The Irish Financial Class: Bulwark to Change - Conor McCabe

There is a lot more to class than accent or dialect. It is a power relation, the dynamics of which have shaped the contours of the Irish state since its establishment over 90 years ago in the courtyard of Dublin Castle. Although the south gained a form of political independence, it remained in a financial union with the UK for decades afterwards. The cost of this was staggering in terms of poverty and emigration due to the lack of indigenous investment and a fierce reluctance by the political establishment to force Irish banks to recycle savings in the state via credit formation.  Since the 1980s Ireland has carved out for itself a niche role in global finance, facilitating tax evasion and loose regulation via its offshore financial centre, the IFSC. This is protected by the elites that profit from it to the detriment of the rest of Irish society.

The economic interest of this moneyed class has had an inordinate influence on our laws and on the scope and direction of government policies. It has been able to do this because its objectives and operational procedures are deeply embedded within the institutions of the state itself. It is without doubt the greatest block to progressive change in Ireland. 

Take housing for example. It is no secret that we are in the midst of a housing crisis and the way to solve it is to build more houses. The problem is not the solution, which is refreshingly self-evident, but rather the question of whose economic interests should be served or side-lined by whatever plan is put in place.  Should we protect the financial interests of speculators and hope that they do the right thing, or should we protect ordinary households because we know that the former will only ever look after themselves? 

The housing plans put forward by successive governments were designed in such a way as to ensure that the speculative price of a house will continue to rise. The government will try to help people ‘afford’ that price but it will not do anything to dampen, stall, or reverse its upward ascent. It will say that property speculators need the right encouragements to build, and that the best incentive for them is a rising market. Meanwhile, accommodation is out of reach for ordinary households and this is compounded by official state policy.

The problem is that we are not just dealing with the relationship between property speculators and political parties: we are also talking about banks; land-hoarders; estate agents; insurance companies; the Department of Finance; the Central Bank; the Revenue Commissioners; tax lawyers; The Housing Agency; Real Estate Investment Trusts (Reits); the Department of the Taoiseach, and the Department of Housing and Local Government. 

The plans of all of these companies, agencies and institutions are framed by a shared economic interest and common cultural and intellectual reference-points, and these are not down to nor exclusively held by any one person or group. These economic class interests have an institutional form: they are supported and maintained by the state apparatus and by the way the state operates.  They are deeply embedded in our legal and taxation systems, both of which prioritise the interests of speculators and financiers over the common good. They are imbedded throughout our banks as well as the regulators and in the policy units of our government departments.

There has been in Ireland a forty-year move to shut down social housing and the class that has benefited from that will not allow any crisis for ordinary people to reverse that trend. In fact, the selling-off of our public housing stock, the almost complete privatisation of the rental sector, and the creation of the myth that home ownership ‘is in our DNA’ has been one of the great ideological successes of that class.  They are not going to give that up for anyone. 

Trade unions and civil society groups can lobby government and hope to influence the outcome, but in general Irish state departments will bow to the logic of capital accumulation. Progressives need an organisational class strength to challenge it. 

Irish progressives should embrace all of the elements discussed -  in terms of politics, gender, and organised labour – in a commonwealth of trade unions, civil society and political representation  We need to do this in order to shape our own future. The alternative to the current situation of seeing the interests of Ireland’s moneyed classes made law is quite straightforward: we make the laws ourselves. And in order to do that, we need to organise.

Class power and class interests cannot be tackled at an individual level. The only thing that can take on deeply-embedded class interests is a counter-class organisation. In other words, if we want to take on those who are organised at a class and state level then we need to do the same – we also need to organise at a class level with the aim of shaping the direction of the state in a progressive way. But again whereas the solution is somewhat straightforward, the pathway to it is fraught with tensions, contradictions and compromises. 

Societies are never static. It is simply impossible for them to be so for it has too many millions of moving parts.  society is in a constant state of development: it is an ongoing process. Institutions, however, are a different matter. Once a class interest takes an institutional form it is very difficult to dislodge it. The issue that confronts us today is not so much societal but institutional change.  We want the state to be reflective of where we have already arrived in our thinking. The question is how do we harness the change that is happening and give it an institutional expression? How do we replace the old conservatism and embedded financial interests with the new in terms of social solidarity, and how do we do it without making things worse? Without a workable method of implementation any vision put forward of a progressive and equal Ireland is merely an aspiration. It is a set of words that serves no threat to power and its institutions.  

In order to tackle Irish moneyed class interests and their control of the money system we therefore need civil society organisations and trade unions working in tandem with a progressive political sphere. We need a structure that is robust enough to make our objectives real, flexible enough to allow us to achieve them, and reflective enough of the particular and specific class antagonisms and gendered exploitations that are at play in this state to allow us to confront the class that opposes us. We also need to challenge the reveived ‘common sense’ of the Irish moneyed class, and this means research and discussion via activist education. 

When we talk about education we are talking about a way of harnessing this experience and creativity of activists, and placing that energy within a conceptual framework of economic class and gendered power relations and how they operate in Ireland today. Education used in this way simply gives direction and focus to what is already there. Education is not knowledge; it is understanding. It is not passive; it is active. Education is a tool that builds a deeper understanding of class as a power relation by using the knowledge and experience of activists on the ground. A movement that is able to think for itself – genuinely think for itself – is genuinely transformative. 

The greatest trick that capitalism ever played was convincing the world that money was neutral. It was able to do this because money exists in an abstract and opaque space, with its own language and gatekeepers to knowledge. As citizens we are required to support the profit-seeking strategies of financial institutions that have significant control over money and credit, but we are not supposed to question those strategies, the logic that underpins them, nor the power relations that envelop its world. 

Change requires a strategy. It must involve civil society, organised labour, and political representatives working in tandem with agreed objectives in terms of work, health, housing, child care, education, and taxation. A commonwealth of progressive forces is needed in order to realise those objectives and to defend them from the state and its institutions when it counter-attacks. It is a project that requires ongoing education and research, as well as organisation and activism. It is entirely achievable.

Carried in Issue 3 of An Spréach Magazine, Jan - Mar 2019

(Conor McCabe is a research associate with UCD Equality Studies Centre and author of Sins of the Father: The Decisions That Shaped the Irish Economy. His new book, Money (Sireacht: Longings for Another Ireland), is published by Cork University Press.)