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.

A new Left electoral campaign in Limerick

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The Revolutionary Programme web site altered me recently to the latest electoral initiative of the Left – here.  The programme of this initiative is the following:

  • No to the Property, Water & Septic Tank Taxes – No to Deduction at Source.
  • No to all Austerity – ordinary people have paid enough.
  • For a united movement of ordinary people affected by home taxes and austerity – no to divisions based on race or nationality.
  • Tax the Wealthy as the alternative to austerity: For progressive taxation on the wealthy and corporate sector.
  • End the bailouts of banks and bondholders, instead use the money to create real jobs through a programme of necessary public works.
  • Our candidates if elected would:
    Fight against plans for Water Metering, Water Taxes and Water Privatisation.
    Oppose all cuts in council services or erosion of workers conditions.
    Make no deals on the Council with the austerity Parties (FF, FG, LP).
    Oppose the gravy train – no participation in junkets. Demand local planning for the community, not for developers or vested interests.

What attitude should Marxists take to this electoral initiative?

Just like every other party standing in an election it must surely be judged by what it says – by its professed programme or set of policies, providing of course these are also what it truly represents.

Can and should it be supported?

The electoral slate is clearly not a party and was organised by the Campaign Against Property Tax and Austerity but the logic of standing in an election is to act like a party and even more so if elected.  The failure of the Unite Left Alliance to do so has led to its demise.

The policies above are no way different from that of the ULA, except more limited.  The Left has argued over the last number of years that elections and those elected are there to advance ‘real’ struggles outside of parliament and council chambers.  The last few years have demonstrated conclusively however that it is the other way round – struggles in communities and estates have been means to advance electoral ambitions.  Electoralism is a dirty word on the Left but nothing would appear to describe the method of organising so accurately.

This initiative, the promised first of many, must be judged firstly on its own terms.

The short summary of its aims says it is against austerity and the various taxes that have made up a large part of this agenda.  The anti-property tax has failed so it will have to be explained how standing in elections will bring success.  Otherwise voters are being asked to vote for good intentions.  Councils can clearly not change the policy of central government so how will the taxes and austerity more generally be blocked and reversed?  No concrete and practical way forward is put forward.  Maybe it will be, but if it isn’t then it is purely propaganda.

If the reason for standing is to build the campaign this should be the main point of the programme but even here it should be explained how the campaign will achieve its aims.  Is, or rather was, a mass boycott a road forward given deduction at source?  If not what is the alternative – a mass political campaign aimed at persuading tax workers to refuse implementation of the tax?

What role is there for councils?  Are enough candidates standing to win a majority?  If so what would they do with such a majority?  Can they unite with other similarly minded councils to campaign against the tax?  What powers do councils have to frustrate or prevent this tax or austerity?  Will the new council promote workers control or ownership of council services?  What other steps will it take to promote the democratisation of local government?

If there is no possibility of winning a majority then what role would those elected take?  Will they release all information currently withheld on council activities?  How will they frustrate the local implementation of austerity?

If these questions aren’t put to the fore then, as I’ve said, what we are seeing is purely propaganda.  This does not mean that this aspect should be underestimated.  Even in periods of limited struggle, in fact particularly in such periods, the task of socialists is to try to educate as many workers as possible through propaganda.  Given the very small size of the socialist movement in Ireland this is by far and away its biggest task.  If it doesn’t get this right then the majority of what it is capable of doing is wasted if not positively harmful.

The thrust of the programme appears to be anti-austerity with the alternative being taxation of the wealthy – “for progressive taxation on the wealthy and corporate sector.”  It is also proposed to “End the bailouts of banks and bondholders, instead use the money to create real jobs through a programme of necessary public works.”

I have shown what is wrong with the idea you can tax the wealthy here and here so I won’t repeat my arguments again in this post.  The main problem is that it is not the wealth or high incomes of the rich that are the cause of austerity so even if it were possible to tax both effectively the cause of austerity would persist.  This cause is the economic crisis.  Because the economic system is a capitalist one the elementary task of a manifesto would be to state this and explain it.  Explain exactly how the way the capitalist system works has given rise to this crisis and will create more in future. This would be necessary in order to argue that the alternative to austerity from a working class point of view is socialism.  Explaining what this is would involve is an obvious next step – expropriation of capitalist ownership and workers ownership in its place and a workers’ state in place of the existing state.

Complaining that the programme does not mention socialism is not the problem since the programme is not a socialist one.  If this is the way it is then it is better that it does not claim to be socialist.

The programme proposes ending the bailouts of banks but does not explain how this might be done, the consequences or the alternatives.  Some of these issues are touched upon here, here and here.  How is the debt to be repudiated?  What debt is to be repudiated? How would credit be provided if the banks were allowed to fail?

Anyone who begins to think seriously about what “ending the bailouts” means will have these questions in their head and without an answer they will be open to accepting right wing claims that such proposals are not thought through , cannot be implemented or would be even more disastrous than what we already have.  Dealing with such claims is the important task of propaganda and at this point in time elections are useful means of getting across the message.

In the absence of all this the message put across is a radical Keynesian one, that is a capitalist one.  One that is temporarily more beneficial to working people but one, if followed,that would lead to inflation, wage cuts, unemployment, and calls for reducing budget deficits and tax increases later on.  That’s if it worked in the meantime!

From a political point of view therefore the programme does not assert separate working class politics but, in so far as it puts forward an alternative, puts forward the benign actions of the capitalist state as the solution.  It therefore doesn’t even get to first base in terms of a socialist alternative.  It may therefore be reformist but it isn’t working class reformism because it seems to rely solely on pressurising the state.

In terms of the reformist/revolutionary dichotomy it isn’t even the former since it lacks the courage of its convictions and fails to propose a Left Government for the Dail that could tax the rich and the corporations; burn the bondholders and use the money to create jobs in the public (read – capitalist state) sector.

A socialist programme would explain that fighting austerity is required to defend our living conditions but that this will ultimately fail unless the system is replaced.  Austerity can at best be ameliorated but such is the depth of the crisis it cannot be entirely halted and reversed under the present economic system.

Some will deny this and claim that austerity can be ended without changing the system; that the rich can be made to pay for their crisis and that policies of growth will ensure that this can happen.

On the other side will be those who will claim that austerity is an inevitable result of an economic crisis, which is caused by the capitalist system in its attempts to produce and accumulate capital beyond the conditions that allow it reproduce itself harmoniously.  The excessive expansion of credit is always a feature of capitalist crisis and the bigger the boom the bigger the bust, unless even more credit is injected into the economy in which case the bigger the boom  . . . No amount of regulation or honest government can prevent this without seriously gumming up the capitalist system, in which case you simply have a different sort of crisis with very much the same symptoms of unemployment etc.

On the first side of this debate will be the liberal defenders of Keynes, including their economists and leaders of the trade unions.  On the second, socialists, who can only consistently defend their ideas by understanding and presenting the arguments of Karl Marx, which is the reason Marx wrote ‘Capital’.

A recent post on the Michael Roberts blog has a couple of interesting points to make about these arguments.

He points to research showing that inequality of income reduced between 1910 and 1950 across the OECD (most advanced) countries, which calls into question the idea that capitalist crisis is a result of inequality that progressive taxation could cure.  This period, after all, covers the great depression of the 1930s.

He points to other research that:

“Credit booms mostly lead to financial crises, but inequality does not necessarily lead to credit booms. “Our paper looks for empirical evidence for the recent Kumhof/Rancière hypothesis attributing the US subprime mortgage crisis to rising inequality, redistributive government housing policy and a credit boom. Using data from a panel of 14 countries for over 120 years, we find strong evidence linking credit booms to banking crises, but no evidence that rising income concentration was a significant determinant of credit booms. Narrative evidence on the US experience in the 1920s, and that of other countries, casts further doubt on the role of rising inequality.

The problem with left solutions that highlight (sometimes more or less exclusively) inequality of income and wealth is that their solutions do nothing to tackle the origin and cause of this inequality.  The Michael Roberts blog points out that “in 2011, capital income constituted 60% of the top earner’s income compared to just 32% in the 1980s.”

The origin and cause is capitalist ownership of the means of production, including its purchase of labour power, its ownership of capital and the money and power this involves.  It is the relations of production in which workers have to sell their ability to work to a class of owners of the means of production that produces the gross inequalities in society.  Redistributing what is already produced, even were it possible, would not overturn this power relationship or the exploitation and oppression involved because it does not get to the heart of the matter.

In a country where little or nothing of this is understood the elementary task of socialists is to explain this to as wide a number of workers as possible and elections should be taken as an opportunity to do so.

So we are back to our question – should this electoral initiative be supported?

To the extent it has been judged as a more or less adequate immediate guide to action or corresponds to the  educational  needs of the working class the verdict would appear to be no.

Perhaps unity could not be agreed between the participants on any other basis and what we see is a campaign standing in an election not a party.  But was any other basis proposed or offered?  Was any discussed or do the participants see no problem in the platform of a campaign being adequate to a programme for an election?

It might truthfully be said that the low level of the programme reflects the low level of Irish workers’ class consciousness but this is not a way out of objections to it, for there is nothing in it to advance Irish workers’ understanding of the cause of the austerity they face or the great changes that are required to defeat it and establish a new society.

The only conditions upon which it would be possible to support this initiative is if it went further in arguing the socialist case or if it raised the prospect of invigorating a section of workers into activity, in which case through this activity they may learn about the roots of their predicament and themselves go beyond the timidity of the anti-austerity campaign.  To do the latter they may have to go beyond the existing Left groups who save what they think is socialism for potential recruits while the broader class of workers they address in electoral material, the purported agent of revolution, are fed re-heated capitalist reforms.

BBC Spotlight and the Housing Executive – what sort of scandal? Part 2

Belfast Peace Wall (Belfast Telegraph)

Belfast Peace Wall (Belfast Telegraph)

By Belfast Plebian

Episode two commenced after the Assembly was recalled for a one-day public debate on the developing scandal on July 8th.Once more it was down to Jim Allister to make most of the running, alleging that Red Sky had carried out work on the homes and offices of DUP members and that they even had the gall to charge some of the costs to the Assembly.  He tried to arrange for a motion calling for McCausland’s to be put up for vote but was rebuffed by Sinn Fein who wanted a less severe motion to be voted on.

It was also alleged that Nelson McCausland had an improper relationship with Turkington Holdings, a Portadown based firm that specialises in windows, doors and conservatory installations. The allegation was that he had agreed to delay the ongoing work by other rival firms with a view to favouring Turkington on the grounds of cost.  Before making his suspension order it was alleged that he met with Turkington, the chair of witch is a DUP member. But the heart of the second episode came down to final the motion and vote.

The motion asked that Mr McCausland step aside while the inquiry into the matter by the DSD committee was being carried out.  It also noted that the Minister may have purposely misled both the Assembly and the committee. The motion drawn up by Sinn Fein was supported by the Ulster Unionists, the SDLP and Allaince  plus the Greens and the new Unionist Party NI21. The motion collapsed even though 54 members voted for it and 32 voted against. This outcome was possible due to a safeguard inserted into the Belfast Agreement known as the petition of concern. It allows any 30 members to effectively veto a motion or law they feel is discriminatory, the DUP with 38 MLAs is the only party that can do this without votes from others.   

The reaction to the petition of concern in the press was interesting because for the first time there was a feeling of genuine alarm about the Stormont settlement that had been strongly endorsed from day one of the ‘peace process’. The political analysis in ‘The Irish News’ was pessimistic; the headline banner on the day after the DUP move to block the censure motion read ‘It was a bad day for democracy.

The writer feared that the clause that was supposed to prevent sectarian majority rule was now being used to further it: ‘ Power sharing may be the concept the devolved institutions are built on but it seems power ultimately resides with the party that can consistently muster 30 signatures and lodge a petition of concern whenever it is unhappy with a particular assembly motion. The upshot is therefore not democracy but an inverted form of majoritarianism. It’s a system that leaves the majority party in a position where it can overrule the rest of the assembly even when outnumbered two-to-one.’

‘The Irish News’ editorial was a little less stark but still pessimistic, the final paragraph read ‘Many observers will have concluded that standards at Stormont have declined to a stage where basic democratic values have been largely abandoned in the interests of expediency. There will be little public confidence that the truth over Red Sky will ever be established property but it is the wider reputation of our key intuitions that is increasingly under the spotlight.’    

As for the ‘Belfast Telegraph’, their next day front page stated; ‘This was a bad day for democracy’ the three sub headings were ‘debate on Red Sky scandal ends with no action’, ‘parties in the pockets of big business-claim’and ‘Assembly rules misused by DUP to stifle debate.’ The editorial was less pessimistic making the argument that the petition of concern could be fixed: ‘Although the motion gained cross-party and cross-community support in the Assembly it was defeated by a petition of concern, a piece of political trickery which is meant to stop minorities being ridden roughshod over, which is increasingly is used by all parties if they find themselves in trouble. It is clear that thisparticular manoeuvre will have to be rethought as it is now being misused.’

The job of expressing the fears and frustrations of the small group of reformers who had hoped for a gradual transformation out of a sectarian conflict was left to Robin Wilson the one time editor of Fortnight Magazine ; ‘The Red Sky  episode is a flashing red light that something is very rotten in the mini-state that is Northern Ireland. It encapsulates a toxic cocktail of conservatism, clientelism and corruption, which, if notaddressed, will further discredit the pursuit of democratic politics as the public service it should be.’

At least Robin Wilson acknowledged in his article that the outrageous behaviour had a lot more to do with sectarian partisanship than with corruption, the last paragraph of his article stated: ‘the minister intends to dismantle the Executive, rolling back that four-decades-old victory of the civil rights movement against the old unionist order. The new one looks dispiritingly similar.’  

We should not pass by the media reaction without mentioning one other perspective on the Red Sky affair; three days after the Stormont travesty the Belfast Telegraph carried an analysis by trade union socialist Eamonn McCann, presumably to get an alternative viewpoint. The banner of his article was ‘Red Sky, red faces and the nightmare of privatisation.’

Mr McCann stated the proposition he was out to prove in his opening paragraph ‘None of the issues which brought MLAs hotfoot back to Stormont on Monday would have arisen if the repair and maintenance of public sector housing hadn’t been privatised. No privatisation, no meeting with Red Sky representatives in Nelson McCausland,s office, no Stephen Brimstone/Jenny Palmer  phone call, no dubiety about the stop-start progress of a double contract, no reason for MLAs to be recalled just days into their nine week summer holiday

Little thought is required to refute Mr McCann’s proposition, having public control over a central Housing Authority is a good thing provided at least one condition is fulfilled, namely that those in control are socialists.  If those in charge are sectarians, racists or state capitalists then if anything it is a worse arrangement than having it in many private hands.  Unfortunately those taking charge in this case are not socialists and may even be sectarian.

Comment and Explanation

We can certainly say that the Red Sky scandal represents something more than a scandal and something less than a political crisis. It is a mini crisis of the peace process, something that is hard to disguise. The first instinct of all of those in thrall to the peace process was to disguise it as a corruption scandal, a case of one party, the DUP seeking to do financial favours for the owners of a couple of small firms that happen to back the party.  The pro-agreement media was therefore content to run behind Jim Allister for he seemed to have enough inside information to make the corruption charge stick. The sectarian substance was reduced to a secondary quality

What might have come out of this allegation was a routine resignation of a wayward politician in an otherwise stable Executive. One small problem was that another DUP minister would have replaced the sacked one and we would have merely carried on from the point we had left i.e. the programme of dismantling the Housing Executive. Then the realisation dawned on some people that the minister had no intention of resigning because his party had no intention of letting little things like democratic norms get in the way of staying in charge of the big spending departments of government. The DUP standpoint was No Surrender to our critics!

The pro-agreement media began to wonder if the current political arrangements might make it impossible to address wrongdoing not only by the odd maniacal politician but entire maniacal political parties. It was kind of expected that an exposed politico would be cut loose by his own party. One step behind the fear of unaccountable financial corruption lurks of course the longer and deeper fear of sectarian competition over the spoils of government

Pro-agreement nationalist political opinion now realised that the safeguards they had long thought they had secured against bad government were not as sound as they had believed. They now had to face up to the fact that it is an anti-power sharing sectarian party they have to deal with in government and not some reformed unionist party. On the other side, the pro-agreement unionists had to confront the fact that you only need 30 votes to carry on like the DUP does when in government and Sinn Fein have 29 votes and destined to get past the magic number in the near future.

Pro-agreement unionists, who are in fact a minority within unionism, have zero confidence in Sinn Fein not doing the same thing as the DUP. Sinn Fein have been less strident about the scandal over procurement contracts than others expected; the party refused to accept an amendment to their own weak motion of censure as phrased by Jim Allistar calling for the resignation of McCausland.  Knowing what one knows about the building trade in nationalist political constituencies it is easy to conclude that they would not be too keen on a thorough going inspection and clean up themselves. They are up for an inquiry all right so all as it is confined to Red Sky.

We predict the two big political parties will continue on much as before, jockeying for position and biting into sectarian patronage and running down the public purse to no good end. The Orange Order, to give one example, is now subsidised like it wasn’t in the halcyon days of one party Orange rule; it receives money for its decorous band uniforms, to buy musical instruments, to pay for music lessons and there are more bands than ever. The local government even funds the bonfires, which used to be stuck up by nothing-to-do summer youths – now they are professional affairs put together by men using heavy machinery,  The mural painting of walls is also funded.

The Orange Order is renovating itself and building up a heritage with European Peace money to the tune of £7 million.  As for the paymaster of sectarianism in London, the real government has so far kept shtum and if things come to a breakdown they will invite in a prominent American to recommend some institutional changes probably along the line suggestion by the Belfast Telegraph i.e. make it harder for the main political parties to draw on a petition of concern to block a cross community majority vote. 

There is a mini crisis of confidence facing many of those well-educated professionals currently staffing the Public Sector. These people like to think of themselves as untouched by low-down sectarian squabbles. The Spotlight programme threw up a number of side issues that point in this direction.

It was pointed out in the programme that the first people to come under pressure was not the Housing Executive Chairman but the housing inspectors who had refused to give a pass to Red Sky’s shoddy work . The group development manager of Red Sky, one Pauline Gazzard, felt confident enough to write a letter to a senior Housing Executive manager with the expectation that the inspectors’ reports against Red Sky, put together by a conscientious district officer Gary Ballentine, an elder in the Presbyterian church, would be brushed aside: ‘It is also considered necessary to re-iterate our deep concern in relation to certain personalities who remain working in the West Belfast District Office and we trust appropriate actions will be taken to address this in the near future.’

The letter is address to a senior Housing Executive manager but was never seen by the Board or the Chairman when they were investigating the matter; the three West Belfast inspectors were in fact removed and sent elsewhere. What is abundantly clear is that senior managers at the Housing Executive were depriving the Board and the chairman of very relevant information.

The report that the chairman commissioned and delivered in 2011 discovered that 80% of the charging made by Red Sky was questionable. The upshot was that 8 managers were disciplined and some others retired early for allowing the overcharging to go on. The question to be pondered – were they in receipt of bribes or were they making a calculation that it would not be wise to rock the sectarian boat

If we next move on to the police, they have been asked three times to investigate matters pertaining to Red Sky.  Once in 2006 when several lesser Housing Executive workers were found to be taking gifts from Red Sky, no charges were preferred then.  The second time when Chairman Rowntree provided them with the evidence of criminal wrong doing in 2011, the evidence that was used to terminate the £7 million annual contract, and again the police sat on their hands.  Finally the Spotlight team asked the police were they thinking of opening up a new investigation; they replied not without evidence.

But if there was no evidence how come the Comptroller and Auditor General Kieran Donnelly says that ‘ a sample of 20 kitchen replacement schemes (out of a total of 242 schemes undertaken to date) found overpayments of £1.3 million out of a total cost for all schemes examined of £6.2 million. The potential total contractor overpayment since 2008 is estimated at around £18 million’

And there was other evidence; it came from Pauline Gazzard who no longer works for Red Sky/Totalis. When the administrator took over the running of Red Sky she wrote a 13-page letter to BDO explaining that she knew for a fact that the company she formerly worked for had bribed at least three procurement officers from the Housing Executive. The Spotlight reporter said ‘We asked the police ifthey had the letter now would they act on it now-they refused to comment.’

The Spotlight reporter then asked the Housing Executive Chairman, who had been keen to have the police involved, about the seeming lethargy of the police investigation and his reply was ‘I am absolutely gobsmacked’.   Then we have the administrators at BDO; Pauline Gazzard told Spotlight that she was surprised BDO showed no interest in her letter or her allegations. Not only that, BDO did not pass the information she gave them on to the Board of the Housing Executive or the police. When asked about the matter BDO claimed client confidentially meant they could not comment.

Here’s the rub. Did one small building firm have so much sway, over senior Housing Executive managers, over the police, over accountants and insolvency professionals, over politicians and then over the Head of the Government because of its economic weight, after all it was hardly BP or Shell Oil or is there another explanation?

The other explanation is a bit crude and may even sound offensive to some ears. The firm’s managers knew how to play the sectarian playbook to make other people quake a little.  The firm was quick to blame the Catholic residents for making false complaints, and then they said the inspectors were bigots even though this was patently untrue.  They then attacked the chairman of the Housing Executive indicating he was a dodgy nationalist, then they encouraged their work force to picket the offices of the Housing Executive, carrying banners with slogans like the Housing Executive is anti-Protestant, and finally they told the DUP that the firm had done no wrong and was being starved of work contracts because it was believed to be Protestant.

All those who stepped aside for Red Sky did so because they were conscious of the sectarian clouds that sit low and heavy over society. The politics is sectarian because the society is sectarian. What is more the sectarian cloud cover is thickening rather than dispersing due to the fact that sectarian politicians are taking over the basic departments of government. As for those working under the new dispensation, things are about to get a bit more complicated and choking.

In the more recent past, if you were a public sector professional you only had to contend with a subdued sectarianism, the police and the Northern Office of course was something different, now it is back and it is naked and outspoken.  What is even more disconcerting, the really green nationalists want you to bend in their direction too, overlook this misdemeanour, override a professional service protocol when instructed to do so by somebody with political connections.  How the hell do you bend in two sectarian directions at once?  Do you decide to bend with the Orange 60 per cent of the time and then bend with the Green the other 40 per cent?

The relationship between the relatively privileged professional classes who number a fair number and the sectarian society is about to get a bit more fraught. We can see clear evidence of this emerging from this case.  McCausland decided to wage a vendetta against the Chairman of the Housing Executive, so he asked for some evidence to get at his target.  Two senior DSD civil servants accompanied him to the infamous meeting with the Red Sky management at Stormont; the minutes of that meeting read like a party political conspiracy.  Is this what civil servants should be doing?

The DSD permanent secretary is busy trying to get Brian Rowntree removed from his other public service job with the civil service commissioners’ according to Spotlight he got his staff to trawl through thousands of e-mails hoping to find incriminating evidence against Rowntree.  What a truly poisonous atmosphere.

If a government department supervised by a political Orangeman hounds a career civil servant out of his post, will a department run by a Nationalist respond in kind, if you take out one of ours we will take out one of yours?  Legal threats are flying about left, right and centre.  No wonder the Spotlight programme began by saying that many people ‘we spoke to were scared to speak on the record.’ Most of these people were of the professional class. Welcome to the future sectarian society!  Mandy McAuley the girl that kicked the hornet’s nest.

BBC Spotlight and the Housing Executive – what sort of scandal?

Housing Executive 2.jpg

BY Bellfast Plebian 

A little while ago (Jan 2013) this blog singled out Nelson MaCausland, a Minister in the stored Northern Ireland Executive, as a target for criticism.  This was no random selection of a minister in an improbable regional government that we happen to have little respect for. Nelson was a bit of a special case because he was the minister most likely to cause a commotion.

It was asserted that this neo-conservative Orangeman is about the least preferable person you could hope for in charge of managing the socially damaging CON-DEM policy of comprehensive welfare reform. We were sure his approach would be to offer minimum resistance to the drastic changes being proposed.  We were especially worried that he had been given overarching control over the Northern Ireland Housing Executive: the publicly funded organisation specifically mandated to allocate social housing on the basis of objective need rather than community and religious patronage.  The Minister we said was so ardent an evangelic Protestant and a strident Orangeman that he would be inclined to put the interest of promoting his own religious community above the important non-sectarian consideration that pertains to the neutral role required of a housing minister. Well it didn’t take very long for our worries about Nelson to be confirmed – the bomb exploded earlier than we anticipated – and a few days after we posted our account he began his political assault on the very existence of the Housing Executive.

At first Nelson’s spat with the Housing Executive was carefully phrased in the all too familiar neo-liberal one of saving the taxpayer money. The Housing Executive is managed and funded on the model of a department of the British Civil Service and because it is not classified as belonging to the private sector economy it is therefore almost by definition deemed to be inefficient and wasteful of taxpayer money by the major accountancy firms that aspire to set the standards for every social service. The new Housing Executive will work all the better if it is broken up and placed in the hands of Housing Associations that know the realities of private sector finance, so claimed Nelson.

Hardly anyone of influence objected to Nelson’s declared programme of privatisation barring a few union leaders that voiced worries over potential redundancies. To most tender minded folk (folk is the favoured term used by Nelson) the reasoning if not impeccable was at least normative for our current economic condition. More tough-minded types wondered if Nelson’s impeccable reasoning was merely a convenient cover to pursue an old style Orange vendetta against the Housing Executive. In certain quarters the Housing Executive is still thought of as an anti-Orange institution, something that was imposed on Orange society against its interest, a concession made in the past by a nervous Labour government running scared of the Northern Ireland civil rights campaign.

There is a certain type of Orangeman who resents the very existence of the Housing Executive, who would like to see it done too death.  I am certainly one of those dwindling number of suspicious types who still believe that there are plenty of unreformed Orangeman around, dreaming of taking back the little victories of the civil rights movement.  I suspected that Nelson was one of those unreformed Orangeman who was bent on returning to a long standing sectarian battle over the political control of social housing and I was aroused by the fact that Nelson was only into the job a few weeks when he began asking for the religious make up of the workforce, right down to the numbers in individual offices. Was he of the viewpoint that the Housing Executive had a pinko-management and a Catholic majority work force representing an earlier victory for the sectarian enemy?  Was he out to knock it of its previously set course?  I felt that he was one government minister that needed watching.

Last week the BBC Spotlight programme (3/7/2013) provided us with an insight into what Nelson’s real agenda had been since he became the social development minister.  Before the Spotlight programme was broadcast you could see the aura of hubris already taking shape around Nelson’s head.  On June 10 he had given the management of the Housing Executive a real roasting on the floor of the Assembly; all sorts of charges were flung against the former chairman Brian Rowntree.  He accused the Housing Executive of overspending on repair contracts to the tune of £18 MILLION on four contracts. He also said that one contractor Red Sky had been singled out by the Chairman for retribution for overcharging solely because it was perceived to be a Protestant firm. The unionist benches erupted with shouts of shame on the sectarian Housing Executive. What was also striking about Nelson’s performance was the pleasure he took in laying into the management of the Housing Executive and the satisfaction he got from seeing that the non-unionist parties offering only palliative opposition to his new plan to break up and privatise the public housing body.

Just four weeks later Nelson’s confidence took a punishing blow at the hands of a BBC television expose on what he had been doing out of plain sight.  It turns out that almost everything he said in the Assembly that day was so false that it might rightly called the opposite of the truth. He and his political adviser backed by his party leader had it seems been running a hate campaign against the ousted Chairman of the Housing Executive that smacked of venomous sectarianism. The BBC reporters provided more than enough evidence to allow for other Assembly members to demand his immediate resignation.

The story begins in April 2011 and a building maintenance company situated in the constituency of Peter Robinson goes into administration after a Housing Executive investigation into allegations of low standard work and overpayments. The Board of the Housing Executive felt it had no other option but to cancel the contract with Red Sky due to the facts put before them by inspectors pertaining to the poor quality of the work undertaken by the firm and also by the firms fraudulent charging of tasks not undertaken at all, estimated to be about £1.5 million. The decision of the cross community board was unanimous.

The management of Red Sky decided not to go quietly. In the middle of the April 2011 Assembly Election campaign they approached the leader of the DUP and First Minister Peter Robinson and informed him that the Housing Executive held a sectarian i.e. anti-Protestant bias against the company. Peter was furious about what he had been told about the Housing Executive decision and nine days later led a delegation to meet with its chairman Brian Rowntree to lobby on behalf of the firm. The minutes of that meeting record the First Minister stating that the decision to terminate the contract ‘reflected a sectarian bias on behalf of the Housing Executive.’ He also warned the Chairman that he could expect an enquiry into the Housing Executive after the election of May 2011.

After the Assembly election he appointed his own sectarian attack dog Nelson MaCausland to the post of minister in charge of Social Development, which covers supervision over social housing. A strategy meeting was held in Stormont building on 27 June to find out what could be done to get Red Sky back in the contract game. In attendance where the First Minister Peter Robinson, the Minister of DSD Nelson MaCausland, his political adviser Stephen Brimstone and the DUP MLA Robert Newton.  Crucially, neither the Housing Executive nor the Administrator for Red Sky was invited to the meeting. Three days later Nelson McCausland met with the Chairman of the Housing Executive to insist that the termination of the Red Sky contract be suspended for at least six months.

A letter from Housing Executive chairman Mr Rowntree to DSD Permanent Secretary Will Haire dated July 1, expressed ‘serious concerns and misgivings’ about the way Mr McCausland and his department were attempting to overturn the Board’s decision. Expressing the thought that both Mr Robinson and Mr McCausland may have broken the ministerial code of office by lobbying in support of Red Sky, Mr Rowntree added ‘We understand that meetings have taken place with the senior management of Red Sky in administration and the minister, first minister and other DUP representatives…. This raises the question of did these meetings constitute canvassing and lobbying for government contracts and in breach, not only of public procurement principles but basic codes of conduct in public life.’

Nelson McCausland later said that he took the letter to be like a declaration of war. Having failed to pressure the Chairman of the Housing Executive into overturning the Red Sky decision once, the DUP turned to one of its own councillors who sat on the board of the Housing Executive for a second go. The minister’s special political adviser, one Stephen Brimstone, made an eight-minute phone call to DUP councillor Jenny Palmer and more or less commanded her to change her vote at the next Board meeting called in July 2011 to re-examine the Red Sky decision.

Just ahead of the board meeting Jenny Palmer told the Chairman of the Housing Board about the DUP attempt to make her change her vote and he advised her to declare an interest and absent herself from the vote, which she did. When he failed to get the vote overturned Nelson McCausland carried out Peter Robinson’s original threat and ordered a comprehensive review into how the Housing Executive awards contracts to be carried out by chartered accountants ASM Howarth.  Four days before the ASM report is due to be delivered the Chairman of the Housing Executive resigned citing personal stress and a challenging relationship with the DSD and the minister.  At this point Nelson sensed a retreat, and then went on the offensive accusing the Housing Executive of failing its tenants across many fronts. In January 2013 he announced he intended breaking up the Housing Executive and passing on the ownership of the housing stock to privately run Housing Associations.

Public Reaction:

We will cover this in two episodes. In the first episode we got a party political reaction and a media assessment of a similar temper. Sinn Fein was in the best position to drive the questioning of the credibility of Nelson McCausland and his party boss. Their leader at Stormont is Martin McGuiness the joint first minister with Peter Robinson and their senior policy maker Alex Maskey just happens to be the chairman of the Social Development committee that is supposed to make the Minister accountable.  The first thing to note about Sinn Fein is the party did not call for any immediate resignations from the DUP led government. Some starry-eyed pundits in the media praised this restraint as showing their newfound political maturity.

Martin McGuiness made just two points; that the ‘statutory inquiry led by the DSD under Alex Maskey needs to begiven full support in its work’ and that it was necessary for the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner ‘to investigate the relevant matters raised in the programme as a matter of urgency, these allegationshave the potential to undermine public confidence in the public institutions.’ Two days after the Spotlight programme was broadcast Alex Maskey convened his investigative committee and Nelson duly appeared to face the music. It was the failure of the DSD committee to pursue Nelson that provoked the first episode of widespread negative media reaction.

‘The Irish News’, the main morning newspaper read by nationalists, headlined the report on the committee meeting as; Minister shrugged off Teletubbie Mauling. The chief reporter wrote ‘Chairman Alex Maskey seemed at pains to highlight the good relationship the Minister enjoyed with his scrutiny committee and beyond asserting that the public would be demanding answers said little to cause the DUP rep any concern.’ He concluded the report by stating that ‘all round it was an opportunity missed not so much a grilling as a friendly invitation to the minister to come and warm his toes by the fire.’ 

The Belfast Telegraph, a newspaper traditionally supportive of Unionism, was equally dismissive of the DSD questioning of the DUP minister.  The headline it ran on the 5/7/2013 was ‘Watchdog lets McCausland off the hook.’  The Telegraph reporter was struck by the deference shown to McCausland – ‘He spoke for 54 minutes without one interruption’, something that rarely happens in the equivalent British committees.  He suggested the members were discouraged by Nelson’s verbal dexterity in comparison to their own lack of education. Nelson walked away from the committee asserting that the BBC Spotlight broadcast was just a ‘hotchpotch of speculation, insinuation andinnuendo.’ He threatened the BBC with legal action, as did his boss Peter Robinson, and it should be said that we referred to Nelson’s animus against the local BBC news reporting in our previous blog – Nelson reckons it is moved by a strong anti-British bias.

Because of the general negative media reaction, Sinn Fein decided to take another step and asked for a summer recall of the Stormont Assembly for a one day debate.  It looked as if they felt they needed to perform a bit better than they did at the DSD committee meeting.  However there was still no demand for resignations, only for an investigation about standards of conduct.

It is important to note at this stage what the press and assorted pundits were saying was potentially wrong with what the DUP had been doing. One view was that there was a potential ‘corruption charge’ being levelled at the minister.  What this actually amounted to was difficult to pin down, there was no suggestion that Nelson had sought to make any personal financial gain from the Red Sky advocacy.  Then there was the Sinn Fein procedural charge of breaching the ministerial code of office by lobbying on behalf of a private firm for business contracts.  Peter Robinson felt able to dodge the ministerial code charge by a nimble use of procedural semantics.

On the 5th July he gave an interview to the Irish News claiming that he had attended the strategy meeting with Red Sky in his capacity as elected MP for East Belfast and not in his capacity as the First Minister ; ‘Could anybody expect that the elected representative of east Belfast would do anything other than get exercised about the loss of jobs andseek to do something about it’.  He also declared his annoyance at the BBC saying ‘ I’m no longer going to tolerate this kind of accusations that Spotlight throw out in the hope that nobody takes any action against them for it.’

So within two days of the programme the BBC Spotlight team were facing four legal threats, one from the First Minister, one from Social Development minister Nelson McCausland, one from the management of Red Sky and one from special adviser Stephen Brimstone. A couple of media pundits pointed out that the Executive had recently rejected British Government proposals to change the libel and defamation laws to lessen restrictions and now we know why.

The third area for media concern was about bullying – the attempted bullying of Jenny Palmer by male thugs.  Jenny Palmer was talked about in terms of being a whistleblower, a heroine in the making and she became the must have interviewee.  This was the theme of  ‘The Irish News’ political column by Fionnuala O’Connor – ‘DUP’s whistleblower gives cause for cheer’. The opposition Unionist party in particular made the bullying charge the big issue and their Ross Hussey appeared on the original Spotlight programme to decry the bullying.  Then in the DSD committee meeting Michael Copeland, another Unionist Party member, made the terrible treatment of Jenny Palmer the core of the issue.    

What was remarkable at this point was the fact that the elephant in the room of the evidently sectarian inspired onslaught on the Housing Executive went largely unspoken. This was so much the case that the critics of the media elevated the ultra right wing TUV leader Jim Allister to the role of champion of public morals.  Every time the media wanted a quote about the ‘scandal’ they looked first for one from Jim Allister.

‘The Irish News’ ran the next big story on the Red Sky affair on the 9th July under the front-page banner ‘Allister rounds on the DUP’ accompanied with a picture of him.  On the same day the ‘Belfast Telegraph’ ran their lead with ‘Corruption claims rock Assembly.’  Jim Allister had framed the criticism solely in terms of financial corruption and party political favouritism, and for now most of the political class and media were happy to let it all rest at that.  Jim Allister was afforded a guest column in the Telegraph on July 11th to present us with the heart of the matter: ‘while the party ‘s treatment of Jenny Palmer  is shocking, the most  damning portion of the programme was that which dealt with the glazing contracts after representations from a DUP-friendly contractor, Mr McCausland put on hold the glazing contracts.’

He also argued for a judge led inquiry under the 2005 Inquires Act because 10 of the 11 members of the DSD committee belonged to parties of the Executive.  Another media pundit Alec Kane actually found some comfort in the scandal writing in the Telegraph; ‘This is also the first major political story which hasn’t centred on a spat between unionism and republicanism or between the DUP/Sinn Fein and the smaller Executive parties. And again that is what makes it interesting, because it’s as close as we have come to a normal so called scandal.’ (5/7/2013)

to be continued.

Workers’ control of production Part 2

0425.1974_Portugal-newspapeIn my last post on workers’ control I noted that it inevitably arose as a result of crisis, and crises are by their nature temporary, occasioned by society-wide political upheavals or by threatened closure of a particular workplace that is perhaps producing unnecessary products, is working in an obsolete manner or is otherwise failing to compete successfully in the capitalist market.

In Britain in the 1970s there were more than 260 occupations of workplaces by their work forces including, perhaps most famously, at Upper Clyde Shipbuilders in Glasgow, usually sparked off by closures, layoffs, redundancies, dismissals or threats of closure.  Such occupations were spontaneous, often acts of desperation and with no real planning.  If successful, the numbers occupying would be offered jobs by a new employer although this number would usually be less than when the occupation would have begun.  When no new owners would appear the occupations might attempt to become workers’ cooperatives but the motivation was normally a pragmatic search for a solution rather than something drawn from political commitment and ideology.

The occupations were often built by shop stewards and sometimes at odds with the official trade union movement, a situation we see again and again and a result of factors far from accidental.

The theme of ‘industrial democracy’ was very much alive and in 1974 the Conservative Government called a general election on the issue of “who governs Britain”, in direct reference to the miners who had engaged in successful strike action.  The Tories lost and the new Labour Party Government included Tony Benn, who wanted greater involvement of workers in their workplaces.  He also came into conflict with trade union leaders who opposed his dealings with rank and file groups of workers.  “The whole machine is against you” Benn told one supporter of an occupation at Imperial Typewriters.

Workers’ cooperatives received the support of Benn, who was in a position to do something as Minister at the Department of Industry, but his financial help was relatively small and most industrial aid continued to go towards private industry.  That which did go to the cooperatives was mainly for compensation to previous owners who were paid for obsolete plant.  This left the new cooperatives under-capitalised and without the necessary resources to carry out research and development.  They generally lasted only a short space of time but still sometimes produced radical, innovative and still exemplary struggles.  One such was as at Lucas Aerospace, where workers pioneered conversion plans to socially useful production, again opposed by the union leadership.

By the end of the decade however these types of struggles had declined dramatically.  Few of the experiments in workers’ ownership survived and as history is usually written by the winner the victory of Thatcher, built on the attacks on workers commenced by Labour, left a legacy of disappointment and nostalgia in some old enough to remember.  This has affected the Left up to today in so far as it is suspicious, if not actually hostile, to workers’ cooperatives.  This is a profound mistake as the willingness of workers to fight for ownership and control of their own workplaces is an instinctive impulse to go beyond capitalism.

The history of American workers organisation in the 1930s is perhaps more celebrated than this experience but in some ways was more limited.  Workers and trade union power grew during the decade not just because of the struggle of workers to organise, most famously in Minneapolis, but because of the strong growth of US manufacturing industry.  Between 1936 and 1939 workers occupied 583plants in sit-down strikes in defence of their terms and conditions, protection of wages, achievement of union recognition, or prevention of sell-outs where recognition already existed. These were often successful.

Unfortunately there followed 70 years of union-management collaboration – no strike agreements during the second world war; the witch hunt and expulsion of socialist activists in the McCarthy period; mob penetration of the union movement and the turning of the union bureaucracy into a world-wide vehicle of the US state in its cold war with the Soviet Union.  The US union movement has now declined so much that in most of the private sector it is irrelevant, with unionisation accounting for only 7.5 per cent in the private sector in 2008.  In some workplaces where unions do ‘organise’ workers are not even aware there is a union!

The history of American workers’ militancy drives home a lesson to be  learnt from the British experience of the 1970s and 1980s – that politics are not only determined by workers militancy and their experiments with workers control but that politics can influence decisively the short and long-term success of these experiments.

In the end the question of politics is crucial, which is why Marxists believe that working class conquest of state power – revolution – is decisive.  It is important however not to telescope the path to this destination.  Revolution is decisive only if the material basis for working class rule is present.  This is not simply a question of the level of economic development but of the social and political development of the working class.  Without both of these the question of revolution is not posed practically i.e. in reality, no matter what more general ‘crisis of capitalism’ is evident.

The analysis of workers’ control in these posts is based on the belief that working class conquest of state power is necessary but that the immediate question is how to make that a widely shared goal given the low level of class consciousness and struggle than now pertains.

It is therefore important to attempt to draw lessons from the impact of political developments on workers attempts at independent organisation in the workplace.  In turn we can then look at the role of workers’ organisation in the workplace for its impact on wider political struggle.  This will reveal the limits as well as the strengths of a workplace-based strategy and what political demands should be raised as a result.  Such lessons informs the opposition to calls for nationalisation that have been argued in many earlier posts.

For example in the Spanish revolution in the 1930s it was the Republican state that strangled the workers’ and peasants’ collectives rather than the fascist counterrevolution.  Clearly in this case a call for this government to nationalise such collectives would not have made much sense.  Anarchists believed these collectives were a means of controlling the Republican authorities but clearly what was needed was an alternative Government and state – perhaps built on these bodies.

In Yugoslavia self-management was a means of mobilising the population against economic blockade and potential invasion, boosting production, minimising the power of the trade unions during a labour shortage and hoping that the workers would discipline themselves.  Unfortunately self-management as then practised led to accusations of workers’ neo-capitalism in which the enterprises were seen as the workers property, narrowly conceived, so that they competed with each other in a capitalist-like manner.  Self-management became not a means of workers self-realisation but a trade union-like bargaining system of clientelism and patronage.  Increased enterprise autonomy acted to dissolve wider working class solidarity leaving enterprise loyalty and territorial state loyalty as the alternative, one which ultimately descended into bitter and bloody nationalist war.  On the way to this dénouement it has been argued that enterprise autonomy became a mechanism to insert the Yugoslav economy directly into the capitalist world market.  Increased autonomy became the means of strengthening management power not workers’ autonomy.

Both Spain and Yugoslavia are testament to the fact that without real working class political and state power workers’ control can be subverted and/or crushed.  I have argued that it is the lack of workers’ economic power and experience before revolutionary crises that has weakened the struggle for their class rule thus making revolutionary success less likely in such crises.  But it is also true that such episodic economic power is doomed without a political project.  In Poland workers councils existed in 1945, 1956, 1970 and 1980-81 but revolution there became a restoration of capitalism.

In nationalist revolutions, such as in Indonesia, the most radical actions of workers are betrayed by a backward political consciousness; as when workers control is achieved and defended not as an extension of workers’ power as a class but as the property and achievement of the new independent (still capitalist) state.  This state can indulge in the wildest revolutionary rhetoric but as long as its power is not an extension of that of the workers it is just rhetoric, to be retracted when the new state feels itself more in control.  It succeeds in this as long as workers power is mistakenly seen by its holders as the gift of the newly independent state.  The examples of nationalism trumping the radical actions of workers are legion and proof again that revolutionary action does not automatically generate revolutionary socialist politics and consciousness.

What is clearly decisive is workers’ own consciousness and workers control, self-management or councils are not in themselves decisive in determining it.  This however is not the question and not the argument being put.  There is no ‘magic’ strategy guaranteeing a workers’ victory but there are more or less adequate roads and strategic conceptions.

The argument here is that workers’ control, and in the longer term, workers’ ownership can provide a more solid, permanent and robust material basis for the development of the necessary socialist consciousness than simple trade unionism, no matter how militant.  More realistic than reliance on spontaneous political revolutions to do all the work of consciousness raising in the necessarily short space of time in which they take place and certainly more than demands for nationalisation, which for example were obviously meaningless in both Yugoslavia and Poland.

What workers ownership should do is provide a basis and foundation for a political programme that seeks to extend and deepen this form of ownership and give it a political dimension, to make easier removal of the division between the political and the economic that characterises capitalism.  Workers’ collective control and ownership of the state can be more easily argued for on the basis of their wider ownership in the economy.

The argument is more easily advanced if there exists a successful worker owned and controlled sector of the economy that can be presented as an alternative to the capitalist owned sector or the illusion that a benevolent state can take ownership of the latter in order to benefit workers.  On this basis the socialist project can become a political one for which the ideal form to advance it is a mass workers’ party.  Such a project can begin to win the battle for hegemony within societies which are currently dominated by capitalist ideas despite the objective failures of that system.  A real material basis for an alternative is provided that can focus generalised discontent that now expresses itself in free-floating ethical concerns for justice and can find no more specific or concrete alternative than vague calls that ‘another world is possible.’  Instead through development of workers’ cooperatives and the wider labour movement another world is built in front of our eyes.

The absence of such hegemony of ideas, and its corollary – that no alternative to the capitalist system seems possible – results in the upheavals that returned societies to capitalism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.  This wider and deeper lack of legitimacy of the socialist project weighs heavily on the spontaneous activity of workers even when they have engaged in the most radical activity.

In the Portuguese revolution in 1974 a movement within the army overthrew the dictatorship and between May and October of that year 4,000 workers’ commissions were established following mass meetings.  Not only factories but empty houses and apartments were occupied.

Within these commissions political competition developed between the Portuguese Communist Party and smaller revolutionary currents.  A failed right wing coup shifted events further to the Left.  Workers councils became not just organs of control in the workplace but organisations of struggle that could potentially threaten the power of the capitalist state.

In the end however they proved too weak and were unable to pose a political alternative to the quickly developing normal organisations of capitalist democracy – trade unions, political parties, parliament and the state.  In the end the Portuguese Socialist Party became the mechanism for a stabilisation of capitalist rule and bourgeois democracy.

Short-lived experiments in workers control and ownership were not in themselves capable of establishing hegemony for the project of workers’ state power.  A deeper and wider radicalisation was required.

The point is that this can take time and can only come about through the development of socialist consciousness in the working class over a more or less extended period and this must rest on a material base.  This can only be the development of the power of the workers in existing capitalist society, expressed in democratic trade unions, political parties, cultural organisations and workers cooperatives.

The opposite of this road is reliance on the state, expressed in the demand for nationalisation.  In Spain, Eastern Europe, Indonesia and Portugal it was the State which became the guarantor of capitalist ownership and power.

Today we are in circumstances where workers must not only defend themselves against the depredations of capitalism – battling against austerity – but socialists must also look to ways in which to advance a workers consciousness that seeks permanent expression of their needs and powers.  Not just defending immediate interests but looking and taking care of the future of the movement and workers’ position in society.

But it is not simply about the needs of the present as against the needs of the future because Marxism is the belief, confirmed by nearly two centuries of industrial capitalism, that it is not possible to satisfy the needs of workers today by only fighting today’s battles.  A socialist society is the future only because it is the answer to the challe-nges and problems of the present.  The demands for workers control and ownership express this view and are rejection of the clam that the existing capitalist state, by nationalisation etc, can provide the answer.

Revealing the truth about Anglo-Irish Bank – RTE censorship and ICTU complicity

David BeggThe release of the tapes recording the Executives of Anglo-Irish bank conspiring to rob billions from the Irish people has led to a clamour for an enquiry so that the full truth can be revealed.  In my last post I argued that this truth includes the plain and obvious fact that it has been the State that has made the reckless gambles of Anglo the burden of the people.  These Executives showed no great concern that the organs of the State would prove any barrier to their plans.  In this they were of course proved exactly right.

I argued that what is required is that workers should fight for their own inquiry to reveal this and other truths that remain obscured, not least by the media that presents itself as the vehicle for revealing the truth.  I suggested that workers should fight in their trade unions to launch such an inquiry.

I have just received an email that throws light not only on the role of the media but also that of the trade unions.  In particular it shows that the leadership of the trade union movement in the person of its General Secretary, David Begg, has questions to answer over his complicity in the complete and utter failure to regulate Anglo-Irish bank.

The text below recounts the intervention of a reader of the blog into RTE’s Liveline radio programme, which addressed the Anglo tapes.  She questioned the role of David Begg, which subsequently led to a complaint by him and the removal by RTE of the podcast of the programme.  The alacrity with which Begg moved to defend his reputation can be compared to his apparent inactivity in ensuring the Central Bank performed all the roles it was responsible for and which he presumably was on its Board to ensure were discharged.

Anne has written a draft letter of complaint to RTE and has asked for signatures to a petition, both of which are set out below.

This episode highlights the need for a workers’ campaign to highlight the full truth of the banking collapse and hold all those guilty to account.  Not least the system itself.

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On Liveline 27th June I got the opportunity to speak about my reaction to the Anglo tapes. I mentioned the protests organised each Sunday by ‘Dublin says No’ and encouraged people to attend protests that are organized around the country by the ‘Say No’ campaigns. So listen in to a podcast for the item. It is the first on the play list. Overall it was a good programme and showed the anger people feel.

I mentioned a few issues. Firstly that in Feb 2009 a group of teachers picketed Anglo-Irish bank in protest against the bail out of the bankers/speculators and to show our anger at the massive cuts that were taking place in our schools and in public services. I said a group of us went into the bank briefly to ask workers to tell us the truth about the real state of the bank as we were supposed to own this bank yet we were not allowed to even know what was going on.

I mentioned that David Begg head of ICTU sat on the Audit Committee of the Central Bank during the most damaging years of the credit bubble. He had access to what was going on in the Central Bank and that Mr Begg knows the true story and should make a detailed statement of what went on. He was supposed to be representing our interests.  Either he was happy the way the Central Bank was fulfilling its obligation to oversee the banks or he was sleeping on the job and knew nothing. Either way he should RESIGN. Begg then should have acted like the whistleblower Edward Snowden today, and in that case we might not have the present devastation to our lives.

I also mentioned that at the time of the Anglo take-over public services were being massively cut; huge cuts in education, my area of work, in our pay and pensions and that at the time Waterford Crystal workers were occupying the company as it was closing but there was no rescue for them. Mr Begg did nothing to organize a national campaign to save a flagship company while the nest of thieves in Anglo was being bailed out by the organisation of which he was a leading figure.

I contrasted what had happened to 1913, when Dublin workers stood up against the employers. They were able to gain their dignity and build the trade union movement as a real force while today when we are being ground into the dust and the trade union leaders are committed to working within the injustice and tyranny of the Troika programme. I said it was time to stand up for our right for a civilized way of life for ourselves and our children and that people should come out and join the ‘Dublin says No’ to the Bailout protests. I commented on our small numbers and the thousands of Brazilians who were protesting on O’Connell St 2 weeks ago against corruption in Brazil. It was time for people to act for themselves.

I also said that the contracts of public sector workers were torn up and emergency legislation enacted to steal our pay while nothing is done to take the massive pensions off the politicians such as Bertie Ahern. He should be stripped of his pension and the assets of the perpetrators of the crimes against us seized.

Letter of Complaint to RTE

I wish to formally complain to RTE regarding the disclaimer statement carried at the beginning of the Liveline programme 28th June 2013. It stated that RTE accepted that comments on the Live Line programme of 27th June relating to ICTU General Secretary David Begg were wholly untrue and without foundation and we also accept that Mr Begg was never a member of the Banking Regulatory Authority. We want to make clear that there was no suggestion on Live Line part that David Begg  is or was responsible or aware of any of the wrongdoings of Anglo Irish Bank which he condemned in the strongest possible terms.

RTE in acting in the manner in which it has are neglecting their duty to deal with a perfectly legitimate call from me. They are curtailing an important discussion on the role of people who held senior positions on the Board of the Central Bank leading up to and during the nationalisation of Anglo. A major scandal has blown up regarding Anglo Irish Bank where we are learning day by day of the deeply scandalous behaviour of senior executives at the bank.

Mr Begg made his complaint on the narrow base that he was not a member of the Banking Regulatory authority but I made no reference in my comments on Live Line to this.   It is a matter of record that Mr Begg had a number of major responsibilities as a member of the Board of the Central Bank, of which he was a member between 1997 and 2011. These are outlined below and as such he should have been aware of what was going on in Anglo.

Report of the Central Bank and Financial Services Authority of Ireland for the year ended 31 December 2006

Board Procedures (Page 62)

The Board holds eleven regular meetings each year. A quorum of seven normally applies for all meetings. The Governor approves the agenda and papers, which are circulated to the Directors one week in advance of meetings. Additional Board meetings may be called by the Governor at short notice either on his own initiative or at the request of any two Directors.

The Secretary of the Bank keeps minutes of meetings.

The agenda for meetings typically includes:

_ Reports on monetary and financial developments;

_ Reports on various issues relating to the Irish economy, the European economy and the international economy;

_ Reports on regulatory developments to keep the Board informed on policy issues and where decisions by the Board are required;

_ Management of the investment assets of the Bank;

_ Substantial financial contracts to be placed by the Bank for the procurement of goods and services;

_ General management, planning and budgetary issues;

_ Quarterly and annual financial statements and results.

Board Sub-Committees

The Board established three sub-committees on 30 June 1994 as follows:

_ The Audit Committee; The Remuneration and Budget Committee; The Investments Committee.

Board regulations detail the terms of reference of each sub-committee and membership in each case is comprised of Directors — of whom one is appointed as Chairman — and a further member of the Regulatory Authority with observer status. The Secretary of the Bank, or a nominee, minutes all meetings of the subcommittees and, when approved, these minutes are circulated to the Board. The members of the sub-committees, as at 31 May 2007, were as follows:

The Audit Committee members; David Begg (Chair), Martin O’Donoghue, Deirdre Purcell*, Alan Ashe**

( *Members of both the Board and the Regulatory Authority. **Members of the Regulatory Authority who are not also members of the Board but who participate at meetings of the above CBFSAI Board committees with observer status.)

It is clear from the agendas of the meetings that the Board members had a responsibility in overseeing the state of the banks which would have included Anglo Irish Bank, the 3rd largest lender at that time.  It is inconceivable that Mr Begg was completely unaware of whether the Central Bank was fulfilling its obligation to oversee the banks considering the agenda of Board Meetings and also given that he was Chair of the Audit Committee.

As General Secretary of the ICTU he is expected to represent the interests of workers/ordinary tax payers and I called Liveline as a long time trade union member concerned at the devastating consequences of the bail out of Anglo and the shocking revelations in the tapes.

RTE as a public service broadcaster should be to the forefront in lifting the veil of secrecy that has surrounded the bail out of Anglo, instead it has in this instance censored an important discussion and is failing in its duty to investigate or allow discussion on how the members of the Board of the Central Bank have fulfilled their role the role.

The refusal to podcast the programme is a further example of failing in its duty

Furthermore the disclaimer statement is an attack on my integrity and the truthfulness of my contribution to the programme. As you can see from the above excerpt on the operation of the Central Bank, I did not stray from the facts surrounding Mr Begg’s role on the Board of the Central Bank.

I request a copy of the transcript of my comments on the Liveline programme as my good name has  been brought into question by the disclaimer.

I expect an apology for the aspersions cast on my character on national airwaves.

 

Statement condemning RTE censorship on the role of General Secretary of ICTU David Begg in his capacity as a Board member of the Central Bank

We the undersigned strongly condemn the censorship of discussion by RTE of comments and questions raised as to the role of the General Secretary of ICTU David Begg in his capacity as a board member of the Central Bank and chair of the audit committee of the Central Bank during the period covering the boom years and the subsequent collapse of the banking system.

This gross self censorship by RTE on these legitimate questions and the subsequent erasure of the podcast of the Liveline programme of 27th June 2013 is a shameful and disgraceful episode for RTE as national broadcaster.

The role of the ICTU in demanding a disclaimer on the narrow basis that David Begg was not on the regulatory authority, (a claim that was never made) is an issue of concern for trade union members and all those affected by the criminal activity within the banking sector.  The role of a senior member of the trade union movement in these catastrophic events should not be and cannot be censored.

Anglo-Irish bank tapes – a rotten bank in a rotten State

swf+Anglo-Irish-BankRevelations by the ‘Irish Independent’ newspaper of taped telephone conversations between two senior Executives in the recently deceased Anglo-Irish Bank have aroused rage amongst a population already angry with bankers.

The expletive strewn – “we have to get the money in . . . get the fuckin’ money in, get it in” – and sometimes juvenile conversation – singing a comedy version of Deutschland Uber Allies – appears to show the two Executives planning to rope the Irish State, through the Central Bank, into bailing out Anglo to the tune of €7 billion, a number “picked out of my arse” as one Executive put it.  (The real figure proved to be over four times this amount!)

The cynicism and arrogance on display is summed up by their bragging that their losses are greater but that,  once hooked, the state will have to keep on paying  – “The reality is that, actually, we need more than that. But you know the strategy here is you pull them in, you get them to write a big cheque and they have to keep, they have to support their money” – while boasting that they would never pay it back.

On last nights’ ‘The Last Word’ radio programme the presenter Matt Cooper asked,in a tone of utter exasperation, whether this was a tipping point in the Irish population’s restrained reaction to the crisis, a crisis that has caused riots in other countries.   Would it lead to them . . . demanding a real inquiry into the banking crisis . . . because they needed someone to BLAME.  One of the interviewees however explained that inquiries are about finding out the facts.

The Government and opposition politicians have now rallied round a demand for another inquiry and the debate now will focus on what sort of inquiry will result.  Already however the call for an inquiry is being predicated on the view that the taped conversations demonstrate that the State was hoodwinked into bailing out the banks, particularly the exceptionally rotten Anglo-Irish.

I’m reminded of the words of the song from Alanis Morissette – “It’s the good advice that you just didn’t take. Who would’ve thought… it figures”.  That is because the State was not hoodwinked.  The State may well have been lied to, but the State turned round and lied to the Irish people.  Now the Irish State wants an inquiry, perhaps, all of five years afterwards so it can blame those already reviled and hated. This, so that it can continue to play the lead role in defending the banks and the economic system they sit upon.

The Irish State, its politicians and bureaucrats, claimed in September 2008 that the banking crisis was simply one of liquidity – the banks weren’t bust, they simply needed some cash to tide them over and then everything would be alright.  Basically the banks were solvent.

I claim no great powers of insight or clairvoyance when I say that I knew at the time that this was crap.  There were numerous voices, with no inside information, who knew it was crap and said so.  The inside information known to everyone that mattered would have proved it.  The Irish State was lying to save the bankers, the banks and the system.  This should not be a surprise for this is what the State is for.

And not just the local State, because the last five years have revealed that not only was it in support of bailing out banks that could not be saved but this was also the view of the European Union and the US Treasury.

Certainly, blame the banks for reckless and stupid lending but it was not the banks who made their debts the crippling burden on the people.  It took the State to do that.   Blaming the banks is a way of avoiding this, much harder to accept, reality.  Much harder to accept because we have just proved that you can change the government at the top of the State but you won’t change its role.  For the bleeding-heart liberals, and I include the leaders of the trade unions in this, this is especially a problem because the State is their only hope of making things better.

But there is an even more important reason to agree with the interviewee in the Today FM programme: that the point is to understand.  And what we have to understand is that the Irish bankers were not the only bankers to indulge in reckless lending.  It happened in the US, in Spain, in the UK and many other places right across the world.  It is happening in China today.  Criminal speculation is an inevitable part of economic booms under capitalism and cycles of boom and bust are an inevitable part of capitalism.

Blaming excessive credit expansion is fine, except that such expansion is inevitable in a boom – the bigger the boom the bigger the expansion of credit.  The problem is the system that makes credit expansion necessary.  No amount of regulation in a boom will prevent it.  New financial products, such as derivatives, or new institutions, such as a shadow banking system, are inevitable in a system defined by private property in the means of producing the wherewithal to live.   Blame greed – ok, but what other social pathology makes sense in the current economic system?  Blame the politicians – but how is the state to function without funding from the finance system?

In any new inquiry we will be invited to blame individuals, to which the implied answer is – ‘lock them up’, more power to the state, and individual banks, to which the answer is – ‘close them down’, when the real solution is to dismantle the economic system that makes such events inevitable.  Anglo will be made the focus of attention and held up as a rogue bank but Allied Irish cost almost as much and Irish Nationwide appears to have been even more rotten, however hard that may be to believe.

This view that the core and fundamental problem is the economic system and that the financial crisis and all its consequences are a result of it is not widely shared.  Yet the crisis demonstrates this dramatically.  Understanding this is an important and vital step to putting things right.  It is obvious that no State-backed inquiry could arrive at such conclusions.  We have had inquiries already which have been more soporific than enlightening.  That means the opportunity and necessity exists for the working class, or part of its movement, to launch their own inquiry to demonstrate the truthfulness of these claims.

Trade unionists should demand the unions launch their own inquiry.  The Left should campaign for this and if this fails it should launch its own inquiry, inviting evidence from workers in the banks and from left economists who can set out the mechanisms by which capitalism inevitably produces such crises.  An open forum of hearings and invitations to give evidence could provide the platform to educate workers and ourselves.  It might also invite proposals for alternatives.

In this respect the Left would do well to ponder the lessons to be derived from one part of the taped conversations.  In one recording, a Mr Bowe and another senior executive of Anglo, Peter Fitzgerald, are heard laughing about the prospect of nationalisation. They see it as “fantastic” and are delighted at the prospect of becoming civil servants.  This, of course, is exactly what happened. Why then would nationalisation be proposed by people calling themselves socialist?