December 2016        

It couldn’t happen here!

Tommy McKearney

An incredibly wealthy businessman without any experience as an elected representative but full of bluster and with a huge penchant for self-promotion wins the highest office in the land.
     It might happen in the United States, or Italy, but surely it couldn’t possibly happen here? When all is said and done, aren’t we Irish a sensible people, with our feet planted firmly in the political centre?
     Anyone questioning this self-serving consensus would be advised to look at how Fianna Fáil has stepped in to shore up the middle ground. Isn’t Mícheál Martin getting ready to jettison his election manifesto and vote for water tax, just to keep its one-time adversary, Fine Gael, in office?
     Nevertheless, there are those who refuse to follow the received wisdom and who point to a view widely touted a few years ago. Influential elements were suggesting that a certain Irish entrepreneur who owns a large fleet of aircraft would make a fine Taoiseach. He had a proven record in business, the story went, having turned round a failing company and made his planes fly on time while simultaneously putting manners on those nasty trade unions. Not only that but he was also a good judge of horseflesh.
     However, that was a few years ago, and the Government and media tell us that we are recovering from the financial crash and economic crisis. So maybe there is no longer an opening for an authoritarian businessman-Taoiseach, with the attendant risk of his elevation to high office opening the door to the far right.
     For obvious reasons, the current establishment find it expedient to run with this more mellow view. Those outside the ruling elite, though, cannot afford to be so complacent. Donald Trump’s victory in the United States is indicative of a wider global trend and one that sooner or later will have an impact on Ireland.
     While it is true that the Democrat Party’s choice of candidate played a part in the outcome, this is far from being the only reason for the Republican Party’s success. Nor, indeed, can the contest for the White House be viewed purely within its domestic context. What we are seeing today in the United States (and also throughout the European Union) has been at least forty years in the making. At the root of this process is, of course, the economic determinant, but, as always, this is shaped by existent circumstances.
     Technological change and decolonisation made the social-democratic consensus in western Europe and North America after the Second World War impossible to sustain without conceding permanent advantage to working people. Capitalism responded from the late 1970s onwards with right-wing politicians ramming through neo-liberalism.
     Backed by a well-financed propaganda machine, and deliberately pitching a carefully crafted message designed to split working-class communities, Europe and North America experienced the working out of a brutal class war, led by such politicians as Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, and Helmut Kohl.
     For over a decade there was an incessant attack on practically every institution or service of value to the working class. Trade unions were emasculated, social welfare safety-nets were undermined, and essential communal resources were privatised.
     Eventually this crude and blunt assault became unsustainable. As the reality of the policy became apparent and increasingly intolerable, the electorate sought change at the ballot box.
     Recognising the discontent among working-class communities, right-wing social democrats took advantage and began offering a programme that appeared to address these difficulties but was in effect doing no more than creating an economic mirage. Employing what the Clinton political machine described as triangulation,¹ this wave of politicians sought to appease working-class communities while simultaneously implementing business-friendly policies. In essence they were merely strengthening and embedding essential aspects of the neo-liberal agenda.
     This policy of “a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down” was practised enthusiastically by New Labour in Britain, the Socialist Party in France, the Social-Democratic Party in Germany, Clinton-Obama Democrats in the United States, and of course the Labour Party in Ireland.
     It is distressing but hardly surprising, therefore, that some within the working class were and remain so angry, disillusioned and misguided that they have been lured by the Sirens calling from the far right. And this has created the volatile circumstances in which we find ourselves today—a situation highlighted recently by Robert Griffiths, writing in the Morning Star, when he said that “the world is entering its most dangerous phase since imperialism proclaimed eternal victory over the Soviet Union and socialism in the early 1990s.”²
     The danger arises from the fact that the economic strategy being advocated by Donald Trump (and others emulating his strategy) cannot rectify the problems faced by many working people as they experience unemployment, growing inequality, inadequate income, and a decline into poverty. When faced eventually with the inevitable failure of their ill-conceived economic policies, and with the subsequent loss of support among society’s disenchanted, there is a real risk that right-wing populists may be tempted to opt for war.
     Confronted with this very real possibility, it is important not to allow the right wing of social democracy to confuse the issue by advocating a return to their so-called safe haven of the status quo. Their apologists will issue calls to support what they describe as the “stabilising influence” of NATO and the EU’s common security and defence policy and will intensify demands for greater EU integration and the reintroduction of “social partnership,” among other equally futile initiatives.
     This programme failed before and will fail again. Let’s be clear, though: social democracy is not the enemy. What it does, however, is hinder the promotion of a clear analysis and the provision of a viable economic alternative; it cannot, therefore, challenge the evils of capitalism.
     The answer to the threat posed by the right lies in building an economic system that will provide working people with a fair and equal share of the wealth this world can produce—a system through which working people have access to adequate food and heating, decent housing, a proper health service and educational facilities, protection for the young and the elderly, time to relax, and an opportunity to enjoy the gifts of culture.
     In such a society, reality TV performers, beer-swilling Brexiteers or lunatic and half-wit chief executives will find few supporters and pose little threat to humanity.
     Only socialism can deliver such a society; and while the right wing may appear to have an advantage at present, the working class is stronger still. We have seen examples of this with the great movement against water taxes in Ireland, the millions who have rallied on the Continent against TTIP, and the outpouring of grief at the death of Fidel Castro.
     We need to remain vigilant, of course, but must also remain firm advocates of socialism and continue to work towards that end.

1. See Richard Moser, “The politics of triangulation,” Counterpunch, 13 May 2016.
2. Robert Griffiths, “How can we maximise the communist contribution to the class struggle?” Morning Star, 19 November 2016.

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