Class: it's not about choice, it's about power

When moneygeddon struck in 2008 it spilled macchiato all over the idea that anyone but the elite of the elite has any power, either in this country or abroad. Sorry Mr McWilliams, but as Conor McCabe writes below: 'Class is not about choices or purchases or consumption or decking. It is about power.' And if we've learnt anything in the past few years, it's that the vast majority of us have very little. 

It's hard not to indulge in a sense of schadenfreude when it comes to the Irish middle classes. For years they accepted the myths that were told about them, and did so with a suffocating degree of smugness and entitlement. And whenever the facts begged to differ, they simply invented new ones.

On 31 May 2006 RTE broadcasted a ninety-minute documentary entitled That Was Then, This is Now, elements of which perfectly captured the zeitgeist. It consisted of nine personal reflections on Ireland and the changes the country underwent from 1986 to 2006. The contributors included John Waters, Áine Lawlor, Emily Hourican, Luke Clancy and Mary Robinson.

In a wonderful display of ignorance and self-deception, Waters laid out in nine short minutes his complete inability to understand the world around him, to see the forces which shape the world he inhabits. His contribution started with an older, wiser Waters looking at a clip of himself on The Late Late Show in 1986 – a clip where he's telling the audience that we should repudiate the national debt. Older Waters rubbed his face and made wide with his eyes. 'We were banjaxed' he says. 'We really were! Remarkable really. Twenty years. From banjaxed to [pause for effect]... bonanza.'

Waters tried to explain to the audience that, back then, we had emigration. The country was broke. We were governed in the interests of bankers. He's like Rutger Hauer in Bladerunner, telling us how in 1986 he saw IMF attack-ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. He watched dole queues glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate. All those moments are now lost in time, like tears in rain.

In the other contributions, Emily Hourican wanders around IMMA, bringing her child to the park, and wondering how she can get her hair done and have a career. Luke Clancy rambles on in his kitchen about how cool Ireland is now that it has contestants on Big Brother, while Áine Lawlor tries to explain to the under-25s just how different the country was in 1986. Emigration? Dole queues? Bankers calling the shots? That's not us today. Things have changed. 'And the big difference in twenty years' she says, is money. 'Lots of it now,' she says. 'Back then, not enough.'

For those willing to challenge this image of Ireland as an Enya video – mystical and bright and with no visible means of income - and to dig deep into the economic power dynamics of Irish society, into the actual economic class relations which envelop Irish society, the consequences were serious and dramatic.

In February 2005 the Centre for Public Inquiry, an independent body which set itself the task of investigating corruption in Irish society, was established in Dublin. In September of that year it published a report on the planning procedure surrounding the Trim Castle Hotel. This was quickly followed by a report on the Corrib pipeline.

However, in December the centre was fatally undermined by a series of attacks on its executive director, the investigative journalist Frank Connolly. These were led by the Irish Minister for Justice, Michael McDowell, who accused Connolly of association with the narco-terrorist organisation, FARC.

The accusations, read out in the Dáil under special privilege and so exempt from libel, were without foundation, but caused enough controversy as to lead the centre's financier, Chuck Feeney, to withdraw funding from the centre.

In April 2006 the chairman of the Centre for Public Inquiry (CPI), retired High Court judge Fergus Flood, announced that the centre had ceased operations, that it would not be publishing any more reports. It had just completed an investigation into the Dublin Docklands Development Authority and Anglo Irish Bank, but was unable to publish its findings due to threats of libel and a lack of financial cover should such a case be brought against them.

The opulent self-deception of That Was Then and the cogent investigation of the Centre for Public Enquiry, shared one thing in common: both are putting forward a vision of contemporary Ireland, but only one, if you pardon the pun, was on the money.

So, where does this leave us with class and class analysis?

In The Pope's Children, David McWilliams said that although 65% of us were middle class, 70% of us were 'in the middle', with 'a very small of immensely rich individuals at one extreme and an all-too-big, but by international standards modest, underclass at the other.'

This idea of Ireland consisting of a huge middle class, with heroin addicts at the bottom and bankers at the top, is by far the dominant view in Irish mainstream debate - as is the idea that class is all about which category you are in.

McWilliams listed some of them: The Kells Angels, The Expectocracy, Low GI Jane, The New Venetians, RoboPaddy, The Autofashionistas, Breakfast Roll Man – at one point he even had a game on his website where you could find out which class you were simply by picking from a set of lifestyle statements.

It's all about choice, no?

McWilliams ended The Pope's Children with a chapter on The New Elite, whom he called 'the most educated Irish tribe ever'. 'They have done very well in the past ten years,' he said. 'They have driven the economy and, more importantly, the image of this island. They are like nothing which has gone before. The HiCos [a mixture of Hibernian and Cosmopolitan] are the aristocracy of the Pope's Children.' This New Elite drank macchiatos and talked about 'the simple beauty of the Cape Clear people'. They sipped smoothies before climbing Croagh Patrick, and insisted on local cheeses and real sausages, and watched the Lions in New Zealand. 'Old certainties have been challenged,' said McWilliams. 'We can pick and choose what suits us. The overwhelmingly suffocating inferiority complex – the handmaiden of economic under-achievement – has lifted.' He ended by telling us that the HiCo nomads – the emigrants, the top of the elite of the Pope's Children – have returned to Ireland 'with their own ideas of how things should be done and how the country should be run.'

How different it appeared in October 2008 when the actual power elites in Ireland pulled up and dumped €85 Billion of shit over the head of every single Hico, Breakfast Roll, RobboPaddy and New Venetian in the State, before driving away into the distance, laughing their asses off.

It's hard not to think that the macchiatos most certainly come home to roost that day.

It is probably a waste of time telling the middle class of Ireland this - smugness and entitlement and all that - but class is not about choices or purchases or consumption or decking. It is about power. Who has it, and who doesn't. The last two and a half years in Ireland have seen an exercise in brutal class power. And the middle classes, along with the working classes, have been royally shafted.

In terms of the Irish workforce, middle class occupations make up around 40 to 45% of the total. Working class occupations make up around 55 to 60%. Far from being a majority, the Irish middle class is the minority in Ireland. There are somewhere between 800,000 and 820,000 middle class jobs in Ireland today, out of a salaried population of about 1.8 million, so it's a sizable proportion of the working population, but... it's still the minority.

In 2005 David McWilliams wrote the text for a book entitled Saints and Sinners: Top Marketers Analyse Their Prospects in the New Ireland. The final chapter looked to what Ireland would be like in 2029. 'The two biggest industries will be the "wellness" industry,' he said, 'which is likely to have overtaken the health industry, and the sex industry, all connected by instantaneous communications.' He finished by stating that 'credit will be abundant.'

It's hard to know what the future may bring, but in all probability in 2029 we will still be paying for the bank guarantee in one form or another. Class is not about choice. It is about power. And the power of the middle classes is just that: middling.

Warren Buffett once said that there was a class war going on but only one side knows it – the side that is winning. The sooner that the middle classes realise that, and organise themselves, the better it will be for them in the long run. In the meantime, the assault on wages and work conditions will leave the Irish middle class with middle class job descriptions but working class wages.

If they don't stand up for themselves, then they have nobody to blame but themselves. Voting for Fine Gael? Hoping some well-meaning Labour TDs will save you? It is one thing to get beaten in a fight, but to let someone push you around and con you with a speech about fairness... well, that's on you.

Image top via Vinicius Rebecchi on Flickr. 

Update: Link to Conor's 2007 analysis of occupations in Ireland added 07/04. Thanks to Paul Reynolds for pointing out its absence!