tag: Revolution

Jan 2012

The Death of W.B. Yeats

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Second Coming
by William Butler Yeats

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

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

Jan 2012

Sorry Mr Proudhon, I’m afraid we learnt nothing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Jan 2012

Thomas Paine publishes ‘Common Sense’ (10 Jan 1776)

It’s a year old now (where has the time gone?) but one of my pieces has come around again over at On This Deity.

At the beginning of 1776 the American Revolution was well underway and growing in intensity with each passing week. The Battle of Bunker Hill in June ’75 had shaken the British army so badly they’d been on the back foot ever since. And by March of 1776 Washington’s advance on Boston would drive the bulk of that army into Canada. Of course, King George would respond with a lengthy military campaign and the War of Independence would continue for some years. In truth though, it was back between Bunker Hill and Boston that American independence became inevitable. Because it was on this day, January 10th back in 1776 that Thomas Paine published Common Sense.

With a US election later this year that looks like it will be a run off between an incumbent corporatist and a religious challenger, the tensions that divide American society, and which can be found even within the pages of Paine’s book (despite his overt call for religious pluralism) will once again bubble to the surface.

For those who have not read it and who are interested in one of the most culturally influential texts in American history, the entire thing (and it’s pretty short) can be read on this page. It’s definitely worth a read.

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Dec 2011

The Final Countdown?

I’ve been keeping a pretty close eye on the negotiations, tantrums, pratfalls and other shenanigans that go to make up European politics of late. My mind has been well and truly boggled by the cavalier fashion in which politicians from across the political spectrum (though mostly on the centre-right, for it is they who hold the balance of power in Europe these days) have relegated the interests of the people below the interests of financial institutions and other corporations.

Fractured EU FlagOf course, it has become part of the standard rhetoric of the left (and I’m just as guilty of it as anyone) to suggest that our political establishment has effectively ceased representing those who elected them and now focus exclusively upon representing the rich and powerful. It’s a line that’s gotten old through constant use. But rarely has this claim been so self-evidently true as during the past few months.

Now, there are those who would argue that there’s no reason why the interests of financial institutions and other corporations should necessarily conflict with those of the population at large. And I’m more than willing to concede that. There are all manner of hypothetical scenarios (and even a few historical ones) in which the interests of the rich and powerful complement the interests of the rest of us. However it is only the irredeemably partisan or the unfortunately half-witted who would claim our current situation qualifies as such a scenario.

We have allowed ourselves to be manoeuvred into a position where the very people we elect to represent our interests are gleefully handing our collective wealth over to the already super-rich. Where hospitals and schools are being closed in order to funnel public money into banks. Where croneyism and outright corruption have become the basic modus operandus of government. And where those who are already poverty-stricken – or in danger of becoming so – are expected to tighten their belts so that the wealthy may accumulate ever more obscene fortunes.

Both politics and finance are supposed to serve the wider population. We elect politicians to represent our interests directly. The financial institutions that make up modern Market Capitalism are, theoretically at least, permitted to exist by society in order to make the distribution of wealth an efficient process. Certainly there is nothing written into the rules of the Free Market system that says the wealth much be distributed equitably, but there should be a basic fairness to the system… one that, at the very least, allows the vast majority of people to live comfortably. If the Market does not achieve this aim then it is failing society as a whole and needs to be replaced with something else. After all, it’s supposed to be The People who ultimately call the shots and decide how society is structured. Not a handful of bond traders, political insiders and bankers.

Right now, however, we have arrived at a situation where politics and finance have united against the wider population. For several decades they have been united in self-interest and marginal cranks such as myself have been decrying this and warning against the inevitable tragedy that would result. However, at the same time, this unholy cabal was careful to provide a half-decent standard of living for the wider population (yes, yes, largely at the expense of the billions of poor in the so-called “developing” world, but I’m talking specifically about the people, governments and institutions of Europe). This staved off revolution and also effectively muted much of the criticism from the marginal cranks in the anti-capitalist brigade. It’s difficult to convince someone that they’re being screwed-over by the wealthy elite when they are flush with endorphins from their purchase of a 42-inch HD LED-backlit flat screen TV. We’re all monkeys after all, and easily distracted by shiny toys (me as much as anyone… a recent gift of an iPad2 has left me cooing and swiping the touch-screen like any other monkey – and I don’t even like Apple!)

But the past couple of years have seen the beginnings of a shift… we are leaving the world of Huxley and rejoining that of Orwell. No longer are the financial and political elites willing to share even the crumbs of the great wealth they are accumulating. They have become so self-assured in their positions of power that their rapacious appetites extend now even to those crumbs. Public services are slashed to the bone, yet increased taxation on the rich cannot even be considered. In nations without jobs, welfare benefits are cut and then grudgingly distributed, yet corporate tax rates are sacrosanct. The few remaining assets of a demoralised populace are flogged to ultra-rich investors at rock-bottom prices in order to pay off debts run up by those self-same ultra-rich investors.

David Cameron (British Prime Minister)Last Friday this wealth-grab by the powerful played out in an odd fashion in the theatre of European politics when David Cameron (the right-wing British Prime Minister) threw a strop and stormed out of negotiations supposedly designed to solve the European debt crisis and save the euro. Well, he “used his veto”, which amounts to the same thing in Brussels. His stated reason for this break with the rest of Europe was his desire to protect the City of London… in other words, the UK’s financial sector.

There was much that was odd about this whole process. Firstly, Cameron’s veto doesn’t really protect the City of London… I could write a whole post on why this is the case (and may yet do), but in reality he may actually have exposed The City to significant harm should the other 26 EU members draw up a treaty that covers financial services. It’s also worth pointing out that while about 10% of Britain’s GDP is generated by the financial sector, a whopping 40% is generated by exports to the EU… his veto doesn’t affect Britain’s position in the Common Market, but it may well foreshadow a serious strain in the relationship between the UK and Europe; a strain that places the 40% at risk despite doing little to protect the 10%. He was effectively attempting to place the interests of his City Chums ahead of the interests of the general populace and may simply have succeeded in shafting both.

Also, by playing to the rabid euro-sceptic wing of the Tory Party, he has driven a massive wedge down the middle of his coalition government which may or may not turn out to be a political disaster. Incidentally, every time I see that over-fed jubilant Tory MP call Cameron’s strategy a triumph for Britain’s “bulldog spirit” I can’t help but think, “yeah, you waddle around shitting where it’s inappropriate, only pausing briefly to lick your own balls… truly an appropriate image for the modern Tory”.

Increasing the oddness of the Cameron sulk, though, is the fact that the draft treaty on which he has turned his back is a right-wing financial-political-elite wet dream. What’s being proposed by the Franco-German alliance and eagerly lapped up by the rest of the nations involved is a terrible betrayal of the people of Europe. It runs the risk of legally restricting future national governments from adopting left-wing economic policies. It runs the risk of setting back the power of labour unions by a hundred years. It runs the risk of permanently transferring sovereignty from national populaces towards international financial institutions. And all the while it – bizarrely – completely fails to address the current European debt crisis or do anything to stabilise the euro.

Last week’s summit can be summarised as an attempt by the European elite to use the current crisis as cover for imposing a permanent state of austerity on the wider public without even trying to solve that crisis. It’s the kind of thing that Cameron should have eagerly embraced, but was too beholden to his own marginal cranks to do so. And by being the only nation outside the proposed treaty, Britain may end up being damaged as a whole, despite the treaty being a betrayal. It’s all very odd.

What Europe needs right now is a couple of socialist revolutions followed by mass nationalisations. I can only hope that the Irish government, for one, is quietly printing new banknotes and making plans – however provisional – to exit the common currency. I have my doubts they’re smart enough for that, but we may well find out in the coming months.

Cameron photo courtesy of TopNews

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Nov 2011

More news from Greece

A few months after the United States invaded Iraq, Dubya Bush sent Condoleeza Rice on a whistle-stop tour of US allies. Presumably her job was to gauge how much support was out there and to shore up whatever there was. I was living in the UK at the time and I recall the protests that greeted Rice’s arrival in London. A few days later she touched down in Athens and the news reported a huge demonstration that ended with petrol bombs being thrown at the US Embassy. It occurred to me that there was an important cultural difference on display there. It’s not about which response was right… whether Rice’s visit merited placards or petrol bombs. It’s that it takes far less provocation to get the Greeks to reach for the petrol bombs than it does to get the British.

Greek protestsThis is something that I’ve constantly borne in mind during the Greek protests. The austerity measures being forced upon the Greek citizenry aren’t that much worse than those being forced upon us here in Ireland. But Occupy Dame Street notwithstanding, the Irish citizenry is a long long way from general strikes and petrol bombs. Which isn’t to say that we can’t be pushed to it. Our history of armed uprisings is quite emphatic about that. But we appear to be slower to be roused to such action.

Why that should be, and whether it’s for the better or the worse is beyond the brief of this short post, but it’s worthwhile to place the Greek protests in that context. Which is to say… if relatively limited austerity measures will provoke the protests we’ve seen, then the potential for a populist movement toppling the government is very real indeed when you consider the far more draconian measures coming down the line as a result of the “bail out”. Something akin to revolution has been brewing in South-eastern Europe over the past few days. And lest you think I’m guilty of hyperbole, I present two pieces of evidence. One you already know about. Another that’s just been announced and which may or may not catch the attention of the global press.

The one you know about is, obviously, the referendum announcement. I was incredulous when I first heard it on the news yesterday. Papandreou couldn’t have created more chaos if he’d started chucking live grenades around the Head of State meeting. First he agrees to the terms of the “bail-out”, then – after every other EU leader holds a press-conference in which they speak of their relief at the deal being finalised and how it would have been disaster for Europe if they’d failed – he goes on TV and retracts his pledge and instead tells Europe he’s going to consult the Greek people. The same people whose response to the current deal includes general strikes and rioting.

It seems pretty clear to me that Papandreou arrived back in Athens, fresh from agreeing to the European “bail-out”, only to be met by grim faces. And he was told… “If you do this, your government will fall. And whatever replaces it will not implement that deal anyway”. He was backed into a corner and did the only thing he could; he bought some time for Europe to come up with a way of easing Greece out of the euro as gracefully as possible.

How do we know he was backed into a corner? Well, that’ll be the other piece of evidence. A few hours ago the Greek government surprised a lot of people (including those in the military) by announcing a wholesale change of the entire military top brass. The Heads of the Army, Navy, Air Force and National Defence Force were all replaced earlier today. On a day where the Prime Minister is clinging to power by his fingertips, where his government’s majority has been whittled down even further by defections and prominent members of his own party are calling on him to resign. On a day where global markets are plunging as a result of Papandreou’s referendum announcement and European politicians are – not to put too fine a point on it – completely freaking out, does anyone think the Greek government has anything at all on its agenda that isn’t extremely urgent? And there’s not a lot of reasons why the replacement of the military high command becomes urgent.

Papandreou has played his final cards. The referendum might turn out to be a slice of political genius (opposition to the “bail out” is running at 62% according to the latest poll I saw… that’s not insurmountable) and the current government may somehow survive within the Eurozone by gaining a public mandate. But in my view, the odds of that happening are significantly worse than those poll figures suggest. With internal pressures beginning to fracture the government and something very strange going on with the military, it seems unlikely that Papandreou will be in power long enough to hold the referendum. And there’s no guarantee that his successor will feel the need to honour Papandreou’s commitment to a public vote.

One thing I am looking forward to though, is just what Vincent Browne will have to say about this all on his show tonight. I can almost hear his apoplectic spluttering as he confronts whatever lamb the government have sent to the slaughter… “But wha… wha… why are the Greeks getting a vote on this vital issue but the Irish are not? Does the government believe Irish citizens are not to be trusted? Or maybe that we’re all too stupid to understand what’s going on?”

Photo courtesy of The Guardian.

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May 2011

On This Deity: 12th May 1916

I have a new piece up at On This Deity today.

12th May 1916: The Execution of James Connolly.

It was a bright morning in Dublin on May 12th 1916, and a great crowd had gathered outside of Kilmainham Jail. As spring was turning to summer, a city still coming to terms with the death and destruction of the Easter Rising was being forced to accept yet more blood-letting. People near the jail on recent days had heard the terrible sound of a volley of gunfire as the firing squads ended life after life, and then watched as the black flag was raised above the building. Executions without trial, these state-sanctioned murders represented the British government’s response to the most recent attempt by Irish socialists and nationalists to break free from the shackles of Empire. With between one and three shootings per day, Dublin’s mornings were scheduled to be punctuated by gunfire for the next two months. As blunt a demonstration of the iron fist of oppression as could be imagined.

But the size of the crowd on May 12th, and the anger and outrage it displayed, was to force a rethink of British policy. Because it was on that morning that James Connolly was gunned down, tied to a chair, in the courtyard of the prison.

read the rest…

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