This treaty does not serve the interests of 'those who have the least' - a response to Senator Katherine Zappone

On on Monday Senator Katherine Zappone established her support for the Fiscal Treaty in an article titled, ‘I’ve always fought for those who have the least. That’s why I’m voting Yes.’ For many of us who are fans of her academic and political work it will have been a disappointing read - laced with conformism, neoliberal logic and uncritical repetition of conventional wisdom which serves the interests of the powerful. The article requires a response – particularly because of its assertion that voting Yes serves the interests of the weakest in Irish society.

So, first, what is the treaty? There have been attempts by those campaigning for a Yes vote to divorce this treaty from its political conditions and present it as simply an agreement on fiscal rules. Reducing the scope of debate in this way allows orthodoxy to impose its logic on situations and powerful interests to draw people’s attention from the broader picture. This is a particularly useful tool when they continue to operate in the same paradigm that was so discredited in precipitating this crisis.

The international austerity drive isn't about individual states and their budgets. This treaty is part of a broad-ranging policy programme designed to facilitate the resolution of the crisis within the parameters of neoliberalism. This means: acknowledging the state's subordination to the markets; rejecting any action which might empower the state or states to a renewed role in the economy; supporting full repayment by states of privately-accrued debts to private financial institutions; resolving shortfalls through cuts to spending and regressive taxation instead of progressive taxation and the de-marketisation of the public sector, and placing the burden of this onto the shoulders of working and middle-classes while ring-fencing the continued process of accelerated capital circulation and accumulation by the wealthy.

The ‘balanced-budget’ narrative of this Fiscal Treaty debate – which Zappone repeats – is divorced from the political conditions within which this document exists. Neoliberalism’s race to the bottom was mirrored by the ascendancy of a new economic aristocracy. Whereas the former phenomenon radically cut the amount of tax states could expect to receive from globalised corporations the latter did the same for a new class of super-rich in our societies. These gains were buttressed by the abolition of Bretton Woods-style capital controls – which encouraged the threat of capital flight. In many ways states are now borrowing money they would previously have been able to attain through taxation. The long-term effect of ‘balanced budgets’ – when combined with the competition of globalisation and without the discipline or ring-fencing of capital - is the end of the welfare state.

None of this is, as Zappone suggests, in the interests of ‘those living with poverty and inequality’. The above assessment of the crisis sees it as a product of the rise to power of the financial sector, an economic aristocracy and the idolatry of deregulated capital. The British Labour Party’s 1945 manifesto put it well when responding to the last great slump, also the product of unrestrained market forces: ‘The great inter-war slumps were not acts of God or of blind forces. They were the sure and certain result of the concentration of too much economic power in the hands of too few men. These men had only learned how to act in the interest of their own… private monopolies which may be likened to totalitarian oligarchies within our democratic State. They had and they felt no responsibility to the nation.’

Zappone’s article initially indicates her support of this position, referring to the ‘financial bust that created the Eurozone crisis’. But it later pivots to the line often-repeated by European élites - that the crisis was caused by the fiscal indiscipline of states: ‘If all members of the European community, including Ireland, had maintained fiscal discipline the euro would not be in the crisis that it is today.’ This is in line with the logic of the Treaty as characterised by the government’s ‘Stability Treaty’ video – ‘stronger rules… to avoid a repeat of the economic and banking crisis’. (But, clearly, this Treaty isn’t concerned with regulating the financial sector. Its rules and punishments apply to states.)

This argument - that fiscal indiscipline on behalf of the state caused our crisis - is not only untrue but is also in the service of right-wing economic interests. It is the same argument Zappone will have heard from the Republican members of Congress in her native United States and she is supporting the same prescribed antidote: a balanced-budget amendment. Ireland’s public finances – if, perhaps, artificially ameliorated by an unsustainable boom – were not undisciplined in the run-up to the crisis. As the European Commission itself stated in 2008, ‘Despite the weakening in the budgetary position in 2007, the medium-term objective, which is a balanced position in structural terms, was reached by a large margin.’ David McWilliams pointed out in his recent Financial Times column that ‘today’s large fiscal deficits are a result of, not the cause of, Ireland’s and Spain’s crises. Both countries’ public debt ratios were actually lower than Germany’s in 2008.’

This uncriticial repetition of dominant political narratives is uncharacteristic of Zappone and her work. It is striking that someone who would spend a lifetime dispelling such diktats as ‘morality is morality’, ‘language is language’ and ‘marriage is marriage’ could produce the line ‘fiscal discipline is fiscal discipline’. This is a post-political simplification that serves to obscure the broader political context within which this treaty exists and to deter scrutiny of the interests it serves.

The Fiscal Treaty does not, as Zappone argues, serve the interests of ‘those who have the least’. It is a continuation of, not a break from, the agenda that has sought to place the burden for a crisis both ideologically and practically of the making of the rich onto the rest of society. In Ireland today one percent of the population own nearly thirty percent of the wealth and are getting wealthier – while the poorest suffer disproportionately from the effects of this recession. A European treaty which served those who have the least would concern itself with challenging that situation – rather than reinforcing the economic régime that had created it in the first place.

Those in vulnerable positions are aware whose interests this treaty serves. As polls have consistently indicated during this campaign, working-class people oppose this treaty. Despite the Labour Party’s almost total capitulation to neoliberalism a lot of unions have come out in opposition to this Treaty, far more than have done for previous European Union referendums. And even SIPTU said they would only support it if it came with a jobs package (which it does not). The European Trade Union Confederation said of the Compact that it would "force member states to pursue damaging pro-cyclical fiscal policies, giving absolute priority to rigid economic rules at a time when most economies are still weak and unemployment intolerably high. It will bring downwards pressure on wages and working conditions." In fact the strongest opposition to the treaty in Ireland is found in the "poorest DE" demographic.

But Zappone asks us to believe that the political class and business élites – who are the driving force behind the campaign in support of this treaty – are pursuing the interests of the weakest in Irish society, who they have historically neglected and exploited. She asks us to believe that the media – who have devoted 36% more time to the Yes side than the No – is serving the interests of the powerless, not the powerful. And that a profession whose pursuit of market ideology - disguised in the rhetoric of empiricism - has so eroded the social fabric of the continent has now mobilised 90% of its ranks to support the interests of labour over capital.

She asks us to believe, too, that the current trajectory of Europe helps ‘those who have least’. When Manuel Barroso calls democracy ‘political games’, when former ECB chief Jean-Claude Trichet threatens to annul parliaments, when elected governments are replaced by technocrats, when democracy is infused with the language of ‘guns’ and ‘bombs’ that this all serves the powerless. And what of the continent’s weakest? The grassroots social movements in Greece and Spain resisting austerity don’t believe this treaty is in their interests either. They’ve asked us to reject it.

This treaty is not an expression of ‘European solidarity’. It comes from a decision on behalf of Europe’s hegemon, Germany, to reject genuine burden-sharing. It will not allow the ECB to stand behind the debts of sovereigns, it will not introduce Eurobonds, it does not come with a growth compact, a stimulus package or an unemployment insurance fund for Europe’s members. It maintains the inequitible balance between Europe’s core and its periphery, between the reckless lenders and the reckless borrowers. It aims to restore “confidence” to the markets – the same ascendant financial sector and economic aristocracy whose power created this crisis in the first place – at the expense of a solution that favours working people across Europe.

But Zappone’s most breathtaking remark is reserved for the conclusion: ‘a Yes vote will give us the best opportunity to bring about radical change’. Voting for a treaty that enshrines current policy into law creates the most chance for change! Not setting a boundary to the attack on public services, wages, working conditions and social democracy underway across Europe. Not fighting for a democracy that involves more than our stamp of approval to the will of élites. Not the working-class and poor fighting for their interests against the conflicting ones of capitalists and corporations. But consent. Trust in a political and economic system that has failed working people across Europe – leaving 25 million unemployed and forcing hundreds of thousands to emigrate.

Zappone’s article stood out in expanding the  argument that working people will be punished if they do not support this treaty into enthusiastic endorsement of ‘the promise of a Yes vote’ for those in vulnerable positions. But neither of these arguments – that people should be afraid of the élites or freely endorse their economic and political project to transfer the power and wealth from the many to the few – should be supported by advocates of the ability of an organised, determined and inspired population to challenge the status quo and effect change.

Katherine Zappone first introduced me to the work of Brazilian critical pedagogist Paulo Freire. His landmark book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, contains much that now informs my perspective on ‘those who have the least’. Freire is unafraid to divide society into not only the oppressed but also the opressors – not forgetting, when talking about underprivilege and disadvantage, that their partners are privilege and advantage. He speaks about the need for ‘a critical and liberating dialogue’ from below and warns that ‘the interests of the oppressors lie in “changing the consciousness of the oppressed, not the situation which oppresses them”’.

Zappone’s article was guilty of this attempt to change the consciousness of ‘those who have the least’. It advocated support of this treaty by and for vulnerable people - but omitted their opposition to it. It ignored the treaty’s role as the vanguard of a policy programme designed to socialise the losses of the financial sector’s crisis. It hid from us the treaty’s place in the increasingly clear class divisions and competing interests in Irish society. It discarded genuine solidarity with Europeans resisting austerity in favour of an illusary one with Europe’s élites. And, most importantly, it eschewed the importance of the struggle.

Frederick Douglass once said that those who advocate progress without struggle want crops without ploughing the ground, rain without thunder and lightning and the ocean without the roar of its waters. There is a battle underway across Europe - a war being waged on us from above. The periphery need to fight for a better deal from Europe – and that won’t be achieved by a Yes vote. But Europeans also need to fight against plutocracy and unemployment, for a social vision and against the dictates of the markets. Katherine Zappone is a compelling advocate of progressive change but, in the struggle against power, her support of this treaty places her squarely on the wrong side. {jathumbnailoff}


Image top: dombrassey.