Book Review: ‘Chasing Progress in the Irish Republic: Ideology, Democracy and Dependent Development’ by John Kurt Jacobsen

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This week saw the release of Conor McCabe’s long-awaited (by me anyway) Sins of the Father: Tracing the Decisions that Shaped the Irish Economy. Unfortunately, I won’t be able to get my hands on a copy for about another fortnight. Luckily enough, I have been reading another similar book which addresses many of the same issues. Chasing Progress in the Irish Republic by John Kurt Jacobsen, released in 1994, examines the economic policy choices made by successive Irish governments since independence. Like Conor’s book, it does so from a left-wing perspective. References to mainstream academic texts and IDA reports sit happily alongside interviews with Noel Browne, left-wing journals like the Ripening of Time (also an influence on McCabe’s analysis) and Mandelite economics.

The picture on the front of the book is Seán Keating’s ‘Night’s Candle’s are Burnt Out’. The painting, finished in 1928:

represents the transition of Ireland from an underdeveloped country, suffering through war, to emerge into independence and prosperity. With the huge Ardnacrusha Power Station in the background, the foreground figures are symbolic rather than realistic; the businessman triumphs over the gunman, the engineers put out the candle as electricity, symbol of the new State, comes on stream. The child of the new State looks forward in anticipation. (Source: ESB Archives)

The choice is apt. Jacobsen’s book examines how Ireland sought to industrialise and achieve economic modernity after independence, charting this from the failed autarky of the early state, through the Whittaker/Lemass revolution, up until the early 1990s. To do this Jacobsen uses a mix of Dependency theory, political science and aspects of Marxism. In particular he compares Ireland’s economies to those of the third world, arguing that Ireland ‘shares the characteristics of a large (if shrinking) agricultural sector, high birth rates, underutilised resources (especially human resources) and a colonial heritage.’ (P.2)

What makes the book particularly interesting is the fact that Jacobsen examines a mix of external and domestic actors in determining economic policy. Policy is not simply dictated by the ruling-class or the state. Rather, the state is ‘viewed as an organizational matrix profoundly interlinked with civil society, especially key producer groups, shaping private preferences and in turn is influenced in a wide variety of sites within and outside the formal structure, according to the material and wits deployed by actors.’ (P.165.) Basically, Jacobsen observes how the particular political situation, the discourse in society and the relative power of different groups influences what policy options are open and which are taken. In particular, Jacobsen looks at how elites ‘invoke the conventional wisdoms of economic policy so as to augment their project’s desirability in the eyes of other social actors whose consent is need to win political struggles over policy choices.’ (P.2)

Because of this, Chasing Progress is as much political theory as it is economic history. Jacobsen examines how the political discourse in society influenced what policies were pursued at different periods. He links the power of the Catholic church, the constant factor of mass emigration of young workers (those most likely to be critical of economic conservatism) and so on to creating an atmosphere in which ambitous state-led development was off the cards due to the equation of any such moves with communism. It has to be said that this explanation (of the early part of the state’s history) is a little unconvincing. However, when the same method is applied to the 70s and 80s, it becomes much more interesting. Jacobsen here relates the overwhelming support for the various governments’ disastrous deflationary policies to the ideological hegemony of economic liberalism which was, with few exceptions, propounded by all the main parties and the vast majority of the mainstream media. This ‘high deference derived from a united front among all right-wing parties, and a media which reflected conservative diagnoses. In Ireland, even more than in Britain, there seemed no alternative.’ (P.167) As such throughout this period, wealth was redistributed upwards and economic growth continued alonside rising unemployment.

Jacobsen’s central thesis is that Ireland followed a course of reflex modernisation: export-led industrialisation which saw a dominant foreign sector of multinationals emerge while native industry remained weak and the state became utterly deferential to the interests of foreign capital. Of particular interest in this regard are the brief references to the selling off of mineral resources and the Ferenka incident. Jacobsen describes a plethora of discoveries in both mining and natural gas. According to him: ‘This geological wealth could provide the basis for heavy industrialisation by generating downstream industries in die-casting, galvanizing and so on.’ but ‘because of the vertical integration of multinational mining companies in conjunction with the generous terms of Irish authorities, nothing of the kind occurred.’ (P.118) The Ferenka incident saw a Dutch company in Limerick employing over a 1,000 people move their operations elsewhere in 1977, hitting the city with a sudden loss of employment. Spokesmen for the company claimed that it was due to Bolshie trade unions and the media picked up on this, blaming the workers for the company’s departure. However, Jacobsen shows that the labour disputes in the factory had actually been settled prior to the company’s departure and that the company’s authoritarian regime was bound to create industrial trouble anyway. The real reason the company had left was because it was already in the process of moving to cheaper economies. Its bases in Holland and Britain however had managed to prevent this through trade union action. What the incident showed above all was ‘the strain of maintaining an “attractive business climate” was beginning to show. In an image-making age public relations mattered more than the actual state of industrial relations. The Irish state was confined by reliance upon the good fraces of foreign enterprises. But the Ferenka affair certainly had exposed a distressing faultline economic policy.’ (P.123.)

Arguably, the best part of the book deals with the 1980s recession. After the somewhat stilted academic tone that characterised the early part of the book, Jacobsen’s anger and indignation enlivens the book. What makes this particularly interesting is just how familiar the situation he describes feels:

The “propensity to defer” remained high over three elections fought during 1981-82 as parties competed for the right to impose deflationary programs that differed from one another only marginally. Austerity packages were portrayed in the media as a secular pilgrimage, a repentance for sins that barefoot treaders of, as a Fine Gael minister colorfully put it, the “rough stony path” may not recall having committed. They are induced anyway to feel guilty because the international market, like God, moves in mysterious ways that demand unquestioning obedience. (P.156)

First as tragedy, then as farce.

Here, Jacobsen is utterly scathing is his tearing down of the FF/FG/Labour policies during the period and particularly of the mainstream media. He blows apart the notion that high wages were the source of the problem, showing how after the years of wage restraint unemployment continued to climb ever higher. In particular, his demonstration of the bemused confusion of broadsheet papers and economists at the seeming paradox of increased growth alongside increased unemployment (a result of massive deflation) is both tragic and hilarious. It’s a pity that there’s unlikely to be a second edition. One wonders how Jacobsen would describe the current situation.

In conclusion, the book is slow to get going and its origin as a PHD thesis frequently reveals itself through the somewhat schematic structure and often dull prose. However, this book is invaluable as a left-wing critique of Irish economic policy and, when Jacobsen lets loose and allows a little sarcasm and anger to creep in, it’s a fantastic read. It’s available for less than a fiver on Amazon so as soon as you finish Sins of the Father, be sure to give this one a whirl.


One Response

  1. CMK

    June 21, 2011 11:54 am

    Good review there. I’m glad to see that I have access to a copy of this book. Will try to read it soon after ‘Sins of the Father’.

    Are there any academic texts which purport to demonstrate that Irish economic policy post 1922 was an unqualified success? That autarky, mass emigration, deference to finance capital, destruction of the fishing industry, refusal to exploit natural resources and dependence on multi-nationals were actually all sound policy decisions?

    I ask because on every mainstream media outlet there appear to be a succession of numbskulls spouting nonsense about economic crisis, none of whom appear to have published any solid works of political economy. Does McWilliams count as a political economist? The best work on the Irish economy seems to come from left-field (Crotty, this guy here, Kirby, Allen, McCabe). Is there a conspiracy to suppress it?