Ivan Cooper, Director of Advocacy, The Wheel


I work with The Wheel, a support and representative organisation for Ireland’s charities and voluntary and community organisations.  We have over 900 member organizations today, about 12 % of all of Ireland’s 8000 charities that, day-in and day-out, provide essential services and supports for people.   We have learned a lot about what needs fixing in this world from our members and I’d like to share some of that learning with you.

Our western consumerist way has brought us so many good things that we have forgotten that the production and consumption system that brings these great benefits to many of us is unsustainable in terms of energy consumption, natural resource depletion, pollution and the human suffering and exposure to vulnerability that it causes for many people in the world.   We are over-producing and over-consuming with terrible consequences for many people now and into the future.

And the production system wants us to keep on thinking we need all this over-consumption because it’s in its interests for us to think that.  So, we keep on over-consuming.

This western consumerist way also produces very high levels of dysfunctionality in Ireland and the world – think of the levels of depressive illness, obesity, and addictive behaviour in our society, and of how we have normalized these deviant behaviours and experiences – and built up whole industries in their maintenance and management.  Think of the investment of the pharmaceutical firms in maintaining high levels of depressive illness.  Think of the levels of inequality that we have become inured to and the poverty in which many people live in a country with the wealth of Ireland.

  • Did you know that 16% of Ireland’s population is at risk of poverty with incomes below €11,141 for a single person or €25,848 for a family of four
  • 20% of all adults in Ireland with an income below the poverty line are employed

Think of the consequences for the poorest people of the world and the massive toll on the environment and on biodiversity at a global level – we are living through a mass extinction which most people in my experience are completely unaware of.  Over half a million species have become extinct since the year 2000.

Is all of this really normal?   Is it inevitable that the world has to be so?

I suggest it is not.  These pathological outcomes are produced by the way our society and economy are organized. Plainly put, our western way puts the interests of wealth, and the economic system that serves the interests of wealth, above that of meeting everyone’s needs as a priority.  That’s the way we have structured our affairs, and wealth is now so powerful that we face nothing less than a crisis of sovereignty in Ireland, Europe and the world.

What can be done?  What can we in Ireland do and what can we here in this room today do to shape the future of the world in the way we would like it to be?  And what’s all this got to do with protecting weak and vulnerable citizens?  In this contribution, I am going to argue that we need to set four inter-related goals for ourselves if we really want to protect citizens and create an Ireland in a world of justice and fairness.

  • Firstly, we should set the meeting of peoples’ needs as our top political priority by endowing citizens with economic, social and cultural rights and by working to transform capitalism to create a flourishing society.
  • Secondly, we must invest communities with real power to shape their futures, set the priorities, reclaim sovereignty and hold power to account.
  • Thirdly, we must develop a framework for sustainable living that supports and is connected into global initiatives for a sustainable world.
  • And fourthly, we need to accept our human vulnerabilities and our interdependence, stop trying to escape them in a fruitless quest for consumerist comfort and freedom-from-necessity, and instead commit to sharing the risks and costs of our human vulnerabilities fairly with each other.

If we do these four things then not only will we enable people to live with human vulnerability but we will ensure human flourishing and a sustainable future for ourselves, our communities and the planet itself.

Let’s begin by looking at the first goal – making the meeting of people’s needs our top political priority.

Why is it that when it comes to providing for people’s needs through public services and income-supports, the mantra is always that of affordability, even in a country like Ireland that still has one of the lowest tax-takes in the European Union as a percentage of GDP (around 31% versus a European average of 35.6%)?  We close off debate about what we need by immediately engaging in a debate about what we can afford, which is really a disguised debate about who pays how much for public services?  I think that the pre-eminence of the economic over the political is causing this closure to possibility.

I understand economics, and have studied it and have an appreciation for the very important role it plays in today’s complex world but economics is the wrong discourse to be leading the debate and controlling the language about what’s possible in Ireland – but that is exactly what is happening today.

Economics is a contested discipline but which is understood by the public and by many economists themselves as being an objective science.   It is nothing of the sort.   It is a hugely political art, the practice of which is always in the service of an ideological view, and the interests that are served by whatever that ideology happens to be. The hegemony of the current neo-liberal economic paradigm is serving the interests of global wealth.

I believe that economic discourse is replacing political discourse, and that’s at the root of the crisis of sovereignty we are currently experiencing.  Politicians cower in the face of the articulate economist able to rubbish policy proposals with a couple of well chosen statistics.  Economists in the audience will not like this but I suggest that the profession of the economist is best understood, I contend, as analogous to that of the quantity surveyor in the world of construction. And the proper function of the quantity surveyor is to advise the architect on how to build the building once the design has been set.

Instead of performing the role of providing advice about the “how” the building can be constructed, we have allowed economics to dominate politics to such an extent that the building of the nation and the state is now being designed by economist-quantity surveyors with no architectural political vision, who also happen to be, unbeknownst to themselves, shaping the building in other people’s interests.

I believe that the language of politics itself has been colonised and dominated by the language of economics.  Because political discourse has been colonised by economics, conversations about what’s possible for us and our future that should be taking place in our political discourse are now happening primarily in civil society.   It’s into the leadership from these places and into those conversations that we need to reconnect mainstream politics, or wait for mainstream politics to be supplanted altogether by emerging new political movements.

We need to restore primacy to politics, and in so doing restore sovereignty to the people.

Civil society needs to reconnect with politics to re-establish the language of the possible in political discourse and reclaim the space currently occupied and dominated by the restricting language of economics.  Then we will have a politics of the possible, rather than the politics of the impossible that we currently have. If we think in terms of a politics of the possible then, of course, we can, if we want them, have the best public health and social services in the world.  It just means sharing more of our private wealth with each other through the tax system.   We need to appreciate more fully that it is through the tax system that we express in a practical way our social solidarity with one another.

We have been operating on an unstated assumption that we cannot afford the public services that we need because of the trade-offs associated with maintaining the 12.5% corporation tax rate deemed essential for Ireland to remain attractive to multinational employers.

This is not true – we have lost confidence and belief in ourselves.  We can afford the best if we want it.

What this comes down to is whether we want everyone to have access to quality public services paid for through general taxation or for some people to have access to quality private services while those who can’t pay are left reliant on insufficiently funded public services with long waiting lists and cutbacks that affect the quality of the services.  Look at countries like Denmark for a vision of what’s possible – where all parties support the universal approach to providing comprehensive public services. Do we want universal high quality health and social services? We can have them if we want them.

We must commit to raising sufficient taxes to pay for the public services that people need and should have by bringing Ireland’s tax take up to the European average. Instead of our current piecemeal approach to the provision of public services on the basis of affordability and ability to pay, we should decide first what public services people should have as a right and then agree how we are going to pay for them.

One way to ensure this happens would be to incorporate a full suite of economic, social and cultural rights in the Constitution, in the form of a Bill of Rights. ESC rights are fundamental human rights and include the right to work, to social security, to an adequate standard of living.  On the face of it these rights already exist, as our Government committed to them by ratifying the International Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in 1989.

However, the covenant has never been given legal effect in Irish law, so people cannot vindicate their rights:  we have the rights and at the same time we do not have the rights.  Why do we allow our government to claim and appear to support something that it has not implemented at home?   It is time now to ensure that these rights are legally enforceable.

A group of charities, including Amnesty International, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, the National Women’s Council, The Wheel and TASC, the think tank for social change, are working together to request that the Constitutional Convention consider the issue of including Economic, Social and Cultural (ESC) rights in the constitution.

How else can we create a flourishing society that meets people’s needs?

The work of Eric Olin-Wright, an American sociologist points the way to some practical things we can do to create flourishing societies.   Olin-Wright argues that we can pursue what he calls real utopias by thinking big and envisioning what’s possible for the world. He argues that four moral principles are required for a flourishing society:

  • The equality principle, means all people should have equal access to the social conditions and materials necessary to lead a flourishing life.
  • The democracy principle means all people should have equal access to means of participating in making decisions that affect them.
  • The principle of sustainability means future generations should be able to  flourish as well as the present generation.
  • The principle of deep reciprocity means that we should all value co-operation and solidarity at least as strongly as we do competition and individualism.

How are we doing in Ireland when we measure our society in terms of these principles? Poor I think on equality, democracy and sustainability – but perhaps not so bad on reciprocity, a positive on which we can build progress in relation to the other three.

Olin-Wright thinks that consumerism is not a universalisable form of human flourishing.  If we stick with consumerism, he argues, we will never see human flourishing, where all people can realize their potential.   But he points to examples of what he calls real utopias that currently exist in the world, which prove that progress can be made towards creating flourishing societies:  examples include

1. Eco-villages
2. Participatory budgeting
3. Wikipedia
4. Public libraries
5. Solidarity finance – or credit unions and social finance as its called in Ireland
6. Worker cooperatives
7. Urban agriculture and community land trusts
8. Policy juries (Citizens Jury – PeopleTalk)
9.Unconditional basic income – allows people an income independent of capital accumulation and productive participation so that they have the time and energy to engage in creating alternatives and utopian innovation.

Examples of all of these initiatives exist in the world and provide models for what’s possible in creating sustainable, flourishing communities of cooperation.

So, there are two practical things we can do to address human vulnerability: give legal effect to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and support real utopias where we see them emerging, usually in the not-for-private-profit, community and voluntary sector.

Let’s turn now to our second goal – investing communities with the power to shape their futures and deliver good governance.

Our representative system has failed us.  A consultation held in late June by Civil Society to initiate the process of producing Ireland’s first Open Government Programme generated sound diagnoses about what’s preventing people from participating in making the decisions that affect them.

  • There was a consensus that we need to make the representative system more connected and sensitive to the views and needs and priorities of communities. We have a representative system, it’s the legitimate system in relation to voters and accountability and it understands itself to have that role so we as civil society must work with it to improve its own sensitivity. We need to create powerful places and spaces that complement the representative system, where people actively participate in making decisions that affect them and in holding representative power to account.
  • The way government perceives participation is seen as a being a problem: are we ‘allowed’ to participate as subjects or do we have the right to participate as citizens of a republic?  Accountability to electorates is seen by the elected as trumping the participative forms of involvement.
  • We need to accept that as citizens we have both a right and an obligation to participate in decision-making.   We have become used to ‘top down’ decision making in a prevailing ‘citizen on the sideline’ culture, which one participant summed up poetically as ‘the delusion of the elected and the collusion of the electorate’.  A culture of institutional, governmental, and ministerial unchallenged-ability is thought to prevail.
  • We need much more diversity in our representative system – starting with equal numbers of women in politics.
  • We need education in critical and creative thinking at all levels and we must address the deficiency in citizenship education.

The government is currently rolling out Putting People First, its plan for reforming local government.  That plan notes that citizen engagement in local authority processes will be important for the successful reform of local government, and the plan identifies some methods that county councils could, should or might use to engage with citizens – including holding plebiscites, engaging in participatory budgeting and facilitating petitions.  But it’s not very inspiring.  It’s not very ambitious.

There is some good news, however, about leadership coming from civil society – there is a great initiative underway in Co Galway at the moment that could provide a model for good practice in this regard, where a citizen’s jury has been established by the progressive county council there.  The Project is called PeopleTalk.

Twelve people have been selected to form a jury that will sit for a year or so and conduct hearings around the county to gather evidence in relation to a single question: how can public services be improved, and all public services will cooperate and commit to responding to the recommendations of the jury when they are presented.  It is a positive indication of what is possible in this deliberative space and one to watch for as a model for future citizenship engagement.

Let’s have a very quick look at the third element of what’s needed – a global framework for sustainable living.

We have identified that Ireland cannot solve its own problems thinking insularly. To be looking at Irish problems in the absence of the European and global context is not to understand the gravity of the challenges that face us as human beings in the world.  Achieving sustainability means rethinking the way we think about things – instead of thinking of the society serving the economy and the economy externalizing its waste into the environment, we need to redefine the framework so that it includes the environment, tended by society served by sustainable economic activity.  And this means changing our own individual behaviour. Look at how everyone now recycles; we can make the changes to low energy and low fuel consumption if we want to.

The current global development framework is called the Millennium Development Goals – and it expires in 2015 – and the making of a new global development framework presents an opportunity to set new global goals that should be universal for all nations – not just developing or poor nations. World leaders will meet in September at the UN to set a successor framework to the Millennium Development Goals.

The Wheel, Dochas and Claiming our Future implemented a campaign to lead the post-2015 civil society conversation in Ireland. The work culminated on 20th April with a major deliberative event in Dublin attended by over 100 members of the public who agreed that they wanted to live in a world characterized by

  • Equality
  • Responsive, Inclusive and Accountable Governance
  • Environmental and Social Sustainability
  • Human Rights; and a
  • Non-Exploitative Economy

Why is it we don’t see any of these prioritized in our mainstream political discourse?

Finally, and to conclude, I would just like to reflect for a moment on what we mean by vulnerability and weakness, because we tend to think about them as though there is a category of vulnerable people, who are somehow different from everybody else, and who require special treatment in some sort of potentially burdensome, costly way.   We are all vulnerable, but some of us are more vulnerable than others, and some of us are able to insulate ourselves against the consequences of our vulnerability because of money and wealth while others cannot and are sometimes viewed as a burden by those who can.

We are all interdependent in this world, and it is the denial of that reality that has led to many of the excesses of our consumer oriented, comfort seeking, lifestyles that are imposing unsustainable demands on the environment and causing rapidly increasing levels of inequality in the world.

We need both to protect weak and vulnerable people while aiming also to change our attitudes to exploitation and to sharing responsibility.  Our inspiration should be to create a world where vulnerable people don’t need special protection anymore because the exploitation of weakness in others is no longer acceptable.  Our inspiration should be to create a world where people have rights to have their needs met through a combination of high quality public services and a guaranteed basic income – without having to appeal to other people’s voluntary generosity, or charity as it is sometimes called.

We believe that sustained national conversations are necessary around the question ‘What is Shaping our Future?’   We believe that the shaping forces of our lives are in very many cases detrimental to our developing fully flourishing human living together.  Many people feel that amongst these negative forces are

  • ‘economism’ – the seeing of all domains of living through a restricted economic cost/benefit lens,
  • consumerism,
  • the erosion of public spaces for civic culture,
  • private interests trumping the common good,
  • a loss of faith – both in transcendent meaning and in the capacity for positive human development,
  • the profound scepticism which prevails in western culture about mystery and faith and about how we might believe in human capacity to love and serve others.

Future conversations need to explore these and other shaping forces and the evidence of their influence on the dysfunctional society we have or are becoming.

I would like to conclude by inviting everyone here today to participate in this conversation, a conversation which I suggest, if sustained and acted upon, will enable us to achieve the four goals we proposed earlier for a world where:

1.  meeting people’s needs is the top political priority
2.  communities shape their own futures and hold power to account
3.  the environment is sustained for ourselves and future generations
4.  the costs of our human vulnerabilities are shared between us.

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