Mind the trolls under the JobBridge

Here’s an opening question. What do ‘JobBridge’ – the snappy name for FÁS’s National Internship Scheme, presumably because they ran out of inverted commas to put around the word ‘Internship’ – and the Conservative Party’s attitude to the BBC have in common?

From the start, it’s worth noting that these comparisons are no longer academic. Whatever insults you want to hurl at Fianna Fáil government and their crass, testosterone-sodden backroom excuse for ‘vision’ it was always clear that they weren’t quite like any of the British equivalents. To see what’s changed, it’s simply necessary to glance at the makeup of the two governments: one traditional party of power, out of government for a generation, with a small-state pro-business edge that’s rooted in ideology rather than expedience; one smaller party previously styled as nice, uncomfortable with its new position, embracing an austerity programme with obvious discomfort and no courage. If you want to find a foreign equivalent of Fine Gael, you couldn’t do better than glance at the Tories. The two are, socially and economically, indistinguishable.

To anyone of the mindset embraced by the Tories – or Fine Gael, Ireland’s very own Tory-anaologues – the success of the BBC is further proof of just how wrong it is. Those who detract from the BBC despise its core being, the very philosophy on which it is based. It is an unfair behemoth that extinguishes competition. Commercial channels can’t match the BBC’s enormous resources (so long as you ignore, say, the last twenty years of bidding for football rights). Nor can they match the BBC’s huge outlay for its stars (except they can, and do, and the supposedly-enormous salaries of BBC presenters are as nothing compared to pay-packets ITV offer). No, the BBC is a state bully, driving well-intentioned private companies out of an otherwise-lucrative marketplace. It’s worth noting that the pressure under which the BBC now constantly operates – the ooh-it’s-too-big handwringing lead entirely by the UK’s elites – really began after a speech by James sodding Murdoch.

The BBC is there to serve the public, and the public are happy with how it works*. Thing is, the Tories don’t see a successful state institution, they see disenfranchised companies being unfairly excluded from potential markets. Essentially, a successful public organisation is unfair.

If looking at the grotesquery of JobBridge, it’s worth clarifying what this mindset really implies. It believes that the basic unit of society is not the individual, or even the family**, but the company. I don’t mean this in a lefty rhetoric way, but just as a simple statement of fact. If a government has been made to believe that business is the engine of the economy, if they are conditioned to listen to the advice of Ireland’s entrepeneurs above everyone else, if representatives of Google can blithely give Powerpoint presentations to the entire cabinet about how Ireland should be run… once you swallow that, it’s easy to start unconsciously believing that businesses matter more than anything else, and a government’s prime responsibility is to PLCs***.

JobBridge – in which prospective waiting staff can receive six months training for fifty quid a week, in which owners of a Chemistry PhD are employed for less than the minimum wage – is perfectly coherent if, and only if, you see the company as the basic unit of society. The systematic outing of its more appalling positions over the last week or so has been one of those events that actually remind you what a good thing Twitter can be, and while the results of the JobBridge initiative aren’t a surprise, it’s been a joy to see it laid bare. However, many of the conclusions have been fundamentally misguided. The JobBridge situation is characterised as that of unscrupulous companies exploiting a well-meaning government programme that was supposed to Get Ireland Working. While I certainly won’t be drinking in the Lansdowne Hotel any time soon, and it’s nothing but a good thing that this sort of exploitation is exposed, the idea that tighter controls will solve the problem of a basically well-meaning scheme is fundamentally off-base. JobBridge is working exactly as it’s supposed to.

When Ireland’s banking-led collapse occurred, a narrative emerged – driven entirely by the business sector, it should be said – about the uncompetitive nature of Ireland’s economy. Ireland’s high wages and inflated economy left the company incapable of competing in markets. This has persisted even though Ireland’s export market is just about the only sector of the economy to do well, and very little economic policy makes any sense unless you bear in mind the mantra of ‘competitiveness’.

The last three to four years have simply been a protracted exercise in internal devaluation, and JobBridge – with its obvious downward pressure on wages, and its state subsidy of low-cost jobs dressed up as ‘training programmes’, is a carefully judged extension of that policy. The hastily reversed minimum wage cut was just the most obvious forerunner. The cuts in public sector wages, dressed up as being about savings, have not actually saved anything at all; what they have done is provided downward pressure on wages through the economy as a whole. Cuts in welfare, and increases in taxation, similarly reduce consumer spending and prevent wages from increasing.

None of this is to protect the jobless, or to provide training for Ireland’s workforce. Since the programme of cuts began, Ireland has made no move to protect its low-paid, or its struggling self-employed, or its citizens as a whole. It has routinely, however, protected its companies. If you are asked to name a scheme to protect individuals that has been introduced in the last three or four years, you’ll struggle. On the company side we have the reduction in VAT, the proposed reduction in the minimum wage, the sudden pressure put on weekend wages, and now an ‘internship’ scheme specifically designed to give companies cheap labour. So who, exactly, does this state prize?

Earlier this month, Eamon Gilmore stated that the Ireland that emerged from recession would be different than the one that came before. And yet, if we want to look at one of the most corrosive beliefs that came from the Celtic Tiger, it was the notion that – rather than an ‘economy’ being something that fitted around the rights of citizens and the values of the state – the rights of citizens were subject to the expedience of the economy. There are many things nasty about JobBridge, but its core being is the facilitation of companies and the commodification of the individual. Because ultimately, if companies are all that matter, commodities are the only entity worth anything at all.

* This – by any empirical measure – suggests it at least appears to be doing the job it’s supposed to do, although god only knows how Lord Reith would square his remit of “educate, inform, entertain” with the existence of BBC Three.

** That’s if you go by the Irish constitution. Thankfully, this doesn’t mean that single people aren’t allowed to vote, although Eamon Ó Cuiv probably wishes otherwise.

*** The word company is quite specific. The state isn’t committed to ‘business’, or to ‘enterprise’, although it pays lip service to both. The self-employed receive practically no state protection at all, and – to put JobBridge in perspective – it’s worth bearing in mind that self-employed people in non-traditional, non-guilded industries are frequently expected to work for nothing.