They’re making it up as they go along— Part 1

Posted: April 15, 2011 in politics
Tags: , , , , , , , ,
Trotsky reading the Militant in 1931

Image via Wikipedia

The bloody birth of a blog post: You see something or you read something, and it makes you angry first and then it makes you think. In the case of this article, that “something” was a sign that the Fine Gaelers put up in Galway near Claddagh Park. This was during the election campaign, this has been brewing and going rotten at the back of my head since then. The sign said:

“GIVE CREDIT TO SMALL AND MEDIUM ENTERPRISES- THE BACKBONE OF OUR ECONOMY”

(or something like that- maybe they said SMEs).

I asked Leon Trotsky about this and he said, “In this simple billboard in Galway, to the naked eye an element barely significant, we see in fact the magnificent summit of the mighty immovable rock that is bourgeois parliamentary imbecility. Give credit to small and medium brains- the backbone of our liberal parliament.” To be honest I wanted to say something similar myself. I’ve not said it because it sounds a bit up myself. But I’ve let you in on what Leon said so that you get an idea how it made me feel, and in what spirit I’m writing this blog post.

Can small and medium-sized businesses be “the backbone” of any economy? Shops, restaurants, niche suppliers- that’s the scale we’re talking. They could definitely be the metacarpals or phalanges of the economy. Femur or tibia would be stretching it, but plausible. Ribs, I guess.

You could have an economy in which SME’s are the backbone, where you’ve got millions of people either well-paid professionals or working behind counters and in their spare time buying stuff off each other to keep the economy afloat—

just it’d be shit.

All the large-scale manufacturing has to be shipped off to where people work harder for less and the dictatorship doesn’t allow unions. That’s what Reagan and Thatcher were all about, and in Britain and America huge sections of the working class are living in the wasteland of de-industrialization. Ireland, on the other hand, which never industrialized in the first place— but we’ll come to that.

It’s not profitable for big business to employ a strong, united working class that lives in a democracy. That’s the strange world we’re living in, of course, but my point is that a services-based economy simply can’t employ everyone. It demands that you keep huge swathes of the population on welfare. At the same time, you have to banish production to places where $2 a day and a kick in the arse is the best the local workers can hope for. That’s the sinister meaning behind the pro-business propaganda that this sign typifies.

Ireland doesn’t have an economic backbone, really, and that’s the problem. The backbone was construction, but in 2008 that backbone was surgically removed by reality. Similar story all over the wealthier countries of the world: reality caught up with the credit binge that kept Capitalism bearable for a lot of us for so many years. And shoving more loans up the arse of our economy won’t replace the missing backbone, it will just make us bleed horribly.

From that quick, sweeping anatomy of an economy we turn to dissect a billboard and what it says about our country’s future. Why would someone trying to get elected raise such a brainless slogan? Why would they get away with it?

You can read this billboard in more than one way. One way of rephrasing it is:

GIVE CREDIT TO SMEs- I HAPPEN TO OWN SEVERAL

Or it could mean, literally,

GIVE FINANCIAL CREDIT TO SMEs

Sure, why not? Stop the bailouts, compensate people on the basis of need, start up a genuine banking system run by democratic committees of the working class who can lend money to small businesses. Good start.

As this wasn’t a major plank of Fine Gael policy, though, I doubt that’s what the billboard meant. It meant kind of moral credit; fair play to them, out there on the frontlines, employing people AND making money: selflessly looking after themselves, walking evidence for the principles of capitalism. With this in mind we can provide a translation of the slogan based on actual Fine Gael policy:

GIVE CREDIT TO THE BOSSES OF SMEs- DON’T COMPLAIN WHEN THEY SCREW THEIR WORKERS

This wasn’t an isolated billboard. According to people like Mark Fielding of ISME, a decent wage is an obstacle to, rather than a prerequisite for, giving someone a job. That’s the kind of twisted logic that comes out of a twisted system. And like so much, it comes down to the capitalist system:  it would be avoiding the problem to say that all SME owners are scummy greedy rich fuckers who are making plenty of money but are using the recession as an excuse to drive down wages. Many of them are, of course. But when some right-winger argues that SMEs need to exploit just to survive, they’re scoring an own goal without realizing it.

When you’re criticizing something as huge and all-pervasive as Capitalism, sometimes it can be frustrating trying to keep up with the constantly-shifting frontlines of the debate. For instance, the very same person might tell me on two different days two different things: on Day One they might deny that Capitalism is an inherently exploitative system. On Day Two they might defend the Fine Gael slogan on the billboard by saying that businesses need to pay lower wages or else they’ll have to fire people altogether. This is, in other words, justifying exploitation by arguing that businesses need to exploit to survive. Join the dots. And who’s the big loser in this way of doing things?

In its more moderate form, ie. in the form in which nobody questions the underlying issue- ownership of wealth- this is a well-worn debate. Back during the depression Keynes used to say pay higher wages so there’s more consumer spending. The orthodoxy of the time, however, as now, was higher wages means more unemployment. Keynesianism- “nice” capitalism- definitely fails to address this point. It doesn’t ask, for instance, who’s paying the wages. We live under a system where the minority has most of the real wealth and the majority has to play by the bosses’ rules just to pay their own bills.

There is no way to make this unequal power relationship “nice”. You can with great effort force the bosses to pay a minimum wage, but you can’t stop them kicking people out of work. You can’t stop flight of capital– not by constitutional means, anyway. You can’t stop a new elite generation rising up through the isolation and dogma of a wealthy life, indoctrinated in business-centric policy and ready to take up the reins of power in turn.

If you try to make capitalism OK without challenging the claim of private individuals and companies to huge portions of the world’s wealth, you’re playing the game leaving all the cards in the hands of your opponent. Notice that the golden age of Keynesian policies coincided with the greatest boom in the history of capitalism, which proved that you can up to a point make the rich share, yes. But only when they’re making profits so huge that they can, from their point of view, afford to share. It took one recession and an oil crisis for the regrouped Right to smash most of the progress made since the war. Now their successors are coming back to finish the job and the more cuddly pro-capitalists- <cough>Labour<cough> -are, instead of fighting this onslaught, hysterically trying to prove that they’re not scared of cutbacks. As if shattering peoples’ lives and livelihoods was like going to the gym- something difficult but virtuous, something admirable.

What this billboard should remind us is not simply that there are now stupid people in government who don’t really know what they’re talking about. These aren’t just stupid people; some of them are clever, and people can be clever and stupid in different ways, of course. In another life Cowen might simply have been an excellent lawyer, Reilly an excellent doctor, Gilmore an excellent… uh… Tory. The point is these clever and stupid people are on an ideological crusade. They think the only way to save the country is by doing what those rich and smart men from the IMF, the EU and the financial markets say, with a tweak here and there. What this will lead to is a deep worsening of the situation on the ground and a mass backlash on the streets.

This billboard also points out the sinister propaganda that lies behind the cuddly cult of the businessman that’s with us everywhere, from Junior Cert Business Studies to Dragon’s Den. Just as the example of high-paid quango parasites is raised by right-wingers as a cover for attacks on low-paid public servants, the small businessman, struggling to survive the bad times, is conjured up as a cover for millionaires.

I admire people who come up with good ideas. Whatever. But I don’t like it when someone who’s in it for the money is shoved in my face as some kind of moral example (especially those arrogant sexist pricks on Dragon’s Den). More importantly, when this cult prays for pay cuts and claims divine power- BACKBONE OF OUR ECONOMY!- it’s just so obvious that the whole thing is a justification for greed, gambling and exploitation.

But their arguments wouldn’t have so much weight in society if there wasn’t something behind them. There is. Under this system, all the policy options of any government boil down to different ways of kissing the arse of the rich, hoping to fuck they stay in the country and invest. Just listen to two words strung together by any politician for evidence of this.

It’s a Venn diagram, two overlapping circles: what’s individually profitable and what’s socially profitable. We only get what’s in the crossover, a crossover that’s shrinking with every recessionary year. So you have a number of options: keep the wealth in their hands and kiss their arses (Thatcher), keep the wealth in their hands and don’t kiss their arses quite as much (Keynes), or kiss their arses if that’s what you’re into, but for fuck’s sake bring the wealth under democratic control and invest it usefully (Marx).

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