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.
Oddly 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'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.