Bordering on ridiculous: striking, shopping and the absence of alternatives

Two hollow themes from Irish political dialogue have collided – the ‘patriotism’ of shopping in the South and the anti-public servant mood. The result? An even more pointless ‘debate’ about nothing
An unusual news story hit the headlines on Tuesday, one that is unverifiable by any means: public sector employees were selfishly destroying the economy.

Tuesday November 24 was a ‘national day of action’ for members of public sector unions. Understandably this issue was the news story of the day, dominating the airwaves as commentators and the public lined-up to debate whether or not strikes were appropriate during a recession. This in itself is a fairly empty dialogue but things took a turn for the surreal when the media started spreading the notion that the striking workers were in fact all in Newry shopping rather than manning the picket lines.

The story started with claims of six kilometre traffic tailbacks south of Newry. This in itself may have been true: Newry has always been a popular destination for Southern shoppers and roads leading to Newry from the South are always congested anyway, due to the ongoing construction of the motorway. Alas, common sense did not prevail. Immediately the story spread that the tailback was the result of striking public servants skipping the protests and heading off to gorge themselves using their inflated wages. A simpler explanation might be that entire families had travelled to Newry, and having been forced to take the day off work to mind their kids, decided to make practical use of the time by shopping for Christmas.

Worse was to come, however. Moral opprobrium was quickly loaded on the striking shoppers for taking their money out of the ‘country’. The partitionist mentality on display in this claim is bad enough, but it also indicates a staggering level of economic illiteracy. The hollowness of Ireland’s politics is laid bare by the fact that this nonsense passes for debate.

An economy driven by consumption, such as Irish politicians would have us create, is not an economy that can be relied upon. Consumption has its role to play in economic affairs – products have to be bought, of course – but the real, structural questions in any economy surround the area of production. The consumer economy that developed after the collapse of industry (or, in Ireland’s case, the non-emergence of industry in the first place) was always non-productive and cultural critiques of it amount to little more than a kind of warmed-over liberal Puritanism, the logical consequence of which would be an assault on people’s living standards.

Ireland’s elite was been discovered to have been wearing the emperor’s new clothes at least two years ago but the acknowledgement of this fact has not transformed into any alternative, even in a notional or intellectual sense. The policies of the immediate future will not mark a break from those of the past but instead amount to putting industry, both native and international, on life support.

Happily for the government, desperation dovetails with a consumption-driven view of economics promoted by industry that has been in retreat from capital investment for over twenty years and an invigorated environmental movement which views consumption as a secular sin. Both the pro- and anti-consumption narratives on display today are misplaced attempts to politicise the unpolitical and they contribute to the masking of the government’s political bankruptcy.

It is a sad inditement of the Irish opposition that it has completely failed to develop an alternative strategy. The reemergence of tired old Keynesian economics has been hailed as and end to ‘casino capitalism’, thus not only misidentifying the nature of Irish political economy (which is far closer to coroporatism than free-market capitalism) but also reducing the likelihood of investment in productive new technologies as the nation’s hopes remain pinned on the failed ‘stagflatory’ policies of the past. In calling for personal restraint and local consumption politicians may be throwing out the bathwater – but they’re definitely throwing the baby out too.


Notes: I don’t know what Slugger’s policy on cross-posting is, but this article originated on forth. I called Mick to seek permission but couldn’t get through. If I have broken a key Slugger rule, mea culpa.