The election has been called – the issues and the alternative
1 May 2007
What are the issues in this election and what is the alternative to the right wing consensus?
At first sight the issues are obvious. The Irish State is meant to be among the most wealthy in the world yet the enormous inequality that disfigures it is a source of obvious problems. This is recognised by every party and every party condemns it and promises to do something about it. All except the Progressive Democrats who celebrate it and get a derisory vote as a consequence. It is not necessary to rehearse the indices of inequality here or the disgraceful state of many public services, especially health.
Even the trumpeted successes of the Celtic Tiger, a phrase not nearly so popular now, are ambiguous and under threat. The economic boom has continued on a growing mountain of debt and inflation, especially of house prices, which have fallen in March for the first time in five years. Such ‘success’ has brought only a paper wealth to some while depriving others of any hope of decent housing. The services provided by the State are doubly threatened by the prospect of a reduction in economic growth and fall in tax revenues from consumption, especially housing consumption.
None of this is particularly controversial. Fianna Fail make promises to do better while Fine Gael make similar promises while ridiculing Fianna Fail for having already failed to deliver. The Labour party is so keen on office it has aligned itself with Fine Gael while no one would be unduly surprised if it ended up in coalition with Fianna Fail. Sinn Fein tripped over itself by dropping one ever so slightly radical proposal immediately the election was announced – its commitment to an increase in corporation tax to 17.5 per cent from the existing 12.5 per cent. Even at the former level its commitment to ‘an Ireland of equals’ would see capital taxed more lightly than labour.
All the parties share a commitment to a new different Ireland, one based on a ‘high value added’, ‘knowledge economy’ based on a flexible and high skilled workforce. There is no difference on their view either of the present or of the future shape of Ireland. On some issues the consensus is so total the issues are simply ignored – social partnership and the North being the most important.
The differences simply come down to a question of trust – who does the electorate trust to turn fine words to deeds. Who is to continue the good times, protect them from potential threat while ensuring the fruits of the good times are more effectively distributed. It all becomes a question of trust because there are no fundamental differences either of analysis or of policy.
Pointing out the gross inequality and failure of public services is thus not an alternative. Not only because much of this is acknowledged but because these are themselves symptoms of the fundamental problem. To point out the egregious lying and hypocrisy of the political leaders is only to provide the colour and decoration of an alternative. Unless the condemnations of the failure of the Irish State rest on a fundamentally different analysis and an alternative programme it is no more than a more radical version of the existing consensus.
This is because the gross inequality and failure of public services that have been the main issues of the undeclared campaign so far are not accidental or avoidable features of the current Irish State. They are more or less inevitable consequence of a State that bases itself as a launch pad for US imperialism in Europe and further afield. Just as US multinationals service their European interests from Ireland so does the US military service their military interests in Iraq from Ireland. From this flows the weakness of social provision and the inequality of economic and social life. A prosperous society characterised by equality is not possible even in a booming society dominated by the needs of imperialist capital.
Reliance on imperialist capital for prosperity makes the Irish State more than usually dependent on the health of its biggest sponsor – the USA. It cannot pursue an independent economic policy and therefore cannot pursue an independent foreign policy, hence its violation of its own neutrality in its handing over of Shannon to the US military. Its recent renunciation of an all Ireland democracy and endorsement of the sectarian British policy in the North is total and uncontested even by those who claim opposition to its every other deed.
None of this is an automatic result of the Irish State’s insertion into the world political and economic system. These results – the growth of inequality and the threat of poverty that hangs over one fifth of the population; poor public services evidenced most recently in the poisoning of the water in Galway, the use of Shannon and complete endorsement of partition - have been forced through by struggle, sometimes hidden by the failure or weakness of any resistance. The mechanisms by which this has happened are social partnership and the peace process.
An alternative must place opposition to these at its centre. How to mobilise and organise this opposition constitutes this alternative.
Already the deceitful façade of the political system has been exposed by Ahern’s dawn rush to Áras an Uachtaráin to call the election before the Mahon Tribunal ran its eye over the allegations of corruption that face him. Even without its public investigation having started it was revealed that his then partner received £30,000stg to do up the house he was to rent and later buy. Just as before, it is clear that none of the establishment parties can bring him or the political system to account for the staggering corruption that has been revealed over the last number of years. It falls upon a real opposition to highlight this corruption and not be afraid of pointing the finger at the guilty.
The next day the conspiracy of the State in the shape of the Health Service Executive and Gardai to prevent a seventeen year old girl from leaving the country to terminate a non-viable pregnancy once again revealed the hypocritical oppression and brutality of the State’s treatment of women. This too is shared by all establishment parties. A real opposition would make reproductive rights and the availability of abortion central to the defence of democratic rights and a socialist alternative.
These events are inevitable results of the character of the Irish State. They provide opportunities to raise central questions about the nature of the Irish State and a means of educating the working class. This educational role is central to socialist participation in elections, not getting elected or achieving ‘power’.
Marxists believe that not only can elections not change the world because election to parliament does not mean election to the levers of real power in a capitalist society. We also believe that education comes mainly through struggle and that elections provide limited opportunities for such struggle by allowing such struggle to become more conscious of the necessary ultimate objective.
A socialist alternative must explain that the surface problems recognised by almost everyone are inevitable features, not only of the capitalist system, but of how this system operates in this island. It must put forward an alternative society, which of necessity can only be every bit as international, if not more so, than the existing capitalist society. Socialists cannot avoid the dependence of Ireland on imperialism, but must offer an alternative to it – in words and in deeds.
Elections are thus opportunities for a raising the education of the working class. It is in this class that socialist hopes rest. What it thinks and believes is crucial. This is why class consciousness is the decisive factor. The consciousness of an alternative – a socialist alternative - is what socialists in this election should fight for.
The current emphasis on ‘no coalition’ is mistaken. It is simply a left version of the consensus refrain ‘trust us.’ Coming from those who have no chance of being in a coalition it is simply irrelevant. Nor is the election simply a means of mobilising local constituencies with an emphasis on local campaigns. It is an index of the left’s weakness that it has built no constituency on the big political issues that dominate Irish society. Left wing localism dressed as ‘community’ politics is no alternative to the notorious clientelism of the right. Knowledge and confidence in a global alternative is what needs to be built and elections are an opportunity to advance this.
But this is not just a question of political education through manifestos, argument on doorsteps or political debate with political opponents in whatever forum elections allow, although all these are important. The election takes place in the midst of industrial action by 40,000 Irish workers – nurses campaigning for higher pay and a reduction in hours. These nurses have hoped that proximity to an election would boost their cause. They have been mistaken because their struggle threatens, if not consciously, one of the two pillars of the consensus – social partnership. They thought they would bring a political response during the election but the nurses have found no political support because there is no real force in Irish politics that opposes social partnership. Even the nurses themselves cannot see it as the decisive barrier to their demands.
Any socialist alternative standing in this election would seek to meet this industrial action with a political programme that explains the role of social partnership in wrecking health care provision and in standing in the way of the nurses’ demands. This is an occasion when political education can most easily meet workers in struggle. It is one obvious and very concrete instance in which opposition to social partnership can play the key role in socialist propaganda and activity that it merits.
General elections are always a debate about
State power. They offer the left an opportunity to offer a socialist
alternative at a level that necessarily goes beyond the limits of the Irish
State. It can begin to raise the consciousness of perhaps limited
numbers of workers now, more in the future, and convince them to take up
organisation of the class struggle for the battles that face them today