Jan 2012

The Death of W.B. Yeats

As the year wears on, we arrive at another anniversary. This time last year I published a piece over at On This Deity celebrating the life and remembering the death of William Butler Yeats, truly one of Ireland’s most cherished sons.

William Butler YeatsYeats was first and foremost a poet of genuine greatness. Possibly the finest ever to hail from these shores. Though he has plenty of competition… and in the final analysis, claiming one poet is better than another is always a dubious activity. Let’s just say that there are few poets – from anywhere – whose work affects me so deeply.

Yeats, of course, was not only a wonderful poet. He was also a dedicated archivist who – along with Lady Gregory – compiled the collection of ancient tales and sagas that we now know as Irish Mythology. In so doing, he is as responsible for the form and shape of traditional Gaelic culture as any individual. And tradition was something he felt very strongly about. A friend and fellow-traveller of many of the leading lights of the modernist movement, WB Yeats strode an uneasy line between past and future. He wanted to embrace the modern world, yet despised it for its tendency to tread heavily on the best parts of the past. He saw the creative potential of industry, but despaired at the lack of wisdom guiding it. Why did we not have the discernment to welcome the advantages of the new while preserving the advantages of the old? Progress was inevitable, he understood that, but did it have to be at any cost?

And Yeats was also a political man. He spent a decade in the newly independent Irish government as a senator. One of the leading intellectuals of those early, heady days he was at the forefront of the movement to resist the influence of the catholic church on Irish politics. It was, lamentably, a battle he was to lose. How different would Ireland have been if those early progressive liberals had overcome the social conservatives! Unlike in much of Europe, the Irish revolutionary socialist movement was tightly bound to the church. There are very understandable reasons why this was the case, and in truth it’s hard to see how it could have been otherwise given the unique situation in Ireland at the time. All the same, it’s difficult to avoid a certain wistfulness when imagining an alternative history where Yeats was on the winning side of that early social struggle.

Of course, one thing the progressives, the catholics, the traditionalists, the modernists and the revolutionary socialists of early 20th century Ireland would all have agreed on would be that the present predicament in which we find ourselves is intolerable. Éamon de Valera, Michael Collins, William Cosgrave and WB Yeats would have been united in their condemnation of the present government and the capitalist attacks on the people of Ireland they facilitate. On that at least, they would have voted together, and fought side by side. The selling of our sovereignty in return for tax-breaks for the wealthy would be anathema to the men who struggled so long and sacrificed so much to win that sovereignty in the first place.

But I guess we couldn’t have the greatness of those heroes past without also taking on their flaws. And they had many. So it behoves us to reach for a brighter future rather than wallow in nostalgia for a rose-tinted past. All the same, we can – as Yeats himself always stressed – avail ourselves of the distilled wisdom of days gone by. We may not always have the strength to choose which parts of our history we are influenced by, but we are obliged to at least try to give voice to our better angels and to silence the demons. And so, with that in mind, I shall finish this piece as I finished the piece over at On This Deity a year ago today, with the words of Yeats in the poem that – above all others – lives within my heart and mind.

The Second Coming
by William Butler Yeats

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Jan 2012

Enda does Davos

World Economic ForumIt’s difficult to summon any enthusiasm to write about Irish politics at the moment. Over the past few months I’ve pretty much worn out all the words required to do the subject justice. There’s only so many times you can use words like “incompetent”, “craven”, “absurd” or “destructive” before they start to lose their impact. On top of that, the realisation that the fools and charlatans that comprise our political class have no intention of listening to reason, and are determined to persevere with ineffective policies, like punch-drunk bluebottles convinced they’ll somehow pass through the window if they just keep flying into the glass for long enough… well, it’s just disheartening.

Sometimes I look at a politician on the TV and my heart goes out to them with the same kind of melancholy sympathy that I feel when I see a clumsy child desperately trying to impress those around them with a plucky, if badly executed, attempt at sports. And then I remember that unlike the child in the local park, these men and women are in positions of power thanks to their ruthless ambition and willingness to deceive those around them. And they are being paid huge salaries to completely destroy this country. At that point my sympathy turns to anger and contempt. In Irish politics, as with the Hollywood film industry, people seem to fail upwards.

That “willingness to deceive” was on show again this week. Our Inglorious Leader, Enda Kenny, spent a few days at the World Economic Forum in Davos. I found myself calling to mind Stewart Lee’s stand-up routine in which he viciously skewers Top Gear and its presenters. In that splendid diatribe, he compares Richard Hammond to the obnoxious little kid we all knew from school who would hang out with the bullies, egging them on and squealing with laughter at their cruel jokes. It’s the sycophantic survival strategy of a coward. This week in Davos, Enda Kenny adopted that strategy. And just like the little coward at school, as soon as Kenny thinks he’s out of earshot of the bullying cabal he want so desperately to impress, he contradicts everything he’s said in their presence and pretends to be our best friend.

For those who have forgotten, let’s step back a couple of months to the weekend prior to our last budget. Enda Kenny appeared on our TV screens like a low budget horror film and gave his State of the Nation address. There’s an oft-quoted line from that speech…

Let me say this to you all: You are not responsible for the crisis.

He looked us straight in the eye when he told us that. It was almost as if he was being sincere. And let’s be clear; it’s the truth; the people of Ireland are not responsible for the current crisis (except in the sense that they voted for the gombeens who brought it upon us, and continue to do so… for that much they must bear responsibility). But whether Kenny believes it or not is open to interpretation. Because this week in Davos, to a rather different audience, he contradicted this position when he announced that the Irish people “went mad borrowing”. It was, he insisted, a collaboration “between people and banks” which created…

a system that spawned greed to a point where it just went out of control completely with a spectacular crash.

Once again, let’s be clear; throughout that dark period when this country was being ravaged by The Tiger, Enda Kenny and his Fine Gael cohort were the biggest cheerleaders of that greed. They weren’t on the opposition benches urging caution. They weren’t denouncing financial deregulation or tax cuts for the wealthy. Far from it! They were on their feet baying for more of the same. The tax cuts and the deregulation didn’t go far enough for Kenny and his ideologically blinded party. He wasn’t calling for The Tiger to be tamed, he was demanding we throw more meat into it’s gaping maw.

Enda Kenny Poster - Thanks, SuckersCertainly there was a culture of greed spawned in Ireland during those years, but it was spawned at the top and rampaged downwards doing more damage the further it got from those who unleashed it. And the evidence of this is that most of those at the top are not being badly affected by the crisis that is plunging the bottom tier into poverty. And the evidence that this injustice is still being supported by Kenny and his ilk can be seen in the budgetary policy that cuts disability benefit, the winter fuel allowance, child benefit and back-to-school allowances; money that helps keep poorer heads just above water; while drawing a high ring-fence around the wealth of those at the top. All the while his party fills the media with stories that blame the public service and try to make villains of the unemployed rather than those who landed them there.

When Kenny speaks to a gathering of international financiers and political leaders, he immediately falls back on blaming the Irish people for his woes. As though they are his woes in the first place. As though he’s feeling any of the financial pain he and the rest of the political class are inflicting upon the people – not just in Ireland, but elsewhere around the world. It’s the riff-raff that are the problem, he insists. If only they’d have the good grace to go away and keep quiet, then decent people like you and me – here he raises his champagne flute in acknowledgement of his well-fed dinner companions – could get on with the serious work of consuming our lobster salad.

And it goes without saying that once he’d blamed the financial crisis on the reckless greed of the Irish people, he immediately backtracked when confronted by the Irish media. “Our people have been the victims of this situation”, he told an interviewer. So are we the victims? Or are we the mad borrowers, Enda? Are we responsible for the crisis or not? It seems he needs to know what the questioner wants to hear before he can answer those questions.

Let’s get one thing straight. Many Irish people did borrow too much during the boom. In fact, as The Guardian pointed out earlier this week, 15 individuals alone owe Anglo-Irish Bank over half a billion euro each. I guess they’re Irish people all right. But it’s hardly fair to describe them as The Irish People. Certainly I don’t recall borrowing €500 million, and none of my friends or family did. And I doubt any of my neighbours did either, though I suppose they could be keeping it to themselves.

The reality is; it was a small number of politicians, bankers and property developers who created the Irish crisis. And they were eagerly encouraged by European banks and other international financial institutions who bought into the bizarre fiction that the Celtic Tiger could somehow live forever. It was they who destroyed this country and not the unemployed, the disabled or the poor families living in negative equity who are now being hammered by a government determined to make anyone at all pay, other than those who morally should do.

It’s a travesty; an absolute nightmare of a problem. And Enda Kenny’s two-faced attitude tells you all you need to know about the people who are supposed to be fixing it.

2 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

Jan 2012

An Ecology of Mind (film) – UK Tour

Gregory Bateson

Gregory Bateson

The name “Gregory Bateson” will be familiar to regular readers of this blog. It will also be familiar to a small number of academics who have studied his work in such disparate fields as anthropology, psychotherapy, communications theory, systems dynamics, linguistics, ecological science and biology.

Now, those who know Bateson’s work will have spotted the deliberate error in the above paragraph. It is of course the central thesis of Batesonian philosophy that these are not “disparate fields” at all. Our separation of these disciplines is entirely arbitrary and ultimately quite problematic. Though as he himself acknowledged, we do have to think about things separately simply because “it’s too difficult to think of everything at once”.

It’s one of the great tragedies of our times that Bateson’s work is so unfamiliar to so many people, and that his name is barely recognised even by the generally well-educated. Those who do know Bateson’s work (not all of them of course, but a significant majority of those I’ve met or read) count him among the most important thinkers of the past few hundred years. And they lament his relative lack of influence on a culture that could sorely use some wisdom and guidance. Reading his seminal collection of papers, Steps to an Ecology of Mind is a truly revelatory experience and anyone who does so with an open mind is likely to be profoundly changed by it. He sees – clearer than most – the fundamental flaws in how humanity interacts with the world of which it is a part. He doesn’t provide a set of solutions to our problems, for he denies our problems are of the kind that can be addressed using “a set of solutions”. Rather, he identifies our “way of thinking about the world” to be the central issue. Our entire epistemology is deeply flawed and it is leading us ever closer to disaster.

A simple example of this flawed epistemology; this failure to see the vital interconnections in the world around us; can be seen by examining the current European financial crisis. On the one hand, the IMF and EU are predicting that Ireland and Greece will overcome their problems so long as they act in a particular way and follow certain instructions. They predict certain rates of economic growth which, although modest, will be enough to get us out of trouble within a certain number of years so long as we privatise state assets and implement strict budgetary controls. On the other hand, both institutions have issued warnings (IMF, EU) about impending oil / resource depletion that are, if taken at face value, absolutely guaranteed to torpedo those growth projections. In the context of charitable donations, the advice of Jesus to “let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth” (Matthew 6:3) is certainly a worthy one. Unfortunately when it comes to matters of public policy, it’s a recipe for disaster.

Anyway, enough about that. My UK readers will – I hope – be interested to discover that the recent film about Bateson’s life and work (entitled, appropriately enough, “An Ecology of Mind“) is to be screened at several locations in the month of February. I’ve not yet seen the film, dear reader, but I nonetheless recommend you attend your nearest screening. Any film about Bateson’s work is surely a must-see. It’ll certainly be a more enriching experience than Transformers 7: The Car’s A Robot!

Currently the dates announced are:

  • Feb 13th, 2012Milton Keynes (Berrill Lecture Theatre, 7pm)
    Contact: Magnus Ramage at m.ramage @ open.ac.uk or telephone 01908 659 779
  • Feb 14th, 2012Hull (Hull University)
    Contact: Gerald Midgley at G.R.Midgley @ hull.ac.uk
  • Feb 15th, 2012Manchester (Chinese Art Centre, 6pm)
    Contact: David Haley at D.haley @ mmu.ac.uk or James Brady at James_gaia_project @ yahoo.co.uk
  • Feb 16th, 2012Manchester (MIRIAD, Manchester Metropolitan University, 2pm)
    Address: Room 104 Geoffrey Manton Building, All Saints Campus, Oxford Road, Manchester, M15
    Contact: David Haley at D.haley @ mmu.ac.uk or James Brady at James_gaia_project @ yahoo.co.uk
  • Feb 17th, 2012Glasgow (The Old Hairdressers, 7pm)
    Invited panel speakers: Nora Bateson, filmmaker; Carol Craig, author of The Tears that Built the Clyde; Torsten Lauschmann, artist; Nic Green, artist and ecological activist; Alastair Macintosh, Centre for Human Ecology
    Contact: Robert Thurm at galleryhair @ hotmail.co.uk or buy tickets at TicketWeb
  • Feb 20th, 2012Bradford (National Media Museum)
    Address: Pictureville Bradford, West Yorkshire BD1 1NQ
    Contact: Gail Simon at gailsimon @ clara.co.uk or telephone 0870 701 0200
  • Feb 21st, 2012Bristol (Arnolfini Gallery, 7:30pm)
    Address: 16 Narrow Quay, Bristol, BS1 4QA
    Contact: Nick Hart-Williams (Schumacher Society) at nick @ schumacher.org.uk or buy tickets from the Schumacher Society
  • Feb 22nd, 2012Dartington (Dartington Schumacher College, 8pm – Screening and discussion)
    Address: The Old Postern, Dartington, Totnes, Devon, TQ9 6EA
    Contact: Inga Page (Schumacher College) at Inga.Page @ schumachercollege.org.uk, telephone 01803 865 934 / 07813 802 508, or buy tickets from Schumacher College
  • Feb 23rd, 2012Edinburgh (Edinburgh College of Art – Screening and panel)
    Contact: Chris Fremantle at chris @ fremantle.org
  • Feb 24th, 2012Edinburgh (Edinburgh College of Art – Seminar / workshop with Nora Bateson)
    Contact: Chris Fremantle at chris @ fremantle.org
  • Feb 27th, 2012London (Premiere) (The Old Cinema)
    Invited panel speakers: Jody Boehnert (Ecological Literacy researcher, Brighton University / EcoLabs); Ranulph Glanville (Emeritus Professor, University College London / Independent academic / President of the American Society for Cybernetics); Peter Reason (Professor Emeritus, Centre for Action Research, Bath University / Ashridge Business School); Wendy Wheeler (Professor of English Literature & Cultural Inquiry, London Metropolitan Uni. / author of The Whole Creature: Complexity, Biosemiotics and the Evolution of Culture / Consulting Editor for Cybernetics and Human Knowing)
    Panellist and Chair: Dr. Jon Goodbun (Sr. Lecturer, Architecture, Uni. of Westminster, RCA & UCL)
    Contact: Jon Goodbun IMCC (Institute of Modern and Contemporary Culture) University of Westminster at jcgoodbun @ mac.com
    Co-organisers: Wallace Heim (home @ wallaceheim.com); Kevin Power – Centre for Action Research, Ashridge Business School (kevin.power @ btinternet.com); Eva Bakkeslett (bakkesle @ online.no)
    Buy tickets at Eventbrite
Trailer for An Ecology of Mind

4 comments  |  Posted in: Announcements

Jan 2012

Who holds the bonds? And why isn’t it us?

CapitalismSo today’s the day. Today the Irish government hands €1.25bn of public money to the unsecured, unguaranteed bondholders of a defunct financial institution. The stated reasons for this transfer of wealth make absolutely no sense. The real reasons are purely ideological. What’s happening today is the logical conclusion of allowing capitalism to remain unregulated.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m well aware that this grand larceny flies even in the face of free market philosophy. But capitalism is not synonymous with free market philosophy. Of course, I’m no fan of unrestricted free markets either, but at least under that system – if it was being correctly applied – it would be those who invested in Anglo-Irish Bank who would lose money; not the citizens of Ireland who could have expected no share of the profits had the investments panned out. What’s happened is that capitalism has co-opted the language and appearance of the free market to permit ever greater accumulations of wealth in ever fewer unscrupulous hands. Our system is more akin to the robber barons and gangster capitalists of the late 19th century than it is to some ideal of free market economics where wealth flows efficiently to those who “generate” it. The Anglo-Irish Bank bondholders did not generate the wealth they are receiving today. And as David McWilliams points out; by allowing this insanity to continue – worse, by encouraging it – the Irish government is losing credibility in the markets, not gaining it.

The finance capitalists who are now running our nation from afar have managed to hoodwink and pressure those elected to represent our interests into acting as though our interests were in fact synonymous with those doing the hoodwinking. And they’re not. In reality, they are diagrammatically opposed. And as we hand over our money, I feel certain that the investors can’t quite believe their luck. “Is it possible”, they wonder, “that the Irish people are really as thick as the old jokes implied?” Certainly that sad excuse for a leader we’ve got, Enda Kenny, seems to think so. Today, as he signed the metaphorical cheque, he insisted that Ireland must honour its debts. “We have paid our way and will pay our way”, he told the Dáil.

Here’s the thing, Enda, I don’t know anyone who doesn’t agree that Ireland should honour its debts. The problem we have – and it’s one that you don’t seem to have the wit about you to appreciate – is with honouring the debts of others. Today’s transfer of public wealth into private hands is not paying our way. It’s paying someone else’s way. Someone who not only doesn’t have Ireland’s interests at heart, but whose actions are impoverishing the citizens of this nation; whose greed is laying waste to our society. And although you may equate those reckless fools with “Ireland”, the rest of us really don’t. Your place in history, Enda, will be an ignominious one. Our last government sold us out, and you eagerly embraced their madness.

And that’s not all

More Pie, Mr. KennyThere’s yet one further twist in this sorry tale. A twist that would appear to make our government look even more irresponsible. A twist that gives the impression Enda Kenny and his absurd collection of incompetents are actively maximising the amount being paid by the Irish people, even as they claim to be minimising it. Less than three months ago, we handed over €715m to Anglo-Irish Bank investors (you have to understand, the €1.25bn in private debt that we’re paying today is just the latest in a long line of payments that will continue for the next seven years at least and will leave this country crippled with sovereign debt). As we made that payment, Shane Ross (independent TD) made the point that the current bondholders were not the original investors in Anglo-Irish Bank. That in fact the current bondholders bought those bonds on the secondary market during a period in 2011 when the market in Anglo-Irish Bank bonds fell by 40%. They ended up paying a little less than 60% of the face value, and today will reap the rewards when Enda Kenny honours the full amount. As Ross said, quite correctly, the current bondholders “decided the Government was going to sting the taxpayer, rather than sting them, and so they bought”.

Which raises the obvious question… if Kenny, as he claims, was always determined to cover the full amount of these bonds, why in the name of everything that’s sacred did he not instruct the treasury to buy the bonds when the price dropped by 40%? I mean, I don’t think the Irish people should be paying even 1% of the private debt run up by greedy fools, but if our Inglorious Leader is determined to pay those debts, why insist on paying 100% when there was an opportunity to pay 60%. Is it me, or is that just wilful idiocy?

The original ‘more pie’ cartoon was taken from ANU News and slightly altered.

Leave a comment  |  Posted in: Opinion

Jan 2012

Joan Burton twists the knife

It is being reported in the Irish media that the government is planning yet further savage attacks on the poor and vulnerable. Joan Burton, deputy leader of the Irish Labour Party and Minister for Twisting The Knife, is considering a plan to issue the unemployed with an ultimatum… get a job, or lose your benefits. If there’s one very tiny good thing about this, it’s the fact that the Labour Party are finally abandoning their embarrassing pretence of being concerned with social justice and representing the vulnerable. That they are openly embracing their role as cheerleaders for crony capitalism isn’t particularly helpful, but at least it’s honest.

Joan BurtonThere is something truly obscene about these assaults by the rich and powerful on the poor and powerless. Indeed, it’s increasingly difficult to see government policy as something other than deliberate cruelty. There’s a quasi-sadism to the decisions to hit the poorest hardest and the richest hardly at all. As Joan Burton is chauffeured around Dublin in her ministerial car, is she insulated from the poverty she chooses to inflict upon hundreds of thousands of less fortunate people? Or does she take a certain satisfaction in it? Well, perhaps that’s going a bit far. After all, I suppose that €170k salary buys a lot of insulation. Enough in fact, that she may be completely oblivious to the oblivion into which she is consigning so many of her fellow citizens.

People in the I.T. sector will be told to find a job within 3 months or risk losing state benefits. Everyone else on the dole will have 6 months. At least, that’s the speculation in the press. But given that the story is likely to have arisen from a judicious leak from Burton’s department with the aim of gauging public reaction, there’s every chance it’s pretty accurate.

And it’s important to put this story into context. There are currently 443,200 Irish citizens in receipt of unemployment benefit. In March 2007, just before the economy began to collapse, there were 156,000 people out of work. That’s close to a trebling in less than half a decade. What’s more, although the rate of job losses has slowed and the number fell slightly in December (by 3,300), the trend is still upwards with more people being laid off than are finding work. This is no surprise really, given that the most recent available figures (for the third quarter of last year) show a drop in the number of jobs being advertised.

And those numbers are made look better than they actually are by a net emigration of 34,100 people last year. Though of course, our Finance Minister cynically – and some might say, contemptuously – suggests that Irish emigration is “free choice of lifestyle” and has little to do with the economic collapse and resultant unemployment… which is weird given the massive net immigration that Ireland experienced during the boom years. Anyone would think he’s just making up offensive nonsense rather than facing reality and accepting responsibility for the failed policies of his government.

In fact, it seems to me that if anyone should have a deadline set, it should be the people who promised to solve the mess and are paid massive salaries to do so. How about we give Joan Burton and Michael Noonan 3 months to create 100,000 jobs or risk losing their ministerial pensions? I mean, if putting people under extreme stress by threatening them with poverty is likely to make them more effective at finding a job, then I’m sure it’ll be just as effective at doing a job properly. Or does it only work with the already poor?

And even though it’s a bit of a tangent, can I also remind you, dear reader, that it was Joan Burton who recently decided to hire a spin doctor on a €128k salary (a former Labour Party adviser and friend of the minister). This is despite the government announcing – soon after they took office in a fanfare of “we’re here to clean up politics” – a salary cap of €93k for private advisers. Burton defended her decision to breach the salary cap by €35k (a figure that by itself is more than the average national wage) by insisting that her new spin doctor had been earning more than that in the private sector. Also, he possesses “exceptional skills”, apparently. In a climate where teachers, doctors and nurses are being cut from front-line services one is forced to wonder how Joan Burton has the cheek to place her public relations brief above the educational needs and physical welfare of Irish citizens.

But hey, maybe that’s the plan for the unemployed masses she’s threatening with extreme poverty… if you don’t find a job within your allotted time, I’ll pay you €128k to say nice things about me to the press.

So, to summarise, Ireland is a nation that is currently shedding more jobs than it is creating. It is a nation in which the number of available jobs is actually shrinking, not expanding. On top of that, every independent analyst of note is predicting 2012 will be a year of significant global recession. And yet, Joan Burton and the Irish Labour Party are considering driving anyone who fails to find a job within an arbitrary time scale into severe poverty. Or overseas. Indeed, it’s already been suggested that this is essentially a strategy being employed by the Labour Party to try and push the poor out of the country.

Quite who they think is going to vote for them once they have deliberately driven out or impoverished their traditional voters is anyone’s guess. Perhaps they’ve bet the Irish Green Party that they can produce an even more spectacular electoral meltdown than they managed. Who knows?

Of course, the timing of this announcement is interesting… just after our IMF / ECB / EC puppet-masters have left the country. I suspect Bruton is actually acting on instruction from her bosses in the troika. And let’s be realistic, it’s too much to expect a Labour minister to put her people or her principles before her pay-packet.

3 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

Jan 2012

You tell ’em, Vincent

Just a short one this, the representatives from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the European Commission (EC) and the European Central Bank (ECB) – collectively known as “the troika” – completed their latest quarterly review of the Irish austerity programme today. As I mentioned in a recent post, they were in Dublin to check up on the Irish government… making sure our elected representatives are doing as they’re told.

Vincent Browne

Give them the eye Vincent!

And it turns out the review was a positive one. We’re being good little girls and boys here in Ireland. We’re pouring the wealth of the nation into the European banking system as per instruction. We’re doing this because a small number of private investors and banks made stupid decisions a few years ago. It makes absolutely no sense unless you view it as grand larceny. Inevitably there’ll be someone (as we’ll see in the video) who will defend this process by babbling about “stability” and the costs of not acting outweighing the benefits.

But this response is ultimately self-defeating – well, it is when it comes from a top official at the ECB. Because inherent in that response is an admission that the international financial system is required to engage in grand larceny in order to maintain stability. Which makes the system completely unfit for purpose.

Anyway, having carried out the latest review, spokesmen for each member of the troika held a press conference in Dublin today. Istvan Szekely of the EC, Klaus Masuch of the ECB and Craig Beaumont of the IMF sat down and faced the Irish media. It’s the kind of event that generally gets forgotten as soon as it’s over because it tends to be little more than a prepared statement followed by a handful of safe questions, lobbed softly at the participants and deftly dismissed with bland sound-bites. Today’s press conference was slightly different though, thanks to the presence of Vincent Browne; perhaps the only voice of righteous outrage we have left in Irish public life. He’s truly a national treasure; though not in the safe, comfortable manner that phrase is often used. The years have not diminished his passion and he remains a genuine firebrand.

Anyway, he didn’t get a satisfactory response to his question; merely the aforementioned vague babbling about stability and costs versus benefits. But he nonetheless made his point, and I’m bloody glad that he did.

The video I’ve included here only offers an edited version of the press conference (the entire thing can be viewed on the RTÉ website – in which case, the Vincent Browne question begins at 18mins) so I should add a little context… the previous question asked the troika representatives how they perceived the Irish attitude towards them and the “bail-out” process. Klaus Masuch of the ECB jokingly commented on how well-informed his taxi-driver seemed to be on complex economic matters (we were left to guess at the kind of ear-bashing he received during his trip from the airport to the Merrion Hotel). Browne, as you will see if you jump to 6:25 in the embedded video, followed up on this:

Almost the entire exchange between Browne and Masuch can be viewed in that edit, though a few seconds of exasperation from Vincent does get cut from the end of the segment.

1 comment  |  Posted in: Media » Video, Opinion

Jan 2012

Pots, kettles and colonialism

Two cheeks of the same arseDear God, but David Cameron is an idiot. Seriously… he’s a proper full-blown clown of a man. Even on the rare occasion that he’s actually right about something – and it really is very rare indeed – he seems determined to express his position in the worst possible terms so that I desperately want to disagree with him even if I don’t. He feels for all the more like a fake Tony Blair. As if someone had flown to Hong Kong and paid one of those back-street tailors to take a break from making knock-off Giorgio Armani suits and rustle up a Tony Blair instead. Truly they are two cheeks of the same arse.

Cameron’s most recent utterance of blithering idiocy is to describe Argentina’s designs on the Falklands as “like colonialism”. The rest of his statement, where he points out that “these people want to remain British and the Argentinians want them to do something else”, is absolutely correct. I’m not suggesting that sovereignty of the Falkland Islands should be handed over to Buenos Aires. What I am saying is that for a British Prime Minister – particularly an aristotory – to accuse another nation of colonialism is just shoddy public relations. He may be right, technically speaking, but he also looks profoundly ridiculous in that rightness.

His choice of words draws attention away from the perfectly sensible point that the people of the islands have, for generations, asserted their Britishness. And away from the fact that they didn’t supplant an existing population of Argentinian citizens, but were in fact the first people to settle the islands. Instead he uses a word which reminds us all just how Britain got there in the first place… as part of a centuries-long policy of sailing around the world and stealing other people’s property at gunpoint. It was only through British colonialism that the Falklands are British today, and accusing the Argentinians of colonialism is akin to defending his position by wailing “yeah? but we did it first!”

Let me reiterate, I don’t believe the Argentinians have a valid claim to the Falkland Islands. I do think that this whole mess could be resolved though if Britain were to say… “Yes, the only reason we are there is because of a morally abhorrent policy that we engaged in for many years, and even though the Falklands is at the benign end of that policy we can see how it still looks bad in the eyes of others – particularly ex-colonies. Therefore as a gesture of goodwill, we will ring-fence any tax revenue raised from the Falklands – very small now, but who knows in the future – and place it into an unambiguously ethical overseas development programme (earthquake relief or something). The people there are British. And they want to remain British. But we will not reap any financial benefit from our possession of the islands – especially while we’re still spending a bunch of money helping the Americans invade places in what looks suspiciously like a continuation of that abhorrent policy that we’re accusing the Argentinians of adopting.”

I think that would be a perfect British response to Argentinian demands and may even – over time – slowly defuse the tension. But I doubt we’ll ever see such a response. Instead Cameron and his successors will continue to antagonise the government in Buenos Aires with accusations of colonialism and whatever other incendiary twaddle can be blurted out, until the day the British navy is so depleted as to make a defence of the islands untenable. At which point, a thoroughly pissed off Argentina will invade again.

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Jan 2012

Sorry Mr Proudhon, I’m afraid we learnt nothing

As the year moves on, another anniversary comes around. This time we pause to remember the death of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. Last year at this time I published a piece about Proudhon over at Dorian Cope’s wonderful site, On This Deity, and reading it back today I’m reminded of the sense of regret I felt as I wrote it.

Pierre-Joseph ProudhonBecause like so many of the great thinkers of yesteryear, the ideas of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon seem more relevant now than perhaps they ever were. I hesitate to suggest that his ideas are “timeless”, for doing so would hint at a fatalism to which I do not wish to give voice. Instead I’d prefer to imagine a future where Proudhon’s revolutionary philosophy is no longer required; a future in which the tyranny he sought to overthrow can no longer flourish.

The ideas of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon could only have been born in a time of oppression. And it is for that reason they feel so relevant today. It was Proudhon, the French revolutionary philosopher, who coined the word “anarchism” in the modern sense. And it was he who first self-applied that label insisting that political tyranny and economic tyranny went hand-in-hand… that one could not be overthrown without also confronting the other.

Proudhon’s most memorable line, “Property is theft”, cuts right to the heart of his philosophy. His greatest ideas were of a radical reconfiguration of the banking system as part of a peaceful overthrow of capitalism; ideas which surely came of age a long time ago. Yet still we struggle under the terrible weight of an inherently unjust system, seemingly willing to remain beholden to banks and other financial institutions whose interests do not coincide with our own. In a supposedly democratic society we allow unaccountable corporations trample us down, all the while assuming that it has to be this way. We seem unaware that we can cast off the yoke and try something new, if only we make that choice. Or if not something new, then perhaps something a century and a half old…

Manning the barricades and being involved in the fighting, Proudhon soon developed deep misgivings about the use of force to achieve political ends. “Whoever lays his hand on me to govern me,” he would write in 1849, “is a usurper and tyrant, and I declare him my enemy.” And he applied that maxim to revolutionary organisations just as he did to the forces of the establishment. He sincerely believed that economic revolution without bloodshed was possible through the self-organisation of workers into local co-operatives along with the establishment of a revolutionary not-for-profit banking system which would provide interest-free credit and levy only such charges as were required to cover administration costs. He believed that capitalism would wither and die without the need for violence should such a banking system, in tandem with a widespread co-operative movement, become established.

As we fall further towards indentured servitude and watch – with mild frustration but little active resistance – our rights being increasingly sidelined, should we not consider the ideas of Proudhon? Or at the very least, consider some alternative to the madness being perpetrated in the modern corridors of political and economic power?

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Jan 2012

and the shirts off our backs!

The boys are back in town. Sadly not them wild-eyed boys referred to by Phil and the rest of Thin Lizzy. Nope, it’s the guys from the IMF, EU and ECB that are tearing up the city. And while they may well be dressed to kill, I doubt they’ll be spending much time down at Dino’s bar and grill. Instead it’s the Department of Finance and the luxurious Merrion Hotel where these boys will be spending their time. And the destruction they’ll wreak will make the best efforts of the wildest rock band pale into insignificance. What Phil and the lads might have done to a couple of hotel rooms, our current visitors will do to the whole country.

The Boys Are Back In Town

I wouldn't be the world's biggest Thin Lizzy fan
but I know who I wish was back in town

The reason for their visit is to “oversee the progress” being made by Ireland. That’s right; they’re checking up on us. They want to make sure that we’re following orders. Otherwise they’ll deny us access to the “bail-out” funds. The standard response to any hint of indignation about this is, “Well, it’s only fair. They are giving us money to keep the country afloat and in return we agreed to some conditions. They have every right to visit every three months and make sure we’re keeping to our end of the deal”.

Except it’s not fair. Not in the slightest. They’re not giving us money, they’re lending it to us. And one of the conditions we agreed to (or rather, our political classes agreed to) is that a huge chunk of those loans be used to pay off the debts run up by private financial institutions. And who are those institutions indebted to? Why, it’s the French and German banks (among others). So private corporations run up debts. The EU and IMF loans the Irish State money to pay back those debts. Leaving the Irish State in debt. What is described as an IMF/EU “bail-out” of Ireland is nothing more than a mechanism to trick the Irish public into bailing out French and German banks. It’s farcical. It’s obscene. And it’s as far from fair as you’re likely to get. How is heaping private debt on the shoulders of as-yet unborn Irish citizens even remotely fair?

The fathers have eaten bitter fruit and the children’s teeth are set on edge. The whole point of that proverb is as a metaphor for injustice!

And look, I’m not saying the Irish State didn’t run up debts of its own. I’m not saying the financial policies of our governments for the past decade haven’t been a bloody disaster. They have been. What I’m saying is that a combination of IMF and European bureaucrats along with the Irish political establishment, driven by an ideology that seeks to redistribute wealth from poor to rich, have decided to compound those disastrous years of financial irresponsibility with the worst possible response. A response that will ruin this country unless we resist it strenuously.

And the first line of resistance should be to prevent the sale of State assets. That’s the next stage in the process, you see. We’ve borrowed the money and are paying off the gambling debts of fools. Fools, incidentally, who show no remorse for their actions. Seán Quinn, David Drumm and the rest of them shouldn’t be in the bankruptcy courts, they should be in the criminal courts for the reckless behaviour that drove this country over a cliff. That they “didn’t technically break any law” is only because our law-makers were criminally incompetent. The very first article in the Irish Constitution states:

The Irish nation hereby affirms its inalienable, indefeasible, and sovereign right to choose its own form of Government, to determine its relations with other nations, and to develop its life, political, economic and cultural, in accordance with its own genius and traditions.

These men and their ilk have undermined the most basic principle of Irish nationhood. In a very real sense, their actions subverted the constitution. Haul them up for treason and throw them in Mountjoy for 20 years. No, it won’t get the money back, but it might just give pause to those in our banks and governments who even as I write are dedicated to continuing this madness.

And there’s a real urgency about this. Not only because each day that passes sees more debt piled onto the Irish people. But because we are soon to sell off our stake in our own energy infrastructure, our ports, our stake in our airline… even our forests and natural resources. All at fire-sale prices.

This massive wave of privatisations is being done at the behest of the international puppet-masters now pulling the strings of the Irish government. Not content with heaping a mountain of debt on the shoulders of future generations, they intend to take the family silver with them when they leave. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; the outcry about this should not be confined to these shores. Because if these thieves are allowed to get away with this in full view – as is happening – they will not stop with Ireland. You will be next, wherever you live, and they won’t be satisfied until they have laid waste to the world.

In my previous post I argued that the inequities within western society are nothing next to the inequity that exists when you compare the west to the rest. But I also made it clear that I fully support opposition to that inequity (I’m just not keen on all of the language used by those doing the opposing). We can do little about the greater problems of the world if we’re forced to our knees at home. To solve the larger problem we need the power to do so. And whatever small amount of power we may have had is being systematically stripped from us.

My solution is a radical one. And one that will be popular with nobody. So we clearly need to find a different solution.

But if it came to it… sure, sell off the assets. Then once the cheque has cleared (metaphorically) announce a huge wave of nationalisations. Just take it all back (and that includes the offshore resources we let go for a pittance). Implement a hefty wealth tax. Raise income tax for everyone above €60,000; with increasing levels as you rise above €100,000. Cut whatever public spending we can afford to without putting anyone into poverty. Essentially, balance the budget in one fell swoop. Then unilaterally default on our debt and leave the euro. Hell, leave the EU if we’re forced to. Devalue our new currency and begin large training programmes in agriculture and engineering. Get back to basics. Make sure we can feed ourselves and maintain our national infrastructure. Expand our renewable energy and public transport systems. By all means continue interacting with the global economic system, but on our own terms.

Yeah. As I say, popular with nobody. It’s a strategy that will produce hardship and require sacrifice. Crucially though, those who can afford to contribute the most will be expected to. Given Ireland’s population and resources, I don’t believe that anyone need go hungry or without shelter; but we’ll have to say goodbye to most of our luxuries for the foreseeable future. And let me just say this while you’re thinking of a better solution… such a manifesto will be a far better preparation for the future than anything being proposed by any political party, or by the IMF, the EU or any financial institution. It would offer unborn generations a sustainable society instead of an unsustainable debt.

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Jan 2012

We are the 1%

You know that “We Are The 99%” slogan adopted by the Occupy Movement? Well, at the risk of alienating many of my regular readers, I have to say it annoys the hell out of me. Don’t get me wrong, I understand the point it’s trying to make. And I see how it cleverly allows Occupy to assert a non-partisan stance. “We’re not left or right”, it says. “We’re not about the working class or the middle class. We’re about The People. We’re about You and Me.” It’s a good strategy. Good branding, if you will.

The problem I have though is… well, it’s kind of a lie. Not in the pedantic sense that “it should be 97.6% instead of 99%”. No, it’s a lie in the sense that the distinction it makes is not necessarily the important one. Because the Occupy Movement is – in part – actually a reaction by disenfranchised western consumers to a reduction in their ability to consume at levels to which they became accustomed.

No, that’s not all it is, but that’s why the first people took to the streets of New York. It’s why there are people camping outside the Central Bank on Dame Street here in Dublin. And it’s what those people are doing on the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. They are protesting because they feel that their standard of living is under threat.

Which it is. Everything I’ve written here lately about private financial institutions raiding the public purse is true, so far as I can tell. The populations of the “industrialised west” are under attack by the market forces of private capital. And we have every right to fight back. I’m not objecting to the Occupy Movement, I’m objecting to the slogan.

Because the lay-offs and the foreclosures, the regressive taxes and vicious cuts to public services, the mantra of austerity… these are all attacks on a lifestyle that doesn’t represent 99% of the world. Not even close. They are attacks on a level of consumption that was always unsustainable. That these attacks are being carried out; not so western society can move towards sustainability; but so that a tiny minority can continue to hoard ever-increasing mountains of wealth is – it goes without saying – obscene. But the people Occupying Wall Street were not there when the property boom of the nineties and early-to-mid-noughties provided the illusion of increasing wealth for the masses in the “developed” world.

See, for decades, we in the west have been consuming vastly more that our fair share of global resources. And we’ve been doing so at the expense of billions of people who had no voice. Or if they did, we rarely if ever listened. Sure, we might have given some spare cash when Bob Geldof came on the TV to shame us in the 80s. But the very fact that the term “ethical consumerism” exists speaks volumes about the level of delusion suffered by the world we built. And it is an attack on that world that sparked the Occupy response.

Map of the world showing distribution of malnutrition

Map of the world showing distribution of malnutrition
hard to be part of the 99% if you're in the green zone

Our collective conscience was bought and paid for with bread and circuses. The bread came in a dozen different combinations… from Happy Meals to Artisan Loafs (made with the finest imported olives and sun-dried tomatoes, no less). And the circuses appeared on 236 different channels beamed via satellite to our 43″ plasma screens. We bombed distant nations so we could fill our cars with cheap petrol allowing us to drive to shops where we bought Smart Phones made with rare metals that only cost a pittance thanks to the millions dying in Central Africa in our Resource-War-by-proxy.

And I do mean “we”. This article is being written on a computer with components which I’ve no doubt are of ethically dubious provenance and being read on a device much the same. It is possible to completely drop out of your own society, but almost nobody does because it’s only just about possible. It’s certainly far from easy.

Which is why I have such a problem with “We are the 99%”. The accuracy of the number isn’t at issue. It’s the fact that the people camping on Dublin’s Dame Street ultimately have more in common with the 1% they decry, than with the downtrodden masses whose nations we have spent decades pillaging for resources. And call me a cynic if you like, but if we were to discover untold riches in Mozambique tomorrow… near endless lakes of sweet crude oil lapping against shores of the finest coltan and platinum… and if we were to buy back the illusions of the nineties and the noughties; sending our armies to Africa to secure those resources and put money back in our bank accounts, cheap petrol in our new cars and a sense of security in our continued consumption… I just don’t think the Occupy Movement would last very long.

Sure there’d still be anti-war protests. And we’d all pile into coaches to drive to the big city where we’d raise our “No Blood for Oil” placards; the irony noted but never likely to force a change in behaviour. And then, having protested against the politicians who took us to war, we’d re-elect them in the name of stability when they promised us tax cuts and the continuation of a comfortable life.

Our civilisation is an unsustainable disaster. It is destroying the world in slow but inexorable steps. And it needs to be radically reconfigured into something that places justice and sustainability at its core. The fact that anti-capitalist protests began long before these days of austerity is cause for some small hope, and if the Occupy Movement can help with that reconfiguration – or even just prompt discussion and thought on the subject – then it is to be supported in any way we can. I’m not defending the austerity policies that are ransacking Europe and beyond (anyone who has read this blog for the past few years will know that). And I’m certainly not trying to justify the further concentration of wealth at the very top. I’m just pointing out that for many years the people currently Occupying Dublin, London and New York were closer to the top than perhaps they realised and weren’t particularly interested in relinquishing that position. As their anger now demonstrates. Fighting for a fairer distribution of wealth is a noble cause. But claiming to be “The 99%” just seems in bad taste to me.

It’s a lot like when the Congestion Charge was being introduced in London… forcing people to pay in order to use their private cars in the city… and left-wing critics insisted that it would hit the poorest people the hardest. They were somehow forgetting that the poorest 20% of people didn’t own cars, they were too poor to afford them, and that the money raised from the Congestion Charge – if invested in public transport – would actually help the poorest people.

So if “We Are The 99%” is supposed to highlight a disparity between the Haves and Have-Nots, then we should take a look at those who truly Have-Not. Because it’s not really us. It’s not the people camping in Dame Street. And it’s not the people watching them on the news or reading about them on the internet. We are rightly angered by the sight of a small minority syphoning wealth from our pockets. But we should pause for a moment in our anger and realise that we’re far from the bottom of the global ladder. That the masses below us can also be rightly angered by the sight of their wealth in our pockets. Like it or not, in the eyes of billions of dispossessed around the world, it is we who are the one percent.

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