The left agenda – Cian O’Callaghan

Labour Councillor, Cian O’Callaghan writes on the need for clarity, co-operation and analysis on the left

Cllr O'Callaghan, Pic by Michael Gallagher

It is July 2005 and I am sitting in the shade on a small farm in rural Colombia. The sun is beating down relentlessly and the local Colombians are talking about capitalism, neo-liberalism and imperialism – and the devastation that these policies are having on their daily lives.

They tell us how the US and European Union are pursuing policies in Colombia to encourage small farmers to switch to cash crops. This policy in turn drives people off the land because when the market collapses on African Palm for example, the farmer is left with something they cannot eat. So the choice is sell up and move to a shanty town on the outskirts of the nearest city or starve on the farm.  I am taken aback at the absolute political clarity of these Colombian farmers.

Over a few weeks in Colombia, I met hundreds of people from all walks of life: mothers whose sons had been kidnapped and disappeared by the paramilitaries, Coca Cola workers under threat for joining a union, small farmers fearing loss of their land and indigenous people whose ancestral home lies in the way of a gas pipeline. They all point the finger in the same direction:  Uncle Sam and his vicious capitalism. They know what is to blame. They call it capitalism.

It is Ireland and its 2010 and I am sitting in a pub talking politics with people on the broad left. More often than not nowadays, I find myself having a row about something like water charges. I find myself arguing that the introduction of a water tax would be a regressive step which would make people on low to middle incomes contribute even more in tax. At the same time, those with the most and on high incomes would contribute much less. I explain that water tax is a flat tax – an additional €500  in tax to a family with an income of €20,000 is a harsh blow – to someone on €200,000 a year, it’s a drop in the ocean.

In response, I’m usually told that water charges would be good for the environment and would help conserve water. It doesn’t seem to matter that in the UK, which has water charges, average household water consumption is higher than in Ireland. Nor does it seem to matter that the best way to conserve water is to modernise our infrastructure to reduce leakages and create much-needed jobs. And how about conserving water at no cost at all to the taxpayer by updating our building regulations to ensure measures such as dual use flushes in toilets or rain water harvesting?

Time after time, the arguments of the establishment and the right are repeated to me with conviction by members of the broad left. The clarity of analysis I heard in Colombia is missing. No one mentions capitalism as a source of the problems we face. No one mentions class.

The politics of the right and capitalism have been exposed as never before over the last year and a half in Ireland. The banks have been guaranteed, bailed out and rescued. The government has implemented pay cuts in the public sector, not once but twice in less than 12 months. Cuts in social welfare have been accompanied by closures of vital community development projects and drugs rehabilitation schemes. At the same time, the great gas and oil give-away of €420billion to multinational corporations continues. And yet on the broad left, there is a gaping deficit of debate, alternative analysis and clarity.

The last year has exposed not just capitalism but also a rot on the Irish left over the last 20 years. The gradual withdrawal from educational work, from analysis and class politics has led us to where we are today.  With everything that has happened in the last 18 months, we should be in a position to strongly challenge the right wing consensus. Capitalism is revealed on a daily basis in people’s everyday lives as a failed system – in the dole queues, in the re-possessed homes, in the growing emigration.  Yet the response from the leaders of the left has been to actually endorse the government’s agenda of €4billion in cuts and further economic contraction.

There is, in my view, no external factor that justifies the lack of clarity and analysis on the left. Left co-operation is a must to ensure that we can challenge the consensus and offer an alternative. The starting point for such co-operation should be opposition to the introduction of water taxes and the agenda of cuts in wages and public services and instead supporting a stimulus of investment in education, public transport, health and infrastructure funded through re-nationalisation of our oil and gas fields.