A recent feature in the Financial Times might cause some surprise among Ireland’s eight thousand homeless, or the many others struggling with the spiralling cost of renting even modest accommodation.
The article reported that the Republic is now enjoying one of the most remarkable economic revivals the European Union has seen, and that the country’s sovereign borrowing costs are now the same as those of France.
This piece of good news, for some at least, was part of a recent “Person in the News” article that gave a glowing account of the new taoiseach, Leo “early rising” Varadkar.¹ The article contained the type of trite nonsense more often produced by Varadkar’s social-media spin machine. Young, handsome, clubbable, assertive prime minister, and—wait for it—“probably more centre-right as opposed to the non-ideological person which Enda Kenny was.”
Well, there you have it: journalistic licence at its most unperceptive. To speculate that any leader of Fine Gael could possibly be “non-ideological” requires a lively imagination, but to suggest that Leo Varadkar might be centre-right is to do a hard-line neo-liberal a grave injustice.
For almost three decades after the beginning of the Thatcher-Reagan era’s onslaught on working people’s rights and entitlements, capitalist ruling classes everywhere were able to maintain control and hold the political high ground.
They achieved this through a combination of factors. The collapse of socialist states in eastern Europe removed the threat of a competitive alternative. Their control of media and educational institutions granted the world’s oligarchs an almost uncontested telling of the political and economic narrative. Moreover, the creation of unlimited and ultimately unsustainable credit provided an illusion of prosperity and dynamism that offset opposition from the left, or indeed words of caution from the small number of critical classical free-market economists.
The political calm enjoyed and exploited by capitalism’s elite ended with the economic crisis heralded by the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the subsequent imposition of what is euphemistically called austerity. Working people in Europe, the United States and elsewhere reacted angrily to a brutal attack on their standard of living and challenged the legitimacy of the status quo. While the response over the entire spectrum of the working class has not always been progressive, it is nevertheless of concern to the ruling elite.
Consequently, we are now seeing the emergence of a twin-track strategy from within capitalism. Firstly, there is the emergence of reactionary politicians posing as non-ideological centrists. Leo Varadkar and the promotional propaganda he generates exemplify this phenomenon in Ireland.
Secondly, and almost invisibly, there is a subversive and corrosive campaign to legislate for and implement free-market trade agreements beneficial only to global corporate giants. While Donald Trump spoke loudly during his presidential campaign of ending such agreements, he has not made good on his boast since arriving in the White House. Although he stalled development on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) between the EU and the United States and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), almost all other trade deals remain in place.
And now, in another spectacular U-turn, his associates are intent on resuming negotiations in September on a pernicious treaty called the Trade in Services Agreement (TISA).
State-appointed delegates from twenty-two countries, together with the EU, represented by its Commission, have been meeting in secret in Geneva since 2013. Regrettably, the Irish state is complicit in this scheme, about which the EU’s own web site says: “Like any other trade negotiations, the TiSA talks are not carried out in public and the documents are available to participants only . . .”
What we do know is drawn from leaked sources obtained by the International Trade Union Confederation and published in a report, “All About TISA.”² This report tells us that TISA would (a) lead to a massive transfer of power from governments to transnational corporations, (b) lead to strangulation of the regulation of banks and finance, and (c) hasten the “Uberisation” of many more jobs.
Moreover, there is heavy emphasis on an all-encompassing locked-in clause, which simply means that, once enacted, there would be no retracting any aspect of the treaty.
Any such trade pact would have detrimental consequences for Ireland. Not only would transnationals, such as Shell and Apple, gain increasing influence within the state but also our already limited ability to control the financial sector would disappear completely. Interestingly, Scott Sinclair, a senior researcher with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, now argues that TISA would also make it harder for governments to regulate vital services, such as energy and water³—a barely visible clause that would potentially offer the Varadkar-led Fine Gael–Fianna Fáil axis a vehicle with which to reverse the gains made by the campaign against the water tax.
As a Swiss trade unionist recently said, despairingly, if this treaty is implemented national parliaments become virtually irrelevant, and popular sovereignty is grabbed by transnational capital.
Fortunately, though, all is not lost, and there is an answer to our difficulties. The above-mentioned water campaign provides a lesson in how to organise a peaceful and democratic mass movement capable of foiling the designs of neo-liberalism.
Moreover, we have witnessed recently the beginning of an encouraging and indeed significant coming together of crucial progressive forces. Rallying under the slogan Unity of our people, unity of progressive forces, unity of our country, communists, republicans and trade unionists came together to hear a leading trade unionist, John Douglas, deliver an inspirational oration at the grave of Theobald Wolfe Tone.
A central theme of the speech was the need to build a progressive movement in order to reverse the damage done by neo-liberal austerity in general and to prevent specific attacks on workers, such as the TISA treaty. “There is an untapped hunger for change and justice in Ireland that we need to give expression to,” he said, “. . . and we can only do this through the unity of progressive forces.” He went on to add: “Our task now is to build from the ground up, to educate, to agitate. We need to build a movement that is capable and confident and which grows with every victory.”
John Douglas has undoubtedly got it right. To build a movement sufficiently confident and capable of opposing and overcoming the neo-liberal agenda we must create unity among progressive forces. The recent united commemoration for Wolfe Tone was not only a positive first step along this road but indicated the real potential that exists.
Evidence of success will be when a future Financial Times “Person in the News” article publishes the story of a leading Irish trade unionist who is causing as much distress for capital as Varadkar is providing for its comfort today.
1. Laura Noonan, “The bright young man leading an Irish revival,” Financial Times, 19 August 2017.
2. (a) International Trade Union Confederation, “All about TiSA” (www.ituc-csi.org/all-about-tisa); (b) further information is available on the UNI Global Union web site (http://bit.ly/1Qlw9xf).
3. Scott Sinclair, “TISA Troubles: Services, Democracy and Corporate Rule in the Trump Era,” Rosa Luxemburg Institute (www.rosalux.eu).