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29
May 2012

Just Say No (to the Fiscal Treaty)

During the late 1960s when the anti-Vietnam War movement in the United States began to gather pace, peace activists coined the phrase “Against the war, but For the troops”. They wanted to make it clear they understood that individual soldiers weren’t the problem and were not the target of their protest. That actually those soldiers were, in large part, victims of a political class ideologically hell-bent on violent confrontation in Southeast Asia. Quarter of a century later, when talking about the first Gulf War, the late great Bill Hicks (possibly the finest stand-up comedian to have ever lived) turned that phrase on its head when he claimed to have been “For the war, but Against the troops“. It’s a wonderfully mischievous introduction to a great routine.

Vote 'No' in the Fiscal Treaty referendumOddly enough though, and without any comedic intent, I find myself in an analogous position right now. With the referendum on the European Fiscal Treaty being held on Thursday, I find myself “For austerity, but Against the treaty”; an isolated position given the Yes camp generally claim to be “For the treaty, but against long term austerity” (an essentially contradictory stance, but doublethink is hardly a new phenomenon in modern politics). Meanwhile the No camp are largely against both austerity and the treaty… a coherent position at least, though not one that reflects the realities of a society consuming far beyond its means.

Of course, when I say I’m in favour of Austerity, I most certainly do not mean I’m in favour of the policies currently being pursued by the Irish government; the policies being insisted upon by the German government backed by the IMF and ECB; the policies which this Fiscal Treaty aims to enshrine in the Irish constitution. Those policies are fundamentally and disastrously flawed. They are completely incompatible with any notion of social justice and – as such – should be opposed on those terms alone. However, what’s also important to realise is that those policies fail to even address the issues they claim to solve and are thus flawed even on their own terms. With unemployment spiralling out of control in many European states and the threat of social disorder looming over some, the notion that governments should be slashing public spending while simultaneously pumping billions into failed private financial institutions is clearly absurd. It is a policy that benefits banks and wealthy investors at the expense of average citizens. Voting ‘Yes’ on Thursday will be – to fall back on an overused metaphor – like turkeys voting for Christmas.

Because actually, when you look closely at these “austerity” policies being adopted wholesale by short-sighted, incompetent governments – these “austerity” policies we’re being asked to endorse on Thursday – you find they are nothing of the sort. Yes, those on low incomes are being forced to tighten their belts. But the rich are actually getting richer. Let me repeat that because the phrase has been blunted through familiarity, but it’s one that merits a moment’s reflection; in these times of so-called austerity, the rich are getting richer.

In fact, in the case of Ireland, the most recent figures show that while those on the lowest incomes experienced a decrease in disposable income of more than 26%, those with the highest incomes saw an increase of more than 8%. This widening gap is, in truth, the very reason for these “austerity” measures. And enshrining this wholesale redistribution of wealth – from the poorest to the richest – in the Irish constitution would be the most shameful act ever carried out by the people of Ireland (and I’m including our decision to inflict Jedward on the people of Europe twice in that calculation). Not only that, it would fundamentally rewrite the constitution so that it expressly contradicts the ideals of social justice which were enshrined in that document many years ago. Ideals which have not become less relevant over time and are needed now just as much as they were back then.

I urge anyone considering a ‘Yes’ vote to read Article 45 of the Irish Constitution. I will reproduce that article in full at the foot of this post, but in summary it quite explicitly demands that the government intervene to redistribute wealth from the rich to the poor.

The State shall, in particular, direct its policy towards securing: […] That, especially, the operation of free competition shall not be allowed so to develop as to result in the concentration of the ownership or control of essential commodities in a few individuals to the common detriment.

To endorse this Fiscal Treaty is to endorse an economic system that utterly betrays both the word and the spirit of the Irish constitution. More than that, it betrays future generations by ripping from them a constitution designed to promote social justice and protect them from exploitation, and replacing it with a treaty that deprives them of the ability to make vital choices about their own lives and future. If you vote ‘Yes’ you are clearly stating (though you may be unaware of this fact) that you are happy with today’s bankers stealing the wealth of tomorrow’s children. The Fiscal Treaty has been written by a self-selected elite of the wealthy and powerful to ensure that their interests are forever placed above the interests of the general citizenry. And it seems they may be about to pull off one of the greatest con-tricks in history by frightening the general citizenry into voting for it.

Christine Lagarde

Christine Lagarde's message to the poor

Surely there can be no greater demonstration of the attitude of this self-selected elite than the staggeringly arrogant pronouncements of Christine Lagarde, head of the IMF, earlier this week. As it happens, I’m of the opinion that her astonishing broadside against the people of Greece was actually a calculated tactic to accelerate the process of Greece leaving the Euro. I assume she feels that process is inevitable and has come to the conclusion that it should happen sooner rather than later. Otherwise her comments make little sense, given that they will inevitably alienate the Greek people and strengthen the hand of the anti-austerity parties.

When Lagarde was asked about Greek parents unable to afford medication for their sick children, she insisted that she felt little sympathy and that this could all be solved if the Greeks paid their taxes. Let me make two observations… firstly, if someone can’t afford medicine for their kids, they probably can’t add all that much to the national coffers; so as a solution, taxing them doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. And secondly, Christine Lagarde pays absolutely no tax on her annual salary of almost €450,000 (including expenses). So maybe she’s not the best person to be lecturing the already poverty-stricken for failure to pay enough tax.

Which brings me back to my original point about being “For Austerity”. The sad reality is, western levels of resource consumption – even in these times of austerity – are essentially unsustainable. Simply put; collectively speaking we need to consume less. However, and this is the most important point to take away from this; those who currently consume most need to do the most cutting-back. The belt-tightening should start with those whose belts are already far, far too big for them. It is people like Christine Lagarde who need to be paying more tax. People like her who need to be experiencing some of this austerity, rather than imposing it on those already at breaking point.

Please please please, vote ‘No’ to this Fiscal Treaty. A ‘Yes’ vote is an endorsement of the right of the rich to force the poor deeper into poverty. A ‘No’ vote will have negative consequences certainly. To suggest otherwise would be disingenuous. But those consequences will be as nothing compared to the long-term damage that the treaty will inflict upon social justice in Ireland and across Europe. Those who can afford to pay, should pay. A transition to sustainability demands we must all play our part in reducing our resource consumption, but some of us have far greater scope in that regard, and it is they who should be leading the way.

Finally, a note of hope for those in Greece who despite already being deep in poverty, Legarde thinks should be paying more tax… a note of hope for all of us affected by these unjust and incompetent policies, and a note of warning to those imposing them. You can’t get blood from a stone – that’s true – but they who squeeze the stone hard enough eventually discover that the stone gets blood from them.

And as promised, this is Article 45 of the Irish Constitution in full…

DIRECTIVE PRINCIPLES OF SOCIAL POLICY
Article 45

The principles of social policy set forth in this Article are intended for the general guidance of the Oireachtas. The application of those principles in the making of laws shall be the care of the Oireachtas exclusively, and shall not be cognisable by any Court under any of the provisions of this Constitution.

1) The State shall strive to promote the welfare of the whole people by securing and protecting as effectively as it may a social order in which justice and charity shall inform all the institutions of the national life.

2) The State shall, in particular, direct its policy towards securing:

i. That the citizens (all of whom, men and women equally, have the right to an adequate means of livelihood) may through their occupations find the means of making reasonable provision for their domestic needs.

ii. That the ownership and control of the material resources of the community may be so distributed amongst private individuals and the various classes as best to subserve the common good.

iii. That, especially, the operation of free competition shall not be allowed so to develop as to result in the concentration of the ownership or control of essential commodities in a few individuals to the common detriment.

iv. That in what pertains to the control of credit the constant and predominant aim shall be the welfare of the people as a whole.

v. That there may be established on the land in economic security as many families as in the circumstances shall be practicable.

3)
1° The State shall favour and, where necessary, supplement private initiative in industry and commerce.

2° The State shall endeavour to secure that private enterprise shall be so conducted as to ensure reasonable efficiency in the production and distribution of goods and as to protect the public against unjust exploitation.

4)
1° The State pledges itself to safeguard with especial care the economic interests of the weaker sections of the community, and, where necessary, to contribute to the support of the infirm, the widow, the orphan, and the aged.

2° The State shall endeavour to ensure that the strength and health of workers, men and women, and the tender age of children shall not be abused and that citizens shall not be forced by economic necessity to enter avocations unsuited to their sex, age or strength.

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29
May 2012

Also, this…

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8
May 2012

Austerity

Synonyms for austerity: harshness, strictness, asceticism, rigour (source: dictionary.com).

CapitalismA little over three weeks from now the people of Ireland will vote in a referendum. At stake is Irish participation in the European Fiscal Compact, a pan-European treaty that attempts to lay down strict budgetary rules for those nations who sign up. The ‘Yes’ campaign is referring to it as “The Stability Treaty”. The ‘No’ campaign calls it the “Austerity Treaty”. While it’s true that I am ideologically opposed to the treaty, I contend that my position is grounded in reality. That is; you can demonstrate – using “facts” and everything* – that the treaty will result in austerity for Ireland, while its characterisation as a “stability” treaty is extremely dubious to say the least.

Incidentally, does anyone remember the Lisbon Treaty? At the second time of asking, we endorsed it in October 2009. The ‘Yes’ camp – the very same people urging ‘Yes’ later this month remember – characterised it as the “Jobs Treaty”. Hmmm, we’ve not had an apology from them on that one yet. But I guess we shouldn’t expect politicians to apologise for completely misleading the citizenry and promising things they’re unable to deliver. Indeed, most of them seem to think that’s actually part of their job description.

What I find really remarkable about modern politicians is their ability to maintain such a breath-taking lack of self-awareness despite living their lives in a media spotlight. They never admit to mistakes; presumably believing they never make any. In other words, believing they are fundamentally better than the rest of us (because god knows we all make mistakes). Moreover, politicians appear so completely unaware of their own limitations as to give the impression that they don’t feel they have any. The vast majority of us over-estimate our own abilities… it’s part of being human… but politicians, whether they are the Left or the Right, do so to such a degree it’s almost beyond parody. Personally I believe I’d do a better job running the country than the current lot we’ve got in the job. But – and it’s a crucial “but” – I don’t think I’d do a great job at it. Just a better one. And given the incredible importance of that job, I’d need to be a self-interested, power-hungry careerist to put myself forward for it unless I thought I could do a great job.

So either the people running the country are just a bunch of self-interested, power-hungry careerists; willing to place their own personal desires and ambitions above the collective good… or they are supremely unaware of their own limitations. Because, let’s face it, it’s hardly a secret that the job they’re doing ain’t that great.

But back to the Treaty

Yes indeed. The posters have started to go up. Far more ‘Yes’ posters than ‘No’ based on a trip into Dublin City today. But that’s to be expected given the financial muscle behind the ‘Yes’ campaign. All three major political parties support the treaty. No surprise there… any suggestion that the Labour Party might take a more nuanced position (especially given the position of the bulk of the Unions) were fanciful in the extreme. Labour donned the neoliberal uniform the moment they sold their principles to Fine Gael in return for a taste of power. Their protestations that they’ve managed to ameliorate some of the more savage cuts proposed by Fine Gael possess but the thinnest shred of truth.

Against the treaty stands Sinn Féin, the Unions (well, most of them) and the leftist parties. Oh, and Éamon Ó’Cuiv. Fair play to Éamon. He may well be the exception to my characterisation of mainstream politicians that proves the rule. And rumours abound that he’ll soon be expelled from Fianna Fáil for his stance. Remarkable really… you can run the country into the ground, you can endorse a Bank Guarantee that transfers massive private debts onto the shoulders of generations yet unborn, you can break a thousand promises to the electorate. All of these things are par for the course in modern politics – commendable even. But to stand by your principles? Apparently that’s grounds for expulsion.

Seriously, you can’t actually be cynical enough about politics any more. It has passed beyond that realm. All we are left with is disbelief, despair and contempt. And hopefully the stirrings of a genuine anger… though I see little enough of that right now in Ireland more’s the pity.

The latest polls seem to suggest the ‘Yes’ majority is being eroded slowly. Unfortunately it seems too slow at the moment to turn the tide come May 31st (though with a bit of luck the election results in France and Greece, along with the failure of the Dutch government to push through the policies of austerity, will inspire us here in Ireland). Personally I ascribe this ‘Yes’ majority to two factors… one: a shamelessly biased media (the Irish Times has been little short of disgraceful on this matter, and RTÉ not much better – once again, we should be thankful for Vincent Browne**… long may he continue to be a thorn in the side of the establishment); and two: the success of the scare-mongering tactics employed by the ‘Yes’ campaign. As I mentioned here before, the campaign was kicked off by a Fine Gael minister insisting that a ‘No’ vote would be “like a bomb going off in Dublin”. That’s the very definition of scare-mongering… comparing my ‘No’ vote to an act of terrorism; suggesting that when I place my ‘X’ in the ‘No’ box, I am metaphorically carrying out an act of extreme violence. Such undiluted nonsense from a government minister should be shameful, but these people know no shame.

On top of that we’ve had government spokespeople assuring us that a ‘No’ vote will “cut Ireland off from external funding”. It took those opposing the treaty over a week to finally wrest a statement from the “impartial” Referendum Commission that this was – in fact – a lie. Plain and simple. A lie. But the Commission’s declaration hasn’t had nearly the same media exposure as the lie it exposes.

We need Austerity

See, this is the weird thing. Europe – like the rest of western civilisation – actually needs to radically reduce its consumption. We have created an unsustainable society that we should be scaling back right now (because if we don’t do it, then resource depletion will do it for us pretty soon anyway… and chances are it’ll involve less suffering if we take matters into our own hands on this issue). But, to jump back to the synonyms which opened this post, we need the austerity of ‘rigour’. And what’s being foisted upon us is ‘harshness’. That’s how it is, no matter what the ‘Yes’ campaign might claim (and each time they claim otherwise, remember the same people also claimed Lisbon was the “Jobs Treaty”).

The policies being adopted by our government; the policies that will be enshrined in the Irish Constitution if we pass this dangerous treaty; the policies that Angela Merkel has announced are “non-negotiable” (can someone please tell me who the hell gave the German government the right to tell the rest of Europe what we may or may not negotiate?); these are policies that will be unnecessarily harsh on the vast majority of Europe’s citizens, precisely so that the financial institutions of Europe don’t need to adopt a rigorous approach to their affairs.

This treaty places the interests of European banks above the interests of European people (and those who say those interests are synonymous need to cop on to themselves). It imposes austerity without addressing sustainability. Europe needs a sustainable alternative. It needs a radical alternative. An alternative based on social justice (a radical proposal in itself in these days of neoliberal greed and casino capitalism)… an alternative based on human decency and human dignity. I believe that alternative can be found in a flight away from capitalism. I believe that we should be looking towards the ideas of Bertrand Russell, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Lucy Parsons, Gregory Bateson, Albert Einstein and so many others. People who realised that capitalist society has been shaped by the few, for the few. And that this has to change if we are to create a world worthy and capable of long-term survival.

A ‘No’ vote on May 31st won’t bring the words of those wise few to life. It won’t bring about a Golden Age of social progress. It carries risks and will certainly be met with a punitive reaction from the financial institutions that currently run Europe. A ‘No’ vote will not bring back the Celtic Tiger, because the Celtic Tiger is never coming back. But it will strike a blow against the forces of injustice and inequality. It will halt our own government’s headlong rush into the abyss. And it will demonstrate that – just like the French and the Greeks – we in Ireland are fed up taking orders from the very bankers who destroyed the global economy. Vote ‘No’.

* Michael Taft supplies some of those facts in this article on Politico.ie. You can find plenty more if you click around that site.

** Out of interest, could a non-Irish-resident reader click on this link and tell me whether it’s possible to watch the Vincent Browne show online from outside Ireland? You don’t need to watch a whole show (unless you really want to), just click one of the recent episodes and let me know if it is viewable… I occasionally want to link to a particular episode from this blog, but don’t know whether – like the BBC iPlayer – it’s inaccessible overseas.

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