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A Question of Class

Writes Andrew Duffy

You are probably sick to your molars of reading about lockdown. What once felt surreal, almost dreamlike in occurrence has now permeated our everyday lives and melted into the backdrop. Like a wallpaper with unprecedented socio economic repercussions.
A suitable analogy is the opening scenes of Shaun of the Dead in which the titular Shaun, charmingly protected by Simon Peg, goes about his daily, life work, socialising and above all else living while TV screens (Shaun is aptly employed in an electronics shop) display the increasingly bleak news of the viral outbreak emerging. This is akin to how many in our generation have responded to the climate crisis and to the later stages of the pandemic. The crisis is there and it’s existence is amplified by an increasingly all-encompassing pseudo-Orwellian news apparatus that denies any sentient being a moment of respite from the latest ‘breaking announcement’.

Like Shaun we are aware of the pending danger of the virus itself but we continue to live day to day as there is quite frankly little choice at our disposal. The current health crisis has fused into the background noise and for many people who aren’t frontline workers it will be viewed as such unless it personally affects them. The culture of individualism that has emerged since the 1980s compounds this crisis by leading most people to avoid systematic understanding of issues in favour of individual explanations and approaches to life, the organisation of society and disruptive events such as the pandemic. This creates, what the journalist Chris Hedges describes as, a culture “fixated on undulated hedonism”. By which the satisfaction of an individual, of the ego is all that life should be geared towards. As Margert Thatcher put it “There is no such thing as society, there are only individuals and families. “

The Celtic Tiger comes into play as the single biggest economic event of our generation. Before the pandemic, the “boom” was an unprecedented event in Ireland post-independent economic history as it finally signalled that prosperity, upward mobility and the chance to raise one’s family in a manner more comfortable than one’s upbringing was finally in our grasp. The 2008 crash was the 7:00 AM alarm to that blissful dream. What followed was an unscrupulous regime of austerity for the many and socialism for the very few. The banks that caused the crash, under the absentee parenting approach to regulation instated by political parties were rewarded with bailouts. A lovely fiscal parachute to cover their losses, after all we would want a genuine free market wouldn’t we?
Meanwhile the working class picked up the tab. The cuts to public services, regressive taxation and the loss of stable, decent paying jobs in the following years were overseen by the government of the day. The uptake in employment from 2015-2019, that parties obsessively proclaim from every hilltop, was a complete sleight of hand in terms of material impact on the working class. The metrics by which job creation is measured are deeply flawed. For example, those who work a mere hour a week are considered employed.
An increasing plurality of new jobs are in the gig economy. While promoted under the colourful banner of ‘be your own boss’ and ‘flexibility’ of employment, zero-hour contracts essentially means work when the company needs it and whenever they demand, not according to any fixed schedule or any of the protections workers movements have literally fought and died for over the last 100 years.

This Faustian bargain, on the part of bureaucratised trade unions and establishment parties, began with the 1990 Industrial relations act which neutered the union movement in Ireland. This means that our age bracket find themselves in the most unregulated and undemocratic work environment in nearly 100 years. Under 30s find themselves on the front lines of our present crisis, if not delivery workers and retail staff then as one of the thousands of unpaid interns in our health service. When you were struggling to make ends meet day to day before Covid-19, then the stress of work is supremely heighted by the real possibility of becoming infected and then infecting others with a potentially life-threatening virus.
The decision to reopen mid-summer and forgo the four-phase opening plan has been shown as a serious and dismal mistake. The trajectory of cases since September has committed our society to a shotgun marriage with a second lockdown. Already underway is the collapse of our underfunded and overstretched health service. It’s constitution is a wholly separate human tragedy and secondly an economic disaster of severe magnitude. The defunding and asset trip of a public utility is a key component of full privatisation. This has already been witnessed with health infrastructure in states such as Nigeria, Chile and Indonesia. The Irish health service has been under assault since the late 1990s, partly due to the influence of private health moguls such as Dennis O’Brien and Larry Goodman; both of these characters represented monopoly capitalism. O’Brien has shares across print, television and online media in the twenty-six county state. Goodman owns shares in the cluster producing meat factories and both are profiting from the ever expanding private healthcare industry of this Island. We have an obligation to oppose and remove a government so blatant in its favour and subservience towards wealth-sodded parasites.

The combination of a rushed reopening, the inaction of the government on funding our health service by expanding track and trace and regulating nursing homes, and the mere existence of direct provision centres, squalid meat factories and an increasing population of homeless people should be at the forefront of public anger. The decisions made at the pressure of lobby groups such as Ibec, a business membership organisation which has associations with some of the companies who operate direct provision centres and the meat barons have endangered the prospect of our entire economy and most of all, working-class people, a group which young people constitute importantly in this state. These actions constitute murder by neglect.

In totality we are presented with a fork in the road. We can continue to accept the world as it is and end up as scapegoats for the duration of the pandemic and the carousel of local and national lockdowns. We will also inherit an economy and health service in tatters. This will diminish or even deny our chance to secure decent pay and working conditions, the opportunities that we can pass on to our children, the chance to grow old with dignity and health and our very physical safety from this virus and future pandemics.

On the other hand we can take this crisis as an opportunity to reevaluate the world that existed before and accept that normal wasn’t working. We don’t have to settle for a two-tier health service unequipped for both pandemics and the seasonal flu. We don’t have to be forced in unaffordable and unsanitary housing overseen by a parasitic landlord class. We don’t have to accept that work comes without worker input, without decent pay, minimum hours or health and safety protections. This crisis has dispelled old notions about our workplaces, education and social lives. More and more of us can see that the means by which we organise our economy and political system really is just constructed by people and can be deconstructed and rebuilt in a better way if we have the will. We do not possess the time to consider anything less.

For my own two cents, if you are working you must join a union. A good example is UNITE for workers in the retail and hospitality sectors. The union also offers community memberships for people who are unemployed. Another crucial step is to join a tenants union if you rent. CATU is a national organisation for tenant organising and is crying out for young members. There are many grassroots organisations, stocked with passionate, determined working class young people. These groups organise in defiance of capitalism, in refutation of the undulated hedonism that Hedges outlined. Organisations such as the Connolly Youth Movement are leading this fight. You don’t have to rely on electoralism and representatives to address the issues facing us.

We are running out of time to wait for the election cycle in the hope that those who enter the club can serve the electorate in good faith. The politics of movements is the way forward. As witnessed in the recent successful resistance to a US sponsored coup in Bolivia, by the Black Lives Matter Movement this summer and environmental organisations such Extinction Rebellion direct action yields results. Actions that construct a new approach to politics are building blocks of a different system of demeocratic organization that is not confined to ticking boxes every 4-5 years. To wrestle control of our lives and the direction of our society and indeed our very planner from those who would sacrifice the innate worth of human life on the altar of profit we need to organise not just in reaction to the suffering of today but in the active pursuit of a kinder more human tomorrow.

Orson Welles said we are born alone, we die alone, it is only through our connections with others that we create the illusion, however fleeting that we are not” Lets rage against the dying of the light, together.