Class and Ireland: Part 3 – Records of a Floating Life

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Night is gone, a dawn
comes up in birds and sounds of the city.
There will be light
to live by, things
to see: my eyes will lift
to where the sun in vermilion sits,
and I will love thee and have pity. (Michael Hartnett)

I’m sitting on the small fenced stone wall that surrounds the central bank on Dame Street, drinking coffee from an oversized flask, waiting for my friend Colm to arrive. He works across the street and we’re meeting up for lunch on the occasion of my birthday. I’ve come from the library, where I’m going through the regional newspapers from 1920, looking for coverage of the local urban elections that were held in January of that year. The Labour Party executive started planning for the election in October 1919 with a two-day conference in Dublin, out of which came an election manifesto and a set of rules and criteria for all candidates. It went on to win 324 seats (22% of the total), with a presence on most of the urban councils on the island, and a commitment to improvements in housing, health, sanitation, water, and employment. The elections and the results have been all but forgotten by Irish historians.

Indeed, the most recent history of the Irish Labour Party fails to mention it altogether. The election, it seems, is an irrelevance, a blip, of interest only to those who sit in the midday sun on Dame Street, drinking cups of instant coffee from oversized flasks, waiting for their friends to arrive. And, well who am I to argue?

Colm shows up. I put away my flask, and we go and get something to eat on Fownes Street. I talk about the 1920 elections and how they have been forgotten. I tell Colm that I feel like the guy Woody Allen jokes about in Annie Hall – the one who has recently turned forty, “with saliva dribbling out of his mouth who wanders into a cafeteria with a shopping bag screaming about socialism.” I’ve just turned thirty-nine and although I don’t have a shopping bag, and I’m not drooling just yet, I’ve got the socialism screaming down pat.

We finish up lunch and as we’re leaving Colm hands me over my birthday present. It’s two Billy Bragg LPs that he had picked up in Oxfam – Brewing Up with Billy Bragg, and Talking to the Taxman about Poetry. “Do you like Billy Bragg?” he asks. I nod and say “yeah!”, and give him a bear hug before I let him go back to work. For myself, I walk back to the library and clock in a couple more hours in the 1920s before packing up my stuff around five. I get to Dawson Street and start waiting on the 140 to Finglas, but it’s not long before I give up and decide to walk. It’s my birthday, and I feel like a ramble. Thanks to Colm I now have my shopping bag to go with my head-full of screaming socialism. The saliva, I reckon, can wait till next year.

Irish Social History

The research on the 1920 elections is interesting enough, but the thing that has wrapped itself around me these days is class and class analysis. It seems strange to be concerned at this time with such an abstract idea as the historical interplay of class relations in the Irish Free State from its formation in the 1920s up to the 1990s. I mean, the almost hourly reports of European bank failures, American Senate rejections, and hastily-scraped-together nationalizations are enough to give even a hippo the shits, but there’s little to be done in the short term except see how it all plays out. In the meantime I’ll just keep on wandering.

And reading, of course. A couple of weeks ago I came across the work of the Australian anthropologist Dr. Chris Eipper of La Trope University, Australia. During the winter of 1974-5 Chris lived in Bantry Bay, Cork. The town – and the local oil terminal – piqued his curiosity enough for him to return in late 1975 in order to undertake participant-observation fieldwork. He stayed for a year and a half, living in the community, undertaking interviews – in general, immersing himself in the environment. The interviews and observations formed the basis of his 1980 doctoral thesis, which was later adapted to book form in 1986 with the publication of The Ruling Trinity: A Community Study of Church, State and Business in Ireland. This is what Hilary Tovey and Perry Share have to say about Eipper’s analysis in A Sociology of Ireland (2nd ed. 2003):-

Eipper has perhaps been the most successful at constructing a theoretical perspective on class in Ireland that integrates the three key dimensions of class analysis: interests, cultural meanings, and political action… [He] argues that class analysis has to combine the analysis of two forms of class relationships:
1. People who act as the ‘social agents’ or representatives of economic class locations, for example, as the representatives of the interests or owners of capital.
2. They are acting subjects, real people living a distinctive way of life within a given social habitat.
Both ways of acting involve struggles for power and control, particularly for control of people’s class consciousness ‘which is the acme of class struggle, of class formation… As Eipper argues, class is not a static category, but an historical one [My emphasis]. It is linked to social change: classes change society and social change alters classes and their relations. As Eipper points out: ‘It is not the evolution of classes as such, which explains change, but the evolution of the processes forming classes; it is the processes which create classes more than the classes themselves which are important.’

Eipper has a lot to say about power blocs within Irish society – both national and international power blocs – and his study in general is a fascinating one. He came up with a conceptual framework of class and watched as it interacted with the facts on the ground. The Ruling Trinity looks at class in motion, i.e. it takes a Marxist view of class relations and applies it to the South. What makes the book especially important is that it’s not part of the Irish Nationalist Marxist tradition. Eipper can look at the facts, and not have to worry about fitting Connolly in. And this may seem like a small thing, but the Irish Nationalist Marxist tradition is as dogmatic as a dogma that’s gone to dogma school and has gotten a PhD in dogma. Theoretical discussion is ruthlessly rigid.
having said that, there’s some decent Marxist analysis in the work of Eamonn Smullen, of course, (including that of the oil industry in Ireland) and in parts of the work of Ray Crotty, but really, Chris Eipper’s book is the first one I’ve come across so far that really pulls it all together – class, economy, culture, and society.

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Eipper opens up The Ruling Trinity by saying that

No attempt is made to present a complete account of ‘community’; all that is offered is an analysis of important features of class relations in the Bantry area – though they are features common to local communities everywhere in Ireland. Unlike most community studies which take a stratificationist stance (be it Warnerian, Parsonian, or Weberian, in orientation), this one is in the tradition of class analysis. Accordingly, it has a more pronounced historical emphasis than is usual for a community study. Again, few community studies have considered the importance of the localized interventions of transnational corporations, which is a feature of this book. (p.1)

Eipper is an anthropologist and sociologist. His focus is an analysis of a contemporary community and a contemporary society. His approach, however, is ‘in the tradition of class analysis’, and that requires an historical approach. It’s a fundamental point. Again, to go back to discussions on class in Ireland today, the focus is overwhelmingly on class as social stratification, and not on class as a social relation.

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This is not an either/or situation – either we use social status or we use class analysis – rather, what I take from this is that in order to analysis class relations you need to take an historical approach. The time framework of an historical study is needed in order to observe class relations in motion. To go back to Chris Eipper: –

Class is not this or that interest, but the friction of interests’ which characterizes the structure of society and its institutions. Conceived in this way, class is not a static strategy. Rather, as a delineation of modes of social relationship, it possesses ‘a fluency which evades analysis’ if not approached from an historical perspective. (p.11)

This idea, that class contains “a ‘fluency which evades analysis’ if not approached from an historical perspective” is one that Eipper takes from E.P. Thompson and his book, The Making of the English Working Class. The paragraph in which Thompson defines class is worth repeating in full:-

Sociologists who have stopped the time-machine and, with a good deal of conceptual huffing and puffing, have gone down to the engine room to look, tell us that nowhere at all have they been able to locate and classify a class. They can only find a multitude of people with different occupations, incomes, status-hierarchies, and the rest. Of course they are right, since class is not this or that part of the machine, but the way the machine works once it is set in motion – not this and that interest, but the friction of interests – the movement itself, the heat, the thundering noise. Class is a social and cultural formation (often finding institutional expression) which cannot be defined abstractly, or in isolation, but only in terms of relationship with other classes; and, ultimately, the definition can only be made in the medium of time – that is, action and reaction, change and conflict.When we speak of a class we are thinking of a very loosely defined body of people who share the same congeries of interests, social experiences, traditions and value-system, who have a disposition to behave as a class, to define themselves in their actions and in their consciousness in relation to other groups of people in class ways. But class itself is not a thing, it is a happening.” (p.939)

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In these posts I’m trying to make sense of my own exploration of the subject. And for me it’s the seemingly inane differences that are the most fundamental. Class analysis and theories of social stratification, although by not means mutually exclusive, are not one and the same thing. And as an historian, the conceptual framework of class is better suited to what I want to look at than, say, models of social stratification, which tend to be more synchronic. Class analysis, in contrast, demands a diachronic approach.

As to what would such a piece of work look like, well, there are more than a few glimpses of it in Eamonn Smullen and Ray Crotty, while the most exciting example I’ve come across so far is that by Chris Eipper in Ruling Trinity. What started out six months ago as a daunting, almost overwhelming, task, is beginning to seem that much more possible – shopping bags and screaming socialism notwithstanding.

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