…and this brings me to the third point which goes to the root of the whole matter: that the relation to capital and labour, employer and employed, should not be one of hostility and suspicion and self-seeking, but one of sympathy and co-operation, each caring for the interests of the other as if they were their own interests, and each looking upon the other as a brother in Christ.” (Rt. Rev. Dy. Day (Ossory) at Kilkenny Synod, 10 October 1925)
It must be part of being almost 40, but I’m averaging one funeral a month these days. Not only that, they’ve turned into proper social occasions as well, a chance to meet up with family and friends who otherwise I wouldn’t see from one part of the year to the next. Yesterday was no exception. Usually I arrive a bit early and stay until the mass begins.
Then I slip out the back door and hang around outside until it is over. I can’t see or meet a priest without the word “CUNT” flashing up in my skull, so once I’ve shook the hands of the appropriate people I make my excuses and leave. But yesterday I got talking to a relative of mine who had arrived late, and after the usual “what you up to” pleasantries, (“Alright, teaching now? You back from Spain for good?”), almost immediately the conversation moved onto the recession and housing. My relative is convinced that the market has “bottomed out” and that this month is going to see a pick-up in sales. I didn’t have the heart to say that, whatever about individual houses, the Irish housing market as a whole is overvalued by at least 60%, and that anyone who bought in the last six years, chances are they’re sitting on a steaming pile of Charlie McCreevey shit.
Lied to, conned, and in debt. Who needs a reality check after that particular shopping-list?
Soon the mass ended and our conversation got absorbed by the people pouring out, getting ready to go to the graveyard and then onto drinks afterwards. I had to work so I left them to it and went off to prepare my classes; with the economy, hope, the Church and the government, all keeping me company as I waited on my soon-to-be-cut bus service.
“I want to see a society that benefits all of us on this island, irrespective of class, colour or creed. Rural, urban, foreign or native, private or public. We are a beautifully complex people, a nation of a thousand parishes. But we are on the same island now, and to make this day dawn again, we have to stick together. Ireland holds us all together; we must all mind her now.” (Taoiseach Brian Cowen, 28 February 2009)
The present collapse in Fianna Fáil support is interesting in that the reasons for it are outside the usual parameters of Irish intellectual debate – it is not due to a moral outrage, for example, nor is it because of a “cosy cartel” financial scandal, despite all the pleadings of the newspapers, Fine Gael, and RTE, who need to see the Irish world in those terms. Quite simply, they do not know how to look at this society, and how it really works, without those comforting terms of reference. Hence we have the titillation of the “golden circle”, and the diarrhetic slop that pusses out of Enda Kenny’s moronic mouth as he sniffs morality’s panties with all the pulsating venom of a Frank Booth on ether. “Mummy, Mummy”, pleads Enda to a blousy Leo Varadkar in velvet, “Daddy wants to moralize!”
At the same time, there is a curious comfort in hearing these pleads to our morality, to our sense of “fair play” and subsequent outrage, and why wouldn’t there be? Ireland has been, and continues to be, a distinctly Catholic country, with a Catholic primary, secondary, and third-level education system, a conservative and Catholic press, and a conservative and Catholic intellectual framework for understanding the world. By this I don’t mean a ten commandments / words of Jesus Catholicism, nor St. Paul and the early church fathers. I’m talking about the response of the Church in the late 19th and early 20th century to the rise of socialism, Marxism, and class analysis. This response formed part of the Church’s new-found sense of “social justice” and led it to develop strategies for combating some of the stronger defects of living in a capitalist economy.
Possibly the most-famous element of this new-found interest was the encyclical Rerum Novarum, (“Rights and Duties of Capital and Labour”),written by Pope Leo XIII and issued on 16 May 1891. It opening paragraphs set the tone quite well:
That the spirit of revolutionary change, which has long been disturbing the nations of the world, should have passed beyond the sphere of politics and made its influence felt in the cognate sphere of practical economics is not surprising. The elements of the conflict now raging are unmistakable, in the vast expansion of industrial pursuits and the marvellous discoveries of science; in the changed relations between masters and workmen; in the enormous fortunes of some few individuals, and the utter poverty of the masses; the increased self reliance and closer mutual combination of the working classes; as also, finally, in the prevailing moral degeneracy. The momentous gravity of the state of things now obtaining fills every mind with painful apprehension… Therefore, venerable brethren… have We thought it expedient now to speak on the condition of the working classes.”
“Moral degeneracy… momentous gravity of the state of things… ” – it is only the start and already you can hear Enda Kenny unzipping his fly. Pope Leo realized that unless the Church stepped in to do something for the working classes, it was in very real danger of losing them altogether to trade unionists, socialists, communists, and anarchists. Now the scale and extent of the encyclical’s influence is for another day’s discussion, but what is quite clear is that in terms of this partitioned little island, the type of social analysis which became part of the Irish “common sense” in the 1930s, 40s and 50s, was hugely influenced by Rerum Novarum. Indeed, Irish social policy at this time fits snugly into Catholic corporatism; and in many ways, it still does. The effect – the legacy – has been the framing of the debate in terms of morality and duty when it comes to issues of economic and social justice. Indeed, the very use of “justice”, instead of the more ecumenical (and inalienable) “rights” gives quite a clear signal as to where the social framework is coming from. Justice is given to us from someone who is usually in a position of power and judgment, whereas rights we have simply because we exist. We may not always get to exercise them, but we have them. They are not a gift from a section of society. We have them because we are human, not because we are “deserving”.
In the universities then – in contrast to the research institutions – Irish sociology was, from the outset, heavily influenced by Catholic social teaching and philosophy, particularly the ‘Catholic corporatism’ that had developed in other European societies such as Belgium, Italy and the Netherlands. Whereas the positivist tradition in sociology inherited from the SSIS [Statistical and Social Inquiry Society] and other similar organization emphasized a social research that served the state, the Catholic corporatist tradition focused on what is often called ‘civil society’. This referred to core institutions ‘outside the state’, for example, the family, the community and the parish, that, through a supposed better grasp of the dynamics of social processes, could be assisted and encouraged to take control and manage their own affairs…
The extent to which early Irish sociology approached any form of social critique, or defined social problems independently of a statist perspective, was due to the influence of the Catholic tradition. It is a tradition carried forward today in the work of CORI and Trócaire, for example, and is a discernible influence on the research of bodies like the Combat Poverty Agency and Focus Ireland. Catholic social teaching, on the other hand, had provided considerable opposition to the enthusiasm among members of the SSIS during the 1940s for the introduction into Ireland of a British-style welfare state. There is no doubt that some Catholic clergy sought to appropriate Irish sociology so as to prevent it from becoming a vehicle for the importation of Marxist ideas into Irish society.” (Hilary Tovey and Perry Share, A Sociology of Ireland, 2003, pp.29-30)
This sense that moral outrage is the ne plus ultra of any political or economic debate is everywhere to be seen. The darling of the social democrats, Fintan O’Toole, is constantly playing to our ideas of morality, of fairness, of “justice”. and because of this, there’s an analysis slipping out that this is an Irish problem, which will lead to an (internal) Irish solution. The current drop in support for Fianna Fáil, disastrous as it looks, nonetheless appears like something that it can bounce back from. After all, it has in the past: it survived Haughey, it survived Fr. Brendan Smyth, and it survived Aherngate and won the last election. Once an election looms, those who have deserted Fianna Fáil will, as always, return to its fold, and while it might not form the next government, it will survive.
And while it’s true that only a fool would write off Fianna Fáil, nonetheless let’s be clear as to the nature of its current difficulties. Fianna Fáil is in serious trouble not because the country is in a heightened state of moral outrage at its methods, but because the collapse of the international banking system means that the contradictions within Fianna Fáil – a populist party with a strong working class base, but controlled by banking and business interests – have run out of space. Fianna Fáil’s room for maneuver is almost zero. It can’t sugarcoat its business-led economic policies with populist gestures, such as a tax-break or, well, erhm, a tax-break (Fianna Fáil hasn’t been that original lately). Indeed, in order to get the country through this mess it can either raise revenue through the closing of tax-breaks, increase tax on unproductive capital in order to force it into circulation, and borrow the rest for an economic stimulus package; or, it can leave wealth alone, cut back on funding for basic goods and services, tax personal income, and appeal to patriotism and our sense of duty. Fianna Fáil has decided to go for the latter. Its decision to borrow to prop up dead banks means that Ireland is finding it hard to secure loans for the rest of the economy, the part of the economy where the jobs are (for now). The party cannot do both. It cannot prop up its financiers AND keep that working class vote on board. The international economic situation just won’t allow for such an option, and the party’s losing support as a result.
The only way that Fianna Fáil can remain as a party is, obviously, to hang on to its voters, but to do that it has to hurt its financial backers, the people who give it millions every year in order to make sure that their backs are covered. Fianna Fáil’s world has contracted so much that its internal contradictions are tearing shreds off each other. This is not about moral outrage over bankers, this is about hundreds of thousands of people fighting for their economic lives, while Fianna Fáil uses those people to fund a survival package for the powerful business interests in this country. Unless Fianna Fáil turns back from that path it will find itself lacerated in the elections. And if that happens, the best move for Labour would be to try to from a government with Gilmore as Taoiseach, leaving Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil in each other’s (right-wing) arms.
You may argue in the market place and pull at your
doubts with silken strings: I will only tell you
this: I have lived in both their temples,
believing all and nothing – perhaps now, they will
die in mine.” (Bukowski, The Priest and the Matador)
Anyway, we’ll see what happens. But, for now, try to count the number of times you hear the debate about Ireland’s economic situation within the conceptual framework of Catholic social teaching on one hand, while it is defended with neoliberal syllogisms on the other. Then, try to count the times it is NOT put forward in these terms. The point I’m trying to make is that with regard to the Left in Ireland, its background is also Catholic. It resonates with the liberal tones of Catholic social teaching; indeed it finds a marvelous comfort in such a conceptual framework. It is homely and recognizable. And I think that’s been a problem for the Left in Ireland, in that with few exceptions (such as the Workers’ Party in the 1970s and 1980s), it has allowed its language to be dictated by, well, the Catholic church. Not that language alone makes a movement, but language makes an argument, and language frames the analysis.
Teaching pays the bills, but my real work is that of a labour historian. No money in it, of course, but still, it’s what I do. And at the moment in labour history circles – I mean, international labour history circles – there is a move towards transnational studies. National studies of class relations is seen as a bit “old hat”, and while that’s true for other countries, in Ireland we’ve never really teased out the economic class relations to a reasonable degree. But that’s what I’m working on, and will continue to work on, as I feel that it’s something the Left in Ireland itself needs. To pass over it, to move on to transnational studies without tackling our own past in language reflective of a Marxist conceptual framework would, I believe, leave us holding lexical hands with Fine Gael et al.
And that’s something the Left in Ireland certainly does not need.
Oh lovely God, oh Jesus, oh Father of the Lamb,
who sees us in fetters and severely in bonds;
King of Heaven, Protector, answer my song;
destroy, and dispel these lice from our land.” (Michael Hartnett, O’Sullivan’s Malediction)
Latest posts by Conor McCabe (see all)
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