No longer citizens, just customers

Column: as the State is dismantled piece by piece, the idea that we are citizens of a republic is an awkward, business-unfriendly anachronism

Preschool education is a vital public good. There is an overwhelming public interest in the provision of high quality early education to all children, regardless of their family circumstances.

Preschool education is a vital public good. There is an overwhelming public interest in the provision of high quality early education to all children, regardless of their family circumstances.

Tue, Jun 4, 2013, 12:00

Our usual way of dealing with scandals is to see them as vestiges of the bad old days, shadows cast by the past on our enlightened present. This is usually wrong, but it is especially so in the case of the scandal of bad childcare. The outrageous practices of some of the biggest commercial childcare providers are not throwbacks to the past. They are harbingers of the future.

There is a story we like to believe about the current, very profound crisis of the Irish State. It is that the State is going through a difficult time, but that it will gradually return to a familiar normality. We are paying for our sins. And after a period of repentance and suffering, we will go back to where we were. The markets will forgive us and we will have a functioning State again.

This misses the real story of so-called “austerity” – that it is a semipermanent condition. We signed up – very foolishly in my view – to operate, in effect, with balanced budgets. Without substantial economic growth, this means that, for the foreseeable future, the size of the State will have to keep shrinking. And this is precisely the point of the ideological agenda that masquerades as mere fiscal common sense.

The neoliberalism that has been so disastrous has not been weakened by its obvious failure. It has been enormously strengthened. The crisis has become an opportunity to push through to the ultimate goal of stripping down the State, turning public services into businesses and citizens into consumers.

We can see this at work in childcare. Preschool education is a vital public good. There is an overwhelming public interest in the provision of high quality early education to all children, regardless of their family circumstances.

Whether you have children or not, the long-term gains for society, for the economy and for the health of a democratic republic make this a perfect example of common interest and collective benefit. Childcare is a public project, an expression of a shared social commitment to common values.

This was recognised in the commitment of public resources to the provision of one year of free preschool education. But that commitment is trumped by a very different imperative – the logic of profit. Instead of childcare being a collective public project, it has been turned into just another business.

When Giraffe, the largest company involved in the Prime Time revelations, was getting under way in 2002, its directors, Mary Ann McCormack and Simon Dowling, spoke to the Irish Independent about how childcare “is now being viewed as a growth area” by investors.

Tellingly, they compared childcare to “the leisure sector”: “The dynamics between the two sectors are very similar. We have come across similar locations and have been talking to the same type of investors who have been looking at the leisure industry.”

This thinking is not an aberration. There is a clear and consistent strategy at work across a range of public services: we are being gradually retrained to stop thinking of ourselves as citizens with collective rights and to get used to the fact that we are individual customers of businesses whose sole motivation is profit.

The starkest example here is the role of a private company, Abtran, in the operation of the new property tax. The payment of taxes is a fundamental aspect of democratic citizenship. The property tax, painful as it is, should have been an opportunity to deepen local democracy by giving citizens a direct say over how their money is spent. Instead, Abtran was employed, at a cost of €5 million, to be the interface between citizens with questions about the property tax and the State. At this point, the citizen becomes a “customer”. Democratic rights become “customer service”.

This is not a temporary, one-off contingency. The Abtranisation of the State is a highly determined project. Abtran was given the job of dealing with queries about the new SUSI student grant system. That was such a roaring success that it got the property tax gig, in which one of its employees was found to be illegally collecting credit card details.

This triumph was rewarded last week with the news that Abtran will also be handling “customer care” for the new water taxes. The official statements heralding this announcement referred to us, the public who will pay these taxes, as “customers” and to our interaction with the State as “customer care solutions”.

That interaction will take place with unaccountable monopolies. For who lies behind these customer care solutions? Private, secret offshore entities. Giraffe is controlled by Yakota, an Isle of Man-registered company. Abtran is controlled by a secretive Virgin Islands entity. If you think the State is obtuse and unaccountable now, wait till you try to get accountability for bad childcare (or elder care), or for screw-ups with water meters, from an offshore private company.

As the State is dismantled piece by piece, the idea that we are citizens of a republic is an awkward, business-unfriendly anachronism. We must learn to be customers, hanging on the end of a premium-rate phone line, until someone deigns to talk to us in the Newspeak of customer-care solutions.

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