April 2016        

Not a time for diluting our demands

Tommy McKearney

Antonio Gramsci wrote in his Prison Notebooks that “the crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born . . .” Although this was written more than eighty years ago and in a very different world, he might well have been referring to the present day.
     In a global context, the current neo-liberal economic model is tottering but has yet to be replaced by something else, and certainly not by something better. Ireland too is undergoing a transformative phase but one where the outcome is also uncertain.
     The result of the recent general election was confirmation in the electoral sphere of something that has been evident within Irish society for a considerable time. The undermining of the old three-party system points to a happening more significant than a temporary volatility in political loyalties.
     Ireland has changed over the past fifty years, a change greatly accelerated by the collapse of the “Celtic Tiger.” It is no longer sufficient to repeat clichés about an end to Civil War politics, as if a younger and more enlightened generation has grown weary of what it considered an ancient and now irrelevant quarrel. The Civil War had its roots in a battle for class control in the new state, with the winning side (the men of significant property) setting the parameters for the following eighty years. For the well to do it was indeed a “damned good bargain” but a prosperity that was never shared with those less well off.
     The make-up of Irish society, however, has changed since the Civil War, and so too has the composition of the classes in contention. The people of the land no longer make up as significant a proportion of society as they did in the early years of the 26-County state. Agriculture continues to contribute a significant portion of the Republic’s GDP, but those producing it no longer consist of a large number of smallholders. Since 1916 the number of farms has decreased by 60 per cent, with the greatest decline in peripheral counties, such as Cos. Leitrim and Cavan.*
     In practice, the social class that was the bedrock of rural Fianna Fáil for so long has diminished in size and influence, and with its decline has gone a diminution in the strength of that party. Its apparent recovery at the general election has to be viewed against the type of virtual hegemony it once enjoyed under de Valera, Lemass, and Lynch. Obviously, since the relationship between class and voting patterns is not a mechanical equation, the working out of this is not linear. It takes time for elections to reflect the underlying make-up of society; but the erosion of Fianna Fáil influence has altered the balance of political forces in the Republic.
     Nevertheless, and in spite of this new political landscape in Ireland having distinctly local features and aspects, the indecisive election result is altogether in keeping with wider international patterns. Throughout Europe and in North and South America it is evident that working people are endeavouring to create new and different political movements. Whether it is Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn, SYRIZA, or Podemos, it is obvious that people are striving to change existing political and economic systems. Unfortunately, it is also obvious that these initiatives have not been fruitful.
     Part of the reason for their inability to succeed lies in a failure (or refusal, perhaps) to analyse the prevailing condition of capitalism and its imperialist patrons. The economic crisis of 2008 was at least forty years in the making. The sharp lurch towards neo-liberalism that began to take effect from the late 1970s onwards led inevitably to an unsustainable situation where declining wages, coupled with the promiscuous creation of credit, culminated in a prolonged recession.
     However, many among the then dominant centre-left or social-democratic parties tended to interpret the crash as a temporary anomaly or a clog in the machinery of capitalism. They refused to acknowledge a seminal and definitive moment in its development, or possibly decline. Consequently, they believed that the answer to the crisis lay in appeasing capital while trying to ameliorate its excesses and all the time waiting for a return to the type of social partnership that prevailed in the decades after the Second World War.
     Their hope for a return to social partnership was and remains an illusion. Globalisation has eroded the capacity of Western European and American capitalism to share a portion of its spoils with workers. More recently, slowing global economic output has led to collapsing commodity prices, thus producing a similar result in other regions.
     Eventually, the underlying fallacy in this centre-left assessment was ruthlessly exposed to the reality of practice. Shown to be an abject failure, the centre-left everywhere, including Ireland, collapsed.
     Often, as with the Irish Labour Party, it has crashed dramatically.
     In the light of this, the challenge now facing socialists is to identify and to offer working people a path forward towards the creation of a better social order.
     A major obstacle in the movement towards this goal is the emergence of a new but ultimately misleading message from what might be described as radical reformism. For example, Yanis Varoufakis, former minister of finance in the SYRIZA government in Greece, has launched the “Democracy in Europe Movement, 2025,” dedicated, in his words, to democratising the European Union by lobbying for “more transparent processes in European decision-making, including live streaming of council meetings and full disclosure of trade negotiation documents . . .”
     Not to be outdone by his erstwhile colleague, the Greek prime minister, Alexis Tspiras, recently told an international anti-austerity conference in Athens of “the need for the European Union to re-establish itself on the basis of its founding principles of humanity, democracy, solidarity, social justice and political equality between member-states . . .”
     Whatever way one examines this debate (or examines which EU Tspiras is referring to), their proposals are the same, as both offer a programme that seeks to make capitalism less greedy, imperialism less aggressive, and the EU more democratic—a project demanding more blind faith than is required to practise alchemy and therefore an option that should be strongly discouraged, here in Ireland as much as abroad.
     The present stalemate in Leinster House is symptomatic of the state of ambivalent political development in Irish society as a whole. Whatever arrangement is adopted for resolving the members’ differences will not determine the greater question of how Ireland progresses in the decades to come. If the future is to be socialist, the seeds have to be planted now. Ideas, projections and a different, socialised economic agenda take time to explain and gain widespread acceptance. Once accepted, though, such ideas are difficult to dislodge.
     This is not a time, therefore, for flirting with political centrism or for diluting the demand for a workers’ republic. The penalty for such a dalliance will be yet another “damn good bargain” such as a previous deal that proved less than beneficial to working people when last offered.
     Irish socialism has had an answer to the torments of capitalism for well over a century. Let’s just hold up the workers’ republic as the new order ready to be born and leave the rest to history’s curiosity shop.
*www.cso.ie

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