Finding a political perspective

In previous posts (for example, in this one) I have reflected on the decline and virtual disappearance of ideology as a basis for political discourse. However it has recently seemed to some people – but not, I have to confess, to me – that the economic developments of the past year or two might herald the return of a more pronounced left-right divide in politics and, perhaps, a vigourous debate on whether capitalism could survive the crisis which had engulfed banking in particular.

An interesting and articulate contribution to this debate has just been published, in a book entitled Transforming Ireland: Challenges, Critiques, Resources. Edited by Debbie Ging, Michael Cronin and Peadar Kirby (the first two of whom are DCU staff, while the third is a former DCU colleague now in Limerick), the book argues the case for social solidarity as a frame of reference for analysis and ultimately action, and suggests that a fascination with markets over the past decade or two has generated increased inequalities and social problems.

For anyone interested in the rise and fall of the Celtic Tiger, and the implications of our recent national prosperity and current convulsions, this book makes interesting reading and provides a stimulating set of analyses and perspectives. Whether the authors are right in  their views may be open to some debate; I suspect that their antagonism to market economics and their belief in the emergence of social solidarity as a new left perspective may not be as readily endorsed by the wider population, who will I imagine be happy enough with the established order if it can re-create economic growth, employment and restored property values over the next year or two; and contrary to the current fashion of economic pessimism, I feel that it possibly will.

Nevertheless, any contribution to the debate is welcome, and one that pushes at least a little for the return of ideology as a driver of thinking will always be interesting to me. I suspect we are actually in a post-ideological world, but a large part of me regrets that and feels nostalgic for the sheer fun that used to be found in political debate, as well as the fact that political strategy is more interesting when it is more ambitious than just setting the numerical target for GDP growth.

At the very least, I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to engage in the discussion of where we should now be going.

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18 Comments on “Finding a political perspective”

  1. kevin denny Says:

    When I hear the word ideology I reach for my revolver, well actually for my Principles of Economics textbook. Personally I do not long for debates on important matters to be divided along these lines. To me, ideological stances are the epitome of intellectual laziness whether they are on the right or the left. And contrary to popular opinion, a careful study of economics would show this: sometimes markets are great, sometimes lousy. The trick is to figure out when and find some way of dealing with the gaps. This isn’t easy and a few economists are as guilty as newspaper columnists in this regard.
    But if you come to the debate with a closed mind you are not going to learn anything. And other people are not going to learn anything useful from you.
    I think part of the issue here is the essentially arbitrary political cleavage in Irish politics which goes back to the civil war. So, I suppose the argument is that, if instead our politics was on more traditional left/right lines that would make more sense, at least its about something more “real”. Maybe, but to me it seems like replacing one daft division with another.
    From what I have seen of these debates, particularly on economics matters, they often confuse values [what objectives society should aim for] and mechanisms [how to achieve them]. Much of the sniping at economists derives from this confusion. Economics is about the latter and our values are no more or less priveliged than anyone else’s. Give me a social objective and maybe I can help find ways of getting there. Economists may appear to be a materialistic bunch largely because thats what the punters want, bread and circuses so-to-speak.
    A lot of the commentariat, particularly those on the left [very broadly defined], have other views about what sort of society we should have. Fine, take it up with the voters.
    And finally… for those who are missing their ideology really badly, remember the tens of millions who died last century because of one form or other of it.


    • Kevin, the advantage of an ideology (of any form) is that it lifts political discourse to the level of principle rather than just operational competence. The problem with society often is that it finds it hard to take on values without some competing frames of reference. I no longer have any feeling of sympathy with many of the left-wing ideological values that accompanied me in my 20s, but I miss the debates around issues of principle. Nowadays they tend to be very vague. The kind of productive edginess we used to have has gone.

      • kevin denny Says:

        Ferdinand, being that little bit younger I don’t remember those heady days, thats my story anyway. To me, ideology is just dumbing down. Maybe its helpful in some contexts but on the whole I think it obscures too much. Discussions about values I am all in favour of.

  2. Jilly Says:

    I don’t buy for a moment that we are in a post-ideological age. Instead, we are in an age in which a very strong ideology presents itself as being non-ideological. In particular, what we’re seeing at the moment is a shift in which neo-liberal economic and social ideas are being circulated as ‘affect’, with the corresponding development of a public discourse increasingly divorced from facts or logic, and instead centred on feelings which are then legitimised as ‘personal’ truths.

    For example, the current debate about public sector pay is operating in this way. The public discourse that public sector pay is ‘too high’ is disconnected from facts and logical arguments, something which becomes particularly clear in the way that the proposed unpaid leave deal was widely described as an ‘extra holiday’, where similar arrangements in the private sector are called a ‘reduction in hours’. Also, there is an increasing disconnect in public discourse between the pay that public sector workers receive and the work that they do: for example, those on reduced hours/pay in the private sector are usually experiencing this because there is less work for them to do. In the public sector by contrast, many of us actually have more work to do now (universities have more students, social welfare offices have more claimants, etc). The fact that this isn’t discussed at all suggests that in the ‘affect’ of current ideology, no amount of work we do can justify any amount of pay we receive. This centres on the fact that we are paid from State money/taxation, and because of this are increasingly being demonised as ‘scroungers’ in the same way that in previous recessions in other places, those on the dole have been demonised. This of course stems from the fact that our work operates outside of market forces.

    The demonisation of those whose work operates outside of market forces is of course a classic sign of neo-liberal ideology. But where in the past this might have been presented as a clear ideological argument (a case for applying market rules to the provision of education, health-care etc), this is not now happening. No element of public discourse in Ireland at the moment is arguing for a privatisation of public services, and the payment of full market rates by users. This is presumably because it wouldn’t be a populist move! Instead, public sector workers are simply being characterised to the general public as ‘unworthy’ workers, without any logical argument as to what the alternative might be.

    Thus we end up with a populist and disguised neo-liberal ideology circulating, which is based on emotion and feeling (‘I feel that public sector workers are overpaid, and therefore they are, regardless of any statistics which might be presented’), and which therefore cannot be countered by logical argument.

    This is extremely dangerous, of course: historically, populist use of feeling rather than argument has rarely worked well for a society….

    • kevin denny Says:

      Jilly, I don’t think the issue of public sector pay is entirely divorced from facts although clearly there is a lot of posturing, envy and maybe getting even. A number of careful studies using publicly available data & using standard scientific methods (that have been used in thousands of other studies) find that public sector workers (myself included) are paid more than their private sector counter-parts. If you were to factor in issues like pension entitlements and job security (which are valuable) this would the gap even bigger.
      The size of the gap does depend a certain amount on what to most people are statistical details but the broad pattern is fairly robust I think although I was not involved in these studies.
      Of course what you do with these facts is another matter.

      • Jilly Says:

        The calculation of public/private pay differentials depends, primarily, on the comparators used. So, just to use our own example, what is the private-sector equivalent of a university lecturer? We have a minimum of 5 years post-primary degree qualification (unpaid), and with absolutely no guarantee of full-time work at the end of that. For those who do achieve full-time work, our time is divided between research, administration and contact-hours teaching (for which there is also extensive preparation required). Of these activities, both the teaching and research draw necessarily on our specific and high levels of expertise. Whilst those of us who acheive full-time work earn reasonable salaries, have pensions and job security, the profession as a whole also consists of a vast number who are extremely under-employed, or employed on short-term contracts and with no pension.

        The only private-sector workers I can think of who compare reasonably to this professional model are barristers. Their period of unpaid qualification is similar, they have a similar lack of guarantee of work, and the divide between the successful/well-paid and the under-employed/poorly paid is not dissimilar. Also, our work patterns are quite similar, with lecturers’ contact hours comparing quite well with the actual time a barrister spends on their feet in court, by comparison to the amount of ‘behind the scenes’ work they do.

        So, did the ESRI (for example), compare university lecturers to barristers when doing their public/private pay differential calculations? And if not, who did they compare us to? That’s a genuine question, as I don’t know the answer.

        I do know, however, that the annual earnings of the fully-employed barrister of equivalent age/experience to that of the full-time academic are HUGELY greater, even allowing for our pensions (and on a side-note, it is worth bearing in mind that our pensions were included in the last bench-marking exercise, to the tune of 12%, I believe. And yet not only is that ignored, but the pension-levy pay cut we took this year appears to have been completely written out of public discourse on public sector pay. It’s as if it never happened).

        So it’s not just what you do with statistics, it’s the basis on which you compile them in the first place which also counts.


        • Jilly, the much more obvious comparison in the private sector is with research scientists in corporate employment. Lecturers get paid much more than they do. A more general comment about public sector pay (i.e. leaving academics aside) would be that more junior public servants get paid much more than private sector counterparts, but that the more senior get paid less. On average, public servants do better.

          • Jilly Says:

            And here we have one of the problems of comparing individual jobs in different sectors with each other. You say research scientists, I say barristers: we could discuss the pros and cons of each all day, but ultimately these comparisons become very subjective. And hence the ‘scientific’ methods of comparing unlike with unlike for pay differential calculations becomes extremely unscientific indeed.

          • kevin denny Says:

            Gotcha Jilly! Thats precisely what the scientific methods don’t do. They do not make arbitrary comparisons between occupation groups. That is what the “job evaluations” favoured by the unions do. That is why we need averages based on representative data that take account of characteristics of individuals in the different groups.

          • Jilly Says:

            But you haven’t answered my previous point about the broader disparities between the public and private sector. And your previous post implied that ‘taking account of characteristics of individuals in the different groups’ was precisely what the ESRI survey didn’t do…


    • Jilly, while I agree with some of your comments, I don’t believe we have much ideology nowadays at all. The neocons have left the scene some time ago, and I see very little sign of ‘neo-liberal economic and social ideas’. I don’t believe that the discussion about public sector pay is influenced by ideology at all, just a suspicion that has arisen between different groups in society; in my youth it used to be urban and rural people, now it’s public sector versus the rest. None of that has even a smattering of ideology; I wish it did.

      • Jilly Says:

        Do you really see the absolute refusal to discuss using taxation rather than public sector pay and spending cuts to balance the budget as non-ideological?

      • kevin denny Says:

        Jilly
        In such analyses, one doesn’t do one-for-one comparisons (lecturers with barristers, taxi drivers with bus-drivers etc) but essentially what one is doing is taking people with comparable level of skills (education, experience as well as stuff like gender) and comparing them across the public/private divide. Moreover, what will be reported will be an average over a large sample of people in many occupations. As you point out, the public/private differential differs, for some its a big positive number, others it may be a negative. Taking the average seems reasonable.
        Of course you can pick particular groups (& hence particular comparisons) which suit any particular view – such as barristers /lecturers – thats why you need to use a large representative samples rather than ad hoc comparisons.
        None of the methods to calculate these differentials is perfect -no method is- but I think that what the folks in the ESRI did was probably pretty sound and reasonable. Its quite hard to describe these methods in a blog entry although probably as arcane as it might seem.

  3. Jilly Says:

    Kevin, I entirely appreciate the complexity of the process involved in such a study (and the impossibility of describing it in a blog!). But from what you’re describing, the figures produced by the ESRI were based on such broad averages that they become meaningless.

    And if they are such broad averages, then they also need to take into account the fact that a much higher percentage of public sector jobs than private sector jobs require third-level (or second-level for that matter) qualifications. Again to take universities as just one example, my colleagues on campus who clean the buildings and work in the kitchens are no longer public sector employees at all, thanks to the outsourcing of a previous era (more neo-liberal ideology at work). So if you take the workers on a university campus as a population, all the unskilled jobs are private sector, and all the highly skilled jobs are public sector. This would be equally true of all civil service, local authority, schools and hospitals, where almost all unskilled work has been outsourced and the people who do it are no longer public sector workers. So that obviously skews the figures, especially if they’re the broad averages you’re describing. How does this NOT render the figures meaningless?

    • kevin denny Says:

      Whether an average or any statistic is interesting depends on the question. Its not meaningful in and of itself. So if the question is “Are public sector workers paid more than in the private sector?” this necessarily has to be answered at some aggregate level e.g. an average of some form. But of course to compare like with like you have take into account that there may be other sytematic differences between the two groups, one lot may be older or more educated for example. This is precisely what the method does and in a very transparent way. So what you get is “average public sector wages allowing for the fact that they have such and skills, experience..” compared to the equivalent for the private sector. I think this is precisely what you are referring to in the university example: so you can be assured that one is not implicitly comparing my lecturers salary with the private sector cleaners in our building.
      Now, an average conceals a lot because there is variation around it so it would be normal to compute the differential for sub-groups so it may be different for men & women for example.
      The same issue arises, incidentally, comparing male & female wages. The same methods and data are used to come up with a number: the average male/female wage differential. For the same reasons we know its just an average and there are exceptions both ways. But I think it is useful to be able to make a comparison between the two groups in a well defined rigourous way. So if you said women are paid less than men I could basically try re-hash your arguments against that proposition but the data would show otherwise.


  4. Jilly asks: ‘Do you really see the absolute refusal to discuss using taxation rather than public sector pay and spending cuts to balance the budget as non-ideological?’

    Absolutely and resolutely non-ideological. It is based entirely on the belief that if you raise taxes you kill of international investment. It may be right or it may be wrong, but that’s what it’s based on. If you were to fashion a neocon approach (and I think that’s what you are really talking about, rather than neo-liberal), then it would look very different indeed. There are some overlaps, but actually not that many.

    • Jilly Says:

      No, I’m talking about a neo-liberal ideology (neo-classical if you prefer, but neo-conservative is only applicable to the United States), which the refusal to consider a restructuring of our historically-low taxation system is a part of.

  5. Paul Doran Says:

    Could I suggest that may want to read A Economy for the Common good issued by the Communist Party of Ireland. Or better still come along to their meeting in the Matt Merrigan Hall Middle Abbey St on Thurs 1oth at 8pm.If you are realy interested in Idelogoy you cna hear plenty of it there.Seriously though the reason you don’t hear and I could talk about it all day is that the Media don’t carry it.it is called censorship


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