as a powerful entity with a distinct history and a degree of freedom regarding accruing resources, could attempt to usurp the capitalist position by supplanting its role in the investment process. Indeed, that is what we largely advocate. . . and a process of democratisation of the state is best seen as a parallel process to democratising the ownership of capital itself, rather than as either as a precursor or a successor to it. Until that balance of power is altered there is little reason to expect the state to escape its subservience to the needs of capitalists.”

“The state, in other words, does not operate on capitalist lines. It operates in a capitalist context. . .  The state is not, then, an eternal verity destined to contaminate all those who touch it but rather a site of struggle that reflects the balance of forces in wider society. It is a tool whose usefulness depends very much on who is wielding it and for what purpose. . . . but even if the premise of the state as an intrinsically capitalist one does not hold up, there is the further issue of whether its form in the advanced capitalist countries is so antithetical to socialism that it is of little use in the project of socialist transformation.”

These are the views of Gavin Mendel-Gleason and James O’Brien on the state.  In summary they say that the state has become more complicated, and so it has, and give its welfare functions as evidence of this.  The state has had a long history and has not always been capitalist and nor is it intrinsically capitalist now.  Rather it is open to pressure from forces in society, including the working class.  However the role of investment by capitalists, on which the state itself depends for functioning, means that the state tends towards supporting capitalism.  This however can be changed as both the state and capital is democratised with democratisation of the former being the means to democratise the latter.  So much so that it can be used to transform current society into a socialist one.

The view of Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien is essentially of a rather passive reflector of outside forces that has developed its own interests but which is a powerful mechanism that can be employed to revolutionise society.  Not altogether a very consistent or coherent analysis.

Let’s take the role of investment which Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien say is the key question.

Why is it that only the capitalists invest and so can influence the form of the state and how it operates?

This is because capitalism rests on the exclusion of the working class from ownership of the means of production.  When capitalists invest they also buy the labour power of workers and in order to make a profit, to extract surplus value in Marxist terms, they must pay workers less for the labour they perform than is included in what they produce.  The value of the labour performed by workers that they receive in wages is less than the value of the goods and services they produce.  This surplus value pays for the state among other things.

This arrangement seems natural and democratic since no one is compelled to work for any particular employer, can start their own business if they want and can ask for higher wages if they think they deserve more.  They enter into an employment contract voluntarily and as citizens with equal rights.  The state sets laws which reflect and guarantee this natural, democratic and equitable arrangement.

Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien can presumably see that the process of investment is but one part of an economic arrangement that places some with the ownership of capital and the many without and that this is neither natural or democratic nor equitable.  The role of the state is to protect this system so why can they not see that it too is neither natural or democratic or equitable but is rather intrinsically oppressive because it is based on the capitalist system itself?

If the state more and more took over the role of investment, i.e. took over the role of employing workers to produce surplus value, it would not be democratising capital but itself becoming the capitalist.

The apparent harmony of the capitalist system is exposed when  workers challenge the right of capital to exploit them either through strikes, occupations, pickets or pursuit of any restriction on capital that the owners of the means of production find unacceptable.  The state in these cases protects strike breakers, expels workers occupying workplaces, restricts or attacks pickets and allows sometimes the most egregious behaviour of capitalists to go unpunished.

The state will often sacrifice its own tax revenue to defend capitalists and in the case of the Irish state will see itself go bankrupt to bail out native and foreign bond holders and the banks.

What the state does not do, and has never done, anywhere and at any time – even in periods of mass working class pressure when Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien say it should – is organise strikes, attack strike breakers, plan occupations and pass laws that threaten the profitability of capitalism.  Sometimes, in extremis, it will nationalise capitalist concerns but since the state is itself capitalist this can easily be reversed, as it has been so many times.

The harmony of capitalism is therefore undermined by class struggle and the state exists to resolve this conflict.  Since this conflict can be resolved in ‘normal’ and peaceful periods through negotiation or compromise the state will support this.  In periods of crisis when it cannot be resolved the state will apply its force to defend capitalism.

In normal times the basic legitimacy and rules of capitalism are not contested so resolution means defending capitalism by default.  In periods of crisis workers break the rules and the state, as rule maker, must defend these rules or see its role destroyed so that defending itself is coincidental with defending the capitalist system on which the rules are based.

Since the rules apply to everyone and, as we have said, the economic system seems natural, democratic and equitable the rules and the state that defends them appear not to be defending any particular interest but the general interest, the national interest.  Workers who break the rules are charged with attacking the national interest, which is one reason why socialists are so opposed to nationalism since it binds workers to a state that defends and protects their exploitation.

So the state does indeed reflect class struggle but it is the means by which one class deploys the overwhelming power it disposes of in society, by virtue of its monopoly of the ownership of the means of production, to dominate and suppress the class of workers on whom it relies to expand its capital.

As law maker it sets rules which can only be consistent with the dominant mode of production and which are ultimately enforced by the most openly and patently reactionary arms of the state – the police, army, prisons and judicial system.  By these rules, as the old English saying goes:

They hang the man and flog the woman,

Who steals the goose from off the common,

Yet let the greater villain loose,

That steals the common from the goose.

The capitalist state therefore appears to be autonomous from any particular economic interest but the essential characteristic of the state is not its autonomy but its class character.  This autonomy is often exaggerated by Marxists and it is not uncommon for particular capitalist class interests to dominate to the detriment of others.  Political history is replete with conflicts between various sections of the capitalist class – industrial versus landed, large versus small, monopoly versus competitive, national versus comprador and foreign, declining versus growing, financial versus manufacturing.  This is why ideally the state does have autonomy.  But it cannot have it from the system as a whole.

How the state does this is a question of historical development but we must nail the argument that just because the state existed before capitalism and therefore could not then have been capitalist, it is not its class character which is its essential nature.  Before the capitalist state there was a feudal state and sometimes the bourgeoisie fought what is termed ‘bourgeois revolutions’ in order to make the state a capitalist one.

In these cases the transference of power was one from one exploiting class to another while socialism is the taking of power by the exploited majority.  That is why it cannot be achieved by simply taking over an oppressive and exploitative mechanism and developing it into a mechanism of liberation and freedom.  But we shall come back to that.

The debate on socialist strategy and the Irish Left – Part 2

detroit-industry--north-wall-diego-riveraIn the first post I looked at those aspects of the Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien argument that I thought were broadly correct.  In this part I want to look at their other criticisms of what they see as the revolutionary approach and what I see as valid in their criticisms of what passes for revolutionary Marxism but what I believe is not necessary to it.

They state of the revolutionary approach that “destruction of the state is the order of the day, with the point of note being the sequence: first, the state, as the godfather of capital, must be taken out of the equation; only then can the working class organise, through new forms such as workers’ councils, the mass participation in public life necessary to the complete the journey to socialism.”

“Until a revolutionary situation arises in which the state can be smashed there are limits to what can be achieved on a mass scale since it is the process of revolution itself that draws the masses into public life.”

“The party that revolutionaries seek to build interacts with the masses during the revolutionary process and is the repository of the historical mission in less propitious times. But the revolutionary party itself has a different role than the workers councils and remains separate from them and pre-revolutionary mass organisations.  By separate we mean institutionally distinct, not that they never try to influence them.  Although naturally a pro-insurrectionary party would like to grow, it doesn’t aim to win a majority support for itself. . .”

“If anything the creation of permanent mass institutions becomes a fetter which prevents a revolutionary overthrow of capitalism by the treacherous actions of its bureaucratised leadership when the hour strikes.”

It is not that Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien are unaware of the dangers of bureaucratisation in the building of a socialist workers’ movement: “Clearly there is a danger that the day-to-day concerns force the grand vision into the background. Such is the risk of engaging with reality. But without being able to relate the day-to-day with the longterm project, the proponents of socialism will remain very isolated intellectuals.”

Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien also make criticisms of what they see as the anti-party and anti-political mindset of those who advocate workers’ councils but since I think this criticism is aimed mainly at anarchism and perhaps council communists I won’t take these arguments up.

If we work our way backwards through the criticisms above the first is the danger of bureaucratisation of workers’ organisations, especially through the long years (decades!) of non-revolutionary circumstances.  They are right to say that to try to seek to protect against this by avoiding the day-to-day concerns and small struggles of working people is failing to engage with reality.

We must start from where we are and not where we might want to be.  This might seem so obvious as to hardly require saying but take this from the British Socialist Workers’ Party article referred to in my last post:

“Who, after all, thinks that ‘in the present situation’ in France (or anywhere else) workers are going to try to centralise the power of their workers’ councils? The very precondition of such a development is that the ‘present situation’ has changed. The idea of revolution in a non-revolutionary situation is absurd. Every revolutionary situation has involved a split within the existing state apparatus and the existing ruling class. A revolutionary situation involves a crisis for the state, a loss of effectiveness. Without such a crisis there can be no revolution: that is part of the ABC of Marxism. It is precisely the crisis in the state which permits the emergence of a situation of ‘dual power’ and the possibility of a new form of state power conquering.”

The reformist approach to socialism is criticised by this writer for believing “the transition to socialism is to occur from the ‘present situation’ and without ‘economic collapse’.  In practice . . .  all reformists—seek(s) to construe a transition to socialism from the ‘present situation’.”

In other words revolutionary politics comes into its own when there is a revolutionary situation.  But of course how we get to this situation, how the working class is ready for it, how it has built its power and consciousness to the point where it can successfully challenge for power – all this has to be done precisely from the present situation.   After what has been decades in which there has patently not been revolutionary crises in the advanced capitalist states it is manifestly not enough to say that when such crises eventually erupt – although they will not even erupt without a prior revolutionising of working class consciousness, organisation and social power – we need to smash the capitalist state to effectively respond to the needs of such events.

Without a prior strategy to build up the power of the working class it will in all likelihood not be in a position to effectively challenge for power no matter what objective crisis capitalism undergoes.  The merit of the Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien argument is that they present this problem and it is the responsibility of Marxists to address it even if these authors use it as an argument against revolutionary destruction of the capitalist state.

There are other less crass ways of Marxists failing to engage with reality, such as demanding that campaigns or activity must meet some level of demands and therefore class consciousness that workers patently cannot rise to, at least not in current conditions or with the current level of political consciousness.  Some sections of the Left can then turn political demands not into bridges to advancing political consciousness but obstacles to action and subsequent rise in consciousness.

It is no doubt true that part of the reason for this is a belief by Marxists that the purpose of Marxism is to promote a revolutionary rupture and so seek to further this by advancing demands associated with partial struggles that if accepted by workers in such struggles can more or less quickly objectively clash with the logic of the capitalist system and therefore lead to revolutionary crisis.  The only problem of course is, as we have said above, it should be obvious that workers are many years from being in a position to perform such a role.  That many, many struggles cannot have a perspective of more or less raising the question of state power is hard to accept.

But it must be accepted because without being with the workers, no matter how backward their consciousness, socialism, real socialism, the socialism which is about the power of workers and not of the state, can by definition achieve nothing.

There are no formulas that guarantee this but it is important to dismiss formulas that guarantee against it.

Of course most left organisations claiming to be Marxist make the opposite mistake of dumbing down socialism so that it becomes an appeal to the state to accomplish what the working class is not yet willing or able to accomplish itself.

It is my view however that revolutionary politics not only exists in periods of relative class peace but must exist in such periods, if only because we have lived through decades of non-revolutionary conditions and the level of working class organisation and consciousness is now such that we cannot expect that this will be changed quickly.

Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien put forward similar ideas, without the view that revolution is necessary, but their argument is not always consistent.

Speaking of the tasks of the socialist movement now they say that: “We want to merge the socialists into mass organisations so that ideologically socialist parties exist on a truly large basis over a prolonged period of time, for decades at least, for centuries if necessary.”

But this sits uneasily with recognition of the dangers of bureaucratisation of the workers’ movement and how this weakens their case for a long term strategy of attrition: “The pressure of the wider pro-capitalist culture combined with the tendency towards increasing conservative apparatus makes the strategy of attrition a risky one. There is a race on between the socialist organisations aiming to transform capitalist society before capitalist society transforms them.”  A race lasting centuries?

Part of the problem Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien have is expressed in their description of their own strategy:

“The strategy of attrition is, therefore, compatible with a type of politics that is close to where many people already are. Its radicalism lies in its goals, not in its practice and this makes it easier to interact with non-socialists on an open basis. There is no need to hide its insurrectionary orientation because it doesn’t have one.”

The separation of goals and the practice of getting there inevitably means a failure to achieve the goals or leads to a different practice.  The view that socialism can be delivered by the state taking ownership of the economy, or redistributing wealth, does not lead to the working class achieving power but the extension of the power of the state.

Revolutionary politics therefore involves workers achieving what they can achieve by themselves.  The revolutionary content in any demand, or action or programme is the growth in the independent power and consciousness of the working class.  This obviously achieves its fullest extent when workers challenge for state power by attempting to destroy the state power wielded by the capitalist class and by creating its own.  But this does not prevent, rather it requires, years of workers learning that it is their own action that will deliver them what they want and what they need.

Building an independent trade union is more revolutionary than calling for increased taxation of the rich by the state even if some success attends the latter.  Creating a workers’ cooperative is more revolutionary than calling for the nationalisation of the banks even if banks, as they have been, are nationalised.  Workers fighting to control their own pension funds and taking them out of the hands of the bankers is more revolutionary than demanding that the state jail the corrupt bankers.  The latter happens in the US and the trial of the Anglo Irish bankers has begun.  They get jailed?  How does this advance the independent power of the working class?

We are now able to see how revolutionary politics is compatible with the long years of relative class peace as well as revolutionary crises.  We can evaluate political programmes as more or less revolutionary or reformist without being obliged to speculate on near-hand revolutionary crises.

We can say with Marx that:

“It is not a question of what this or that proletarian, or even the whole proletariat, at the moment regards as its aim. It is a question of what the proletariat is, and what, in accordance with this being, it will historically be compelled to do.”

But what the working class is and what it therefore does depends on its own existence, its own struggles and not on the actions of the state and those who inhabit it.

Much of the ‘transitional’ character of Trotsky’s transitional programme, upon which for many revolutionary politics must rest, does not connect the class struggle to the creation of an entirely new socialist mode of production.  This was something we saw in the first post and taken up in the comment to it.

That which does, the expropriation of capitalist enterprises, is wrongly bastardised into nationalisation by the capitalist state, see my earlier post.

We can now therefore look again at the description of revolutionary politics from Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien which we quoted earlier.

It is not necessary for revolutionary politics to claim that only revolution that can bring the working class into mass participation in politics.  Building workers cooperatives, trade unions and a workers’ political party are all necessary to stimulate and develop working class consciousness and organisation.  A revolution is not necessary for any of them.

It is a truism to say that only revolution expresses this participation to its fullest extent but even here the prior establishment, development and political defense of workers ownership requires certain levels and type of workers activity that political revolution is not a substitute for.  Cooperative production involves the working class learning the skills and experience of the future mode of production.

Revolutionaries do have to separately organise but this does not necessitate institutional separation in terms of a completely separate party.  Revolutionaries can seek to win a majority of the working class prior to a revolutionary situation.  It is not a fetter to win the majority of the working class to socialism; even if the majority of the working class did not actually support a revolutionary perspective.

The dangers of bureaucratisation and conservatism are real but deliberate minority status of the revolutionaries doesn’t protect either this minority or do anything to win a reformist majority.  Often of course reformist leaders will not give revolutionaries the choice of working within a larger reformist working class party but it is no answer to seek separation if revolutionaries are otherwise free to organise.

Revolutionaries do not believe that it is only after the working class has smashed the capitalist state that it can organise or we would have a classic chicken and egg situation – we can’t destroy the capitalist state until we are organised and can’t organise until we have destroyed the state.

It is in fact my argument that it is precisely the view of Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien, of attempting to use the existing state to create socialism and to organise primarily through electoralism, that restricts and limits the participation of workers in political activity and heightens the bureaucratisation of the workers’ movement.

It is obviously true that socialist revolution has not succeeded during the twentieth century but it is also true that this has been partly because the workers’ movement has been bureaucratised by and through the capitalist state that Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien think is the answer to the former failure.  And the strategy that produced this bureaucratisation was one of seeking election to office within the capitalist state when the working class was in a position only to administer capitalism not overthrow it.

In the next post I will look at the Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien view of the capitalist state some more.

The debate on socialist strategy and the Irish Left – Part 1

revolutionA couple of leading figures in the Irish Left Forum , Gavin Mendel-Gleason and James O’Brien, have written an extended piece on socialist strategy published here.   This has been subject to a ‘health warning’ and a critique on the Revolutionary Programme site here.  The latter is carried out mainly by simple reference to large quotations from Marx, Lenin and Trotsky.  The author gets away with this approach because these quotations are so apposite.

I welcome the intervention from the members of the Left Forum for the following reasons: They propose a strategy and practice that is already that of the Left groups in Ireland who claim to be Marxist.  The latter’s arguments are that the capitalist state can play a progressive role in the movement to socialism and that the main activity that workers and socialists should engage in is electoral intervention.  The left groups demands for nationalisation, increased state expenditure and taxation of the rich plus activity geared excessively to elections are evidence of this.

The difference between these groups and the Left Forum authors is that the latter put up an argument for such an approach.  Since it is common on the Left not to bother with such things this is to be welcomed.

The second reason is that the arguments put forward are important and some of them are correct.  These are not addressed in the reply noted above so I believe that some of the most important issues which they raise have not been adequately answered.

The third reason is that a debate on strategy is to be welcomed and if there is to be a debate there will be differences.  We should develop an ability to discuss them.  If we don’t or can’t then future initiatives at uniting socialists will be as unsuccessful as those in the past.

So what are the arguments and issues raised that are important and by and large correct? These are made mostly in the second part of the Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien piece.

The authors make the entirely valid point that “when capitalism tottered in September 2008 there wasn’t the slightest question that there was an alternative economic system that could step in and immediately take over.”  What this means is that we do not have an alternative, to be exact – an alternative that is both global and immediate.  We do have one that can grow and develop but not one that can challenge the capitalist system now.

It was lack of an alternative that explains why workers accepted, some even voted for, the imposition of manifestly unfair and hurtful measures in the EU referendum in Ireland in 2012.  In the post after the referendum I argued that it was precisely this lack of an alternative that was the main reason for the defeat in the austerity Treaty referendum, despite workers’ anger and frustration at what they were being asked to endorse.

is an expression of the weakness of the workers’ and socialist movement existing more or less everywhere, which Gavin Mendel-Gleason and James O’Brien also note. Their argument is that the perspective of a workers’ revolution to overthrow the capitalist state and usher in socialism is mistaken.

In making this argument they make some valid observations. They finish their analysis by saying, although they could have started it from here, that “Our short-term tasks do not involve overthrowing capitalism — a mode of production cannot even be overthrown. . .”  By this I assume that they mean that the capitalist mode of production cannot be overthrown without it being replaced (unless we envisage ruination as Marx put it in The Communist Manifesto) and it is the latter that is important, which might seem an obvious point except the question arises – replaced by what?

In the model of socialist revolution this is usually thought to mean replaced by ownership of the means of production by a workers’ state.  But states are just people organised in a certain way so how is this group of people to know how to run an economy and do so better than the capitalists if they have never done it before, have no practice and no plan to do so?

They have no plan to do so because the typical scenario for revolution is that it is a revolt against attacks on workers’ rights and not a conscious offensive to change the mode of production, which rather simply appears as a by-product of the need to smash the capitalist state through a mass strike and the creation of workers’ councils.

Some advocates of revolution accept this argument and therefore accept that socialist revolution will lead to economic collapse.  And although of course this is only temporary, a bit like a loss of form where your football team drops a few points – before going on to win the league, the prospect seems far from one that will sell socialism to most workers.  In fact it sometimes seems entirely light-headed and the product of a mentality entirely alien to most workers.

Take this example from the Socialist Workers Party in Britain. The writer says this – “we must be clear: a transition to socialism, to the complete reorganisation of society by the working class, cannot occur without ‘economic collapse’.  A socialist revolution involves ‘economic collapse’: the problem is to carry it through, decisively, so that economic recovery on a new basis can be started immediately.”

Let’s be very clear – if the socialist revolution leads to economic collapse it calls into question the readiness of the working class to be the new ruling class in the first place since it obviously lacks the power to prevent collapse and if this is the case what guarantees can there be that it would be capable of reversing it?  Especially “immediately”.

Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien state correctly that “getting past capitalism is an incredibly difficult problem,”  “At the outbreak of mass protest or revolution this is not a problem since the issue presents itself to the opposition in a simple way, e.g. “down with the regime”, “against the 1%”, “they all must go” (Argentina 2001). Sooner or later, however, it becomes necessary to move beyond a simple formulation of the problem and to advance structural solutions. “

“This transformation to socialism can only come from the working class having a pre-existing organisational capacity to take advantage of these developments, especially in the most advanced countries, of which the United States is currently the most important. That capacity takes decades to build up and it’s not a process that can be rushed or circumvented by some clever shortcuts and nor should it be.” “Unfortunately, it’s simply not possible to get big and capable institutions in one go.”

This seems obviously true and it is the necessity to build up the working class movement to such a position to effect revolution that is the task. Unfortunately this is not the task that Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien seek to solve by the strategy of increasing the power of the working class for they see the above problem as one that means that a revolutionary strategy is not appropriate.

One reason they posit for this is that the division of labour within modern economies has so developed that the intricate coordination necessary cannot arise from what is an essentially spontaneous process of revolution.  This view might therefore legitimately say that simply trying to make a virtue of this fact by admitting the inevitability of economic collapse also involves tacit admission of the dangers they see in revolution.

These include diminishing enthusiasm of the masses, because their revolutionary fervour is of recent, and therefore limited, vintage  since otherwise we would have had decades of a revolutionary situation, which is hardly credible.  This would be exacerbated by the drop in living standards consequent on ‘economic collapse’ and a similar consequential fall in political support for the revolutionary process.

These seem reasonable objections and it is up to those who defend and argue positively for the revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist state to present their strategy in such way that it plausibly answers this criticism. Before we look at this aspect however we should note other correct arguments advanced by Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien.

They rightly argue that there is “no shortcut to building up mass, popular organisations” and they are guilty only of exaggeration when they say that “in the absence of mass socialist-labour institutions workers’ capacity for action is restricted to protest and destruction.”

Protest demonstrations are the staple of left group activity and their electoral interventions are also a pure protest since they nowhere claim that they will form part of a government if elected. Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien argue that this is not enough “for the project of raising a socialist mode of production to dominance, via co-ops and labour unions.”

It is on building up this alternative that they concentrate their argument, pointing out the need to build specifically working class organisations , as the socialist movement used to do before the functions these organisations performed were taken over by the state and the majority of socialists took to believing that state action was somehow equivalent or substitute for working class self-activity. They point out the need for working class mass media and to the early history of the German Social Democratic Party and its ‘eco-system’ of social clubs, publications and summer camps etc.

They point out the failures of the Left’s favourite tactic of ‘single-issue’ campaigns which, besides usually being sectarian and right-ward looking fronts of one particular organisation, are incapable of getting beyond a single issue, incapable of broader radicalisation “so that when that campaign is over, irrespective of whether it has ended in victory or defeat, the next campaign must start from the same low basis.” These campaigns are structurally incapable of persisting through time and of achieving the cumulative growth of membership, organisation and consciousness on which alone a truly mass socialist working class movement can be developed

Some remarks on the internal organisation of the socialist movement are also in my view correct although not because of any original insight by Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien or myself.  Thus there is a need to fight for socialism within the working class movement of party, unions and cooperatives using the weapon of “freedom to organise and the freedom to articulate criticism and dissent.”  The petty bourgeois character of much of the left organisations is revealed by their inability to organise democratically.

So what is essentially valid in the argument is that while destruction of the capitalist state might solve the problem of armed reaction by that state (which is no small issue!) “it doesn’t . . . solve the problem of being able to transition to a socialist mode of production.” In the next part of this post I will look at what Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien have to say about the state itself.

Reforming the Northern Ireland Economy – A job for the State

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

CHANGING THE NORTH’S PUBLIC SECTOR

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

STATE LED DEVELOPMENT?

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

What attitude should socialists take to this argument?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why have the Irish not revolted? Part IV

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

strikestats

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Part 2 we noted that the left wing economist Michael Taft has claimed that the ‘squeezed middle’, the 4th to 8th deciles of income earners, suffered declines in direct income in the five years leading up to the crash, gaining only as a result of social transfers.  Social partnership involved a deal between the trade union leaders and the State/bosses in which workers refrained from industrial action and accepted lower than potential pay rises in favour of tax cuts.  This was not just the case in the final years of the boom but was the line pushed almost from the start – a policy that became more and more explicit as the partnership deals were negotiated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why have the Irish not revolted?

Public-service-workers-st-006The defeat of the opposition to the property tax and the ability of the Government to impose a second Croke Park austerity deal might lead many to conclude that resistance to austerity has been defeated.  Even before this many have commented that while Greece has witnessed violent protests and numerous general strikes the absence of such events from Ireland is notable and remarkable.  General strikes have also taken place in Spain and Portugal but not in the Irish State.

The relative electoral success of the United Left Alliance appeared to blind some to this but the collapse of the ULA has simply confirmed what is more generally understood to be the case.  More and more it is acknowledged on the Left that we have to face the reality as opposed to perennial false claims that an upsurge is taking place or is just around the corner.

Realistic assessments of the state of workers’ action have often been drowned out by childish claims that this shows one is insufficiently revolutionary, underestimates the workers , their ability to change their ideas quickly or that such views will not encourage workers to take action.  Not in front of the children appears to be the motto.  Workers are always ‘angry’ and all it needs is the right campaign, so long as it is active enough, to stir them into action.

Reality is imposing itself and no sound bites along the lines of ‘the darkest hour is just before dawn’ can hide the fact that the economic crisis has resulted in the imposition of austerity on workers without effective resistance.  Why is this?

First we must qualify the judgement that Irish workers are peculiarly useless.  Commentators have remarked in similar terms about the countries in southern Europe.  We have noted before that more or less spontaneous social explosions have not resulted in great advances by the working class.  Greek workers have been by far the most combative in terms of general strike action but in hardly anywhere has living standards plummeted so much.  I have also noted in one of my first posts that economic crises spurs growth in extreme reactionary forces and we have seen this is in Greece with the rise of the Golden Dawn movement.  So Greece is no model to seek to copy.

Secondly Irish workers have fought back albeit within very strict limits.  I can still remember the very large demonstration in November 2009 in Dublin, which had many working class people from outside the ranks of the trade unions taking part.  The following year public sector trade unions organised a successful strike.  At a local level in certain places and at certain times strong campaigns have developed against tax increases or hospital closures.  All this and more was reflected in the vote for ULA.

There is however an over-estimation about what workers can achieve within the limits of the capitalist system – a general misconception that workers’ struggles can overturn the laws of capitalism.    For example, if a company goes bust and attempts to close down, making all its workers redundant, it is pretty obvious that strike action will not achieve very much.

At this point many on the left propose that the capitalist state protect workers even though these same people have a part of their brain that tells them that the state is a weapon of the capitalist class that cannot be reformed and must be smashed.  They also believe that the emancipation of the working class must be achieved by workers themselves but usually object to the idea that, instead of the state, the workers should take over and own and run these workplaces as workers cooperatives.

It is a similar situation at the level of society as a whole and at an international level.  The Irish state was and still is bankrupt.  It needed a massive injection of money to save the banks and put itself in a position to start reducing its mushrooming debt.  Austerity is a means of doing this.  Again the Left argues that the state can adopt policies of taxing the rich and spending money on investment that will restore the capitalist economy to economic growth, which will then deal with the problem of the debt.

This is not however the view of socialists.  The socialist view, confirmed once again by recent events, is that capitalism inescapably produces economic crises which are dealt with and resolved by the laws by which the system works, including through unemployment and destruction of unsuccessful capital whose markets and sometimes businesses are picked up on the cheap by those remaining.  It is not possible for the capitalist system to prevent such crises by adopting policies of more investment, as for example argued by left followers of Keynes.

It is not therefore possible for workers no matter how well organised to prevent the laws of capitalism from working.  This at least was the view of Marx and the evidence of history would again confirm this.  So workers resistance against austerity may be able to ameliorate austerity but, in so far as they are necessary to lay the foundations of a new upturn, it is not possible for workers to prevent unemployment or wage cuts or tax increases in their entirety or even to a significant degree.  In other words it is not possible within the system to prevent capitalism periodically disrupting workers’ lives.  That’s why we oppose the system and why we propose a different one called socialism.  If we thought capitalism could work better without its nasty effects we wouldn’t be socialists would we?

Yet the left presents austerity as simply one policy option of the Government which it could choose to reject and replace with their own proposals.  But even the Keynesian alternative requires ‘counter cyclical’ state action.  In other words the austerity measures are simply postponed.  All the left’s proposals involve actions by the capitalist state in one way or another – tax changes, public investment, nationalisation etc.

The point in terms of the current argument is not that the Left is misleading workers into accepting reformist solutions that won’t work and this is a reason why resistance to austerity has been such a failure in Ireland.  These ideas are more widespread in southern Europe than they are here.  No, the issue is that, absent a socialist alternative being created, as long as capitalism exists the laws of capitalism will continue to work and impose themselves.  Resistance to austerity will therefore fail and this failure is bound in turn to lead to weakening of the resistance.

We must be careful however not to qualify the problem out of existence when it contains more than a grain of truth.  When Greek workers chanted “we are not Irish” on their May Day demonstration in Athens in 2010 they weren’t imagining the relative weakness of resistance in Ireland.

Nor can the question be dismissed by saying Irish workers did fight back – they did, but nowhere near to the extent required for success.

Nor is it credible to blame the poor politics or organisation of the Irish Left.

It is also not adequate to simply say that capitalism wins unless we create socialism. This is obviously true, although its logical implications for reformist strategies and policies are often ignored.  But it doesn’t come near explaining why the reformist strategies for resistance have elicited such weak workers’ action.  It’s hardly that Irish workers can see through such strategies and are ready for something more radical.

Socialism is not an event or a situation but a movement. Workers will only become capable of building a socialist movement and carrying out revolutionary change if they are also capable of mounting strong resistance to the ravages of capitalism.  In Ireland this hasn’t happened and there has been a retrogression of the small socialist movement, although this in itself is not particularly new.

So in Ireland the state has been able to pursue austerity policies that increase unemployment and wage restraint in order to restore its solvency in very much the same way capitalist crises work to   restore profitability in the private sector.  It has been able to do so without much of the resistance shown in other countries in a very similar situation.  This remains to be explained.

To be continued.

One Year to the Scottish referendum on Independence

_65598596_ballotToday marks one year until the Scottish people vote on whether Scotland is to be independent and this morning I listened to an interview with Scotland’s Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon on radio 4.  It was an interesting interview both for what was said and what was not said.

Invited by the interviewer to agree that the Scottish people will decide based on what was economically good for them she agreed.  What made the difference she said was that decisions on what should happen in Scotland are best taken in Scotland.

There was no mention of the issue being in any sense one of national and democratic rights, nothing about national oppression.  This would of course be a hard argument to make given that Scotland can exit the UK without facing the sort of threats and war that Ireland suffered almost 100 years ago.

The argument that decisions under independence would be taken in Scotland took something of a battering when Sturgeon accepted that the Scottish National Party favoured retaining sterling as the currency.  That’s a bucket load of decisions still being taken in London then, either in Downing Street or Canary Wharf.  It was also somewhat embarrassing when the interviewer quoted a statement by the SNP leader Alex Salmond in 1999 that described sterling ‘as a millstone round Scotland’s neck’.  For many years he had supported joining the Euro until the crisis in the Eurozone made this a less easy and obvious sell.  The change she said had been prompted by advice from ‘experts.’

Since the SNP also favour Scotland’s membership of the EU and NATO plus keeping the British monarchy the elements of independence start to look less impressive. More decisions from Brussels and Washington here.

The interview elicited the real concern for independence mentioned by Sturgeon, which is increased control over the levers of the State and its ability to tax and distribute the proceeds, including operation of the welfare state.  On this score the SNP have simultaneously attempted to present a future independent Scotland as some sort of social-democratic nirvana while also promising lower corporation taxes for foreign companies.

In this respect it seeks to emulate the Irish State and previously held the latter up as a model of what an independent Scotland could achieve until the proverbial hit the fan and the Irish became a model for austerity instead of prosperity.  The Irish are no longer referred to as the future and nationalists have to defend themselves against the charge that a newly independent state could not afford to support the large Scottish financial sector should it go into the same sort of crisis as the 2008 credit crunch.  Royal Bank of Scotland and HBOS (Halifax Bank of Scotland) featured prominently in that financial crisis.

The case for independence then revolves around the respective ownership shares by Scotland and rump UK of the oil reserves and the national debt.  Ownership is a question of geography not of class.  Once again ownership by the state or at least increased capacity to tax resources is held up as in the interests of Scottish workers.

The state, in this case an independent Scottish one, is presented as the vehicle to deliver on the needs of workers.  The concern of the SNP to capture control of the state machine, irrespective of its actual power to control the economy – absent an independent currency and insertion into the EU – betray the real class forces behind the pursuit of independence.

Those on the left in Scotland supporting independence in effect tail end the promises of these forces that the capitalist state, in this case an independent Scottish one, can be the vehicle for working class advance.  As I have been at pains to point out in numerous posts it is the independent movement of the working class itself that will deliver and represent such an advance.  It cannot be devolved to the capitalist state whether newly minted or not.

The attractions of nationalism boil down to the attractions of state power which have less and less substance the smaller the state but which seemingly have greater and greater attraction the smaller and therefore closer it comes to some people being beside it.

In a debate that assumes capitalist ownership, that assumes a capitalist state, that revolves around nationality but excludes any opposition to national oppression the tasks of Marxists is a difficult one.

The first is to base oneself on the commonality of class interests regardless of nationality as the bedrock of working class unity and need for internationalism.  This requires defence of the Scottish people’s right to self determination free from any sort of outside threat or force.  It involves opposition to nationalist arguments and those which present the state as the vehicle for progress.  It requires being alive to the prospect that such a debate will increase the divisions between Scottish and other British workers and also divide the Scottish working class itself between those more and more committed to nationalist solutions and those who see no reason for an independent state.

Opinion polls appear to show a comfortable majority against independence and it looks likely at this point that the referendum will result in a vote against it.  In the meantime the referendum is an important event that has important implications for the development of working class politics not only in Scotland but also in the rest of the UK.  The parallels drawn with Ireland by many in the debate demonstrate that it has important implications here as well.

Some Scottish commentators have noted the dominance of the issue in the media inside Scotland and comparative absence in the rest of Britain.  I hope the blog will be able to keep up with and contribute to understanding this important struggle.  The relationship between socialism and nationalism is one that has repeatedly proven a difficult one for socialists and the Scottish debate may allow us to learn more about how best to address the difficulties.

‘Sins of the Father’ by Conor McCabe – a book review

downloadThis book sets out to explain why the banking crisis in the Irish state developed the way it did and how property and financial speculation has been so prominent a feature of its economic development.  It is therefore an argument against the view that the crisis has been the result of some sort of moral collapse in certain sections of society.

Along the way the author, Conor McCabe, disposes of some common beliefs about the role of property in the Irish psyche, convincingly demonstrating that property ownership is not hard-wired into the Irish but has been consciously and repeatedly promoted by the state and employed as a means of strengthening particular class interests.  Thus the first Cumann na nGaedeal government promoted – as a solution to the notorious condition and shortage of decent housing for the working class – better housing for the middle class!

In an earlier version of the recent bailout of the banks he notes that helping the middle classes and property speculators with state money was the way the first Government decided to deal with tenements and slums.  As if proving there is truly nothing new in the world he notes the development of Dublin suburbs in the 1930s with little or no infrastructure or amenities.

The effects of this over the decades was to create a situation in which if you wanted a house you needed to buy one.  Public housing was neglected, a choice of last resort, and the earlier desire of workers to rent was blocked.  Even so the relatively recent and rapid rise in the proportion of home ownership is surprising, rising from 25 per cent in 1961 to 75 per cent in 1986. So much for property ownership being in the DNA!  In fact, as the author shows, it has been consciously promoted as a means of preventing “social unrest”, “revolutionary change” and because “there is no greater barrier against communism.”

McCabe points to the argument that the property boom at the turn of the century crowded out investment in productive activities and shows that State tax breaks helped fund the speculation that fuelled it.  Just as the State helped pump up the bubble it then stepped in to prop up the same interests that were behind it when it burst.  In this sense the State’s response to financial collapse was no turning point.  He effectively shows that British landlordism of the 19th century was replaced by a native version for the 20th and 21st.  Government policy helped create huge overproduction: in 2010 the number of empty housing units was counted as 302,625 – excluding holiday homes!

Conor is aware that all this is a description of the property boom and bust but is not an explanation (see page 56).  To do this he then presents a fuller history of Irish economic development.  It is not the case however that further, fuller and more complete description is explanation either.

If particular and contingent historical factors are not the explanation of the deeper causes of the boom and bust, but rather the concrete form in which the underlying contradictions played out, then it is only these fundamental processes which can provide a satisfactory explanation.  Or at least one that seeks to advance an argument that the causes of the crisis were in some way more than accidental.  Being more fundamental they can explain similar phenomena in more varied, concretely different circumstances – in countries as different as Japan, Spain, the USA and UK.  In fact the very variety of situations giving rise to similar symptoms of crisis point to systemic contradictions.

What the book does do very well however is show the particular features of Irish economic development, including the weakness of an economy which was governed as if it was still a region of Britain but which was cut off from the potential supports that this might have involved.

Nor did this change with the election of a Fianna Fail government in 1932, which introduced tariffs: at this point the State was described as virtually the last free-trading economy in the world.  There was no introduction of a separate currency or Central Bank and parity with Sterling was maintained.  In important ways the economy remained a region of Britain no matter the declaration of a Republic after World War II.

The resulting failure led to the new policy of promoting multinational investment, which was seen by the State as the least disruptive way of responding to international pressures to develop while protecting the existing class structure and minimising economic change.   McCabe emphasises the limits of multinational investment and the fact that money flows from it enter and exit the State with relatively modest impact. He quotes an assessment that this foreign investment did not develop a manufacturing base ‘comparable’ other small countries and argues its real importance lay in the opportunities provided to native property developers and financial and banking interests which service the investment.  This process fed into a property bubble in the 1960s which burst in the 1970s, again fuelled by state tax incentives but also state demand for the property developed.

He gives examples of the extraordinary tax incentives given to foreign investment and how State policy allowed the companies involved to do more or less what they wanted including at Bantry Bay where, in 1979, over 50 lives were lost in an oil explosion.  It transpired that the necessary safety measures had not been implemented and Gulf Oil had been allowed to regulate itself.  The Treaty Ports had been returned from the Brits but the Irish State had connived in the creation of another; all under the banner of economic development.

The policy was held up as a success but it was still recognised that it was a qualified one and accepted that indigenous industry had failed to create self-sustaining industrialisation.  Foreign investment remained largely divorced from local industry and the government sponsored Telesis report noted that only 8 per cent of components and sub-assemblies in the foreign engineering sector were sourced locally.  However, like inquiries and reports before it (and after) the Telesis Report was “greeted with fanfare and followed with silence.”

The major innovation came instead in the financial services sector where State policy had always been to maintain the parity link with sterling.  For Conor McCabe parity also meant poverty: the value of the Irish currency was maintained at too high a level to facilitate the development of competitive industry.

He does not delve into what a lower level would have meant for Irish workers as a lower valued currency would also have meant lower wages and a lower standard of living, all else being equal.  All else not being equal would have depended on the Irish State having a successful policy of state-led industrial development, not just throwing tax breaks and grants at private capitalists. In part his history is designed to show the strength of those class interests in the State who made their money through agriculture, property and banking and for whom all this would have been, at best, an unnecessary experiment.

That this ultimately was a feature of continuing imperialist domination – expressed in the relatively weak native capitalist development; in state institutions and policy and in other cultural traits – is not developed in the book.  The book is relatively short so this is not a criticism.  This subject raises political questions that have bedevilled an understanding of the relationship between ‘national oppression’ and capitalist exploitation and it is no criticism that this is not gone into.  It was not the purpose of the book. The State maintained the link with sterling until joining the Exchange Rate Mechanism but devaluation drove home the lesson that the link was more than just a policy decision but reflected a deeper economic relationship.

The book repeatedly shows the linkage between State policy and class interests.  Conor shows that the setting up of the Irish Financial Services Centre (IFSC) represented no exception to the state’s patronage of banking and financial interests, or a radically new economic development, and accepts the case that the IFSC is a tax haven, reporting its reputation even before the crash as the “wild west of European finance.”

He records the almost forgotten fact that the bank bail-out of 2008 was not the first and that tax payers had already bailed out Allied Irish Bank (AIB) before – in 1985.  While it has become fashionable to excoriate Anglo-Irish Bank at least it only went bust once.  The Fine Gael led Government of the time included Alan Dukes who, in the latest banking disaster, reprised his role by impersonating a Director of Anglo-Irish supposed to represent the public interest.  In 1985 AIB was saved from going bust by the tax payer who then watched seven days later this same bank announce unchanged dividends to its shareholders!  There followed years of law-breaking by the whole banking industry for which not one banker paid any penalty.  Put into context, the bail-out of 2008 becomes both more shocking and less surprising.

The book pulls together the various aspects of Irish economic development to show how the State’s policies, especially tax breaks and almost non-existent regulation, came together in the 2008 crisis. Property speculation fed on a limited boom partly fuelled by foreign investment which, boosted by state policy, became super-charged by credit speculation.  It was, in this sense, not at all new but rather the culmination (until the next time?) of the sins of the father. And the sins were many.

The book ends too summarily and in doing so appears to endorse more state spending on infrastructure as part of the solution: a liberal, Keynesian answer to the crisis.  One is compelled to ask in what way this is an alternative to what has gone before.  In so far as construction paid for by the state is designed to boost private capitalist investment there appears no major difference. (This is by no means the only similarity.) It is yet another tribute to the forces and policies described in the book, the power of the existing system and status quo, that those who are popularly viewed as its most vocal critics often simply echo it.

In the conclusion Conor McCabe notes that the new state did not have an independent economy.  What he has done is give a good account of the internal structure of this subordination and the class and state that constituted its structure.  But this is obviously only half the story.  If the economy was not independent a full description or analysis would have to describe and explain the much stronger international forces on which this subordination rested.

This itself would only be possible by recognising, as we have said, that the Irish State was not the only one to suffer a financial crisis and that, whatever its peculiarities might be, other crises in the US and Spain and before that in Japan, and perhaps tomorrow in China and Britain, point to a systemic crisis; in other words a crisis of capitalism.  Explaining how the Irish crisis took the form it did is impossible to do fully without also explaining why there was a crisis in the first place, one shared with other countries with a very different historical development.

Although beyond the scope of the book it is nonetheless a necessary task for Irish socialists.  Conor McCabe is not to be criticised for not doing what he did not intend and which others have not done.  Rather it is to be hoped that he can play a significant role in this collective task.  It will therefore be interesting to see what he writes in future because while the bad news is that the first edition of ‘Sins of the Father’ has sold out the good news is that the second is on its way.