Monday, November 22, 2010

Ireland, in the eye of the storm

Ireland is on the brink of a political meltdown. The republic, says Eamonn McCann, is going down the tubes, as the basket-case property and financial system that powered the so-called 'Celtic Tiger' further degenerates. The author Joseph O'Connor says that he cannot a remember a time, even in past recessions, when public anger was at such a level. The government has been trying to lash together a series of stop-gap measures, temporary coalitions, and patch-up agreements for some time. It has long since lost public opinion, has lost the confidence of capitalist elites, is in conflict with organised labour, and has even had its own police force (Garda) protesting against the cuts - the same Garda who brutalised students in Dublin at the start of the month. Now, as the government is forced into bailing out the banking system further, with the mountainous assistance of the EU, the Green Party has withdrawn from the governing coalition and called for a general election. Brian Cowen, the prime minister (taoieseach), is under pressure to resign.

Here's why. Ireland's capitalist system, dubbed a 'tiger' after the 'Asian Tigers' that were also driven by financialised neoliberal growth, has been through three phases of neoliberalism. First, growth driven by overseas (especially US) investment in a relatively low wage, recently liberalised economy. Secondly, once overseas capital started to desert Ireland for the even cheaper waged economies of Eastern Europe, growth driven by a property boom created through the rationing of social housing. The latter produced a sudden upsurge in construction, such that it eventually accounted for a fifth of all economic activity. Of course, the employers and the state didn't give up on attacking wages. You may recall that prior to the credit crunch, the employers were complaining that obscenely high wages were eating into their profits.

Throughout both these phases, a labyrinthine financial sector has provided the capital for investment, as well as lavish, out-sized rewards to shareholders. It has acted as an auxiliary to the City of London and sucked in a huge amount of American capital, providing ample opportunity for people to line their pockets. The capital coming in from Wall Street was attracted by the de facto duty-free policy that the Irish government applied, and a lax regulatory regime which permitted the banks such as the Anglo Irish to cover their losses and give investors a more sanguine picture of their finances than actually obtained. The eye-popping brazenness of the Irish ruling class was such at that Charlie McCreevy of the Fianna Fail - essentially a party for the property developers and construction industry in recent years - and more recently the EU's internal markets commissioner, suggested that the collapse of Northern Rock just proved that the banking system was too transparent.

The third stage has been the collapse of that system. Ireland, as one of the 'PIIGS' countries, was grossly over-exposed to all of the weaknesses of the neoliberal system. When Wall Street hit the fan, Dublin got sprayed in the face. Despite the sometimes heroic resistance of the working class, the government and the ruling class has succeeded in getting its way a lot of the time. The re-run of the EU Treaty ballot was a victory for Intel and Ryanair, and for the blackmail of the EU which threatened that Ireland would be cut out of future financial assistance if it didn't vote 'yes' - considerable leverage to bring to bear in the middle of a recession. The truth is that, just as in the UK and most of the advanced capitalist world, labour was mostly put on the back foot by the scale of the crisis and the ruling class offensive.

The Irish government was thus able to impose its solution. And its answer to the crisis of neoliberalism was to re-up neoliberalism, cut wages under pressure from the employers, and cut spending. Spending cuts were deep, seeking to reduce total government expenditure by a quarter. On that basis, it hoped to eventually stimulate a new round of neoliberal accumulation. The line was that this would enable the government to pay off the deficit, prove Ireland's mettle as a fiscally solvent financial redoubt, and get the investment flowing again. But the effect of the cuts was, as most people expected, to reduce growth, deflate the economy and produce a fiscal crisis. The government has found itself much less able to pay off its debts, and the banks are in a worse state than before. This is why the government has had to go running to the EU.

The mutating crisis of capitalism is such that what started as a financial crisis exposed all the weaknesses in the global capitalist system, becoming a crisis of the 'real' economy, before becoming a crisis of the state as capital seeks to solve its problems through a process of accumulation-by-dispossession. Of course, 'austerity' shouldn't just be seen as a process dictated by the needs of 'the economy'. It's also a political process, a defensive measure to foreclose any more democratic or socialist economic agendas from emerging in response to the crisis. It is designed to pre-empt anything that smacks of redistribution and nationalisation, to dictate the lines of the new post-crisis settlement and have it set in stone before anyone else gets a look in. It's also intended to shatter the forces of the grassroots opposition, of organised labour and community resistance, and to engineer a more divided, frightened, conservative society that will accept a greatly reduced standard of living in the long-term.

That's why the political crisis in Ireland is significant in so many ways. Fianna Fail, now down to 17% in the polls, has traditionally operated as a hegemonic right-wing populist party which could integrated some sections of the working class into the system through nationalism and protectionism. The neoliberal turn and the subsequent crisis has resulted in a profound break with Fianna Fail. (When Luke Kelly, a founder of The Dubliners, asked "For what died the Sons Of Róisín?", I wonder if he was thinking of the hypocritical capitalist spivs, the reactionaries of the Fianna Fail ilk who appeal to patriotism and the republican tradition, but are comfortable bedfellows of multinational capitalism.)

This breakdown of Fianna Fail's support hasn't yet benefited the Left in a big way, but it can do so. Labour is the main centre-left opposition party, and has made serious gains in the polls as a result of Fianna Fail's difficulties, rising to 27%, an increase of 10% since last year. The radical left has previously demonstrated its ability to make surprising break-throughs, and is probably represented in the 8% support that 'independents' get. The Greens are worried about their own position, and they're right to be worried. They gambled on collusion with the government's austerity measures, justifying every betrayal on similar grounds to those offered by the Liberals - because we're in government, we can implement some of the beneficial policies that we want to see. But they now know they face the wrath of the voters and are trying to limit the damage. They certainly have no ability to channel any protest, as they've made themselves the objects of protest: they garner a miserable 3% in the polls. As yet, it still looks like the right-wing Fine Gael will be the main beneficiary of the protest vote, with 33% support.

The long-term result of this crisis of legitimacy, though, might be to galvanise precisely those social forces that can really sustain a left-wing alternative. As the scale of the crisis and the ruling class attack becomes manifest, the opposition is certainly becoming more militant. If you thought our students were radical, think of the Irish protesters who broke into Brian Cowen's offices last week. The immediate impact of recession and ruling class attack stunned the left and the labour movements, but now at last we might be starting to see the kinds of militancy that will be proportionate to the scale of the problem that we face.