Andy Storey on Ireland in the World Order

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Speech given by Andy Storey at the launch of Ireland in the World Order: a History of Uneven Development by Maurice Coakley, 20th September 2012

In his novel Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad’s imperialist monster Kurtz admits that

“The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much…”

In the book being launched here tonight, Maurice Coakley notes that “What most sharply distinguished Ireland from other parts of the Atlantic Isles in the transition from the late medieval era to the early modern one was the way in which it was incorporated into the newly centralised political order: the brute fact of conquest… involving massive human and physical destruction”.  It is good to be reminded of that brute fact of conquest at a time when some historians and politicians engage in romanticised rehabilitations of imperialism.  British Foreign Secretary William Hague recently declared that “”We have to get out of this post-colonial guilt,” echoing Gordon Brown’s 2005 claim that “the days of Britain having to apologise for its colonial history are over”.  Maybe I missed it, but when did they start apologising?

The reason brute force was required in Ireland was because the Gaelic social order – with its in-built limitations on how much social surplus could be extracted, especially its antipathy to individual land ownership – was such that its leaders could not, for the most part, be co-opted into the emergent, centralised early modern state. The order itself had to be extirpated.

As Maurice puts it, “it was not just a matter of disempowering a quarrelsome local elite, but of eradicating a whole social order, a way of life… the new social structures established were premised upon high levels of coercion and the systematic exclusion of the indigenous population from institutions of power”.  Intertwined factors of religion and literacy (or the lack of it) compounded this split between the ruling group and the mass of the population. One of the crucial features of this pattern of development, or underdevelopment, was the absence of broadly based agrarian capitalism in Ireland and this mirrored what happened in many other parts of the world, as Maurice documents, drawing on the work of Mike Davis.

“In regions where pre-capitalist agrarian systems existed, and where colonial power dominated in the age of industrialisation, the consequences were more or less catastrophic.  The attempt by European colonial rulers to force-march these societies towards a commercial system of agriculture created a huge population of ‘surplus’ labour, and brought ecological chaos in its wake… Alongside this, what manufacturing industries these societies possessed were first curtailed by mercantilist restrictions imposed by the colonial power, and then subjected to the blitzkrieg of free trade by the newly mechanised industries of Britain and the other imperial powers”.  Thus were the textile industries of Britain and India destroyed and those of many other countries, as writers such as Ha-Joon Chang have argued in recent years in their revisionist histories of ‘free’ trade.

Mike Davis talks of how pauperisation was thus the other side of modernisation, or of how what we now call the ‘Third World’ was created through what Davis memorably describes as ‘late Victorian holocausts’ across Africa, Asia and Latin America.  As Maurice puts it, “Underdevelopment is the collateral damage of capitalist expansion”.  And so it remains.

Pauperisation in countries such as Ireland and India fuelled the drive for political independence, as this was seen as a prerequisite for economic development or at least as the only escape route from economic decline. As the pan-African nationalist Kwame Nkrumah put it, “seek ye first the political kingdom”.  And that message still resonates in today’s political movements against neoliberalism in Latin America and elsewhere.  What is the ‘resource nationalism’, the reclamation of the people’s right to the water and gas their land contains, of social movements in Bolivia if not a desire to use political means to assure economic well-being or simple survival? Of course today that poses challenges of environmental sustainability, but the parallel with the history Maurice documents is apparent.  Likewise, what is a debt audit, followed by the repudiation of debt deemed illegitimate, in Ecuador in the late 2000s if not an assertion of political will and ability to advance the welfare of one’s own people against, in this case, global financial institutions?

Reclaiming control of natural resources?  Repudiating illegitimate debt? Any chance of that happening here in the near future? The simultaneously hilarious and tragic opening to Maurice’s book quotes IMF officials bewildered at the fact that Irish officials were siding, in late 2010, with the ECB against any ‘haircut’ for the holders of Irish debt.  An IMF-er concluded that the Irish team was suffering from ‘Stockholm syndrome’, that they were hostages who had come to identify with their kidnappers. But Maurice outlines the structural reasons for this stance. If earlier periods of history saw the winning of political independence as vital to Irish economic progress, more recent decades have seen a dramatic shift, as Maurice crucially explains:

“The closer integration of North Atlantic capitalism in the second half of the twentieth century seemed to offer the Irish elite an escape from the underdevelopment trap.  Where earlier developmental strategies were premised on asserting greater national independence, further development was now to be achieved through subordinating Irish sovereignty to the requirements of North American and European capital” – especially through attracting US companies to service the EU market, while declaring their inflated profits in the low-tax haven that is Ireland. As Maurice goes on to observe, “The upper echelons of the Irish elite have become fabulously rich by establishing themselves as brokers in these circuits; many more have become moderately rich in the process”. For such people, the pursuit of the ‘political kingdom’ had become an anachronism, or even a threat, and they reserved their particular hatred for those Republicans who still saw the pursuit of national independence as a pressing issue requiring completion. For the elites to break with the strategy of subordination now is well-nigh unthinkable, even if it once again means the pauperisation of Irish society – this time to prop up the fortunes of financial speculators through the repayment of illegitimate debt.

But subordination does not look so attractive to the vast mass of the population.  Thus, Maurice argues, the present situation once again sees the ‘national question’ to the forefront: “One of the ironies of the current situation is that sovereignty and national democracy – the key themes of the national independence movement that have long been considered to be antiquated and utterly irrelevant – have re-emerged as pressing claims in popular discourse.  To say that the national question has been forcibly reasserted by the financial crisis is not to argue that there is a national answer to the crisis.  Ireland’s predicament of debt bondage is part of a wider pattern: resistance is only likely to be successful if it is part of a wider coalition”.

If Irish history offers us lessons in conquest and oppression, it also, fortunately, offers us lessons in the successful organisation of just such resistance.  As Maurice, in one of the book’s more hopeful passages, points out, “one asset that Irish political culture does possess is a long tradition of rebellion against injustice.  The land league, the anti-conscription campaign and the civil rights movement all provide valuable examples of movements of popular insubordination”.  The challenges of organising equivalent modern coalitions of resistance preoccupy many of us in our day to day to day lives right now.  But it is always worth pausing in those struggles to reflect on what history teaches us and what we might learn from the wider world.  To invert the old cliché, don’t just do something, sit there.  Or better still, do both: sit there and read a good book.  If you are interested in reading the best book available on how we have ended up where we are, and how we might yet go somewhere else, then please buy and read Ireland in the World Order: a History of Uneven Development by Maurice Coakley.

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