Employee ownership and socialism

coop-klBeyond the Corporation: Humanity Working, David Erdal, The Bodley Head, London, 2011.

The author of this book is clearly not a Marxist and he approves of arguments for workers’ cooperatives that encapsulate ‘good, basic, capitalist thinking.’  He puts forward the view that what he is proposing is, far from being woolly and utopian, not only immensely practical but has been implemented many, many times in many, many places.  It’s sheer practicality is one of its attractions and let’s be clear – the practicality of something is an attraction.  It is a clear advantage for any option that it can actually be implemented.

Much of the Left however recoils in horror at the ideas proposed in this book.  Nevertheless the impulse and development as well as the ideological case for workers’ ownership are forceful reflections of the analysis of Marx, which posits the growing contradiction between the socialisation of production and the private appropriation of this production by capital.

Ironically the author gives an illustration of this contradiction.  He compares the electronics industry in Silicon Valley favourably to that of Boston and accounts for the relative success of the former as a result of the fluidity of the movement of people involved in the industry, lack of proprietorial authority in many of the industries’ firms  and the inability of owners and managers to contain the flow of information within individual companies; all contributing to creative development of products and production.

It is notable, he says, that there is less of a top-down culture in Silicon Valley and that employee ownership has been a major driver in business development.  Companies could not attract good people simply by cash so instead used share options, a form of ownership, to get them to come, work for them and stay in the firm.  This together with the excitement of the work itself became the greatest motivating factors for employees.

The socialisation of production is evidenced by the increasing division of labour in which thousands, if not millions, of products are separately produced across the globe in order to come together as one combined product.  The necessity for this production to take place in a balanced and proportionate way, so that the final product can be efficiently produced, requires co-ordination and planning within and across hundreds and thousands of companies.

In April two years ago the BBC reported that a fire in a factory in the small town of Marl in western Germany had killed two people and affected the production of a resin called P-12, used in car braking and fuel  systems. This threatened car production across the world so that “Earlier this week, more than 200 executives from companies including General Motors, Volkswagen, Toyota and Ford met in Michigan. -. . . The group said that it was clear that “a significant portion of the global production capacity” had been compromised.  After the meeting, the big car companies were saying nothing on the record.  But some sources now say there is a real worry that the potential impact could be serious, including a slow-down in production.”

Such cooperation is planned but insufficiently so.  The inevitable disproportions in production lead not to conscious alterations in levels of production in order to seek balance in the myriad locations but to individual crises of cash-flow or profitability in individual firms and production units, leading to crises and disruption.  Economic and production efficiency is calculated at the individual firm level without regard to the overall system of production, the cooperative system of labour, which is in place.

We saw this through the recent dispute at the Grangemouth refinery and petro-chemical works, on which much of the British chemical industry was apparently dependent.  The economic calculation that was carried out rested solely on the relative profitability of the Grangemouth plant and not on an assessment of the industry as a whole.

Both examples illustrate the contradiction between private ownership of the means of production and the increasingly socialised system of production on which it is based.

An even more dramatic illustration of this contradiction is shown by the following two graphs.  They show the falls in world trade and industrial production following the credit crunch in 2008 compared to the impact of the great Depression of 1929:

World Trade

eo fig 2 eichengreen_2ndupdate_fig1

World Industrial Production

What these show is the dramatic falls in economic activity consequent on the decisions of individual banks and financial institutions not to lend because they did not trust each other to be in a position to pay the loans back.  The huge socialisation of resources that is carried out through the credit system became a prisoner of the private ownership of these credit institutions.  Each feared that the other might be fatally insolvent due to speculation in sub-prime mortgages or old-fashioned overproduction of houses and offices as in the case of Ireland.

What has this to do with the growth of workers cooperatives?  Well, if we  understand that capitalism is characterised by the separation of workers from the ownership of the means of production (including credit) and the ownership and control of these means in a separate class, the class of capitalists, we can see that such a system can exist only by workers gaining their livelihoods by selling their capacity to work on the labour market and using the money received to purchase the means of subsistence that they have just produced (but which are owned by the capitalists for whom they work).  The sale and purchase of these two types of commodities, labour power and means of subsistence, takes place in the market and the economics profession attempts to analyse how the economy works by focusing on how these markets work – without previously understanding or analysing why there is a need for these markets in the first place.

The explanation for this is that workers do not own the means of production and therefore cannot allocate these means or the output derived from them directly, through conscious planning, to satisfy the needs and wants that they have themselves previously identified.  They do not set the priorities for what has to be produced, how and where it is to be produced or consciously regulate the effects of what they produce so that any relative over-production does not lead to a closure of workplaces but to a planned decrease in capacity and switch to other desirable production.

The creation of workers cooperatives is a step in overcoming the separation of workers from the ownership of the means of production and therefore of overcoming capitalism.

Many on the left advance fears that workers will become their own capitalists and because the author of this book is not a socialist he quotes approvingly the view that while capitalism is good at creating capital it is not good at creating capitalists. The fear is that the competition involved in the Market will lead workers, even those owning their own businesses, to compete with each other in a way that simply replicates the exploitation involved in private capitalist ownership.  The drive to produce cheapest will lower wages and increase work effort.  In effect workers will exploit themselves.

What this view does in effect is give priority to the Market in analysing capitalism in just the same way as do the mainstream economists.  What they don’t see is the potential of workers cooperatives to overcome the separation of workers from ownership of the means of production and through ending this separation threaten the monopoly of the capitalist class, in doing so undermining the existence of the market as a regulator of economic life.

This can be done through the simple expedient of individual workers’ cooperatives cooperating!  The immediate objection to workers cooperatives is that they will have to compete with each other, or at least with private capital, and while the latter may be true the former is not.  Workers cooperatives can cooperate with each other.

Will workers cooperatives still exist within a society that is capitalist?  Yes, which is why books like the one reviewed see no contradiction between capitalism as a system and workers ownership.  Will this involve competition and will this not involve unwanted and unpleasant features and decisions? Yes, but Marx explained that the new society would not be born except on the basis of the old one and not on one that we could choose.

The sometimes contradictory arguments of this book reflect this contradiction existing in real life.  No more so than the argument about how the transition to workers cooperatives can come about.  Here it is argued, obviously on the basis that there is no contradiction between cooperative production and capitalism, that the capitalists themselves should simply transform their companies into cooperatives.  ‘The powerful need a change of heart’; senior managers will have to ‘make do with a smaller proportion of the wealth’; managers will ‘certainly have to learn how to exercise their power differently’ and ‘advisors will need a change of outlook’.  The book has explained why this should happen but not why it is in the interests of these people that it should happen.

The author calls on Government to prefer cooperatives and points out that this will increase prosperity, boost tax receipts, reduce social problems, increase citizen welfare and reduce social expenditure.  This makes sense only if you think the State is there for all citizens and not just for a few.

It calls on trade union leaders to realise the importance of workers gaining ownership rights and the potential it has for higher earnings, enhancing workers’ rights to information and their power to influence company decisions.  On this score it might appear that the author is on more secure ground since trade unions claim to represent workers and their interests.  Unfortunately it is just for this reason that many do not support worker ownership since such ownership would undermine claims that they exclusively represent workers in a particular workplace.  Normally union leaders prefer state ownership because the state will often guarantee union recognition, and therefore the dues income that pays the salaries of the union officials, while it allows these same officials the ability and right to claim exclusive representation rights.

The alternative perspective of some of the Left – of a once and for all take-over of all capitalist production by a workers’ state – has its own problems.  It leaves no role for the accumulation of prior social power and experience by the working class or of the potential radicalising effect of prior widespread workers ownership.  Such ownership would allow a ready reply to the accurate critique we now hear – where is your workers’ and socialist alternative?

Through many posts we have pointed out the fact that this has disarmed workers in fighting austerity, debt bondage and workplace closures.  Keynesianism – increases in state expenditure – is usually put forward as the only alternative to austerity but it is not an alternative that belongs to the working class.  The perspective of a workers’ economy can take root as a concrete alternative, at least in part to the degree that workers already own and control production.

Instead the ideal of a revolution, that in one blow achieves the requirements of decades of class struggle and experience, slides into the view that this comprehensive creation of socialised property becomes a single task of a country wide mechanism, usually the state.  So the State which is the protector of private ownership is wrongly held up as the means of overcoming it, through nationalisation etc.

Even those who see the creation of workers’ ownership as a task only for a workers’ state do not appreciate that this workers’ state itself must be based on workers ownership of production and of society.  How else do we prevent the bureaucratic degeneration experienced after the Russian revolution or expect the state to ‘wither away’ after revolution, which is the goal of Marxists and which was proclaimed by Lenin after the revolution?

The fight for workers cooperatives is a transitional one in that it contains the seeds of future society within the old.  It therefore contains elements of the old and those of the new but to condemn it for the former while ignoring the latter is a mistake.  In the next post I will look at criticisms of the idea of workers cooperatives as a means of achieving working class liberation and socialism.

Reforming the Northern Ireland Economy – A job for the State

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

CHANGING THE NORTH’S PUBLIC SECTOR

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

STATE LED DEVELOPMENT?

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

What attitude should socialists take to this argument?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Employee ownership and capitalism

{3E6643C4-0E2F-4C4C-B00C-DB42B68D2316}Img100Beyond the Corporation: Humanity Working, David Erdal, The Bodley Head, London, 2011.

The author of this book has an unusual pedigree.  He was born into a family which owned its own business from the year Charles Darwin was born, in 1809.  As a child he did not lack for money and joined the firm in 1977, at which time 1,500 people were employed in the company.  In 1985 he became its effective Chief Executive Officer.  In between he had led a rather different life, getting a job as an unskilled labourer on a London building site after leaving university

Through this real life experience he leant what thousands of Professors of economics are not – that it is employee’s work that creates wealth – and that the key to a company’s performance is leadership and commitment; leadership and commitment from everyone in the organisation.  That leadership is important should be readily understood by socialists.

He is therefore a strong advocate of employee ownership and the book presents his own experience of turning his family business into a workers’ cooperative and his own views on the benefits of such ownership.  He notes that because workers are so used to being ignored and exploited even the most minimal change, such as being allowed to own shares in the company, have positive effects in boosting productivity and performance.  He also notes however that such schemes transfer no real influence.  He is therefore clear that what is necessary is ownership because without ownership there is no real control.

Employee owned businesses do better because their workers are better trained, contribute more to the business and are more adaptable to change.  They generally do not suffer from underinvestment, do not lack ‘entrepreneurial’ spirit and do not exhibit shirking as workers monitor each other’s work effort.  Academic studies show them to be more productive and, while business problems are not solved by employee ownership in itself, or prevent strategic mistakes that may threaten the company’s existence, employee ownership will help the company survive longer.  If you own something you will look after it better.

He contrasts this with the views of traditional economists who, with no evidence, in fact against the evidence, claim that employee ownership will witness workers extract cash at the expense of the long term health of the business, take too long to make decisions, will see them avoid difficult decisions and witness the performance of  their business decline

In contrast he claims that the participation of everyone in decision making, and everyone being equally affected by the decisions made, makes for better decisions.

In his quest to turn the family company into a workers’ cooperative he was repeatedly told by finance advisors and other professionals that this was not a good idea.  The Market is always right – by definition.

He quotes one supporter of employee ownership who complains that workers normally have none of the rights associated with ownership, such as information, participation and control, and that while capitalism is good at creating capital, it is lousy at creating capitalists.

The view that cooperatives make capitalists of workers is one also heard from trade unions and argued as a reason to oppose workers’ ownership.  The author provides many examples of real employee ownership where workers have struggled with issues of productivity and competitiveness and where jobs have had to be cut because of threats of wholesale closure.

However the view that the Market is inimical to workers’ cooperatives is interesting because  in strict logic this is obviously not the case while it is also not the view most widespread on the Left, which is that workers’ cooperatives are simply not an alternative to capitalism because the market does not disappear and therefore capitalism does not disappear.

But it is not at all that simple and the hostility of some defenders of the market to worker owned companies is perfectly rational.

Irrespective of this the author notes that every generation throws up experiments with workers’ ownership but that most often this is not the result of the initiative of the workers themselves but arises from existing owners, from unusual individuals who stand against prevailing orthodoxy.  Who, from ideals of fairness, from appreciation of the contribution made to the company by workers, or realisation that the company can do better under their ownership, seek to transform ownership of their business.

Among the many issues arising from the idea of employee ownership, access to finance is often held up as the insuperable barrier to a business owned by those who work in it.  However the author notes that millions of small businesses do get access to finance, that most companies finance themselves from their own resources or can get started on the basis of the business itself, with funding based on sound business plans or backed by existing assets.  Or, in the case of the Mondragon cooperative in the Basque country, the workers can set up their own bank to finance their other cooperative initiatives.

This he contrasts favourably with the massive funding of mergers and acquisitions by private companies, which have a consistent record of failure, and the funding of property and other asset bubbles.  Mainstream dismissals of the viability and efficiency of workers’ cooperatives ignore the actual history and experience of capitalism as opposed to the mythical equilibrium properties of mathematical models of the market that exist nowhere outside of the models.

The massive increase of executive pay is ridiculed as an example that explodes the glib justifications of the market – that high pay for those at the top is simply the outcome of the interplay of supply and demand.  The demand for executives has not increased exponentially in line with pay but demand, fuelled by the cult of the capitalist exhibited in the growth of business schools and the MBA, alongside TV programmes such as ‘Dragon’s Den’ and ‘The Apprentice’, has seen supply multiply.  So why has the price risen?

Even if it could be argued that the demand for executives lies behind massive increased remuneration (to use the prevailing argot) the market is then supposed to increase supply to drive down prices to an efficient level.  Why hasn’t it?  Is it not working or is it rather that this is not how it actually works?

In the race to justify the rampant growth of inequality we now read about the ‘winner-takes-all’ society, which states baldly that market competition rewards those who win not those who come second or third or the rest.  The problem with this of course is that it is contradicted by the reality in which executive failure is still handsomely rewarded.  More worryingly for its proponents it contradicts the claim that the market rewards efficiency and is fair even minimally.

The author rejects many of the fashionable corporate claims.  For him employee ownership makes companies work better and their workers lead happier lives.  The contract of employment, which a worker signs, removes his right to his own product and pretends that he or she is a thing that can be rented.  Through case studies he argues that ownership make workers feel different – just as capitalism says it is supposed to!  But, he asks, why should such an effect be restricted to a few?

He has had enough experience to acknowledge the difficulties, not just of creating cooperatives but of running them.  How do you ensure workers’ actual as opposed to nominal participation and how do you deal with sometimes unrealistic expectations?  How do you overcome apathy among the workers?  After all, it is necessary not just to limit and control power exercised at the top but also necessary to ensure that it is wielded to effect at the bottom.

He addresses these questions and gives some practical answers, such as ownership being held collectively and not individually by particular workers.  This, he claims, has been the mechanism that ensures longevity of cooperative enterprises and obstructs private capital inserting itself and gaining control.  He acknowledges however that there is no obvious answer to what he calls the corporate governance problem.

It is exactly this question that is addressed by this recent blog post.  It is also only a Marxist approach that can address some of the apparently incongruous workings of capitalism that the author points up, such as why does it limit ownership of capital and not spread it around?

For a Marxist the obvious reason that capitalism does not encourage workers’ ownership is that by restricting such ownership capital compels workers to sell their labour power to those that do own capital and impels them to work on their behalf.  If all production was owned by workers then clearly an individual capitalist would be unable to compel anyone to work for them.

If all production was owned by the workers then equally clearly such production would be geared to what the workers wanted to produce and not to what capitalists believe would make them the most profit.  On both accounts production for profit would end.  Capitalists could find no one to provide the unpaid labour on which profit is based and the enterprises owned by the workers would have no incentive to pursue wasteful or aggressive competition aimed at forcing other enterprises out of business.  In fact they would have every incentive to collaborate in order produce in a way that met their collective needs.

When ownership becomes collective workers will feel differently but this simply demonstrates the truth of Marx’s claim that capital is not a thing but a relationship between capitalists and workers in which the unpaid labour of the latter expands the capital belonging to the former.  When workers own all the so-called capital it ceases to be a relationship between an owner and a worker, between an exploiter and exploited, and ceases to be capital.  When ‘capital’ is owned by everyone it ceases to be owned by anyone in particular so ceases to be capital.  This is why, unrealised by the author, the extension of workers ownership would spell not the expansion of capitalism but its ending.

Again and again the author reflects on how difficult it can sometimes be to get workers to think and act as owners of the enterprises they work in.   For Marxists this is indeed a big problem and is what we mean by saying that we need a revolution to change things, including changing the workers themselves.  Because a revolution is about transforming the lives of the working majority, which they can only do themselves, this includes transforming the vast amount of their lives they spend at work.  Probably unlike the author, we believe there are all sorts of obstacles and impediments put in workers way to gaining control of production, impediments that require workers taking political action to remove.

Production is only one aspect of how society works and attempting to take control of it requires ultimately taking control of the rest of society as well.  Taking control of society as a whole also reinforces the activity of workers control within the workplace.  It is also the Marxist case that ultimately no permanent and stable workers ownership or control can succeed unless the workers also control the state to defend such ownership.

There is therefore a real contradiction between workers cooperatives and capitalism, pace the author of this book, and equally no contradiction between cooperative production and revolution, pace the left opponents of workers’ ownership.

To be continued

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? Part III

1913_LOCKOUT_ADVERT-1

The weakness of Irish workers resistance to austerity cannot be explained as a supposed result of this austerity having less effect than in other countries.  We have just witnessed the eighth austerity budget, the previous seven having cumulatively accounted for 17 per cent of current Gross Domestic Product.

The budget deficit in 2013 is higher than that of Spain, Portugal or Greece; there is at least another austerity budget pencilled in and the State debt is continuing to rise.  Next to nothing of the debt taken on in order to bail out the banks has been paid back and these banks are still saddled with mortgage customers who can’t pay their loans back.  Were the much trumpeted rebound of the property market to be anything substantial the banks would be repossessing and selling the vacated properties.  They’re not.

In other words the crisis isn’t over and neither is austerity, although faint hope that it is coming to an end plays one part in explaining latterly the weakness of protest and resistance.

The answer to the problem lies in the weakness of the Irish working class itself.  For Marx capitalism, in creating the working class, created its grave digger.  The nature of a particular capitalism goes a long way to explaining the nature of a particular working class and the weakness of the Irish working class is a reflection of the weakness of Irish capitalism.

An objection might be made to this that the Russian working class was the most ideologically advanced working class a century ago while Russian capitalism was weak. On the other hand capitalism in the United States has been the most advanced for a century or more but its working class is a byword for exceptional weakness.

The uneven and combined development of both societies has gone a long way to explaining this apparent anomaly and it is beyond the scope of this post to compare and contrast the development of the US and Russian socialist movements.  Over 100 years ago Karl Kautsky wrote on this question in ‘The American Worker’, relatively recently republished as part of a symposium in the journal ‘Historical Materialism’.

What we can say here in respect of Ireland is that its uneven historical development both inside the country, and as a region within the wider British economy, mainly as a reserve of agricultural production and labour power, has accounted for its historical weakness.

I was reminded of this nearly a year ago when I received a United Left Alliance (ULA) email newsletter what presented a series of proposed meetings to be organised by the ULA against austerity.  These meetings were to deal with different aspects of the issue such as the economy, health services etc.  In Russia a noteworthy feature of political and intellectual life a hundred years ago was the strength, vibrancy and hegemony of Marxism such that it dominated even the thinking of Russian liberals.

How different a situation from Ireland!  The speakers proposed for the ULA list of meetings demonstrated the reverse – the domination of Irish socialism by liberalism.  We can see this in everything from the Left’s opportunist search for unity with organisations that are far from working class in political character, from the Greens to Sinn Fein and populist independents, to their Keynesian economic alternative that relies on the goodness of the liberal capitalist state –taxing the rich and nationalising industry.

This of course feeds into the mis-education of workers who, while they may not reject the ULA’s state-reformism from a revolutionary perspective, have a healthy distrust of the really existing bureaucratic state they know.  And they have a healthy scepticism that this state will create a new economy and tax the rich when the most widespread view of politics and government is that the politicians and the state mandarins are only in it for themselves.

Acquaintance with the occupational training by FÁS and the decades-long state attitude to tax dodging by the elite has convinced workers that the state is rotten; a source of corruption, incompetence and of patronage which moves according to who you know or who you can lobby or to whom you can provide supplication.  Meanwhile Irish liberals bemoan the population’s lack of civic virtue and the Left feeds it nonsense about the capitalist state as the solution to austerity and poverty.

Lack of a response to austerity is in small part a result of this but more significantly a long result of Irish economic development and the working class and its movement, which it has produced.  The weakness of the working class movement is therefore of long vintage in Ireland.  The outstanding figure of Connolly, who remains a giant of working class history, and the courage of the 1913 lock-out, are today appropriated by the bureaucrats of ICTU and the Labour Party wielders of the austerity knife.  Where is the movement that can legitimately claim this heritage?

Connolly and 1913 shine so brightly because the working class movement has for most of Irish history been subordinated to other forces.  While capitalist relations developed early in Ireland and industrialisation grew beside that in Britain it was much reduced by its greater development in the latter so that by and large it became limited to the north-east of the country.  There a relatively compact and developed working class developed but the fatal disease affecting it has long been known.  It could therefore play no wider progressive leadership role for the rest of the country

There the creation of a reserve of agricultural production for Britain created the conditions for the famine in the middle of the 19th century that devastated the country and led to reactionary social and political consequences everywhere.

First were the direct effects of death and emigration which robbed the country of a growing domestic market on which capitalist production could grow.

Then there was its effect on the land question that provided the social basis of Irish nationalism but which, because of the famine and its effects, including emigration, could be solved without a wider popular alliance of forces that included the working class.  The Irish nationalist movement was thus alternately dominated by reactionary bourgeois forces heavily influenced by the Catholic Church or a republican tradition that had its most democratic leadership in the United Irishmen ripped from it at the end of the 18th century through severe repression and sectarianism.  Republicanism became a petty bourgeois movement largely indifferent if not hostile to working class politics when at its strongest.

It did develop a wing which looked at the working class as ‘the men of no property’ but only so that they would help win national freedom.  This grew into a socialist republican tradition but this has also looked to the working class as the force for national freedom.  Where in other countries the socialist movement has grown through leading a fight for democracy, in Ireland this has never happened.  The left wing of the democratic movement has on the other hand appropriated radicalism that might in different circumstances have flowed into the working class movement.

Instead of a socialist movement that has taken on board the tasks highlighted by republicanism we have had a republican movement with left wing views tagged on but which has more often than not simply not understood what a socialist programme is, although sadly they are not alone in this.  Thus left wing opinions have abounded in this part of the republican movement but opinions have substituted for programme.  Marxism, genuine Marxism, and not its bastard imitation Stalinism, has been almost non-existent.  So many of the most radical spirits in Ireland have left the country or been absorbed in the dead end of republican politics.

The famine also resulted in the growth of the enormous power of the Catholic Church.  It is commonplace to at least partly account for the weakness of the working class movement in Ireland by pointing to the sectarian division of the class.  This division was hardened and strengthened tremendously by partition, creating an additional divide between workers in the North and those in the South, on top of the religious divide.

What is more and more apparent however is not simply the effects of the division itself, in preventing unity across state jurisdictions or in spite of sectarian identification, but the paralysing influence of the resulting political forces within the separate parts of the working class.

Sectarian division allowed the Catholic Church to engage in social repression involving sexual abuse, censorship and imposition of a reactionary ideological environment that was consciously and vehemently anti-socialist.  The more that is learned about this repression the more its class aspects become apparent.

The extreme reactionary monarchist ideology is perhaps less important in the North among some Protestant workers than the sheer ideology of division itself, i.e. sectarianism.

The strength of both Catholic and Orange movements have in no small part been due to the creation of the two states issuing from the division of the country.  Again and again even today we see the state protect the most reactionary elements in society both North and South – the Northern state facilitate loyalist paramilitaries and the Southern State finance the organisations found guilty of systematic child abuse.

National oppression has prevented the Irish working class from being an organic part of the growth of the British working class movement which means it has never availed of its strengths while it has on the other hand imported and copied all its weaknesses, including economism and trade union type politics.

Upon this weakness of the working class has been built its political subordination; its domination in the South until recently by the bourgeois Fianna Fail and its saturation by sectarian politics in the North.  Without a strong socialist tradition the periodic shifts away from the traditional parties can go in almost any direction.

In the last election the Left captured the vote of a small bit of this but the apolitical and clientelistic character of Irish politics affects the Left.  This and the state-centred nature of its politics is the basis for the chronic sectarianism that has shattered the alliance the Left had formed.

As Marx said the growth of sectarianism is in inverse proportion to the development of the class as a whole and the weakness of the class is the fertile ground on which the narrow and blinkered outlook of much of the Left has been established.

So what we have had is an historically weak working class.  During the key episode of political struggle around and after the First World War it was subordinated and subordinated itself to bourgeois nationalist or sectarian forces.  The victory of the most reactionary of these forces combined with retarded economic development prevented the growth of a strong working class movement thereafter. The Irish state did not participate in the Second World War so its working class missed out in the radicalisation that accompanied it in many countries.

Marx however called capitalism a revolutionary mode of production that continually creates and recreates the working class.  While this historic political weakness weighs on today’s generations the system throws up new industries, new work relations, new circumstances enabling economic growth and new forms of working class development.  The historical development of the Irish working class during the 19th and much of the twentieth centuries cannot explain the current lack of combativity of the Irish working class because this combativity is capable of being changed and transformed.

The Irish working class continued to develop after the Second World War but this subsequent development did not create a break from its historic political weakness and to the extent it has not done so the weight of history continues to oppress.

 

What way forward for the Dublin Bus workers?

482013-dublin-bus-strike-members-of-siptu-and-3-630x484In August drivers at Dublin Bus went on strike in opposition to yet another proposed cost cutting exercise in the company totaling €11m.  Subsequently a group comprising the Government, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and the employers’ body IBEC, joined together to carry out an investigation into why Labour Court recommendations about cost cutting proposals had been consistently rejected.

From a workers’ point of view it is difficult to know where to start in responding to such an initiative.  ICTU joined with those seeking to cut terms and conditions in order to investigate why workers hadn’t done as they were told by management.  It might have been thought that unions were there to see how workers could defend conditions but the combination involved of bureaucrats, bosses and government have been engaged in a conspiracy against the decisions of the workers.

This is dressed up as concern for the drivers themselves –  the Minister for Transport Leo Varadkar and the Minister of State Alan Kelly have said that the investigators had worked independently “in an honest attempt to address the concerns of drivers”.  But addressing the concerns of drivers for these independent experts means that “We ask the drivers to agree to the final proposals.”  In other words the drivers are to do as they are told.

And if they don’t the workers are threatened – “We are clear, however, that the outlook for Dublin Bus and its employees is very stark if this final effort does not succeed.”

To appreciate what ICTU has done it is best to consider what it didn’t do.

ICTU didn’t commit itself to an investigation to ascertain if the claims by management about the financial position of Dublin Bus were correct.

ICTU didn’t investigate why the major concessions made by drivers in at least two previous productivity/cost-cutting agreements have failed to resolve the company’s financial crises despite management assurances to the contrary. Why are they threatened by yet another cost-cutting exercise?  Has management lied about the promised effects of previous cuts or has it just been incompetent in developing a robust plan for the company?

ICTU didn’t investigate whether the support of bus services by the State was comparable to that in other states, whether the Government had any coherent transport plan for the capital or had taken adequate account of the role that transport plays in providing the infrastructure necessary for an efficient and prosperous society.  Whether instead it had taken a narrow view of the company’s profitability without regard to wider benefits to society.

ICTU didn’t seek to collaborate with all the unions involved to determine a strategy that could assert and defend the bus drivers’ rights.

ICTU didn’t seek to rally together the bus unions, wider union movement and the users and potential users of the buses to initiate a campaign for an efficient, sustainable and decent bus service.

ICTU could have done lots of things and had plenty of alternatives but it decided to conspire with the bosses’ organisation and State to threaten the drivers. And it did it in plain sight.

When you think of it this way the actions of ICTU are shocking.  But they don’t shock and they don’t surprise and they don’t do these things because workers have long got used to the fact that this is the way ICTU behaves.  So registering anger and pointing out that ICTU are engaging in an act of betrayal is hardly enough.

Do socialists have an alternative?

The first and most important thing to understand is that socialists have no alternative unless workers decide to take matters into their own hands.  The first step is therefore that workers fight to win ownership and control of their own struggles through ownership and control of their own trade unions.

In so far as the steps that ICTU should have taken are political ones, workers need to create their own political party.  This of course is a longer term requirement only in the sense that it can realistically be achieved only over a number of years.  And while the building of a genuinely democratic and militant trade union movement is also not an immediate prospect it is one that is immediately posed.  In other words the fight to create it is always present, which means we must fight for it now.

These should be central tasks of Irish socialists and outside of them the debate about unity of the Left is pretty well irrelevant.  If the Left wants to unite to build itself, unless this is a task to be achieved through the organisation of the working class itself, it will be sectarian.  Left wing unity and political sectarianism are not mutually exclusive.

On the other hand genuine unity around such a task, achieved through democratic organisation, which alone can achieve it, would act as a beacon, however small, for workers in struggle.

In order to create it however we need to ask why we need such a movement.  Why is the current movement inadequate, even treacherous, and what would a new one do?  We need these answers in order to persuade workers to undertake the task of creating one.

So how do the ideas of socialism relate to the predicament facing Dublin’s bus workers?

First we should recognise that their repeated willingness to oppose management’s plans is the indispensable basis for any alternative.

Secondly we should inform workers that militant strike action by them will not be enough.  As Marx and Engels repeatedly stated, strikes are often provoked by bosses in order to facilitate their own plans.  Often they serve to save money, implement lock-outs and close workplaces.  In Dublin Bus they will undoubtedly be used to blame workers for the financial difficulties the company is in. Strike action is insufficient and is not the only action that can be taken.

Do workers have an alternative solution of their own that could be put forward?

The first step in creating such an alternative would be to establish the real financial position of the company, which is what ICTU should have done.  This would include an assessment of the support given to Dublin Bus by the state.

The second is to establish what sort of service should be provided and how it should be delivered.

The third is to determine whether the workers themselves can offer their own model of ownership to deliver this sort of service.  Privatisation and continued state ownership both offer the same prospect of cuts in workers’ conditions.  Reliance on state subsidy should be recognised as a weakness in the workers’ position.  Dependence on the state, the ally and protector of the bosses, is reliance on precisely those that are insistent that the cuts be implemented.  That these cuts must be made prior to privatisation is demonstration that both the bosses and state recognise that it is the latter which is best placed to reduce workers’ conditions.

The fourth is to publicise and win support among other workers and the travelling public.  Other forms of action could be considered to achieve this such as providing ‘free travel’ days.  Only a campaign structure going outside the confines of trade unionism could make such a campaign a reality.

It is no great feat of criticism to describe these steps as schematic or abstract.  Only a really existing movement could make them anything else.  Schemes, or plans, are there to be proposed and debated, discarded or modified as real, active workers determine.  They sometimes abstract from the concrete realities of the situation, which give abstractions content, and become simply propaganda, usually when those with ideas lack the power to implement them.  Propaganda however is almost everything when you have little else, which is where socialism in Ireland is at.  Ideas are critical when an idea of how to fight back is the element that is missing from struggle.

The point of the commentary above is to inform workers and socialists that a certain understanding, class consciousness, is required to see any way out of the struggle that the bus workers find themselves engaged in.

One thing is for sure; the answer to the bus workers needs has been proved not to reside with management, the state or with ICTU.  The second has yet to be proved – that it resides with the workers themselves and in the strength and solidarity that they can muster.

Why have the Irish not revolted? Part II

imagesausterityIn my first post I qualified the view that there was something particularly weak in the resistance of Irish workers to austerity but argued that nevertheless an explanation is needed.  To develop this further we need to ask what this austerity has involved.

Some commentators would have a ready explanation.  In terms of the share of taxation in Gross Domestic Product (GDP), in terms of the share of Government spending in GDP and overall deficit as a percentage of annual value added there has not been ‘savage austerity’ so there has been nothing to rebel against.

Here unfortunately we have no choice but to enter the world of economic statistics where only the naive can expect clear objectivity and accuracy.

A post on the Irish Economy blog records that (adjusting the statistics for the well-known effect of foreign multinationals in the Irish State significantly overstating economic performance) living standards measured in GDP per person (in Purchasing Power Parity values) declined by 14 per cent from 2007 to 2011.  This is a bigger decline in living standards than in Portugal where the fall was only 1.6 per cent, in Spain where it was 4.9 per cent and Greece where it was 8 per cent.  In terms of national income (another measure) the drop was bigger – 20 per cent – and it will have fallen further since then.  It would appear that the relative quiescence of Irish workers needs additional explaining.

But does it?

Any Irish statistic that uses GDP is immediately suspect for the reason above but not only because of this.  GDP is a measure of value added which means the 2007 figure will include property produced at vastly over-inflated values.  Houses and offices built and priced at one value will have been shown subsequently to have been worth 50, 60 or 70 per cent less, or sometimes to be completely worthless.  A moment’s thought reveals that this is not a characteristic simply of Irish statistics but of measures of capitalist production everywhere.

When we think of the effects of the banking industry on measures of economic growth we again see that this measure is seriously distorting, not only because of the difficulties of capturing accurately what is happening, but because of the nature of capitalist production.  This takes place through the production of commodities whose real value is only realised after production. The value of these commodities is elaborated through the workings of the market which reveals the socially necessary value of output in a cyclical fashion.

For economists wedded to capitalism recessions are always the result of exogenous shocks outside the system or of purely irrational behaviour within it, which amount to the same thing.  For Marxists the cycle of boom and bust is how the values of commodities are established and then re-established in a constant process.  By nature therefore there can be no precise measure of value produced at any one point in time or over any one period.

In figures for GDP the distinction between use value and exchange value is absent never mind any accounting for how really ‘socially useful’ the use values produced are – ghost estates and weapons compared to commodities actually consumed by workers. This is to be considered on top of the well-known criticisms of measuring living standards by GDP.

There are alternative measures we can review but before we leave behind this discussion we should appreciate that what we have been looking at is not simple mismeasurement of economic activity but one form of the appearance of real contradictions within the system.

From the point of view of our particular investigation we can make two points.  That a critical review of some of the figures means the boom was not as boomier (to quote Bertie Ahern) as some statistics might appear to show and the recession not as sudden and complete a reversal as might first appear.  The expectation of more or less immediate revolt might therefore be less justified?  Other evidence however might suggest that such a view should be considered a relatively minor factor.

Secondly, the constant reporting of such economic statistics plays an ideological role such that workers must accept real changes to their lives on the basis of these statistics.  Workers are subject to such pressures not just in the recession but also in the boom – encouraged to get into unsustainable debt for example.  To the extent that they do the latter they are then under ideological assault to accept that they, along with everyone else, ‘partied’ and went on a ‘mad borrowing’ frenzy, as Taoiseach Enda Kenny has put it.

Some commentators might argue that a recognition of ‘guilt’ has played a role in short-circuiting resistance but the existence of such undoubted views is as much a result of demoralisation as a cause of the lack of resistance.

There are other statistics we can look at to see if there are material reasons for the lack of opposition apart from this particular ideological one.

What appears a more relevant statistic is called Actual Individual Consumption which encompasses goods and services consumed by households including government services such as education and health provision.  This would appear to show that between 2008 and 2011 living standards in the Irish State fell more than in Spain and in Portugal but less than in Greece or Iceland.

Actual Individual Consumption

State

2008 index

2011 index

Percentage fall

Ireland

109

100

8.3

Spain

99

94

5.1

Greece

104

94

9.6

Portugal

84

82

2.4

UK

123

118

4.1

Iceland

122

107

12.3

 

This measure is made up of a component of GDP so is subject to some of the criticism above.  We have already seen that three different measurements of living standards result in reductions in living standards of 20 per cent, 14 per cent and over 8 per cent, depending on dates and the measurement adopted.

What we can say with certainty is that living standards fell abruptly and significantly due to the crisis and it is not obvious that the severity of the fall in any country determined the relative extent of opposition to austerity.  It is necessary before drawing any conclusions to look at what might be at least some of the components of the fall in living standards, not by any means only a result of the effects of Government austerity policies.

By one measure unemployment in the Irish State increased from 3.4 per cent in 2007 to 10.4 per cent in 2012, a tripling of the rate in only five years.  The economically inactive, which must contain many who have given up hope of getting a job, increased from 27.5 per cent of the population aged 15 to 64 to 30.8 per cent.

Using a different measurement unemployment in the Irish state was 13.5 per cent in January 2013 compared to 17.8 per cent in Portugal, 26.8 per cent in Spain and 27 per cent in Greece.  Clearly the crisis has hit the latter countries much harder than Ireland.  It is by no means clear that higher unemployment breeds resistance since its function under capitalism is to facilitate increased exploitation of the working class.  The mobilisation of the unemployed is not always for progressive reasons, which is one reason we have noted before that economic crises often breed reactionary movements.

Once unemployed some workers face the prospect of hardship and one measure of this defined as deprivation, or being without two or more basic items, has increased from 11.8 per cent of the population to 24.5 per cent in 2012.  The possibility of this is affected by the level of welfare an unemployed personmight rely upon and this is measured by the net replacement rate, or the payments due to the unemployed as a percentage of previous net income.  This obviously depends on whether the person has children or is married etc.

Net Replacement rates 2011

 

No children

2 children

Country Single person One earner

Married couple

Two-earner Married couple Lone Parent One-earner married couple Two-earner married couple
Republic of Ireland 50 81 75 64 75 81
Greece 49 54 75 58 63 80
Spain 79 76 90 77 75 89
Portugal 75 75 92 77 76 91

 

The table shows that Greece has significantly lower replacement rates than the other selected countries for most categories but that the Irish state’s is generally lower than Spain’s and Portugal’s.  It would not appear that the prospect of a more significant loss of income as a result of unemployment has spurred opposition in Ireland relative to that in Spain or Portugal.

The other obvious way workers cope with periods of unemployment is falling back on any savings that they have accumulated.  The following table shows the movement in net financial assets per person (€) in the various countries:

Country

2007

2011

Republic of Ireland

23,634

26,279

Spain

21,698

16,328

Portugal

19,950

19,750

Greece

19,681

10,105

Euro area (17 countries)

37,289

36,201

 

The table shows the Irish State to have the highest level of financial assets (though much below the Euro area average) and that this even increased between 2007 and 2011!  Since these figures say nothing about the unequal distribution of wealth and we know that many have suffered unemployment, cuts in wages or tax increases, it is clear that certain sections of Irish society are bearing up quite well.  In the other countries financial wealth fell and in Spain, but particularly in Greece, fell quite dramatically.

Such average figures hide as much as they reveal.  Average household disposable income in the Irish state fell from €49,043 in 2008 to €41,819 in 2011 but this was still significantly higher than in 2004 when it was €38,631.  Right wing commentators have often made the observation that incomes have often just gone back to such and such a date and we are all much better off than before the boom kicked off in the first half of the 1990s.  This is undoubtedly true for many but doesn’t provide an answer why as a class Irish workers have resisted austerity so weakly, unless the argument is that expectations have very quickly reduced.  Is this however another result of defeat or a contributing factor to it, or both?

Averages can obscure because it is precisely the unequal incidence of the effects of capitalist crisis that can have decisive political effects.

Unemployment has increased dramatically but its incidence is not uniform.  Employment in construction has collapsed, from 258,000 at the start of 2008 to 102,000 at the end of 2012, a fall of over 60 per cent.  Over the same period employment in the state sector fell from 417,000 to 381,000, a fall of 8.6 per cent.  The pitting of private sector workers against those in the public sector was a clear strategy of the Government, the employers and the media and it was quite successful.

But this has not been the only divisive effect of the crisis.  Rates of unemployment among young people in Ireland, just like other countries, have been much higher than the general rate.  In the Irish state the rate of unemployment among those less than 25 years old was 26.6 per cent in April this year while it was 42.5 per cent in Portugal, 56.4 per cent in Spain and 62.5 per cent in Greece.  These are truly staggering figures.  The rate of long term unemployment has increased from 29.2 per cent of total unemployment at the start of 2007 to 45.5 per cent at the end of 2012.  What this should remind us, is that unemployment is a divisive imposition of the effects of capitalist crisis that impacts not only on those without a job but also those in employment.  Emigration has returned and is continuing to increase, up from 87,100 in the year to April 2012 to 89,000 in the year to April 2013.

None of these figures illustrates the hardship caused by tax increases and public expenditure cuts that can affect the most vulnerable the most.  They do not include the effects on people’s experience of negative equity, the full effects of which have yet to hit home.  Here again it is younger people who are more likely to be in negative equity and to be in arrears in their mortgage payments.  And of course the figures do not tell us that the results of the crisis and austerity are to be here for a long time.

Over 32 people were unemployed for each job vacancy in 2012, while the figures for Spain and Portugal were 72.6 and 90.4 respectively.  The General Government Debt as a percentage of GDP was 117.6 per cent in 2012 while the 2012 EU Fiscal Compact stipulates that where this is above 60 per cent it must reduce by 1/20th per year.  In 2012 the in-year Government deficit was 7.5 per cent which means the debt was not getting smaller but getting bigger.  Normally optimistic forecasters are predicting that unemployment, as measured by the International Labour Organisation methodology, was only to reduce from 14.7 per cent in 2012 to 13.9 per cent in 2014.

So what are we to make of all these figures?

The fall in living standards has been significant even if not so sudden or large for some sectors of society as others and not on the same scale as some other countries such as Greece.  Certainly the disproportionate effects on young people and rise in emigration have blunted resistance but these factors exist on the same or greater scale in some other countries in Southern Europe where resistance has been greater.

It is not therefore the effects of the crisis themselves that explain the response even if these act to weaken certain social and political reactions.  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.

During the boom the level of trade union organisation fell relatively as union density dropped from 46 per cent of the workforce in 1994 to less than a third in 2007, and only 16 per cent in the private sector.

Thus even during the most favourable circumstances, when workers are best placed to protect and advance their living standards, they were unable to do so with their own strength.  During recession such weakness is exposed.

Now they are subject to the vicious laws of the capitalist market and, as we said in the first post, short of overturning the system there is a limited amount workers can do about this without challenging the system itself.

During this post I have said that workers have not resisted austerity but in truth the great mass of unemployment, insecurity caused by mortgage arrears and negative equity, and the drop in personal consumption are not so much the result of the austerity policies of the Government, which of course have made things worse, but of the capitalist crisis.  This crisis can in certain circumstances be postponed or ameliorated by the State but it cannot be suppressed and certainly not by a State in bankruptcy.

When even during the boom large number of workers dependency on this state increased rather reduced and rather than their developing their own independent power, it can be little surprise that when the state turns round and kicks them in the teeth they are unprepared.

Some socialists argued again and again during the boom that social partnership, the vehicle by which the Irish trade unions hitched themselves to the State, was to be opposed not mainly because it prevented workers making gains in their living standards that they should but because it rotted away their independent organisation.  This has not just organisational consequences but political and ideological ones and it is to these that I need to look at next.

Workers say NO to Croke Park 2

5178_54_news_hub_5200_328x250Commentators across Europe, indeed the world, have marvelled at the ability of the Irish to suffer punishing austerity without strikes, riots and political convulsions.  Local commentators have basked in their acclaim as the austerity poster-boy – in damning comparison to those Greeks and other southern Europeans.  Instead the Irish voted for a European austerity Treaty and voted in a Fine Gael-led coalition with politics no different from the previous Fianna Fail led one.   If opinion polls are to be believed, many have gone back to supporting the utterly discredited Fianna Fail.  The recent Meath by-election saw the Fine Gael candidate handsomely returned and the particular local circumstances do not adequately explain it.

Irish workers accepted the tearing up of the existing social partnership deal and voted for a new one called Croke Park, which inflicted cuts in services and conditions, including yellow pack terms and conditions for younger workers, in return for no compulsory redundancies.

Unemployment however has soared, reaching over 14 per cent officially and, according to the IMF, over 23 per cent if the underemployed are included.  This is despite emigration of tens of thousands of the younger generation to destinations across the world.

Yet still the ‘fighting Irish’ showed no signs of fighting.

Until now.

This is the significance of the vote on a new Croke Park deal.  Irish workers have said NO.

If it has been a surprise to many on our side it has been a shock to the Government who thought their threats, bullying and intimidation would work.  Above all they thought the rotten leadership of the Irish trade union movement, which supported the new deal, would pull it through.

Its mouthpieces in the media reacted with denial.  The ‘Irish Times’ journalist said “it was so close”, “if 1,000 members of SIPTU had voted the other way, or if more of its members had been minded to come out and vote – there was an extraordinarily low turnout of 45 per cent – the deal would have sufficient support to be ratified.”

There is a grain of truth in this but we will come back to this.  Let us first note that the press and media betray once again their class character by agonising about how the democratic wishes of the workers can be subverted by ‘tweaking’ the deal to get it through.  You will search in vain for commentary deliberating over how the workers’ majority can assert and validate their democratic decision.

The deal has been rejected but the vote is a mere inconvenience.  It doesn’t count.  The workers can say anything they want and will be listened to, but only if they agree.  Like European referendums voting is to allow worker s to approve the plans of the capitalist class and its state.  Again and again Irish workers are taught this lesson – voting is not a choice, it’s a stamp made of rubber.

Instead we are fed rubbish that a vote that saw the deal decisively rejected by a majority of two to one, 115,000 to 55,000, could somehow have been passed “if 1,000 members of SIPTU had voted the other way, or if more of its members had been minded to come out and vote.”  The votes of those who didn’t vote are ‘virtually’ counted to support austerity while in fact the vote against will have awakened the many workers who didn’t vote to the possibility of voting against the Government, the State, the mass media and their own rotten leaderships.

But even these propagandists of the system couldn’t help but recognise that many workers voted no, not because they were personally affected very badly by the deal, but because they didn’t think they should vote for other workers to take a pay cut.

The grain of truth – that the result could have been very different – is a reflection of the bureaucratic nature of the trade union movement, where a majority of 60,000 might be reversed by 1,000 voting differently in the biggest union.  This is only one illustration of what is now the biggest question that is to be answered, which is not the one asked in the media – of what will the Government do?  The real question is – what will, or can, the workers do about their leaders who recommended and argued for and censored the opposition to this rotten deal?

The problem is neatly encapsulated by a report on the Irish National Teachers Organisation Conference at which delegates wanted to put an emergency motion calling on the leadership to have a strategy in place if there was a No vote.  This was ruled out of order but a weaker one was allowed.  Only when delegates booted this out was a compromise motion passed that called “on the central executive committee to urgently liaise with the executives of other public service unions with a view to promoting and planning a public service solidarity alliance of trade unions across the public service.”

What this episode reveals all too obviously is the restrictions placed on workers by union bureaucracy and this bureaucracy’s intention of relying on the Government to ‘tweak’ the deal so it can be imposed on the membership.  It shows the awareness of trade unionists that a strategy is required and one that seeks the maximum unity.  The obvious weakness involves relying on the same union bureaucrats to provide this strategy and implement it.

Putting together a convincing strategy will not be easy but the vote itself is a massive step forward, as is the appreciation of the need for a strategy and for this to be based on unity within the union movement.

Very early on in the current crisis the then Government relatively easily divided workers through claiming those working in the public and private sectors had separate and opposing interests.  The union leaders seemed only too happy to walk into this trap.  Their willingness to sacrifice services for short-term and increasingly illusory benefits for public sector workers has failed even these workers as their pay has been slashed and the deal they signed up to was torn up with union consent.  Meanwhile the workers who use these services have had some confirmation that the quality of these services may suffer to defend the conditions of those who deliver them.

The initial reaction against this disastrous approach was recourse to an even more divisive one, with the creation of a Frontline Alliance that saw narrow trade unionism prioritise the interests of some workers who are on the frontline of some services, implying a common interest not shared across all workers.  However I’ve yet to meet a frontline service that could operate without the support of rearguard(?) workers.

Even this signalled not some reduced form of trade union unity but the plaintive cries of the ‘special case’.  I remember listening to an interview some months back on ‘The Last Word’ on Today FM with a group of union leaders from this Alliance.  What was most striking was that when they were interviewed one-by-one there was hardly the slightest hint of a common grievance.  They seemed totally ignorant of how narrow their complaints seemed and how stupid a strategy is which is based on claiming special treatment when such an all-engulfing attack is being meted out.

There are other courses of action and what might seem like alternative courses for workers looking to fight back are in fact the same struggle.

The view that it is impossible to get the union movement to fight back without first kicking out its rotten leadership replaces a task on which workers have just voted – rejection of Croke Park 2 – with one they have not had placed clearly before them, debated and decided upon.  There is limited traction in simply claiming ‘betrayal’ and saying these leaders must be replaced now before a real struggle to give effect to the No vote can be realised.

The entirely justified and valid view that the current union leaders must be replaced can be achieved by demonstrating to the majority of members the practical effects of these leaders supporting attacks on their interests while frustrating any resistance.  In the course of mounting this resistance the task of replacing these leaders can be posed but not as a precondition or prior requirement for such resistance.

The related questions of whether workers should demand that their leaders hammer out a united strategy or should unite at rank and file level to achieve this themselves are also not opposed.  While rank and file workers must unite across unions to create their own structures this can only be in addition to the established ones. In this way they might demand that their separate leaderships take action and also advance towards an end-point where, if they do not, workers are in a position to pose this task practically themselves.

In doing so workers might learn that replacing the current leaders is not enough and that what is really required is an entirely rejuvenated trade union movement.  One that is open, democratic and not in thrall to either bureaucratic leaders or bureaucratic structures and rules.  A big step forward has been taken with the No vote and the Government is faced with the threat of resistance.

As this post is finished it is reported that the Government does indeed intend to ‘tweak’ the deal in what is called a “carrot and stick approach”.   Since it still intends to make the same amount of cuts what won’t change are the pain and divisiveness of the tweaked deal and the threats that will accompany it.  Like donkeys workers are expected to look at a carrot paraded in front of them while what they feel is the stick.

The new bank deal and the working class

debt maturityThe most important aspect of the deal that has replaced the promissory notes is not what it entails but what it does not entail. It does not involve a write off of any of the debt so that less would have to be repaid and interest burden on the debt lowered. It does not involve the European Stability Mechanism, in effect the EU, directly funding the banks which appeared to be the deal offered last June and it does not affect all the bank debt.

The deal on the promissory notes affects €28 billion of a total debt at the end of last year of €192 billion and relates to less than half that incurred in bailing out the banks. The Government has not changed its austerity targets. The editorial in the Financial Times stated that ‘restructuring the promissory note does not make the public liability for bank losses lower, just easier to bear.’ Easier to get workers to pay is more accurate. All the questions regarding how the deal will work have not been answered, which also demonstrates continuity with the promissory note arrangements that were understood fully by very few despite the enormous impact on people’s lives.

Never mind, the Taoiseach proudly told us that the “stains on our international reputations and dents to our national pride, have now been removed from the financial and political landscape”. This is a statement so revealing of the shallow moral argument for the deal, so instructive of the concerns of the elite as distinct from the majority and illuminating of the poisonous demands of national identity that despite its odious character it would be good to see it repeated again and again and again. The Irish people have decades to ponder how satisfying it is to pay for so long to erase such an embarrassment.

As for the new deal itself, it involved the liquidation of IBRC, which was the combination of Anglo-Irish bank and the Irish Nationwide building society. The Government will still pay €1bn to the bondholders of Anglo, as part of the 2008 guarantee, so no bondholder is left behind, and more rotten loans in Anglo will transfer to NAMA, which promises further losses down the road. Loans left in Anglo totalled €15bn.

It involves tearing up the promissory notes that provided the means for the State to get money from the Irish Central Bank (ICB), the local branch of the European Central Bank (ECB), to be replaced by ordinary government bonds, which are really just a more regular IOU used by states. This allows the state to keep the money loaned to it on the back of the promissory notes instead of having to pay it back when the notes were torn up. The state will still have to pay the money back and pay interest but will have much longer to pay and with what appears a lower rate of interest. Both of these are good things – having longer to repay and being charged less for the loan, but both are not as good as they appear.

The longer you have to pay the more you have to pay back, just like any mortgage. The lower interest rate is not such a change for the reason explained in the last article. This is because the high rate of interest paid by IBRC (8.2 per cent) to the Irish Central Bank, which the taxpayer ultimately funded, was used by the ICB to pay the ECB which charged a much lower rate of interest. The difference was returned to the Irish State so the effective rate of interest was not they headline rate of the promissory note. The reduced interest cost between the promissory notes and the government bonds is therefore not what it might appear.

But this is not the only reason the savings might not be so great. The ICB will have an asset, the bonds, the ownership of which entitles it to receive interest every year and receive repayment of the principal. Part of the deal is that the bonds are sold to private capitalists, €6.5 must be sold by 2022. How quickly they must be sold is not at all clear and thus neither is the cost of the deal, although this has not prevented the Government, media and commentators continuing to welcome the deal and proclaim its savings as if they were hard fact.

In selling the bonds the Government will in effect be raising new loans. If for example it attempts to sell €1bn worth of these bonds and investors don’t think the interest they would get on them is high enough they may be willing only to pay €980m, €950m or €930m instead of the €1bn. In other words the bonds would be sold at a loss and the tax payer would foot the bill. To replace the loss would require more loans costing more.

The rate of interest charged on the bonds over their lifetime is not known so calculations of how much the new deal will cost must make more or less educated guesses of how much the deal will actually cost over the long term. The longer the term the more the ‘educated’ guess becomes ‘pure’ guesswork.

Nevertheless within a couple of days estimates of savings on an NPV basis were quoted and savings of €8bn announced. Net Present Value (NPV) analysis allows one to calculate and compare amounts over different time periods recognising that someone would rather pay €1 in 10 years’ time than pay €1 today. It allows one to say whether it would be better to pay €1 for each of the next 9 years and €11 the following year or pay €2 for the next 10 years. In both you pay €20.

The money paid in the future is discounted so that €1 paid in ten years’ time is less than €1 paid in 5 years’ time which is calculated as less than €1 paid in 3 years’ time. How much you reduce the amount depends on the discount rate and this rate can have a big effect on the result. The rate chosen is another variable that is a guess, first educated and then pure.

The higher the discount rate the less costly future costs become which offsets the fact you are paying longer and on the face of it more. So one could be paying €21bn equally over 20 years instead of €19bn equally over 12 years but because the first means the money is paid off later it is worth less and the total cost on an NPV basis is less. In the example above an NPV calculation at a discount rate of 6 per cent shows that the first payment schedule costs €11.2 in NPV terms, where €11 is paid in the last year, and €14.7 in the second where equal yearly payments of €2 are made.

In the new deal the first repayment of principal is not until 2038 and the last in 2053. The NPV savings in the new deal were worked out by one economist as €8bn and then by a couple of others as €4bn, a whopping difference of 50 per cent of the first estimate. Another economist has stated that almost all of the calculated savings disappear if the timing of the sale of the government bonds to the private sector is accelerated. Factor in the loss on sale to the capitalists plus increased interest costs and the deal might very well cost more.

A final argument has been much quoted, and certainly more often than the lack of robustness of the savings estimates. This is that inflation will erode the real value of debt repayable by our children, who will be middle aged when they might finally pay it off. This means that, if say the interest rate is 5 per cent and inflation is 3 per cent the effective rate of interest is only 2 per cent. Also the real value of the money repaid in thirty years’ time will be less because of the cumulative reduction in the real value of the debt by this inflationary process.

It might otherwise be amusing to listen to these experts, who gave us a property ‘soft landing’ and now the wonderful benefits of inflation, except that we can state with absolute certainty that they will also be lecturing us in the future on the evils and futility of seeking pay rises to compensate for inflation because these will only increase it. Not only will interest rates rise in response to higher inflation thus limiting the effect above, which will also put up the cost of mortgages, car loans and credit card debt etc. but higher inflation will also erode living standards. What workers might gain from erosion of the real value of the debt they will surely lose by the reduction in living standards caused by an increased cost of living.

By now it should be apparent that the deal’s main benefit is putting off repayment of the loan principal thus making it less likely the state will have to default. In other words the main beneficiaries are the State and the ECB, which is sanctioning the lending of the money and protecting the European banking system. What is good for the state, that it continues to pay and does not default, is bad for workers who will really do the paying.

The second benefit is that the low interest rate charged for the money the state gets in exchange for the bonds will be around longer. However as we have seen, how much longer we don’t know. It won’t be our decision when it goes up (through selling the bonds to the capitalists) because this is a decision of the European Central Bank. Such a decision will cost us billions but we have absolutely no say in the matter. Yes, we live in a democracy.

Once again it is necessary to educate workers that they must distrust the state as much as they would distrust an email from Nigeria asking for their bank details. (The power of the state means it doesn’t need them.) We need to remind them that the state is able to foist the debt of Anglo and Nationwide on them because it nationalised these institutions. We need to inform them that both the Irish Central Bank and European Central Bank are institutions of the state deliberately designed to be protected against any kind of democratic pressure.

This brings us to a couple of questions a reader asked me about the promissory note deal. He asks how the government borrows from the central bank as if it is separate institution. “To me it looks like the government is borrowing from itself, but if that is the case why doesn’t it borrow some more?”

The first answer is that with so much debt the Irish State cannot borrow more from the markets (private capitalist funds) which is why the EU and IMF stepped in to loan the money. It can’t borrow more from these institutions because they want the state to reduce its indebtedness and pay them back their existing loans.

The second answer is that the Irish Central Bank is a branch of the state and a normal central bank can both provide loans and ‘print money.’ There are limits to the former if, as we have just noted, the state won’t be able to pay the loan back. In this case it is if it makes a loan that isn’t repaid just printing money. Printing money will at some point lead to a devaluation of the currency meaning that the Euro will be worth less and buy less making everyone across the Eurozone worse off when it has to buy goods from countries that don’t sell in Euros.

To protect against this the ECB has a firm grip on money printing and the deal on the promissory notes and the new one involving the issuing of bonds required its approval. The Irish state is part of the Euro so doesn’t control its own currency or it could try to get away with printing some money, although in reality it is too weak to be able to do so even if it went back to the Punt.

The ECB is taking control of the timing of selling the bonds because printing money in exchange for bonds that don’t have to be repaid for years is so close to money printing it really is printing money.

The rules of the ECB prevent it funding states and public institutions directly for this reason. It has however ended up with Irish government bonds in exchange for funding the IBRC. Because it ended up in this position indirectly by funding a bank (public banks must be treated just like private ones)rather than a government and through the receipt at first of promissory notes rather than regular government bonds this has to a very little degree been hidden.

This is why they’re not very happy with the deal and might also be why they will quickly ensure the bonds are sold to private capitalists; thereby entailing an interest cost more reflective of the market. As I have said, this will cost the Irish people a lot of money.

In the next post I will look at whether the new deal has solved the debt problem.

The promissory notes and the working class

The response of the mass media to the deal on the promissory notes was one of considerable praise to a Government that had won a deal that “appears as good as could have been hoped for”.

The world of finance is notoriously complex so in simplifying the deal for a mass audience the media felt free to simply lie.  Thus the headline in the Irish Times said that the ‘Bank debt deal to cut borrowing by €20bn and ease next budget’.  The small print revealed it would only reduce the amount paid in the next decade and the debate after the deal has revealed that there is no certainty that the next two budgets will be any less severe than planned.  The Troika and others are demanding the original targets are adhered to and being a poster boy of austerity might demand it.  The uncertainty surrounding important aspects of the deal leaves open to doubt many of the claimed benefits.

But one thing is very clear: the bank debt was unsupportable despite the responsibility of all the parties for placing it on the shoulders of the Irish people and something had to be done to prevent a disorderly bankruptcy.  This would have been caused by inability to raise the financing required to run the State at remotely affordable interest rates.  The average maturity of the main sovereign debt of about €80bn is around six and a half years, which has to be renewed by borrowing this amount again to pay it off – ‘rolling over’ the debt.  Combined with a possible promissory note repayment of over €28bn averaging five years and continued deficits this looked close to impossible.

Not that anyone dared point out that the deal exposed the lie of the Government parties, of the previous administration, and of the current Governor of the Irish Central Bank that the deb was ‘manageable’.

Ignoring this also allowed the media to largely stay clear of why this deal was necessary in the first place.  The Irish State had decided it would protect the investors in two thoroughly rotten institutions, run recklessly by their owners, by promising them that the Irish working class would pay off their gambling bets.

The Irish State never asked workers whether they wanted to, or whether they thought it was a good idea, but conceived the original bank guarantee in the middle of the night, as a scheme concocted without even the presence of cabinet ministers who were supposed to make up the Government.  In effect it decided to pledge money it didn’t have to people we still did not know and get everyone else to pay for it, including generations not yet born.

As ever we are bombarded with propaganda that cuts must be made in wages and services; increases must be applied to taxes, charges and working hours and all because we need to be competitive.  Yet billions that could not possibly be afforded were pledged and paid that bankrupted the State.  This in turn necessitated a ‘bail-out’ by the EU and IMF, which is akin to a blood transfusion to a dying patient so that she can work to earn money to pay the vampire.

As the Croke Park deal is ripped up and more draconian conditions inserted – not ‘extended’ as claimed – on the back of demands for austerity, no austerity is to be inflicted on the capitalist gamblers.  While money can be wasted on dead banks money must be cut out of wages and services because ‘we’ can’t afford it.

This is the logic of the capitalist system but it is hidden not just by the mass media and politicians but by the opaque workings of the capitalist system itself, made more complicated by the complexity of the financial system.  This complexity is useful because when it is more difficult to understand and appreciate what is going on it is more difficult to fight against it.  Only vague ideas that you are being screwed do not help give you confidence to say stop!

That is the importance of understanding as much as possible what the promissory note deal involves.

When the State guaranteed the liabilities of the banks in September 2008 it claimed the problem was one of liquidity, that is the banks were basically sound but were in danger because they would not lend to each other.  There might also be a withdrawal of money by depositors.  This was the purest rubbish and the gamblers who had put their money into Anglo-Irish Bank and Irish Nationwide didn’t buy it.  They took their money and ran.  Deposits in these institutions, packaged together as the Irish Bank Resolution Corporation (IBRC), fell from €65.8bn at the end of 2007 to €1bn at the end of 2011 while the value of debt securities funding the IBRC fell from €30.85bn to €6.3bn during the same period.

So if the IBRC was bust where did the money come from to give to the depositors and holders of the IBRC debt?  The answer is that it came in the form of Exceptional Liquidity Assistance (ELA) from  the Central Bank of Ireland (CBI).   This ELA funding to the IBRC was zero in 2007 and €40.1bn at the end of 2011. ELA is money so the question is where did it come from, how did the CBI get it?

In many ways the CBI may be thought of as the Irish branch of the European Central Bank (ECB).  The ECB has strict rules about money creation (money printing) so the local branch in Ireland could not just print Euros (metaphorically speaking) although this is one of the things Central Banks can do.

Nevertheless the CBI was able to give money in the form of ELA to IBRC which then paid off its depositors and holders of debt securities.  Since this bank and building society were broke the state nationalised them making all their reckless speculation our reckless speculation and making their debts everyone else’s debts.  Because the State didn’t have the money either to pay back the speculators they issued IOUs to the Central Bank of Ireland in return for their money’ the ELA.

The result was that the CBI gave money to the State in the form of IBRC and the State gave the CBI promises to pay this money back with interest.  Although the two institutions that became the IBRC had issued loans which were due to be repaid many of these were worthless so only through the state intervening could the capitalist investors in these institutions get their money back.

The promissory note IOUs were the promise by the State that through tax increases, wage cuts and public service cuts the working class would ensure they got their money.  This is what prevented the ELA being simply money printing and thus prevent the CBI holding worthless pieces of paper.

So the cuts to wages and public services that are justified by the claims that we need to be competitive are partly in order to pay the debts of a very uncompetitive bank.  So uncompetitive it is now dead, having been in a zombie-like state for the last few years.  When the State pays part of the promissory note IOU to the CBI the Irish Central Bank has ‘taken the money out of circulation’, again to ensure the problem is not solved by printing money.  In other words the money workers paid through austerity is simply burnt (again metaphorically speaking).

What could be more uncompetitive than maintaining dead banks on life support through burning money by putting real people on the dole and cutting services such as education?  The promissory note episode is one object lesson in the irrationality of the capitalist system.

This course of action could not have been taken by the Irish Central Bank and the Irish State without the approval of the European Central Bank and the European Union and its Commission.  For them the over-riding concern has been the protection of the European banking system just as the main objective of the Irish State has been the protection of the Irish banks.  Nationalist complaints that the Irish have made sacrifices for everyone else, much trumpeted by trade union leaders, has to ignore this.

If Irish workers have paid more so far it is because the Irish banks have been weaker and more rotten and Ireland remains a subordinated country which is dependent on foreign money for its speculative bubbles.

If the Irish State’s attempt to save the banking system required the ultimate liquidation of the IBRC this is because there was, in the end, little left to save after all the depositors and holders of its debt securities had been paid.  Again only the workers, in this case of the two institutions, are threatened with picking up the bill through redundancy.

For the Irish State this promissory note device to ensure that it did its best for European banks (and its own) had some advantages and disadvantages.  Of course inability to actually afford it is one big disadvantage but if it can get workers to accept austerity then this is not such an insurmountable obstacle.

The ECB does not want to lend money to institutions that cannot pay it back and since IBRC was bust its actions in approving the lending by its local branch raised some controversy.  If for example it lent to a bank that went bust and which didn’t pay back the money lent this money would then have entered the economy (through those people the bank did pay back, its employees or new loans) and this would amount to money creation/printing.  This can create inflation and low inflation is the primary objective of the ECB.  A strong currency allows a state, or in this case the Eurozone, to command greater resources on the world stage and is thus integral to the project of a strong EU imperialism.

The ECB thus regularly monitors (every few weeks) its ELA so their approval or otherwise was always hanging over the Irish State, although even without this it remains under close and regular scrutiny.

An advantage of the promissory note arrangement that will be lost at some stage with the new deal is that because the State owes the money to the Irish Central Bank profits by the ICB on the loans can be returned to the Irish State.  Given the high interest rate of over 8 per cent this is important.

Because a lot of the ELA created by the Irish Central Bank has ultimately been paid by IBRC to banks and institutions in other EU states the ECB has had to lend money to the ICB so that the reserves of the Irish Central Bank do not decline dramatically.  The ECB charges the ICB for this money but at a low interest rate so that the difference between this low interest rate charged to the ICB and the higher interest rate charged by the ICB to IBRC is a profit which can go to the Irish State.

What this means in terms of the current benefits of the new deal is that the move to a lower interest rate on the Government bonds that replace the promissory notes is not a gain since the effective rate of interest actually paid on the notes is the rate charged by the ECB to the Irish Central Bank and not that charged on the promissory notes.  As explained the profit generated by the latter is taken by the Irish Central Bank and returned to the State.

In the next post I will look at the new deal to replace the promissory notes.