Sunday, August 30, 2009

No on Lisbon - Until the people understand it


Related Furious fishermen call for 'No' in Treaty


Posted: Aug 26, 2009

Lisbon: How the elite forces organised against democracy

The elite forces have carefully prepared for the second referendum and will use a variety of 'civil society' groups to front their campaign. But at the heart of their strategy lies a deep contempt for democracy. In this extended analysis Kieran Allen, one of the editors of offers a detailed critique of the excuses used by the elite for not respecting Ireland's original vote.

Political activists rarely read sociological texts because they are sometimes written in an impenetrable style. But an exception should be made for a short,. six page text from the French sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu entitled Neoliberalism as a Conservative Revolution. It was originally delivered as a speech in 1997 - in other words, before the Wall St Crash of 2008 when the neoliberal dogma still seemed to be unassailable. The article makes a number of key points that are significant for anyone seeking to understand the twin crisis of legitimacy that is currently affecting Ireland.

Our ruling elite destroyed some of their political capital when the population gave a decisive rejection to the Lisbon Treaty on June 12th -despite, or possibly because, of their internal elite solidarity in marshalling the Yes argument. Co-incidentally, the economic model which served our rulers well during the Celtic Tiger years entered a period of crisis on both a local and global stage. Ireland's peculiar role in undercutting tax rates and the European social wage in order to serve US capital has itself been undercut by countries in Eastern Europe. And this has developed in the context of a 1930s scale crash which undermines all the dogmas about the power of 'de-regulated' market forces.

In his article Bourdieu defined neo-liberalism as primarily a conservative revolution. In the name of flexibility, it seeks a return to a more radical capitalist order that shifts power to the wealthy. It was, however, a unique form of conservatism because:

'It is not like in other times a question of evoking an idealized past by the exaltation of blood and soil - agrarian and archaic themes. This new type of conservative revolution appeals to progress, reason, and science (economics, in this event) to justify restoration and seeks in this way to dispatch progressive thought and action to an archaic past.

In a subsequent article, Bourdieu pointed out that the neoliberal discourse was often backed up by a new set of 'cultural producers'. These were the experts who emerged from the world of think tanks and academic institutions to present an aura of objective research. There were also communications advisors, who raised the discourse of neoliberalism from the everyday to the academic speak.

Through such mechanisms, the neo-liberals proposed an 'unsurpassable horizon of thought and the end of critical utopias (based on) an economic fatalism'. Some translation may be needed here to access Bourdieu's train of thought.

His point was that the discourse of neoliberalism sought to reduce political choice in the name of globalisation. A mythology was created through an endlessly repeated story line that there was only room for acquiescence with 'market forces'. While neoliberals proclaimed a world of limitless individual choice they assiduously reduced real political choice to zero. The right wing New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman summed up the message with his concept of the 'golden straightjacket.' Every country which wanted to develop, he argued, had to put on the straightjacket of 'market forces'. According to Friedman

Once your country puts it on, its political choices get reduced to Pepsi or Coke - to slight nuances of taste, slight nuances of policy, and slight alterations in design to account for local tradition, some loosening here or there, but never any deviation from the core golden rules.

These insights serve as a useful starting point for examining current strategies for overturning the will of the Irish people.


The leaders of the EU have subjected the political establishment in Ireland to considerable pressure to come up with a strategy to overturn the June 12th vote. There was hardly any disagreement in the Yes camp that this should occur. They merely pleaded on tactical grounds for more time because the consequences of a second defeat would be devastating.

In pushing for a repeat vote, the political establishment have revealed their own contempt for the limited form of democracy that we currently enjoy. Referenda are blunt instruments as they force unlikely forces to combine around a simple Yes or No position. But they are equally blunt for both sides. If the Yes side had won the vote, it is barely conceivable that the No side could call for a repeat vote.

Once the vote was counted, the elected Taoiseach and his government were formally mandated to implement the decision of the people. Yet at no stage has the current government undertaken to actively promote that democratic view. They were mandated to press for the rejection of the Lisbon Treaty and as that treaty demanded the agreement of all EU nations, they had considerable leverage. Ireland's effective veto on the treaty could have been exercised. If they had done this, the Lisbon Treaty would have died and the EU would have been forced to consider a new treaty which would have taken some account of the deep alienation that many Europeans feel about its undemocratic structures.

Instead the Irish government defined their own people's decision as a problem and conspired to undermine it. Sarkozy and Barrosso were only able to employ intimidatory tactics because the Irish elite facilitated them.

In the run up to the EU Council meeting on December 11th, a flurry of publications has emerged from the Yes which outlines their emerging strategy. The Institute of International and European Affairs, describes itself as a policy think tank whose 'corporate and foundation members' are composed of 'investment banks, government departments, and industrial conglomerates' It issued a report entitled Ireland's Future after Lisbon which warns that if the Lisbon Treaty were abandoned in accordance with the Irish vote, there would be 'serious consequences for this country in terms of its good standing and influence' A sub-committee of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on European Affairs has issued a report entitled Ireland's Future in the European Union: Challenges Issues and Options. This is turn draws on another, as yet unpublished, report from the Dublin European Institute composed mainly of academics who played a prominent role in the Yes camp.

The tone and rhetoric of the two published reports draw on a standard managerial discourse which is used by corporate groups such as developers when they face a difficulty with local residents over planning issues. As part of a now familiar process of 'stakeholder consultation', the corporation, or the consultants they employ, firstly, engage in a 'scoping exercise' by assembling the arguments of their opponents in a crude and simple manner. Once these have been re-constructed, a set of 'options' are offered for dealing with 'the problem'. The options, however, tend to be structured in such a way that opponents are left with little option but to choose the least worse - which happens to be the original choice of the corporation. As a gesture to their demoralised opponents, the corporate developers then grant some tokens which signify that the 'stakeholders' gained minimal recognition from entering the process.

We shall examine the two reports in the context of Bourdieu's insights about neoliberalism.

Progressive European versus backward sceptics :

One of the main arguments being adduced by the political establishment for explaining the No vote was a lack of understanding on the part of the Irish people. It is recognised that 73 percent support membership of the EU but it is claimed that 'Ireland lags behind other EU Member states in terms of people's knowledge of the EU' . It is further claimed that 'a citizen's level of understanding has a significant effect on policy choices that citizens make about the union'. It follows, therefore, that the Irish people need more education so that they will better 'understand' the complexities. Among the social engineering measures proposed by the progressive Yes establishment are 'incentivising the posting of Irish journalists to Brussels' and a more prominent role for 'the history of European integration since 1950s' in the Irish school curriculum. Through such measures, it is assumed that that lack of 'understanding' that led to a negative vote on Lisbon can be overcome and future disasters avoided.

The IIEA report adds a further dimension to the 'backward' No versus 'progressive' Yes polarity. They claim that the NO side's arguments can be divided into a 'sovereignty' and 'identity' position. However, they claim that the 'identity position' is often 'Europhobic' seeing the European as the 'Godless Empire' which seeks to impose extreme secularism and to undermine traditional concepts of society, family and personal morality'. Against such backward reactionary thought, the progressive modernisers suffer in silence while invoking two defence measures. They argue that the statements of the official Catholic hierarchy need to be given more prominence 'so that the debate in these sensitive areas may reflect underlying attitudes of a nationalist and religiously fundamental nature'. A declaration also needs to be extracted from Brussels that assures the fundamentalists that abortion or gay marriage will not be imposed on holy Ireland. When it comes to saving Europe's free market economy and its security apparatus, morsels of comfort can be thrown to the ignorant.

There is one problem, however, with this opposition between the rational, progressive Yes voter and the backward, ignorant NO voter: it bears no relationship to the facts.

There is no evidence to show that a lack of knowledge or understanding on Europe is strongly related to a rejection of the Lisbon Treaty. In fact, there is some patchy evidence to suggest the opposite. The Eurobarometer poll which was conducted in the immediate aftermath of the vote - and hence probably the most reliable- noted that Yes voters tended to give 'one-dimensional' responses on why they voted. Their responses also related to issues that were extraneous to the actual Lisbon treaty. So by far the largest grouping gave as their reasons two very vague statements to the effect that 'It was in the best interest of Ireland' and 'Ireland gets a lot of benefit from the EU'. Specific reference to items in the treaty that went beyond 'Ireland's interest' were far fewer.

The emphasis placed on particular 'ethical reasons' to define the NO vote is also misplaced. Only 2 percent of No voters mentioned abortion, euthanasia or gay marriage as their reasons. We might actually conclude that there were more people in favour of a greater access to abortion on the No side than there were opponents because one of the key support bases of the No camp was the left and young people.

22 percent of No voters gave as their reason 'I do not know enough about the Treaty and would not want to vote for something that I am not familiar with'. But this was a perfectly rational response to a treaty that was deliberately written in an incomprehensible format in order to cover for the fact that it was substantially the same as the EU constitution rejected by the people of France and Holland. It was also a perfectly suitable response to a government that refused to provide copies of the treaty to its citizens and instead urged them to trust their leaders when dealing with complex documents.

The Cultural Producers of Assent

Faced with some difficulty from their population, the neoliberals have turned to the cultural producers from the academia to give more sophistication to their argument for assent. If the Bishops cannot be called on to herd their flock, then possibly the aura of 'objective research' might influence the population.

When Professor Brigid Laffan appeared at the Oireachtas Committee hearing she argued that while the EU may appear elitist from a national viewpoint, the complex nature of its institutional structure cannot be judged in national terms. She advanced two specific arguments.

1.'As it is not like a nation state, it will always be thinner in democratic terms than a nation state'

2. That the EU is going through a process of democratisation but, such a process takes a long time. 'We will not wake up in the morning and find that suddenly the EU is deeply democratic from top to bottom. Nation states were forged and became democratic over long periods and the EU will face the same process'.

Both these arguments can be disputed.

There is no iron law which suggests that transnational bodies need to be any less democratic than national bodies. As there are relatively few such bodies which claiming extensive sovereignty over nation states, such an hypothesis cannot be justified by empirical evidence. In historical terms, the US emerged as a trans-state body but it can hardly be argued that it was any less democratic than the British empire of the day. Moreover, if a greater form of democracy is not available in transnational bodies, then what inducement do citizens have for giving more powers to such bodies. If- and we dispute this- democracy is inevitably 'thinner' in the EU, why should citizens who want democracy voluntarily give it more power?

Nor is it by many means clear that democracy is the result of a long process of maturation. We need think only of two cases to suggest otherwise. The overthrow of the apartheid regime and the winning of majority voting in South Africa came rather sharply and suddenly. The democratic achievements of the black population were won in opposition to everything the South African state stood for in previous decades. The achievement of democracy in Spain came as a combination of growing protests and decision of the Francoist regime to seek an accommodation with its opponents. But it can hardly be argued that the tradition of Spanish monarchism or fascism slowly prepared the way for democracy.

Ironically Professor Laffan herself reveals the limits of democracy in the EU when she asserts that its very structure allows for 'centre left' or 'centre right' politics but not extremes. One of her instances of 'extreme' is a high level of government regulation of the economy. But if voters are locked out from taking such 'extreme' views, how can the institutional structure be said to be democratic?

Politics must follow economics

During the referendum campaign, the Yes side attempted to argue that a No vote would frighten away foreign investment. But yet they were forced to retreat from this position when their opponents pointed to the French case. The inflow of foreign direct investment to France shot up from $32.6bn (€20.8bn) in 2004 to $81 (€51.6bn) in 2005 when the French voted no to the EU constitution and also to $81bn (€51.6bn) in 2006. Irish opponents of the Lisbon treaty did not claim that the No vote was good for investment, merely that it had absolutely no detrimental effect.

However the neoliberal mindset cannot break from its recourse to economic fatalism. It needs to suggest that political choice must follow the economics of market forces because, as they have seen, democracy can be a rather troublesome affair. If political choice is limited to what the markets dictate, then this considerably reduces the bother.

An example of this line of reasoning re-appears in the Oireachtas Committee report on the relationship between a No vote and Ireland's economic development. The report baldly states that 'Ireland's decision not to ratify the Lisbon Treaty... could seriously damage its competitiveness in attracting foreign direct investment'

The managing director of Microsoft and other cultural producers such as Professor Francis Ruane and Professor John Fitzgerald volunteered to lend objective authority to this bald statement. With only the certainty that a professor of the ESRI could muster, John Fitzgerlad states even more baldly, ' Ireland has suffered a significant economic blow as a result of its failure to pass the Lisbon Treaty'. The golden straightjacket is therefore ready for wear. If we want economic development, we have no choice but to put it on...

The fatalism of our cultural producers is again entirely misplaced because they can produce no evidence that there is any link between a possible decline in FDI and the vote on the Lisbon Treaty. If such occurs over a longer period, it will have far more to do with structural shifts in the global economy than an Irish vote on Lisbon. Historically, Ireland has enjoyed a high share of US investment but changes in US tax policy and the more vulnerable position US corporations after the new Wall St crash may affect this. Ireland's vote has no impact on its status as a full EU member with full access to EU markets and therefore the economic options facing US companies remain precisely the same. Unless, of course, one wishes to argue that Ireland's political influence in Europe is a factor - but that can only be ascertained if there is full disclose of how exactly that influence is wielded for the benefit of US corporations.

Contrary to the economic fatalism of neo-liberals, peoples and nation do of course have political choices. The Irish vote has given its government a huge leverage to promote a more democratic Europe. Its failure to do so has nothing to do with 'economic realities' but has to do with its total immersion in the elite culture of the EU and its unwillingness to respond to the democratic wishes of its own population.


The neoliberals have found an extra new argument which they hope will carry them over the line for a Yes vote. They claim that the current global economic crisis shows the need for a more integrated Europe and that only the Lisbon Treaty paves the way for this. In fact, the current economic crisis shows the exact opposite.

The Wall Street Crash of 2008 was triggered by de-regulated financial markets which enabled bankers to transfer billions of toxic loans across the global economy. It had also deeper roots in a problem of 'excess savings' which corporations experienced. Faced with uniform pressure to reduce the share of national economies allocated to wages, corporations were faced with shrinking demand and experienced over-accumulation. Instead of investing in industry and services, they chose to use a growing proportion of their capital for speculative purpose. The neo-liberal dogmas greatly facilitated them in this.

The EU has embraced these same dogmas with some gusto and therefore its political structures must also be seen as contributing to the economic crisis. The Irish Commissioner Charlie McCreevy, for example, opposed the imposition of regulations on hedge funds. An expert group which was appointed to examine the issue was composed almost entirely of bankers and docile economists. Not surprisingly, it reported that

It is suggested that additional regulation, which does not and arguably cannot accommodate the need for unrestricted investment freedom or the international organisation of business models, is likely to fail... In particular, regulation of investment strategies is the very antithesis of the hedge fund business and would be misguided.

The German Finance Minister Peter Steinbruck initially attempted to claim that the crisis merely affected the Anglo-American version of capitalism, he soon found that the European version of neoliberalism was also a causal factor.

The Lisbon Treaty represents the codification of a series of neo-liberal measures that have shaped European politics in recent years. When read in the light of the current crisis, they provide significant insights into why the whole treaty needs to be scrapped and replaced by one which develops a social Europe.

The Lisbon Treaty builds on past treaties which include the following items

  • an article which states that ' all restrictions on the movement of capital between Member States and between Members states and third countries shall be prohibited'.
  • An Article which states that the internal market 'includes a system ensuring that competition is not distorted'
  • A general principle that any aid granted by a member state which distorts competition by favouring certain goods is incompatible with the internal market
  • Powers to fine countries who are in breach of the Growth and Stability pact which restricts borrowing in a recession.
  • Complete independence for the European Central Bank which enables it to be more answerable to the needs of bankers than the wider European population.

These neo-liberal measures have already hindered efforts to reduce the social suffering caused by the economic crisis. The ECB was slower, for example, than the US Federal Reserve in cutting interest rates because it's focus was fighting inflation - which appeared to be rising earlier in the year- rather than stimulating job creation. Attempts to give state support to any one grouping which might distort the market is questioned by the EU Commission because it has been legally charged with doing precisely this. (The argument raised by Professor John Fitzgerald that Ireland was forced to give an additional bail out to foreign banks - as if the bail-out to Irish banks was not enough- because of the No vote is absurd. In fact, it was caused by the very EU treaties he has consistently supported!). Attempts to reflate an economy come up against the Growth and Stability Pact as Ireland will find in the coming years.

There is a need for a European wide response to the current crisis - but it is one that the Irish neo-liberal supporters of the Yes vote deeply abhor. The banking system which has helped cause the crisis should be taken into public ownership across Europe and its credit lines socialised so that they facilitate long term investment in services and manufacturing rather than in speculation. There is a need for a massive public works programme across Europe which is linked to serious measures to tackle climate change. These might include a major expansion of the public transport system across the continent so that air flight and car travel night be reduced. They might also include a programme of house insulation to give work to unemployed building workers. But these would imply a political structure that promotes a co-ordinated programme of public spending rather than the tokenistic re-packing of existing measures which the EU is currently proposing. EU wide regulation should be invoked to break the power of hedge funds through tough regulations on the movement of finance.

But even the slightest move towards any of these mild measures would come up against the limits of the Lisbon treaty. It is time that EU policy makers realised that the neo-liberal era is dead and that the Irish vote gives them an opportunity to draw up a new constitution for Europe that does not imprison us in the straightjacket of Thatcherism.

Reprinted from


Notsilvia Night said...

A very good article.
I agree, the Lisbon treaty is indeed one to serve the interests of the elites. And the elites have a deep disdain for democracy, or for ordinary people altogether.

Citizens of other European countries have not even been give the tool to support or reject the treaty in form of a referendum.

The threats Ireland faces for having rejected the treaty once and for doing it possibly once again, sound very familiar.
They are the same threats we keep on hearing here in Iceland for rejecting the unconditional payments of the Icesave-debts:
Iceland will be isolated... it will never recover from the crisis ... and so on, and so on.

Iceland and Ireland have indeed quite a bit in common besides a similar name.
I hope you people will stand strong in your rejection of the treaty.

Who knows, in a few years the power-constellation in Europe will change. Without the treaty, and with the elites powers diminished, European countries might eventually even develop a real democracy.
.....One can always hope.

Sheilanagig said...


I agree the media intimidation now of the Irish will begin in earnest; trying to frighten people who are already suffering financial instability to accept Lisbon for fear of their survival.

The EU well knows this treaty was rejected because of its enormous complexity to the voter. Yet there has been NO effort to clarify the major issues which Lisbon affects for member states. Why is that?

For all the EU citizens who will not get to vote, I am voting no, because they have no voice. Even though the first time I voted for the Treaty.

There is naught wrong with the EU treaties as they stand. And the thought of having Sarkozy or Blair as EU president for 2 1/2 years gives me serious indigestion.

Thanks for you thoughtful comment.

Together we are stronger.

irish4palestine said...

Ya know Sheila, I have a bad feeling about it this time. I think the govt has had time to spread it's propaganda machine and I'm afraid people have bought into it sadly.

God how I hope it does not pass, it will be devastating for Ireland and the end of our neutrality as well.

Sheilanagig said...


I have been listening to the radio and there is quite abit of anti-Lisbon chatter going on. I am putting 8x11 sheets of paper in my back seat windows saying that I am voting no for all those who aren't being given a chance to vote on Lisbon.

We can flood newspapers with letters.

It's not over till its over.

Together we are stronger.


All blogs are really just small snapshots of a person's mind, heart and soul as they evolve together through life....

Small bits of the thread of life we weave together into the fabric of ourselves, in the hope we will make sense of our existence, individual and collective.

On this page, is the cloak I have fashioned from my fabric to warm myself in a universe which often makes little sense.

Inside my cloak, it is warm enough to face the blistering cold winds of the insane world in which I find myself.

If you find some a bit of 'the good stuff' here, it has been my pleasure.