Could Austerity Make the Poor a ‘Nation’ on their Own?

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Penal_LawsThe historian Robert Kee once argued that the Penal Laws, having endowed Catholics with a special identity of poverty and social isolation, made the poor in Ireland a nation of their own. Prior to this he argues that the concept of Irish national identity was vague and hard to pin down and describe. Kee said that, before the inception of the Penal Laws, Ireland had very no real sense of itself. It was a collection of Gaelic, Gaelicized and Old English groupings ruled by Chieftains who propped up the ancient system of tribal governance. These chieftains, who comfortable with swearing allegiance to an English king, rarely rose up against the foreign monarchy. When they did it was far from being in the name of a national ideal but rather in defense of their own privileged positions in Irish society.

Exceptions are noted including the rebellion of Ulster’s Shane O’Neill who, though still motivated by a challenge to his own power, was perhaps the first of these chieftains to look beyond the parameters of his own tribe. This ancient, tribal system was effectively brought to end by the Plantations, Cromwell’s approach to Ireland, and the victory of William of Orange over James II. The introduction of the Penal Laws in 1703 was done in order to cement Protestant control over land through a programme designed in order to disenfranchise Catholics on a wider and deeper social scale.

Whether or not Kee is correct in all of his interpretations is a side issue. It is his proposition that the inhumanity of the Penal Laws resulted for the first time in a shared and observable identity for a majority of Irish people that is interesting. They were bound together not by Religion (although this was the label given to the legislation) but by the fact that they were systemically impoverished and socially marginalised by the state through policy, violence and acts of legislation.

It is interesting because, during the Celtic Tiger years of economic prosperity, a potent current of individualism and consumerist materialism was fostered in the grip of which we struggled to maintain any sense of ourselves as a people. Life turned into a rat race and society simply became a subset of the economy. Those who didn’t get a foothold were forgotten as the Celtic Tiger roared on. Though sporting achievements did something to counteract this dilution of identity and shared interest, it was cosmetic and always short lived. It is this erosion of identity, which I believe, has presented the biggest obstacle to forming a powerful and truly effective response to the austerity regime.

We are entirely unsure of who we are as a people. A whole generation was raised on the dysfunctional reality of instant gratification and therefore identity was transient & dependent on what possessions you could acquire and how much wealth you could amass. Following the economic crash and fallout, it seems to me that the majority  of working class people are numbed into passive subservience both by the impact of oppression and conditioning. Members of the middle-class are struggling to come to terms with the realisation that they are, and were always, only numbers to the ruling class.

Relative to the Celtic Tiger years, I would imagine that Malcolm X would have labelled the upper-middle class as “house-negroes” – the chosen people of the ruling class, happy to be inside the house of their master where it is warm, being fed bigger scraps than the “field negroes” but still only being used by the real elite to disguise their very existence and the pervasiveness of their power and influence. The privilege of the Irish “house negroes” was only ever identifiable relative to the lot of the working class and not by its proximity to that of the elite. I don’t mean this to be insulting but as a sincere acknowledgment that it must be extremely tough for the middle class to face up to realisation that they were only ever a disposable layer of elitist system of which they had no share of ownership.

There are now only two real classes in Ireland worth talking about right now. Those who have acquired the apparatus of power for their own ends and those who have been marginalised, social isolated and economically by a regime whose primary objective is ensuring that the financial speculators get back the money they placed on a failed gamble. The regime persists and continues to strengthen because the factions of the oppressed seem to be, at this point, unwilling, to accept that they are in the same boat even if they are climbing on board with very different baggage.

Herein lies the roots of the one aspect of the reign of austerity that has gone without the analytic treatment it deserves. It is the fact that the war on society, being waged with such gusto by Fine Gael & Labour, is ensuring that the gap between the interests being pursued by the apparatus of the state and the expressed needs & interests of the people is widening at a frightening rate. I don’t think that I need to get into listing the endless stream of pseudo & stealth taxes and savage cuts to social infrastructure. It is undeniable that the oppression which this list represents has been firmly aimed at the working & middle classes – the poor – while the shadowy elite goes untouched. The poor are continuously told that not only do they have to bear the brunt of the economic collapse but that they are also the cause of it. This is of course a simplification and a fallacy. However, despite all the hardship there hasn’t been fight-back with a ferocity that equals that of the oppression and injustice.

This is worrying. I have always made the argument that this austerity regime is up there with apartheid, the degradation of African-Americans, and the suppression of the nationalist people of the North in that it is a conscious act of the state to preserve privilege. In this case the act is being camouflaged as a strategy for recovery. The camouflage slipped a long time ago especially given the fact that the coalition has little regard for economic growth or investment in job creation. Apartheid and the other examples mentioned were obviously a more raw and naked form of oppression. The injustice was characterised by brutal violence and people were often killed.

But violence also has many incarnations. While the violence of austerity may not be seen in citizens being battened off the streets or imprisoned without trial, it is to be found in the arrival of another bill that cannot be paid and in the pain of sending your child to school without a breakfast. The social marginalisation created by unemployment and emigration is as imprisoning as a cell in any jail. And people are dying. The rate of suicide in Ireland, particularly among young males, is frightening and a great many people are dying inside from living in a country were hope is as scarce as a job. Our anger is inherently curtailed and dampened by rather restrictive definitions of violence. This government is violent and we should not be so reluctant to condemn it as such.

We need to expose that violence. We need to bring pain out of our houses, beyond the confines of family, and into our communities. We should cast off any feelings of shame at not having an income, being on the verge of losing the house, or not being able to feed the kids because many are the same boat. We need to share our stories of the oppression. We need to make the world sit up aghast at the injustice of it all as they did at the images from Alabama in the 1950s and reports from Soweto in the 1980s. How will that happen? Where is the hope? These are the obvious and most important questions.

Well it may be found through the lens of Kee’s analysis regarding the impact of The Penal Laws on the development of a shared identity for the marginalised and oppressed at that time. The hope is that the effects of austerity may in fact produce a new sense of ourselves forged through the shared experiences of struggle, impoverishment, disenfranchisement, real disillusionment and injustice.

The new poor may become a ‘nation’ on its own welded by common problems, needs and aspirations. It may be a collective without the official stamp of a nation state but what value does that hold when the stamp doesn’t represent or reflect the interests of the people? If the hardship of austerity truly bound people together in the spirit of a nation then this may be the very thing that defeats this government and the austerity regime. But we have to work for it. It is far from inevitable and it currently seems to be so far out of reach.

The oppressed now need to join together, regardless of whatever divisions have gone before, and stand against the violence of austerity. Such a stance would bring a refreshed meaning of what it means to be Irish. A nation of the poor saying – this is who we are, these are our numbers and we are not taking anymore. From that point there could be real progress.

One can only hope.



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