Ireland’s Legacy: The Rise of the ‘Rentier’ as the new form of Capitalist Exploitation

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Book Review: Sins of the Father: Tracing the Decisions that Shaped the Irish Economy By Conor McCabe (The History Press Ireland, 2011)

A constant theme of Irish society is the national commentariat’s habit of assuming that anything successful in a green shirt reflects well on all of us. Jack Charlton’s football team embodied this contradiction, the ‘Irishness’ of its team and manager stretched to breaking point by the ‘granny rule’. In a way, it was an added dimension to the cynic’s reply to a soccer lout chanting “We won! We won!” No, said the cynic, “They won. You watched.”

This grasping need for affirmation has a long history, with a reflex mode towards the powerful as long as they take notice of our presence. For example, before issuing oil and gas rights in 1959 to “the whole of Ireland, including the seabed and subsoil which lie beneath the territorial waters and the high seas under the control and jurisdiction of the government of Ireland at this time and in the future, but not including the Six Counties”, Sean Lemass insisted that the Ambassador Oil Corporation of Texas change its name to Ambassador Irish Oil Ltd. The Texans accepted this, and duly paid £500 for the total rights. “Two years later, a two-thirds share in the lease was sold for £230,000.” But by that stage, Ambassador was an ‘Irish’ company, so that’s all right.

Similar gurgles are heard to this day, about ‘our exports’, just as one’s ears were twisted by the genius of Irish bankers. Nine-tenths of ‘Irish’ exports are from multi-national corporations, and the banks were sucking in soft loans from German banks, who will getting their geld back from the next two or three generations of Irish taxpayers.

Similar tricks were pulled throughout the boom, with a small coterie of well-connected lawyers and accountants finding placements on the ‘Irish’ boards of shell companies which claimed to be the global headquarters of huge companies looking for a tax dodge. This scam has a long pedigree, but was rarely called by such a vulgar name. Thankfully, Conor McCabe has done the state a great service by not only calling a scam a scam, but outlining the long and pathetic history of these scam-merchants and their strange hold over successive governments from the foundation of the Free State.

Cleverly, McCabe avoids the explicit language of the left, such as ‘hegemony’, or ‘ruling class’, but his analysis is firmly anchored in Marxism, even if the Old Man escapes the index and bibliography. A book like this is only possible now, and its central argument holds up so well because of the old wisdom of IF Stone: “A scandal isn’t an interruption of business-as-usual; rather it is a revelation of it.” The scale of the collapse in the South is such that it is impossible to not be shocked at the daily revelations, especially those coming out of the commercial court.

Likewise, the seeming incompetence of the Irish government fits the picture, with the creation of NAMA, the bungled EU/IMF bailout and the granddaddy of all policy blunders, the blanket bank guarantee, all ensuring that “the logic was to cushion Ireland’s financial vested interests from the fall.” Those vested interests were the “financial dealers and property developers, the glorifiedMaitre d’s who meet and greet multinationals as they arrive on our shores, aided and abetted by the main political parties, who are unable, or unwilling, to see any alternative.”

What McCabe is describing here as Ireland’s “controlling forces” are a ruling class (there, I’ve said it) who differ quite markedly from those in other western democracies. They are not big landowners, haute bourgeoisie or large industrialists. Nor are they the symbolic analysists beloved of New Economy boosters in the US. They are rentiers, middlemen, greasers of palms and flatterers of egos. They have held sway for decades in Ireland, from the cattle exporters to Haughey’s Golden Circle and beyond the realm of the senses, with the millions being made by NAMA’s platoons of consultants, property valuers and legal eagles. ‘Committee’ is the collective noun for vultures.

The rise of the rentier has become a global trend, amplified by the current Great Recession which the same shysters caused. “Consciously or not, policy makers are catering almost exclusively to the interests of rentiers – those who derive lots of income from assets, who lent large sums of money in the past, often unwisely, but are now being protected from loss at everyone’s expense,”  notes Paul Krugman. “This is the class which makes big campaign contributions, it’s the class that has personal access to policy makers, many of whom go to work for these people when they exit government through the revolving door.”

‘Rentier’ is not an Irish word, but it is a mot which the world is starting to notice. Perhaps, like the word ‘boycott’, the global rise of the rentier can be properly added to the list of Irish achievements and exports.

John O’Farrell is a journalist and trade union activist. He edited Fortnight from 1995-2002. This review appeared in the  final edition of Fortnight which has just been published. The Belfast based current affairs and culture magazine has been in print since 1970. Photo of July 12th 1963 Time magazine cover courtesy of Time.

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