The theft of the commons

By Stevie Nolan and Sean Byers, Trademark Belfast

‘We declare the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies, to be sovereign and indefeasible.’ An affirmation that should, by now, be familiar to most of us.

Given Connolly’s input into what became the Proclamation of the Republic, argues the labour historian John Callow, this passage ‘could be taken as legally enshrining the nationalisation, and common ownership, of industry and the land’. Democratic control of the island’s resources and indeed all aspects of the economy was a central tenet of Connolly’s political thought, and has featured prominently in the efforts of his followers to transform society for the benefit of the majority.

Other political forces, such as the Fianna Fáil governments of the early 1930s or indeed the contemporary proponents of populist nationalism, have not been above using the principle of Irish ownership as a rhetorical tool to appeal to all sections of the population. But as the abhorrent treatment of Dunnes Stores workers starkly demonstrates, this limited objective does not in itself constitute the making of a more democratic and equal society. Connolly made this point repeatedly, not least in the weeks leading up to the Easter Rising: ‘We are out for Ireland for the Irish. But who are the Irish? Not the rack-renting, slum-owning landlord; not the sweating, profit-grinding capitalist; not the sleek and oily lawyer; not the prostitute pressman – the hired liars of the enemy. Not these are the Irish upon whom the future depends. Not these, but the Irish working class, the only secure foundation upon which a free nation can be reared.’

For the greater part of its existence, the economy of the southern Irish state has been designed to benefit the class of people so despised by Connolly. At various points in Irish history, native policy makers have privileged ranchers, commercial banking interests, multinational corporations and those engaged in FIRE (finance, insurance and real estate) activities over the needs of the broader population. As early as the 1950s, with the opening up of the economy to free trade and FDI, government ministers had begun to establish Ireland’s ‘open for business’ credentials with a giveaway of oil and gas exploration rights worth £ millions. Henceforth, the two civil war parties would create between them the architecture of an economy based on speculation, while the middle-men continued receiving huge fees for services rendered to multinationals.

Neoliberalism – as those living in Thatcher’s Britain or Reagan’s US understood and experienced it – took longer to reach Ireland, but by the time it did it was pushing at an open door. From the late 1980s onwards, the Irish economy began to replicate the features of global neoliberalism – low taxes, a weakened labour movement, financialisation, and commercial property speculation – while somehow retaining the structures that benefited its strong middleman class. Indeed, it was in 1989 that the Fianna Fáil Minister for Energy Ray Burke reduced the reduced the state’s 50% share in its offshore oil and gas to zero and abolished royalties completely.

The characteristics of the neoliberal turn are well known to us, but it is privatisation that best encapsulates its grasping nature. Privatisation is not efficient, it’s not clever and it doesn’t deliver. It’s simply a massive wealth grab, a project increasing in scope and intensity across the globe with annual revenues reaching the hundreds of billions. As we have reduced progressive and wealth taxes, and as public finances have collapsed, new infrastructural investment has increasingly taken the form of installing private tollbooths over the economy’s most critical access points such as roads, public transportation, communications, energy, healthcare, education and, of course, clean water. It represents the final theft of the commons and allows private interests to control our most important public assets. Privatisation is the backbone of the neoliberal project and shows the true nature of the free market, monopolies owned by the few.  That’s not democracy, it’s an economic tyranny. 

Having formed a key component of the project that led to the biggest capitalist crisis in living memory, privatisation is now proposed as part of the solution. Embedded in TTIP, EU treaties and the programmes of national governments are a set of policies that lead inexorably to the privatisation of everything that remains in common ownership. In the twenty-six counties, this involves the sale of profitable state assets, the defunding and creeping privatisation of a two-tier healthcare system, and the transformation of Irish Water into a commercial entity.

Contained within the Right2Change Policy Principles for a Progressive Irish Government is a rejection of privatisation, wholesale opposition to TTIP and a number of measures aimed at (re-)establishing democratic control over ‘surrendered natural resources’ and crucial parts of the economy. Realisation of these proposals would go some way towards reversing the drift to a market society, deepening economic democracy both in places where it can already be found and where it has not existed. Achieving and sustaining this kind of radical change will require victory on the political front and a fundamental transformation in the balance of class power. 

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