Economic democracy at last: Our thanks to the Greek people

Tonight we honour the Greek electorate and their courageous government for having given us a very rare example of economic democracy. Yes, let the people themselves decide how much austerity they can bear: does this idea seem just too much for most of the financial markets to accept? With today’s vote in Greece, have we at last crossed the Rubicon to allow the demos, our fellow citizens, to design an economy and financial system that serves their needs, rather than leaving it up to the interests of capital?

This has been an historic day which shows that the Greek people are not going to be terrorised into making a decision against their best interests because the leaders of Germany, France and Italy threaten them to do so. I am not at all sure that the Irish electorate might have shown the same courage to stand up to naked economic threat.

Where do we go from here, is being asked throughout cyberspace tonight. The simple answer is that we at last begin to move beyond the dictatorship of markets to allow deliberative politics to determine outcomes that serve the interests of citizens who have borne far too much suffering to placate the interest of markets.

In his recent encyclical letter on global warming, Pope Francis spoke of the globalisation of the technocratic paradigm. It was a rare acknowledgement of the forces that have shaped all our societies, not for the good of citizens and our societies, but for the good of those who hold that ‘market forces’ somehow have a right to determine unaccountably whose interests dominate the ways our societies change and evolve. The so-called ‘experts’ are those to whom power has been ceded to determine what is acceptable and what is not.

Tonight the Greek people have changed all that. For the first time, they have been given a chance to voice their opinion and, despite powerful threats made against them, they have give a resounding ‘No’ to the politics of austerity. Of course, many will say that this was inevitable, that voters will always choose what is in their self-interest. But isn’t this exactly the point, that the policies being pushed on European electorates by the technocracy are not in the people’s interests but up to now they have never been allowed to offer their view.

This, then, is a moment that opens the possibility of a new way forward, a way that gives power back to citizens and that allows for a democratic deliberation that can creatively find a way to gives some breathing room to the Greek people and their elected government. Of course there are many alternatives possible if only we put the interests of people and societies to the fore, rather than the interests of capital.

And if these create difficulties for other governments which have followed the route of austerity, the current Irish government among them, then let that dynamic play itself out. We in Ireland didn’t have a civil society organised and strong enough over many decades to incubate a political movement that could stand up to the power of capital over our society.

If the Greek people are now opening the possibility that the European technocracy has finally to acknowledge some democratic principles, then let us in Ireland begin to fill the space offered to us. Greek society cannot be held ransom to the sensitivities of other European leaders that what might be offered to Greece could never be offered to their people.

The days and weeks ahead will be fascinating, full of spin and attempts to paint the Greek vote as an illegitimate threat to sound economics. There will be much sound and fury. But tonight a line in the sand was passed through the immense courage of the Greek government and people. European politics and markets will never be the same again.

Catherine Murphy vs Denis O'Brien: a new left being born?

After so much posturing by the so-called parliamentary left during the current Dáil, it is so heartening at last to see some real left-wing politics emerging, through the courageous and determined action of Catherine Murphy.

Deputy Murphy’s persistence in uncovering the close relationship between one of the country’s most active capitalists and the state-owned banking corporation, IBRC, is revealing the nexus between large capital and the state in a way that is rare in our republic. Motivating Denis O’Brien to seek to gag the media in revealing some of the details of this nexus shows how much she is unnerving capital interests.

It is this which marks it out as serious left-wing politics, in stark contrast to the self-serving and populist mobilisation around water charges of other left-wing groups in the current Dáil. Far from unsetting capital, these actions have undermined a key public service and distracted public attention away from the enormous power that capital holds over our state.

That Catherine Murphy’s dogged questioning has led to a situation where, for the first time in the history of the state, key organs of the media felt unable to report information she put into the public realm under parliamentary privilege shows naked power at work. Rarely has the power of our democracy been used to such effect, and never before have capital interests felt they had to go as far as seeking to curtail these democratic powers.

What we have seen over the past week therefore, shows the potential of a serious left to begin to shine light on the ways in which the interests of big capital have made extensive inroads into our public realm. Over time, this has developed instincts among senior politicians and bureaucrats that confuse the public interest with the interest of big capital, mostly foreign-owned.

Much is still to unfold in this standoff between a courageous public representative and a very rich and powerful capitalist. Rarely has the term ‘public representative’ carried so much meaning and potential as Catherine Murphy has given it over recent weeks.

As Denis O’Brien himself alluded to in his self-pitying article in The Irish Times, at stake in this standoff is what it means to be a republic. For, in his article, he deliberately called himself a ‘republican with a small “r”’. If he believes this, then he has a very restricted meaning of the ‘res publica’ that form the basis for the meaning of republicanism, seeming to equate it with the right of big capital to keep its activities that involve public monies beyond probing public scrutiny.

Catherine Murphy has a much fuller understanding of the ‘res publica’ and nothing symbolised this as dramatically as her speech to the Dáil against the backdrop of a court injunction preventing the media from reporting the very information she was putting on the public record.

So what we are seeing is a decisive struggle to rescue the heart of what republicanism means, an essential core that has been very badly weakened over recent decades of our public life. Our democracy requires many more such genuine ‘public representatives’. Maybe then we could speak of an Irish left finally being finally born.

Claims against same-sex marriage puzzling and even insulting

In his recent article (Irish Times, 21st April) criticising the grounds for advocating the recognition of same-sex unions as marriage, Dr Thomas Finegan asks some pertinent questions. Central to these is the definition of marriage and why, for example, those supporting the forthcoming referendum on this issue can exclude polygamous or polyamorous relationship from recognition as marriage.

‘The “marriage equality” view has no principled reason for discriminating between different types of consensual and committed relationship,’ he writes. Why, he asks, should platonic relationships not also be recognised as marriage. ‘It is certainly possible to envisage circumstances in which co-dependent elderly siblings or a carer-dependent relationship would stand to benefit from the rights and entitlements marriage confers,’ he writes.

Finally, he asks why the state should expressly support marriage above other relationship types in its constitutional, tax and other laws. These constitute a set of very interesting questions that get us to the heart of what this referendum is all about. As such they deserve a careful answer that grounds the case for same-sex marriage in the traditional understanding of marriage on which Dr Finegan rests his case.

For what is novel, and indeed ground-breaking, about this referendum is precisely that it extends to same-sex couples the same right to form unions that embody the understanding of marriage that has developed over millennia. It is puzzling, and even troubling, that Dr Finegan claims that homosexual couples cannot form a ‘union of bodies’ as he rightly states is a central part of marriage as always understood.

Clearly, the phrases ‘one body’ and ‘one flesh’ as quoted in the article and as traditional descriptions of marriage between a man and a woman are metaphors for the deep sexual relationship that aspires to be life-long that has been the essence of marriage as conventionally understood. Indeed, I find his limitation of such a deep sexual relationship to heterosexual couples to be insulting and based on a very partial understanding of sexuality.

It is because the state regards this union as a fundamental unit of society that it affords it the legal protection it does. In extending this protection to homosexual couples who opt for it, the state is recognising that these unions too constitute fundamental units of society. This is precisely the reason for having this referendum, as anything less is to treat homosexual citizens unequally.

Dr Finegan seems concerned that passage of the referendum will somehow endanger the ‘integrity, nature and rationale’ of marriage. However, this fails to recognise the marriage itself has undergone major changes in the ways society understands it and the ways the state protects it over centuries. Clearly, the rights and position of women in marriage has changed dramatically from when women were the effective property of men to one where they are approaching something of equality in rights, if not always in practice.

Admitting gay citizens to marriage further enriches our understanding of marriage and what it entails. That we in Ireland have a popular vote to validate this step forward illustrates that it is based on a deepening of society’s appreciation of the unique nature of marriage and not just on the whim of legislators which the No camp seems at times to imply.

Ultimately Dr Finegan sets up a straw man when he claims that the defence of same-sex marriage is based on understanding it as legal recognition of ‘adult partnership’. For this has already been recognised in civil partnership. No, what we are being asked to vote for is the right of citizens who form deep loving unions of hearts, minds and body with a person of the same sex, to have this recognised as marriage.  It is long overdue.

 

 

Refashioning politics from below: Notes from the frontline

As the Syriza government in Greece shows that the new emerging politics requires constant creativity in seeking to change the rules of the economic game, developments in Spain as it faces into a crucial electoral cycle also hold fascinating lessons.

A new opinion poll in El País today shows support divided remarkably evenly between four parties, indicating just how much has changed in Spanish politics over the past year. Podemos, founded at the beginning of last year has the largest support at 22.1% but the socialist party, the PSOE, is closing the gap and is on 21.9%. This shows a clear left-wing majority after four years of right-wing government.

Yet, the ruling right-wing PP is on 20.8% a slight improvement on their recent showing, while the new Ciudadanos party comes in just below them at 19.4%. This addition to the Spanish political scene was formed in Catalonia in opposition to its independence movement and has surprised many observers as it emerges as a national party, contesting the right’s base of support. For Ciudadanos, while gaining support through its firm stance against political corruption, espouses strong neoliberal policies.

For the pollsters, this is statistically a dead heat between four parties, a remarkable situation for a country in which two parties, the PSOE and the PP have dominated politics since the early 1980s. This alone shows that fundamental political change has arrived and the elections in 13 autonomous provinces on May 24th as well as the general elections in November are now certain to see a dramatic re-alignment of politics throughout the country.

Yet, the focus on party support can distract attention from the even more fundamental change in the conduct of politics being undertaken by Podemos. At a time when politics worldwide is dominated by party machines, sophisticated PR strategies and policies honed and tested through focus groups and pollsters, Podemos is instituting a politics from below.

The party is organised in ‘circles’ which any citizen can join; these are organised at local and district levels and among different sectors such as lawyers, university lecturers and so on. These circles have a significant input into the process currently being undertaken to translate the party’s rather utopian declaration of political perspectives (see www.podemos.info) into concrete policies for the forthcoming cycle of elections.

The politics from below found expression two weeks ago when the party chose its candidates for the regional elections. In most parties, these lists are chosen by the party machine with only the candidate for leadership (president of the autonomous province) being selected by the vote of party members. For the first time, Podemos constituted its lists of candidates (with the number of candidates chosen being equivalent to the total number of seats in the regional parliament) through an open election by the members of its ‘circles’.

Interestingly, this process led in at least three autonomous provinces, to the selection of Podemos candidates for president who are critical of the party leadership in Madrid.  Only time will tell if this proves a weakness at the polls or a strength but it is testimony to the reality of the party’s internal democracy.

 

Over the months ahead, therefore, Spain is going to teach us a lot about the prospects for some fundamental political shifts that have major implications for Europe as a whole. While Greeks elected the Syriza party amid a deep social and economic crisis, Spanish voters are going to the polls as evidence mounts of an economy recovery and, at last, an accelerating decline in unemployment. It’s not quite as marked as Ireland’s recovery but it is a major turnaround after six years of deep recession.

 

But the Indignados movement in Spain in 2011 also showed a far deeper and more widespread disillusion with the ruling economic and political elites than has been evident in Ireland so far. The remarkable emergence of Podemos last year is due to them giving voice to that alienated sector of civil society. Ciudadanos, on the right of the political spectrum, is showing that this alienation can also be channeled in a more neoliberal direction.

 

There is therefore a struggle for the definition of this new grassroots politics that has emerged so strongly in Spain. If Podemos can capture most of this and give it a more left-wing orientation then it will mark a major shift in the politics of a large European country. As today’s poll shows, the real struggle is now beginning. How it plays out holds major lessons for Irish politics.

 

Andalucian elections: first political earthquake for Spain

Spanish politics have excited interest throughout Europe since the breakthrough of Podemos in the European elections in May 2014. Likened to Syriza in Greece, they yesterday faced their first electoral test in Spain in the elections in the autonomous province of Andalucia.

These elections are the first of a wave of municipal, regional and national elections that hold the promise of a transformation of Spanish politics before the end of 2015. The results as they emerged last night showed what the newspaper El País called ‘a first political earthquake’.

On an increased turnout of voters, both new parties made significant breakthroughs in the Seville parliament, with Podemos winning 15 seats and doubling its vote in the region while Ciudadanos won 9 seats and saw its vote rise from 1.7% in May of last year to 9% yesterday. Meanwhile, the Socialist party (PSOE) which has dominated Andalucian politics since the return of democracy maintained its dominance winning 47 seats, the same as it had in the outgoing parliament but short of an absolute majority in the 109 seat parliament.

The big losers of yesterday’s election is the Partido Popular (PP), in power in Madrid and in most autonomous regions. It lost 17 seats to end up with 33 while the Izquierda Unida, the United Left that has been Spain’s third political force and was in government in Seville with the Socialist, won only five seats, losing seven.

These elections therefore confirm that Spain is leading the way to a new progressive European politics. Unlike other countries where the new right has seemed to offer the prospect of political change or where, as in Ireland, fragmentation offers no clear path forward, Spanish politics is showing the emergence of significant new political groupings.

A number of conclusions can be drawn from the elections to the Seville parliament. Firstly, the ‘new left’ of Podemos is replacing the ‘old left’ of IU and has burst on to the political scene. Founded only a year ago, it is now the third political force in a region in Spain where it was regarded as being quite weak. This therefore reinforces its promise in other regions, and nationally, where it is stronger. 

Ciudadanos, a party that emerged as a centrist force in Catalonia based on its strong anti-corruption message, has made a major breakthrough in a region where it had no party organisation up until very recently. Its breakthrough has come at the expense of the governing PP which has faced a wave of corruption scandals that lap at the feet of the most senior members of the party.

Bipartidism is dead in Spain after last night’s results. No longer are Spanish politics dominated by the PP and the PSOE. What will emerged in autonomous regions and at national level over the coming months will change the shape of Spanish politics; what is less clear is how. The coming months are going to define how far and in what direction that change goes.