Ireland under austerity: Neoliberal crisis, neoliberal solutions

Colin Coulter and Angela Nagle (eds.), 2015, Manchester University Press, £18.99

Colin Coulter and Angela Nagle’s ‘Ireland under Austerity’ is a welcome addition to the literature on the Irish economic crisis, which has been somewhat lacking in left-wing analysis.

The book brings together twelve essays from different sections of Irish left-wing academia. This provides a great overview of ongoing research but as with any collection of essays it can suffer from a lack of focus. Some articles, such as Alison Spillane’s ‘The impact of the crisis on Irish women’ and Gavin Titley’s essay on migration, are really more about the political situation in Ireland for women and migrants during the crisis than they are about the impact of the crisis/austerity on these parts of society. But this is not a major problem as both stand in their own right as succinct introductions to these topics.

Colin Coulter writes in the introduction that the volume “marks a deliberate attempt to reverse the balance within leftist analysis” away from cultural studies and towards placing “issues of what might be termed political economy to the fore”. However, even the essays that attempt this most explicitly remain largely focussed on economic ‘discourse’, ‘narrative’ and ‘ideology’. The implicit assumption here is that it is the dominant neoliberal discourse/narrative/ideology that is wrong and that there is an available alternative. But this alternative is left largely unexplored and neither is the underlying nature of the economy addressed in depth.

It brings together a broad range of authors and presents arguments that are being made across the Irish left with unique clarity and succinctness

Two exceptions to this are the contributions from Angela Nagle and Michael Taft, where the failings of the Irish economy are addressed explicitly. Nagle draws on Taft’s previous research to argue that “we have an underdeveloped indigenous productive economy and a continued overemphasis on finance,services and property speculation”.

She uses this insight to highlight the lack of infrastructural development and investment and contrasts this with deceptive but popular ideas regarding the immateriality of the IT industry. In his essay, Taft goes further, arguing that the government should directly intervene to help develop the “indigenous productive economy” and thereby increase employment in manufacturing.

But Ireland cannot compete in low-wage labour intensive manufacturing. And, simply by virtue of being an island on the edge of Europe, Ireland is unable to compete with many other high-wage economies due to high transport costs. For example, Ireland couldn’t compete with German car manufacturing
because the cost of getting Irish cars to European markets would severely erode other cost competitiveness we may have. This explains much of the peculiar nature of Irish export industries. These industries largely fall into two categories: extremely capital-intensive forms of manufacturing, with very few employees (medical device manufacturing and pharmaceuticals), or services, where more people are employed (IT and finance). It is difficult to see how an internationally competitive labour-intensive manufacturing sector in Ireland could develop.

‘Ireland under austerity: Neoliberal crisis, neoliberal solutions’ is a very welcome book that is well worth a look by all interested left-wing activists and socialists in Ireland. It brings together a broad range of authors and presents arguments that are being made across the Irish Left with unique clarity and succinctness. At times, it can feel like some of the authors understand neoliberalism as simply a false discourse, rather than as the dominant form of capitalist economic development and social reproduction in the West today. Others take the underlying question of social reproduction more seriously and propose the development of a stronger “indigenous productive economy” as a key strategy for overcoming neoliberalism and as an alternative development path for the future. However, the difficulties associated with this strategy should not be underestimated and it remains unclear how this strategy poses an alternative to the neoliberal development strategy Ireland has pursued over the last 30 years. These are all arguments and debates that need to be developed further, but ‘Ireland under Austerity’ is certainly a welcome and useful first step.

– Oisín Gilmore

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