Posts By Rónán Burtenshaw
Ronan Burtenshaw argues that now is the time to start discussing alternative political and economic unions for Europe
2015 has been a year when a decade has happened for Europe’s Left.
In just a few months we have seen the election of SYRIZA, the unprecedented crisis in Fortress Europe and the election of Jeremy Corbyn as British Labour leader, not to mention the municipal victories in the Spanish state and the development of Right2Water into Ireland’s largest ever social movement.
Further developments are promised in the cascade of elections to come in Europe’s periphery.
But, as we welcome the opportunities that have opened up, we should acknowledge the paths that have closed. Most prominently, the defeat of the Left government in Greece has raised serious questions about the way forward for our growing movement.
One of the fulcrum points for this debate is the European Union, which was so important in determining the prospects of SYRIZA. Europe’s Left has been divided on this question for some time – the majority faction saw the EU as a site of struggle which could be won and turned to progressive ends, the minority saw membership of it as an insurmountable obstacle to anti-neoliberal strategy.
Both camps had valid bases for their position. The majority, which includes the leadership of most of Europe’s radical Left parties, argued that globalised capitalism could not be effectively challenged by a nation state. The minority argued that the European Union was irredeemably pro-capitalist.
In the end, the Troika used these two poles as a binary to entrap the Greek government. We now know that the price for remaining in the European Union and euro is accepting austerity and post-democracy. But the only alternative proposal has been unilateral exit and facing international capital alone. The Greek people, finding neither option attractive, are likely to punish the Left in the forthcoming elections.
But this binary – false internationalism or a return to the nation state as the only paths out of neoliberalism – is not only a problem for Greece. In the other states of the European periphery such as Ireland and Spain it places severe limitations on the prospects of growing left-wing movements. In Britain, with the new possibilities of a Corbyn Labour party, it creates a hugely problematic dynamic for the upcoming EU referendum, offering ideal ground for a narrow debate between the nationalist right and cosmopolitan neoliberals.
There is an urgent need for Europe’s Left to break this binary and construct a new horizon that seeks to transcend the limitations of the European Union and the nation state.
For this, we need a debate about alternative economic and political unions.
Joe Brolly wrote an interesting article on the commodification of sport in this week’s issue of Gaelic Life. It’s a topic that crops up frequently as a critique of capitalist culture, from the Against Modern Football movement to combat the pricing of working-class fans out of the game, to controversies over the proliferation of performing-enhancing drugs in elite sport, to debates over whether college athletes should unionise in the United States.
Brolly, a former Derry footballer turned RTÉ pundit, explores it in the context of the amateur GAA and specifically men’s gaelic football. His thesis is that the increasing commercialism of the GAA leadership is driving the sport towards professionalism, instilling a will to win that is sapping the love of the game from the players and producing private bodies which are enriching the few at the expense of the many.
What he’s describing is similar to a process philosopher Georg Lukács called “reification”. This is where human relations or properties are transformed into human-produced things, given a value independently of and surpassing people themselves, and eventually coming to govern our lives. This distorts human relations, forcing us to interact with each other in terms of things rather than as people ourselves, producing a commodity fetishism. The pre-eminence of economic relationships over social relationships also causes a generalised condition of alienation, where we feel divorced from the work we do, the parts of life we enjoy, each other and even ourselves.
Interestingly, Brolly’s analysis reminds us that these processes do not happen in isolation or simply as economics. They are effected by the latent culture. So, in the GAA, commodification is buttressed by existing ideology like the “doctrine of club and county” and “strong community expectation” which produce a “loyalty” to the organisation and make deviating from its line difficult.
Ideology plays an important part in the GAA, which as well as being one of the largest amateur sporting organisations in the world has also, as an institution, often been on the side of conservative forces in Irish politics. In certain respects sport has a similar social function to religion, bonding communities, giving them rituals to share and establishing a sense of tradition – even if anyone who has attended Catholic mass would tell you sport’s entertainment value is a good deal higher. But any organisation of that kind that lasts under capitalism will have the GAA’s contradictions – partly playing a role in reproducing the system, partly providing ordinary people relief from its hardships.
And so on the one hand you have an organisation of over a million members, operating on a communitarian ethos, rooted in local communities, with a genuine sense of ownership for the grassroots, and at the same time its assets are over €2.5billion, many fans are priced out of its biggest games, its former leader sits in the European Parliament with Fine Gael and its most notable moment in 2014 was when it tried to force through a series of multi-million dollar concerts against the wishes of a working-class urban community.
Brolly’s description of the merits of the GAA, an organisation that teaches us “the joys of community and the great satisfaction that comes from collaboration and hard work”, echoes what Liverpool greats said about their sport in the past.Bill Shankly said that football was about “everyone working for each other, everyone having a share of the rewards”. John Barnes said that “for 90 minutes, regardless of whether you are Lionel Messi or the substitute right-back for Argentina, you are all working to the same end.” Both compared this ethic explicitly to socialism.
Budget time is really the only window where citizens are encouraged to engage in economic debate, and even then the space of time is too short and the range of topics up for debate too narrow to make much impact. When it ends, and for the other eleven months of the year, economics is the preserve of technocrats.
That is a serious problem. Economics is the discussion of how things in our society are produced and distributed. If you leave it to experts there is a big cost for democracy. Yet, while people feel comfortable engaging in debate about politics in the Middle East or presidential elections in the United States, there is a reticence to talk about economics.
Part of this is down to economics as a discipline, which has become increasingly remote from day-to-day life. The primacy of the market as a means to resolve problems has led to the rise of ‘market scientists’, who are seen as the authoritative voices on running an efficient economy. The language deployed by these experts is deliberately exclusive. Certainly they are unlikely to start explorations of economics with parables about pin factories, as Adam Smith did in The Wealth of Nations.
Yet they dominate economics discourse. When economics is discussed with any substance in the mainstream press market scientists from universities, think-tanks and finance houses are given free reign to make objective statements about the common good. Research by Julien Mercille has shown that between 2008 and 2012 77% of commentators on austerity were from elite institutions.
Another factor leading to the retreat of ordinary people from economic debate is the narrowing space for democracy in the economy. The democratic sphere only extends to areas where there is or could be public ownership. Outside of this decisions are made by private individuals or organisations. As wealth becomes concentrated in fewer hands, fewer economic decisions are made with public participation.
This has bred a cynicism about what can be achieved by discussing economics. With capital increasingly breaking free from taxation – and mobile enough to defeat strikes – people have come to accept that social problems can only be resolved by appealing to private individuals and organisations to solve problems profitably through the market. And so we are relegated in the economy from citizens to consumers.
This must be reversed if we are to build a politics in Ireland that can reclaim our society from the political establishment and the interests they serve. Joan Robinson, one of the great economists of the twentieth century, was once asked why people should study economics. She replied, “so that economists can’t fool you”. Implicit in this comment is the need for citizen economics.
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.
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.”
“If you’re going to mobilise against racism as an ideology and want to affirm the importance of democracy, you’ve got to realise that, in terms of its performative immediacy, western democracies promote racial equality and sustain racial inequality.”
In the first part of an interview series Dr. Barnor Hesse, Associate Professor of African-American Studies at Northwestern University, talks to student journalist Rónán Burtenshaw about how the performance of race shapes our politics and governance.
Q. Can you tell us a bit about your intellectual background?
I grew up in a politically left-wing family in Liverpool, with a father from Ghana and a mother from Jamaica, and a younger brother also born in Liverpool. My father was particularly influential on my thinking, given his activist experiences in anti-racism, anti-colonialism, trade unionism and Left Labour party politics more generally. Without digressing too much into my background let me say, by the time I was doing my PhD in Government at Essex University during the early 1990s in the “ideology and discourse analysis” program, I had acquired enough intellectual and activist dislocations and concerns of my own to begin questioning the ways in which we have erroneously come to understand the political institution of race in the West and how black politics, has been socially pathologized and violently repudiated by western liberal democracies, while remaining remarkably under theorized by its practitioners. Add to that gestation the fact that my approach to these matters is heavily indebted to cultural studies, post-colonial studies, African American studies, post-Marxism and post-structuralism, and you have a quick portrait of me as a Black British academic.
Since becoming a professional academic my particular theoretical interests have been focussed on rethinking the meaning and materiality of race as a form of western colonial governance, and trying to provide a more theoretically sophisticated account of black politics as symptomatically oppositional to that regime. The latter was always interesting to me because growing up and living as a person of colour in the west, it is impossible to escape being saturated with white western scholarship, where various lineages of blackness in politics, cultures and histories are pathologized, marginalized or exorcised. Routinely what you find as an black academic or activist, particularly in Europe, is that the intellectual lineages in which you seek to locate yourself are mostly available as raw empirical, statistical experiences or as histories of racist images for white European thinkers to theorise, and that’s assuming black related experiences are even seen as worthy of theorisation in the western academy; often they are not. This was always the difficulty with finding one’s self located in the British academy. Nevertheless I have always been interested in trying to understand the West’s European colonial formation and its politics of race as constitutive of its mainstream liberal democratic institutions rather than exceptions to their rule, which is the conventional understanding.
At a time when the most vulnerable in society desperately need a challenge to the neoliberal, capitalist hegemony it seems that the only criticism of the system that penetrates the public consciousness is spoken in…