No revolution please, we’re Irish

The failure of Irish social partnership and ‘soft’ NGO advocacy.

By Rory Hearne.

Ireland is in dramatic transition. We have witnessed the collapse of the Celtic Tiger, economic recession, bailout and austerity. Many people are scared by the juggernaut of poverty, oppression, inequality, environmental destruction and climate change.

Neo-Marxist thinkers like David Harvey, Erik Olin Wright and Hardt and Negri show that international capitalist globalisation underpins such social catastrophes.

The neoliberalism of the Washington Consensus – a political project of the elite, theorised by free-marketeers, Friedman and Hayek, pioneered in Pinochet’s Chile, finessed by Reagan and Thatcher in the US and the UK has belatedly been foisted on Ireland under the PDs/FF and their successors.

The Washington Consensus derives from the crisis of capitalism manifest in declining profitability, in the 1970s. A frightened elite resolved to reduce the share of income and wealth that went to workers, and to increase the share returned to capital.

Neoliberal policies included the de-regulation of Keynesian welfare-state protections and the financial sector, privatisation of public services, corporate fetishism, neocolonial wars for resources in the likes of Iraq, and commodification of the fruits of nature like water, land, seeds and even genetics.

Indeed at the heart of this project of neoliberal capitalism is the commodification of everything.

Everything is to be turned into something that can be bought and sold. Everyone must compete with everyone for everything.

But neoliberalism is also based on the myth of freedom without solidarity. Where is the freedom for low-paid workers forced to work three jobs to survive?

Yet, backed by the propaganda of vested interests acting through the media and parliamentary politics it successfully dresses itself up as efficiency and common sense, masquerades as a somehow unobjectionable ‘managerialism’ and attracts a gormless and unquestioning  ‘post-political consensus’.


However, as with all variants of capitalism, it is also riven with contradictions because of the anarchy of free, unregulated, markets that continually engage in boom and bust cycles and effect uneven development as one area expands at the expense of another.

Naomi Klein has used the term ‘disaster capitalism’ to describe how the elites use crises to create a blank slate on which they can further inscribe their commodification and exploitation.

Ireland is a study in failure of the neoliberal financial capitalist model. The Celtic Tiger was built on belief in the private market and in complete integration with globalised markets.

McDowell and the PDs promoted the ideology that inequality was good and essential to motivate people, and that we needed light-touch regulation to allow private developers and bankers to release their entrepreneurial ‘talent’ and risk-taking panache.

They also built their kingdom on reduced taxes for multinationals and the wealthy. Corruption was characteristic, and rife, within the political system.

Inevitably, the greed and inequality of their boom hurtled into crisis and recession. Unsurprisingly a political revolution was promised by Ireland’s new government in 2011 – that never again would such reckless mistakes be made.

Yet it is clear that the medicine prescribed by the state including key civil servants and its main political parties, business, NESC, IBEC etc  is a harsh form of Irish neoliberal capitalism.

The paradigm has been exemplified during the crisis by both governments backed up by the EU and IMF.  The twisted policy has been to pay back bondholders unnecessarily, defer abjectly to the markets but above all never to raise our hallowed corporate tax rate which seemed for the elite to be almost a badge of our nationhood.

This mentality sees no republican contradiction in sundering funding for marginal communities, social housing and essential disability services.

Most people who believe in social justice and those who consider themselves on the Left in Irish politics are likely to agree with the above analysis. The question is how to change the model.

It is essential to understand how the consent of the majority of people, their antipathy to revolution or even resistance, is assured.  Noam Chomsky, for example, describes how popular consent (passivity) is manufactured – in key part through control of the media and an absence of systemic questioning and critical thinking in wider civil society.

Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci explains that civil society plays a key role in maintaining support for existing capitalist hegemony and thus in maintaining consent.

Let’s look at the Irish civil society organisations including the Unions – first at their characteristic approaches to social change. They tend to embrace the ethos of service-providing charities, whose lobbying takes the form of ‘soft’ advocacy and the embrace of ‘social  partnership’ with the state which then funds it.

They or their members typically support the Labour party to get into government and to change things on their behalf, to mitigate Fine Gael and avoid reversion to some draconian PD-type outfit.

The Irish experience of 20 years holding back on protest and strikes  has yielded few progressive gains but rather the co-option and silencing of potential forces of dissent and a destruction of solidarity.

Interestingly for Ireland, according to Freire, the system of dominant social relations creates a ‘culture of silence’ that instills a negative, silenced and suppressed self-image into the oppressed.

Here in Ireland we have allowed a system of silence to dominate. The elite convinced a significant proportion of the population that their interests lay not in protesting or resistance but in maintaining a stoic passivity.

For example, during austerity the leaderships of the public-sector unions and ICTU made agreements with the government not to engage in industrial action in return for maintaining wages of existing public-sector workers and no compulsory redundancies.

The agreements also included great reductions in the pay of new entrants to the public sector and moratoriums on new recruitment.

Furthermore, the real price of the agreements was  that the major unions along with other NGOs stopped protesting against austerity, so the most vulnerable communities that were devastated by cuts were left with no one to defend them but themselves.

This analysis suggests how enmeshed the unions and NGOs are in dependency and the ideology of the elite system. Symptomatic is how the potential of the Claiming Our Future 2010 RDS event to turn into a more radical social movement was lost by a civil society leadership that  did not want to engage or unleash the popular resistance that radical change requires.

But this is not restricted to Ireland, at a global level, the likes of Booker prize winner, Arundhati Roy, author of Capitalism: A Ghost Story, has strongly critiqued “the NGO-ization of Resistance”: “In India, for instance, the funded NGO boom began in the late 1980s and 1990s. It coincided with the opening of India’s markets to neo-liberalism.

At the time, the Indian state, in keeping with the requirements of structural adjustment, was withdrawing funding from rural development, agriculture, and public health.

As the state abdicated its traditional role, NGOs moved in though, of course, the funds available to them were a minuscule fraction of the actual cut in public spending.

Most large funded NGOs are financed and patronised by aid and development agencies, which are in turn funded by Western governments, the World Bank, the UN, and some multinational corporations. Why should these agencies fund NGOs? Could it be just old-fashioned missionary zeal? Guilt? It’s a little more than that.

NGOs give the impression that they are filling the vacuum created by a retreating state. And they are, but in a materially inconsequential way. Their real contribution is that they defuse political anger and dole out as aid what people ought to have by right.

In the long run, NGOs are accountable to their funders, not to the people they work among. They’re what botanists call an indicator species. It’s almost as though the greater the devastation caused by neo-liberalism, the greater the outbreak of NGOs.

Nothing illustrates this more poignantly than the phenomenon of the U.S. preparing to invade a country and simultaneously readying NGOs to go in and clean up the devastation.

The NGO-ization of politics threatens to turn resistance into a well-mannered, reasonable, salaried, 9-to-5 job. With a few perks thrown in. Real resistance has real consequences. And no salary.”

Faced with this phenomenon – from India  to Ireland – the  best approach is one of critical engagement. That is based on empowering the marginalised, workers and those suffering discrimination to speak themselves to power.

Engagement with the system must be based on using the power of the majority, or even the ‘99%’ in popular resistance and withdrawal of  consent for the system. Occupy was an interesting manifestation of this.

The infrastructure of resistance played an essential role in Greece, Spain, and Portugal in mobilising and developing alternative approaches and forcing civil society organisations and political parties to take more radical positions. In Ireland it was never developed  properly.

The state has also played a clever game. Co-opting some dissent – dividing and conquering, repressing in some quarters such as the student protests in 2010 and Shell to Sea, removing potential political rallying points such as the annual promissory note repayment and manipulating and distorting to claim that there was a ‘deal’ on the Anglo notes.

The Irish state and political system, in particular an uncritical media, has been effective in many ways in anaesthetising a passive population. And of course in its encouragement of the age-old safety valve of emigration.

Gramscian frameworks also emphasise the importance of place-specific context.

In this beleaguered nation there has been oppression and collusion, resistance and persecution, flight and famine. Those who survived the Famine did so while millions died and were forced to emigrate.

A fearful population, oppressed for hundreds of years, was liberated by a small group – only to become oppressed again for almost a century after Independence.

Workers were defeated in the lockout. Dissenting voices of communism were forced, like Jim Gralton, into exile by a conservative, church-dominated and paranoid state.

This shiftiness about standing up to oppressive powers symptomises Ireland’s post-colonial mentality of dependency.

We had no large communist or socialist party like the rest of Europe; we had no 1968 revolutions, no factory occupations, no red zones in the 1970s or 80s. The resistance culture and infrastructure were never there.

It is significant that the dominant narrative is that the Irish did not protest against the neoliberalism of the Celtic Tiger or the antithetical crisis and its agent, austerity.

In fact there were the anti-bin-charges campaign during the Celtic Tiger, the massive anti-household-charge campaign during austerity, the community-development protests of the Spectacle, a new youth movement that for the first time in Irish history is resisting emigration – We’re Not Leaving, the Ballyhea and Anglo Not Our Debt campaigns, Shell to Sea, Anti-fracking groups; as well as a new radical Left political grouping in People Before Profit and the Anti Austerity Alliance. We have also seen the rise of a (for now) anti-austerity Sinn Féin.

What is interesting is how these movements (bar Sinn Féin) have remained both thwarted and under the radar. They are in the tradition of under-recognised grassroots movements that permeate 19th and 20th Century.

What can we do to raise the efficacy of such vital movements and of the radical left generally?

• Shift the focus away from trying to change the mind of the elite civil servants, media and mainstream politicians and focus on educating and empowering workers, communities, students, and the public through a Freirian approach of education for political emancipation, not the mainstream ‘common sense’ of the system.

• Teach and promote the concrete lessons from places and movements which have pursued alternative models of development. We can learn from international and local resistance that has challenged neoliberalism e.g. Zapatistas, Argentinian cooperative movement, Bolivia, Venezuela.

• Teach and promote  precise alternative sectoral models – of health, housing, employment – from around the world and from within Ireland.

• Teach and promote how real participatory and deliberative democracy would lead to social justice. Co-operatives are an interesting model that could have particular resonance for Ireland. Ask critical questions that challenge the alleged common sense of the system.

Why does anyone need a salary over 160,000? Why do we have housing and health provided on a for-profit basis? There is clear evidence that more equal societies do better on a range of indicators. Solidarity and cooperation rather than competition and individualism are driving values we aspire to in our family and personal lives. Why do we think the system should operate differently?

• Support social resistance, struggle, protest, and campaigns. Even if we are not exactly in agreement with the particular issue (this is obviously not applicable to racist or xenophobic issues) we should support grassroots resistance because that is where radical transformation comes – from the bottom up.

It is good to see trade unions supporting and organising workers like in Marks and Spencers, Greyhound Waste and  the  Paris Bakery. We must ask ourselves: What are we afraid of? Social upheaval? What would be  wrong with people waking up and taking control through mass protest and community action?

As we approach the anniversary of the 1916 Rising and the Proclamation of the Irish Republic it is opportune for the Irish left to engage the public in these debates and to mobilise action in the great tradition. The fundamental, and for some wrenching, question is: is this neo-liberalism what the leaders, particularly James Connolly, fought and died for?

We have never had the social, economic or political revolution that Connolly, the poor and the workers of Ireland fought for. We remain a colonised and oppressed people, a neo-colony of neoliberal capitalism, prisoner of the US, the EU, their corporations and their elite. Our goal must be to dispel cynicism, pessimism and inertia and to create together a New Republic that will deliver equality, sustainability and democracy for all the people. •