Lights of the City

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It’s 2pm on a Sunday afternoon and I’m standing in the Croppies’ Acre in Dublin. Down the street the SWP are holding a conference in the Ashling hotel where Wittgenstein stayed in ‘48 after he came off the train at Heuston. It’s been raining all day but there’s a break in the weather and the sun is out with a light that looks like it’s been scraped sharp with stones. At my feet is a month’s worth of leaves, languid and brown. Dublin is an Autumn city, no doubt about it. North enough to catch the light but south enough to miss the serious cold.

I snap a photo with the digital I bought for the archives where I spend my days, and head towards the exit which leads to the museum and the Luas line. There are around a hundred people in the Ashling talking about Marxism, and I’m about to join them – more to listen than to talk I venture to add, but I’ll still get to voice a point or two. Last week I was in Belfast talking about Edenmore, a working class housing estate on the northside of Dublin. Yesterday I was interviewing a 74-year old man who was a Trotskyist in London in the 1950s, and on the bookshelf next to the telly stood photos of his grandchildren, and weddings, and hugs. Tomorrow I’ll be in the National Library, and today I’m standing over the bones of croppies.


I gave up reading the news about a year ago, and save for what turns up on the blogs and gets talked about over coffee, the past is my main point of contact with the world. I am not quite Billy Pilgrim, I am still rooted in time, but I do see the past around me, its links and undulations. And it too is washed with stones.

Times they do change. In 1891 a crowd of around 5,000 stood in the Nine Acres in the Phoenix Park to hear Eleanor Marx speak in favour of better wages and shorter hours. One hundred and eighteen years later and I’m in a hotel room, listening to a group of people, no more than twenty, discuss contemporary Ireland with reference to her father. Neo-liberalism is raised, especially its influence on Irish life over the past thirty years. For me, though, there is nothing particularly ‘neo’ about what passes for social and economic policy in Ireland.

When it comes to the basic tenets of neo-liberalism, the rest of the western world is playing catch-up with Ireland. We never had the post-war social democratic welfare state to which neo-liberalism is at one level a reaction. We never had it. Instead, to simplify more than a little, there is a continuity in Irish social development, a deep structure at play, which is overlooked in the main by the Irish left in favour of transplanted conclusions from other societies and states. This is not to say that neo-liberalism has not had an influence on Irish social, political and cultural life; rather that the power blocs which neo-liberalism serves and embraces were never seriously challenged in the southern Irish state. Neo-liberalism is not a counter-force in Ireland. It is the re-labelling of an already-existing reality. The move to the right in the Western world, particularly since the 1980s, has strengthened the Right in Ireland, no doubt, but when was the Right in the southern state ever seriously under threat? When did this power bloc have to compromise its power in favour of social cohesion?

The four core elements of the Irish economy – agriculture, finance, services and industry – need to be seen in motion, and in interaction with the wider society, in order to get a sense of the type of power plays at work in the southern Irish state. It’s a complex business, no doubt, but it’s one which allows us to see Irish agriculture, for example, not as backward or underdeveloped, but as a modern capitalist venture, one with roots going back to the late seventeenth century, and reaching its modern form, so to speak, around the 1870s.

With the establishment of the Irish Free State, the concerns of the country’s grazers soon came to dominate the economic policy of the right-wing Cumann na nGaedheal government. As Paul Rouse points out in Ireland’s own soil: Government and agriculture in Ireland, 1945-65:

The leading lights of the government party and their principal supporters were drawn from the elements of society which had most to gain from preservation of the social and economic status quo… A largely conservative party advised by a thoroughly conservative administrative elite resulted in economic orthodoxy.” (p.9)

In 1924 Irish exports stood at £51.58 million. £50.59 million was comprised of trade with Britain, 86% of which was made up of agricultural, food, and drink sales. The minister for agriculture, Patrick Hogan, stated in 1924 that “national development in Ireland for our generation at least is practically synonymous with agricultural development.” However, what Hogan meant by “agriculture” was not tillage, nor even mixed-farming, but cattle and grazing. Furthermore, the maintenance of the already existing state of affairs is not development. It is exactly what it says it is: the status quo as economic policy.

Hogan’s framework was a form of trickle-down economics. According to George O’Brien, professor of economics at UCD and a personal friend of Hogan’s, the minister believed that economic policy should be directed to maximise the farmers’ income, because:

…the farmers being the most important section of the population, everything that raised their income raised the national income of the country. Prosperity amongst farmers would provide the purchasing power necessary to sustain the demand for non-agricultural goods and services, and it was useless to encourage secondary industries unless the primary industry was in a position to purchase their products. The principal aim of agricultural policy in the Free State should therefore be the maximization of the farmers’ income, and not, as in certain other countries differently situated, the provision of food for the urban population or the solution of the unemployment problem.” (George O’Brien, “Patrick Hogan: Minister for Agriculture 1922-32,” Studies 25, 1936, p.355.)

In practise, what this meant was the continuation of pre-independence “free trade” with Britain, with no tariffs or other economic stimuli which might in any way interfere with the shipping of live cattle to Britain.

In the same article, George O’Brien sums up the orthodoxy of Cumann na nGaedheal and, indeed, the economic experts of his time:

In the Free State such a conflict between the interests of the farmers and the interests of the nation is exceedingly improbable, because the farmers and their dependents constitute the great majority of the population. Any deflection of the agricultural industry from the direction which is naturally most profitable is therefore exceedingly difficult to justify. In the Free State the interests of the farmers and of the nation are, at least prima facie, identical, and the best utilization of the resources of the country is that which maximizes the prosperity of the farming classes.” (George O’Brien, “Patrick Hogan” Studies 25, 1936, p.356.)

Of course, the conclusion that all farmers are in the same economic boat is not the case, and never was the case. The rural class conflicts over grazing land and tillage which recurred periodically from 18th to 20th century show this clearly. Furthermore, the growth in dry cattle occurred at the expense of Irish dairying, which began to stagnate around 1860, even though the total cattle population continued to grow.

The Irish live cattle export interests which had developed throughout the 19th century, and had done so on the back of what was then an internal market trade with Britain – in essence a colonial relationship with the export of a raw material, in this case live cattle, which was sent to the mother country for processing – ensured that their interests continued to dominate after independence. As Mary E. Daly puts it:

“Large farmers were favoured at the expense of smallholders and increased spending on unemployment, housing, or industrial development was ruled out.”

Shortly after independence the British government announced that imperial preference would be given to Irish exports. Small farmers bred and raised cattle until these were between one and two years old, these were then sold onto grazers for fattening, who then sold them on to ranchers who finished them off for export. Those who gained from this subservient economic relationship – this agricultural production line – were able to dictate economic policy in the Irish Free State.

It’s all too common in Irish left analysis to see the industrial development of the North in contrast to the rural, ‘underdeveloped’ South. But what we see at play is two different but inter-related kinds of capitalist development, one industrial, the other agrarian. The dynamics of southern Irish industrial and finance capital need to be factored in, but even the smallest farmer in Ireland bred a couple of heads of cattle as a cash crop. The Irish left – at least since the 1960s – has never really seemed that interested in asking why that was the case, and the power blocs which were sustained by such societal relationships have been overlooked in favour of a rush to theorize Irish society in terms of uneven capitalist development.

It’s not an either/or situation. There was/is an uneven indigenous industrial capitalist development in Ireland, and the ‘third-way’ compromise of the 1950s, which saw fully developed industries transplanted onto southern Irish soil as a way of industrializing Ireland without having to build up indigenous industry through tariffs, as these would harm the agrarian export market to Britain, is one which still affects Irish society. DeValera’s attempt to encourage industrial development through tariffs in the 1930s had the quite frankly bizarre proviso that tariffs should develop non-exporting businesses.

But the absence of a strong industrial capitalist base in the Free State did not mean there wasn’t a strong capitalist base in Ireland, nor did it mean that the Irish economy wasn’t a capitalist economy. It may have had a particular form of agrarian capitalism, but nonetheless it was there, and the way it functioned, and the societal and political relationships which developed out of its economic cycle, need to be understood. That cycle was the reality. It was how the machine worked. Once we start to analyse it, we begin to see that the neo-liberalism revolution, the neo-liberal counter-attack, resonates with a certain continuity in southern Irish society. There is no real change in direction. It enhances more than it counters.

I didn’t say any of this at the SWP Marxism conference. Instead, I made a fumbled point about the use of neo-liberalism by the Irish left, and was greeted with one of those silences which makes you feel like you’re wearing slippers, smelling of piss, and carrying a bag of Guardians.

Not that I’m adverse to such attire, mind, just on that day I was suitably dressed and reasonably clean. And I don’t read newspapers any more.

I left the meeting and walked back towards the city, taking a zig-zag route across the river onto Thomas Street and ending up in the Oxfam bookshop down from City Hall. Evening had set in and it was starting to rain, but I felt like walking and so I continued on, getting as far as Phibsboro before taking a bus the rest of the way home.

I get in, turn on my laptop, and check my email. I browse around the websites, see who’s leaving comments on Cedarlounge, and start to get ready for next week’s tasks. I’m looking for something to play, a kind of coda for my rambles, and the Jubilee Allstars spring to mind. I dig out the CD and put it on while I prepare for next week’s interviews. I am tired, though, and it’s not long before I follow the McCormack brothers and Lee Casey and slumber off to sleep, with the lights of the city behind me.

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3 Responses

  1. dara

    November 30, 2009 9:05 pm

    Hi,
    Good article, some interesting info there on the large farmers. Currently looking at the IAOS, so the stuff about later developments are very useful. What’s the reference for the Mary Daly quote?

  2. Conor McCabe

    November 30, 2009 9:15 pm

    Cheers Dara, the quote comes from: Industrial development and Irish national identity 1922-1939, by Mary E. Daly (1992. I’m afraid I can’t put my finger on the page number, though.