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President of Ireland

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President of Ireland

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Speech at the TASC Annual Conference “Achieving Sustainable Development: Of Principles and Some Obstacles”

Croke Park Stadium, Dublin, 17th June 2016

We have arrived at a highly critical juncture when the dominant models of economic growth are, everywhere, threatening social cohesion, democratic life, as well as the future of life itself on our fragile planet.

A Chairde Gael,

Is mór an pléisiúir dom é an chomhdháil tábhachtach seo a sheoladh, comhdháil a thugann deis dúinn macnamh, le chéile, ar céan chuí a mbeidh muid in ann samhail forbartha inbhuanaithe d'Éireann a bhaint amach: samhail a sholáthróidh obair fhiúntach do chách; samhail a thabhairfidh deis d'ár bpobail, idir uirbeach agus tuaithe, rath a bhaint amach; agus samhail a chothóidh meas ar ár  n-acmhainní nádúrtha agus a aithneoidh go bhfuil sé de cheart ag na glúnta amach romhainn leas a bhaint as na n-achainní sin chomh maith. 

May I thank David Begg for the kind invitation to open your Annual Conference, and Proinsias De Rossa for his kind words of introduction. As an independent Think-tank for Action on Social Change, TASC has had at heart, since its foundation in 2001, the reduction of economic inequality in Ireland. TASC has also made it its mission to foster democratic accountability in our country and to encourage the genuine participation of Irish citizens in the debates and decisions that affect them. And indeed the challenge of inclusive, participatory discourse on economic options is now even more acute than when TASC was founded.

Today’s conference will, I am sure, contribute to invigorating the public conversation we so pressingly need, not only on Ireland’s economic future, but on the cohesive society we want in Ireland, in the EU, and indeed at global level. Our discussions will also, I hope, strengthen our determination to courageously lay new, solid and just foundations for our collective future.

May I, then, thank TASC and the Foundation for European Progressive Studies (FEPS) for providing us with a much needed platform from which to grapple with the fundamental question of how we might achieve sustainable models of development for Ireland: models that would deliver decent work for everybody; models that would allow all of our citizens to lead meaningful, fulfilling lives within their communities; and also models that would be hospitable to a respectful use of our natural resources, based on a recognition of both Ireland’s international obligations and our collective responsibility towards future generations.

A wide-ranging public debate on those fundamental issues cannot be postponed. We have arrived, in this second decade of the 21st century, at a highly critical juncture when the dominant models of economic growth are, everywhere, threatening social cohesion, democratic life, as well as the future of life itself on our fragile planet.

The consequences of inaction are stark. Should we fail to change our policies, our institutions and, more importantly perhaps, our theory of growth, should we fail to tackle decisively current patterns of deregulation, of rocketing inequality, of cannibalisation of the real economy by financialisation, then our citizens will continue to pick up the tab, not just “in money value”, but “in the hard currency of their daily existences.”[1]

The shape of our response should not be determined by any uncritical acceptance of a supposedly intractable state of affairs or by any invocation of the putative “natural laws” of the market. Recently, receiving the Ulysses medal at University College Dublin, Dr Axel Honneth, one of Europe’s most distinguished critical theorists, delivered a paper on “The Ethical Life of the Market. The Normative Foundations of Economic Activity.” This paper was a model of scholarly inclusiveness, an invitation to draw a distinction, for example, between an enabling ethics that accompanies the market, and ethics that restrict the market. I mention Professor Honneth’s address, not only for its open invitation to reflection, but also for its important reminder that ethical or normative considerations are not residual, or even extrinsic, to market modelling.

A basic question for all democrats is: what kind of society, served by what kind of economy, do we want, in Ireland, in Europe, and further afield, among our brothers and sisters in poorer countries?

Do we want an Ireland in which a growing number of our fellow citizens find themselves trapped in chronic job insecurity, “living bits-and-pieces lives, in and out of short-term jobs, without a narrative of occupational development?”[2] Do we want a society in which people’s living standards are propped up by access to cheap credit and reliance on asset inflation – that is, until the next financial crisis hits? Do we want a society where so many people suffer from the consequences of negative equity, that contemporary form of debt bondage; and where so many young couples start in life pinned to the ground, their future prospects amputated, unable to move dwellings, unable to expand their family and freely dream their dreams? Do we want a society where so many families remain on waiting lists for public housing for prolonged periods of time, and where those who cannot afford to buy or rent a home are at risk of being made homeless?

Or, alternatively, do we want a society committed to promoting decent and dignified standards for human labour; a society that fosters a rich and holistic understanding of work as a source of personal dignity and freedom, family stability, prosperity in the community, democratic flourishing, and solidarity with other workers, in Ireland and abroad? Do we want a society where children and the elderly are provided with adequate care, and where people with disabilities and their families can get appropriate support? Do we want to bequeath to our children an Ireland where everybody will have access to nutritious food, clean water, adequate housing, good healthcare, childcare and education, irrespective of their ability to pay for those basic social goods?

These are political economy issues for which the discipline of economics has, in the past, offered different prescriptions. These policy inputs were, I suggest, at their greatest theoretical value when the assumptions on which they were based were declared, open to disputation, and informed the discourse that elected representatives sought to share with their publics, in what was a very democratic tendency.

The case for fundamental social goods, and the respective roles of state institutions and the market in delivering them, should never be closed off to public discussion. In fact, the right of all citizens to access certain basic social goods is enshrined in a number of international declarations, treaties and covenants to which Ireland is party. Article 25 (1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, for example, that:

“Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself [herself] and of his [her] family, including food, clothing, housing, medical care and necessary social services, and the right  to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his[her] control.”

These rights were re-stated and amplified in a series of international human rights conventions, including the seminal International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1966, and ratified by Ireland in 1989. At the European level, we have the revised European Social Charter of 1996 to which Ireland is also a party.

Why, and how, have those social and human rights imperatives become subsumed by economic imperatives, defined in very narrow fiscal terms, in contemporary public discourse? If there is any space for consideration of such social aims in specialist economic discourse or in professional media commentary, it too often collapses into depicting the case for social, economic and cultural rights as some form of normative posturing.

Can we recover, then, the required space, the freedom, to craft a new economic discourse – a discourse that would be responsive both to the fundamental needs and aspirations of our citizens and to our global responsibilities in relation to the environment and such defining challenges as extreme poverty, hunger, and mass migration? Does the question of who participates with authority, or confidence, in the public discourse on the economy, and in what terms, not tell us something of the quality of democracy? Do the relationships between government, research institutes, think tanks, universities, civil society and the media truly allow for a plurality of theoretical sources? These questions are fundamental.

We have an abundance of sound academic research pointing, for example, to the harmful consequences of an unaccountable form of financialisation of the economy, not just as a motor of inequality, but as a force undermining representative institutions and democratic life itself. Many fine scholars, some of them here today, have made us awake to the way in which deregulatory public policies implemented at international, regional and national level have opened the door to a series of hazardous financial “innovations” and enabled an alarming shift in the function of banks, from lending to the traditional forces of real economic production – i.e. businesses and households – to trading. Those scholars have shown how credit policies crucial to economic activity have been distorted by the emergence of derivatives without substance, of shadow banking that evades any regulation, and how our societies are paying a high price from the diversion of capital from productive to speculative use.

Paul Sweeney, Chair of TASC’s Economists’ Network, has, for example, used OECD data to show that between 1990 and 2009, Ireland had the third largest decline in the labour share of economic growth, from 65.1% of national income in 1990 to just 55.6% in 2009. Sean Byrne has been carrying out similar research in DIT. Much has been said and written, too, on Thomas Piketty’s book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, which explores the correlation between the financialisation of the economy and the growth of inequality. His argument that, as long as the return on capital outpaces economic growth, there is bound to be a concentration of wealth amongst a minority, was presented by Thomas Piketty at the TASC Annual Conference two years ago. And of course you have just heard the excellent analysis of John Weeks on these questions.

So, we have the evidence, but do we have the required atmosphere for an open discussion of policy options? What chances of acquiring a space in policy formation, or even discourse, do proposals for a reform of the global infrastructure of financial capitalism really have?

When examining current mainstream economic discourse one must, of course, confront the question of power and its location. Indeed some of the issues that arise with respect to the concentration of income and wealth are inescapably political. We know that excessive wealth also confers excessive power, and that the concentration of income in a few hands gives the wealthy more power to lobby for policies, including tax policies, that will disproportionately benefit them at the expense of the majority of citizens. Is it not, then, a healthy, even a necessary, exercise to question any engineered consensus congruent with the imperatives of financial power and its mouthpieces?

We must ask, too, in relation to current economic research and publication – who are the empiricists in all of this? The brand of economics currently taught in most University economics departments around the world is being widely challenged for its overreliance on mathematical abstraction, for which claims greater than instrumental value are often made, and for its failure to face the ideological nature of some of its assumptions. Yet, this overly abstract and covertly ideological approach to economics continues to be embraced uncritically by many media economic commentators, with sweeping consequences for popular conceptions of what constitutes “sound” economic policy.

And while some of these economic commentators in our mainstream media refuse to question the “market knows best” status quo, real empirical work points, on the contrary, to the fallacy of some assumptions as to, for example, perfect information and self-balancing tendencies. Empirical research also shows the need to investigate the issue of the remit of the market, the range of what is appropriately included in, and what should remain excluded from it.

I prefer to see the better prospects for a truly emancipatory social economy in a transaction of all these issues in public discourse. The challenge for all of us here today is, therefore, to find a way of building, with all our different contributions, an alternative to that hegemonic discourse that casts competitiveness as the ultimate purpose of economic activity, and growth in output and trade as an end in itself. We are challenged, in other words, to craft a socially accountable version of the economy – challenged to restore a hierarchy of purpose, whereby economic objectives, tools and measures are designed to serve the fundamental objective of human development.

These challenges have to be faced in conditions of shrinking outlets for public debate, where the surviving forums exhibit ever more tendency to monopoly, and where the alternative promise of social media is more frequently emotionally reactive than well-informed. We must be able to listen to each other’s perspectives, sources and forms of analysis, for example in discussing the content of growth.

My own words have sometimes been distorted. In my speeches on these themes, I have never crudely dismissed economic growth. I have, rather, sought to point to the need to look at the quality and sustainability of economic growth in terms of its environmental, social and cultural consequences. Increasing national income in an appropriate manner is, of course, necessary and desirable, but such economic growth must always be assessed in light of its ability to fulfil social objectives. Axel Honneth’s point as to the intrinsic normative character of economic method and policy is relevant here.

My view is that the philosophy of sustainable development – as a conceptual framework that brings together the social, economic, political, cultural and environmental strands of human activity – provides a valuable lens through which to assess the soundness of our economic models. It is a framework that also has merit in that it invites us to substitute long-term strategies for short-term ones, to use qualitative alongside quantitative measurements, and to espouse a more holistic approach to what constitutes “good economic performance”.

The sustainable development approach draws our attention, as I have just said, to the long-term consequences of the actions we perform in the present, encouraging us to face the inter-generational nature of our responsibility as members of societies that have preceded us and will outlast us. The 1987 Brundtland Commission Report, Our Common Future, thus defined sustainable development as

“the kind of development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. 

Since the publication of the Brundtland Report, much has been said and written about the need to critically examine the precedence given in practically all countries around the world to economic production, usually measured through either GNP or GDP – that is, through an increase in the level of gross national income. An early warning on the unsustainable nature of our dominant models of economic growth, and one well worth recalling, had been provided in the early 1970s by the seminal report of the Club of Rome (1972). The field of development economics has also, for quite some years, produced qualitative indicators that incorporate the non-economic dimensions of human development. More recently, interesting and related ideas have been put forward by Jean-Paul Fitoussi, Amartya Sen and Joseph Stiglitz in their report for the “Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress”. All this body of research, old and new, challenges the contemporary fetishism for a handful of indicators, such as GDP and GNP.

We know now that some activities, while nominally increasing national income, also entail significant costs to society and our planet – costs for which both GNP and GDP fail to account. Examples of environmental costs include, as you will know, air, water and soil pollution, the irreversible destruction of animal and plant species, the depletion of non-renewable natural resources such as fossil fuels, but also of renewable ones, such as forests and fisheries, which are subject to such intense exploitation that the rate of their disappearance is exceeding the possibility of their regeneration.

Last year’s Paris conference on climate change has reminded us, too, of how the massive use of fossil fuels by industry, transport and human consumption generates alarming levels of those greenhouse gases that are responsible for global warming and its string of destructive consequences in terms of rising sea levels, flooding, soil erosion and desertification, notwithstanding the devastation of large scale human displacement and forced migration.

There is now overwhelming scientific consensus as to the reality and consequences of climate change, yet there seems to be few tendencies, within mainstream economics, towards any radical revision of assumptions in terms of international trade, technology transfer, transport or resource utilisation. The use of indicators and measures that do not account, for example, for the cost incurred by future generations in terms of depletion of resources and degradation of their living conditions continue uninterrupted.

Thus we have very valuable statements of evidence on climate change, destructive development models, deepening inequality – but little forensic investigation of how it came to be; how money came to be distributed to influence politics and to challenge the science on climate change. The power of vested interests to frustrate and undermine the needs of sustainable development is everywhere to be seen. We have extensive impunity, too, for ecological devastation caused by the actions of multinational corporations, even where they have been found guilty of harming indigenous peoples.

Importantly, the sustainable development approach – and in particular a human rights-based approach to development, such as that put forward by individual scholars such as P.J. Drudy in Trinity College – invites us to restore social justice, human freedom and dignity as a priority on the list of public or political objectives. Such a rights-based approach also invites us to relocate economic activity in its just place, as but one pillar of human development.

This has important implications for one of the central questions addressed by today’s conference, namely our conception of human work. Rather than being considered as a ‘means to an end’ – a resource amenable to consumption by the market – citizens should be enabled to develop their potential through the work of their intelligence and hand, as human agents formed by sociability, education and talent.

Too narrow a focus on employment as currently measured, or on the generation of disposable income, can also make us oblivious to the many ways in which value is created in any given society. It can obscure the manner in which currently unpaid and unrecognised work, such as care work, for example – work that unfolds outside of the formal sphere of the market – is so often what brings warmth and meaning to our lives. Our public discourse has become entrapped in a crude form of quantification in so many respects.

Then, too, matters of care, health and education – although relating to fundamental human capacities and needs – are too often viewed as ‘soft’ social concerns, and posited in an instrumental relation to the primary objective of achieving high rates of economic growth and a good place in global competitiveness rankings.

I believe, on the contrary, that such spheres of human activity should be valued for the essential role they play in generating and sustaining social cohesion and human achievement, and then – and only then – for their contribution to overall economic performance.

Education, for example, is important, first and foremost in that it increases our citizens’ ability to think critically, comprehend the world around them, make their contribution to literature, the arts and science, and secondly because it also increases their potential for innovation, productive employment and income generation. By the same token, good housing or a good healthcare system contribute significantly to the quality of life, as well as providing a base for full participation in communities and productive activity.

The rich range of indicators, concepts and global goals associated with the philosophy of sustainable development encourages us, therefore, to revisit accepted versions of what constitutes “value” and “prosperity” so as to craft new models of development based on intergenerational justice, dignity for all, and responsibility towards all those with whom we share this fragile planet – it invites us, in other words, to be the artisans, in this new century, of a historic reconciliation between economics, ethics and ecology.

Such reconciliation is the foundation upon which we might build what I have called in some other speeches, a ‘culture of sufficiency’, referring, beyond a state of survival and mere existence, to the possibility of a space in which all of our citizens could flourish and lead fulfilling lives within their communities. At another level, a culture of sufficiency also relates to the floor above which each nation, and above all its people, must be free to define their own singular path of development and human flourishing, in accordance with their culture, their needs and aspirations

Indeed I believe that our response to the challenge of sustainable economic development – here in Ireland, in Europe, and beyond – might begin with a social floor, with political choices that are capable of distinguishing between essential social goods and services and other types of goods and services, which can be left to the market to trade freely.

This, of course, involves, in some areas and to an appropriate and sustainable degree, a rehabilitation of the role of the State in providing those universal public services that constitute the crucial infrastructure of social cohesion in any society. Such infrastructure plays a huge part in ensuring a decent quality of life for everybody, enabling people – in particular those with lower paid jobs, disability, illness, or old age – to access services they would be unable to afford on their own, without social solidarity.

We must consider the atmosphere that currently exists for any discussion of universality, for state provision with standards and guarantees, versus weakly regulated provision of services as commodities. We must consider how difficult it is to make the case for collective goals in the context of a highly individualised form of consciousness, one where the world is experienced by many through highly isolated and privatised settings.

Restoring a hierarchy of purpose between economic growth and social objectives, learning again how to speak another language than that of quantification – these are fundamental imperatives also for our European Union.

We cannot but be extremely concerned at the current normative void defining the discourse on Europe. Can the concept of citizenship in the European Union be reduced to a unit of consumption, or a flexible unit of labour amenable to being transferred from one region of the EU to the other, depending on the differentiated needs of national labour markets? What has happened to the discourse on the European social model? What has happened to the discourse on social cohesion?

In many respects, the Barroso Commission’s dominant view represented the very antithesis to Social Europe. That is why collective discussions, actions, mobilisations, matter now more than ever. Without a discourse of solidarity and cohesion – a discourse that is transcendental to aggressive nationalist claims and a narrow understanding of national interests – Europe will, I am afraid, continue to disintegrate. We need, as Jacques Delors put it, to: 

“Rekindle the ideal, breathe life and soul into it, that is the essential imperative if we genuinely seek to give shape to the Europe that we so dearly wish for”.

We have so much work to do to ensure that our European Union comes again to represent, in the eyes of its citizens, a model of balance between market, society and the environment, rather than a mere vehicle for the extension of free trade. We have so much work to do to make of Europe, in the eyes of the wider world, a model of solidarity – a shared space of human dignity for Europeans, but also for the persecuted and the displaced who are seeking our help, rather than a space of cynicism where moral aspirations are flung out for rhetorical flourish while economic ‘realities’ asserted to be ‘inevitable’ are advanced to contradict both human rights Treaties and Aspirations.

I convince myself to have trust in the capacity for rebirth and renewal of Europeans. As they seek to respond to the challenges of our time, my hope is that they will know how to turn again to implement in a meaningful manner those human rights treaties our countries have ratified, and that we will succeed in giving them full expression in our plans, policies and budgets, but also in our public discourse.

As to the bigger picture, as we are required to implement the agreements signed last year in New York and Paris, let us recall that the United Nations, in its “Declaration on the Right to Development” (adopted by the General Assembly in 1986), defined development as:

“A comprehensive economic, social, cultural and political process, which aims at the constant improvement of the well-being of the entire population and of all individuals on the basis of their active, free and meaningful participation in development and in the fair distribution of benefits resulting therefrom.”

That conception of development would ensure that everyone can enjoy what Amartya Sen has called ‘freedoms’, including ‘freedoms’ to enjoy adequate food and nutrition, shelter, sanitation, employment, education, health care, equality, peace and security.

We have been at this point of rhetoric before. We must now deliver an adequate discourse, and a consciousness, that will lead to action. Without these and other freedoms – freedoms which are also key human rights – we cannot, in Ireland, in Europe, and beyond, claim to be achieving development in any meaningful sense. 

Dear friends,

May I, once again, thank TASC and the FEPS for organising this conference and for inviting all of you, concerned scholars, trade unionists and activists, to make your contribution to the debate on our collective future – contributions with which we might, I hope, begin to piece together a new public discourse on prosperity and development.

Inequality is not inevitable. The just redistribution of the fruits of the earth and of human labour is not a dismissible utopian project. Nor should it ever be reduced to mere philanthropy. It is a moral obligation for all of us who believe in solidarity – an obligation we must, as a society, do our very best to fulfil.

Guím gach rath ar bhur gcaint agus ar bhur gcomhrá inniu. Tá súil agam go mbeidh muid in ann allagar poiblí nua ar rathúnas agus ar forbairt a chur le chéile mar thoradh ar bhur gcuid oibre, don ghlún seo agus do na glúnta atá le teacht.

Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir.


[1] Jurgen Habermas. 2009. Europe: The Faltering Project. Polity.

[2] Standing, Guy. 2014 (2nd edition). The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class. Bloomsbury.