It has become a mantra of the mainstream here in Ireland… “it’s all very well to criticise”, they say, “but I don’t hear you proposing an alternative plan”.
You hear it trotted out regularly by government politicians in the news and on current affairs programmes. Usually in response to a challenge from one of the small cohort of usual suspects from the Irish Left. It goes like this:Perhaps in a Dáil (parliamentary) question, or maybe from behind the desk on the Vincent Browne show, Joe Higgins or Clare Daly or someone from Sinn Féin* will remind a minister of the basic injustice of the bank guarantee strangling this country.
The minister will then respond thus: he or she will acknowledge that mistakes have been made. There will be a rueful reminder of the complete mess they’ve inherited from the last lot. The phrase “to an extent our hands are tied with regards to…” will be used. We will be reminded that nobody wants to be in the current situation and that our politicians certainly don’t want to make the tough decisions they’re being forced to make. But those tough decisions do have to be made for the good of the country. And remember, to an extent our hands are tied…
The minister will then finish with the well worn coup de grâce. “Well”, he or she will announce with feigned gravitas, “it’s all very well to criticise, but I don’t hear you proposing an alternative plan”.
And with that, the debate in the media is won. That same discussion has been happening on our screens for the past two years, and those on The Left don’t appear to understand that every time it happens, they lose the argument yet again. And losing the same argument over and over, every night on TV for two years, makes you look like a bad bet when it comes to choosing who to run the country.
Now, some of you might be wondering why “I don’t hear you proposing an alternative plan” wins the argument. Why don’t The Left just propose an alternative plan then? After all, if they can’t do that, then they probably don’t merit your vote. Except it’s not quite that simple. See the challenge is not simply to propose an alternative plan, it’s to propose an alternative plan that can be coherently communicated to a mass audience in approximately two minutes. As Chomsky pointed out (and whatever you think of Chomsky, he’s right about this) complex or radical ideas can almost never be coherently explained to a mass audience in a soundbite. Especially if those ideas challenge pre-existing beliefs about the world.
That’s one theory why The Left is losing the media debate right now – losing the debate despite a growing groundswell of discontent with the government. Basically they do possess an alternative plan, but because it involves massive structural changes to the way Irish society works, it can’t be conveyed quickly without sounding wild or risky or just plain mad (of course, it’s only our familiarity with current social structures that obscures the wild, risky madness they represent). So those on The Left shy away from their alternative and instead talk about burning the bondholders, defaulting on the bank debt, revoking the promissory notes, overturning the bank guarantee. Repetition has hollowed out those phrases… they’ve become like marketing slogans for a product you’ll never afford. The other side has their own set of course. They talk about a return to growth, of fiscal responsibility and of being on-track to meet our targets. And they look wistfully into the middle distance and speak in hushed tones of the glorious day when we proudly rejoin the bond markets.
My other theory is less charitable to The Left. The reason they don’t discuss radical alternatives in the media is not because they’re worried about appearing incoherent when forced to shoehorn their plan into soundbite form. It’s because they don’t actually have a radical alternative. See, compared with a hundred years ago, general political discourse has today been narrowed to a tiny segment of the spectrum. The Irish Labour Party… the party of James Connolly and Jim Larkin… is now entirely wedded to the notion of free market capitalism. And they are the “centre left” member of the coalition government. But there’s a sense that even those who critique the government from further left are trapped in that free market capitalist paradigm.
They talk about ending the “casino capitalism” that has helped plunge this country into debt. But they don’t talk about ending “capitalism”. Remove the casino but leave the rest of the edifice standing. It’s reform they want… they don’t want to replace the system with a radical alternative, they just want to tinker with the way it’s running.
All of which makes it impossible for them to be coherent. By aligning themselves with the forces of market capitalism they are forced to accept the internal logic of the markets demanding Ireland sell its future.
Personally, I do have an alternative plan. Unfortunately though, when I describe the plan it sounds risky, borderline crazy and downright impossible to achieve. I don’t believe it’s any of those things, but decades of free-market indoctrination makes it seem that way from a mainstream perspective.
My plan involves radical reform of the political structures (starting with freeing TDs from party whips and strengthening local government), a wave of nationalisations, the end of a free market in non-renewable resources, the removal of the profit motive from essential industries and services, a radical localisation of those essential industries and services, the introduction of a Universal Living Income coupled with significant tax increases for those who earn more than three times that amount, a rise in corporation tax to bring us close to the European average, the implementation of secondary regional currencies which would exist alongside the euro, the immediate repudiation by the sovereign of all private debt transferred to it, a complete structural reform of NAMA, investment in local infrastructure projects and a far-reaching redefinition of “illegal activity” within the financial and political sectors. I would also radically reform Ireland’s social policies in a number of areas (drug law, marriage equality, etc.) and I’d ensure that Ireland unilaterally embarked on a journey towards a decarbonised and sustainable future… hopeful that others might follow our example.
As I say… risky, borderline crazy and downright impossible to achieve. Accurate descriptions to those living in a society that has lost its ability to re-imagine itself and therefore abandoned all attempts to do so. Instead we blunder down exactly the same path we’ve been on for the past few decades; a path destined to lead us to disaster. Me? I’d rather take a risk on a different path, even if we don’t have an accurate map of where it might lead. Especially when we know the one we’re on ends with a plunge into the abyss.
* On the subject of the financial crisis – and is there any other subject right now in Ireland? – Sinn Féin qualify as part of The Left.