Hanging on to our memories

A few months back Len McCluskey, general secretary of the Unite trade union in the UK, said the following in an interview with the Guardian:

‘But by the same token. people have to understand that we are fighting for our heritage here. Our parents and our grandparents, having defeated fascism in Europe, came back determined to build a land fit for heroes. They gave us the welfare state, the National Health Service, universal education. All of that is being attacked. I, for one, am not prepared to stand by and have my children or grandchildren say to me: “What did you do when this was being taken away from us?"’

What had struck me on reading McCluskey's remarks was that I couldn't imagine myself having the same idealised conversation with my own children. I couldn't imagine myself reaching for the Werther's Originals whilst an inquiring young scamp asked, "Granddad what did you do whenever they dismantled Europe's welfare states and drove tens of millions of people into deeper and deeper precarity, when they privatised everything and tore labour regulation and social rights to shreds?"

One reason I couldn't imagine it is because I don't know if I'd have children or grandchildren around to ask me. An assumption behind McCluskey's remarks is that family relations won't change much on account of the ongoing grab of wealth and power of which the Fiscal Treaty is an important component. People with family members heading to Australia or the US or other former English colonies in flight from capitalism with Irish characteristics will beg to differ.

Another reason: even if my children were to stick around wherever it was that I myself might wind up, would they have the capacity for critical thought and the historical awareness to ask? McCluskey's imagined scenario assumes that there will be educational facilities that will allow future generations to ask such questions.

But what if there isn't? The regime of neoliberal governance that the Fiscal Treaty seeks to install permanently will ensure a massive rise in inequality and an increasing concentration of decisive social power in the hands of oligarchs and kleptocrats.

It's absurd to imagine these groups will seek to attend to the full intellectual development, through quality public education, of children from the working class. In fact, as we have seen in Britain and now in Spain, the whole thrust of education policy is to deprive such people of these experiences. There are few things more threatening for an aspiring kleptocrat than a young, angry, politicised and educated population.

Along with the dismantling of the social fabric comes the systematic erasure - or disinfection - of the kind of historical memory that McCluskey draws upon in his interview. In Britain, the all-pervasive ‘nosterity’ calls to mind the lean years after the war whilst erasing all memory of the achievements of the labour movement in the building of the welfare state and the National Health Service.

In most parts of Ireland and certainly in the Republic, very few people ever talk about how their parents’ and grandparents’ generation had fought against fascism, or had built a welfare state. There has never been a National Health Service like the one that was created in the United Kingdom.

How, then, do you articulate the loss of something you have never had? One of the reasons that there has never been a National Health Service in Ireland is because the church hierarchy feared it would lead to communistic totalitarianism. And so charity - which always dignifies the giver, but never the receiver - largely took the place of citizen solidarity.

This widespread absence of the notion of citizen rights, and exaltation of charitable giving, is why St Vincent de Paul and Barnardo’s spokespersons are so frequently quoted in reports on matters concerning social welfare provision and deprivation, and why children are sent out to raise money for their underfunded schools through sponsored walks and the like, as if this were some sort of healthy civic activity.

The saintly glow accorded to charitable work ensures that the connection never gets drawn, for instance, between children going from door to door to raise money for their schools, and consistently low corporation taxes, to say nothing of gigantic bank bailouts with public money.

Like a lot of people in Ireland, I was born via the National Health Service and got free treatment as a child for all sorts of things, including regular GP care and two eye operations. Like many other such people, my blood boils any time I now have to hand over money to people who provide health services in the interests of profit.

The reason I get so angry about it is because I think free healthcare on point of delivery should be just one of those things, like colour television or a properly functioning sewage system, that are as good as universally available in a half-decent modern society. This is largely because of a habit of seeing the world that comes out of encounters with social institutions based on equality and solidarity.

But how do you vote against the widespread destruction of social institutions if you don’t really know what they’re like in the first place? What if you’re not moved at all when the unelected Goldman Sachs stooge at the head of the European Central Bank proclaims that ‘the Continent’s traditional social contract is obsolete’ because you don’t really know what he’s on about?

What if, rather than asking me what I did when whatever there was of democratic society was getting shredded, my actual flesh-and-blood son, as opposed to the one from the soft-focus Werther’s Original scenario, asked me why I never managed to submit a successful proposal to Dragon’s Den, and that he didn’t want to hear my excuses that I couldn’t pay for his business studies course? What if he asked me why I didn’t have any money to sponsor him in his school’s campaign to fix its leaking roof?

I would prefer not to have my Saturday afternoon snoozes (assuming Saturdays will continue in their present form) interrupted by unpleasant questions such as these. This is one of the reasons I voted No this morning, because the Fiscal Treaty is a document concocted by men and women who believe their own prosperity boils down to wiping out our memories of what it is like to live - however imperfectly and incompletely - in equality and solidarity, and our dreams of what it might be like to live that way ever again. {jathumbnailoff}

Image top: Mister Kha.