Political upheavals of the type we’re experiencing aren’t new. There were two revolutions in the last half of the last century alone that changed everything: the 1945 election in Britain with a massive swing to the left, and it’s opposite and unequal counterpart in 1979/80 with the arrival of the Thatcher/Reagan double act and the rise of neo-liberalism internationally.
The ’45 British election was, everyone agrees, ‘a political earthquake’ in which Winston Churchill, who had recently accepted unconditional surrender from Nazi Germany, went to the polls at home and lost.
The prime minister called the election for early July, confident that the British people would back the greatest hero of the hour. Of all Churchill’s colossal misjudgements, that was probably the most egregious.
The voters wanted an end to wartime austerity and no return to pre-war economic depression. They wanted change.
(Derek Brown, www.theguardian.com here)
They got change. The Labour Party were elected and Clement Atlee—whom Churchill once mistakenly described as a sheep in sheep’s clothing—was Prime Minister. During its six-year term, Atlee’s Labour government introduced free compulsory secondary education, the National Health Service, and ‘a system of social insurance, covering every citizen regardless of income. It offered nothing less than a cradle-to-grave welfare state’. They nationalised ‘the Bank of England, the fuel and power industries, inland transport, and iron and steel’ (Brown). The lives of ordinary British people—particularly the lowest income groups—were changed dramatically: they didn’t die as early, they were better educated and better housed, and incidentally, as members of the first television generation, they were more—if not necessarily better—informed.
In the sixties, in step with an exuberant international youth movement, another Labour Government introduced the first legislation to outlaw racial discrimination in the UK; for me, as a child who had just learned to read and an Irish immigrant in Birmingham, that meant no more signs outside factories advertising ‘Vacancies within. No Irish need apply’, no more signs in the windows of cafés or lodging houses reading ‘No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs’. The seeds of identity politics were well and truly sown: we Irish stopped seeing ourselves as second-class Brits, black was beautiful, and a nascent second wave of the women’s movement was making its presence felt. The ‘social media’ of the day—illegal pirate radio ships—played non-stop music that carried a message of peace and love and cultural revolution and incidentally helped shake Ireland out of its trance-like insularity.
To have and have not
It was all very lovely until Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, and neo-liberalism happened. New ideological brooms put an end to the trend towards egalitarianism while opening the way for ‘self-correcting’ market forces, deregulation, privatisation, and deep cuts to public spending that were to lead, in trickle-down logic, to greater prosperity for those at the bottom. In Britain, the neo-liberal warriors Thatcher enabled—most notably Tony Blair and his admirer David Cameron—set about tearing down the welfare state, privatising everything, and syphoning the nation’s wealth ever upward to accommodate their sponsors—the corporations, the banks, and the wealthy. Internationally, the altar at which neo-liberals worship, deregulated economics and the free-market, created the greatest gambling splurge in history and set the ground for the inevitable crash, years of austerity, and some really angry voters.
Here in Ireland, successive governments embraced Thatcherism with gusto. The gap between rich and poor increased massively both during the splurge, obviously, and during the great recession that followed it, less obviously. The Credit Suisse Global Wealth Report 2016 found that the top ten percent owned considerably more wealth (58.5%) than the other ninety percent could claim between us (41.5%). The top one percent owned more than a quarter of the country’s wealth (27.3%) or, put another way, marginally less than the bottom eighty percent combined (27.8%).
In the UK, the richest one percent of people owned almost a quarter of the country’s wealth, while the richest five percent owned forty-four percent.
Globally, the richest one percent owned more than the collective wealth of everyone else on the planet. According to Credit Suisse, ultra-high net worth individuals (UNHWI)—those with wealth of $50 million or more— are thriving. ‘This century, no other segments of the wealth pyramid have developed as significantly as the millionaire and UHNWI segments. The number of millionaires is projected to reach 45.1 million by 2021, while the number of UHNWIs could reach 208,000, up from 141,000’ (Credit Suisse Report 2016).
Things can only get worse as the spoils of society continue to accrue almost exclusively to the very rich. In Ireland,
Last year, the 100 people on the Irish Rich List earned . . . twice as much as the entire growth in Irish GDP. . . . We are not talking here about the mythical 1 per cent. If it were the 1 per cent, we would be talking about a significant cohort of between 46,000 and 48,000 people. Here we are talking about 100 individuals. This is off the scales. (davidmcwilliams.ie here)
As McWilliams points out, both the splurge and the crash happened as a result of ideological choices. Both boom and bust were direct and predictable outcomes of greed-is-good, neo-liberal policy—the rise of disaffected populism was a (probably) unintended consequence. At a government level, following the crash, the preferred ‘solution’ was to double down on a policy of shifting money upwards. ‘The economy was stuck. The authorities, from the US to the ECB, printed money and gave it to the banks to lend out as they saw fit.’ The banks redistributed this free money, by way of loans, ‘to people who already had cash and other assets’. So the filthy rich got even richer.
Experience shows that the greater the inequality in wealth, the more people feel disaffected, disenfranchised, and disrespected. The more people feel that way, the greater the social unrest—and hence the rise in angry populism across the wealthiest countries in the world. The ‘pendulum theory’ (which I’ve just invented) suggests that we’re due another turn leftward, but it’s not entirely clear to me what that means anymore. As Kenan Malik said in the New York Times, with the dismantling of the post-war political system, the old division between social democracy and conservatism has also been dismantled:
The new faultline . . . is between an elite, technocratic managerialism, governing through structures that often bypass democratic processes, and a growing mass of people who feel alienated and politically voiceless (nytimes.com here).
And so here we are now, in the teens of a new millennium, watching another monumental shift happen, with no idea where it will all end—or even properly begin. The battleground looks familiar: Corbyn and ‘new’ old Labour tackling May, Johnson, and the Brexiteers; Sanders and the persistent sisters in Congress fighting back against Trump and the Trumpeteers; a Dáil stuffed with dissenting voices taking on Varadkar. But all the rules have changed because we no longer live in countries, we live in economies.
Globally, it’s hard not to think that we’re heading into a storm; the sudden volatility of the stock markets in early February and again in March seem like a harbinger of danger ahead. Siren-like, Mnuchin and Huckabee Sanders assured the US, and the rest of the world, that the U.S. economic ‘fundamentals’ are fine—eerily echoing Brian Lenihan’s assurances about our fine fundamentals right up to the last minute before the ship hit the iceberg.
The free-floating anger across Europe and the US has resulted in a frightening rise in neo-nazism. As Alexandra Senfft pointed out ‘Never fully uprooted, xenophobia and anti-Semitism are visible once more in Hungary, Poland, Austria, France and the Netherlands’ (irishtimes.com here). In the US, a holocaust denier and former leader of the American Nazi Party is running uncontested in an Illinois Republican primary. In the UK, racist dog whistles buoyed up an important strain of the support for Brexit. All of these apparently unrelated phenomena may yet be warnings of the rocks that lie ahead. Or they may indeed be the rocks on which democracy perishes.
Does the progressive left have an answer to an extreme right that feeds on anger and yearns for the good old days of the 1930s and ‘40s (Nazis, scapegoats, top-down power structures, strong-man leaders . . .)? A reversal of the neo-liberal transfer of wealth from the bottom to the top, and a social movement based on individual rights—to housing, health, and education, to free speech and freedom of conscience, among them—would be a start.
It’s there in nascent form in Corbyn’s return to old Labour values, once again buoyed up by an exuberant youth movement. He’s winning support with policies that promise more state intervention in housing and utilities, increased taxes on big business, and greater spending on the NHS and social programmes. That sentence would have been risible in the eighties, nineties, and noughties when the free market enjoyed unregulated dominance and when taxing big business and state intervention—‘the nanny state’—were the deadliest of all political sins.
It’s there too in Sanders’ fightback against the extreme right-wing policies of the current US administration. More precisely, it’s there in the movements each has inspired. These movements are about much more than the internal dynamics of the British or US left. They are part of a global build-up of anti-authoritarian sympathy more generally. The lines were drawn in Charlottesville, where nazis and white supremacists faced off against an as yet unorganised but growing anti-authoritarian movement.
A second republic?
Here in Ireland, without a Corbyn or a Sanders to attract a consolidating core support, is it possible to retrieve the anger that was manifest in the water protests and redirect it toward a programme of opposition to the prevailing worship of ‘the markets’? Can the left build a coalition of dissenters, a federation of uppity politicians to challenge the raw greed that fuels the right, or are we going to carry on squabbling among ourselves? I can hardly wait to find out.
We’ve passed the point where Varadkar can assure us that the ship of state is steady as she goes and he’ll take care of the deckchairs sometime soon; and by the way, what iceberg? It’s way too late for that; there’s too much anger and resentment out there, too many people homeless, too many people being treated on trolleys in hospital corridors, too many people left behind.
The next election will be fought between those—from all sides of the political spectrum—who want to stick to fiddling with the deck chairs, and those who want to deal with the iceberg problem and change course, but don’t know which way to turn. We don’t know which way to turn because, even though in the last election we voted in unprecedented numbers for outsiders, non-politicians, single-issue warriors, and, primarily, against the established parties, we still ended up with a Fianna Fáil/Fine Gael double act. The independents, by and large, have let us down. Some of them even got as far as the Cabinet table . . . and then . . . same-old, same-old with the occasional moment of light relief (see sidebar). There are exceptions—Claire Daly and Mick Wallace spring to mind—but not enough.
On the other side of the physical aisle, Fianna Fáil are playing their own cynical waiting game and presumably enjoying watching Fine Gael squirm.
And on the other side of the ideological aisle, the left has little to be proud of. We now have a literal embarrassment of riches when it comes to political parties—demonstrating both our diversity and our perversity—but there is, as yet, no distant vision of a grouping that would give us a ruling left-wing majority in the Dáil.
The gap between wanting to deal with the iceberg and not knowing where to turn is the natural home ground of the left and it’s lying empty. It’s time we got our act together, stopped squabbling among ourselves, and put forward a legislative programme that the bottom ninety percent of the country could vote for without holding their collective noses. Could it be time the Republic lived up to the explicit promises in the Democratic Programme of the first Dáil that declared the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland and all its material possessions and resources?
I know what Seán O Faoláin said about that Programme being listened to and discussed for precisely 20 minutes and 50 seconds, and then buried forever, but couldn’t we unbury it? Is it too late to insist that our elected representatives assume the ‘first duty of the Government . . . to make provision for the physical, mental and spiritual well-being of the children’, ‘to take such measures as will safeguard the health of the people’, and to promote the development of the Nation’s resources for the benefit of the Irish people ‘with a view to a general and lasting improvement in the conditions under which the working classes live and labour?’
This feels like a watershed moment in Irish politics comparable to the 1945 election in Britain. But do we have politicians with the vision and the courage of the 1945 British Labour Party? Is there anybody or any group out there with the imagination and the moxy to bring together a progressive alliance that’s constructed on a core platform of shared values—a Bill of Rights—without the imperative to move in lock-step? By definition, a genuinely open and inclusive government needs dissenting voices to keep it open and inclusive. Ditch the whip.
Is there any potential left grouping yet unborn that would take the €13.5 billion that Apple owes us and use it to reboot our economy from the bottom up on Clement Attlee’s old Labour model? Anybody willing to write to Tim Cooke and suggest that we take the money—without prejudice—for the purposes of fixing our housing crisis, our healthcare crisis, our looming education crisis, and so on, and sort out the tax issues later?
Also in this series of articles is “Interesting Times, part 1:The elections that nobody won and everybody lost, “Interesting Times, part 2: Spinning Factoids” and “Interesting Times, Part 3: Where did it all go wrong”