Irish Congress of Trade Unions

Irish Congress of Trade Unions (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Gun to the Head

On April 25th the Irish Congress of Trade Unions made their final decision on the Austerity Treaty: to sit on the fence. General Secretary David Begg had a few days earlier come out with a cowardly and short-sighted paper on the Treaty. It praises with mild criticism, in a tone of tiredness and detachment, before giving a lazy shrug of the shoulders:

While the treaty is wrong from our economic and social perspective it becomes hard to oppose it unless a satisfactory alternative to the ESM can be advanced.

An extended pondering over Francois Mitterand, Jacques Delors and late-lamented social Europe, which Begg entitles “Context,” seems to have little direct relevance. Begg seems to be trying to tell us that the battle was fought and lost thirty years ago.

The problem now is Delors is gone. Social Europe no longer has champions. The Employment Social Affairs and Inclusion Directorate is marginalised.  Strong German/French inter-governmentalism is in possession.

Alas! History has tied Begg’s hands. Passing the buck to the French Social Democrats of the early eighties rather than taking responsibility himself is Begg’s way of justifying a Treaty which will allow him to pass even more and even bigger bucks in the future. The “context” is as follows: We lost decades ago- resistance is futile. He concludes that

The problem for us is that we are a programme country with the gun of ESM pointed at our heads.

The few words I’ve put in bold from Begg’s comments on RTÉ News on April 25th throw a little more light on his position:

We’re in an absolutely unique situation, A: Where we have a referendum and B: Where we’re part of a programme with the Troika.

“Where we have a referendum.” If there were to be no practical outcomes to ICTU’s stance on the Treaty, why then they would oppose it. We might propose a definition of “Trade Union bureaucrat” based on these words.

What about this “Employment Social Affairs and Inclusion Directorate,” the marginalisation of which apparently makes all resistance to neo-liberal Europe futile? I never heard of this Directorate until I read Begg’s paper. Shows how much I know, you may say, but you probably didn’t hear of it either. Viewing this directorate as a key element of “Social Europe” stems from the same mind that justifies supporting the Treaty because of

the possibility of the German Social Democrats insisting on a European programme for growth as the price of their support [for the Treaty].

What possible substantial “programme for growth” could co-exist with a Treaty that writes austerity into law? The bureaucrat is a worshipper of charters, programmes, clauses and directorates. Not because they constitute anything material; in Lisbon, a Charter of Fundamental Rights could co-exist with attacks on workers’ rights.

Another example: SIPTU’s demand for a €10 billion investment and job creation package as a condition for supporting the treaty. But the treaty may sign us up to as much as €11.86 billion in cutbacks and new taxes. Bureaucrats negotiate surrenders, but they like to bring home some trinkets from the enemy’s camp to display as spoils of war.

The image of a “gun to the head” of Ireland is a striking one. If there’s a gun to your head, it follows that the one holding the gun is your enemy. That is all that needs to be said in support of a “No” vote, surely. It doesn’t make sense to sign away your liberty to your enemy.

If “our European Partners” have a gun to our head now, imagine if this treaty were passed: automatic punishments for any substantial deviation from extreme austerity; “economic partnership programmes,” meaning a virtual economic-policy dictatorship, in the event of “excessive deficit.” Begg wants to hand them a bazooka in place of their gun. You can see why any good bureaucrat would like this idea: it’s an opportunity to pass the buck higher than ever.

When the buck stops with the European Commission, over whom none of us has any democratic control whatsoever, the likes of Begg will be able to give us history lectures on the “Context” of his irrelevance to his heart’s content.  The times we live in are giving us an insight into the logic of creeping dictatorship, and into the motivations of those who let it happen.

Fighting Back

At a meeting recently I suggested that the “gun to our head” was in fact imaginary. “Getting into existentialism now, are ya?” someone called. Someone else suggested that we just seize power by arming the proletariat with imaginary guns. For saying something off the top of my head without being ready to back it up, I deserved to be laughed at.

All the same, we have to look at what this “gun” constitutes. It is the European Stability Mechanism, a means by which, following our inevitable second bailout, we would be drip-fed money to keep our economy from suddenly collapsing, in exchange for us stripping the country bare all means of creating wealth.

Firstly, the government collaborated in making this the case through the infamous “blackmail clause”; they could remove the gun if they wanted.

More importantly, and more generally, any political actor or commentator who can’t see beyond the next source of short-term funding, who wants “money in the ATMs” at the expense of all else, does not appreciate the scale of this crisis and will be deeply shocked by the course of events in the next few years.

Austerity has, at every juncture, made the crisis worse. The level of debt on the shoulders of the European working class; the parasitical role of financial institutions; the strike of private sector investment; in these conditions, pushed to its conclusion, the strategy of Europe’s ruling class would turn the continent into an economic wasteland.

It’s unlikely they will get that far, however. Austerity is driving people into revolt across Europe and across the world. It will continue to do so because it’s making the crisis worse. Significant Keynesian measures have barely featured because of the neo-liberal consensus and because such policies would be against the immediate interests of those who control capital and the money supply.

In any case, European economies are unravelling, not for want of SIPTU’s token €10 billion, but because they are fundamentally fucked, ruled by a decadent, parasitical capitalist class which is hoarding and gambling rather than investing.

Irish people create €156.4 billion on average every year. If we got every cent of this back in jobs and services, there would be no crisis. Across Europe there’s €2 trillion lying idle in the bank vaults of corporations. We need an international democratic Socialist plan of investment and production to match up potential with need. The market is not going to sort it out for us. We have to do it ourselves, and in increasing numbers, people are joining the fight for such an alternative.

The gun is not imaginary, but it is contingent on many increasingly unstable factors. It is based on institutions which have absolutely no effect once masses of people withdraw their cooperation and move into opposition to Capitalism. Its days are numbered. It’s impossible to say what that number is, but it would be a lot lower if the trade union leadership was doing what it’s paid to do, and fighting for the interests of the working class.

The conditions by which we are being coerced are the conditions of a specific historical moment: the moment in which austerity is being imposed, in which there exists widespread, seething anger; but in which this anger finds limited outlet and in which fighting back is difficult because bureaucratic defeatist rubbish like Begg has not yet been swept aside.

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