tag: Europe



1
Jun 2012

Was it fear or stupidity?

supplicationIn a development that has surprised many of their neighbours, Mr. Patrick Murphy and his wife Sinéad today announced they would be making a copy of their front door key and giving it to the burglars who have been ransacking local homes over the past few years. “We’ve decided to make the burglars co-signatories of our child’s Savings Account too”, said Mrs. Murphy, “y’know… just in case they’re still a bit short of cash after they’ve sold our telly and stuff…”

When asked for his opinion on this unusual tactic, one neighbour – Mr. Yannis Papadopolou – shook his head with a mixture of despair and anger. “Bloody fools!” he muttered, “we thought we’d try a similar thing a few months ago and invited the burglars in for a chat. We thought that maybe if they got to know us a bit better they might not be so willing to steal our possessions.” When asked how that worked out, Mrs. Papadopolou became visibly annoyed, “everyone knows how it worked out! That’s why I can’t understand what the hell the Murphy family are doing. The moment we invited the burglars into our home, they trashed most of the furniture and kicked the dog. Now we’re getting threatening letters saying they’ll burn down the entire house if we don’t invite them back.”

Everyone on Europa Avenue agrees that the situation is intolerable. But because the burglars are all either members of the local police force or have seats on the town council, there’s no obvious solution to the problem. Although Mr. Papadopolou, taking a short break from fitting bars to his windows, did have one final observation… “I don’t know exactly how we solve this mess, but I do know the solution is not to make life easier for these criminals. But I guess the Murphys will find that out the hard way. And they’ll only have themselves to blame.”

Leave a comment  |  Posted in: Opinion


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.

Leave a comment  |  Posted in: Opinion


29
May 2012

Also, this…

Leave a comment  |  Posted in: Media » Video, Opinion


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.

4 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion


4
Mar 2012

Don’t vote ‘Yes’ to permanent austerity

The Irish economy is in free-fall. Recent figures suggest we have a 26:1 ratio of jobless people to available jobs (yet the government is planning to penalise the long-term unemployed if they don’t find a job quickly enough). To put that number into perspective, in the UK the average ratio is around 7:1 and they think they have problems. The banks are straining under the weight of their loan books. House prices have fallen steadily for 22 consecutive quarters (yes, property was absurdly overvalued during the Celtic Tiger, but the rapid devaluation has dumped a large proportion of the population into negative equity which creates a slew of problems of its own). Emigration driven by desperation is increasing. Public services are being gutted. Regressive taxation is being increased in a vain attempt to paper over some of the cracks, while the wealth that has accumulated at the top remains untouched. What few public assets remain are being sold off at knock-down prices by a government ideologically hell-bent on a policy of privatisation, despite it clearly playing into the hands of the very people who drove Ireland into the abyss. The meagre wealth generated by our stricken nation is being funnelled rapidly into the coffers of international financial institutions. And all the while we are being led by a sorry bunch of gombeens who either don’t have the intellectual capacity to grasp what’s happening to Ireland, or don’t have the competence to do anything about it (I suspect it’s both).

CapitalismLet’s be clear about something; the global financial crisis was an inevitable result of politicians across the world placing the demands of unregulated capitalism before the needs of their citizenry. It was idiotic and it was greedy but it was also a huge error of judgement. Essentially… they screwed up. In contrast, the crisis currently engulfing Ireland is being deliberately engineered by those same politicians as part of an attempt to safeguard the capitalist system they represent. Mass Irish unemployment, emigration and the destruction of our public services are not the result of anyone screwing up. They are the result of a calculated decision to make Irish citizens suffer in order to protect the very people responsible for that original error of judgement. The Greeks and the Portuguese too of course; but as I live in Ireland that’s the perspective I’m writing from.

Now, because the collapse is occurring at such a pace, there are stories worthy of note in the paper literally every day. Thankfully I’m actually quite busy at the moment, so I don’t have time just now to comment on every single one. However, I stumbled upon a story linked from Dr. Constantin Gurdgiev’s blog* (True Economics) that I felt worthy of a few moments of public reflection. The story appears on the U.S. financial website, Bloomberg, and is headlined: Ireland Told by EU It May Need More Budget Cuts to Meet Targets. In a few short paragraphs it perfectly summarises the plight of this country.

It seems that – for the second time in four months – the German Parliament is deciding Irish budgetary policy. I know, of course, that’s not what’s officially going on, but only the terminally naive and/or members of the Irish government believe otherwise. Around the time of our last budget it was revealed that documents from the Irish Department of Finance outlining the budget proposals were being discussed in the Bundestag prior to being presented to the Dáil. There was – quite rightly – a degree of outrage here in Ireland. It is perfectly acceptable for EU member states to discuss the budgetary policies of other member states. However, I don’t think it’s at all acceptable for it to be happening before those policies are announced to the Irish parliament. The correct order should be: Dublin, Strasbourg, Berlin/Paris/Rome/etc. Not Berlin, Strasbourg/Paris/etc. and then Dublin. That essentially makes a mockery of Irish democracy and it’s a mistake that should never have happened.

That it has now happened a second time, however, reveals a pattern that should make the Irish very wary indeed. Remember, the only reason Ireland is in this nightmare is because German, French and British private financial institutions recklessly loaned money to Irish private financial institutions who in turn recklessly loaned that money to Irish private property developers. That’s where the problematic debt comes from. Sure, the Irish government stood idly by while this unregulated insanity was happening. But so did the German, British and French governments. In fact, and let’s not forget this, the Irish government was almost unanimously praised by their European counterparts for their lack of interference in the cocaine-fuelled casino that the financial sector had become. George Osborne – now the British Chancellor of the Exchequer – famously insisted just a year before it all came crashing down, that “Ireland stands as a shining example of the art of the possible in long-term economic policy-making.

Once it became clear that the financial sector had run up unsustainable debts all across Europe, the European Central Bank told the Irish government in no uncertain terms that they must nationalise that debt rather than allow the private institutions that had generated it to suffer the consequences of their recklessness. It was the Irish people, came the order, who must bear the burden. I’m constantly hearing free-market economists insist that they oppose this policy because that’s not how the free market should work. Truth is, they are deluded. They are yet again failing to distinguish the map from the territory. Here in the real world, the free market and the capitalist system have always worked, where possible, to externalise any and all costs. That’s what they do. When provided with an opportunity to offload debt, this oh-so-wonderful free market will do just that, and social justice be damned. These economists who insist that what’s going on in Europe “isn’t what the free market is all about” need to sober up and stop trying to live their lives in a bloody economics text book.

Let the people decide

Your 'Yes' Vote in actionBut there is one final obstacle between the institutions of international capitalism and their complete ownership of Ireland and her people. And that’s the referendum on the European Fiscal Compact that will be held here in the near future. I will inevitably be writing quite a bit about it over the coming months. Already though, the ‘Yes’ camp have begun their campaign of shameless scaremongering. We’ve had a government minister suggesting that if Ireland fails to sign up for this treaty it will “be like a bomb going off in Dublin”. Seriously. I mean, isn’t that almost the very definition of scaremongering? A ‘No’ vote will be akin to an act of terrorism! Both government parties as well as the main opposition party are campaigning for a ‘Yes’. It’s up to Sinn Féin and the leftists to argue the case against.

And jaw-droppingly, the first opinion polls on the issue appear to suggest a comfortable, if not massive, majority for a ‘Yes’ vote. I must admit to being slightly disbelieving of those polls – they just don’t chime with my own sense of what Ireland is feeling right now. If true though, if the Irish are really willing to endorse the policies of the people who are actively engineering the destruction of the social fabric of this nation, to voluntarily relinquish the last shreds of their sovereignty and collaborate in the asset-stripping of their own home… if we Irish are truly that spineless, then perhaps we deserve all the debt that’s being immorally piled upon the shoulders of our children and grandchildren by financiers giggling at our complicity.

A ‘No’ vote will doubtlessly have some negative consequences. But right now this small nation is being run into the ground so that international banks can continue to avoid the consequences of their own insane greed. A ‘Yes’ vote is no more and no less than an endorsement of that state of affairs. And no matter how much our bought-and-paid-for politicians try to use fear to motivate us into bowing to our new free-market masters, we must use this one last opportunity to stand up and shout “No!” We’ve had enough of paying for the mistakes of others. We will not accept punishment in their stead. We will assert our right to bear our own debt and no more. And we will say ‘No’ to those who would try to scare us into doing otherwise.

* Incidentally, while I disagree with much – if not most – of what Dr. Gurdgiev has to say, he is one of the economic commentators I always take note of. He is, at least, a clever man with genuine insight… even if he is too wedded to the ideals of the free market to ever be on the same side of the fence as me. We share a common disdain for the ineffective policies being adopted to deal with the current crisis and thus we are united in our criticism, if nothing else.

Leave a comment  |  Posted in: Opinion


11
Feb 2012

On This Deity: The Death of René Descartes

Hey folks, I’ve got a new piece over at On This Deity.

11th February 1650: The Death of René Descartes.

Today, on the anniversary of his death in 1650, we remember the life and work of French philosopher and mathematician, René Descartes. Although not overtly political, the work of Descartes succeeded in redefining much of philosophical thought, to the extent that it would be more than fair to describe him as a revolutionary thinker. And while many of his ideas have antecedents in ancient Greece, Descartes can stake as firm a claim as anyone to the epithet, “father of modern philosophy”.

read the rest…

Leave a comment  |  Posted in: Announcements


7
Feb 2012

On This Deity: The Maastricht Treaty

Today marks the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Maastricht Treaty. Oddly enough, there don’t appear to be any high-profile celebrations of this milestone. No fireworks, no street parties, no parades through streets lined with flag-waving children. Instead there’s an almost embarrassed silence. Certainly the Greeks are in no mood to party. Even if they were; what with sky-rocketing unemployment and an unprecedented increase in urban poverty; it’s unlikely they’d be in a position to spend much on bunting and streamers.

Fractured EU FlagHere in Ireland the mood is similarly sombre. It seems like every week the news brings us a fresh story about poverty becoming more widespread, companies shedding jobs, or another public service becoming even less fit for purpose. And as bad as these stories tend to be, they are made even worse by the accompanying tales of bondholders syphoning yet more money from the pockets of those who never owed them anything. Or new government plans to inflict further suffering upon the vulnerable while trotting out insultingly transparent nonsense about why the wealthy are being coddled.

It would be entirely wrong to blame the disaster on Europe. The original goal of European integration was – as I wrote when I discussed the Maastricht Treaty over at On This Deity last year – a noble one. It was a well-conceived and entirely sensible response to half a century of conflict which had seen some of the worst atrocities in history perpetrated on European soil. After two world wars which had visited horrors upon the continent… the horrors of the trenches, the targeting of civilian populations in massive aerial bombing campaigns, and the concentration camps… after all that, Europe wanted peace. And they wanted to make sure it lasted.

Which is why, within a few short years of the end of second world war, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands signed a treaty that essentially marked the beginning of what was to become the European Union. It was a remarkable decision and even as the EU strains under the weight of morbidly obese financial institutions determined to bleed the continent dry while externalising their every mistake; and even as our political classes permit this obscene injustice – nay, encourage it; even now, despite all of these things, we should applaud that decision back in 1950 to set aside the enmities of the recent past and work towards a shared future.

And it’s fair to say that while mistakes were made in the decades that followed, the closer integration of the European economies was a positive development. There was a stability and a strength in the union. Resources were redistributed from wealthy areas to those suffering poverty. Human Rights were placed at the centre of the political agenda, and as internal borders began to dissolve, so did much of the distrust and suspicion that had festered in Europe for so many years. It didn’t disappear completely of course, and like so much of the gains made during those early decades, we seem determined to undo that particular achievement. Nonetheless, the original spirit of European Unity was a profoundly positive one, and we should work hard to salvage what we can of it, even as it is undermined by those who hijacked the European project for their own personal gain.

Which is the problem we face today. I’m not claiming that a united Europe was ever an explicitly socialist project, but it had at its heart a yearning for justice, for greater equality and for a kind of collective progress… a road that led away from poverty and war. That yearning is still there, but it has been sidelined by an unregulated rampant capitalism that threatens to destroy any good that emerged from half a century of work. Our political leaders – perhaps deliberately, perhaps through incompetence – have allowed a financial elite to infiltrate the corridors of European power and redirect the entire project. The European Union now works in their interests and explicitly against the interests of the majority of European citizens.

Instead of leading us away from poverty, we watch as wealth is drained from the general populace into the hands of reckless gamblers who lost their own money and then somehow convinced our representatives to give them ours. Instead of leading us away from conflict, we are forced to watch the rise of the Far Right in a number of European nations, to watch as suspicion of The Other sees a resurgence in our society, and to watch as the Irish and Greeks blame the crisis on an undemocratic French and German economic assault on their citizens, while Germans and French blame the crisis on the profligate spending of the peripheral nations. And all the while the real culprits continue to gather the spoils.

I have a quick word of advice for the German, Dutch and French populations… be very very careful how you handle this situation. Once the financial markets have bled Ireland, Greece and Portugal dry; once they have stripped our assets and plunged us even deeper into poverty; they will move on to fresh fields. There is no limit to the greed that has seen them subvert the political institutions of Europe. Out here on the periphery… we were just the softest targets; easy meat. Once they’ve picked our bones dry, they’ll move on to Spain and Italy. And then… then it’s your turn.

EU flagWhich is why, in the end, there is a need for European Union now more than ever. Where once it was the horrors of the past we sought to escape; now we must unite to ward off the horrors of the future. This rampant capitalist beast cannot be tamed by Ireland. Or by Greece. Or by Portugal. Even together, the catastrophically weakened economies of the “bailed-out” nations simply can’t do anything about it. It’s not within our control. Sure, we could simply turn our backs on Europe altogether, and while I fear it may yet come to that; would it not be better to face down this destructive enemy rather than allow it to run roughshod over that original European ideal?

I’m not proposing some sort of radical pan-European anarcho-syndicalist revolution (as much as I’d like to see it happen, I’m realistic about the chances). Instead I’m simply proposing that Europe glance back 20 years to Maastricht. Even though the capitalist infiltration of our project began before that treaty, there’s a sense in which we were never more united than when we met in that Dutch town and pledged ourselves to a greater union. Hell, we even managed to drag the British tories along with us, which was no mean feat. So let’s try and recapture that sense of solidarity. Let’s realise that swallowing the lies of gangster capitalism will only impoverish us all in the longterm. And let’s unite once more to assert our togetherness in the face of an enemy that seeks to divide and conquer.

1 comment  |  Posted in: Opinion


28
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?


27
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


26
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