The overturning of Roe vs. Wade in the USA highlights the precariousness of legal institutions and the necessity for continuous struggle to both push for and enforce social rights. It shows the limitations of legal and state apparatuses, that are themselves a reflection of existing power relations and vested interests, but also the ways that previous struggles and class forces are continuously inscribed within such institutions. While this decision clearly signifies a new intensity of attacks on women’s rights in the USA, it may also (hopefully) signify a heightened mobilisation and coordination of left-wing struggles.
This increasingly fractious relation between church, the capitalist state, and capital accumulation regimes, alongside increasing social struggles is not unique to the US. In a recent article in New Political Economy, entitled ‘A time of reproductive unrest: the articulation of capital accumulation, social reproduction, and the Irish state’, I analyse similar dynamics in the Republic of Ireland (herein Ireland) and argue that this is a time of Reproductive Unrest. The concept Reproductive Unrest captures two dynamics, first the way that economic crisis (in this case the repercussions following the financial crisis) were “resolved” by displacing it to the sphere of social reproduction (housing, water, healthcare, reproductive rights) and in particular, working-class communities. And second, the way that economic crisis and the dominant accumulation regime that caused it were contested by these communities on the terrain of social reproduction and increasingly the capitalist state. Economic crisis was displaced to the social and then the political, which left behind an increasingly uneasy and unworkable institutional and political constellation.
Successfully exiting the Troika bailout in 2013, Ireland was regularly held up as an austerity success story. However, scratch the surface and this positive imagery appears much more fragile. The Irish state has historically positioned itself as a nodal point for global finance capital, preferencing multinational corporations over domestic industries through preferential tax regimes, land deals and investment conditions. For Ireland, this meant that when global capital was doing well, so would Irish economic indicators and vice versa. As such, when global markets began to collapse in 2007 Ireland was incredibly vulnerable. Under pressure from the European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund the banking industry was bailed out with public funds, transforming the banking crisis into a sovereign debt crisis.
However, unlike other bailout states, austerity was not new to Ireland, but rather as one of my interviewees stated:
The Troika had to come into this country not because we weren’t pursuing austerity. We were … The Troika became austerity’s lender of last resort.
Central to Ireland’s model of attracting global capital flows was its appealing investment conditions including low taxes and a weak social wage. The Catholic Church filled some of these gaps, particularly in relation to education and healthcare. The Church in effect acted as a form of shadow welfare state: it was a critical apparatus of the Irish state yet was shielded from formal processes of political accountability. Since the late 1980s, further concessions to working class communities were made through Social Partnership agreements where trade unions, business, state and later civil society organisations agreed to a broad range of economic and social policies. The Church and Social Partnership – albeit in different ways – provided critical institutional supports for the dominant accumulation regime.
However, as the economy collapsed so too did these institutional supports. Social Partnership broke down in 2009, and the Catholic Church was facing a global legitimacy crisis as scandals around clergy abuse were uncovered. Adding to this institutional crisis, from 2011 onwards there was an emerging crisis of political representation as the two dominant centre right parties and the Labour Party pushed for further austerity even if they had been elected on anti-austerity platforms. So, at the same time that the economic crisis was being resolved, the concurrent institutional and political crises closed down previous (if limited) channels for alternatives within the Irish state. Existing institutions were unable or unwilling to challenge the dominant argument pushed by those in power and mainstream media that ‘we had all partied too hard’ and now needed to deal with the consequences.
My argument is that these political-institutional crises were not contingent but instead expressions of inherent contradictions within the Irish state and its articulation to social reproduction and global finance capital, contradictions that can be extended to many neoliberal states in this period. Moreover, that these contradictions were further sharpened and understood as interrelated by each subsequent protest movement during this period. Ultimately, the economic crisis resulted in little (if any) change to the dominant accumulation regime, even if the regime was the cause of Ireland’s vulnerability to fluctuations in the global economy. Instead, budgets were restored by further cutting back on social welfare and opening up public services to private investment – social reproduction was depleted and expropriated. Yet, for the evolving social crisis to be addressed the conditions that make Ireland attractive to global finance capital would be undermined. As such, the Irish state was increasingly unable to provide both the conditions for social reproduction for working class communities and the conditions that would attract finance capital – life-making and profit-making were proving mutually exclusive.
At the same time, and due to long-fought struggles on abortion and LGBTQI+ issues Ireland was also becoming more socially liberal and communities were organising and fighting back. Travelling through struggles against water charges to Repeal, healthcare, and homelessness was a growing understanding that social reforms would be limited without the material conditions necessary for their realisation. Yet material concessions would only be possible with a transformation of the dominant accumulation regime. As one interviewee stated:
We’ve decided it (the current political system) is the best system money can buy, you know?
Dots were being joined as activists continued to ask critical questions about why the Catholic Church still provided much primary school education or was given the contract to a new maternity hospital even after the abortion rights were won; about why the state rejected underpaid taxes from multinational corporations while the health system was chronically underfunded; and why there was a housing crisis when large numbers of properties remained empty after being bought up by vulture funds. Each crisis was understood as inter-linked and a facet of a larger crisis. As another activist claimed, ‘The crisis is neoliberalism’. Protesters demanded not only social rights such as abortion, marriage equality or the right to water, but the material conditions that would allow for those rights to be realised, which included a re-fashioning of the way that social reproduction had been provided for within the Irish state.
So, although Ireland may have exited the bailout almost a decade ago, this is an increasingly fragile recovery. Politically, there is a more active if also disenchanted electorate, Sinn Féin’s 2020 election result suggests that new political spaces are opening up and the dominance of the centre-right (in power since independence) is breaking down. Moreover, institutional supports have fractured at the same time as shifts in the global political economy may make Ireland a less attractive proposition for finance capital.
For neoliberal states more broadly, this case suggests that crisis management through the displacement of crisis onto certain communities, social reproduction, or political institutions might only last so long. Labour, understood broadly, was not only disciplined but also mobilised. The creation of a social and political crisis, as a consequence of resolving economic crisis, did not allow the structuring conditions of, in this case, Irish capitalism to escape contestation. Instead, they were contested through water, housing, healthcare, and increasingly the environment. Protesters are demanding an alternative, yet this alternative is increasingly impossible without concrete political, economic, and institutional transformations. As such, even socially liberal neoliberal states are increasingly coming up against their own economic limitations. Crisis management that merely displaces crisis tendencies to the conditions that make accumulation possible – nature and social reproduction – will face increasing reproductive unrest whether in Ireland or the US, unrest that is identifying the internal relation of economic and political power and the structural limitations of relying upon liberal political institutions.
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Author: Madelaine Moore
Dr. Madelaine Moore is a post-doctoral researcher at Bielefeld University, Germany. Her research develops a political economy from below by exploring water governance and the emergence of eco-social policies through Marxist and Feminist theory. Her PhD, which explored struggles over the expropriation of water in Australia and Ireland, won the Jörg Huffschmid Award and she was a Rosa Luxemburg Foundation scholar. Her monograph A Time of Reproductive Unrest will be coming out in early 2023 with Manchester University Press in the Progress in Political Economy book series.