The Budget turns us into commodities

17th December 1999

“The History of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle”. So reads the first line of arguably the most influential political document ever produced, ‘The Manifesto of the Communist Party’ by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels written in 1848.

The brilliant insight of this book was that history is not really about kings and queens, battles and wars, big dates and events but about the social progress of humanity. All the other stuff is just the fireworks.

We teach our children about the Roman Empire, the dark ages, the Renaissance, colonisation, Pearse and Connolly, the Second World War, the Cold War, etc. Real history is about the emergence of money which replaced barter; the specialisation of labour which allowed surplus; the use of tools; the emergence of towns and cities; and in our time, the consumer society.

It’s not very exciting but it actually explains why the world is the way it is.

Any modern phenomenon can be explained by examining the political-economy behind it. Thus wars, poverty, society, crime and culture can be understood if the underlying economic and political context is explained.

Humanity has always divided itself up into groups. This allows organisation and culture to develop. Over time, the most successful groups (or civilisations) were the ones which adapted to the conditions which allowed them to firstly survive and then to flourish.

For example, there is a view in our society that sexual morality is based on a primitive desire to repress humanity. In fact, there have been many promiscuous societies in the past but they were severely hampered by the rampant spread of disease that sleeping around inevitably causes. Cultures which formed rules or mores based on monogamy had a better chance of survival.

Similarly there is a widespread view that we don’t allow murder on simple moral grounds. Again, societies which devised rules against killing avoided chaos, anarchy and allowed political stability. Our societies have evolved from those that adopted the rule of law, hence our rules on killing.

This is a basic scientific and perhaps Darwinian way of viewing the world which doesn’t appeal to the majority religious or idealistic outlook. But, as I say, it explains the real world.

What, I hear you say, has all this to do with Charlie McCreevy’s Budget?

Charlie’s Budget actually describes best our relationships within the modern consumer economy. We would like to think of ourselves as brothers and sisters, parents and children, families and communities. But the fact is that these relationships are becoming less and less important.

We are much more connected through our roles as producers and consumers. The consumer economy remorselessly tears away at the ties that bind.

The extended family network has practically disappeared in Ireland, within the last generation. Who now considers a cousin an important relation? Once we needed them but now we don’t.

Does anyone believe that the family unit will get stronger over the next 25 years? The last and strongest relationship, parent and child, is now considered in monetary terms. You don’t really need to be parents any more; you just need to pay the bills.

Charlie’s Budget relaxes further the old relationship. It identifies accurately our various roles in the modern economy.

So at least he got that right, eh?