Can Parliamentary Democracy Rescue Private Enterprise?
Deaglán de Bréadún
Got an intriguing email from Padraig Yeates, formerly a colleague of mine on The Irish Times, now a press spokesman for the Siptu trade union. The heading was, “The Only Economist Who Got It Right”. Who could it be, I wondered? Morgan Kelly? Michael Casey? Paul Sweeney?I left the message unopened for a few days, as you do. This wasn’t notice of a press conference by Brian Cowen or Enda Kenny. Eventually I opened it this morning to read: “The Only Economist Who Got It Right – and he’s been dead for over 120 years.” There followed this quotation:
“Owners of capital will stimulate the working class to buy more and more expensive goods, houses and technology, pushing them to take more and more expensive credits, until their debt becomes unbearable. The unpaid debt will lead to bankruptcy of banks, which will have to be nationalised, and the State will have to take the road which will eventually lead to communism“
You’ve probably guessed it, His Eminence Karl Marx, in Das Kapital, published in 1867. This quotation, or similar ones, have been flying around cyberspace since the current crisis began. I note also, from passing through downtown Dublin, that groups styling themselve Marxist are displaying their posters and inviting people to hear their “take” on the situation.
Whether one is a Marxist or not, there is no doubt that this is a crisis of capitalism. Apart from the prediction that communism is inevitable, Marx’s analysis is spot-on. Well, he was a journalist after all.
Having soared to heights of unprecedented prosperity, we are now plunged into what bears alarming resemblances to an abyss. Capitalism has survived deep crises before and may do so this time. State intervention is the order of the day. Parliamentary democracy is on a rescue mission for private enterprise.
It will only work if there is, in that time-honoured phrase, “consent of the governed”. Here in Ireland, we see public sector workers faced with substantial sacrifices which are being made, in essence, to save the banking system. Even our precious pension fund is to be used to shore up the banks.
Meanwhile the banks show no obvious signs of gratitude. Top bankers’ salaries remain astronomical and we even hear talk of bonuses. The Government is trying to get the bankers to moderate their appetites and have even taken pay-cuts themselves.
It’s a big test for the political system. In the last ten years or so, Leinster House has itself acquired many of the aspects of a gravy-train. A startling statistic was put before me at the weekend by a seasoned political observer. Your typical Opposition frontbencher pulls in something like €2m in pay and expenses over a ten-year period. So why go to the trouble and travail of getting into government?
Today there will be a teachers’ picket on the Anglo-Irish Bank. No doubt there will be photographs in the papers tomorrow of the placards which will probably say something like, “Bankers prosper; the people pay”.
And indeed there is a growing perception in the place politicians call “Out There” that we have a cosy conspiracy in this country between our elected rulers and the financial sector. It’s potentially very damaging to democracy. The Government and, indeed, the Opposition must make greater sacrifices to demonstrate their sincerity to the populace. And they must go after those bankers who are flaunting their greed and their cleverality in the faces of the nation.
In my capacity as a journalist, I have met a number of people in the upper echelons of the banking sector. These particular individuals are sensible and intelligent and must be well aware of the dangers in the present situation. I hope they can exercise some restraint over the sector generally.
One of the differences between this crisis and the previous ones is that emigration does not seem to be the viable option it once was. One hears talk of Australia and Canada but they, too, are feeling the pinch. In the past, this was a safety-valve which reduced the possiblity of social disorder (and inhibited social change, too, unfortunately).
The only comparable period is the early 1930s when the US economy closed-down and emigrants returned even to poverty-stricken Ireland. That was a time of great upheaval when democracy was in peril and was, in effect, abolished in several European countries. We don’t want to go through all that again.
Should there be a national government? It wouldn’t be very democratic! But watching the usual argy-bargy between Brian Lenihan and Eamon Gilmore last night, one wondered if there wasn’t a case for it. Oppositions are there to oppose and if they don’t, they are not doing their job. But in the present situation even normal opposition politics can have the effect of validating the viewpoint of more destructive forces that are currently lying dormant in our society.
We are embarked on a journey to an unknown destination. The ship has hit an iceberg. It’s not sinking yet but there are some alarming leaks in the hold. The crew are working frantically below decks. But there aren’t any lifeboats.