Presidential Address of Michael Donnelly at the Workers’ Party Ard Fheis, 10th October 2015
Comrades, Friends, Distinguished Guests, at last year’s Ard Fheis the Party established a clear, unambiguous ideological and analytical framework which it would use in order to offer leadership and vision to all Irish working people, both north and south on the island. It is a framework better known as Marxist-Leninism. This was not a new departure for the Party. Far from it! Ever since the Party emerged out of the morass of the empty, sterile and narrow nationalism of the 1950s, it has continuously committed itself and its members towards being not a mere reformist party, but a truly revolutionary one that views its historic task as being that of seeking finally to remove the historical yoke of exploitative capitalism from around the neck of Irish workers and their families. A party that is seeking to free workers from that exploitative system; one that works relentless, tirelessly, fearlessly towards achieving an Ireland that is truly free. An Ireland that is free from exploitation; free from poverty; free from the oppressive clutches of reactionary religious zealots; free from the institutions and people whose central ideological tenets involve little more than urging passive acceptance of whatever misery capitalism heaps upon workers and their families, and who sell this misery and conformity to it as part and parcel of their version of the ‘natural order’ in world that cannot be altered. Whatever you do, don’t resist is what they urge!
By formally adopting that framework at last years AF the Party, then, was not doing anything that was new or different. What it was doing was in fact renewing and refining that old commitment in new, clear and unambiguous language; the language of revolutionary socialism.
That was the great success of last years AF Comrades. Now, at this year’s AF, to that revolutionary framework we have added specific and clear policies to be articulated within its ambit. There is now the meat and muscle of policy on the bones of our ideology!
And this is vitally important Comrades. What it means in real terms is that we have now, once again, unambiguously committed the Party to a programme that seeks the total overthrow of the capitalist system of exploitative economics and not its reform. That recognizes fully that this capitalism is little more than a system where the narrow, selfish interests of the wealthy few so often override the rights and liberties of the ordinary and poor; that it is, by its very nature, utterly incapable of reform. It is one where the enormously wealthy fat cats like the Dennis O Briens of this world, will seek to own and and control of vast parts of the print and broadcast media and deploy it as a means to both falsify and distort the true extent to which the ruthless pursuit of profit and power by the wealthy elite actually creates and extends both poverty and gross inequality. This is the system that we are challenging, Comrades. And in that respect we have a very simple demand. We want to end all economic and social exploitation. But we also know only too well that the powerful are powerful by controlling that system because that is the very system that gives them the wealth that is the ultimate source of that power and privilege. And they will use all means at their disposal to protect the bloated carcass of capitalism from people like us. For make no mistake, Comrades, Irish capitalists are not just some local barons applying a local tyranny. They form an integral part of and gleefully represent the truly fearsome, global and wealth devouring beast that is modern capitalism. They preside over financial and asset-rich empires with an enormous global reach and have truly staggering levels of wealth and resources at their disposal. And they will not hesitate for a single moment to deploy by whatever means necessary, or fail to use whatever resources are required in order to protect that wealth and deal short shift to those who dare oppose them. In short, they are prepared now and always to use all means at their disposal, both legal and otherwise, to protect their wealth; extend their power; and, above all else, defend utterly their privileges. Modern capitalism is indeed the Hollywood myth of mafia made real, both globally as well as here in Ireland!
Yet, Comrades, despite the vast empires of resources and wealth now controlled and utilized by modern capitalism there still remain serious question marks hanging over its long-term viability. It may seem strange to some, given the huge shift in the balance of power that swung massively towards the main capitalist states following the collapse of the USSR in the late 1980s and 1990s, that that very moment of apparent triumph may indeed yet be seen as the very moment that the capitalist system itself had actually entered into and reached a new and major historical juncture; a moment that may yet, and quite paradoxically in some senses, be seen as the precise moment when capitalism itself reached its historical zenith and entered into its own inevitable decline. This remains, really, to be seen. And while historians and some economists may note that in the years ahead, we as revolutionary socialists cannot wait to view the rear-mirror of history; we must make calls here-and-now as to what is both possible and what is probable.
And we must make those calls in the context of what has been the most recent and actually still ongoing crisis that capitalism was confronted by in the cataclysmic collapse of 2007-8 and which, despite claims to the contrary by its apologists, is still one that it is reeling from and which it still carries the wounds of. Make no mistake, modern capitalism is still very uncertain as to how to proceed forward from that disaster, still unsure precisely if its vulnerability to such crises has actually passed. The arrogant self-belief of the 90s and early ‘noughties’, that nauseating air of invincibility, has been replaced by an uncertainty and fear never experienced since the ‘Hungry Thirties’.
But capitalists are no fools either. Whatever face they put on for public show, they privately know and take as a given that that crisis virtually crippled the entire economic system globally. And they take as a given also that it gave rise to a great uncertainty about how precisely to counteract it on the part of the lieutenants of capitalism itself, that ultimately, it was only the active intervention of governments within all states affected that finally provided some relief from the near disaster that had befallen it virtually everywhere. Without such statist interventions the world of capitalism would most certainly have collapsed; it would have collapsed utterly, totally and without exception.
So, Comrades, in acknowledging that there are huge global dimensions to the contemporary capitalism that exists here in Ireland, we must also ask ourselves what implications that hold for revolutionary politics here. There are, of course, no simple or easy answers to this question. For just as capitalism itself reforms and regroups after each bout of crisis, reinventing itself successively in differing forms and following different fashions, so too must revolutionary socialists like ourselves adapt, regroup and work out new, realistic strategies, tactics and policies just to keep pace with capitalism in all its chimerical shape-changing formulations. And we must continue to bear in mind at all times that, regardless of which face capitalism presents to the world, whatever fictive moral rag it may use to mask it’s loathsome features, it remains irreducibly greedy, grasping and totally exploitative and corruptive of all that it touches. It cannot but be so! It is in the very nature of the beast!
In this context Comrades, and as I stated earlier, it is now a moot time to reflect more carefully and critically where capitalism now stands, where it is going, what tactics and strategies it intends to use to increase its already enormous power and wealth.
All of us are by now no doubt aware of the so-called boom, slump model that classical economists use in musing over the long-term nature of the beast. But classical as well as modern liberal, Keynsian economists all have one central failing and weakness. In all of the various analyses that they offer, they invariably proceed from one single, basic and central premise; the assumption that capitalism is itself a ‘good thing’, something that ought to be valued and nurtured; explained not challenged. They take it as a given way of producing and distributing scarce goods and values; they can contemplate no alternative. Their world is one that assumes selfish self-interest as the driving force of all human emotion and views it as the defining characteristic of all persons. This is more than just a moral blindness or indifference to the gross inequities caused by capitalism; they indeed do view such negative outcomes as the downside of the private ownership and control of resources but sigh and say: ‘but it cannot be avoided! It is the price we must pay for a free-market’. But who really can seriously argue that investing, poring enormous sums of capital into so-called signature buildings and edifices can ever represents a good use of scarce resources when at the same time people are suffering on trolleys in our hospitals, or literally dying before being seen by medical specialists. This is the world of capitalism that they studiously and blithely ignore; the world where wealth is controlled and selfishly exploited by the few at the expense of the great majority who, by their labour, actually produce it.
Yet, despite their insistence on the seemingly relentless, onward march of the behemoth of capitalism, we can also note the internal and inevitable contradictions that Marx so quickly identified in his time, contradictions that are, perhaps, finally coming to pass. There can be no doubting at all the enormous levels of wealth that have indeed been accumulated by such relatively small numbers of people, nor can we doubt for one moment that with this wealth also comes massive political power. But neither can there be much doubt that this same wealth is now being subject to challenges rarely experienced by capitalism in the past. In part at least this is reflected in the historical and inevitable, inexorable decline in the overall rate of profit over the decades.
More than ever before, capitalism is being confronted by the urgent necessity to constantly re-invest its capital, for failure to do so will mean its true value declines by the minute, by the hour, by the day! It is no surprise, therefore, that the fundamental feature of the most recent crisis of capitalism was, in part at least, the inevitable consequence of the significant shift by those who own, control or have unimpeded access to so-called ‘investment portfolios’ away from investing that liquid capital in major manufacturing or industrial plants (where returns were stalling) towards an increasing reliance on purely financial products and services in order to maximise profits. It represented a profound shift from the classic situation where companies issued shares and sought investment from the holders of liquid capital in order to raise money. Money that traditionally would have been used overwhelmingly for investment in goods and service, equipment, has now in itself became the major product to be invested in! We are now in an era where huge quantities of money are speculatively being invested in what are essentially fictive, non-commodity entities, which in themselves do not and never ever can have any significant use-value, have become little more than sophisticated gambling deals where bets are placed on the movement of share prices or on international currencies. Buying long, selling short, hedge-funds, all of this and more besides have became part of the opaque, obscure language of a new class of so-entrepreneurs, who in truth, are little more than Texas Instrument wielding chancers! It is in such people that modern, system-supporting economists put their faith in. It is in such people that successive Irish governments also see as the ones best suited to provide momentum and drive to the Irish economy.
These in reality are the same type of people, Comrades, that recently bought out Clery’s department store in Dublin, stripped it of all its assets and then casually, cynically, ruthlessly tossed its workers onto the social and economic scrap-heap! That is the true face of modern capitalism in the Ireland of today, the same capitalism that successive Irish governments still place all of their political bets on. They are typical of the type of so-called investors they are prepared to host, support and entice with give-away tax deals to in order to convince them to set-up their exploitative regimes here in Ireland.
And it is not just in the south of Ireland where this is happening. In Northern Ireland too, the Sinn Fein-DUP led coalition government has also joined the unhealthy chorus now cheering on private capital and wealth. Seeking ever-lower taxes on the profits of transnational companies and willing to impose draconian cuts to social welfare and public sector jobs as a primary means towards that end means that this northern coalition is every bit a part of the new capitalist order as the governments in the south or in the UK. By its policies in Northern Ireland SF has nailed its colours firmly to the flag-pole of capitalism. Let there never, ever, be any doubt as to their true nature when push comes to shove!
In both parts of Ireland, therefore, what we are witnessing is a capitalism that has finally lost any lingering claim to moral goodness. A capitalism that increasingly stands revealed as one that places the value of shares and finance on a higher pedestal than any social or personal moral ones. It is a system where the high priests of capitalism worship daily at the altar of obscene wealth and where governments and policy makers, both north and south genuflect dutifully in obedience to its power and glory, where their motif is, ‘thy will be done, O lords of capital!’
This is the new era of capitalism. It is a capitalism that has perhaps has passed the zenith of its powers and has begun the descent to obsolescence. Perhaps! But it won’t topple over by its own accord, Comrades. Ultimately it most be pushed, and pushed by a disciplined, highly organised and class-conscious working class led by a revolutionary party! That is the task that we must carry out and fulfill, Comrades.
But capitalism has very powerful allies, too. Allies that are, in essence, integral to its very existence. Allies that historically made it possible for the very existence of capitalism in the first instance, that protected it; from which it drew sustenance and which supported it with arms and laws; I mean of course the political states of the modern world.
Never before has one of the central ideas of Karl Marx, that the modern state is little more than the central executive of the ruling class been more true, apparent or apposite. Never before have states expended so much political and social capital in order to protect capitalism from its own contradictions. When the great gambles of the financial institutions and banks, both here in Ireland, the UK, America and globally left capitalism teetering ominously on the very brink of total collapse in 2007-8, it was the state in all cases which came immediately, uncritically and faithfully to the rescue. In country after country it did so with unashamed enthusiasm and zealotry. Whatever abstract theories there are which might speculate about the state having autonomy or being impartial and somehow sometimes above the economic world, the sheer speed and enthusiasm displayed by the different states in their collective rush to bail out the bond-holders showed clearly and indisputably where it’s true sympathies lay. Wherever capitalism exits, the state protects it with its sword! Capitalism needs the state and it also needs to control it; to ensure that at all times it will serve the interests of capital above all others!
This was why, during the immediacies of the early days of that great crisis for capitalism in 2007-8, Comrades, state after state ensured that huge, enormous sums of public money were either pumped into or given as guarantees to financial institution after financial institution that were in various stages of melt-down. It was done in the US, the U.K. And it was done here too at home in Ireland. All governments instinctively knew that they had to do their duties for their good friends in finance. The political parties that consistently form governments don’t get enormous financial contributions from these same people and institutions for nothing! Once in government they instinctively knew what to do and even if there were some relatively minor disagreements over the type and nature of the assistance to be given, there was never any doubt that they were acting in defence of capitalism and to rescue it in its greatest moment of distress and peril.
And yet, Comrades, even this form of aid, assistance and protection that comes from the modern state as it acts instinctively to protect the interests of capitalism when it faces danger is no longer sufficient for its long- term interests. The modern state, with its territorially restricted reach is no longer sufficient for capitalism’s new needs and priorities. This was recognised a long time ago and well before the most recent crisis by the more far thinking and shrewder apologists for capitalism. Noting in particular the massively increased global reach of capital and the emergence too of the almost bewildering range of new sophisticated, complex financial instruments used on a daily, hourly basis to move assets, shares and finance around the world in seconds, this ‘new right’ needed a new form of pro-capital state. To be sure that the profits and assets of these new forms of investment would be fully protected in such a scenario modern capitalism also required a new and radically different form of state, one that would ensure the minimum of legal delays or blockages to the new ways of making money. As the old, so-called traditional forms of statehood became increasing ineffective and cumbersome in so far as the new aggressive capitalism was concerned, the new right wing orthodoxy rapidly came to the fore seeking a minimal, non-interventionist state to replace the old model that had come into being more or less as a response to the previous great crisis of capitalism in the 1930s. This ‘old’ form of state had to be changed as far as the ‘new-right’ was concerned. And just as they had challenged and decried public sector commercial and industrial entities and projects, they simultaneously targeted and attacked with the same relentless fury anywhere social security had emerged to form a part of the so-called post WW2 consensus model, where deals between unions, capital and governments in most of the states of western Europe had become the norm and had led to some minor reforms and a commitment to fundamental, though quite basic, rights to social welfare for all citizens.
In many instances this had led different states in Europe involving themselves directly in their respective economies and in the process, though not always consciously’ developing extensive publicly owned and funded enterprises in the crucial areas of health, education, public transport and communications among others. Indeed, in some instances, and particularly where vital strategic resources such as coal, iron and steel were concerned, the state frequently stepped in to take control of what were in effect considered to be monopoly forms of production, and where private forms of ownership was deemed neither possible nor at all feasible, particularly given the huge costs involved and the far from certain profits that could be made. Thus, by the late 1960s in Europe, such enterprises employed huge numbers of workers and represented a significant investment by such states in those vital, strategic resources. It was precisely this public sector that the ‘new right’ found particularly loathsome and abhorrent.
It was this form of state that the ‘new right’ began to relentlessly attack. Increasingly powerful both in tone and form this ‘new right’ found willing ideological allies in the form of new media magnates and press barons who were increasingly willing and able to use their newspapers to wage a relentless propaganda war against all forms of state enterprise. Attack after attack came from the pages and opinions pieces of the major newspapers as well as over the airwaves. They led assaults on anything that was public owned or controlled, both vilifying and mocking it. Positing it as a major impediment to the production of privately generated wealth – the only type they were prepared to accept as legitimate. And this attack was both total and relentless. No lie was spared, no opportunity wasted to paint the most unflattering and unfavourable picture of goods and services that remained in public ownership. In short, Comrades, the big lie was sold that ‘private was good-and public was bad’. This unrelenting propaganda was also fed and sustained by the new economic orthodoxy of the neo-liberal right wing economists whose orthodoxy would come to be uncritically accepted by all mainstream parties- even those who previously claimed to be ‘leftist’.
In this ‘brave new world’ state forces are now expected to dutifully do its bit to aid the needs of the new capital, especially by dismantling all and every aspect of progressive social protection in their polices and programmes. The old social welfare, the so-called safety net, was then and is now adjudged to be a major hindrance to the new needs of so-called entrepreneurs who need a labour-force that is both cheap, flexible and with the least possible rights or privileges. Anything preventing that must go, and must go quickly. Any laws that were deemed restrictive in any way of the new needs and interests of private capital had to be repealed or modified to an extent where they were to all intents and purposes useless.
A new consensus has come to replace the old one. And, as I said earlier, well before the recent crisis there was agreement by the elites of capital, government and ‘intellectuals’ that capital in all its forms, whether as goods, services or, in particular, as financial products, had to be allowed to move unhindered, untaxed and unimpeded from country to country around the globe. Within this thinking there was also a realisation that new forms of statehood also had to emerge to make this possible. One that would exist essentially to ensure the minimum restriction on such flows of goods and services in and through and between country after country.
This was seen as being particularly important and indeed urgent in Europe given the relatively large number of states there sharing a single land mass. Essentially a completely new form of inter-state cooperation was sought and achieved. The EU as it is now known met at least some of the new needs of capital perfectly, when it first emerged in the 1950s. As each state joined its ranks it had to guarantee freedom of movement of first to goods and later to the liquid forms of capital as it flowed endlessly to and from Europe in its endless global journey. As it made its repeated journeys to and through all states it became a veritable virus infecting all states without exception.
Where perhaps there was hope among some people in the earlier days of this European project, that this movement beyond the traditional so-called nation state model might hold hope for a more progressive, less capitalist form of statehood, there was always at the core of that project an endeavor to explore and find new ways to both extend and protect the new capitalism of the age. Long before the capital crash of 2007-8 the EU as a whole had inserted clause after restrictive cause on public forms of ownership and had rapidly moved to introduce regulation after restrictive regulation against state or public interventions, while at the same time extensively de-regulating virtually all aspects of so-called free-trade in goods, services and capital. It mercilessly and quite relentlessly moved to ensure that profit would once again be king and workers rights would not only be of secondary importance but also trampled on with virtual impunity. In this sense, Comrades, the statism of the EU differs little from that of the traditional one except in one key respect; it has by its very nature permitted the former empires of Germany and France in particular new opportunities to achieve levels of power and influence over the other member states that were virtually unthinkable even in the respective heydays of those world powers. And we witnessed this power being used with socially devastating consequences quite recently when the EU, now dancing ever-more to the tune from Berlin, imposed an inhumanly harsh and punitive regime of so-called fiscal rectitude upon the Greek people. Aided and abetted it must be noted by the Syriza movement whose total capitulation to the German state’s demands gave the lie to their oft repeated and populist rhetoric of resistance.
Specifically in relation to that, Comrades, we should here and now both note and acknowledge the indisputable fact that the only party of the serious left in Greece that actually saw though the puerile, facile facade of radical rhetoric offered by Syriza was the KKE, the Communist Party of Greece. Clearly well aware of the true nature of both the make-up of that populist grouping as well as that of their purportedly radical leaders, the KKE were proven correct when they said that not only would it not succeed, but, by its very nature it would both betray and cynically sell out the very people who put their faith in them.
What we have witnessed in Greece should then be a salutary warning to all serious socialists, Comrades. Even yet despite the Syriza treachery, here in Ireland there are still those who salute them and invite them to their conferences and who themselves frequently use the same radical, populist rhetoric of Syriza in their apparent tirades against austerity. It should also serve as a salutary warning to ordinary workers when it comes to election time; because Syriza’s greatest support in both organizational and political terms comes in fact from Sinn Fein which, just like Syriza, uses an apparently radical turn of phase. To the workers of Ireland, both north and south I will say this, beware! Already we have seen just how empty Sinn Fein’s so-called radical rhetoric has been in real time for the ordinary workers in Northern Ireland, where it has accepted and soon intends to enact and preside over truly horrendous and massive cuts to both public spending and public employment in that part of Ireland. It will be no different should they lay a hand on the levers of power in this part of the country.
There can no longer be any doubts about this, Comrades! Given the ruthless crushing of resistance to austerity in Greece the EU in its present form offers no hope for progressive politics at this moment in time.
And yet we also have every reason to be just as suspicious and fearful of the traditional so-called nation-state format which, in truth, the EU sometimes merely replicates but at a much higher order of efficiency when it comes to dutifully following the dictates of modern capital and its needs. As the debate at this year’s conference has highlighted, there is much still be examined and discussed in relation to our long term strategies and policies in that regards. But in reviewing that, it is increasingly clear that the EU has become an integral part of global capitalism and both at the level of its member states and institutions has no difficulties or problems in seeing its role as one of clearing the path for capital by enabling it to maximise its profits with minimal disruption. The mask of progressiveness has slipped and the EU that was once seen as offering at least part of the answer to rigid, sterile, nation-statism, and providing a possible opportunity to develop truly international class based politics has been well and truly derailed.
Back at home, and despite the good news spins now flowing daily out of the Irish government’s PR machine, there is still the underlying and undeniable reality that it has been and continues to be the ordinary working people of this country who have disproportionately bore the brunt of the so-called fiscal rectitude measures that followed the latest crisis of capitalism. Both north and south it is the ordinary workers and their families that have paid in full the bill to bail out the failed banks and speculators who calamitously and cynically shipwrecked this state in particular on the rocks of financial and speculative opportunism. The very last cent used and still being used to pay off th guarantees and loans the previous – as well as current- government has given to the speculators has come and continues to come via the harsh taxes and charges imposed on ordinary working people and their families. This is also the real reason why health and funding to vital social services were slashed; why education funding dried up; why wages and salaries were slashed and ordinary workers callously made redundant. The money to pay both the interest and the capital raised to bail out the bond holders came at the expense those vital social services. And it was done to protect those imbecilic gamblers who couldn’t countenance the possibility that that their ‘risk taking’ mightn’t actually give a profit! Perish the thought!
This then was the scenario, both here in both parts of the island of Ireland, in GB and at the central levels of the EU itself, it was all hands on deck to bail out capitalism! This served as the central consideration of whatever response the state and its agencies would take to try and bailout the corrupt in the crises of the recent past. Whatever else it might claim to be, whatever progressive policies it may claim to have represented in the past, it has now showed, by its actions, its total commitment to and for the capitalist system of exploitative economics. To paraphrase Marx, it is the committee of the ruling class! And make no mistake!
We now have a further opportunity to confront this, Comrades, in the coming months when we will be standing candidates in the imminent elections in both Northern Ireland and the Republic. We are of course under no illusions about the enormous odds that are stacked against us. Not least of which is where virtually on a daily basis we face a newsprint and broadcast media that studiously ignores whatever it is we say, that consistently ignores the original, radical socio-economic critique that we constantly offer to the Irish people. Not for nothing have the heavy-weight capitalists of Irish Society – the Dennis O Briens and others- sought to control as much of that media as possible. Control the fountain head and what information the people get is that what you want them to get. They are the suppliers and providers of the daily doses of propaganda posing as information.
Despite that we must endeavour to fight those elections with all -albeit limited – means at our disposal. And we must do that, Comrades, in a context where I strongly feel and believe that capitalism is now in the winter of its existence. It has exhausted virtually all means by which it can credibly claim to be the ‘natural’ means by which humankind both nourishes and satisfies its needs and desires. It should be clear to most serious thinkers by now, that it is not the case that capitalism is facing problems; capitalism IS the problem!
In that context it is now to move beyond the belief that mere reforms will do. Total change now the only credible response to the endemic system of crisis that capitalism represents. That is what we must represent in the upcoming elections. We must indeed offer and call for credible reforms that offer immediate meaningful and necessary material gains to ordinary working people and their families. But made in the context of understanding the great need for a shift to a new, and much better society where need replaces greed and the total human conditions is elevated to one of primacy.
We must recognise too, that the rich and powerful, the overlords of capitalism will resist all attempts at challenging their power and who will ever increase the levels of protection the modern states offer them as they gather themselves behind the barricades of their wealth and privilege.
In order to change that, Comrades, no mere reforms will ever suffice.
We should now and always be prepared to accept and realise that for working people to successfully resist and overcome the inequities that capitalism represent those barricades of wealth and privilege will have to be stormed! That is the task we must set ourselves: we will be the vanguard of that struggle and we will lead that storming of the barricades!