Charter 2016: towards left unity?

The call by SIPTU president, Jack O’Connor, in a speech on the anniversary of the death of Jim Larkin, for ‘Social Democrats, Left Republicans and Independent Socialists … to set aside sectarian divisions and develop a political project aimed at winning the next general election on a common platform’ is timely and important. And it has brought into the public forum that talks are already taking place between trade unions, Sinn Féin and independent left-wing TDs to agree such a common platform which he called ‘Charter 2016’.

Syriza’s victory in Greece last week, mentioned by Jack O’Connor, has demonstrated the vital importance of such left unity and the creation of an alternative project that is well researched, comprehensive and achievable. The SIPTU president’s speech mentioned the need for ‘intellectual engagement around policy formation’ so as to provide an answer for an electorate ‘that will demand to know what we are for, as distinct simply from what we are against.’ It identifies precisely what has been so lacking for so long on the Irish left.

Most on the left are likely to agree that fashioning a more robust alternative and building a broad left-wing consensus around it are vital, not just for the future of the left, but for the future of Irish society. The gross inequalities that so profoundly mark our society, the threadbare nature of our social services devoid of adequate funding despite dedicated staff, the reflexive instinct of our political elites to do the bidding of capital at every turn – all of these are the legacy of the long political hegemony of the right. This has to change. 

O’Connor’s call therefore offers an important opportunity to open a debate about what is required for this ‘intellectual engagement around policy formation’ and how we might develop a common left political project for Irish society as has been fashioned by Syriza for Greece and is being fashioned for Spain by Podemos. For, if we are to be serious about this momentous challenge, we must openly acknowledge the profound weaknesses that for long have characterised the Irish left and that distinguish Ireland so strongly from countries like Greece and  Spain.

First and foremost is the lack of a broad left-wing culture forged and battle-hardened through many many decades of very hard struggle. This is not to say that Irish society has not had its decisive struggles, but these have been informed much more by a bourgeois nationalism during the struggles for political independence and by a cross-class nationalist populism since. A serious left-wing presence has been very much a minority current within these struggles. Socialist values, a socialist imaginary, socialist culture, socialist creativity is weak at all levels of Irish society.

This fact that this also characterises our universities and our intellectual elites constitutes a particular weakness for fashioning the alternative that Jack O’Connor calls for. For example, the number of recognised intellectuals among the top ranks of Syriza, and now Ministers in the Greek government, contrasts sharply with the paucity of intellectual engagement with left-wing politics in Ireland. I can attest myself to the political debates that characterise both staff and student life on Spanish campuses, again contrasting with their almost complete absence on Irish campuses.

It is illustrative, for example, that UL has recently created high-level Bernal chairs in the natural sciences, named after a Nenagh-born biologist, John Desmond Bernal (1901-71) who worked at the University of London and was a pioneer in X-ray crystallography in molecular biology. But much more significantly, Bernal was a life-long member of the Communist Party and wrote a number of celebrated books on the social function of science and on science and Marxism. These topics are just as vital for today’s Ireland as is molecular biology, where public policy has been seduced by a narrow scientism devoid of any consideration of the social or political project for which scientific research is a means; yet, no one seems to have noticed the political significance of the Bernal chairs at UL.

Building a robust left-wing alternative in Ireland, therefore, requires that we begin to acknowledge the weak social capacity that exists for this major task, and address what can be done to strengthen it. Far too often, the focus is on left-wing leaders seeking to find some common agreement but, even if successful, this agreement is going to rest on very thin ice indeed unless backed by a mobilised left-wing demos (as in Spain and in Greece) and by an active culture of left-wing intellectual debate and writing.

I suggest that, much more important for Charter 2016 to succeed, is the need to fashion a coherent set of proposals for (to mention the more obvious):

  • a redistributive taxation system that raises sufficient resources to fund decent public and universal services
  • a welfare system that protects the most vulnerable, reduces poverty and inequality, and supports a culture of endeavour and economic revitalisation at local level
  • an industrial policy that fosters dynamic enterprises serving Irish society
  • an agricultural policy that moves us towards producing quality food with low greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and weans us off extensive cattle-based agriculture

Far too much of political policy making on both the left and the right in Ireland is based on partial if any evidence, little robust analysis, and far too much sloganeering and pretence. Witnessing the Greek government with a robust project challenging the elites of Europe, reminds us how difficult and long-term is policy making, requiring an active culture of left-wing research, analysis and debate to give it depth and robust content. Jack O’Connor is right to make his call but it needs to galvanise action far beyond the sphere of party politics if it is to succeed.

A Syriza government: Europe's Latin American moment at last

The almost certain victory of Syriza in the Greek elections on January 25th marks the first victory of what can be called a 'new left' party in Europe, and carries strong echoes of what happened in Latin America a little over a decade ago. Latin America was the region that incubated neo-liberalism, firstly after the Chilean military coup in 1973 and then through the structural adjustment imposed upon (and willingly accepted by,  it must be said) most of the region's countries in the wake of the debt crisis in the early 1980s, before exporting it to the US and Europe in the 1980s and 1990s where it has taken deep root, not least in Ireland. The first decisive break came with the wave of new left governments elected in Latin America throughout the 2000s; is a Syriza victory now beginning something similar in Europe?

The most striking similarity between Greece today and much of Latin America over a decade ago, is that the social suffering caused by neo-liberal policies cutting social programmes and spending, and rolling back hard won protections for labour and marginalised groups led to widespread social discontent and rebellion out of which emerged new political parties and groupings very distinct from those that had dominated the left for most of the 20th century. It is clear that Syriza has emerged out of the coming together of diverse currents of the Greek left in combination with strong social movements which have themselves helped form the party.

So we have a much more creative form of radical left politics emerging, based on but not instrumentalisiing mass mobilisation and proposing new pathways beyond the dead-end of austerity and liberalisation. While there are many divergent positions within Syriza, it is clearly a very pluralist party with nothing of the central control by a leadership clique that was so characteristic of parties of the left and is still so characteristic of Sinn Féin, sometimes mistakenly seen outside Ireland as a similar type anti-austerity new left party. Part of this new left moment therefore is the determined mobilisation of power from below, a more truly democratic politics than we have probably ever seen at a nation-state level. 

While much comment has focused on Syriza's positions on debt and national recovery, what is far more important is this nexus between party and mobilised sectors of civil society. As the example of new left governments in Latin America teach us, this tension between power at the top and at the bottom is turning out to be one of the most transformative aspects of new left rule. For, not only does it help anchor ruling elites in the real concerns and needs of marginalised society but it is also proving a much more enduring shift in political culture than happens just by new parties taking over the state.

And, at the heart of the transformation happening in Latin America, is a decisive break with neo-liberalism, a refashioning of forms of public authority over the market that has improved the living standards and life chances of the poor and marginalised in ways that they themselves attest to. The first acts that we can expect from a Syriza government therefore are not the great issues of debt (though these are urgent) but actions that will improve the living conditions of large sectors of Greek society - re-connecting them to electricity, school meals for all kids, re-establishing an effective health care service. For, unless Syriza can show quite quickly that it really is making a difference at this level, it could quickly be faced with discontent and disillusion at popular level.

Of course, such actions don't necessarily mark a decisive break with neo-liberalism. The second set of actions promised move more in that direction: restoring the minimum wage to its 2010 level, returning to collective bargaining and restoring social legislation that has been destroyed. These again mirror the actions of new left governments throughout Latin America, actions that have strengthened labour and weakened capital.

Then comes the big question of debt, a more difficult issue than has been faced by any of the new left governments in Latin America. There, economic growth helped governments to pay off creditors and, in some cases, allowed them break relations with the IMF. Argentina pressured many of its private creditors into a major write down of its debt in 2003, which give it the necessary resources to invest in social programmes. However, the country paid a heavy price over the long run with those who refused this write down and are still demanding that they be repaid in full.

Syriza's position is a very well crafted one. Much of the media and political comment on it distorts it badly as Syriza is not looking for a write off of debt but an agreement, at European level, that the ECB hold around 50% of the debt for a period until Greece is able to repay it, without sacrificing its society and economy in the process. This is astute not only because the model is the 1953 London conference that wrote down German debt, but also because it has the potential to re-enforce support among other eurozone countries for something from which they also could gain. But this is by no means a painless option since it is likely to affect confidence on the financial markets. What is at stake therefore is a reinforcing of political authority over the financial markets that have called the tune so far in the solutions proposed for the European crisis. This is the decisive importance of the Syriza approach.

So, suddenly European politics becomes interesting. After decades when there seemed little difference between what left and right-wing parties proposed, and when political leaders of all shades of opinion looked over their shoulders to the reaction of markets rather than to the reaction of their citizens, we now have a return to the central values of democracy, namely the sovereignty of the people rather than of markets. It shows just how far our politics have been re-shaped by neo-liberalism that this is considered somehow revolutionary. January 25th 2015 will, hopefully, go down in history as the first decisive turn against neo-liberalism in Europe, and for this we have to thank the hard struggles and defiance of the Greek working and marginalised classes. 

Ireland's climate action bill: Too little, too late?

After years of delay, the Government has finally published its Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Bill, giving statutory foundation to the institutional arrangements to move Ireland to substantial decarbonisation by 2050. The most promising aspect of this bill is its title, implying government action on climate change but also acknowledging that such action involves changing our form of development, moving towards what it calls 'low carbon development'. But will the institutional framework to be established under this bill deliver such a radically new model of development?

The institutional framework to be established, as laid out in the bill, is essentially very simple. It consists of five-yearly mitigation and adaptation plans and of an expert advisory council which is to be called An Chomhairle Chomhairleach Shaineolach Náisiúnta um Athrú Aeráide. Each of the five-year plans will provide a roadmap to achieve the necessary reduction of greenhouse gas emissions as the state is pledged to achieve under both EU and UN agreements since the bill itself contains no targets (this is the mitigation plan) and measures to 'reduce the vulnerability of the State to the negative effects of climate change' (the adaptation plan). The first of each of these plans is to be drawn up not less than 24 months after the passing of the bill into law, which effectively means that it may not happen in the lifetime of the current government. 

Though each plan is to be drawn up by the Minister for the Environment, she or he can request sectoral plans from other Ministers. The Department of the Environment's accompanying press release specifies that agriculture, transport, energy and the built environment are the sectors where most mitigation effort will be required so it is to be expected that sectoral plans will be requested from the Ministers responsible for these sectors. 

The only new body to be established under the bill is the National Expert Advisory Council on Climate Change. It will consist of four ex-officio members (the directors of the Environmental Protection Agency, Sustainable Energy Ireland, Teagasc and the ESRI) and between five and seven experts to be appointed by the Government on the nomination of the Minister. Apart from offering advice, the Council will publish an annual review on progress made over the preceding year on mitigation and adaptation. and the Minister may ask it to conduct periodic reviews. Finally, the Minister will make an annual transition statement to Dáil Éireann on progress made towards the transition objectives.

There has been much critical comment on the failure to include specific targets in the bill and on the fact that the advisory council is appointed by the Government and any member can be fired by the Government, thereby lacking institutional independence. Both of these were recommendations of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Environment, Culture and the Gaeltacht in its report on the bill which, following public hearings, was published in November 2013. Less comment has been made on another feature of the institutional arrangements set in place, namely that the bill makes no mention of the role of the Taoiseach, even though it makes clear that the transition to a low carbon society will involve action by a range of Ministers other than the Minister for the Environment. This could emerge as a fundamental weakness if, as is very likely, foot dragging, tensions and even contradictions characterise the response of the various Ministers from whom sectoral plans are requested. 

Much of the impact of this bill is going to depend on how ambitious and comprehensive are the transition plans drawn up, and on who is appointed to the advisory council. There is little indication from anybody in government right now that the momentous nature of the transition being attempted is really understood, nor the fundamental changes in such areas as agriculture policy, transport policy, and housing policy. About the only area in which there seems some understanding of the scale of the changes to be implemented is in the move to renewable sources of energy but even here progress is still slow and encountering obstacles. 

At the publication in Leinster House of the Joint Committee's report in November 2013, numerous members of the Joint Committee, from government parties as well as opposition, stated that the hearings had been an education for them and they promised to maintain pressure on the government on issues related to the bill. It is to be hoped that they now live up to these promises when the bill is being debated, giving the opportunity for amendments. 

In Germany, the Chancellor's office established the German Advisory Council on Global Change which has issued some of the best and most far-reaching reports on the challenges of climate change for society. In the report entitled World in Transition: A Social Contract for Sustainability, the Council likens the transition to a low-carbon society to the Neolithic Revolution, namely the move from hunter-gather societies to settled agriculture, and to the Industrial Revolution. The main difference is that we have to make this transition in a few decades and do so in a planned and guided way if it is to have any chance of success. There is nothing in the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Bill to show that its authors and those who will implement it have any idea of the scale of radical change required. 

The Paris killings and the clash of civilisations: Changing the frame

In his response to the murders of the Charlie Hebdo journalists in Paris this week, US Secretary of State, John Kerry, made a veiled allusion to what a decade ago was a much discussed framing of the issues that lie behind these murders. Kerry said that the murders 'are part of a larger confrontation, not between civilizations - no - but between civilization itself and those who are opposed to a civilised world.' It brought to mind Samuel P Huntington's 1996 book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order in which the veteran US political scientist posited a fundamental clash of values between the West and Islam. Part of the appeal of the book was that it offered a script to what was emerging as a defining theme of the post-Cold War world namely, in Huntington's words, that 'the fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future.'

While commentators and political leaders have been quick to disavow any wars of religion and to make clear that Islam itself is not implicated in these terrible murders, it would be foolish to deny that the 'clash of civilisations' provides a frame which has a significant influence on popular attitudes, in Europe and in the Middle East. Anti-Islamic attitudes have become a common theme of many of the right-wing political movements that have arisen throughout Europe over the past decade and a half, while they explicitly motivate the new German movement Pegida, Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the Occident. Meanwhile, many of those who have carried out brutal attacks in the West over recent years have been radicalised within extremist Islamic circles and have been ideologically and militarily prepared in some countries of the Middle East. There is a very worrying hardening of attitudes around this widely perceived 'fault line' of civilisations.

Denying that a war of religions is taking place or that brutal attacks on innocent people as have taken place in a number of European and North American cities over recent years implicate wider sections of the Muslim community is bound to be ineffective in such a context. Yes, of course, people of all faiths and none will stand side by side in solidarity with those directly touched by these actions and in defence of liberal, humanitarian values. But there is an urgent need to go much much further and to mobilise in ways that make much more explicit that the fundamental fault lines of our world today are based not on different civilisations nor on religions, but on issues of socio-economic injustice. 

The Arab Spring of recent years has shown that these injustices mobilise significant sectors of Muslim societies thus giving the lie to any simplistic reading of Islam as in some way anti-modern. But neither can it be denied that the role of some Western states in Middle Eastern and north African countries does anger some younger Muslims in ways that make them susceptible to the radical message of a brand of Muslim fundamentalism. And the failure of the West to make any significant breakthroughs in addressing the appalling injustices meted out to Palestinians - especially in Gaza - and in finding lasting solutions, must rankle deeply. 

This is the bigger global context which the so-called 'war on terror' declared by the George W. Bush administration after 9/11 has profoundly exacerbated. But there are also local contexts and here much more could be done. It begins with a recognition that fundamentalism is by no means exclusive to Islam. Indeed, many experts argue that fundamentalism is essentially a creation of Christianity in which varieties of Protestant biblical fundamentalism and of Catholic dogmatic fundamentalism flourish. it was from Christianity that Islam learnt fundamentalism, it has been argued.

And, of course, beyond religious fundamentalism, perhaps the form of fundamentalism that over recent decades has had most influence on ordinary people's lives around the world is the market fundamentalism of strict neo-liberalism. This has reshaped societies in the interests of largely Western corporations and is a significant ingredient in the discourse of radical fundamentalist Islamic groups. 

If fundamentalism is essentially intolerant and seeks to impose a pre-defined worldview on others, then certain proponents of a Western secular worldview might also be accused of inhabiting this space. We have seen the emergence of what has been called an 'atheist fundamentalism' (The Dawkins Delusion? Atheist Fundamentalism and the Denial of the Divine by Alister McGrath and Jaonna Collicutt McGrath, 2010) characterised by what is often a caricature of religion and which offends both serious believers and serious atheists.

In discussing socio-economic reform, addressing the challenges of climate change, and reforming our sclerotic political systems, some analysts propose a deliberative democracy as a means to allow citizens develop projects of social, economic and political transformation. The practice of deliberative democracy requires a culture of openness and tolerance that respects differences and creates space for debating them. The recent events in Paris pose this challenge ever more strongly.   


A new political party at last?

So, at long last, a new political party struggles to be born, offering 'a new outlook and a new vision', 'a party that changes the way we do politics'. Its leading light, Lucinda Creighton, believes 'the old political paradigms of left and right to be completely redundant now' and refuses to situate her party on this familiar political spectrum. Meanwhile in an Irish Times interview published on January 2nd, Fianna Fáil leader, Micheál Martin has said his party wants to position itself in 2015 'as the only centrist party' with a focus on education, health, equality and political reform.

In a political system and culture desperately in need of new ideas and new political forces, what are we to make of these initiatives? Creighton's is obviously the most significant, offering more than a makeover of the familiar. Apart from the soundbites from the launch of Reboot Ireland as the Creighton initiative is currently calling itself, all we have to go on are four broad policy ideas offered on its website as a way of attracting members and candidates. These are:

  • Building an economy for entrepreneurs across the social, private and public sectors
  • Make the public sector public through fostering a spirit of entrepreneurism
  • Give politics back to the people by creating a political system that supports freedom of thought, difference and independence
  • Measuring government with a clear social target by underpinning fiscal and social policy with a targeted Minimum Lifestyle Standard

At least the formulation is innovative even if these are little more than general slogans. We get a few hints however from the language, the priorities and the absences. Entrepreneurism is clearly a strong guiding principle of this initiative though we will need to see what this might mean in practice. Pluralism is the guiding principle in reforming the political system, without specifying any larger or more ambitious goals for that system. It is revealing that the only mention of social policy is to underpin it with a targeted minimum standard. All will depend, of course, on what that standard might be. Finally, there is no mention of austerity, debt, the welfare state, the painful realities that dominate the lives of most of our citizens.

Perhaps most revealing in all the coverage of the launch were the comments of founding member Eddie Hobbs. On the one hand he spoke of 'crushing rates of taxation, particularly on work' and on the other achieving the minimum lifestyle standard. This is very familiar territory in Irish politics and smacks more of continuity than any innovative change. For decades we have lived with the contradiction of being a low-tax economy compared to most European economies (low tax, that is, on capital and profits, not low tax on work or consumption) while aspiring to better social services which we never get because of an under-resourced state. It seems the new party is not going finally to grasp this nettle and tell us how we can achieve a minimum lifestyle standard (to use its vague formulation) while keeping taxes low. As the party puts flesh on the bones of these slogans, it will be interesting to watch which of these two principles win out: low taxation or decent social standards.

Meanwhile, Micheál Martin is in similar territory in his comments on situating Fianna Fáil as Ireland's only centrist party. It is surprising that he chooses four areas of policy to focus on all of which are priorities of the current government - early childhood, health services, small and medium enterprises and equality of opportunity in education and health. Again, we are offered no details, only references to the Lemass-era philosophy 'of encouraging enterprise'. (Note that wonderfully insubstantial vocabulary of entrepreneurism creeping in here again.) So it is very hard to know what is new here or why Martin might choose to label this space as 'centrist' and not see that it is a very crowded space already in Irish politics.

If Martin is serious about 'the Lemass-era philosophy', then he could benefit a lot from returning to the major debates within Fianna Fáil in the aftermath of the second World War, largely between Lemass and McEntee over the role of the state in the economy and society. Lemass effectively lost these debates thus setting Fianna Fáil on its long love affair with private entrepreneurs, especially at an international level. A return to the core instincts of Lemass would allow a robust debate again on what should the role of the state be and how might it be sufficiently resourced to play that role. 

That is the huge gap in Irish politics, which parties of left as well as of right shy away from. For example, one major issue that all seem terrified of is increasing corporate taxes so as to rebalance the Irish taxation system. But this issue takes us to heart of the relationship between state and market in this country, the nature and outcomes of which so determine the quality of our social infrastructure and social services. Any party wishing to offer a new outlook and a new vision, and to change the way we do politics, can hardly be taken seriously unless it begins to enter this fundamental terrain.