Making sense of the Trump victory

Yet again, the polls are blamed for getting it wrong. Just as with Brexit and the Spanish general election last June, polls seriously misled us on expected outcomes. So the time has come to move beyond a focus on the polls to the phenomenon they are missing. And what a phenomenon!


It is hard to grasp the extent of the shifts taking place as a sector of the electorate whose frustrations and anger previously seemed to be very poorly represented within the political system suddenly finds a voice that galvanises them. And they erupt on to the political stage.


This is a classic definition of revolution, and to an extent this is what happened in the US on November 8th. But, of course, we normally think of revolutions in a positive sense, as the eruption of the disaffected in ways that are going to change the system radically for the better. Clearly the xenophobic, racist and misogynist rhetoric that has dominated the Trump campaign, contrasted with the almost complete absence of any policy platform other than vague sloganeering, offers little hope of a presidency that will do anything except further deepen and poison the US body politic.


But amid the shock of the Trump victory we need to remember that we have also had more progressive and disciplined versions of the eruption of the disaffected, manifestations that are much more hopeful. The emergence of Sanders and Corbyn as figures that have catalyzed a strong base of support, and the breakthrough of Podemos, do offer the prospect of more positive revolutionary change.


Labelling all this as populism, as has become quite commonplace, is very unhelpful to gaining an understanding of what is going on. Firstly, it is used in a dismissive way that seems devoid of any precise meaning except that certain leaders seem to have popular appeal. That this is then dismissed as somehow not serious politics has the effect of presuming that the mainstream parties of centre right and centre left are the only reliable and effective vehicles for political change.


Nothing could be further from the truth, and this is the lesson that these seismic shifts hold for us. As was correctly identified by Ireland’s two centrist parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil after the last budget, the centre ground is under threat from the emergence of anti-systemic politics, either of the right or of the left. Where they are wrong is to believe that the only way forward is to try to shore up the centre ground. This only further delays the inevitable.


And the inevitable is that we now fast entering an era when more extreme positions on right and left are going to reshape political discourse, political parties and political systems. As has happened this week in the US, it can erupt with surprising speed, once the disaffected find a leader figure that seems to give them a voice. To this extent, one of the few certainties that can be affirmed in this time of rapid systemic change, is that the political systems that provided stability and solidity to western societies in the post World War II world are imploding before our eyes.


It is far too early to know what might replace them, but their essential failure has been their inability in recent times to respond effectively to the basic needs of a large sector of the population for some security of economic and social belonging. As neoliberal politics systematically eroded the economic and social model that underpinned some expectation of security and progress, most starkly exposed in the obscene levels of inequality that have come to characterise so many of our societies, many people lost faith in the system. This has been happening quietly over decades, certainly since the Thatcher and Reagan era, but it has now become the tidal wave that hit the US system this week.


So, dismissing this phenomenon, as somehow a populist gesture that is bound to fail, is to miss the point entirely. Yes, of course, the sloganeering that passes for policy in Trump’s rhetoric, offers no basis for satisfying the frustrations that it gives vent to. But once galvanized, this new ‘movement’ as Trump calls it, is never going to go silent again. And his oppositional rhetoric, like so much rhetoric of the right over the ages, will find many enemies to blame for his lack of effective policies.


The important think to realise is that a space is opening up here challenging those who want a more progressive transformation of our society towards greater equality, justice and sustainability. Indeed, everything is now to play for as our systems erode and open new spaces, sometimes with surprising speed. How can we sow the seeds of a new disciplined politics, a radical politics of equality and respect that mobilises people around a project of true transformation, and indeed education. As Sanders and Corbyn are trying to do, we need to fashion progressive movements that occupy the political spaces now opening up.


This is the lesson of Trump. We have no idea how toxic and divisive it is going to get as he realises that he cannot run the US government like he runs his companies. But this is the context in which the battle for ideas and for a progressive project becomes all the more urgent and immediate. Instead of lamenting, we need to begin some radical utopian planning and thinking.


Unmasking or obfuscating the power of capital?: two populisms in action

It is a weekend calculated to spook the markets, and certainly the first round – the UK Brexit vote – has surpassed expectations. We now await the second round – tomorrow’s Spanish general election – to witness a spooking of a very different kind if Podemos Unidos becomes the leading party on the Spanish left and if they and the PSOE together win a majority to govern. It is a very likely outcome.

This is the weekend of populisms, but populisms of very different kinds. Superficially the rhetoric seems similar and many commentators lump both brands together. This is a fundamental misreading of the lessons of this decisive weekend’s votes – for what we are witnessing are two opposed directions out of the acute crisis of European politics and political economy, each with the potential to shape the future of Europe for decades to come.

Those advocating a Brexit in the UK and those supporting Podemos Unidos in Spain both speak of mobilising the people against the elites who run society in their own interests. Both urge voters to take back power into their own hands and to cut the elites down to size. It was a discourse that spoke to swathes of UK voters on Thursday (and, of course, interestingly it didn’t have anything like the same impact in Scotland and the north of Ireland). And it is a discourse that looks likely to have a major impact on Spanish voters’ intentions tomorrow.

But, what each group means by the seemingly similar terms they use is not only very different, but in fact defines opposing political projects. For Podemos Unidos are accurately identifying the interests of capital that hold such enormous sway over our societies and our political classes in all European societies today, to the detriment of citizens’ wellbeing. In its election campaign Podemos Unidos identifies by name the large companies (including banks) that constitute the elite, thereby informing voters of who the powerful elites really are and how they use their power.

In the UK debate, on the other hand, the elites are identified as bureaucrats in Brussels and in Whitehall who scheme to impose rules which are the real reasons why many find it more difficult to access employment or which erode welfare benefits. Behind this stand the masses of immigrants taking jobs and benefits that otherwise would go to UK citizens. It is a discourse that sets up worker against worker, the marginalised against the marginalised.

The lessons of the Brexit vote therefore is that large numbers of English and Welsh workers are concerned enough about their prospects and their children’s prospects to be willing to listen to demagogic leaders and dismiss the dire warnings of expert opinion. Instead of decrying their shallow and ill-informed populism, political and bureaucratic elites at national and EU levels need to realise that this is a cry of pain that has to be listened and responded to effectively if we are not to face the prospect of ‘new right’ governments coming to power in many European countries with devastating consequences.

Spanish voters tomorrow have the potential to offer a new way forward at this moment of severe crisis. For a ‘new left’ government in Spain led by Podemos Unidos opens the prospect of correctly identifying the power of capital over our political leaders and social systems and putting in place the sorts of measures that seek to strengthen the power of political authority over private market actors.

A Podemos Unidos government would at long last challenge the profound inroads made by neoliberal ideology and instincts into the social democratic movement. It would be a moment of opening a new discourse of hope and empowerment, to counter the beguiling but ultimately vacuous discourse of the Boris Johnsons and Nigel Farages of today’s political elites.

At the level of the European project, a Podemos Unidos-led government would have the potential and the will to offer a new way forward to the terrified leaders of the EU. For Thursday’s UK vote shows up that, without a radical new direction, the European project is dead in the water. Paradoxically, this would suit the elites that the UK voters wanted to get at, but it would weaken any prospect of finding ways of curbing the power of capital in today’s hyper-globalised world. That is the challenge to be faced and Spain’s voters hold that prospect in their hands as they go to vote.



Deal making for government: Lessons from Spain

Despite the many criticisms of our new government and the way it was formed, at least we have one. On this score one might argue we are better than Spain where, after almost five months of efforts, they return to the polls on June 26th for a second try. Or are we better?

Comparing the multiple deals that have allowed the formation of a government in Ireland  (deals with Fianna Fáil and with multiple independents that involve a smorgasbord of issues, from ones of national import to ones clearly calculated to satisfy particular interest groups) with the issues that dominated attempts at government formation in Spain tells us a lot about the nature of our politics. And, it raises fundamental questions about the future of our society.

The word smorgasbord comes from the Swedish and means a buffet full of a wide variety of different dishes, some hot, some cold, some savoury and some sweet, appealing to different tastes. It is a nice metaphor for deals which include some broad principles (meet domestic and EU fiscal rules, budgetary process to accord with OECD review, ‘an open approach to avoiding policy surprises’), some very detailed promises (increase Garda numbers to 15,000, GP training places up by 100 over five years, create 200,000 jobs by 2020, and reduce to €100,000 the cap on Basic Payments for farmers), and much aspirational window dressing (NAMA to be more ambitious in providing housing, reduce waiting times for emergency departments, ‘tackle the problems caused by the increased casualisation of work’, and increased investment in the Irish language).

Since, in Spain, Podemos was in the position of kingmaker, a comparison between that party’s 20-point plan and the principles underpinning it, and the deals that allowed government formation in Ireland is instructive. Of course, the main difference is that the failure to reach agreement on this plan scuppered the possibility of government formation in Madrid.

The document entitled ’20 proposals to unblock the political situation and make possible a government for change’ has a number of elements that distinguish it radically from anything proposed in the Irish context. Firstly, it is truly a programme for government, covering in a comprehensive way a broad range of the most essential elements to be addressed by the next Spanish government. It is far from the patchy agenda of the Irish talks.

Thus Podemos begins with an analysis of the gravity of the economic, political, and institutional crisis of Spain. This forms the backdrop for the 20 key proposals on which the plan is based. Some of these address issues included in the Irish negotiations (education, health, basic income, employment creation, pensions, and housing), but it goes much further and has sections on a national plan for an energy transition, on a new industrial policy, on political decentralisation, on addressing corruption, on progressive tax reform, and on equality between men and women. All of these are issues that are of equal importance in the Irish negotiations but are addressed only in the most tangential way, if at all.

Perhaps even more importantly, however, is the different way in which the Podemos document addresses the issues that are common to both sets of negotiations. For throughout the document, what is specified is the percentage of the GDP that needs to be spent on education, on health, on housing, and on social protection, and the increase to be achieved over the present percentage. The section on reform of the labour market specifies the content of a new Workers’ Statute, contrasting with the vagueness of the promises in the Irish deal to address workers’ casualisation.

A section on reform of the public service to ensure a balance is achieved between an effective service responding to the needs of society and protection of the rights of public service workers, adopts a reform taken from the programme of the neo-liberal Ciudadanos party. And the document includes a section on regulating to extend and clarify the incompatibilities between holding public office and then moving swiftly into the private sector.

There is much that we can learn from the vision and coherence that informs the political debate in  a country like Spain. The comparison highlights the lack of ideological politics in Ireland and the pragmatism and fragmentation that results in designing policies to address the major challenges of social change facing all our societies.

So, the trade-off right now seems to be between a pragmatism that allows a government be formed, as has happened in Ireland, and the realities of a society in which two political visions, one on the centre right and the other emerging out of the new left, have effectively led to an impasse. Which is better for the longer term future health of society can only be answered in time. 

Who fears to speak of 1916: Celebrating a neo-liberal Ireland?

The dignified celebrations of the 1916 Rising remind us that celebration reflects as much of the present as it does of the past.  And it allows us identify what we are taking from that past as resources to build our future. How we are celebrating 1916, therefore, has a lot to tell us about what sort of future we have in store.

Historians point out, for example, how the centenary of the 1798 Rising helped give impulse to the revolutionary ferment that eventually resulted in 1916. As Kevin Whelan has written:

As disenchantment with the contemporary political paralysis of the 1890s peaked, there was a rebuking return to the past in the quest for exemplary political heroes. The centenary of 1798 was brilliantly orchestrated as a separatist riposte to the 1897 Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria’ (Kevin Whelan, 1996: The Tree of Liberty: 172).

This involved ‘a massive procession’ of 100,000 people to attend the laying of the first stone of a statue of Wolfe Tone at the top of Grafton Street in the heart of unionist Dublin by veteran Fenian, John O’Leary. The centenary ‘became easily the most spectacular commemorative event of the nineteenth century’ (ibid.).

But, in promoting themes of political separatism and Catholic nationalism, the 1798 centenary rested on a particular reading of what it was commemorating, a reading that was functional to the political struggles of the time. Today we like to think of ourselves as adopting a more professional reading of the historical narrative so that the 1916 centenary is more inclusive and accurate in its portrayal of what happened.

But how does it fit with contemporary political struggles and what does it tell us about how we are using history? Given the role of the centenary in marking the founding moment of our state, it is no surprise that the dominant themes are very safe, honouring the sacrifices of those who fought and the imaginative courage they showed, emphasising the cultural pluralism of that generation and the invention of a broad sense of Irishness, and acknowledging their lack of understanding of the unionist tradition.

While mention has been made of more social themes such as treating all the children of the nation equally, and the contemporary crises in health and housing, the centenary has failed to spark the sort of critical examination of contemporary Irish society that might have been hoped for. Indeed, concerns such as entrenched social class stratification, the power of multinational capital over our society, and our inability to address the challenges of climate change have been almost completely absent.

It may not be surprising that the commemoration fits easily into a neo-liberalised Ireland, failing entirely to expose its glaring injustices, but we should at least be aware that our form of commemorating also contains its biases and its selective readings of history. It therefore fails gravely to do justice to the social and political vision that inspired most of those who participated in the events of the Rising.

Unlike the centenary celebrations of 1798, we can have little hope that the centenary we celebrate over these weeks will inspire a new revolutionary generation, though we have a great need of such. It is ironic that, at a time when our politics is fragmenting and showing a very poor ability to incubate a new project of social justice, we use this opportunity of commemoration to legitimise the present rather than to critique it. What is missing is any robust debate about the kind of future that might more faithfully represent the ideals of the generation of 1916.

Yet, maybe some seeds may be sown, despite our best efforts to avoid this. For, whatever about the top-down celebrations, organised with the full backing of the state (despite attempts by Sinn Féin to hijack the centenary for its partisan political purposes), no one can control the impacts on the consciousness of a younger generation.

Roy Foster recounts in his book Vivid Faces how ‘the energetic and imaginative young Ulsterman Patrick McCartan, who would become influential in revolutionary circles on both sides of the Atlantic’, was ‘exposed to the full force of the 1898 commemorations’ when he attended St Macartan’s College, Monaghan. McCartan recalled that these ‘raised a nice little spirit among the boys’ who discussed Fenianism and revolutionary tactics when given a life of Wolfe Tone to read (42).

There is some evidence that the 1916 commemorations are awakening a new awareness among the generation coming to adulthood of the origins of the state they take so much for granted. Might we dare hope that this could lead to a more robust examination of the glaring injustices of contemporary Ireland and a dedication to address these through a more imaginative and creative politics? Now, that would be a worthy outcome!

Election 2016: moving us towards Ireland’s ‘new left’ moment?

It’s been called a political ‘earthquake’, ‘avalanche’, ‘volcano’ of greater significance than the dramatic results of the 2011 election. Many are left scratching their heads as to what the results of Election 2016 tell us about what is happening to the Irish party political system.

In seeking to assess its meaning, the important first point is to place it in the context of longer-term shifts as no one election on its own is sufficient to understand the shape of the future Irish political party system that is emerging. But it is clear that fundamental shifts are taking place, with something emerging that will be a radical reconfiguration of the system that emerged in the late 1920s/early 1930s out of more than a decade of civil strife.

The first and obvious sign of fundamental change is that between them Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have achieved less than 50% of the votes cast for the first time since the 1920s. And it is the circumstances of this decline that marks its significance. For, over the past nine decades, the one alternative offered to voters when they were dissatisfied with the party in power was to switch allegiance to the other side: either FF or FG/Labour (+ others on a few occasions).

Clearly this is no longer the case. Now all the discussion is how FG and FF together offer the only realistic option for the formation of a government. Not only does this force together parties that have no fundamental differences of political ideology between them (but of course have very deep differences of history and political culture) but, more significantly, it opens up a new space to their left.

What might fill this space is now the crucial question that is going to determine the new shape of the Irish party system. It is very hard to read right now either the party or parties that might fill this space, or how long it might take to stabilise.  But the options out of which it will emerge are becoming clearer.

The most familiar model that stabilised itself throughout much of western Europe in the post-war period is that a strong social democratic party might fill that space. Of course, this model is now breaking up with new radical parties emerging both on the right and the left in most countries.

While the disaster that befell Labour in this election does not seem to offer much prospect of a strong social democratic alternative emerging on the centre left, it is important to remember that one of the great successes of Election 2016 were the Social Democrats with their TDs topping the poll in each of their constituencies and fresh candidates doing well elsewhere. Their critique of the auction politics of the main parties was the one message that seemed to find resonance with a tired electorate. So the emergence of a strong social democratic grouping in time (a single party or a grouping of parties that work closely together) is not unlikely.

To the left of the social democratic option, there are two options. The one that is familiar from other European countries is the Trotskyist left, represented in Ireland by the AAA-PBP alliance. In no country has this political force emerged as more than a critical voice on the margins of the left, and while it appears that it is establishing itself as a permanent force in the Irish party system, it is unlikely to provide the basis for a governing alternative.

What is unique to Ireland is the option offered by Sinn Féin. Though the leaders of Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain, like to include Sinn Féin as being similar to them, this fails to take into account the history of the party and the conditions that led to its effective refounding since the hunger strikes of the early 1980s. While it has increased its parliamentary strength in Election 2016, it faces to major challenges if it is to be offer the stable basis for a progressive alternative.

The first is the toxic drag of its past that continues to limit its electoral impact. Without this, it is likely to have made a more decisive breakthrough on this occasion. This may weaken in time as memories of the Troubles fade, but the other challenge is the extent to which it offers a real alternative. The campaign it fought on this occasion mirrored far too closely the auction politics that failed to engage with much of the electorate.

Apart from these options, the one grouping that made a real breakthrough in Election 2016 are the independents. This is a unique phenomenon in European politics, due in part to the nature of our electoral system. But the real significance of the very large vote for them is that it constitutes what political analysts call an ‘anti-politics politics’, namely a rejection of the mainstream options.

But, as we saw with the emergence of a wave of anti-politics politics in Latin America in the 1990s, this usually marks a phase as a political system moves through a rejection of the old while awaiting the new to emerge. The new can happen through new left-wing parties being born or through existing parties combining in new ways, but stability requires developing a more coherent alternative.

Finally, any analysis of what we can call the ‘correlation of political forces’ presupposes that whatever forces emerge within the political system have some realistic alternative to offer beyond electoral slogans and promises. This is where a great weakness exists in the Irish system, as was illustrated so vividly during Election 2016. For we are still at a very early stage in the incubation of a serious and credible alternative project for Irish society to that of the centre-right parties whose style of politics still dominates. This issue requires much more attention.