Final year economics student Thomas Davern looks at possible solutions to the encroaching economic issues currently facing Ireland and the world.
The young people of today have never known any system aside from globalized capitalism. We grew up during one recession and are now graduating into a different one, we have felt the precariousness of modern housing and we have had the continuous existential threat of climate change weighing over us.
Yet despite all these systemic failings, it seems more impossible than ever to seriously challenge capitalism and imagine something different. Simply put by Slavoj Žižek, “It is easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism”.
This can be seen in our modern discourse around mental health. Instead of looking at the causes of modern anxieties and what we can do to change them, we individualize these issues – society doesn’t have issues, you do.
We also privatize the treatment of these ailments to be carried out by pharmaceutical companies and therapists. Not to say that these treatments can’t genuinely help with coping under capitalism, but is merely coping with modern life really the best we can aspire to?
To just emulate the hollow nothings of self-help gurus and motivational social media influencers who profit from the problems we live with?
It isn’t just in the realm of mental health either; just look at the solution we are given to the collective problem of our system of production literally destroying our planet. Just buy “green” products and take personal responsibility for recycling.
Can’t find secure employment? It’s because you made the wrong individual choice in degree, it’s not the labour markets fault.
Is it any wonder that in the US the CDC’s morbidity and mortality weekly report for June 24th to the 30th found that 25.5% of respondents aged 18-24 years have seriously considered suicide in the last 30 days?
The calls that do exist for change mainly rely on and hark back to old ideas which existed before the ideological dominance of capitalism. This manifests on the left in the call for a return to post-war trade unionism, and on the right in an idealised version of the past before our social structures were rotted out with the very Thatcherite individualism they instigated.
This seeming lack of any viable alternative is what the philosopher Mark Fisher dubs ‘Capitalist Realism’. Beliefs such as businesses simply being more efficient are treated as objective as the divine right of the kings of yore.
To seriously challenge this, we have to topple the root structure of capitalism: the employer-employee relationship.
Capitalism is different from any other system
What makes capitalism truly different than any previous system of production is this relationship, whereby the capitalist hires your labour in return for a wage and keeps excess profits in return for co-ordinating production. This in in contrast to slavery where the master owns the labour or feudalism where the serf and lord have interconnected rights and obligations.
This puts power firmly in the hands of those who own capital: they decide what is produced, how it is produced and where it is produced. Merely regulating this relationship to be more equitable is simply not enough. As has been learned time and time again since the 80s, if capital doesn’t like your regulations, they can simply outshore production to a country without them or subvert them through the influence of money in politics.
In order to fundamentally change this relationship, workers must be made the owners of their firms. This is not to be confused with a Soviet-style government ownership of firms in which workers had very little democratic control; rather it looks like worker co-operatives.
Currently the European Central Bank prints vast sums simply to be put into banks who look to minimise risk by only loaning to the already wealthy exacerbating inequality. Alternatively, the ECB or the Irish government through AIB, which is state owned, could buy up the equity of firms, giving them the cash-flow they desperately need during this economic crisis while then turning over said equity to employees.
While this may seem like a radical departure there is an Irish precedent for this to be found in how the land question was solved. In the late 19th century the British government bought out the land of the large British landlords in Ireland and then provided long term loans to Irish renters which they could use to buy up the land.
This period also provides the political lessons of how to achieve this, through mass agitation and ballot box pressure. These shares would have to be non-transferable so as not to simply be bought up again by the wealthy.
While this all may sound highly theoretical, even under Capitalist Realism there are already examples of firms organised like this. For example, the Mondragon Corporation is a Basque worker co-operative employing a total of 75,000 people across its retail, finance and industrial arms. Members have total job security; wages are higher than private sector counterparts and they earn a slice of the profits. Studies into the Mondragon have also found that workers are as productive if not more than traditional firms as workers have an incentive to monitor each other and work collectively in a form of horizontal management.
Achieving this economic democratisation is easier said than done, it requires us shedding the only ideology many of us have ever known. Any alternative to unfettered capital will be decried as unrealistic in the same way early political democratisation was thought to contravene God by the old European monarchies. But none of this can overturn the basic truth that workers fundamentally deserve better than being dictated to by those who were fortunate enough to be born into owning capital or who have been ruthless enough to accumulate it.
Thomas Davern – Business Writer