TV Review: Brendan O’Connor’s Cutting Edge.
Guests: Jennifer O’Connell, Baz Ashmawy and Brenda Power. Broadcast Wed Oct 4th.
It’s not often that you see a journalist abandon their Fourth Estate post and become willing mouthpieces for a political agenda, but that’s exactly what Brenda Power, the Sunday Times columnist, appeared to do on the Brendan O’Connor show on RTE, first aired on Oct 4th.
I don’t normally watch the Brendan O’Connor show, but I happened to tune in over the weekend where I caught the repeat, just in time for Brenda Powers’ views on unemployment. The show has some kind of game where Brendan O’Connor invites a panelist to nominate something as a social good. Brenda Power nominated what she called “the Dole”, an antiquated term for social welfare which, as it turned out, was a perfect match for her antiquated views on the subject.
It quickly became clear that while Brenda whole-heartedly approved of “the Dole” as a concept, she absolutely disapproved of people who availed of it. She holds the view that unemployed people are malingerers and that there are jobs out there if they were only willing to go get them. She said that she has heard people on welfare saying that it’s not worth their while working, and she invoked the old chestnut of the guy up in court who, when called back for a court date said he couldn’t go because he has arranged to take the family to Disneyland, courtesy of his “dole” payment. She contrasted Irish people on the “dole” with the Syrian refuges eager to work, insinuating that the Irish unemployed are unwilling to work, in contrast to the eager immigrants. The same old self-serving story that the cultural elite constantly pedal, which stands in stark contrast to neglecting to mention how the business elite exploited immigrants during the boom, and how the banking elite exploited everyone to pay for the bust they created. But Brenda Power, happily riding a class prejudice totally unchallenged, wasn’t to be halted as she went on to pompously advise the “lazy” Irish of the benefits of low-grade low-paid work, benefits which, she claims, the Syrians know only too well; that work is a way to self-esteem and social integration, and she bemoaned the lack of aspiration evident among those Irish on unemployment payments.
This is such a knot-ball of casual class prejudice that it may take a while to untangle. Politics is ultimately a conflict of stories, of versions of reality, which is why the current Taoiseach is investing so much in back-room public relations teams, basically story-makers to tell good stories about his deeds. But there are times when you hear stories that are so at odds with your own perception of reality that you can feel a kind of frustrated annoyance rising in you that you neither want or have time for, but that you’re stuck with now, because you can’t unsee it and you can’t unhear it. Times when you have to just face up and challenge a fake story. This is one of those times.
Brenda Power claimed that 100,00 people remained unemployed during the boom, and that Irish employers had to import immigrants to do the work that the Irish wouldn’t. What a wonderfully twisted fact that is. It’s almost ornate. The fact is that the country was flooded with immigrants when the word got out that there was money to be made here. It was like a goldrush. And for Irish business it made more sense to employ immigrants who were wonderfully exploitable, didn’t expect rights, didn’t appear to mind working around the clock with few benefits, and seemed to be happy enough crammed into cargo containers.
Brenda doesn’t say when during the boom that this 100,000 were unemployed, or in what context the figure exists. She just creates the impression of 100,000 Irish malingerers sitting it out during the boom while the poor unfortunate Irish employer class had to send overseas for workers. Being Irish during the boom was, for many Irish people, a distinct employment disadvantage.
I chose 2005 as a fair random sample for unemployment figures during the boom, to put the figure of 100,000 into some kind of context, and came across this report “Measuring Ireland’s Progress, 2005” from the Central Statistic’s Office:
“The unemployment rate in Ireland increased slightly from a low point of 3.6% in 2001 to 4.2% in 2005. However, Ireland had the lowest unemployment rate in the EU in 2005 at less than half of the EU 25 average. The long-term unemployment rate was 1.4% in 2004, which was considerably better than the EU average of 4.1%.”
We can see from this, boom or no boom, that in all EU countries, a base level of unemployment persists. This is because unemployment is a tool of capitalism, to control wages and unions, as well as being a consequence of technological advances and the logic of cost-saving capitalist streamlining. In the capitalist model there is no such thing as full employment. There can’t be. And this is becoming increasingly the case with technological advance and the limitations imposed on capitalist growth by environmental factors. Unemployment will never be solved, it will have to be managed, because it is going to increase. It has to increase to protect the environment. This may well be one of the main social questions of the 21st Century, forming one of the main points of enquiry about economy and work in current sociological and economic thinking. Shortly before he left office Barack Obama said that within 20 years we would have to look seriously at the question of a universal basic income. He said this because he realized that the concept of full employment was a phantom.
All this is known, it’s general knowledge at this stage, and yet here we have an influential columnist either unaware of these trends, which doesn’t say much for her journalistic pedigree, or choosing to taint the working class and the unemployed as architects of their own condition through the moral lapse of laziness.
Recently on another RTE programme, The Maia Dunphy Show, a stat appeared stating that 300,000 Irish people have emigrated from Ireland in the last four years. The stat fibbed by saying that of these, 80% were already working, or were on training schemes. The truth is, that the so-called training schemes most of them were likely on, such as JobPath and similar, were created by the government to hide the numbers of people unemployed, in order to make the government seem successful in attaining the phantom of full employment. Full employment is like the modern equivalent of the Emperor’s new clothes. If you massage the figures skilfully enough, full employment, or its attainability, appears to materialise. The impression given on the Maia Dunphy show was that the 300,000 economic migrants driven into exile by austerity, left their homes as a kind of lifestyle choice. Or for the craic, maybe. What an insult to those Irish families torn apart again by the necessity of emigration.
Ireland is often a mean-minded, double-dealing, sly culture, contrary to the myths we like to pedal about ourselves. We all know this. It’s our big secret. We’re not as nice as we affect to be. We over-compensate by being wildly generous with foreign charities, and then get found out by being mercilessly cruel against our own poor. The exploitation of immigrant labour by Irish business during the boom contributed hugely to the numbers of Irish people who remained on welfare during that time. This is the ugly side of Irish reality that we fear to look at, but which was brought to our attention by German journalist Christian Zaschke, a few years back in his article “Conned”, reprinted in the Irish Times in 2013, which identified the existence of an exploitative elite that has been hiving off the Irish people for generations, and which plunged us into the financial collapse, landed us with the ensuing bill, and which still sits grinning at the top table, in profit, while everyone else carries the burden of debt they created.
The article reports on the Anglo-Irish tape transcripts between Anglo Irish Executives on the eve of the bailout in 2008, published by the Irish Independent in 2013.
“On the tapes,” writes Christian Zaschke, “you can hear how high-ranking bankers make fun of the crisis. The €7 billion emergency assistance that they demanded from the government would be paid back when they have the money, the bankers agree jokingly – “in other words: never”. That money won’t be enough anyway, says one department head, as he pulled the €7 billion figure ‘out of my arse’.”
Zaschke goes on to say that these bankers “are just one part of an elite that exploits the island shamelessly.”
In the same article, the psychologist Aisling Murphy says “You have to know that we Irish have no experience in confrontation. Here it’s usual not to make a fuss. On top of that is something that, in psychological terms, you call ‘acquired helplessness’. You find this, for example, among abused women. Ireland doesn’t defend itself. Ireland quietly puts up with it.”
Or we simply go away quietly into exile. Back during the 1980’s recession, Brian Lenihan Sr, father of the Brian Lenihan who had a hand in making the banking debt a public debt, said that the island couldn’t support everyone, and he encouraged a generation to simply fuck off. And we did. The Labour Exchanges at the time were paying a couple of hundred quid if you promised not to come back for at least 6 months. It was enough for a travel fare and maybe enough to set yourself up in a flat if you moved quickly enough.
It might be because we are a beaten people, historically, that we are so obedient to such suggestions as that given by Lenihan Senior. This might also be the reason why find it easy enough to accept the pompous lecturing of someone like Brenda Power. Maybe we’re just fatalistically prone to sitting in suffering silence listening to droning authority figures telling us how worthless we are. Brenda telling us we’re lazy is not much different from the church telling us we’re sinners, or the British Empire telling us we’re idiots.
Here was Brenda now, on national TV, comparing the Irish poor to Syrian immigrants and finding the Syrians’ work ethic more impressive in comparison. Telling us that the unemployed are the cause of unemployment. That the poor are the cause of poverty. Those same old putdowns that the corrupt cultural elite are constantly throwing at the Irish public. The same old putdowns that saw the now Taoiseach standing grinning with a Welfare Cheats sign, while he ignores reports of fraud taking place in JobPath, a scheme which is itself a fraud, designed to conceal unemployment figures. Now here was Brenda Power, far from being an objective journalist for Ireland’s paper of record, acting as little more than a willing parrot for the propaganda of Ireland’s exploitative elite, supporting the government-spun fib of full-employment while disparaging and blaming the poor for being poor.
Brenda Power talked also about the dignity of work, having colleagues to josh with and so on, and how it was good for mental health. In this she was apparently trying to kindly encourage the “lazy” Irish to give work a chance and experience its benefits; that it would be good for them. She did not for an instant even stop to consider whether or not there might be jobs to be taken up. She didn’t question the absence of the 300,000 in economic exile. But her view that work is all goodness and light demonstrated how out of touch she is with the realities of low-grade low-paid employment in late-stage capitalism. Work. The “job”, can be an absolute nightmare for many people, often verging on an unrelenting and unrewarding form of slavery. To be selling it as a psychological health consideration is disingenuous, or simply ignorant, typical of the affluent who, in good jobs themselves, believe that all work empowers and ennobles.
There is a world of difference between going to work every day as the boss, with employees hanging on your every word, or as someone in control of your destiny, expressing yourself and earning a decent living and respected status; and going to work every day to be treated like a dogsbody; overworked, underpaid and disrespected from morning to night. This type of work, which is the experience of most people, is not ennobling. It is humiliating and dehumanising.
In her book “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By In America”, the New York Times Journalist, Barbara Ehrenreich, went undercover as a minimum wage worker to find out how the other half survive.
“My aim here,“ she writes, “was just to see whether I could match income to expenses, as the truly poor attempt to do every day. Besides, I’ve had enough unchosen encounters with poverty in my lifetime to know it’s not a place you would want to visit for touristic purposes; it just smells too much like fear.”
Far from being ennobled by the experience, she underwent in short order the destruction of her self-esteem within a few weeks, even though she had the option to go back to her normal life. But even this option to quit at any time and return to her real life made no difference to how she felt, enduring the routine humiliations of low-grade low-paid employment.
“What I have to face,” she writes, “is that ‘Barb,’ the name on my ID tag, is not exactly the same person as Barbara. ‘Barb’ is what I was called as a child, and still am by my siblings, and I sense that at some level I’m regressing. Take away the career and the higher education, and maybe what you’re left with is this original Barb, the one who might have ended up working at Wal-Mart for real if her father hadn’t managed to climb out of the mines. So it’s interesting, and more than a little disturbing, to see how Barb turned out — that she’s meaner and slyer than I am, more cherishing of grudges, and not quite as smart as I’d hoped.”
Bullying is rife when you’re at the low end of the scale. In one job, house-cleaning, Ehrenreich describes how the woman of the house came to stand over her when she was on her knees cleaning the floor. Bullying is one of the perks enjoyed by those a little higher up the pecking order. The humiliation is complete in the form of the low grade of job; the harder the work, the less money you receive. Ehrenreich found that no matter how hard she worked she made little or no progress out of poverty. She writes:
“My guess is that the indignities imposed on so many low-wage workers—the drug tests, the constant surveillance, being “reamed out” by managers—are part of what keeps wages low. If you’re made to feel unworthy enough, you may come to think that what you’re paid is what you are actually worth. It is hard to imagine any other function for workplace authoritarianism. Managers may truly believe that, without their unremitting efforts, all work would quickly grind to a halt. That is not my impression. While I encountered some cynics and plenty of people who had learned to budget their energy, I never met an actual slacker or, for that matter, a drug addict or thief. On the contrary, I was amazed and sometimes saddened by the pride people took in jobs that rewarded them so meagerly, either in wages or in recognition. Often, in fact, these people experienced management as an obstacle to getting the job done as it should be done.”
David Graeber, Professor of Anthropology at the London School of Economics, in his essay “Why Capitalism Creates Pointless Jobs.” talks about those types of office jobs – the Irish public service is full of them – whose main task is the slaughtering of time for a wage. The type of job where work that could be done in a few hours is stretched out over a week. Graeber says that these jobs are jobs whose only real value is the possession of the job itself. They produce little or nothing, and they are dull and mind-destroying.
Graeber opens the essay with a brief overview of the optimism felt by many economists early in the 20th Century, among them John Maynard Keynes, who believed that advanced technology would shorten the working week and free up people to pursue more meaningful tasks. Graeber goes on to say:
“But rather than allowing a massive reduction of working hours to free the world’s population to pursue their own projects, pleasures, visions, and ideas, we have seen the ballooning not even so much of the “service” sector as of the administrative sector, up to and including the creation of whole new industries like financial services or telemarketing, or the unprecedented expansion of sectors like corporate law, academic and health administration, human resources, and public relations. And these numbers do not even reflect on all those people whose job is to provide administrative, technical, or security support for these industries, or for that matter the whole host of ancillary industries (dog-washers, all-night pizza deliverymen) that only exist because everyone else is spending so much of their time working in all the other ones. These are what I propose to call “bullshit jobs.”
He finds that the 1930’s Keynesian prediction of the working week being reduced to around 15 hours due to new technology has actually occurred, but that the 40-hour week still prevails and is filled out with other pastimes, like seminars and whatnot. Graeber goes on to say that it is as if there is someone out there creating work, keeping everyone busy, but ultimately wasting everybody’s time. As Barbara Ehrenreich remarked in Nickel and Dimed: “What you don’t necessarily realize when you start selling your time by the hour is that what you’re really selling is your life.”
David Graeber ultimately detects morals behind the creation of bullshit jobs:
“The ruling class has figured out that a happy and productive population with free time on their hands is a mortal danger (think of what started to happen when this even began to be approximated in the ‘60s). And, on the other hand, the feeling that work is a moral value in itself, and that anyone not willing to submit themselves to some kind of intense work discipline for most of their waking hours deserves nothing, is extraordinarily convenient for them.”
Work, the “job”, no longer necessary in terms of productivity, is now more or less only necessary as a means of social control.
Barbara Ehrenreich in another book, “Going to Extremes: Notes from a divided Nation” found that in the US in 2006 the fastest growing low-grade low-paid jobs involved bedpans and brooms. Basically, mopping up society’s puke and shit, for a minimum wage, with all the contempt that those above you can manage to heap onto your burden. In such a system the only place to be is management, looking down on those doing the dirty work and taking out your frustrations on them because you know that slaughtering time for a wage is a waste of your life.
I challenge Brenda Power to take up a menial job cleaning up societies crap for even a couple of weeks and then come back and lecture us about the ennobling effects of low-grade low-paid employment.
There was a strangely tense moment during the discussion on unemployment on the Brendan O’Connor show when one of the panellists, Baz Ashmawy, said that he’d been doing theatre for a while, supporting himself and his artistic efforts with Jobseeker’s allowance. It was clear that no one wanted to hear this particular story of welfare acting as arts funding in the absence of meaningful arts funding. The tension visibly lifted when Ashmawy hurriedly said, but I got some bar work. Phew! In austerity Ireland we prefer our artists swilling out beer than working at their art.
The consensus arrived at on the Brendan O’Connor Show, clustered around Brenda Powers’ position. She was deferred to at every turn by the others, partly I guess due to her status as an Sunday Times columnist, but also partly because her views represented the prevailing right wing orthodoxies which seem to enjoy an unquestioned status as being morally “correct”. The story she was telling was the “proper” story, even if it’s bunkum, while the more human stories Baz Ashmawy and Jennifer O’Connell told were not told with any conviction and were hidden away, almost in shame, in deference to the story Brenda Power was propagating.
Jennifer O’Connell didn’t exactly defend welfare, but she said that when she returned to Ireland after being ”away” (read, in economic exile) she had support from family and had savings to see her family through until they got back on their feet. Being returned immigrants they were not entitled to welfare for several weeks. Without savings and family they’d have been less well off than an asylum-seeking refugee.
The Panel arrived at a consensus of sorts that work was “good” and welfare was “good” but that people who depended on welfare were “bad”, especially Irish people. All this courtesy of the story Brenda was spinning. Even so, the consensus arrived at by the panel seemed like a fragile one. It was as if at least two of the panel knew, as did possibly Brendan O’Connor, that the consensus they had settled on was a fib, but that circumstances dictated that they must settle for the fib, in the interests of, presumably, some perception of a “greater good”. Possibly the belief that ignoring the elephant in the room with regard to the impossibility of ever achieving full employment in an antiquated capitalist system now hemmed in by environmental limitations, equated to a positive mental attitude, which most people recognize as being essential to any form of progress, including “job” creation. A position that increasingly appears to represent a terrible poverty of imagination, the very thing the miserable elite refuse to prioritise in the form of increased arts funding. Imagination is the only thing that can save us now, but ironically it appears to be becoming an increasingly scarce resource.
But then of course, this is Ireland, where traditionally, problems, whether they be familial or cultural, are dealt with by draping great cloaks of silence across them and doing our best to forget about them. This seemed like one of those moments on the Brendan O’Connor Show. As if a great dust-sheet was being draped over the entire concept of employment creation and poverty, to be dealt with later, at the end of some long, long finger.
In Ireland it is often the case that people muddle through somehow, no matter what the circumstances, and find ways to bend the rules to serve everyone. JobPath, as I discovered, is a good case in point. When I started writing about JobPath, some people said that I should just keep quiet, that room would be made within the system to accommodate those who didn’t agree with the system. This would be done by the people who had jobs within the system and who simply wanted to keep those jobs.
I could see the logic of this line of reasoning, and I could also see how Irish it was. We would take an unsuitable system and bend it to our own requirements, but keep the façade of the system, for appearances sake, and everyone would benefit from the funds that flowed through the system from central government.
The problem with this however, is that the system then becomes not only a lie, which, if you disagreed with it at the outset, was probably a lie for you anyway to some degree, but that it becomes a lie that cannot be questioned, because its façade is now protecting too many other interests and angles. Then, inside the bent system, you have a whole other culture springing up. A culture of cronyism, of threat and submission, of quiet deals going on to ensure the continued flow of public money.
Such a system doesn’t favour everyone. The law-abiding and the meek tend not to do well in such a corrupt system, and often find themselves serving as subjects and case examples of the abandoned but written laws of the original system, while the grinning wheelers and dealers thrive.
Once you enter into a nod and a wink agreement to work such a system as a catchment for public funds, you admit into the system, other, more powerful law-bending manipulators; and you may quickly find, that the system you presumed to work to your benefit, is now owned and being milked by other, more powerful forces. There has to be a legal line, observed by all, in order to serve all. Once you descend into complicity and silence on such things, as our history shows – particularly in relation to how corrupt officials within the church exploited silence and shame to create predatory sexual opportunities – that’s when the real darkness begins.
I think it’s a tragedy that we live in a culture that commends an artist abandoning their vocation to go work in a bar, just for the sake of saying they have a “job”. But in a way, that says so much about our priorities. That these simplistic ideas about work were being propounded by one of our leading journalists, from one of the leading national newspapers, is an indication too perhaps that a kind of rot has also set in to the Irish Fourth Estate. That some of those who should be managing and analysing such difficult questions have instead chosen to promote the simplistic and the trite, to cast elitist judgement on the blameless as scapegoats for the crimes and mismanagement of an exploitative elite who have ridden power for generations in the corrupt, crony system that is Ireland.
Ultimately, what the Brendan O’Connor show demonstrated, was how this form of cronyism arrives at a consensus, bringing along even those who may feel uneasy about the unspoken agreement to silence that they are entering into. Until finally, all is silence and the agreed upon façade is spoken of as if it is genuine. A place where professional journalists forget their vocations and join with the powerful in scapegoating the powerless in the interest of maintaining the lie at the heart of a system that supports a privileged elite who, as David Graeber contends, create work and the ideals of a “job” to control the society they feed off.
A famous quote, often attributed to George Orwell or William Randolph Hearst, makes a distinction between journalism and PR: “Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed; everything else is public relations.” Whoever said it, the phrase is useful in clarifying the journalistic ideal, as opposed to simple advertising. From this perspective it is difficult to escape the conclusion that Brenda Power was doing PR on the Brendan O’Connor Show in support of a right-wing view that chimes with Fine Gael policy. If she claims, however, to have been engaged in journalism, she is clearly abysmally ill-informed about current ideas related to unemployment and late-stage capitalism, choosing, instead of an objective journalistic perspective, a kind of finger-wagging nannyish view of unemployment, a view based squarely on the antiquated protestant work ethic and all the elitist prejudices that such a position conveys.
The actions of Ireland’s exploitative elite have driven yet another generation of Irish people into economic exile, and their continuing grip on power is condemning everyone else to lives of penury and hardship to pay the outrageous bills their careless gambling has incurred. Brenda Power departed journalism on the Brendan O’Connor show and took to PR on behalf of that exploitative elite.