Sunday, 3 January 2016


Paul Mason, the economics editor of Channel  4 News, has written “Post Capitalism , a guide to our future “, which  offers a critique of the existing global capitalist system.

He points out that capitalism is only 200 years old and has gone through many changes. Economic systems do not last forever and can sometimes collapse suddenly and painfully.

In its present phase, global capitalism is, he says, “driven by network technology, mobile communications, a truly global marketplace and information goods”. He says this model is now stalling.

He argues that many of the innovations now emerging are ones that derive from discoveries that produce services that are(or should be) intrinsically free, in the sense that, once invented, they can be reproduced indefinitely, almost without  extra cost. 

New software applications, and new pharmaceuticals are, for example,  profitable only so long as they are protected by patent or copyright exclusivity. That is a fragile enough protection, it  is arbitrary, and is dependent on a continuing global consensus.

As their societies age, he also believes the debts of many developed country governments are un payable, without drastic cutbacks in services to the elderly. Debt default by a major country could blow the whole global financial system apart.

He argues that the capitalist system has only kept itself going, by bringing into the for profit sector, services that previously were provided free, like childcare and care for the elderly. Rapid urbanisation has made family care, outside the market, impractical for many thus creating new” for profit” markets in care services of all kinds

Meanwhile the market is incapable of finding solutions to global threats like climate change. There are so many players. With contradictory interests, that no one is in charge, and capable of imposing a solution.

Inequality in incomes and wealth are reaching what he regards as unsustainable levels. This is driven by technological change. Work that requires only a high school level of education is harder and harder to find. 

Education is becoming as much a means of sorting out job applicants as it is a method of releasing a student’s potential.

Those who control technology and finance, and have key skills, qualifications, and intellectual property, are commanding an undue share of the flow of wealth. States are too weak to curb this activity. 

Underutilised capital is being accumulated in the financial sector because of a lack of good investment opportunities.  This is driving down interest rates, and creating conditions for another speculative bubble. Mason  blames lack of spending power among workers for the lack of investment opportunities.

His solutions are not as well worked out as his critique.

He wants everyone paid a basic income by the state, whether they work or not (notwithstanding the fact that admits that the same states are already horrendously in debt).

He wants the state to intervene to promote the provision of more goods and services for free, like the free service provided by Wikipedia. He also wants the state to use the criminal law to penalise rent seeking behaviour in business and to strengthen the role of trade unions. 

Given that that people and businesses, who want to avoid doing what one country wants them to do, can easily move to another country, his model could not be implemented without reintroducing capital controls, and reversing the benefits of globalisation.

Most of his proffered solutions are thus impracticable for one country, acting on its own. They would require some form of, self sufficient, global government and the author offers no clue as to how that might be achieved.

He wants the un payable debts of states to be gradually reduced through inflation, which he accurately describes as financial repression.

He believes this financial repression should be engineered by the central banks.  This would destroy people’s savings, pensions, and insurance policies, which are underwritten by the very debts he wants to write off or devalue. As he puts it, his policy would “reduce the value of assets in pension funds, and thus of the material wealth of the middle classes and the old”.

People would never vote for solutions along those lines, and nothing in this book will persuade them to do so. The only way they could be introduced would be by stealth.

The book is useful in that it offers an insight into the logical outcome of the policies espoused by left wing anti capitalist protest parties.

It also portrays the risks that lie ahead for the world, if the defects in the present system, which the author correctly identifies, are not tackled properly.

Thursday, 24 December 2015


An ideology that does not have all the answers.

I  was in Asia when I read the New York Times obituary of Benedict Anderson posted above.

I confess I had never read any of his books but was struck by the huge contemporary relevance of the quotations from him in this  fascinating obituary.

Many of the disturbances in the world today are driven by the phenomenon Anderson spent his life analysing.....nationalism.

For example,
  • it is nationalism that lies behind the tension between China and its neighbours over islands in the South China Sea.
  • It is English nationalism that lies behind the UK effort to detach itself from the EU, while still enjoying its benefits.
  • It is French nationalism that is fuelling the growth in support for the Front National.
  • And it is, of course, a particularly virulent form of  American nationalism that lies behind the anti Muslim, and anti Mexican, rhetoric of Donald Trump and friends. 

Nationalism frequently defines itself by the people it is AGAINST, rather than by the values it is FOR.

US Senator Cruz exemplified  this aspect of nationalism when ,in a recent speech, he called for "moral clarity" in US foreign policy, defining moral clarity as knowing how to identify America's enemies!

Unfortunately nationalism often has to pick on violent events to provided cohesion for the "imagined community" that is the "nation".

In Ireland, for example, we are embarking on a year of celebration of killings and death, in the Dublin rebellion of Dublin in Easter Week 1916,  and this rebellion, and the Proclamation that launched it, is being presented as the  "founding event" for the Irish nation. 

This is historically inaccurate.

The Irish national identity was built,  much earlier, by peaceful agitation, by people like Daniel O Connell, Charles Stewart Parnell and others, much more than it was, by the killing and dying of the 1916 to 1923 period. In fact O Connell's movement was arguably the first peaceful mass democratic movement in the world. 

But I fear that will not be not the message that will be conveyed to Irish school children during 2016. 

One interesting thing about nationalism is that is so un self critical.

It does not examine the assumptions it makes, whether about
+ who belongs to the nation,

+ who can opt out of the nation,
+ whether a nation is about territory or people and
+ whether the nation comes before the individual or vice versa.
Another thing to note is that nationalism is modern, and not an ancient, ideology.

It came about, as Benedict Anderson says, because  the other forces, that  previously sufficed to persuade people to cooperate such as a shared religious belief or a shared allegiance to a ruling dynasty, had lost their force . Nationalism has replaced Communism in Easter Europe since 1989.

Nationalism also uses simplifications of history, and mysticism, to  avoid asking difficult questions of itself.

This is evident in Japan, in its approach to China and to the legacy of its  war in China from 1936 to 1945.

Similar over simplifications and blindness to the other side are also present in the dispute between Israeli and Palestinian nationalisms.

These conflicting interpretations of history make it difficult for people, whose objective interests may actually largely coincide, to cooperate fruitfully with one another.

That is why I believe there should be an open debate about what nationalism really means.

The 150 traditional "nations" of the world ,who met in Paris on our global climate,  are all  of them far too small to cope on their own with the  challenges of global interdependence, global waste, and global environmental degradation. Nationalism does not have an answer to that problem.

While nationalism will always be with us, it needs to accompanied by other, more global, foci for loyalty and common action.

Tuesday, 22 December 2015


I recently read  “Irish Hunger and Migration......Myth, Memory and Memorialisation” which is edited by Patrick Fitzgerald, Christine Kinealy and Gerard Moran and published by  Irelands Great Hunger Institute,  in Quinnipiac University in Connecticut


A number of years ago I visited the Museum Exhibition on the Irish Famine in Quinnipiac University. 

Having grown up in Ireland, and read Cecil Woodham Smith’s seminal work on the Irish Famine, I was well aware of the drastic impact the Famine of the 1840’s had had on my own country, and how the strict application of free market economics had needlessly increased the appalling death toll when the potato crop, on which the majority of the Irish people survived, failed in 1846. 

But I was puzzled as to why a University in the United States, the home of free enterprise, would be devoting so much attention to an event, however appalling, that had occurred on another continent, 150 years previously, given all the other horrors that had occurred elsewhere in more recent times.

This book answers the questions that were on my mind back then
Beyond Ireland itself, the Irish Hunger, and the wave of immigration to the Americas that it caused, had a huge impact on the psyche, the demography, and the religious diversity of North America itself.

It provided much of manpower that fought the American Civil War.

Its memorialisation provides a shared source of identity for generations of Americans of Irish ancestry.

 Initially, the memories of the starvation in Ireland were suppressed by the Irish immigrants, whose immediate goal was to fit in as Americans, and indeed to maintain their sanity, by not dwelling too much the horrors they had left behind.

By the early 20th century the situation had changed, and Irish Americans were ready to talk about  the Famine. But they tended to do so in a simplified way, which highlighted British neglect , as proof of the case that Ireland should separate itself from Britain politically and economically.

For example, the Famine was remembered as if all its victims had been Irish Catholics, and as if Irish Protestants had escaped. As this book shows, that is simply false. The death rate in many Protestant areas of Ulster was just as great, but it suited neither the Unionist nor the Nationalist myth makers to emphasise that.

This reminds us that memorialisation of any historic event serves a different function in each succeeding generation. The way we commemorate an important event in the past, tells us what it is about the past, that we regard as important (and unimportant ) today, and thus how we see ourselves now and in the future. 

If, for example, we only commemorate the dead on one side of a conflict, that shows us that, for us, the conflict is not really over at all.

As our current needs change, so too will be the way we commemorate the past.

This point is brought out very well in one of the essays , by Catherine Shannon,  which describes  how a  coastal community in Massachusetts  commemorated the fatal shipwreck of 99 Galway and Clare emigrants fleeing famine at home in 1849. The way the local commemorations of this shipwreck changed, in tone and format over time, showed how the Irish community in that part of Massachusetts  made the transition from marginalisation and obscurity, to  noisy self assertion, and then ultimately to complete and contented integration.


This collection of essays also deals with the integration of Irish Famine immigrant in the French speaking community of Quebec. Much help was given to the starving Irish by French speaking Catholic orders of nuns. But eventually the Irish settled down  so well in Quebec  that a concern grew that Irish influence might displace the French in the hierarchy of the local Catholic church!

The vitally important role of the Quakers in famine relief in Ireland is described, as is how the Quakers drew on their Irish experience, in helping in famine relief in Finland in the 1850’s.


The part played by Irish immigrants in the defence of the Confederate States of America is described by David Gleeson. Here the Catholic and Protestant Irish made common cause. 

Forinstance, Randall McGavock of Nashville, a planter and proud of his Ulster Scots roots, was happy to emphasise his Irishness when seeking a command in the Confederate Army.

This was presumably because this would make it easier for him to recruit the post famine Irish immigrants to his command.

Randall, one of whose descendants is a good friend of mine, lost his life at the head of his Irish troops at the battle of Raymond in Mississippi in May 1862. I have seen the standard of McGavock’s regiment at my friend’s home in Franklin Tennessee. It features a harp on a green background
Another Irish supporter of the Confederacy was the Young Irelander, John Mitchell.

A Derry Presbyterian , Mitchell was an opponent of the constitutional politics of Daniel O Connell and  had taken part in the 1848 Rebellion in Ireland.  In America, however, he became a strong supporter of slavery. 

Writing in the Richmond Examiner, of which he was editor, he justified secession on the ground that the North has broken the compact establishing the United States by its attack on the “God given” institution of slavery. He also criticised the statement in the American declaration of independence that “all men were created equal”.


For me, the most interesting of all the essays in this book is the one by Gerard Moran on the forgotten Irish famine of 1879 to 1881.

This later famine was also due to potato blight, but its effect was confined to the western seaboard, and to some poorer inland counties like Monaghan and Longford, because it was only in those parts of Ireland that exclusive dependence on the potato for food had persisted, after the terrible experience of the 1840’s.

Still reliant on the potato, the population in these counties had increased  in the 1861 to 1881 period, whereas population had been allowed to fall in the rest of the country. This meant that when, in 1879 after a series of earlier poor harvests, blight struck, starvation was  immediate  in the counties still that were still unsustainably dependent on the potato.
This time , however , relief was provided with greater speed that it had been in the 1840’s.

The Lord Lieutenant’s wife, the Duchess of Marlborough, wrote a letter to the “Times” newspaper  in December 1879 drawing attention to the famine. Her letter sparked the formation of the Mansion House Relief Fund and also to a fund bearing her own name.

Gerard Moran alleges that the Land League “was a reluctant participant in relief operations because it diverted  its activities away from  its main functions as a political and agrarian organisation” and he  quotes Parnell as launching a blistering attack on the Mansion House Relief Committee and its chairman, Edmund Dwyer Gray, which led to Irish Americans contributing to the Land League’s political fund, rather than to the direct relief of starvation through the Mansion House Fund. 

This, perhaps, points up a deeper conflict of interest between the west and the east of Ireland.

In the west, the priority was simple survival, whereas in the east, the priority was wresting the ownership of the land from the landlords, and transferring it to the Irish farmers. 

This book enables the reader to understand the global impact of the Irish famine, and  it acts as an antidote to the misuse of famine memory in the service of contemporary identity politics.