By Conor McCabe.
Money exists in an opaque space, with its own language and gatekeepers to knowledge. As citizens, we are required to support the profit-seeking strategies of financial institutions, but we are not supposed to question those strategies, the logic that underpins them, nor the power relations that envelop its world. Money is just a thing, the economists say, one that is too complicated for ordinary and feeble minds.
Yet as the 2008 crisis showed, when finance crashes, societies follow. The hold it has on our lives is not abstract. It is real, and it is vicious.
In the case of Ireland, the decision to give an almost blanket guarantee to six banks was in effect a bailout of those institutions and a cohort of their property-based clients. The fact that it failed does not take away from the intention. It was an exercise in genuine political and economic power, one that put certain vested interests over the well-being of the state.
All across Europe, governments imposed austerity. It was an act of self-preservation by financial institutions that was implemented with zeal by central banks, politicians and bureaucrats. It amounted to a direct attack on the lives of hundreds of millions of people.
The naked threats of the European Central Bank and European Commission to cut funding to non-compliant states, and the use of the euro as a bludgeon for political and economic purposes, is a far cry from the standard definition of money as an asset that simply functions as a store of value, a unit of account, and a medium of exchange. It is a benign reading of money that does not fit too well with the evidence we have of it being used to cajole and bully entire peoples into political and economic decisions that are clearly against their collective interests. The financial system works for those who wield the most influence over it. This is a class interest and it has deep roots.
The question, then, is how do we replace private financial interests with social solidarity, and how do we do it without making things worse? Without a workable method of implementation, any vision put forward of a progressive and equal Ireland is merely an aspiration. The model that has the best chance of achieving this is that of a commonwealth of civil society and trade unions working in tandem with a progressive political sphere. This presents its own challenges of course, but the alternative is acquiescence, and that is no alternative at all.
No plan, of course, survives contact with reality. The more intricate the design, the more likely it will fail. To coin an old phrase, ‘Man plans and God laughs’.
The strategies that work are the ones that leave room for creativity and spontaneity. They have to do this, for the world has a way of throwing curve balls that knock you over when you least expect it. This means that a progressive movement cannot simply follow a plan as if life is some sort of predetermined pathway.
A progressive movement needs a set of objectives, an organisational structure to harness the societal energy that is out there for progressive change, a plan on how to achieve those objectives, and, crucially, the ability to think and rethink the plan while it is in operation. The objectives stay the same; the flexibility is in the methods we adopt to get there.
This is about education, in particular activist education, all framed by class consciousness and a gendered analysis of societal relations – that is, an awareness and understanding of how class and gender work, their economic and gendered necessities, and the organisational solidarity needed to tackle overcome them.
Activist education, done properly, does not teach you how society works so much as teach you to think about how society works. It does that for a very specific and practical reason: activists are on the ground and they need to be able to adapt strategies as and when the need arises. They need to be able to think clearly about how to achieve the same objectives but by different means as circumstances change.
When we talk about education we are talking about a way of harnessing the experience and creativity of activists, and placing that energy within a conceptual framework of economic class and gendered power relations and how they operate in Ireland today. Education used in this way simply gives direction and focus to what is already there. Education is not knowledge; it is understanding. It is not passive; it is active.
Education is a tool that builds a deeper understanding social and economic power relations by using the knowledge and experience of activists on the ground. A movement that is able to think for itself – genuinely think for itself – is genuinely transformative.
It is entirely achievable.
Dr Conor McCabe is a research associate with UCD Equality Studies Centre, and the author of Money (Cork University Press, 2018). He has written extensively on Irish finance and is involved in activist education, working with political, trade union, and community groups in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.