Pay your taxes or shut your mouths
Our oligarchic overlords, grandees of the Sunday Independent Rich List, have helicoptered in once more to tell us our state is not a state, it's a badly run business that needs a round of coporate downsizing. While the credentials of the group in the field of state administration are for the most part nil, that's no barrier to the attempt, it seems, and some weeks ago we found their Blueprint for National Recovery plastered all over the national media and booming from the airwaves. That some of their number aren't even resident in Ireland for tax purposes is, again, no barrier, apparently, to the credibility of their Blueprint. Meanwhile, writes Colin Coulter, the rich, they just keep on getting richer. 2008's global financial meltdown was, apparently, only a hiccup in the massive flight of financial capital to the wealthiest 1%, and that flight shows no signs of running out of fuel anytime soon.
The ashes of austerity are all about us. The dole queues grow ever longer; those who have managed to hold onto their jobs wonder when the axe will fall; friends and loved ones leave the country in numbers unseen since the monochrome of the nineteen eighties. Journalists and politicians alike seek to calm the nerves by hailing that most treacherous of all pronouns. Apparently ‘we’ are all in this together. If we could all just tighten our belts and take one last hit for the Oul’ Sod then we will have turned that corner before we even know it. But that ‘we’ is merely the most pernicious in a whole deck of lies dealt by the media and political establishment. While the end of the boom has visited untold misery upon many Irish people, the good times continue to roll for a tiny elite. If further evidence of this were needed it was offered in abundance in the Sunday Independent on 13 March. In a rare moment of genuine public service, the newspaper published its annual audit of the most affluent within Irish society. The 2011 Rich List offers yet more confirmation that in a time of recession, wealth in this country continues to accumulate in the hands of too few people who have too much of it already.
The guesstimates assembled by the Sunday Independent suggest that the most affluent 300 people in Ireland currently have a collective wealth of some €57 billion, an increase of almost €7 billion on the previous year. Within this elite there is another, even more gilded one. Ireland now has eleven billionaires, two more than twelve months ago. These eleven filthy rich individuals between them own resources worth almost €27 billion. There was a time when the vast wealth of Ireland’s corporate elite was routinely and loudly celebrated within the national media. The onset of sour times would, however, appear to have counselled a little discretion in some quarters. The national broadcaster, for instance, has seemingly decommissioned that annual bout of prosperity porn that saw Craig Doyle bill and coo as he counted down the list of Irish people with more money than they could ever possibly need. We can only hope that someone in RTÉ has had the good sense to drive a stake through the heart of that slice of bad taste and bury its remains in an umarked grave.
While some long overdue sense of decency has come to prevail among some Irish media outlets, the Sunday Independent has decided to remain resolutely retro in its reporting of the fortunes of the wealthy in Ireland. It could hardly be expected to be otherwise, of course. The Rich List compiled by the newspaper does after all feature two of the publication’s principal shareholders in its top ten. The text of the supplement veers skittishly between two rather different though not necessarily incompatible tones. The first of these offers rather unnervingly salacious detail of the extravagant trappings of wealth enjoyed by the corporate elite in Ireland. We are informed that the people that appear on the list ‘own superyachts in Monaco, vintage Ferraris, sprawling villas in the south of Spain, as well as Dassault private jets, highly ranked vineyards and either own (or have owned) big chunks of UK Premiership football clubs’. The intention of this breathless audit is presumably to reduce us to a state of awe in the face of such abundance. Its effect though is rather different. As you read the text that annotates the Rich List, it is hard to suppress the growing sense of nausea that comes from an experience akin to listening to an indulgent parent rhyming off the pricey playthings of a pampered and, in all likelihood, deeply dysfunctional child.
The second tone that laces the supplement is more recognisably reverential, if perhaps no more successful in its effects. This sets out to establish the entrepreneurial credentials of the worthies on parade. The names that appear on the Rich List are those of ‘self-made’ men – and, very, very occasionally women – who ‘have spotted a gap and taken advantage of it, building up their companies into real world beaters’. The corporate luminaries before our eyes are ‘mavericks’ and ‘swashbucklers’. One of them apparently even has ‘balls of steel’. Oh dear. Those must play havoc every time he tries to pass through airport security en route to the private jet.
The current incumbent of the top spot on Ireland’s Rich List is an Indian national who carries an Irish passport by virtue of marriage to a Dublin woman. The industrialist Pallonji Mistry is currently estimated to be worth some €6.2 billion. That is an almost unfathomable amount of money. It might make more sense if you consider that it is roughly equivalent to the annual incomes of around 200,000 Irish people drawing the average industrial wage. While Pallonji Mistry may be relatively unfamilar to most Irish people, the upper echelons of the Rich List do of course feature various characters who are household names here. Perched at number four is that veritable Mother Theresa of the Caribbean, Denis O’Brien. The fortune amassed by the multimedia entrepreneur presently stands at €2.75 billion, some €200 million more than twelve months ago. Two places behind him is the rakishly attired ‘investor’ Dermot Desmond. Over the last year, Desmond has seen his riches grow €50 million to the handsome total of €1.5 billion. That’s a tidy sum for someone whose principal line of work is nothing more productive than gambling on the prices of currencies and commodities.
O’Brien and Desmond share rather more in common of course than merely their proximity on the Sunday Independent’s Rich List. For starters, both men are seasoned tax avoiders. Neither of them pays a single cent into the now seriously depleted coffers of the Irish state. You might reasonably presume that the graceless greed of O’Brien and Desmond might have consigned them to the margins of Irish public life, reduced them even perhaps to the status of pariahs. Surely anyone who fails to pay their taxes could not be allowed to have any say in the political affairs of the state? That presumption accords not only with the moral codes of any country that aspires to call itself a Republic but also with the most elementary precepts of everyday life. Imagine that you throw one of those potluck dinners in which the host and guests bring along some version of food to be shared by everyone. The wealthiest person in your circle of aquaintance not only turns up empty handed but then proceeds to whinge very loudly about the quality of provender on offer. How would the mithering freeloader in our simple moral fable be received by the other generous souls gathered around the table? You would like to think that in short order the vocal parasite would be told to keep his mouth shut and then, if necessary, shown the door.
It really is a fairly basic reflex of natural justice. If you don’t pay your way, you don’t get a say. No representation without taxation and all that. It is one of many sources of regret and shame in contemporary Ireland that even this most elementary of Republican principles is routinely ignored and infringed. Not only are tax dodging billionaires allowed to participate in the public life of the state, their voices are in fact the ones most loudly and most insistently heard. In the fractured moral universe of late modern Ireland, we are all expected to remain silent like children around the table, looking in embarrassment at our shoes as the gatecrashers and freeloaders clear the spread in front of them even as they berate us for the poor calibre of the fare.
This specific facet of the moral iniquity of Irish public life was highlighted with particular clarity last week. On Tuesday 15th, the Irish Times heralded the publication of a major report by influential figures from political and corporate life seeking to map out a new course for the country. In its edition of the following day, the national paper of record offered considerable space and evident approval to the prescriptions contained in A Blueprint for Ireland’s Recovery. The tone struck by the authors of the report is ostensibly reasonable and even humble. Those who contributed their considerable wisdom to the Blueprint were apparently driven purely by ‘a sense of deep concern about the challenges that Ireland is now facing’. The group, moreover, ‘does not believe that it has a monopoly on good ideas’, only that it has some that might just help pull Ireland out of the current crisis. The policies advanced by the authors of the Blueprint are intended not merely to enable the Irish Republic to emerge out of recession but to become a more progressive society. On the first page proper of the document alone we are informed on three separate occasions that the purpose of reviving the economy is to ‘create an equal and fair society’.
This document seems then to mark a radical and exciting new departure in Irish political life. Here is a group of influential and prestigious individuals who have given freely and selflessly of their time in order to imagine that another Ireland is possible, one guided by the values of ‘social protection of the most vulnerable, equality of opportunity, freedom of choice, diversity and fairness’. Now there would be a political agenda that anyone with a grain of conscience could sign up to. If only it were true. The political values that actually inform the Blueprint are in fact precisely the opposite of those proclaimed in the text. The policies advocated by its authors are of course ones that accord with their own considerable interests but will undermine those of almost everyone else in Ireland. This should come as little surprise. If you wanted to know the interests and appetites that animate the Blueprint you would only have to cast an eye down the list of its contributors. Among the seventeen trojans of Irish political and corporate life that offered their insights to the report is the pair of billionaire tax evaders we encountered earlier, namely Denis O’Brien and Dermot Desmond. Once you know that, the actual text of the Blueprint more or less writes itself for you.
So what exactly are these bright ideas that the great and good believe will lead us to the promised land of national recovery? The goal set out by the authors of the Blueprint is for Ireland to become the most ‘competitive’ country in the Eurozone within the next five years. That is an entirely reasonable sounding ambition until you stop to consider that the adjective employed here is a euphemism for something entirely unreasonable. The attempt to make Ireland more ‘competitive’ will of course entail wholesale cuts in wages – though not profits, rents or dividends – that will impact most viciously on those who barely earn enough to make ends meet as it is. The Blueprint delves further into its fund of euphemisms when making the case for a public sector that is more ‘efficient and effective’. This will entail the privatisation of state assets and the reduction of the number of people drawing wages from the public purse. At one point, the Blueprint advocates the ‘urgent objective of reducing public service headcount by a minimum of 30,000’. The policy is advanced with such blithe indifference that you almost forget that what is being suggested here is something that will ruin the lives of tens of thousands of ordinary Irish people. Those who are condemned to unemployment would, if the authors of the report had their way, face ever more rigorous forms of surveillance and harassment aimed at the elimination of ‘waste and fraud’. The Blueprint advocates the use of ‘chip and pin’ technologies and even raises the spectre of biometrics being employed to monitor the jobless. Why so coy? Why not just electronically tag the poor and be done with it? After all, one of your companies would probably have a fair chance of securing the contract to supply the anklets.
The vision of Ireland’s future envisaged in the Blueprint is, therefore, a rather less selfless and equitable one than its authors would have us believe. Many of the esteemed figures that contributed to the document will of course be direct beneficiaries of the policies that they have proposed. The driving down of wages across the board in the Eurozone will inevitably lead to enhanced profits both in Ireland and elsewhere. It might be reasonable to presume that the various wealthy employers in the group were not unaware of this when they chose to advocate the policy. Furthermore, were the various prescriptions detailed in the Blueprint to come to pass it would spell further misery for ordinary Irish people. Wages would be slashed, public services eroded, the unemployed harried and vilified. The vision of the future that the Blueprint offers is then of an Ireland that is as far removed as you could imagine from the values of fairness and equality that its authors claim to cherish.
The ambition of those who contributed to the document is nothing less than a radical – but utterly regressive – transformation of Irish society. The introduction of the measures proposed in the Blueprint would affect a seismic shift in the balance of forces within Irish society, from labour to capital, from public to private, from those who have barely enough money to those who have far too much already. While the policies advocated by the group of greying worthies are depicted as original and daring, they are in fact entirely familiar from the experience of other countries all around the world. Every time a country – and particularly one from the Global South – finds itself in economic peril the same old policies are dusted down and driven through – the privatisation of state assets, cuts in wages, reduction of the public sector, diminution of social welfare and all the rest. We are facing a set of circumstances that are far from unique and threatened by a set of policies that are also far from unique. If Ireland were one of the poorest countries in the world instead of one of the richest we would name the Blueprint for what it is - a ‘structural adjustment programme’.
While the Blueprint is in the main fairly predictable, there is one aspect of if that might perhaps be considered a genuinely radical departure. The text reveals that the great and the good are concerned not merely with political outcomes but also with political processes. The big names of corporate Ireland are no longer satisfied with politicians running the country in their interests, they want to run the place themselves. At various stages in the Blueprint, there are recommendations that would allow representatives of capital a greater role in governing Ireland. Some of these would simply entail ‘expert business leaders’ offering advice to the government. Others have rather greater ambitions that could see large capitalists assuming executive positions within the state. The Blueprint recommends the creation of two posts – a Minister for Competitiveness and a Minister for Public Service Reform – that would be filled from outside the Dáil. In addition, the document proposes that a ‘committee of external experts’ - the Public Contestability Committee – should be established to oversee the ‘reform’ of the public sector.
The publication of the Blueprint confirms then the technocratic turn that has marked the era of recession in Ireland. The seventeen luminaries who compiled the report evidently feel that certain functions of government are too important to be left in the care of elected politicians and should instead be entrusted to those with the relevant expertise. And I think we could all hazard a guess who those ‘experts’ might turn out to be. In the darkest days of the nation, we can all count on a certain pair of billionaire business geniuses to answer Ireland’s call. Surely that cherubic philanthropist who covered the Haitian earthquake for the national broadcaster would be the best man to nurse the economy back to health? And if that moustachioed maverick who brought us the IFSC can’t lead us out of the wilderness, then who can?
This is the political turn that awaits us. A few weeks ago many of us cast our ballots in what was widely hailed as a ‘democratic revolution’. The nature of that revolution is gradually becoming clear. While there has been a shift in the balance of forces in Irish political life, it is one that has tilted power away from the ordinary people and towards the representatives of capital. If there has genuinely been a ‘revolution’ in Ireland it has bestowed a distinctly sinister form of ‘democracy’ upon us. The Blueprint is the herald of a new political form in Ireland, one to which Crisisjammers and others on the twitter machine have in the last few days lent a very apt name. It would appear that we are now subjects of a Dragons’ Den Democracy…