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A dual crisis

The willingness of many to vote yes is just a further manifestation of a strange passivity that has gripped many Irish workers since the credit crunch. Many commentators and academics have predicted that the level of austerity would provoke revolt, yet blow has followed blow with little response. Nor is this simply an Irish phenomenon. The levels of response across Europe have mainly consisted of explosions of anger rather than a sustained campaign of resistance.

The levels of apathy are partly explained by the unremitting neo-liberal propaganda pumped out by the media. A much more direct explanation lies in a crisis of the traditional organizations of the working class. When workers turn to the social democratic parties they find they have firmly lined up with the bosses in favour of the austerity. When they turn to the trade unions they find that their leaderships are enmeshed in partnership agreements with the employers and the state. This takes a particularly acute form in Ireland, where partnership has been formally integrated with the state for decades.

So in Ireland the Labour Party is in government. In Greece it was the PASOK government that applied the merciless attacks on the working class, claiming that there is no alternative to capitalism's austerity programme. In Britain Labour promises a "fairer" version of the same economic programme as the coalition government. Bond markets tremble as Francois Hollande is elected as President of France because of his opposition to the stability pact, yet he does not oppose a single line of it. His "opposition" amounts to statements that he will renegotiate the pact so as to add on a job creation package. Not a single line of the existing pact, with its goal of austerity and its attempt to subvert democracy, is to be altered

This is the voice of Social Democracy and Trade unionism across Europe.

In Ireland trade unions echo their European counterparts. David Begg cries salt tears at the terrible nature of the Financial Stability Pact but declares we must support it. Jack O'Connor says SIPTU would support the pact if a job creation project were added. ICTU as a body proclaim neutrality, putting one in mind of the quote that neutrality always works in favour of the oppressor, never the oppressed.

The capitulation of the Trade Union and Labour leaderships extends back into history. Early in the history of modern mass trade unionism there came a division between worker and bureaucrat. Job conditions, wages and pensions were much superior to those of the membership. The new bureaucracy moved to protect its position by restricting democracy and establishing jobs for life for officials.

The new bureaucracy became a major force in the new labour parties. It became possible to enact new laws and regulations about wages and conditions and this was seen as preferable to the chaos and instability of industrial action. The ideology of reformism became dominant in the workers movement, with the idea that capitalism could gradually be improved until it gradually evolved into socialism. Of course it followed automatically that the reformists had to support capitalism and oppose revolution while they waited for their dream to become reality.

Reformism was also in the interests of capital. Wages had to be regulated and it was less disruptive for negotiations to be conducted at a national level than for production to be disrupted by local strikes. Forms of nationalisation offered secure and stable conditions on which private industry could rest. As long as the USSR appeared to offer an alternative concessions had to be offered to workers in the West. Above all, the boom that followed the second world war required a willingness to embrace deficit spending - a policy expressed in the ideology of Keynesianism.

In the 1970's capitalism began to change direction. A crisis of profitability was addressed through programs of privatisation, the deregulation and financialisation of capital and through a process of transferring production to areas with law wages.

A cycle of decay set in. Social Democracy and the trade unions accommodated the move to the right. Workers became demoralised and apathetic and this accelerated the rightward shift at the top.

Conditions in Ireland are especially extreme. Partition left the working class divided and weak and a mass social democratic party did not develop. Union bosses were subordinate to local capital, in turn utterly subordinate to imperialism and to trans-national capital. Decades of social partnership have fed a collapse of working class consciousness, a collapse magnified by the subsequent collapse of Irish republicanism.

Underpinning all political debate is the conviction that any sort of self-determination is impossible. Transnational companies will provide prosperity as long as we meet their every whim. The actual course of the Celtic Tiger, the totally unproductive nature of the vast majority of financial investment, the absolute corruption of the local kleptocracy - all are ignored.

A difficult road lies ahead. Not only must we fight against pauperization of ourselves and our children, we must construct in that battle a new trade unionism, a new party of the working class and a new economic programme that meets the needs of the workers and oppressed.

There really is no other choice.


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