Saturday, February 14, 2009

Workers told to share pain

As the Irish economy goes into free-fall, the government has turned on the working class. Anne McShane reports:

In the midst of major job losses, wage cuts and house repossessions, we are being told to make even more sacrifices ‘for the good of Ireland’.

Taoiseach, Brian Cowan, a man with the looks and personal charisma of a bloated toad, is an unlikely Obama. But with his popularity ratings plummeting, his spin doctors decided to try out a little bit of ‘can do’ rhetoric on the population. In an address on February 5 to the Dublin Chamber of Commerce, Cowan made an impassioned plea for the nation to cease its petty grumbling and instead come together in positive self-belief - “If we decide to wallow in the sea of doubt, do not be surprised if we remain in the turbulent waters that we are in today.”

Although media pundits waxed lyrical about Brian’s apparently high-flown, poetic language, it did not do much to rally those at sharp end of the recession. Unsurprising really, as he had announced massive pay cuts in the public services just two days before. Public employees are to pay an additional ‘pension levy’, which will mean at they will be at least €50 a week worse off. Low and middle income workers will be hit particularly hard. The money is being clawed in to help fund a second big refinance of the two major banks, AIB and Bank of Ireland, to the tune of at least €7 billion. €2 billion of this will come from the pension levy. Not that this will make workers’ retirement secure. The last banking bail-out in December drew heavily on the reserve pension fund, and there are plans to dip in again for the present refinance.

‘Sharing the pain’ has become a by-word for attacks on working class living standards. Trade union leaders have stated their commitment to playing their part by bringing their members on board. But even they bucked at the attempt to force the pension levy through the Social Partnership process. Meetings between government, unions and employers collapsed, as union leaders protested that they would have faced a huge revolt from their members if they signed up to the deal.

Ballots are now being held by the public sector unions for strike action against the pension levy. And working class militancy is beginning to awaken, epitomised by the occupation of Waterford Crystal, while a number of student demonstrations have also taken place. A sense of foreboding hangs over the country, as every media item is dominated by the recession. It is evident that the government fears social unrest and is at great pains to win the ideological battle. But the best it has been able to come up with so far is its February 9 announcement of an increase in counselling provision to help the thousands of newly unemployed to ‘adjust’.

The sudden and deep nature of the recession has been remarkable. Redundancies have risen by nearly 100% and job losses by 71% in the last 12 months. From virtually no unemployment as late as 2006 to 10% and rising rapidly, the Irish economy has taken a real battering. Many thousands have found themselves on reduced hours and/or faced with wage cuts and almost every part of the economy is affected.

Corruption and massive pay-outs to banking and other executives has increased the antagonism towards government and banks. As in the UK, highly paid bank executives who fed the property boom through huge unsecured loans continue to be the focus of blame. Of course, their massive salaries are obscene. But they are just a symptom. In fact by just focusing on the situation within the banking sector we divert attention from the real problem. We are living through an international crisis of capitalism, of which Ireland is a particularly vulnerable but very tiny part.

Many thousands have lost all illusions in Irish capitalism. For revolutionaries this is an extremely important time to put forward our vision of socialism and of a mass, united Marxist party in order to achieve it. However, the left in Ireland is woefully weak numerically and ideologically.

It is divided into small groups, each promoting separate, and sometimes almost identical, front organisations around the same questions. The Socialist Party is particularly averse to unity with any other groups.

A recent report in Village, a liberal-left magazine, described talks last year between the Socialist Workers Party and SP around a common platform in the forthcoming local elections. The Socialist Party did not want the project to go beyond cooperation. The SWP, on the other hand, was pushing its People Before Profit front. Neither side was putting forward anything beyond the usual diet of sub-reformism. But even this minimal electoral pact has foundered. Those who argue that it is far easier to get low-level ‘broad’ unity were once again proved wrong.

Now we will have a number of rival leftwing campaigns in the June local elections. Not exactly an inspiring image for a working class desperate for a real alternative. The left is determined to chase strikes and demonstrations and pay no attention to the need for Marxist unity. Those who say they are for socialism seem extraordinarily reluctant to unite with any other group on that basis. Maybe they think they are the holders of the Holy Grail, and to forge unity on the basis of a Marxist programme with any other group would undermine those divine truths.

Instead of the struggle for socialism being regarded as the need to develop the highest theory tested through action, we are reduced to sects that trot out their own particular version of the Transitional programme when forced to discuss revolutionary ideas. The working class is expected to unite but its ‘vanguard’ cannot and will not.

Of course, the SWP believes that spontaneity is the answer to everything. Once workers undertake action the problems of programme and party can be ignored. Leading member Richard Boyd Barrett is put forward as a spokesperson for People Before Profit rather than the SWP itself in the current crisis. PBP has a stated aim of reversing “neoliberal policies which place wealth creation for the few over the welfare of communities in Ireland” ( There is not even a mention of the working class. Even the SWP’s own recent leaflet does not mention socialism and instead concentrates on calls for strike action and “one national shutdown” (

The Socialist Party continually argues for nationalisation. It appears to believe that the systemic problems of capitalism can be resolved through state ownership. When the SP calls for “democratic socialist policies” it appears to mean a more socialised capitalism.

Yes, it is important to put forward practical policies in the here and now to defend the working class. It is also useful to agitate around the massive salaries and bonuses of executives and bankers. But we need to put it in the context of a programme aimed at uniting our class in the task of overthrowing the system as a whole. Anything else will simply result in sectional struggles and a political cul-de-sac.

And the best way for those who call themselves socialists and communists to really defend the working class is to break out of their ghettoised thinking on the question of party. There is a glaring need for a united working class party based on the politics of Marxism. The forces of the existing left cannot in themselves produce such a party, but their unification, combined with the struggle for theory, could provide a much needed impetus. It would be a central rallying point for those advanced workers who are looking for a real alternative to the nauseating politics of the Fianna Fáil-Green Party coalition government.

Originally published -