Speech at a Reception for TASC (Think-Tank for Action on Social Change)
Áras an Uachtaráin, 28th April, 2023
Tá áthas an domhain orm fáilte Uí Cheallaigh a fhearadh roimh gach éinne a bhí nó a bhfuil baint acu le TASC, an mheitheal mhachnaimh a théann i ngleic leis na hathruithe atá ag teastáil chun daonlathas a chothú inár saolta, trí gníomh treoraithe bunaithe ar anailís chun athraithe bunúsacha a bhaint amach.
[I am very pleased to host a reception today for the staff, past and present, of TASC, the independent think-tank whose mission is to address inequality and sustain democracy by translating analysis into action].
I am delighted that TASC’s founder, Proinsias De Rossa, is present today. We are forever indebted to Proinsias for the vision and leadership he showed in establishing this important organisational resource which plays a crucial role in promoting social justice.
When TASC was established in 2001, think-tanks of any kind were a rarity in Ireland. More generally, there were few alternatives to the hegemonic neoliberal discourse and the cautious conservatism which prevailed in the public policy sphere. Historically policymaking in Ireland can be characterised as largely reactive, technocratic, ‘top-down’, not strongly influenced by the institution of social partnership but rather by powerful vested interests.
A key objective of TASC was to upend this form of policymaking – the need to demonstrate how good policies come about from a proactive engagement on structural issues, rather than the reactive model of heretofore. It sought a ‘bottom-up’ rather than ‘top-down’ model, one that focused on public engagement with politics, inclusive discussion and inclusive debate on matters of public policy.
Given the dominance of neoliberalism as a paradigm for over four decades, it is hardly surprising that the global influence of the economic right ensured that economic orthodoxies shaped the thinking of those responsible for the making of Irish public policy across all areas. Consequently, there was a dearth of progressive or heterodox policy debates over the decades. TASC has set out to change this, and it is a change for which we should all be grateful.
By engaging in research and public outreach concerning inequality, democracy, and climate justice, in the current political, economic, and social environment, TASC has increased public knowledge of economic and social policy, been a source of information and ideas as to the improvement of working conditions, and its work has been vital in the facilitation of a just transition to advance climate action and protect livelihoods and communities.
The inherent flaws and limits of our neoliberal paradigm have now not only been exposed, laid bare for all to see, but acknowledged in the wake of an austerity response to the global economic crisis of 2008-9 that has proved so socially ruinous in many parts of Europe.
The bad economics at the source of that response was based on a fallacy of description, an obsession with descriptive economic analysis and quantification of metrics, including Gross Domestic Product that was championed at the expense of deeper analysis with theoretical adequacy. This focus was held and promoted by many who have been influential within the field of economics has created conditions for the dissolution of deeper thought, hard thinking and a limitation to wonder.
Many economists remain stuck in an inexorable growth narrative, or at best a ‘green growth’ narrative. Yet, as Tim Jackson points out, such a concept is contradictory in itself:
“Growth means more throughput. More throughput means more impact. More impact means less planet. Eternal growth precipitates the destruction of everything”.
A fixation on a narrowly defined efficiency, productivity, perpetual growth has resulted in a discipline that has become blinkered to the ecological challenge – the ecological catastrophe – we now face.
That narrow focus constitutes an empty economics which has lost touch with everything meaningful, a social science which no longer is connected, or even attempts to be connected, with the social issues and objectives for which it was developed over centuries. It is incapable of offering solutions to glaring inadequacies of provision as to public needs, devoid of vision.
Neoliberalism, too, values ‘work’ at the expense of ‘labour’, that distinction made by Hannah Arendt to capture those activities that create the foundations for society to flourish and which the pandemic revealed as being so essential, many of which fall outside the market altogether. We are left with a society where labour is denigrated, work is unfulfilling and the role of the arts and culture is one of commodification, residual to what is speculatively rewarding, decorative at best.
The direction that mainstream economics has followed recalls that distinction between Plato and Aristotle as to the privileging of the senses. Aristotle had privileged the sense of touch. Plato gave preference to sight for source of meaning, a view that won out in Western practice. It gave us precision in definition of the illness, but at a cost perhaps of a missing dimension of the social life as experienced beyond the singular, as a shared experience beyond the individual. Touch cannot be experienced without engagement beyond the self. There are obvious parallels with our contemporary hegemonic economics discipline in the limits it has set itself.
Inequality is at the heart of the ecological dystopia we face, one that now poses an existential threat. Most economists publishing recently recognise that current levels of income and wealth inequality are “neither tolerable in a democracy, nor efficient from an economic point of view, that they aggravate public health risks affecting the whole of society, […] and have potentially devastating consequences for the environment”, as Lucas Chancel has argued in his book, Unsustainable Inequalities.
I ask now: can we recover the required space, the freedom, to craft a much-needed new economic discourse – a discourse that would be responsive both to the fundamental needs and aspirations of our citizens and to our global responsibilities in relation to our planet, and such defining challenges as famine, hunger, and mass migration?
I have come to view, too often recently, the broken connection with each other, with biodiversity, with nature, as a species failure.
Does the question of who participates with authority, or confidence, in the public discourse on the economy, and in what terms, not tell us something of the fragile, even empty, quality of democracy? Do the relationships between government, research institutes, think-tanks, universities, civil society and the media truly allow for a plurality of theoretical and methodological sources? Such questions are fundamental, yet rarely discussed in public fora. I see such questions as appropriate for the first year, even first semester at Third Level, or ideally earlier.
We have arrived at a highly critical juncture when the dominant models of economic growth have been proven to damage social cohesion, democratic life, as well as the future of life itself on our fragile, vulnerable planet.
Our obsession with inexorable economic expansion expresses, perhaps, a desire to transcend our material limits and rise above the state of nature. Yet this growth fixation paradoxically increases the potency of those very limits.
A deadly cocktail of exploding inequalities, massive deregulation and a globalisation defined solely by trade densities has precipitated this ecological crisis. However, as Bruno Latour argues, these three phenomena are united in the conviction, “shared by some powerful people”, that while the ecological threat is real, “their survival requires the abandoning of any pretence at sharing a common future with the rest of the world, [precipitating] massive investment in climate change denial, […] the turning away from global connectivity and back to the protection of [advantage within] national or even ethnic borders”.
While today we are living under great shadows that cast so much doubt and anxiety, I wish to offer a positive contribution to the debate, and I must attempt to avoid the temptation to fall into any Adornoesque sense of despondency.
For example, while however late, it is heartening to see the legitimacy of neoliberal market fundamentalism – that is, near exclusive faith in the efficiency of markets, in the superiority of markets over government intervention, in the ability of markets to self-correct, and in the market’s ability to deliver political freedom – now being challenged by even those international organisations in whom trust was perhaps naively or, worse still, calculatedly, placed by nations as measures of success, electoral popularity, or for the achievement of communal welfare. Even such organisations are now seeking a new approach.
Yet such a radical paradigm shift is needed in moral, theoretical, policy and accepted consciousness levels, and with urgency, if we are to have any hope of steering our shared future on this planet towards a sustainable, flourishing one. Such a shift would go some way to mitigating the democratic crisis, restoring trust amongst the citizenries, a trust so lost in the wake of austerity and the current rise and rise of the unaccountable which constitutes the most significant threat to democracy even in what described itself as the ‘developed’ world.
Multilateral bodies seem to have accepted that we need such a fundamental and radical paradigm shift, not just in relation to economics, but in terms of our very way of living, our broken connections. New ideas, new movements and crucially a sharing consciousness between movements are, thus, now required and, even more, their effective communication to citizens – ideas based on equality, universal public services, equity of access, sufficiency, sustainability.
New ideas are fortunately available in the form of practicable suggestions for an alternative paradigm of social economy within ecological responsibility, but critically they must find their way on to the public street. They must find their way on to the curriculum in the places where economics is being taught.
Thankfully, we now have a richer discourse than perhaps we did a decade-and-a-half ago at the last point of crisis, thanks to scholarly contributions from, inter alia, Tim Jackson, happily with us today, Ian Gough, Anna Coote, Mariana Mazzucato, , Sylvia Walby, Kate Raworth, Peadar Kirby, Mary Murphy and others who advance ecologically sustainable and socially progressive alternatives to our destructive, failed model.
This scholarship has been suggesting for some time now the real, emancipatory potential for a new, recovered political economy, and I have called for many years now on third-level institutions, both in Ireland and abroad, to ensure that its elements are allowed space to be taught and, thus, for it to be available to inform a pluralism in thinking and ultimately in policy.
The question of how economics is taught and encountered, as development economist Howard Stein has written so eloquently, is a matter of utmost importance.
I believe that failure to facilitate a pluralism of approaches in teaching economics is a deprivation of basic students’ rights, indeed citizen rights, leading, as it does, to a narrow, blinkered and distorted education in economics and the wider social sciences. Students are entitled not only to pluralism and the declaration as to assumptions of competing models in what is taught, but to be able to find intellectual and practical fulfilment in the engagement with ideas, ideas that will in turn be an influence on the options in advocated policy and their life contribution. I emphasise this point given TASC’s core objective of promoting education for the public benefit.
As to the new paradigm, consideration of a new ecological-social model, based on the pluralism and context in which economics and economic life is embedded, we must acknowledge the importance of the limits to resiliency, the limits of the world’s natural resources, as well as acknowledging the role that unrestrained greed, largely unaccountable, has played in creating the climate crisis.
The suggested new paradigm we work together to seek must offer a balanced connection between economics, ecological sustainability and ethics, recognise the depth of the change that is required and, going further, it must envisage a more equal and moral society, one in which the State plays a role as a provider of quality universal services for its citizens, services that are seen as an investment in society rather than a burden.
It recognises the importance of diversifying power, the critical role of women’s voices and feminist leadership in every policy area, such as Jennie Stephens advocates in Diversifying Power.
It is beginning to achieve a consensus in parliaments that new policy instruments will be necessary, policies that must simultaneously pursue both equity and social justice as well as sustainability and sufficiency goals within an activist, innovative State, with substantial public investment and greater regulation and planning. Investment functions of social policy must be enlarged to become more closely integrated with climate action investments.
We are told of record surpluses in the Exchequer coffers – €10 billion for 2023 and over €16 billion predicted for 2024. Let us not forget that this surplus has been made possible by an educated and hard-working population as well as by foreign direct investment.
Now is the time to invest in our connection with nature, its lessons in resilience, to achieve a more sustainable, fulfilling, and healthy world. Politics must be redefined so that it becomes Earth-focused, rather than national-focused. We must enable a more active, participatory, fulfilling version of society than one where citizenship is defined as licence to insatiable consumption, where the “glittering prize is the promise of immortality itself”, to quote Tim Jackson.
The most effective welfare states in the world promote universalism as a core principle – we can think of those in Nordic countries and the social-democratic models adopted in several other Continental European nations as exemplars. Thus, an effective eco-social paradigm requires a universalist mindset. This is fundamental as a compass, as are additional, targeted measures to mitigate against regressive impacts of decarbonisation policies on lower income groups.
In Ireland this will mean a just transition must be achieved for those impacted by the closure of unsustainable carbon-intensive electricity production, for example, who must be offered re-skilling opportunities to enable re-employment in other suitable areas, such as the green economy, or upskilling opportunities that can achieve sustainable incomes in other parts of society.
We must anticipate now, where before we allowed ourselves to await impact of change. We must communicate inclusively.
I strongly support participative decision-making models, such as that advocated in ‘The People’s Transition’, TASC’s report from 2020, which views climate action as an enabler of local development, giving people and communities ownership of the transition to zero-carbon societies, and enhances public support for a just transition by tackling inequality and raising standards of living through the delivery of climate solutions. May I add that policies that promote genuine regionalism can also be a central institutional space for measures leading to a just decarbonisation.
As we adjust to our post-pandemic reality, I suggest that now is the time to consider some first-order questions. How are we to be in the world? How should we seek to be in the world? Such weighty questions are considered by Professor Hartmut Rosa in his book, Resonance, in which he argues for the need for society to move away from “consuming the world” to experiencing it and resonating with it.
Quality of life cannot be measured simply in terms of material resources and their use, space for creative opinions, experiences and moments of happiness. Rather, we must consider our relationship to, or resonance with, the world – a world where “relationship and meaning take precedence over profits and power”, again to use the language of Tim Jackson or the insights offered by Hartmut Rosa. It is only by accepting our fragile material condition that we can hope to attain something higher – through artistic creation, human connections, solidarity, the seeking of harmony, of love in our lives given our existence at what I have called ‘migrants in time’.
This important recent work is helpful for understanding how the “catastrophe of resonance”, to quote Rosa, which we have experienced in contemporary society, is directly related to the growing narcissism, aggressive individualism and emphasis on insatiable consumption and wealth accumulation as a desirable, even inevitable, version of a life of fulfilment – as the late Zygmunt Bauman put it: an invitation to become “consumed in our consumption”
Or as Tim Jackson has put it:
“Discontentment is the motivation for our restless desire to consume. […] The success of consumer society lies not in meeting our needs, but in its spectacular ability to disappoint us. […] Our obsession with ‘more’ relentlessly obscures the fragile balance of the human heart and denigrates the poetry that might return it to us”.
Defining our need for ‘belonging’ and experiencing it together is so important. Belonging to a territory is the phenomenon most in need of re-thinking and re-definition. We must learn new ways to inhabit our shared, vulnerable planet, seeing ourselves primarily as world citizens with a duty to the planet’s protection.
To build cohesion and solidarity, we need, it has been suggested by what is a diversity of scholarly and spiritual thinkers and writers, a new social contract, one that fosters a more generous and inclusive society which would also share risks more collectively. Minouche Shafik presents a compelling case for such a new social contract between citizen and state.
In a nod to Amartya Sen’s Capabilities Approach, such a society would broaden opportunities, asking citizens to contribute for as long and in the form that they wish to, thus enabling everyone to fulfil their potential. Shafik identifies the key elements of a more generous social contract, one founded on solidity, solidarity and harmony, one that recognises our interdependencies, shared inevitabilities, supports and invests more in each other, to build a more inclusive, cohesive society together, one which gives authentic delivery of the social justice, solidarity and equity principles that underpin the framework for the Sustainable Development Goals, perhaps our greatest achievement in recent times as a moment of hope, global solidarity and empathy.
As to our future then, I believe that TASC is among those bodies well placed to play an important role in the great contest of ideas, their sharing, turning into action, that we need to embark, engaging all of society inclusively, to debate the great, fundamental issues that will shape the future direction of public policy in this country.
Do we want a society committed to promoting decent, dignified standards for human labour, a society that fosters a rich and holistic understanding of work as a source of personal dignity and freedom, stability, prosperity in the community, democratic flourishing, and solidarity with other workers, in Ireland and abroad? Or would we prefer to continue on the path in which so many of our fellow citizens find themselves trapped, one marked by chronic job insecurity, zero-hour contracts, unstable, precarious, low-paid and temporary jobs, and other so-called ‘innovations’ that are increasing the numbers who are now termed ‘precariats’?
Do we want a society where children and the elderly are provided with adequate care, and where people with disabilities and their families can avail of appropriate support? Or would we prefer a laissez-faire model, one in which the privatisation agenda remains hegemonic, where the value of the State and the services it provides remains a source of derision, a terrible legacy of distorting the world of work and devaluing care and caregiving?
Do we want to bequeath to our children an Ireland where everybody will have access to nutritious food, clean water, adequate housing, good healthcare, childcare and education, irrespective of their ability to pay for those basic social goods? Or do we wish to pursue a means-tested, two- or even three-tiered system of access to services with all its exclusionary and inequitable outcomes?
The challenge for all of us here today is, therefore, to find a way of building, with all our distinctive contributions, an alternative to that hegemonic discourse that casts competitiveness, productivity, efficiency, as the ultimate purpose of economic activity, and inexorable growth in output and trade as an end in itself.
We are challenged to rebalance economy, ecology and ethics. We are challenged to craft a socially accountable version of the economy – challenged to restore a hierarchy of purpose, whereby economic objectives, tools and measures are designed to serve the fundamental objective of human development.
I suggest that all of the prevailing ruling concepts in our present economic discourse – flexibility, globalisation, productivity, efficiency, innovation, indeed economic growth itself – are capable of being re-defined within an active citizen participative state context, given a shared moral resonance, reimagined sustainably within the context of the new ecological-social model.
These are challenging times on so many levels, but I ask, has there ever been a more appropriate time to envisage our future utopia? Notwithstanding the distance we find ourselves from achieving such an outcome, we must dare to dream it, to offer its outcome and continue to play our part as advocates for a paradigm shift, such as that to which I have spoken in my address, a paradigm that places an entrepreneurial state at the centre of social and economic objectives, a paradigm of universal basic services, a paradigm which recognises that inequality is not inevitable, but rather the outcome of exclusionary, inequitable policy.
Such a paradigm has, I believe, the capacity to gain mainstream acceptance, and is not only an important gesture towards intergenerational solidarity, it is our only hope as a global people of avoiding ecological and social catastrophe.
Níl aon amhras orm ach go mbeidh ról lárnach ag TASC gan todchaí ag stiúradh na athraithe shóisialta atá riachtanach maidir leis na hailtéarnachtaí inbuanaithe a labhair mé orthu tráth a sholáthar.
[I have no doubt that TASC will play a crucial role in achieving the social and economic change that is required to deliver the sustainable alternative of which I have spoken.]