We will not find solutions in failed neoliberal mantras

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OPINION: The logic behind bailing out banks and austerity budgets is exactly what got us into this mess, writes RICHARD BOYD BARRETT

THE KEY issues underlying Ireland’s economic crisis are still not being fully identified and as a result a fair and practical solution has yet to be clearly articulated.

The depth of the Irish crisis is not simply the particularly Irish result of cronyism and corruption. Ireland’s woes arise from the fact that it was the international model for an economic doctrine, neoliberalism, that was promoted globally by economists, governments and bodies such as the International Monetary Fund, World Bank, World Trade Organisation and the EU.

The importance of Ireland as an economic model is personified in figures like former finance minister Charlie McCreevy, who championed “light touch” (ie no) regulation in the Irish economy and was rewarded with a job as EU commissioner for internal competition. Businessman Peter Sutherland – chairman of Goldman Sachs International and former director of Royal Bank of Scotland (banks up to their neck in the sub-prime madness that wrecked the global economy), a former director general of the World Trade Organization and retired EU competition commissioner (where he promoted deregulation in Europe) – was also a key figure in, and very influential on, the Irish political establishment, both for Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael.

Sutherland’s mantra, echoed by politicians across the globe, is there is no alternative to bailing out the banks and imposing severe austerity on ordinary people. It can be summed up as: markets, profits and competition before everything and everyone else. This viewpoint is the root of our problem not its solution. It was the ruthless pursuit of profit and the removal of all obstacles to competition that fuelled the bubble economics that crashed the global economy and saw its most extreme expression in Ireland.

It is only if we can break from this failed doctrine that the way out of the mess will come into view. For the Irish economy, the broad parameters of a practical alternative economic strategy are really quite simple:

Stop pouring billions into bankrupt private banks to pay off speculators and bondholders. Redirect that money into a publicly controlled State bank that will invest in the economy to create jobs, stimulate real enterprise and develop strategic, sustainable industry.

Introduce progressive tax reform, whereby those earning more than €100,000 per year are taxed at much higher rates and tax loopholes for the super-wealthy are closed. In the public sector, pay no one more than €100,000 per year.

Use the hundreds of thousands of empty residential and commercial properties for social housing and public enterprise.

Renegotiate terms with Shell and other multinational companies, who were given vast gas resources off our west coast, to ensure the Irish people receive the royalties they are due from the exploitation of their own natural resources.

But could all this be done? Rory Hearne, in a recent article (“The Voice of Experience”, Opinion and Analysis, October 12th) implies that hopes for radical political change in the near future are impractical and, having recently “matured” politically, he now believes only slower piecemeal change is practical.

Unfortunately, such an incremental approach is precisely what failed to halt the neoliberal “all for profit” juggernaut over the last 20 years. This approach was precisely the logic behind the embrace of so-called social partnership that was the helpful twin of Celtic Tiger greed. The much lauded “success” of social partnership has now been exposed as a shocking failure that provided the gloss over a rotten landscape of corruption, greed, junkets and economic sabotage.

The alternative road to a just society and sustainable economy – where the needs of many are put before the greed of a few – is being played out on the streets of France. There the ability of ordinary people to influence their future and the character of their society is based first on their collective mass strength – measured on the streets and in the factories.

But do protests work? Yes. The great struggles for democracy, the right to vote or join a union, freedom from oppression, or for civil rights, have only and always been achieved by means of mass movements. But they must be big enough; determined and sustained.

James Connolly and Jim Larkin often repeated a phrase first coined in the French Revolution: “The great only appear great because we are on our knees – let us arise.” A glimpse of this potential was seen when the pensioners refused to accept the proposed cuts to their medical card entitlements. Sadly, the subsequent Ictu-led protests were wound down when they should have been sustained.

Before the current slash and burn policies turn recession into a 1930s-style depression, it is time urgently to build a new movement, based on the simple yet profound principle that people should come before profit. This principle can respond to the most local concerns and guarantee basics such as decent housing and public services. But it can equally address the larger national and international requirements for a fundamental economic reorientation, capable of generating jobs, sustainable industry, a stable financial system and real economic wealth.

More than at any time in history, the mass of ordinary people today have the ability, education and social conscience to construct that kind of movement for a just, fair and sustainable society.

The pre-budget demonstration, calling for a budget for people not bankers, being planned for Saturday, November 27th, in Dublin might be a good place to start assembling this movement.


Richard Boyd Barrett is a councillor in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown and a member of the People Before Profit Alliance

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