Advance or retreat?

The people’s right to the ownership of Ireland:

What does this mean today, and how do we get there? Advance or retreat?

Desmond Greaves School, Dublin, September 2016

The recent EU ruling on “state aid” by Ireland to Apple brings into sharp focus the related topics of sovereignty, ownership of the economy, and the right of the collective over the right of private individuals and corporations.

On the one hand you have a European court telling Ireland we cannot give special treatment to certain companies, or provide state aid, or interfere with the market, as they have determined it. Essentially, we are not sovereign in our economic affairs. On the other hand you have the Irish Government doing special deals with an important American monopoly corporation, facilitating them in evading the already low 12½ per cent tax and illegally evading billions in much-needed tax while hundreds of thousands of citizens are in crucial need of state services.

In many ways this reveals the position of Ireland within global capitalism: a former British colony shaped in every way by that status and essentially now an Anglo-American neo-colony, but within the European Union.

We are part of the political and economic structures of German-French imperialism, the EU, but at the same time an important economic part of the US empire and its network of capital flow and companies. Our ruling class has one foot in each camp.

When it comes to water charges they tell us the EU makes them do it, but when it comes to this present issue with Apple they say the EU can’t make them. The jingoistic ‘patriotism’ from FG/FF, egged on by the media, over this Apple issue is comical and does not fool our class, not this time I don’t think. But it does reveal the almost unique position of Ireland and the ruling class in Ireland. It isn’t a question of “good national” versus “bad international”; these are just frictions between the local domestic ruling class and its more powerful allies.

And if we are honest we don’t deserve the taxes. The vast bulk of the wealth of Apple is created by poorly paid and treated Asian workers. Don’t get me wrong we should take the money, the State has colluded with Apple to evade tax but the money should be given mostly to those Asian workers who created it. To not have this as a position is to except that Ireland and Irish workers should benefit from the super-exploitation of those workers. It is to accept Ireland’s position within global imperialism and to support the extraction of surplus and capital from the east to the west which is a key part of the system today.

The Irish ruling class, to avoid more class compromise locally, has made strong alliances internationally and so relies heavily on the EU and the United States to maintain its hegemonic position. It receives economic, political and ideological patronage from abroad to maintain its rule here—the alternative, of course, being compromise and an alliance with the working class to build a national capitalist development that challenges the hegemonic powers of others, such as can be seen elsewhere but that also opens the way for the necessary transformation and transition to socialism. The ruling class, the O’Brien’s et al, obviously don’t want that and so we have the final and complete victory of Redmondism. The politics and ideology of John Redmond are hegemonic in Ireland today. The Irish State is, and wants to be, part of Imperialism not in opposition to it.

But the fundamental question of people’s rights versus individual rights and ownership is more crucial now than ever before. The world is on the brink of ruinous environmental destruction that is already killing off many species and does in fact threaten the reproduction of the human species. So this peoples’ right to the ownership of Ireland expressed 100 years ago is more crucial now than those who expressed it could possibly have imagined.


A simple right

The people’s right to the ownership of Ireland: how has such a simple and noble aspiration remained unfulfilled a hundred years later? Unfortunately, this seemingly apolitical value comes into conflict with the overwhelmingly dominant social and economic system, monopoly capitalism. It is an extremely political value; in fact it is the essence of class politics. Ownership. Private or common. Individual or collective. The small minority or the vast majority. The 1 per cent or the 99 per cent. Workers versus the bosses.

Sadly, we have probably never been further away from this aspiration than when it was written in 1916. Yet in other ways the crisis of monopoly capitalism, a crisis that is going on and on and seems unlikely to let up, potentially endless, creates opportunities to really push to achieve this right to common, collective and social ownership.

I’m not going to list out statistics, or put forward a neat ten-point plan. There are many of these out there. There are many excellent critiques of the inhumanity, inequality and injustice of the world, as there are also many excellent alternative programmes and policy propositions. Instead I want to focus on the political economy of achieving this right. I want to look at the world as it is and how trying to achieve progress towards a system based on people’s ownership will present difficult options, repeatedly asking the question, Advance towards socialism or retreat to monopoly capitalism and the neo-liberal order?

Mobilising the working class isn’t easy. The odds are stacked against us. But that has always been the way. It’s hard to imagine a revolution now in the classic sense of seizing state power in the midst of violent conflict; and so the immediate potential progress towards common ownership, for us in Ireland, is likely to be more gradual. This means that the question of advance or retreat is likely to be asked more often, in more subtle ways and not always in the form we want. Therefore, the need for greater political awareness and understanding within our class is even more necessary than during times of violent upheaval and near-zero-sum options.

Each advance will open more contradictions and present more difficult questions, not as we would wish them but as a hostile global economic, political, media and military order presents them. There is no point denying this reality. We have to understand it and educate, organise and agitate our way through it.


1916, 1919, and Bolivia today

The 1916 Proclamation declared “the right of the Irish people to the ownership of Ireland, and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies, to be sovereign and indefeasible.” In 1916 Pearse wrote that “the nation’s sovereignty extends not only to all the material possessions of the nation, the nation’s soil and all its resources, all wealth and all wealth-producing processes within the nation. In other words, no private right to property is good as against the public right of the nation.”

Connolly stated, also in 1916, that “the re-conquest [that is, of Ireland] involves taking possession of the entire country, all its powers of wealth-production and all its natural resources, and organising these on a co-operative basis for the good of all.”

The Democratic Programme of 1919 developed this: “We declare in the words of the Irish Republican Proclamation the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland, and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies to be indefeasible, and in the language of the first President, Pádraig Mac Phiarais, we declare that the Nation’s sovereignty extends not only to all men and women of the Nation, but to all its resources, all the wealth and all the wealth-producing processes within the Nation, and with him we re-affirm that all rights to private property must be subordinated to the public right and welfare.”

Today, we might consider the Bolivian constitution, brought in by popular social mobilisation and, ultimately, by referendum in 2009, which states:

We, the Bolivian people, of plural composition, from the depths of history, inspired by the struggles of the past, by the anti-colonial indigenous uprising, and in independence, by the popular struggles of liberation, by the indigenous, social and labour marches, by the water and October wars, by the struggles for land and territory, construct a new State in memory of our martyrs.

        A State based on respect and equality for all, on principles of sovereignty, dignity, interdependence, solidarity, harmony, and equity in the distribution and redistribution of the social wealth, where the search for a good life predominates; based on respect for the economic, social, juridical, political and cultural pluralism of the inhabitants of this land; and on collective coexistence with access to water, work, education, health and housing for all.


Loan sharks and enforcers

Right-wing and populist economic commentators love to reduce matters of the national economy to our family household situation. They are usually not helpful and actually are used to disguise the real forces at play. But let me try to present a useful one.

My wife and I decide together, with some (limited) input from a seven-year-old and two three-year-olds, what our priority expenses are: what has to be paid for us all to continue as happily as possible. We pool all incomes and cover our costs. What we want to avoid, as far as possible, is loans, because we know that once indebted to these lenders, some legal but many illegal, we’ve lost control and we will be locked into debt, pay-back, exorbitant and penalising increases in interest rates, sometimes with the ultimate threat of repossession and violence.

This is the situation we all want to avoid, even if we can’t always, but that many families face every day, because public right and welfare has been subordinated to private ownership and to private accumulation in a system called capitalism.

Yet this state seems happy to exist on this basis. It goes to these money-lenders and, yes, it too faces the ultimate threat of violent action, often in the form of “austerity” programmes against us. Where the loan shark might seize my car or television, the international banks will seize a Greek island or public utilities.

The same loss of control and sovereignty a family suffers when indebted to a loan shark or credit institution the state suffers when it is structurally indebted to banks, lending institutions, and the whole political, economic and military apparatus associated with this.


The world as it actually is

The world is not as we wish it to be. Questions are not always posed as we wish them to be. Contradictions in the system and structures do not always give us an easy choice or option—take the Brexit choice as an example. The debate on Brexit was deliberately framed around immigration, and not democracy, sovereignty or public ownership as it should have been, and many on the left fell for this. Or what if, for example, we decided we wanted to fully fund and support a health service that marginalised and forced out private, profit-making health companies. This would no doubt lead to a breach of fiscal, funding and competition rules within the EU. But that debate and choice would no doubt be framed and presented in a hostile zero sum way with the full force of the establishment against the choice of public ownership.

This is the reality of the world as it is. Democracy and the people’s right to collective and social ownership as a priority ahead of private ownership creates conflict with capitalism and with the global order. Pursuing a direction of the people’s right to the ownership of Ireland will quickly bring about the question of advance to socialism or retreat to the economic straitjacket of global monopoly capitalism.

The question of “socialism or barbarism” is not just a moral question: today it is the question that capitalism presents us with if we want the human race to survice.

Monopoly capitalism has been stagnating for decades. Growth has been steadily declining and this is despite the opening up of former socialist countries as new markets. It’s profitability in real production has been squeezed. It suffers numerous crisis of over-production, over-investment, over-accumulation and under consumption. It moves jobs from the west to the east to cheapen production while at the same time undermining its purchasing and consumer base in the west. It creates more weird and wonderful financial investment products as a way of absorbing surplus capital which creates more risk, debt and bubbles in the system.

It is now opening up and privatising virtually all avenues. Nothing is sacred any longer. That is why people campaigning for a nationalised public health service is a direct attack on capital, on its ability to reproduce itself. That is why proposing reasonable reforms in health or natural resources actually create the question of advance to socialism or retreat to neo-liberalism.

Acknowledging and confronting this question head on and in the course of political mobilisation through serious political education is vital if we are to maintain the people’s, and in particular working-class, support when inevitably confronted with the question of advance or retreat.

The world as it is is uneven. Class-consciousness, material productive forces and the balance of class power vary from country to country and region to region of the world. Progressive movements, as witnessed in Greece, will emerge in countries at different times, and they may have the opportunity to govern and therefor the opportunity to push forward and face the crossroads of advance or retreat.

We have seen the failure of SYRIZA and should learn from this. They put forward mild reforms, and at the crossroads they retreated. This retreat has significantly damaged working-class power in Greece and has strengthened monopoly capitalism in Greece, Europe, and the world. But for SYRIZA to advance its initially proposed reforms would not have been enough, and further and faster advance to socialism would have been required for Greece to meet even the initially mild reforms put forward by SYRIZA.

This is the era we are in. No single reform is enough, or will survive by itself. Each one will have massive consequences and so will require further reforms. To pay for policies and programmes, further nationalisations will be needed. To budget successfully, restrictions on capital outflows will be needed, etc., etc.


With or without the EU!

For those statements of 1916 and 1919 to be real and living, for us not to be trapped in a perpetual cycle of debt and money-lenders, we need to adopt a position of “with or without” the EU, the IMF, FDI, the United States, and Britain. If we choose a course of action that is democratically decided upon by the people that is opposed by the EU, or these other forces, then we must proceed without them and brave the consequences.

This is what will make each question of progress one of advance or retreat, and make each change along the path of advance present new questions of advancing to socialism or retreating to capitalism. In all likelihood, whether it is repudiating certain debts, supporting public enterprise, or taxing a particular import or wealth category, our membership of the euro and the EU will become untenable, and we will need to lead a progressive exit.

To advance towards a people-based economy and political structure means deepening a commitment to socialism during the mobilisation phase. This will require an understanding of short-term policies and longer-term strategic goals. It will also require, most importantly, addressing the issue of control and sovereignty of our borders over capital, labour, goods, and services.

We must choose our issues wisely and the timing of advances, although often contradictions will emerge not as we wish or at the time of our choosing. At each point of change we need to be shifting the balance of power to labour if reform is to lead to advance and transformation. Each reform will have consequences that will need to be resolved through strengthening labour and workers’ mobilisation. This is the advance to socialism. Otherwise reforms will be illusory or temporary but will not deepen the people’s ownership of this country and its resources.

In a hostile world, where our principles might suggest openness to us, often a more closed approach will be required. Understanding, explaining and winning hearts and minds is necessary, indeed crucial. Progress toward collective and common ownership will create conflict, conflict with those in power and in possession, and this must be understood if we are to achieve the radical Irish democratic and socialist tradition summed up by Pearse in the Sovereign People when he said, ‘The right to the control of the material resources of a nation does not reside in any individual or in any class of individuals; it resides in the whole people and can be lawfully exercised only by those to whom it is delegate by the whole people, and in the manner in which the whole people ordained.’ This remains the struggle and cause today. No retreat only advance.

Gareth Murphy, Trade Union Left Forum