Monthly Archives For January 2013

Notes on Left-Unity

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Currently there is a quite a lot of reflection along the left about how we are going to recompose as a political force. The idea that this is necessary is widely shared, since it’s absolutely absurdly obvious that despite a massive hiccup in capitalism – potentially a relatively long term stagnation – the left has turned this into almost nothing approaching success. This goes strongly against a popular dogma that a heightening of economic contradictions would provide us the objective conditions for stronger political awareness, and thereby lubricate our ability to organise. Many in 2008 were crying out that neo-liberalism was dead, and yet neo-liberalism has merely marched forward with new vitality.

This theory that we would make progress when presented with contradictions in the current socio-economic system has not panned out. However, the useful outcome of our failure is that the left has been forced into a bit of soul searching. The quality of theoretical reflections on the left does seem to be increasing. Lately, we’ve seen more on our current historical condition on the question of progressive change. While we could have hardly hoped for more than theoretical regurgitations during much of the 80s, 90s and 2000s we’ve finally started to see a bit of a renaissance in progressive theory.

Any attempt to change the socio-political climate of our current society will require a mass movement, and that means lots of people. Consequently it’s not unusual that the question of left-unity should come up. After all, progressives and the left are not only currently a tiny group, but one which is also highly divided. If we need numbers, perhaps we would be better off leveraging the numbers we already have.

But is this a good strategy? Some claim that the other sections of the left are both insufficiently large and excessively wrong to be worth having any attempt at unity with. Instead we should be trying to grow the participation of the broader public in an organisation.

There is some sense in this opinion as the left itself has no shortage of internal insanity, general navel gazing etc. Focusing on not-already-on-the-left people has other advantages as well. Not-already-on-the-left people are more likely to be representative of what other not-already-on-the-left people are likely to find convincing. Being able to convince an Anarchist, or Trot of something tells you vanishingly little about what might be convincing to the general public.

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Structure, Democracy and the Irish Left – A Call for Discussion

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Introduction

Inside the Irish and indeed international left wing movement there is a difficult discussion that is beginning (or I should say re-beginning as this discussion has many predecessors). This is a discussion of organisational structure and democracy.  This discussion should neither fall into an anti-leftist ‘socialism is invariably anti-democratic’ and even less so into a condescending ‘socialism from below’ which has no practical meaning; or even worse act as simply an attack from one group upon another. These issues seem to be systematic across the dominant Irish and British left. In fact even within the more recent Occupy movement an informal bureaucratic clique seemed to have arisen quite quickly.  Some might argue that the existing types of structures have been necessary for survival at certain historical periods of severe oppression; or even in periods of downturn in class struggle and consciousness; however I can see no credible reasoning for keeping them now. Others might argue that these structures are necessary to create an effective force of class struggle; this I also disagree with, in the short term they may be effective for small groups but in the long term they lead to fragmentation, ‘group think’ and hamper both individual and collective political development.  These structural issues I believe are acting as a block on the development of the Irish left, both politically and practically, and I believe add to a sectarian mentality between existing groups. I do not wish to fetish structure I am aware as much as the next person that the material ‘objective factors’ are of key importance. However there is also a ‘subjective factor’ where the superstructure affects the base. Our own subjective structures are also something we can do something about. I am not saying it is a magic formula that will build a mass movement or party overnight however I believe this difficult discussion is a necessary step. While not fetishising structure we should also not ignore it altogether which has been the case for the last number of years. This article does not claim to have all the answers on the problem of organisation in the current period; however it hopes to be an opening to a frank and serious discussion.

Democratic Centralism, the Slate System and the Role of the Party Apparatus

There are three key issues to this debate that I think need to be discussed, the first is the adherence to a deformed notion of democratic centralism, the second is the ‘winner takes all’ slate system (practised by both the SWP and SP) and the third is the role of party staff and apparatus.  I will explain these notions briefly as they are widely used with an assumption that the meaning is understood or agreed upon when this is not often the case. I define democratic centralism as the key notion that a group or party will have a discussion on an issue and eventually make a decision whether by a vote, a delegate assembly or by the election of representatives.  If the vote is contentious the losers should agree to commit to the majority line externally while being free to push for their own line internally. Moreover every effort should be made to hold such debates publically in front of both the party membership and class, this may not be possible in all situations, but it is in most. This conception of democratic centralism is sensible notion of how to organise any serious collective group who are bound to have disagreements.

However the key point to democratic centralism that is not acted on in the Irish left is one of timing. The discussion needs to happen before the decision is made and members should have the option to express their view democratically whether through direct voting, delegation or representation. This does not happen, what tends to happen is a leadership executive body makes a decision and then passes that decision onto the membership. Democratic centralism then resembles the Stalinist notion of just doing what you are told. In some organisations you are perfectly free to discuss the issue and it will be ‘patiently explained’ to you by an executive member. But the key fact is the decision is made and the only option for the member who disagrees is to withdraw their labour, whether in a conscious mode or by dropping out.

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Be Glad You’re Not Living in One of the Those Terrible High-Tax Countries

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The Government seems to have done a U-turn on the issue of tax exiles.  Despite the Programme for Government’s commitment on the issue, the Sunday Business Post reports that following an avalanche of submissions from the likes of the American Chamber of Commerce, etc. the Minister for Finance looks to do nothing.  Why?  Because it would undermine investment.

Minister Brian Hayes was also at it – claiming that tax increases were effectively over. Minister Lucinda Creighton backed up her party colleague.  And Minister Richard Bruton also warned against further tax increases on high-income groups; again, because of that ol’ investment problem.

Do we see a pattern?  If we increase taxes on high-income groups or the business sector we will lose out on investment.  How valid is this argument?

Let’s bottom-line this:  if maintaining a low-tax regime, whether on high-income earners or the business sector, is the key to ensuring high levels of investment in the economy, then that policy has already been judged to be an utter and absolute failure.

Okay, now let’s work through some arguments.

First, Irish high-income earners pay a lower tax rate than equivalent earners in most other EU-15 countries.  The following is from the OECD Tax and Benefits Calculator, using a two-income household example where one person is earning twice the average wage and another person earns 1.67 the average wage.  In Ireland, this equals €118,750.

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Winning Back the Public’s Trust

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The public outpouring of self-pity by politicians during the holidays would make you think that it’s a hard life being a TD and even harder being a Minister.

Yes the hours are long and the work load heavy. But with a start off salary of €92,000 per year for TDs, a Ministerial salary of €169,000 per year and a lavish system of expenses even after the reductions announced in December’s budget, clearly the financial rewards are good.

In fact they are amongst the best in the entire world.

Nobody is forced to be a politician. We do it out of choice. Many of us do it out of conviction. And we enjoy our work.

Yet, following the debate through December and January it seemed as though our politicians, particularly those in Government, were the victims of a massive smear campaign by a motley crew of anti-political journalists and abusive social media trolls.

Minister for Communications Pat Rabbitte went so far as to say that all of this negativity was undermining politics itself. What rubbish!

There is no doubt that public trust in politicians and the political process is at a low ebb. But to suggest that this is down to media criticism or negative tweeting is not just nonsense, it is a cynical attempt by some politicians to shift the blame for the problem on to others.

So what is the cause of the growing public mistrust of our political class and the political process?

Back in 2010 public anger was focused on Fianna Fáil. People had come to realise that the governments of Bertie Ahern and Brian Cowen were driven by political corruption and economic incompetence.

In the 2011 general election they voted overwhelming for change.

While nobody expected the problems created by politicians such as Michael Martin, Willie O’Dea, Billy Kelleher and Michael McGrath to be fixed overnight, they did believe that the cause of the problem –Fianna Fáil- had been surgically removed from the body politic and a long slow recovery could now begin.

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Time for Labour Members to Break Free from the Leadership

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The New Year is a time for making resolutions and breaking bad habits. In my view there could never be a better time for grassroots Labour members to break their old habits of engaging in political activity in a shape and manner defined by the Labour leadership. The relationship between the Labour leadership and Labour members is in effect an oppressive relationship mired by lies, deceit and exploitation. The goals and desires of the leadership (attaining ministerial office and status) are met while the goals and desires of the members (achieving progressive change, reducing income inequality etc.) are not met.

The time has come for Labour members to recognise that this is an abusive political relationship. Like most relationships it started out well. The Labour leadership talked in progressive terms using left wing rhetoric. For example in one of his live televised addresses to Labour conference Eamon Gilmore trumpeted Keynesian policies of investment and stimulus as an alternative to cuts and austerity. Now we are told by the very same leader that there simply is no alternative to cuts and austerity.

Like most relationships gone wrong commitments and promises were made that were later reneged upon and broken.

For example in February 2011 on the RTE news Eamon Gilmore looked the Irish people in the eye and gave them a cast iron guarantee that Labour would not allow child benefit to be cut. This commitment was made a few weeks before polling day when the full extent of the fiscal constraints were long established. Furthermore the commitment was given in response to a question specifically about forming coalition with Fine Gael. It couldn’t have been clearer. Posters went up re-affirming this commitment and ads were placed in newspapers.

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Reilly’s Jew: What ‘austerity’ really means #1

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In Michel Foucault’s book Discipline and Punish there is a phrase that fascinates me: ‘a small penal mechanism’.

‘At the heart of all disciplinary systems functions a small penal mechanism’, he says.

The sentence came to mind recently when I heard that the Irish government was introducing a €75 charge for each round of chemotherapy. The charge is nicely judged: it will only apply to those cancer patients who are not poor enough to qualify for a medical card (free treatment) but are too poor to be able to afford private medical insurance. They have, perhaps, given up insurance in these times of austerity in order to feed their kids, and now faced with the terrifying prospect of cancer they must reassess the situation. It is a game of exquisite torture.

I’m reliably informed that chemotherapy can involve anything from a handful of rounds to dozens or even hundreds.
What does this particular form of ‘austerity’ tell us about the people imposing the charge?Minister Dr James Reilly – the man who closes down public nursing home beds while simultaneously being a shareholder in a private nursing home, the man who was listed in Stubbs Gazette recently as an undischarged debtor in relation to a €1.9 million debt on a nursing home – has cast around in his health budget of €1407,8000,000 (or €1.4 bn) and found a group of people who will try to pay up no matter what because the alternative is unthinkable.

What’s more, they’ll never be on the streets protesting. The big man (and Reilly is big) picked a fight with the sick child.

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Interview with Alexis Tsipras, 30th of December, 2012

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This is a translation of an interview with Alexis Tsipras for Argentina’s Página/12, conducted by Martín Granovsky and published Sunday 30th of December.

Is Argentina still a topic of discussion in Greece with regard to reduction, default and restructuring of debt?

Yes, we talk about you.

About default or restructuring?

About everything.

And after this trip to Argentina?

We ended up a lot wiser. We studied in detail the process that took place during and after the crisis. We saw similarities and also differences. The International Monetary Fund’s prescriptions were the same in Greece as in Argentina. The medicines administered to Greece and Argentina were also the same in both countries. They failed. They drove us to catastrophe. The bed-ridden Greek patient is in a coma. All the tubes and medicine link it to the heart of Europe. It is complex. If the patient in a coma dies, it appears the Eurozone cannot survive either. That’s why I say we have similarities and differences between the Argentina of 2001 and the Greece of today. What is interesting is how the Argentinian example is presented in Europe.

Whom do you mean?

Those sectors most closely tied to the financial system. Argentina is the example of a country that said no to the world financial system. The financial sectors in Europe distort what happened here. The example bothers financial circles. That is why the ultra-liberal centrists are trying not only to distort things in ideological terms but to present a different historical account. They alter the facts. During our stay in Argentina and the meetings we held, there was coverage on Greek television news bulletins. So they put images of me meeting an Argentinian leader and, on a split screen, they showed examples of the Argentinean bank run and people beating the shutters of banks.

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In Defense of Populism

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In his end of year review Sunday Business Post political editor Pat Leahy described Sinn Féin’s opposition to austerity in 2012 as ‘aggressive and populist’.

His description is one that has a broad currency among political commentators.

The charge of populism is rarely complimentary. It suggests a politics of pandering to the people irrespective of the costs. It pits popularity against wisdom and short-term political gain against long-term social and economic sustainability.

When used in this sense populism is viewed as a cynical and dishonest style of politics. It seeks to manipulate public opinion by playing to its desires and emotions. In doing so it reveals a less than full commitment to democratic norms.

Populism is, according to this account, about the pursuit of power for powers sake. At best it is foolish. At worst it is reckless.

Given that populism has such a negative connotation you would expect the rest of this column to argue against Pat’s description of Sinn Féin.

But no, he is right.

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To the Working People of Ireland

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New Year statement by the Communist Party of Ireland
As the old year fades from our memory we can approach the new year with some degree of optimism. Throughout 2012 there where numerous protests and demonstrations right across the country, from Belfast to Cork, from Galway to Dublin, with working people campaigning against hospital closures and cuts in services.

The big pre-budget demonstration in Dublin was an important beginning and showed the importance of united campaigning, of drawing the diverse concerns of the people together in a coherent way. It showed that unity of action is our strength, and must be built upon.
Today we had a spectacle of flag-waving and pompous speech-making to mark the beginning of the Irish presidency of the European Union and forty years of membership of this imperial club, with smug self-congratulation by a political establishment that is devoid of any policies to meet the needs of the Irish people. They will wallow in false praise of their European masters, to show they are such great “Europeans,” as the burden of debt is piled higher and higher on the backs not only of Irish workers but of Greek, Portuguese, Spanish and Italian workers. Their hoisting of the EU flag over Dublin Castle shows that little has really changed and is an expression of their powerlessness.

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