A depressing confession: I find it increasingly difficult to imagine a radical left alternative (RLA) taking shape anywhere, as perhaps my recent posts here and here indicate. It’s not that I am a TINA-tout, as Matthew Sparke, whose text on globalization I’m using with Cian O’Callaghan, puts it. There is an alternative. There are alternatives. But geography. Geography.

Ok, so let’s say Irish voters elect a government with a RLA mandate. Let’s hope so. What then? I don’t doubt for a second – and if I’m off, please correct me – that Ireland’s credit rating would sink immediately once the financial world believes an RLA government will emerge here. These guys would have a quick scan of what’s on the cards.

They might, for example, have a look at the taxation agenda (or other proposed policies, all of them with a radical progressive slant). The backdrop here, of course, is that rich people are quite astute when it comes to moving their money around. Not all can, or will. Lots of capital is fixed in place, not quite as mobile as we might think. Still, will the necessary sorts of progressive taxation policies, such as increases in higher rates of income or wealth taxes (but I’d hope also some reductions in sales taxes), scare off some, lots; or, maybe just enough? And what will the credit ratings agencies make of that? Surely they’d hit us. An RLA government here would be such an outlier amidst a wider geography of neoliberal and conservative – fascist? – governments across Europe. Maybe it’d all pass. Maybe we could get by for a while – or at least for the duration of the government’s term i.e. long enough for the sorts of progressive changes people might vote for to be made – without needing to borrow. Maybe.

But then there’s our debts. The orthodoxy – economists will scream: not the orthodoxy, the fact you idiot! – is that even an RLA government would need to keep making payments on all the socialised bank. But I’ve no doubt that, if an RLA government did indeed come into office, one of its promises would need to be that it’d cancel the debt. And there’s a bloody good argument for doing so, on ethical grounds if nothing else. Moreover, it’s costing us so much in real hard cash terms. Hard to fathom.

So what if we defaulted? Let’s run quickly through this scenario. Think about that wider geography. A neoliberal world where bank debts get socialised. Where ‘good governance’ says “ don’t default”. So again, it’s us here in Ireland as a massive outlier. A pariah. A Zimbabwe or a Venezuela in the Atlantic. Can an RLA government survive that? Probably yes. But if the taxation agenda is one thing that’d frighten the ratings agencies, defaulting would be something else entirely. If nothing else, it’d be an interesting time. It’d be risky. Europe would throw a fit. Our RLA Finance Minister would be in for an earful. Again, that wider geography: not just credit ratings agencies and their pals, but our supposed allies in Europe.

Consider finally our much-needed inward investors. They wouldn’t leave, would they? Surely they’d bargain. If conditions weren’t right, they’d push for changes. So maybe an RLA government wouldn’t have too much to worry about. Hmmm.

But there’s an underlying issue here: one of the arguments for an RLA government is precisely that too many workers work for low pay, often in unpleasant circumstances, lacking a sense of security. And while, yes (or no?), maybe the inward investors are less likely to employ people in these sorts of ways, the fact is that the cost of labour as a whole is kept low in Ireland by suppliers, services firms, contractors, who do rely on a ‘flexible’ workforce. We need a new RLA government to design legislation to fix this. It isn’t just about what firms do. They’re allowed to make workers flexible. Our governments don’t regulate them enough. Our unions are too weak to do anything about it. This is precisely the imbalance that rankles. It’s precisely one of the root causes of generally widening inequality here and elsewhere. So let’s say an RLA government comes into office. It pushes for legislation. But won’t it then come into conflict with EU directives on labour or services? What then? Is leaving Europe on the cards? Should it be? I’m deadly serious here: Can we have socialism a radical left alternative in one country?

Alistair Fraser

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