By Jim O'SullivanAs we struggle with the fallout of the economic collapse, is government policy fermenting unrest? If it was, would the present incumbents of high office recognise it?
At the last election people voted the way they did for a range of reasons---among others, to punish Fianna Fail or on foot of promises and commitments given etc., but most voted for change, real change---with many seeking a move away from the neo-liberal economic policies that have seen our society become the most unfair in Europe over the previous few decades. The current government parties indicated that they understood that greed and unfairness was at the core of our ailments and they promised in their manifestos to change course and deliver a society fairer, more just and at peace with itself.
Fine Gael told us that our problems were a direct result of a greed fuelled cronyism “culture” and promised a new start thus,
“It is a culture that abandoned the principles underpinning the Republic that Fine Gael founded in 1949 by distorting the power and resources of the State for the benefit of the few, not the many. It allowed special interests to crowd out the public interest. It pushed the interests of citizens behind those of powerful elites” (“Let’s get Ireland Working”, Fine Gael Manifesto 2011).
The Labour Party were even more strident in expressing their understanding of our ills and pumped out a robust, in your face document filled with the reasons why and the ways how we could escape the mire and move onward.
“Fianna Fáil presided over a very unequal and divided Ireland. Labour is committed to forging One Ireland, built on fairness and equal citizenship.” (“One Ireland: Jobs, Reform, Fairness” Labour Party Manifesto 2011)
This pledge to change direction is repeated almost verbatim in the joint Programme for Government.
While removing cronyism and money-grubbing was needed, it was also necessary to reverse the injustices that had already been embedded and there is very little evidence that either of these actions are under way. In fact, senior members Fine Gael seem to spend all their time advocating on behalf of those with wealth to the detriment of the rest of us. Any expectation that the inclusion of the Labour Party in the new government might temper the monetary neo-liberalism of Fine Gael and steer into position the necessary policies to give effect to the promised “change” has been seriously mollified by both the actions and statements of members of the party.
The most recent example occurred last Monday night on RTE’s Frontline debate on the Property Tax. A former Labour Party Mayor of Dublin, Andrew Montague, proffered the idea that those who cannot afford to meet any such new tax should not be exempted but rather have it “deferred” until after their death at which point the state can rifle their estate, no matter who meagre, and retrieve the unpaid tax. Labour politicians, in government, now regard it as fair and just that the state should levy a tax on people whose income and disposable means they acknowledge renders them unable to afford it and then compound this dreadful vulgar ideology by supporting the implementation of a system in which people who have worked a lifetime and provided a roof over their own, and their families heads, are to have their last will and testament torn up and part, if not all, of their estate taken by the State to meet taxes that they could not afford to meet from their income while alive.
Attempting in this way to spread the burden so thin indicates an almost fetish determination to protect the welfare of those with wealth and/or in receipt of large incomes; in short, maintaining the distributive unjust status quo. It is very difficult to understand from where this extraordinary zeal to protect the wealthy comes however, it was abundantly clear watching Montague that he was comfortable with the words he was uttering and this could only come from a feeling of safety garnered from the knowledge that he was annunciating the views of the party hierarchy on the issue.
The great danger inherent in the new government party’s deciding to simply don the clothes of their predecessors is that circumstances have dramatically changed. During the Celtic Tiger years the injustices were to some extent camouflaged by the volume of cash swashing about the place. Now however, all that funny money has evaporated and we are left with the injustices glaring straight back at us wherever we look.
Trying to sustain the fiscal policy that went with the Celtic Tiger is not possible and the efforts to do so thus far have led to a rise in feelings that go beyond anger----despair is setting in and we are now entering a whole new place which not only demands fairness, justice and co-operation, it requires leadership, foresight and vision. It would be the height of folly for the present government to simply continue with the policy which greatly advantages a small few while the vast majority are left to struggle to provide the basics for themselves and their families. In this context, the one-sided austerity measures being pursued harbour another, more sinister danger for us all. And it is incumbent on us all to endeavour to better understand this and the possible consequences should we fail to achieve changes in government policies that will deliver a decant society at peace with itself.
The Centre for Economic Policy Research published a report last year entitled “Austerity and Anarchy: Budget Cuts and Social Unrest in Europe, 1919-2009”, which analysed episodes of unrest in 28 European countries over the course of 100 years. What this study demonstrated is the clear statistical association between social unrest and expenditure cuts while there is a perception that there is within the community a privileged group whose wealth and income are left untouched. It showed how social disparities, and other forms of inter-societal unfairness, can quickly lead to exclusion and the result is an accumulation of discontent to a level high enough to lead to a breakdown of social cohesion.
Much of the study in this area shows that the causes of social unrest have two main explanations, “greed” and “grievance” and there can be little doubt about the growth of the former under the influences of the likes of Charlie McCreevy and Mary Harney etc. while the latter is now really only beginning to show itself as the faux wealth recedes---the chicken is coming home to roost.
There is fear among concerned observers that the government is actually moving away from social justice matters because to date society here has remained relatively stable and there appears no sign of any serious discontent that might grow out of control. The failure to deal with the “greed” aspect of the crisis gives credence to that view. In addition, taking comfort from the restrained reactions of the public so far leaves us exposed to the very real danger posed by a “black swan”---an apparently innocuous occurrence that when co-joined with already existing grievances becomes a catalyst for sudden catastrophic reaction. The government’s amateurish approach to dealings with the populous so far gives rise to the further concern that the government is not up to anticipating such a prospect.
Levying taxes on those that cannot afford them, threatening to intervene and take ownership of people’s homes after they die, and/or confiscating assets from such estates, the bullying antics of Phil Hogan and some of his other colleagues in order to protect sectional interests, are all potential “black swans”.
And some appropriate words of a leader who safely steered his country out of a depression even worse than the one we face, “We have always known that heedless self-interest was bad morals, we now also know that it is bad economics too.” F.D. Roosevelt
It is never too late to learn, it is never too late to change.