Monthly Archives For March 2013

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Leo Varadkar’s World: Where men are men and women are grateful

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Fine Gael’s Leo Varadkar, in a shining example of how to make friends and influence people, excelled himself with his comments indicating that some women may have to give up their jobs in order to avail of the new personal insolvency service. The TD’s comments were picked up in The Irish Examiner;

I know one or two women who probably don’t make very much money at all from working, but they do it to keep their position on the career ladder, if you like, and that is a legitimate thing to do.

“But if you can’t pay your mortgage as a result, or buy your groceries as a result, then that is something that needs to be taken into account in any insolvency arrangement.

“Nobody is asking anybody to give up their jobs. What is going to happen is that people are going to come forward, they are going to say ‘I can’t pay my debts, I can’t pay my mortgage’, and in that case, the insolvency practitioner will go through with them why they can’t pay their bills, and obviously a creditor is not going to agree to a writedown unless that has been gone through and they can work out what is the most they can pay.”

We all know two income families where there are women working, and realistically they might be just about breaking even due to the cost of childcare. The outrageous cost of childcare is due to the fact that the Government have failed utterly in ensuring a state childcare system that is affordable and accessible for women or dare I say it, state-funded through an equitable taxation system and free to avail of.

Parents do not enjoy paying out the price of a mortgage to have someone mind their children, but they do it because they have to. They think “My child will be in school when they’re 4 or 5, this is hard but it’s only for a few years.” Working mothers will often add on a bit to the end of that sentence, “…this is hard but it’s only for a few years, and at least I’ll still have my job at the end.” The implication of Varadkar’s comments are clearly that women in those situations where it may be a short-term cost to work should give up their jobs in order to avail of the personal insolvency arrangements. There is no other way of interpreting it.

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An Anarchist Noel Coward? The World Turned Upside Down – Rosselsongs 1960-2010

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Music Review: The World Turned Upside Down – Rosselsongs 1960-2010

And then the ‘political songwriter’ label can mislead into the belief that I’m writing songs in order to change the world… I have to point out that after fifty years of writing songs, the world’s in a worse state now than when I started, although I don’t blame myself entirely for that. – Leon Rosselson

Why is the English singer-songwriter Leon Rosselson, now almost eighty years old, not a “household name”?

In the entertaining, informative and argumentative liner notes accompanying this 2011 set of four CDs he repeatedly muses on how, in his own words, he “failed to become rich and famous”. Concerning the celebrated title song, World Turned Upside Down, he writes: “Some people think it’s a folk song. Or that it was written by Billy Bragg. Which is, I suppose, fame of a sort.”

Success, he tells us, “should have happened in the 1960s… There was the folk boom, the singer-songwriter boom.” At the same time, however, “my songwriting style didn’t fit comfortably into the folk bag. Or any other bag, if it comes to that.” And anyway, “the alternative culture was big business, the musicians were bought into superstardom by lucrative record contracts, …the message ‘liberate your minds’ turned out to be both politically safe and eminently saleable… The guerrillas had simply, without their even realising it, been incorporated into the regular army of the enemy.” His songs The Ugly Ones (“the fetishizing of the beautiful people”) and Flower Power = Bread (from the fateful year 1968) savaged ‘60s values, thus ensuring that Rosselson would not be thus incorporated but also, perhaps, that stardom on 1960s terms would elude him.

Another factor that may have militated against Rosselson’s popular success is the self-confessed absence of love-songs from his output (“love, a word that has rarely passed my songwriting pen”). Instead, he has specialised in what he calls “relationship songs” entailing “a sideways look at love, sex, marriage, relationships and angst…”, here represented by Do You Remember?, Invisible Married Breakfast Blues (inspired by Brel and Prévert), Let Your Hair Hang Down, and the wonderful Not Quite, But Nearly. Jacques Brel’s example taught Rosselson that “[y]ou could write songs by pretending to be someone else, by adopting a persona.” Here the feminist principle that “the personal is political, the political personal” provided the rationale, but perhaps in an age when “letting it all hang out” was the order of the day this approach was too oblique.

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Our ‘Profound Indifference’ Towards Asylum Seekers?

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Enda Kenny in his apology in the Dail called it a ‘profound indifference.’ He said we were able to put the Magdalene women away because ‘for too many years we put away our conscience.’ He was talking of course about something that had been happening since the beginning of this state and which only finally came to an end in 1996. For Enda Kenny though and most of the audience the idea was that this, the horror that was the laundries, the sin that was the incarceration of innocent women, could all be blamed on the past, that what we were really talking about was 1950s Ireland, about a prejudice and snobbery and false piety that belonged to an Ireland that was now gone. Our ‘indifference’ belonged to the past, our buried ‘conscience’ was now unearthed. For ‘our’ indifference and conscience what we really meant was ‘theirs,’ those from the past. Them not us. Not us, at all.

Which is nice and comforting, isn’t it? As if we were confronting something when in essence we were just blaming it on those who went before. Like being absolved but of someone else’s sins. Still, the history of societies looking the other away, claiming not to have known what everyone really knew, has a sinister history, with even the worst state murders of the last century being characterised by that very thing. Thankfully, we are not within that sphere of inhumanity, but do we even want to share any of those social characteristics? Do we want to be another society that turned away, that buried our conscience, that lived by indifference, that ‘didn’t know’? Because we do know and if we don’t talk about it we are indifferent or putting away our conscience or lying.

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EU Austerity Budget – Cuts, Cuts, Cuts

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The Irish government has made much of the fact that it now holds the EU Presidency, chairing meetings of the European Council. It has been proudly proclaiming success in negotiating a new EU budget for 2014 to 2020 (the so-called Multiannual Financial Framework – MFF). What they don't say, however, that in the position of Presidency, they are pursuing the same austerity policies that they implement in Ireland – imposing unprecedented levels of cuts to the EU budget.

Two weeks ago the European Parliament voted for a resolution that rejected, in its current form, the proposed MFF. The proposal comes from the February summit of the EU Council and was a product of horse trading and negotiations between the EU's 27 heads of state.

This Summit was presented as showdown between Hollande on the one hand and Merkel and Cameron on the other. In reality, it was a discussion on how far to stick the knife into workers and poor people, with Herman Van Rompuy, backed up by the Irish Presidency, presenting a draft proposal for a second round of cuts. This was then amended to reflect the various political pressures on the heads of states. Despite these competing pressures, all heads of states feared an open conflict over the EU budget that would rattle the markets at a time they seemed to be calming. They also no doubt feared such open division could give confidence to workers and those opposed to austerity that they face a divided enemy and give impetus to new struggles.

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Tsipras in London: “Europe is the field of the class fight”

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The following questions and answers with an audience took place after a talk Alexis Tsipras gave to SYRIZA’s London branch in Friend’s House in Euston on Friday, March 15th. Coverage of the speech itself can be found here. Some of the questions have been condensed to remove lengthy preambles and/or tangents but they remain an accurate reflection of the query posed by the audience member. Rónán Burtenshaw

Q. Could you give us a few reflections on what we can learn from the Left in Latin America and particularly the legacy of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela?

A. That’s a good question because I was in Venezuela a few days ago. What impressed me about my recent visit was the tens of thousands of people waiting patiently to go past the remains of Chávez. They weren’t expressing grief waiting to pay their final respects but they were showing hope, resolution and determination. This signifies that for the last fourteen years this process has been ongoing in Venezuela and is continuing. This shows us that no social transformation or movement can be sustained without popular support. Chávez was accused by his opponents of being a dictator but I have not met many dictators who have won thirteen elections in fourteen years. For us it is clear proof that without popular support it is not possible to carry out these reforms. This is what we can learn from the Latin American experience, and particularly Venezuela.

Q. How can Greece create enough room to manoeuvre at the international level to resist pressure from the creditors, the IMF and the EU and follow a real alternative path to austerity?

A. How will our lenders, creditors and our partners in the European Union be able to answer that question? It would be the first time that they are under this pressure from a government with popular support. How would they deal with this pressure? I am certain that austerity isn’t the way out of this crisis and, in fact, that it is the political aim of those who force it upon us. They are fully aware of that. They want to blackmail people with this enormous debt, which has been worsened by government policy, and by the threat of expulsion from the Euro. The clear aim is to create the conditions where the southern European belt will be a place of cheap labour and favourable conditions for exploitation, and they have been confronted so far with no opposition from any of the governments from the south. Instead what these governments are doing is accepting every absurd measure that’s being proposed to them. But once they have resistance from a government with popular support the balance of fear will change, it would move to the other side of the battlefield.

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The Veil of Deception over Money

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A very interesting paper from Norbert Häring, Economics correspondent of Handelsblatt, which has just been published in the Real World Economics Review. The veil of deception over money: how central bankers and textbooks distort the…

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Turning the Corner – Back to 2010

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The latest growth data confirm that Ireland went back into recession at the end of 2012. Despite all the talk about corners being turned, we find that economy is going backwards. GDP is lower than it was in 2009. GNP, which does not include the effects of movements in profits by multinational corporations, is back to where it was in the middle of 2010.

Measuring success

The ability of the Irish government to return to bond markets is being promoted as the main or even the sole criteria for the success of government policy. Strange that it is simultaneously said that this is a government debt crisis, and yet its resolution is measured by the ability to add to government debt.

The purpose of all economic policy should be the optimal sustainable increase in the well-being of the population.  Instead, a return to the bond markets has become the overriding objective of economic policy. But this is itself unsustainable if the economy is contracting as the debt burden rises and the deficit widens once more.

On growth it is clear that the fall in investment remains the overwhelming source of the Irish Depression. GDP and GNP have contracted by €13.3bn and €11.9bn since the end of 2007 respectively. Investment (Gross Fixed Capital Formation) has fallen by €21bn. It is an investment strike which is responsible for the slump.

The national accounts are shown in the chart below from the end of the boom in 2007 to the end of 2012.

While investment has collapsed by €21bn, the fall in personal consumption has been about one third of that, at €7.1bn and the fall in government spending slightly lower at €5.6bn.  It is repeatedly asserted that the performance of exports proves the validity of current economic policy. But while the increase in net exports has been very significant, this owes more to falling imports (which are treated as a negative in the national accounts) rather than rising exports. Recorded exports have risen by €11.7bn over the period while imports have fallen by €15.8bn – and there are question marks about how real these exports are.

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What the Latest Economic Figures Tell Us about Croke Park 2

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This post was originally published on Unite the Union’s Croke Park Report blog today.

It is interesting that the big news of yesterday made so little news. The CSO revealed that the economy fell back into recession in the latter half of 2012 but you will have to look hard to find much reporting on that. Maybe it’s because this inconvenient fact cuts across the official narrative. And while there was growth in three out of four quarters in 2010 and 2011, there was only one quarter of growth in 2012. That, too, didn’t get much coverage. That, too, may be inconvenient.

So what does this tell us about Croke Park 2? It tells us that it is irrational to cut wages and, so, spending power with an economy falling back into recession. Consumer spending and domestic demand has been stagnating for the last three years.

The domestic economy has flat-lined, suffering under a weight of austerity measures. This year alone there is the impact of the PRSI cuts, the property tax along with cuts in Child Benefit, investment and public sector employment – which will reduce disposable incomes further. Now the Government is proposing to cut the incomes of nearly 300,000 workers. Would anyone be surprised to see this stagnation continuing?

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Desiring Hegel

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Book Review: Subjects of Desire, Judith Butler (Columbia University Press, 2012) and Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit Stephen Houlgate (Bloomsbury, 2013)

Originally published in 1987, this new edition reflects the renewal of interest in Hegel and the overcoming of the obstacle that has for so long bedevilled an appreciation of his tremendous philosophical achievement. The obstacle is the label that has attached itself to Hegel as the omnivorous philosopher of totality, the thinker who espouses the holy grail of a final and all-encompassing state that unites thought and reality. The rejection of this prevalent view is the basis for Butler’s understanding of Hegel as a philosopher of antagonism who recognises the impossibility of a grand and harmonious reconciliation between knowledge and the subject. Hegel’s The Phenomenology of Spirit details the journey of the subject attempting to reach a point where its sought-after plenitude and knowledge of the world are at one, but this is a journey defined by its failure. The absolute is the recognition of failure and of the inherent antagonism that robs being of the oneness that it would wish to embody. The satisfaction that is sought is kept at bay by the restless play of negation.

What, though, is meant by the negative, where does it reside and why cannot the subject find a final satisfaction for desire? Reality as we understand it has to be seen as a construct in the sense that Kant propounded – shaped and given form by our conceptual apparatus — but there is no solid kernel resting in the background behind our horizon of meaning. There is only what Žižek describes as a ‘chaotic non-all proto reality’, the virtual multiplicities and proliferating pluralities that are evoked in the language of quantum physics. It is reality itself that is out-of-synch, riven with gaps and discontinuities, and its non-unity is the ultimate ground and truth behind the assertion that ‘there is no big Other’. Butler, writing two years before Žižek’s first major book in English (The Sublime Object of Desire) appeared on the scene, does not acknowledge or rely on such an ontology in her introductory chapters in Hegel but it helps in understanding why she lays out the ground in the way she does.

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The Real Game Plan

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This was originally posted on Unite's Croke Park Report blog today.

Let’s take a step back from the details in order to see what is happening in the wider economy – which has now fallen back into a double-dip recession according to the CSO report today. The real game plan is to suppress wages in order to boost profits.

This strategy was first announced Budget 2009 under the Fianna Fail-led government which claimed there was no alternative to wage reduction. The current Government has maintained that strategy. We have seen a restructuring of Joint Labour Committees which has removed much of the protection accorded to low-paid workers in sectors such as retail, restaurants and hotels. And we know what the Government wants in the current Croke Park 2 proposals.

Further, the Minister for Finance has called for cuts of 6 to 10 percent in the banking sector, even though the Mercer Report showed that over 40 percent of all staff in the three covered banks (Bank of Ireland, AIB and PTSB) has an average wage of €30,000.

Profits, meanwhile, have been on the increase. In 2010 and 2011 combined profits rose by 11 percent. If we take a longer view – and compare wage and profit growth projections with the Eurozone average – this is what we find, courtesy of the EU Commission’s AMECO database.

There are two things of note in this:

First, Irish profit growth greatly exceeds that of average Irish wage growth. Irish wages per employee in 2014 is projected to be below what they were in 2008; Irish profits on the other hand will have grown by 30 percent. In the Eurozone wages and profits is projected to grow in tandem.

Second, Irish profits are growing at a faster rate than the Eurozone average while Irish wages are lagging far behind.

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A Call to Educate

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The following will focus on the relationship between planned political education and left activism. If there is a justification for this, it lies in the history of the worker’s movement itself. Almost every significant step toward the self-emancipation of the working class has rested on a deep and thoroughgoing emphasis on the educational development of those indispensably involved.

Careful planning and organisation of political education among activists and workers, within and without their respective organisations, is always centrally important. In an attempt to provoke discussion, some questions are raised about the different strategies for the development of educational forms worthy of the movement the present generation of socialist activists hope to build.

The most influential socialists of the 19th and 20th centuries all realised the necessity of ensuring workers take ownership of, and develop, the knowledge necessary for self-emancipation. Certainly Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, Luxemburg, along with many other pioneers of the movement, were never prepared to neglect this necessary work, not under threat of exile, not in the midst of revolutionary upheavals, not during imprisonment, conditions of civil war and/or counter-revolutionary witch-hunts. Realising that action has to be theoretically informed, they never stopped studying, analysing and writing, throughout their lives. They have done much to prepare the ground, providing many useful signposts for subsequent generations, yet the necessity for intensive scholarship and focused dissemination of knowledge has not diminished in the slightest.

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Damaging Impact of Croke Park 2

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This post is written by Michael Burke, former senior international economist with Citibank and currently an economic consultant. It was originally posted on UNITE's Croke Park Report blog today.

The implementation of Croke Park 2 will have a very damaging impact on the economy and jobs, and as a result will struggle to have any beneficial impact on government finances at all.

That is the verdict based on the experience of austerity measures since 2008. Over that time and until the end of 2011 there were €14.6 billion in spending cuts and tax increases. On the same cash basis GDP fell by €23.6 billion.

This means that for every €1 in austerity measures the economy contracted by €1.6 as workers and businesses, pensioners and others responded to government cuts by making cuts in their own spending and investment. If the response to Croke Park 2 follows that pattern, the economy will contract by about €1.6 billion.

This will lower living standards and hurt jobs way beyond the public sector. Every public sector worker is a consumer of private sector goods and services. Private sector businesses will cut back on investment even further if demand for their products is declining.

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Developing of the Tale of the Tiger: Ireland and the IMF

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The paradox of the hot bath is symmetrical: it draws the blood to the periphery, as well as the humors, perspiration, and all liquids, useful or harmful. Thus the vital centers are relieved; the heart now must function slowly; and the organism is thereby cooled.

(Foucault 1961 [1965: 169–70])

The following essay is an attempt to answer a question of critical importance to the history of the Irish State’s development; Namely, in light of the IMF’s recent disciplinary stance toward the Irish State, and in consideration of the key role played by a number of inter- and supra-national financial institutes in stimulating Ireland’s period of unprecedented economic growth, can the IMF’s stance in the post-crisis period be deemed an attempt to legitimise the institute’s technocratic claims to authority; and what are the implications of Ireland’s bailout within the wider context of Europe.

The essay will be two-pronged in its approach; in the first section, we will seek to offer a revisionist interpretation of the negative consequences of Ireland’s economic growth having been characterised largely by external exigencies. Ireland of the Celtic Tiger era was heralded as a “successful model for small and peripheral states in this era of globalization.”[1] The factors culminating in its dramatic demise thus merit closer attention within the wider context of development (or indeed post-development) studies.

In the latter section, we will seek to contemporise the discussion by focusing on the EU-IMF bailout in 2010. Here we will attempt to offer a political economic approach to the IMF’s intervention and authoritarian stance in Ireland, by contrasting the Fund’s economic surveys prior to and following the financial crisis. We will offer two readings of this: first, we will consider if the Fund’s authoritarian stance can be read as part of the institution’s bid to continued legitimacy– in its failure to prevent the crisis, and in light of its crisis of legitimacy prior to this.[2] Secondly, we will consider how the Fund’s stance toward Ireland relates to its roles as part of a wider international economic system, acknowledging that the IMF and the World Bank function as “twin intergovernmental pillars supporting the structure of the world's economic and financial order.”[3] In so doing, we will seek to offer an alternative reading to the “sovereign” debt crisis.

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Tsipras in London: “SYRIZA has a responsibility to put an end to this social disaster”

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This is the first of a two-part on the SYRIZA London event with Alexis Tsipras on March 15th. The second will cover the more discursive question and answer session which followed his speech as well as my own reflections on the ideas and proposals he put forward. Rónán Burtenshaw

Alexis Tsipras arrived in Friend’s Meeting House in Euston on Friday evening for the final leg of a three-day London tour. He used the trip to make connections with the British centre-left establishment – meeting with members of the Labour shadow government, speaking at the London School of Economics (LSE) and doing interviews with Channel Four and the Guardian. Friday was more informal – a public address organised by his SYRIZA party’s London branch in front of a mixed audience, largely made up of British leftists and Greeks, that numbered about a thousand. Tony Benn, the democratic socialist former Labour MP, had been scheduled to introduce Tsipras but was unable to attend for medical reasons. He sent a statement instead, read out by members of the Greek Solidarity Campaign in Britain, which called SYRIZA “the party of hope for Greece and democracy in Europe.”

Tsipras began his speech by framing the European conflict as a battle between neoliberalism and democracy. “Europe is on edge, with two forces colliding. On one side stands the productive forces of democracy, the people fighting to create a society of justice, equality and freedom. And on the other side a neoliberal political project unfolds. Its aim is to control bodies and minds through the politics of fear, to discipline human life in its entirety, to intensify the exploitation of labour and to increase the profits of capital.” SYRIZA, he said, “declare that we are part of the experiment of democracy.”

The struggle for democracy was the central pillar of the speech – its references far outnumbering those of socialism or equality. It was raised as a popular and radical demand, one that would undermine the legitimacy of the established order and halt the advance of neoliberal capitalism. “Syriza believes that radical democratic changes are the only way out of the crisis for the people of Europe. This is not an optimistic illusion. It is the compelling conclusion of rational argument and detailed analysis.”

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