SIPTU members at Shanganagh Waste Water Treatment Plant, Co.
Abolish the Senate – But the Whole System is Rotten
A subtle change has taken place in the official discourse on Ireland’s economic crash. Up to now, the key focus was on what was wrong with the economy and the issues were framed in terms of regulatory failures. But now the key question has become what is wrong with the political structures.
The shift is interesting because it assumes that economics and politics can be separated – that one could develop a genuine form of democracy in a society founded on the dictatorship of money. The first step on this road, it appears, is the abolition of the Senate.
Socialists have long called for the abolition of this elite institution. The Senate was included in de Valera’s constitution of 1937 as a sop to a Catholic doctrine which promoted a corporatist society where employers and workers were joined together in vocational associations. However, the institution eventually took the form of an ‘upper chamber’ which was supposed to apply ‘checks and balances’ to the Dail.
This was inherently elitist in two senses. First, there was a limited franchise so that only university graduates and county councillors got a vote. Which begs the question: What is so special about Trinity College or National University of Ireland graduates that they deserve a special panel in the Senate rather the thousands of working class people who did not go the university?
But there is also a deeper problem because parliamentary democracy was built on a contradiction. On one hand it promised ‘rule by the people’ but, on the other hand, this rule had to be limited lest that same people decided to re-distribute wealth in favour of the majority. Western liberalism overcame this contradiction by developing Montesquieu’s doctrine of the ‘separation of powers’.
Montsequieu was a French aristocrat who wanted more liberty but feared the activity of the mass of the poor. He was an admirer of Britain’s ‘Glorious Revolution’ which provided a mechanism by which aristocrats could both support a bourgeois revolution while safeguarding their property from the masses. The doctrine of ‘separation of powers’ originally meant that the democracy was hemmed in by the powers of a King and an unelected judiciary drawn from an aristocratic elite.
Modern liberalism expanded on this idea while removing some of its aristocratic baggage. It retained the idea of checks and balances against the ‘populist’ aspirations of the mass of people. This is why many parliamentary democracies have either a two-chamber system where the upper house keeps an eye on the plebs, or a Supreme Court composed of judges drawn from elite backgrounds who can overrule measures that benefit the majority.
Like much else in Irish society, the Senate never quite conformed to the standard role assigned to it in liberal theory. It became instead a playground for aspiring or failed politicians and a source of patronage to appoint sycophants like Eoghan Harris.
But the current defenders of the idea of a Senate still revert to their cherished doctrine of a ‘separation of powers’ to claim that the wise and good could oversee the workings of the Dail.
The fundamental problem with the political structures in Ireland is that they are shaped by, and intermeshed with, the management of capitalism.
The power of money is widely used to corrupt any real sense of democracy. In the coming election, for example, Fine Gael will have a war chest of over €1 million. Those who formerly backed Fianna Fail are moving their investments elsewhere to ensure that they curry favour with the new political elite. An elaborate structure of revolving doors now exists between the political and economic elites to that for instance former Fine Gael politician John Bruton moves smoothly over to represent corporate interests. (Bruton has become a spokesperson for the hedge fund industry located in the Irish Financial Services Centre.) The board of many quangos and so called regulatory agencies are stuffed full of corporate representatives.
But even beyond all these immediate influences of money on democratic decision-making there is a even deeper problem: the elected representatives in Dail Eireann have no control over the main economic levers of society. Real power lies in the boardrooms of big business who can mobilise huge financial resources to sabotage any measure they oppose.
Genuine democracy means, therefore, abolishing the power that large corporations exert over our society through taking them into public ownership. Once that occurs, we have real ‘choices’ and real democratic decision-making.
Instead of just political democracy, we could have economic democracy where the people get
a say over how the resources of society are deployed and how their work should be organised.
Instead of the three minutes of democracy once every four years, we could have a continual say over the running of our society.
Instead of politicians acting as if they were the ‘cream of the cream’ and being paid accordingly, we could have representatives who are paid the average wage.
And instead of allowing people to stay in office when they break their mandates, we could have a right of re-call and replace representatives who failing to carry out the bidding of their constituents.
Those are the types of political reforms that will not be considered until we rid ourselves of capitalism.
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