Scapegoating During a Time of Crisis

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The following piece is based on a much longer article ‘Scapegoating During a Time of Crisis: A Critique of Post-Celtic Tiger Ireland’, co-written by Micheal Flynn, Lee Monaghan and Martin Power. It is available here.

Austerity and Scapegoating: two sides of the same coin

The headline of the Irish Independent dated 21st of October 2013

The headline of the Irish Independent dated 21st of October 2013

Class war is in large part a propaganda war; it is in no way confined to formal political life, but  works its way through all the institutions of society. For the most part it is the ruling class that is advancing – most obviously through the commercial media, which so often serves to divide, disempower, demoralise and dis-benefit the working class.

Only a few years ago it was generally accepted that bankers, developers and speculators destroyed Ireland’s economy. In the wake of the collapse, Brian Lenihan’s claim that ‘we all partied’ was rightly understood as an attempt to deflect blame from those actually responsible. Most understood that it was the recklessness of the investing classes, coupled with the political decision to socialise private bank debt that had forced hundreds of thousands on to dole queues and/or through airport departure gates. For a time, the anger of the population was focused squarely of those that had destroyed the economy.

Yet, notions of collective responsibility have been carefully fostered ever since. The idea of a specifically Irish lust for property (or even a ‘property-owning gene’) appears to have become the common-sense of our time. The commercial media, with the help of the trendy economists elevated to celebrity status, such as David McWilliams, reason that everything went askew because of a ‘cult of property’. We Irish gave in to a ‘mass delusion’ – or as Indakinny so eloquently explained ‘we all went a bit mad with borrowing’.

Consequently, and very conveniently, the role of developers, speculators and politicians – their systematic destruction of alternatives to crippling mortgage debt, the role of section 23 tax breaks, the endemic planning corruption revealed by the Mahon tribunal, are all put out of sight as blame is socialised. This makes it far easier to justify the on-going socialisation of debt, which in turn helps to rationalise the ‘tough decisions’ that government insists are unavoidable. The subsequent apportioning of blame to specific targets is likewise done in a manner consistent with the distribution of austerity.

As expected, cuts to the public sector have gone hand-in-hand with attempts to demonize public sector workers. With the public sector now on the chopping block, ‘over-paid’ and ‘under worked’ public sector workers have been identified as unbearable burdens on the public finances. Rather than remain focused on where the billions are actually going, attention is paid to a ‘privileged’ public sector. This cultivation of resentment gives licence to savage cuts and softens the public up for privatisations. Even better, damage done to the highly-unionised public sector also damages the trade union movement, which when weakened makes for more effective attacks on pay and conditions down the line.

It should be noted that cuts to public sector jobs and services also represent an attack on women – since the jobs and services involved are disproportionately held and supported by women. On top of this, cuts to welfare disproportionately impact on women, which is why attacks regularly involve demonization. This relationship was quite evident when Fine Gael TD Derek Keating raised the issue of young women ‘caring, not for one child or two, but for three and four children by multiple fathers … with the consequences picked up by the taxpayer’. That the issue of payments to single mothers was raised when the number of claimants had actually dropped from 92,326 in 2010 to 87,735 in 2012 is telling. This fact, or the fact that 88% of claimants have only one or two children, and the remaining 12% are mostly divorced or separated, could not be permitted to get in the way. The important thing was to create the impression of ‘welfare queens’ constantly getting pregnant, and expecting long-suffering taxpayers to foot the bill for their feckless breeding.

Welfare recipients are routinely demonised, not least by Minister for Social Protection Joan Burton, who infamously claimed that school leavers were choosing welfare as a ‘lifestyle choice’ – an interesting viewpoint given that there are 26 job applicants for every job advertised. The government works hard to create the impression of general lack of motivation among young people – to be fixed by cutting the dole to 100 euros for the under 25s. According to Eamon Gilmore, the cuts to welfare for young people are designed to ensure they would no longer be stuck watching ‘flat-screen televisions’ seven days a week.

On those flat-screens TVs they could watch the often repeated ‘Ireland’s Dole Cheats’, from the ‘Paul Connolly Investigates’ series – a TV3 programme that succeeded in demonising them further. The programme purports to lift the lid on ‘rampant’ social welfare fraud in Ireland, dovetailing wonderfully with government claims that it is possible to save 600 million euro by tackling the issue of social welfare fraud. But as economist Michael Taft has rightly pointed out, this claim is in itself fraudulent (the figure attributable to welfare fraud in Ireland is actually 21 million euro).

These attempts on the part of politicians to demonise the unemployed have become more brazen as the years pass. In the earliest stages of the economic crash it was too obvious that the increase in joblessness was due to the recklessness of the investing classes. With respect to the unemployed, victim blaming was too easy to identify as such. However, politicians saw no reason why migrants could not be targeted right off the bat. In 2008 Labour Party spokesperson on Social and Family Affairs, Roisin Shortall, wasted no time in highlighting the need for greater vigilance against child benefit fraud by migrants, and called on the state to stop such payments abroad. This was a staggering request given that the arrangement was provided for under EU law. Likewise, in 2009 Limerick County Councillor, Liam Galvin (Fine Gael) said that he believed that a considerable amount of fraud was being committed through the wrongful claiming of ‘welfare benefits’ by foreign nationals. He stated that ‘taxi drivers are picking up foreigners at the airport and driving them straight to the welfare office and straight back to the airport again’. Yet, Councillor Galvin’s assertions seem to ignore the fact that since 2004 all applicants had to satisfy the Habitual Residence Condition (HRC) for a wide range of social welfare payments.

These debates around migrants, public sector workers, single mothers, welfare recipients etc., arise as rationalisations for impending attacks. The demonization of public sector workers greases the rails for cuts, for privatisations, for attacks on pay and conditions. Heightened moral indignation about welfare recipients signals impending welfare cuts. It is no accident that many of the above concerns found relentless expression in the lead up to the Social Welfare Bill of December 2012.

If we are to rebuild the workers movement we cannot abide this ongoing assault on the dignity of workers and the unemployed. We need re-establish networks of solidarity – strong enough to unite skilled and unskilled, unionised and non-unionised, women and men, native and migrant, young and old, employed and unemployed. Ruling class propaganda cannot be permitted to pollute our hearts or minds. We must expose the agendas underpinning these shameless slanders, producing and disseminating a stronger counter-narrative, linked to a broader and more active participation in our unions and in political life.

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