Do we want a co-ordinated market economy?

David Begg recently published a paper called “Trade Unions and the Common Good,” which forms the opening of the second report of the Commission on the Irish Trade Union Movement. This was established to reform the trade union movement, with the ultimate goal of reducing the number of unions to fewer than ten and centralising the movement in a federal structure under the ICTU.

This is a hugely important process and one that should have the active attention of all trade unionists. Yet despite its far-reaching aims and goals, there has been virtually no discussion of it among elected representatives or rank-and-file activists. The Trade Union Left Forum encourages all union members to read both reports (available on this site and also on the ICTU website) and to engage your own unions on this question.

Most striking about Begg’s paper is his presentation of what a progressive economy might look like, as a “co-ordinated market economy”, fully accepting that Ireland remains an “open” economy, as if there is a common desire for this within the movement, despite there having been no democratic discussion or debate on the subject.

Begg sees this “co-ordinated market economy” as flowing from deeper integration within the European Union, and suggests a closer relationship of the trade union movement to the Labour Party. This completely ignores the reality that the EU is in fact a principal cause of the economic crisis in Ireland, and has unjustly imposed the burden of the crisis on working people, with the active support of the Labour Party, as well as of social-democratic parties throughout Europe. Has socialised corporate debt been repudiated or has austerity ended in any European country where a social-democratic party was in government?

Begg also fails to acknowledge that much of his lauded Norwegian model is based on the country’s control of its natural resources, a demand that is missing from his presentation. In fact national control or ownership of any part of the economy is almost entirely missing from his vision. The closest he comes to this is calling for “national champions” and state intervention in the form of a state holding company in which the public and the private sector would collaborate to invest presumably in more of the failed and costly public-private partnerships.

Begg’s analysis fails to describe or to understand the actual reality of monopoly capitalism today. It is not about what capitalism should be but what it actually is. Capitalism is responsible for this crisis, and for poverty and for unemployment: these are not “unjust effects,” as he calls them.

Production and jobs are moving to low-wage countries. Technological improvements in production replace jobs and produce more, creating a massive imbalance in supply and consumption. Debt is being used to fuel consumption in increasingly wasteful products. Profits and growth in the real economy have been stagnant for decades. Capitalist growth is in direct contradiction to our planetary and environmental needs. Financial products, tax evasion and massive illegal trafficking have been used to absorb surplus capital and find profits. Wages in real terms have consistently declined in the west.

These are features of the system and cannot be undone by a policy tweak here or there.
If Begg’s “co-ordinated market economy” is allowed to be the vision of the trade union movement, our decline will continue and our irrelevance grow with it.

Socialists—those who believe in a planned and socially owned and controlled economy—should be warned of the direction in which this commission is driving the trade union movement and need to argue for a political economy for the working class, one that recognises class struggle and recognises the critical question of the generation of wealth and the ownership of wealth as being central to our needs for a democratic economy and a democratic Ireland.