Zizek, Bankers Bonuses and Capitalism after Industry

In 2010, it was politicians’ expenses. More recently public ire was – rather fairly – targeted at tabloid journalists and their nimble telecommunications skills. Now it’s bankers and their egregious bonuses. RBS and Stephen Hestor has dominated the news agenda for the last few days and, given State stakes in a number of high-street lenders and its public popularity, is unlikely to disappear any time soon.

Over at Slugger O’Toole, Mick Fealty makes the point that, ‘It’s hard to escape the idea that at their core, the banks have not yet tumbled to the fact that they are living in an unsustainable bubble.’ But what if bankers pay – and indeed pay across boardrooms – is less a bubble and more a shift in capitalism itself? It’s worth noting that real wages have decreased every year in the US since the 1970s and have been on the way down in the UK for a considerable length of time. Given this factoid, sky rocketing executive pay, tied to the rise of managerialism, seems lees an anachronistic outlier and more a shift in how rewards and wages are distributed in post-industrial capitalist economics.

Writing in London Review of Books before Hestor/RBS-gate went off, Slavoj Zizek has some interesting thoughts on why the boom in bankers pay is a function of the creation of an upper-class salariat charged with ‘managing’ the political economy, while the lower-middle classes find their own terms and conditions eroded to ever greater degrees.

If the old capitalism ideally involved an entrepreneur who invested (his own or borrowed) money into production that he organised and ran, and then reaped the profit from it, a new ideal type is emerging today: no longer the entrepreneur who owns his company, but the expert manager (or a managerial board presided over by a CEO) who runs a company owned by banks (also run by managers who don’t own the bank) or dispersed investors. In this new ideal type of capitalism, the old bourgeoisie, rendered non-functional, is refunctionalised as salaried management: the members of the new bourgeoisie get wages, and even if they own part of their company, earn stocks as part of their remuneration (‘bonuses’ for their ‘success’).

This new bourgeoisie still appropriates surplus value, but in the (mystified) form of what has been called ‘surplus wage’: they are paid rather more than the proletarian ‘minimum wage’ (an often mythic point of reference whose only real example in today’s global economy is the wage of a sweatshop worker in China or Indonesia), and it is this distinction from common proletarians which determines their status. The bourgeoisie in the classic sense thus tends to disappear: capitalists reappear as a subset of salaried workers, as managers who are qualified to earn more by virtue of their competence (which is why pseudo-scientific ‘evaluation’ is crucial: it legitimises disparities). Far from being limited to managers, the category of workers earning a surplus wage extends to all sorts of experts, administrators, public servants, doctors, lawyers, journalists, intellectuals and artists. The surplus takes two forms: more money (for managers etc), but also less work and more free time (for – some – intellectuals, but also for state administrators etc).

The evaluative procedure used to decide which workers receive a surplus wage is an arbitrary mechanism of power and ideology, with no serious link to actual competence; the surplus wage exists not for economic but for political reasons: to maintain a ‘middle class’ for the purpose of social stability. The arbitrariness of social hierarchy is not a mistake, but the whole point, with the arbitrariness of evaluation playing an analogous role to the arbitrariness of market success. Violence threatens to explode not when there is too much contingency in the social space, but when one tries to eliminate contingency.

Student and trade union protests in the UK, in this reading, are a reaction to a reduction (or, for many, ending) of this surplus wage. Hence protesters are more commonly unemployed graduates and teachers, not metal workers or ship builders (the latter, of course, almost impossible to find on these isles). If, as Zizek argues, ‘The proletarianisation of the lower salaried bourgeoisie is matched at the opposite extreme by the irrationally high remuneration of top managers and bankers’ then the wage inflation at the top of the tree (and not just in the banking sector) is likely to become a permanent feature of the economic landscape in post-industrial states.


Review: Why It’s All Kicking Off Everywhere by Paul Mason

‘It is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism,’ Fredric Jameson, a leading theorist of post-modernism, wrote in 2003. Not anymore it isn’t. If the culmination of Francis Fukuyama’s Whiggish ‘End of History’ was the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008 – scuttling liberal democracy’s claims to historical inevitability – what’s happened since has arguably been more radical still: revolutions across North Africa and the Middle East, street protests in the West, social unrest on a scale not seen for generations.

Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere is a journey, both empirical and analytical, through a world in tumult. Paul Mason, economics editor on BBC’s flagship Newsnight and one of the UK media’s most familiar faces, is essentially an old-fashioned beat reporter, but with a patch that stretches across the globe: the book begins a year ago in an occupation in Bloomsbury, central London and ends among slum protestors Manila, with our correspondent popping up everywhere from Tahrir Square to Bakersfield, California in between.

Mason warns readers ‘don’t file (this book) under ‘social science’: it’s journalism’. The 10 chapters that follow alternate – some more seamlessly than others – between first-class reportage and theoretical and historical expositions on the changing shape of politics, society and, most prominently, economics.

Like any good journalist, Mason doesn’t bury the lead. In the introduction he writes: ‘We’re in the middle of a revolution caused by the near collapse of free-market capitalism combined with an upswing in technical innovation, a surge in desire for individual freedom and a change in consciousness about what freedom means.’ In short, the global economic system is banjaxed and the web has fundamentally altered the political visions of the next generation, leading to a renewed search for social justice.

Mason – who, with this dulcet Lancastrian tones and background in leftwing politics, often cuts an unlikely figure among the plummy, small ‘c’ conservative BBC voices – comes to praise, not bury, what he terms ‘the new global revolutions’. Changing technology, and particularly social media, is central to his thesis: Facebook and Twitter don’t cause revolutions – as so many over-excited commentators proclaimed as first Ben Ali in Tunisia and then Hosni Mubarak in Egypt fell amid popular protest – but they do connect people in new and unexpected ways, sometimes with explosive results.

For Mason, the network is king. Like Howard Beale in the eponymous 1976 movie, millions of (mainly) young people are ‘mad as hell and won’t take it anymore’ – but while Peter Finch’s neutered news anchor’s only recourse is to threaten suicide live on air, now decentralised modes of communication allow protestors to directly challenge traditional power structures and ideas.

Big claims are made for the power of the network, supported by Marx, Foucault and other theoretical heavyweights. At times, however, this shock of the new feels slightly oversold and the power of diffuse, coordinated networks to defeat static hierarchies of power more often stated that demonstrated. Why It’s All Kicking Off is at its most persuasive, and engaging, when Mason moves away from sociology and onto the street. His terse dissection of the uprising in Egypt combines a coruscating analysis of the ‘neoliberal fiefdom’ built by Hosni’ Mubarak’s son and would be heir, Gamal, with interviews from Tahrir Square and among the zabbaleen, the 65,000 ‘garbage people’ who eke out an existence sifting through Cairo’s rubbish.

A spectre is haunting Europe (and beyond). Unlike 1848, this shadow is not communism; it’s the young, ambitious, connected graduate with a Blackberry in their hand and no prospects of a decent job. By turns inquisitive and informative, Mason is a peerless guide through the rapidly shifting milieu of global protest and revolution. Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere provides a timely and highly readable firsthand account of a wave of unrest that shows no sign of abating anytime soon.

Why It’s All Kicking off Everywhere is out now published by Verso. This review originally appeared in the Sunday Business Post, January 29.

At Edinburgh Sheriff Court

Supporters of Occupy Edinburgh were thin on the ground at the city’s sheriff court on Wednesday, 25 January, Robert Burns Day. Only 15 or so activists went to protest against their eviction from St Andrews Square, outside the headquarters of the Royal Bank of Scotland (whose chief executive has just received a £963,000 bonus). ‘Oh, you’re with that lot,’ the security guard manning the metal detector said when I asked where the Occupy case was being heard. ‘Should have got rid of them months ago.’ After rummaging through my rucksack and confiscating my Dictaphone, he pointed in the direction of Court 13.

The case against Occupy was brought by Essential Edinburgh, a city-centre initiative representing various high-end retailers, including Harvey Nichols, RBS and Virgin Money, with interests in the lucrative and mostly privatised shopping streets around St Andrews Square. The occupation began on 15 October, with considerable popular and (largely opportunistic) party political support. Since then, however, numbers have dwindled amid negative press coverage, most of it focused on anti-social behaviour and alleged anti-semitism as well as concerns about the movement’s direction, or lack of it.

‘We want to present ourselves in the right manner,’ the veteran socialist Willie Black told the sheriff, Katherine Mackie. Unlike Occupy LSX outside St Paul’s in London, the Edinburgh protesters had agreed to vacate their site before the eviction notice was even served. Courtroom drama was in decidedly short supply. There were no Guy Fawkes masks or grandstanding statements, just a mundane exchange as counsel for Essential Edinburgh pressed for an eviction notice from the court. Sheriff Mackie demurred, ruling that the occupiers had the rest of the day to clear St Andrews of all remaining persons – namely the many homeless people who had congregated around the camp in ever greater numbers – and their belongings.

Outside the sheriff court, Jamie, a fourth year journalism student with a ‘Robin Hood Tax’ badge on his jacket, said: ‘This is global, this isn’t the end.’ Chris, a 24-year-old freelance copywriter responsible for Occupy Edinburgh’s Twitter feed, said the movement needs to regroup and refocus but will live to fight another day.

In front of a single TV camera, Black spoke of the need to protect the vulnerable in society, especially Edinburgh’s growing homeless population. ‘You can take our square but you’ll never take our freedom,’ shouted a middle-aged woman with long purple hair. Another protester held up a whiteboard that said, in red marker: ‘It’s coming yet for a’ that.’

This piece originally appeared on the London Review of Books blog.

Mubarak is Gone but Young Women Still Struggle in Egypt

Thanks to a grant from the Simon Cumbers Fund, I spent time in Egypt before Christmas researching female youth unemployment after the fall of Hosni Mubarak. On the eve of the 1st anniversary of the Tahrir Square protests, my piece on the issue of jobless young women appeared in yesterday’s Sunday Business Post.

Sara Ahmed, a 22 year-old graduate of the American University in Cairo, describes herself as a ‘modern Egyptian woman’. And with good reason: she’s bright, articulate, eschews the traditional hijab, preferring to wear her shiny black hair in a stylish bob, and sports Dolce and Gabbana sunglasses. Like many Cairene fashionistas, Ahmed dreams of a job in public relations. Or at least she did.

‘Now I’d take any job where the pay isn’t too bad and the work is OK,’ Ahmed says when we meet on the sprawling fringes of Tahrir Square, in downtown Cairo. The weekly Friday protest against the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf), a habitual feature of life in the Egyptian capital since last June, is thinning out. As the protestors’ anti-military chants fade into the cool evening air, an aging cigarette seller in front of us packs her bags.

‘I have to go shortly, too,’ says Ahmed, who has spent the past year applying for countless jobs without getting a single interview. ‘My father doesn’t know I’m here and I have to get back home before he realises I’m gone.’ Having stayed away during the tumultuous January days that culminated in the overthrow of former President Hosni Mubarak, Ahmed has become a Tahrir Square regular. ‘I’ve nothing else to do, maybe this will help somehow.’

As Egypt’s military rulers prepare to commemorate the first anniversary of the rising with a public holiday on January 25 replete with street parties, parades and outdoor concerts, young women like Sara Ahmed have little to celebrate. Unemployed youth, the shabab atileen who played a key role in the spring revolt, remain isolated and economically marginalised.

Egypt is experiencing a massive ‘youth bulge’. Some 20 million people, almost a quarter of total population, are aged 18-29. Of these over 25% are without work. The situation is even more acute for women: at just 18.5%, Egypt has one of the lowest female labour participation rates in the world. According to the US think-tank the Congressional Research Service, in 2010 90% of women were still without employment two years after leaving university.

The paucity of female economic activity is due, in part, to social and cultural factors, says Maia Sieverding, a researcher at Population Council in Cairo. ‘What is acceptable for a man and a woman to do is very different. Men are able to take any job they can get, women can’t.’

Remarkably over the last 20 years university-educated Egyptian women have become less, not more, likely to be in paid employment. For decades after the declaration of the republic in 1953, the public sector – with its Nasser-era policy of guaranteed jobs for graduates, short working hours and paid maternity leave – was the employer of choice of young women but state jobs have become scarce, while opportunities in the private sector offer scant social protection and even worse wages.

‘The kind of salaries university-educated girls are being offered might be 400-500 LE (50-65 Euro) a month, which doesn’t leave much once you cover transport to and from work and other necessary expenses,’ says Sieverding. Egypt does have a minimum wage – another relic of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Arab socialism – but at just 31 LE a month (4 euro) it’s less public policy and more comical anachronism.

‘For many women it’s logical not to take a job at all, given what’s often on offer,’ comments Lamia el-Sadek, a project manger at Plan Egypt, an NGO in Cairo. ‘But being economically and socially empowered is really important for young women, not just for the money but also for their own self-esteem.’

Plan co-ordinates a youth employability program called Forsa, which means ‘opportunity’ in Arabic. Intense courses are offered in areas with strong job prospects such as nursing and healthcare and customer relations. Importantly, graduates are matched with real world jobs.

More than 600 young people have graduated from Forsa since the program began. Among them is Marwa Abd-Nabg, a 23 year-old who holds a diploma in commerce but retrained as a nurse. ‘I was sitting at home for months after I finished college doing nothing. I’d just sit around and cry a lot,’ she says. Like more than 70% of Forsa graduates, the overwhelmingly majority female, Abd-Nabg now has a full-time job, in a local hospital.

Abd-Nabg’s father forbade her attending the protests in Tahrir Square that precipitated the fall of Mubarak but she supported the revolution and, despite its struggles since, believes the changes in Egypt are a boon for women. ‘Now we feel more confident to go out and get a job, to take responsibility for our own lives,’ she says.

Such optimism is not universal, however. After graduating from Forsa, Samar Mosad, 25, applied for positions across Cairo but, increasingly disillusioned, she now spends her days sitting at home watching television. ‘I want to work and to prove myself but the opportunities didn’t come,’ says Mosad, who wants to be a lawyer. ‘I can’t get a job because I don’t have experience and I don’t have wasta.’

One year on from Tahrir Square it’s difficult to say how much has changed in Egypt. The military retain an iron grip on the political process, albeit one that looks increasingly precarious; the economy, mired in a fug of corruption and joblessness, grew just 1.2% in 2011; and wasta, connections, remains the only reliable means of getting a good job for both sexes.

‘Egypt isn’t Tahrir Square,’ as Major General Mukhtar el-Mallah, a member of the ruling military council, once put it. While vituperative clashes between army and protestors sporadically breakout in the environs of downtown Cairo, away from the capital the situation is bleaker still. The World Bank estimates that 19.3 per cent of the Egyptian population live on less than $2 a day, the overwhelming majority in agrarian Upper Egypt.

Over 95% of Egypt’s poorest villages are in Upper Egypt, where literacy rates and access to social services are much lower, says Kevin Fitzcharles, country director of Care Egypt. Alongside Barclay’s Bank, Care is involved in ‘Banking on Change’, a community-based microfinance scheme aimed at developing and extending access to basic banking services such as savings and loans.

The theory is straightforward: 10 to 12 people save and lend relatively small amounts together at low interest rates, with all decisions taken by the group as a whole. A small annual subscription fee covers administration costs and a ‘social fund’ for unexpected outlays, such as funerals. Currently around 18,400 people in Upper Egypt are enrolled in the Banking on Change scheme.

‘A lot of women struggle to access their economic rights. In Upper Egypt, women do most of the work in agriculture but it’s almost always within the family and is unpaid,’ says Fitzcharles. Village micro-finance schemes offer an opportunity for women to save money from small businesses such as selling produce at market or making clothes. Most participants save between 1 and 5 LE (.13 – .65 Euro) a week, often reinvesting in their business or taking out loans to buy stock or equipment.

Despite the success of programs such as Forsa and Banking on Change, the climate for international NGOs in Egypt is increasingly testy. Many are wary of talking directly to journalists: understandable given that 39 NGOs are currently under investigation for ‘treason’ and ‘conspiracies’ against national security related to the putative offence of relying on foreign cash to fund their operations.

The constriction of the public sphere under the Scaf regime has disproportionately affected women. A 64-seat female quota introduced by Mubarak ahead of the 2010 parliamentary elections was scrapped before last year’s vote. Instead parties were obliged to include at least one female on their lists – a ruling that resulted in incongruous photographs of fully veiled women on Islamic parties’ election posters but saw just three women elected in Egypt’s protracted plebiscite. Meanwhile, last March a demonstration commemorating International Women’s Day was attacked in Tahrir Square by a group of more than 200 men.

‘Harassment in the work place is a major problem,’ says Rebecca Chiao founder of Harassmap, a website that allows Egyptian women to report incidents of sexual harassment by text message. ‘It’s easy, and very common, for managers to pressure women into sexual favours.’ According to the UN a staggering 50% of women in Egypt reported being subject to sexual harassment, with 8.7% of those aged 22-29 encountering harassment at work.

As well as addressing a culture of workplace harassment, the labour market needs to be formalised if women are to enter employment in greater numbers, says Population Council Maia Sieverding. ‘A large part of the problem is the quality of the jobs. There are lots of women who want to work but they need formal contracts with protections for things like maternity leave,’ says Sieverding.

Often at the vanguard of the movement that toppled Mubarak, women face an uncertain future in post-Arab Spring Egypt. The electoral success of Islamic parties – having captured a combined 65 per cent of the votes, the Muslim Brotherhood and the fundamentalist Salafis are set to dominate the new parliament – has led to renewed questions about the role of women in Egyptian society.

But the hard won victories – and the hope – of last January has not been completely forgotten in the autumn chill. A couple of hundred metres from Tahrir Square, at the self-styled Occupy protest near Egypt’s Cabinet Office, Ranza Ali refuses to accept a quiet return to the status quo.

‘We will continue fighting until we have won, and not before then,’ the 21 year-old communications student proclaims, wrapping a colourful keffiyeh around her shoulders. ‘We want a new Egypt, one that works for women and men. Only once we have got that will go.’ With that she breaks into a chant as relevant now as when it first emerged in Tahrir Square almost a year old: ‘Bread, freedom, Social justice.’

Talking Scottish Independence with Pat Kenny

I appeared on the excellent Today with Pat Kenny program on RTE on January 12, talking about Scottish independence referendum vote and what an independent Scotland might look like. As the Today with PK site says, ‘This is shaping up to be the UK’s most serious constitution crisis since southern Ireland quit the union in 1922.’ I’m on for 10 mins or so, c. 1.05 in.

Today with Pat Kenny

The Troubles at Boston College

Boston College-Belfast Project case and its ramifications for academic freedom and social inquiry. From Times Higher Education.

The folk tale about the academic who accidentally deleted his data is older than the PC, but have you heard the one about the researchers who asked their institution to destroy all their work? No? Well that’s exactly what the researchers behind Boston College’s Belfast Project, an oral history of the Northern Irish conflict, have done.

“The archive must now be closed down and the interviews be either returned or shredded since Boston College is no longer a safe nor fit and proper place for them to be kept,” reads a statement issued by the project’s erstwhile director Ed Moloney and former researchers Anthony McIntyre and Wilson McArthur.

The reason for the dramatic declaration is as disarming as it is simple: within the coming weeks, a court in the US is to decide whether interviews with former paramilitaries in Northern Ireland conducted as part of the project should be handed over to the British authorities. All interviewees, including leading figures in the IRA, the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Ulster Defence Association, were promised that their recordings would not be released until after their death: now they could form the basis for criminal proceedings.

Trust is the sine qua non of much social research. Informants often participate on condition of anonymity, or sign consent forms clearly stating how their data will be used. In highly sensitive research such as the Belfast Project – which was intended to provide a unique repository of oral testimony about the Troubles from direct participants – confidentiality is paramount, as protection against both prosecution and the wrath of disgruntled former comrades.

When the project was mooted in 2000, Moloney, an award-winning Irish journalist now based in New York, and McIntyre, a former Republican prisoner who holds a PhD in history, say that they demanded guarantees that all information gathered would remain confidential. Boston College, a leading centre of Irish studies in the US, disputes this.

A Boston College affidavit introduced in court avers that the head of the John J. Burns Library, where the tapes were to be housed, cautioned Moloney that “the library could not guarantee the confidentiality of the interviews in the face of a court order”. Moloney and McIntyre contend that such wording is absent from the agreements drawn up by the college and signed all the participants in the project.

Last May, following an interview given by former IRA bomber Dolours Price to a Northern Irish newspaper, British authorities issued the college with a subpoena, demanding tapes of interviews with both Price and Brendan Hughes, a former IRA commanding officer who died in 2008. In August, a second subpoena followed, this time calling for all interviews that contained information relating to the 1972 murder of Jean McConville, a West Belfast mother with 10 children who was believed by the IRA to be a spy for the British Army.

In December, Boston federal court judge William Young upheld the first subpoena. Boston College criticised the verdict but surprisingly declined to appeal: the case now making its way through the US courts was taken by Moloney and McIntyre, not the institution.

Boston College claims that the Belfast Project researchers were told that confidentiality was to the full extent of US, not international, law. It’s a claim McIntyre rejects: “We were given guarantees that everything was completely protected. If we (had) thought for one minute that it wasn’t, we wouldn’t have done the research. We never suspected Boston College would mislead us like this.”

The US university stood to gain substantially from the possession of what would have been an archive of major international significance – but now that the project has run into trouble, it seems to be seeking to disassociate itself from the researchers and their interviewees.

The ramifications of the case are potentially far-reaching. McIntyre is concerned about his own security and that of his informants. A number of Loyalist participants have already asked for the return of their tapes amid concerns for their personal safety.

The irony is that oral histories such as the Belfast Project could potentially transform our understanding of recent conflicts. Indeed, prior to the subpoenas, Owen Paterson, the UK secretary of state for Northern Ireland, called for the work to be replicated across the region.

Now the researchers involved want to see their meticulously collected data destroyed, and academics beyond Belfast are left wondering if they will be able to protect interviewees who divulge sensitive information.

Sean O'Casey in Tahrir Square

In 1936, Robert Merton published a seminal paper entitled “The Unanticipated Consequences of Purposive Social Action” in the American Sociological Review . Seemingly minor events, the then 26-year-old argued, can have profound, unanticipated implications. The “law of unintended consequences” was born.

Mohammed Bouazizi was the same age as Merton when he provided the digital age’s most iconic demonstration of the sociologist’s maxim. On December 17th 2010, Bouazizi, a Tunisian street vendor frustrated at his treatment by a local policewoman in the town of Sidi Bouzid, doused himself in petrol and set himself alight. Inadvertently, what we now call the Arab Spring was born.

Just over a month later, on January 25th, the Egyptian revolt began, as tens of thousands gathered in Cairo and in town and cities across the country to protest against Hosni Mubarak’s brutal regime. One year on, Egypt’s revolution remains unfinished.

Clashes between protesters and the now-ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf) have become a regular feature of daily life, particularly in Cairo, in recent months. The spark for the latest confrontation, last month, was a football inadvertently booted into the grounds of the Egyptian Cabinet Office near Tahrir Square. An activist who climbed in to retrieve the ball was badly beaten by guards.

Protesters responded by setting fire to cars in a nearby street. The situation escalated from there with portentous speed.

Following similar violence in November, many Egyptian protesters swapped the wide, open (and easily infiltrated) spaces of Tahrir Square for the narrow confines of the Magles El Shab Street, abutting the Cabinet Office. As I watched the shocking scenes of repression at the self-styled “Occupy Cabinet” protest on YouTube recently, one of my first thoughts was of Sean O’Casey. Not that the jerky camera-phone footage bore any resemblance to the playwright’s stage directions but because it reminded me of Ahmed.

I met Ahmed at Occupy Cabinet. The afternoon prayer, Asr, had just finished across Cairo – one of Mubarak’s last acts as president, although no one knew it at the time, was to synchronise the muezzin in the city’s 4,500 mosques, putting an end to centuries of discordant prayer calls – and I was sitting among a group of young men in a makeshift tent outside the Egyptian Cabinet Office’s filigreed gates.

Noiselessly, a tall, balding figure, slightly older than the rest, appeared by my side. Ahmed.

During a lull in the heated conversation about the mendacity of the Scaf, I introduced myself as an Irish journalist. Ahmed’s dark eyes lit up. “Ireland, you’re from Ireland.” It was more a declaration than a question, delivered in clear, faultless English. “Do you know Sean O’Casey?” January’s revolt against Mubarak’s kleptocratic rule was motivated, in part, by Egypt’s dire economic situation. Around half the population live on $2 a day or less. Despite the Nasser-era laws to the contrary, even a university education is no guarantee of a decent job – unless you have wasta, connections.

Growing up in Mubarak’s Egypt, Ahmed had no wasta. After graduating in science, like many ambitious Egyptians, he left his homeland for the Gulf. He found Sean O’Casey while working as a hospital porter in Dubai.

“One of the doctors on the ward was an Irish man, he gave me a book of his plays,” he explained. “After that I read more and more.” Now almost 50, Ahmed returned to raise a family in Egypt, but struggled to find a steady job. Having enthusiastically joined the street protests in January he was, like the vast majority I met in Tahrir and Occupy Cabinet, disheartened by the slow pace of change and the army’s tightening grip on power.

What, I asked, was his favourite O’Casey play. “ The Plough and the Stars, ” Ahmed replied, after a moment’s consideration. “I like the language but also the message,” he said, shouting a little to make himself heard above a rousing chant that had broken out among the several hundred strong crowd. Behind us self-appointed revolutionary guards policed the barbed wire entrance to Magles El Shab Street, while relatives wept in the wan light over mock coffins representing those killed by police during November’s rioting. Just before he left, Ahmed translated the protesters’ shouts for me: “We will get our rights or we will die just as they died”.

All across Cairo I found unflinchingly demotic political discussions.

About where Egypt is and where it should go. Doubtless O’Casey would have approved, although given his disdain for nationalist fervour, it’s less clear what the committed socialist would have made of the machinations of Egypt’s rolling revolution.

The Plough and the Stars opened in the Abbey on February 8th 1926. During a performance just three nights later the audience, angered by the treatment of the Easter Rising and egged on by the widow-martyr Mrs Sheehy-Skeffington, rioted. Consequently, intentional or otherwise, O’Casey went into exile soon after, where he remained until his death in 1964.
This piece originally appeared as the Irishman’s Diary, in the Irish Times January 16, 2012.

St Mirren CIC'ing the Habit

Is there an alternative to robber baron chairman asset stripping your club? I spoke to an innovative new venture through in Paisley, to turn local club St Mirren into a Community Interest Company. This feature originally appeared in February 2012 edition of the excellent When Saturday Comes:

Billed as a ‘national day of action’, November 30 witnessed the largest strike in Britain in a generation. That evening, 70 supporters gathered at St Mirren Park not to protest changes to public sector pensions or Tory cutbacks but in a bid to resuscitate an innovative community-led takeover of the Paisley club.

At first glance, St Mirren seems an unlikely candidate for a fan takeover. Solidly established in the lower reaches of the Scottish Premier League since returning to the top-flight in 2006, the club, which has been up for sale since September 2009, is generally regarded as a well-run outfit. Tesco’s purchase of their former Love Street home in 2007, in a deal reportedly worth £15 million, left St Mirren financially secure at a time when many higher profile SPL rivals are feeling the pinch.

Chairman Stewart Gilmour, who saved the Buddies from huckster Reg Bearley’s pernicious grip more than a decade ago (see WSC 153), stated openly that he would prefer to sell the club to a community bid than on the open market. The solution, or so it seemed, was to turn St Mirren into a Community Interest Company (CIC).

The brainchild of New Labour uber-moderniser Alan Milburn, a CIC is essentially a limited company with a social purpose. It attempts to combine the advantages of a company – flexibility in organisation, operation and governance – with the ability to restrict rampant risk taking and to protect assists for the local community. A Community Interest Community can pay dividends and interest, but is restricted in the amounts and is subject to CIC law and a regulator, based in Cardiff.

When it comes to football, one of the most attractive features of a CIC is that it ‘locks-in’ all the club’s assets, ensuring that the assets built up overtime cannot be squandered for profit by the current generation. Instead assets must be used for the stated community purpose. Even if the CIC is wound up, its assets must be transferred to another, similarly asset-locked body. All mightily unattractive for any would-be robber baron chairman.

Ayr businessman Richard Atkinson has spearheaded the move to turn St Mirren into the first professional club run as a Community Interest Company in the UK. (Stenhousemuir and Clyde, in the Scottish Second and Third Divisions respectively, are both CICs). When the Paisley club were put up for sale Atkinson, who has a background in logistics, formed 10000Hours, a social enterprise co-operative with the dedicated purpose of purchasing a 52% majority shareholding in the club.

‘What makes this takeover different is that we are trying to buy the club when it’s just up for sale, not when it’s going out of business. In other cases fans are buying the club off the administrator at a knockdown price – often with an agreement to take on the club’s debts – so they own the whole club. But we’ve had to try and raise the money to buy out the shareholders,’ Atkinson said.

Under the scheme, 10000hours borrows from social enterprise lenders (rather than traditional banks) to buy just over half of St Mirren, with fans subscriptions to the cooperative as well as revenue generated by the CIC after the takeover used to pay off the debt. No debt is loaded onto the club, a la the Glazers at Manchester United.

Until November, 10000 Hours looked odds on to succeed. A broad church of social enterprise backers and charitable bodies had pledged almost £1.3 million, mostly in the form of soft loans and ‘patient capital’ (so called because repayments are delayed by a set number of years). However, after months of negotiations, a decision to sanction the final tranche of funding was reversed. Current director Ken McGeoch has taken advantage of the interstice to announce his intention to pursue a conventional take over of the club.

But Atkinson, who has sat on the board of St Mirren for two years, is determined to fight on. The hope now is that more supporters can be convinced to join 10000 hours, at an individual rate of £10 per month (repaid as equity in the CIC, once the debt is repaid). Since November’s announcement, membership has risen from 800 to over 900.

Retiring football chairmen are wont to declare their desire to safeguard the long-term future of their club (Wigan’s Dave Whelan springs to mind). A Community Interest Company is not foolproof – a board can still over extend itself and get into serious debt – but it does introduce safeguards to protect the club for those who value it most. Whether 10000hours are successful or not, the CIC model is one other clubs, and their supporters, could well profit from.

A New Dalriada?

My thoughts on what Scottish Independence campaign – and independence itself – might mean for Northern Ireland, from Scotsman January 11.

‘Do you want Scotland to remain part of the United Kingdom?’ Doubtless it’s the kind of phrasing David Cameron had in mind when he demanded a ‘fair, clear and decisive question’ on Scottish independence earlier this week. But the Tory leader would do well to reflect on the last time Westminster ignored nationalist opposition to put such a formulation to the vote in a referendum on the constitutional future of a member of the United Kingdom – in Northern Ireland, in 1973.

The so-called ‘Border Poll’, conducted across Northern Ireland on March 8, 1973, certainly asked a clear question: should the North stay in the UK or join the Republic of Ireland. And it produced a decisive result. On a respectable looking 58% turnout, a whopping 98.92% voted to retain the status quo.

But on Cameron’s fairness criteria, the Border Poll was altogether less clear and decisive. That January, as sectarian violence raged across Northern Ireland, the eminently sensible SDLP leader Gerry Fitt called on his (predominantly moderate) supporters ‘to ignore completely the referendum and reject this extremely irresponsible decision by the British Government’. The Catholic/nationalist population boycotted the vote en masse, while the Irish Republican Army vowed to disrupt the ballot. In the end, one soldier was killed in the days leading up to the referendum and a paltry 6,463 supported a united Ireland.

Scotland today is not, thankfully, Northern Ireland four decades ago, but the perils of London interference in a plebiscite on sovereignty should not be lost on Westminster panjandrums. Scottish Nationalists are a long way from issuing a boycott for a referendum many have spent a lifetime campaigning for, but continued dictating of terms by a Conservative prime minister with scant mandate north of the border could change that.

Somewhat surprisingly, there has been precious little consideration of what, if any, affect all this talk of independence in Scotland might have across the Irish Sea. Given its strong cultural and historical ties with Ireland, and particularly Ulster and indeed unionism, any move by Scotland away from the United Kingdom could provoke something of an existentialist crisis among Northern Irish unionists, and even nationalists.

Northern Ireland’s constitutional future is, in many respects, still unsettled. The Good Friday Agreement signed in 1998 is essentially a constitutional holding position, enshrining the aspirations of nationalists and unionists while binding both to the wishes of the majority. With the collapse of the Irish Celtic Tiger and Northern Ireland’s own economic travails, the future of the Irish wing of the union appears secure – but it is built on relatively soft sands.

The results of last year’s census aren’t expected until the summer, but other indicators suggest that the Catholic population in Northern Ireland is growing more quickly than the Protestant. Conventional wisdom – which, as JK Galbraith recognised, hides a multitude of sins and uncomfortable facts – posits that such a rise will lead to increased support for nationalism and, eventually, Irish reunification.

According to the 2001 census, just over 53% of the Northern Ireland populace hails from a Protestant background, 44% from a Catholic background, with the remainder of a non-religious background, or other Christian and non-Christian faiths. However, figures obtained from the Higher Education Statistics Agency by Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister suggest that these demographics might be shifting. In 2009/10, Queen’s University in Belfast had 8,710 Northern Ireland resident students from a Catholic background compared with 6,740 from a Protestant faith. The contrast was even more extreme in the University of Ulster, which had 11,070 Catholics and 7,020 Protestants spread across its four campuses.

As reported in the Irish Times recently, this trend is equally pronounced in second-level education, where factors such as leaving Northern Ireland to attend university in Britain do not come into play. Data released by Northern Ireland’s Department of Education, showed that, in 2010/11, there were 120,415 Protestants and 163,693 Catholics in the North’s schools.

Birth rates are a hoary subject in Northern Ireland. When Republicans dropped their boycott of the census at the end of the Troubles, the question of whether nationalists might breed their way to a united Ireland became a hot topic, replete with tired stereotypes about the size of Catholic families. The run-up to the 2001 census featured a wealth of over-heated headlines: ‘Catholic Boom: Census shows Protestants will be minority in 10 years’; ‘Nationalists ‘will become majority’’; ‘Unionists filled with foreboding at loss of influence.’

Then, when the eventual figures revealed a smaller than envisaged Catholic population, it became a matter of ‘Census blow to republican hopes’ and ‘United Ireland disappointed’. In reality the sectarian headcount has been a less useful heuristic for voting intentions than many assume: significant numbers of Protestants and, more commonly, Catholics have voted for nationalist and unionist parties respectively. The latest findings from the Northern Ireland Life and Times survey, released last summer, show the latter tendency strengthening. 52% of Catholics polled were in favour of remaining in the UK. Against this only 4% of Protestants supported union with the Republic of Ireland. In total, a large majority, 73%, backed the union with Britain.

Indeed in June, First Minister Peter Robinson – who, back in 1986, was so vehemently opposed to power-sharing with Catholics that he led a group of 500 loyalists over the border to invade the village of Clontibret in the Irish Republic in protest at the Anglo-Irish Agreement – set out a vision for transforming those erstwhile naysayers the Democratic Unionist Party into a cross-community force. ‘My task is to make voting DUP as comfortable a choice for a Catholic as anyone else,’ Robinson wrote, noting that ‘support for a united Ireland has dropped to an all-time low of some 16%.’

Looked at from Castle Buildings at Stormont the union seems in rude health. Buttressed slightly from the economic ill-winds blowing a gale across the border and reliant on Exchequer support to the tune of some £6bn per annum, Northern Ireland – and many Northern Irish Catholics – have a significant investment in the British state. Meanwhile in the leafy suburbs, middle-class mixing is slowly breaking down many of the old sectarian barriers, disrupting the Orange-Green dichotomy that has dominated mindsets for generations.

It would take a seismic event to alter Northern Ireland’s constitutional status…say, Scottish independence. The independence debate has already put the prospect of a break-up of the UK on the table in a way that would have been unthinkable 10 years ago. If Scots were to go it alone, Northern Ireland would find itself culturally and geographically isolated inside a truncated union with a decidedly uncertain future.

Scotland and Ireland will always be close. At its shortest, the distance between the Mull of Kintyre and the north Antrim coast is only 20km. A pan-Celtic union encompassing independent Scotland and both sides of the Irish border has some form: the ancient Gaelic overkingdom of Dalriada stretched all the way from Skye to Antrim during the 6th and 7th centuries, reaching its apogee at the great monastic settlement of Iona.

A new Dalriada is a highly improbable, even fantastical, prospect but in the event of Scottish independence the status quo in Northern Ireland is unlikely to suffice, for both endogenous and exogenous reasons. It’s hard to imagine an increasingly confident Catholic population retaining long-term support for a union reduced to just England and Wales (and equally difficult to conceive of any huge desire on London’s part to retain control in Belfast).

The result of the 1973 Northern Ireland referendum was a foregone conclusion. Now the clamour for Scottish independence could have unintended consequences for political life on both sides of the Irish Sea. One thing is certain: next time the future of the union is put to a vote, the outcome won’t be anywhere near as clear cut as it was almost 40 years ago.