‘People love to claim that they’re working class, Gary said. No one here is actually from a working-class background.’
‘Right, but everyone here works for a living and pays rent to a landlord, said Eileen.’
‘Raising his eyebrows, Gary said: Paying rent doesn’t make you working class.’
‘Yeah, working doesn’t make you working class. Spending half your pay cheque on rent, not owning any property, getting exploited by your boss, none of it makes you working class, right? So what does, having a certain accent, is it?’ – Sally Rooney, Beautiful World, Where Are You (2021)
When it comes to understanding the class politics of neoliberalism, Ireland’s literary scene is far ahead of its political Left. Hamstrung by organisational atrophy and, much worse, ideologically disciplined by a media hegemony which is hostile to ideas that threaten the Irish tax-haven model, a new way of advancing a Left programme of class politics in a neoliberal showcase is urgently needed.
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD’s) most centralised state should not be considered immune to class politics, and the development of a relevant revolutionary prospectus is a precondition for change.
The left, both in Ireland and globally, has struggled to get to grips with the role and purpose of class politics and communist ideas in a neoliberal setting, which in turn feeds a lack of purpose and organisational confidence which precludes action. There is a ‘mystification’ or lack of clarity around the purpose of left wing politics and communist ideas in a dead-but-dominant neoliberal hegemony.
Corbynism was plagued by a cognitive dissonance in the idea that Labour could gain and maintain state power within a neoliberal framework whilst at the same time upending this framework to benefit the working class.
Nobody has yet managed to theorise a way out of neoliberalism whilst avoiding such paradoxes. Much of European Left political thinking is similarly naive at best and nostalgic at worst. In Ireland both are true, despite growing doubts as to the longevity of the present regime. This stands in stark contrast to the supreme confidence with which the capitalist class see Ireland’s absorptive capacity as a pass-through tax-haven.
Ireland’s national bourgeoisie
The Irish state was established 100 years ago in the wake of the revolution of 1916. The left in Ireland has spent over a century trying to reconcile this as a socialist event rather than what it was: a revolution that empowered a new national bourgeoisie.
That bourgeoisie’s encounter with the globalised capitalism of the 21st century has seen a wholesale exposure to markets from agriculture to housing, producing what former Taoiseach Enda Kenny declared is ‘the best little country in the world to do business’ (read: dodge tax, plunder public resources). the concomitants of this business model are the most acute housing crisis in any capital city in Europe, chronically deficient infrastructure for utilities and transport, and levels of inequality belonging to the 19th century.
At a time of multiple crises in Ireland, it is not the left but ideologically footloose nationalist populism which is best positioned to capitalise. Like the Fianna Fáil of the 1970s, Sinn Féin’s promising offer to the working class on housing, health and so on, is window dressing for a more sincere promise to the Irish ruling class that it will do its utmost to uphold the status quo. The unholy trinity of developers, landlords and financiers is not to be discommoded. This is the very same canard used by the national bourgeoisie for a century, and seemingly accepted by the anglosphere Left as a blow against imperialism.
While it has been theorised that neoliberalism in the UK has produced a precariat in deepening poverty, in Ireland it has produced an alienated industrial working class in call centres, abbatoirs, hotels and office blocks, a class it historically lacked even after it joined the Single Market.
This business model provides the basis for a particular version of a rentier economy, which is able to pay the highest residential rents in Europe, the highest consumer prices in the Eurozone and an over-reliance on consumption taxes, generally considered as regressive, coupled with an almost complete lack of universal public services.
In this sense Irish neoliberalism brings upon itself Gramsci’s organic crisis, where the fruits of global economic positionality erode the domestic support base upon which the national bourgeoisie relies. Where else on earth has such perfect objective conditions for the advancement of socialist class politics?
Ireland’s revolutionary potential
The mistake within the left in Ireland, and indeed globally, is in thinking of revolutions as singular affairs, often accompanied by a pseudo-militaristic pageantry. Instead, revolution might be seen as a non-predetermined ‘event’ that produces its own political space, where a conscious and liberated class can reorder conditions for themselves.
What is important, therefore, is the type of consciousness that is created – a thinking, strategic, versatile and liberated consciousness that can act, not an angry, subjectified awareness that can be led. Consciousness is the key revolutionary condition. But where and how can it manifest?
Since 2020 the Irish government, with the Green Party as its phalanx, has been converting the climate crisis into a wholesale opportunity for eco-austerity but in doing so they are creating the conditions necessary for revolution. It is not that the Left has an uphill task of converting climate politics into class politics, the Irish government is doing this for us by imposing the costs of climate action upon a working population already subjected to one of the highest costs of living relative to wages in the EU.
Unlike all of the missed opportunities and happy accidents squandered since 2008, the revolutionary potential in Ireland is a reflection of neoliberalism’s destructive history and of prevailing conditions on which socialists can build.
But these conditions are not well-theorised by the left in Ireland. The subjective conditions of class consciousness in a geographical setting marked by unfettered suburbanisation and urban revanchism are a long way from being in place.
This is how our party, An Rabharta Glas–Green Left, analyses the situation in Ireland, and the context in which we seek to develop a class politics behind a programme for eco-socialism.
Neoliberalism has produced a global economy of relational flows. We often look to the most industrialised, largest economies as the places where socialist transformation can happen at a critical scale, but the networked nature of global capitalism can present opportunities in hitherto unlikely places.