Economic Democracy – The Alternative To Capitalism

A lot of people these days, even some who are pro-capitalism, and especially post-recession (if that’s not too bold a statement, it probably is), are aware of capitalism’s flaws. But first – what exactly is capitalism?

As an economic and social system, capitalism can be defined as a society in which private individuals and groups of individuals control the money supply (so, the banks), and the majority of the means of production (the food industry, fuel prices, investment, housing, factories, etc.). All capitalist economies are also market economies (though the reverse is not true) so businesses compete to make a bigger profit, and prices are determined by competition. Finally, most people in capitalist societies have to rent themselves out to the people who own the means of production in order to get the things they need to survive – workers have no claim to the product they make during their work, it is the owners of the business who make all the decisions regarding what workers make, how they make it, and what they do with it, though the owner may and usually does delegate authority hierarchically throughout the organization.

Now the pursuit of short term profit over long-term sustainability, and the prioritizing of profit over people’s needs has resulted in innumerable high profile disasters. The recent recession of ’07 onward happened because banks were lending to people they knew could not pay back the loans, on mortgages, cars, student loans etc., they would then group all these loans together into something cryptically called a Collateralized Debt Obligation (CDO). Don’t worry about the fancy names – they’re just a way of disguising dodgy dealings behind jargon. Having done this, one financial institution would sell the CDO to another for a large sum, and the buyer would, in exchange for that sum, be the future recipient on the payments for the loans in the CDO.

However, as many of us now know , there were only so many dominos in that row, and sooner or later it would become apparent that the finance sectors huge profits were based at their roots on sub-prime mortgages, or mortgages given to people who were highly unlikely to be able to repay them. That’s a much longer story than we have time for (though its equal parts fascinating and depressing – here’s a good link if you want one of the more entertaining and informative versions of the full story – http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/news/the-vampire-squid-strikes-again-the-mega-banks-most-devious-scam-yet-20140212) but its illustrative of what capitalism does.

Some other examples are huge income and wealth inequality – Thomas Piketty’s recent ‘Capital in the 21st Century’ has closed the debate on whether that’s really a thing or not in a similar manner to how Occupy Wall St. opened it. His research has unequivocally demonstrated that wealth inequality has been growing for hundreds of years and that this in fact structurally inherent to capitalism, proving that the rich get richer while the poor stay poor or get poorer again. The reason for this is that the return on inherited wealth always outstrips economic growth. In other words, while the economic pie keeps growing, it doesn’t grow as fast as the most gluttonous man’s slice. So even as capitalism has generated unprecedented economic wealth, the majority of people have gotten a smaller and smaller portion of it. Not to mention that a similarly groundbreaking book entitled ‘The Spirit Level – Why Equality is Better for Everyone’ has shown that as income inequality goes up – murder rates go up, average lifespans go down, educational attainment goes down, imprisonment rates go up, community well being goes down, and so on. So this is all bad news.

I could go on about what happened with US companies after the Iraq war ten years ago, or the dodgy dealings of the IMF, WTO and the World Bank. I could talk about the US and its economically motivated wars, or how amoral investment practices engineer artificial famines around the world by hiking up food prices. But really, there’s so much information on all this and its so easy to find out about it you search for it. There’ll be juicy links sprinkled throughout the article though, so hakuna matata, except about society, and stuff.

But all of these complaints are so easily impaled on the spikes of one of Margaret Thatcher’s favorite phrases – There is no alternative. Cheerily shortened to TINA by those looking to give their hopelessness some personality.

The attempts at replacing capitalism have been even more disastrous than capitalism itself. Now admittedly the Russian Revolution of 1917 had to face up to being invaded on about fifteen different fronts by the entire capitalist world. But that doesn’t excuse the Lenin and the Bolsheviks suppression of other parties and the anarchists and any dissent. Not to mention Spain in 1936 successfully replaced the old order and did away with hierarchies and inequalities to a huge extent, only to be sabotaged by their allies in necessity, the soviet communists, in the fight against General Franco and the fascists. And nobody even remembers the Makhnovists – Ukrainian anarchists led militarily by Nestor Makhno, who instituted worker’s self management and collective control of land and factories through village assemblies and councils. They fell to the dual threat of the red army of the bolsheviks, and the White army of those who wanted capitalism, and/or supported the old Tzar.

But I still think communists and Marxists have to analyse why any group that has identified themselves that way and come into power has subordinated democracy to the rule of the party leadership. From Cuba to China, democracy and dissent have been quashed by Marxist and Communists, and even if not all Marxists and Communists supported those regimes, this is something that needs to be addressed. In my own dealings with Marxist-leninist groups in Ireland, I’ve encountered some absolutely brilliant and admirable people, but also the same old problems of quashing criticism, and brushing internal problems under the carpet. To their credit, there are plenty of people withing these organizations trying to address those problems, and they may even have had some success already, I don’t know. Hopefully they evolve beyond the old ways of central committees deciding everything, and maybe have a more anarchic, or democratic distribution of power.

So almost a thousand words in and I’ve yet to talk about Economic Democracy! OK here goes. Obviously at this point in our argument we’re not happy with the intolerable unfairness inherent in capitalism, nor do we want a single party communist dictatorship. So what we want, I suppose, is a ‘third way’. That way, which admittedly has its roots in the socialist and anarchist traditions. Both of these movements are very different in truth to the distorted versions espoused by opportunistic leaders. The likes of Stalin used the word socialism to describe Soviet Russia for example, in order to associate his regime with the true tradition of socialism, while the US and other capitalist countries were happy to call it socialist too in order to discredit that tradition, which threatened the most wealthy and powerful in those Countries. ‘What exactly is this true, shining, pure tradition?’ You may ask skeptically, and understandably. Well in a tidy phrase – one might call it ‘Economic Democracy’. And what does that entail? Well just take the word soviet. Its the Russian for ‘Council’. The Soviet Union was supposed to be, and for a short time was, a society ruled by hundreds and hundreds of councils in neighborhoods and workplaces who collectively made decisions. Workers democratically organized the factories, and neighbors democratically ran their affairs. But with the trade embargo preventing bread from reaching tables, the war taking fathers from their families, and the quintessential manipulating politician (He shares first prize along with Henry Kissinger and a few of the US presidents), Lenin, in power – this couldn’t last. Lenin, believing only a rich, industrialized country like Germany, which had the means to feed its people, could have a true revolution, did everything he could to hold onto power. While crying ‘All power to the soviets’ along with his people, he took it away, and Trotsky turned the democratic soviet military into a traditional, hierarchical one. It would have been better to lose power in an election rather than hold on no matter what and discredit the people’s revolution he (maybe inadvertently) hijacked.

Economic Democracy entails that workers democratically control their workplaces. They vote on investment decisions, they can elect and recall their managers, or they may just allocate team leaders more informally, on a project by project basis. Hiring and firing are collective decisions. New employees have a trial period of anything from two weeks to six months before they get a full vote. Work may be distributed so that you don’t have half the workers doing the dirty, boring work, and half doing the empowering, creative work – training can be provided so that everyone is skilled enough to share the responsibilities of running a business. The best (though not the only one, not by a long shot) example of this method of doing business, is Mondragon Corporation in the Basque Region of Spain. Employing over 90’000 employees, decades old, and having managed the recession with aplomb, Mondragon is a massive family of democratically run businesses across the knowledge, retail, finance and manufacturing industries. If you lose your job in one of Mondragon’s businesses they will compensate you in the hugely unlikely event you are not employed elsewhere in the network of companies. Managers are elected and the highest wages can be no more than five times the lowest.To put this in perspective, in the US, the average CEO earns 273 times the amount of the average worker. That’s not even the lowest paid, that’s just the average worker. Now this refers to the cooperative members, primarily in the Basque country where Mondragon originated. This only accounts for about a third of workers in the company. The rest of the workers, in the South of Spain where they would be primarily employed by the retail giant Euroski, and in factories abroad, are not yet full members. Mondragon’s own explanation for this is as follows –

“As a result of the rapid growth you have experienced over the last few years, with the number of employees going from 25,322 in 1992 to 92,773 in 2008, only somewhat less than a third of the Corporation’s workers are cooperative members at present. The non-members mainly work in the distribution sector outside the Basque Country and at the industrial plants that are also based outside the Basque Country, either in other parts of Spain or abroad.

This percentage of worker-members will have substantially increased in three years’ time, when Eroski has completed its cooperativisation process for all its non-member employees, who work mainly outside the Basque Country and Navarra. When this process is complete, the percentage of cooperative members in the Corporation as a whole could be over 75%.”

One perk of this form of business is that aside from being an inherent improvement in itself, it would transform the education system. Our schools would turn from factories designed to churn out a small class of leaders and swathes of hardworking drones to follow their orders, into institutions who would be forced by the structure of the economy to encourage democratic organization, self-determination, discussion, creativity and so on – this would filter into every aspect of society with positive effects I can only imagine.

I should also mention that this would be the end of shareholders and dividends as we know them – collectively owned, worker managed enterprises would be structured so that one worker had one share, and that would be the end of that. No worker could own two shares, and no one who wasn’t a worker could own any. In a transitional phase it would be possible for the state and companies to combine in compensating shareholders up to a certain amount, but this amount would presumably only be enough to compensate ordinary shareholders, there’s no doubt the wealthiest shareholders would lose money here.

Also this would free up more money for public investment and better services, as the vast majority of the world’s wealth wouldn’t be loitering in billionaires bank accounts. Hey fun fact – did you know that the worlds wealthiest 85 people have the same amount of wealth as the poorest 3 billion people? Oxfam came out with that nugget in a mind blowing study this year. Capitalism is the bomb . . .

That slowly ticks away the time to our impending doom! No really – click here to read the Guardian’s feature on how “A new study partly-sponsored by Nasa’s Goddard Space Flight Center has highlighted the prospect that global industrial civilisation could collapse in coming decades due to unsustainable resource exploitation and increasingly unequal wealth distribution.”

Anyway – economic democracy doesn’t end there. It extends to the money supply. Public Banks whose purpose would be to support people’s education, training, the local economy and national infrastructure by investing deposits wisely, are an absolute prerequisite. Once again there are strong real world examples of this – Costa Rica being the best in this instance.

To this day 80% of the retail deposits in Costa Rica are held in the four public banks, because they are trusted. Sixty years ago Costa Rica was arguably the poorest Country in South America. According too political activist Scott Bidstrup, who has lived in Costa Rica for over a decade, “The winner of the 1948 civil war, José “Pepe” Figueres, now a national hero, realized that it would happen again if nothing was done to relieve the crushing poverty and deprivation of the rural population. He formulated a plan in which the public sector would be financed by profits from state-owned enterprises, and the private sector would be financed by state banking.

A large number of state-owned capitalist enterprises were founded. Their profits were returned to the national treasury, and they financed dozens of major infrastructure projects. At one point, more than 240 state-owned corporations were providing so much money that Costa Rica was building infrastructure like mad and financing it largely with cash. Yet it still had the lowest taxes in the region, and it could still afford to spend 30% of its national income on health and education.

A provision of the Figueres constitution guaranteed a job to anyone who wanted one. At one point, 42% of the working population of Costa Rica was working for the government directly or in one of the state-owned corporations. Most of the rest of the economy not involved in the coffee trade was working for small mom-and-pop companies that were suppliers to the larger state-owned firms – and it was state banking, offering credit on favorable terms, that made the founding and growth of those small firms possible. Had they been forced to rely on private-sector banking, few of them would have been able to obtain the financing needed to become established and prosperous. State banking was key to the private sector growth.”

By 1980 Costa Rica was so wealthy in per capita terms that economic statistics for South America were routinely quoted with and without Costa Rica included.”Growth rates were in the double digits for a generation and a half. And the prosperity was broadly shared. Costa Rica’s middle class – nonexistent before 1949 – became the dominant part of the economy during this period. Poverty was all but abolished, favelas [shanty towns] disappeared, and the economy was booming.” The success of this system earned Figueres two coup and one assassination attempt. In response he abolished the military, except for the Coast Guard, freeing up even more funds for public works.

“In the 1970s, however, the country fell into debt when coffee and other commodity prices suddenly fell, and oil prices shot up. To get the dollars to buy oil, Costa Rica had to resort to foreign borrowing; and in 1980, the U.S. Federal Reserve under Paul Volcker raised interest rates to unprecedented levels.” As a result Costa Rica became bankrupt and the IMF and World Bank rolled in with their usual shtick of cut public services, raise taxes and privatize everything. Don’t get me started on the IMF, but if you must know why they’re so terrible, type their name into a search engine alongside either Naomi Klein or Joseph Stieglitz (Stieglitz arguably better seeing as he dealt with them for years while working in the World Bank which he is also very critical of, and he’s also a Nobel prize winning economist. Though Klein is brilliant in her own right).

So public banks to encourage indigenous business, fund education, health and infrastructure, and generally be trusted not to lose tens of billions and expect ordinary people to pick up the tab while they go back to making record profits and ‘earning’ record bonuses.

Some of the positive ramifications of this that may not be immediately apparent are that by eliminating boards of directors, shareholders and dividends we’ve just gotten rid of the hugely wealthy individuals and groups of individuals like the billionaire Koch brothers in the US who have such massive sway in politics. Its less obvious in Ireland because of the smaller scale, but hey – three words – Haughey, Lowry, Aherne. And beef scandal. And Denis O’Brien. And ESAT Digiphone. You get the point, I’ll stop now.

Now different people have different visions for economic democracy. That’s good, a diversity of ideas which can be hammered out through democratic discussion. For example David Schweickart, author of ‘After Capitalism’ reckons there’s nothing wrong with allowing some capitalist companies, provided that it is illegal for them to merge with or acquire other companies, and that on the death or retirement of the owner, the company is either shut down, or passes into the hands of the workers and becomes a cooperative, or as Richard Wolff calls them – Worker Self Directed Enterprises (WSDE’s for, um.. short?). His book, ‘Democracy at Work – A Cure for Capitalism’, is also very good on this subject. In fact this article was originally intended to be a review of those two books, and another – Michael Albert’s ‘ParEcon (Participatory Economics): Life After Capitalism. But turned into a run through of some of the main ideas the cover, lacking the detail and even some of the main ideas of the books though (especially Parecon, which is both more radical but arguably more visionary than the other two, also harder to read.). They’re all worth reading though, if you know me or live near me I’ll lend them to you. Totally worth buying. If you’re unfamiliar with all of these concepts I’d start with one of the first two, if you’ve heard of all this than check out Albert’s work which would abolish the market altogether and replace it with a process called participatory planning, which if it it could be pulled off is by far the most appealing thing on offer here, but the lack of initiative on the part of leftists, academics and so on in experimenting with it or studying it is depressing, and I don’t understand why no one is exploring it, maybe its ahead of its time. Maybe its unfeasible. The only way to know is to do controlled experiments with it. So I think the ideas espoused here would be great first steps that would in themselves be revolutionary. I prefer the term evolution myself though – revolution has too many bloody connotations and is used to market too much bullshit.

One last important idea I should mention is something called participatory budgeting which has been implemented with great success in Porto Alegre in Brazil, and is now increasingly being experimented with all over the world. It essentially involves neighborhood councils working with their local politicians to decide on the local budget. In Porto Alegre it resulted in greater local participation and long term public investment, as well as tackling social issues like homelessness. To work here in Ireland though, we would have to implement one of Schweikart’s other recommendations –  per capita allocation of funds to councils across the Country. As it stands in Ireland only about three per cent of the tax take is allocated to local government, compare that to around forty per cent in the Nordic Countries, which unsurprisingly have better public services and local participation in politics. More allocation of funds will attract more people to get involved, and participatory budgeting gives them the means to do so.

Conclusion –

So if you’re interested in all of this feel free to contact me and get working together on it. I’m currently on the path with a number of others to setting up a democratic school in Ireland (I’ll be writing more on that later.) and hopefully to other democratic projects which filter into other areas of society like banking, politics and the workplace, but one step at a time right?

If you’re not interested, please tell me why in the comments, as if there are any convincing arguments against the ideas I’ve written about here, I’m open to hearing them.

In summary – Economic Democracy is made up of democratic control of the workplace which eliminates dividends to shareholders, participatory budgeting, public banks, and per capita investment across all communities. It has the potential to transform the quality of our everyday lives, the quality of the ideals on which our society is based, and in a nod back to educoup’s routes – the education system too. In short It’d be like the IPhone 6 – changing everything, again – only it wouldn’t bend in your pocket.

Thank you for reading!

‘Sit Down, Shut Up, And Listen’ – A radio documentary on mainstream education in Ireland

Click here to head over to soundcloud and listen to a radio documentary I recorded and edited including interviews with Educational author Mark Patrick Hederman on the outdated nature of the system, some fabulous stuff from students on how schooling could and should change and finally a teacher from an alternative school in Ireland on their struggles to get support from the Department of Education and her own classroom experiments in democracy.

Public Meeting on Anti-austerity: A Quick Reaction

So I attended a public meeting of the United Left Alliance (ULA) this evening in the Wynn’s Hotel on Abbey St. The theme was anti-austerity although there was discussion of abortion legislation and general anti-capitalism in its various guises as well. Speakers included Joan Collins TD, Clare Daly TD,  Tomas O Dulaing, the principal of Griffeen Valley Educate Together school, a representative of the soon to be striking bus drivers, and a number of people from the floor. And funnily enough one of my lecturers was in the audience with me as well. Clare Daly gave a great speech condemning the Government for banishing vulnerable women across the waves just as we once banished them behind the walls of the Magdalene Laundries (I’m paraphrasing her poetic quote, which flowed a bit better and earned some applause, but which I can’t remember fully) with regard to exporting abortion, and Tomais O’ Dulaing gave a good speech too, which he’s said he’ll email me, so I’ll be putting that up here soon enough.

It would take an age to mention all the points, and I probably wouldn’t do them justice off the top of my head (for once I was without my trusty notebook), so I won’t even bother.

Suffice to say I was excited and emboldened to be in the presence of so many people who haven’t settled for austerity (What one man present, suggesting we call spades spades, dubbed ‘enforced poverty’) or oligarchy, or ‘occupation by faceless bureaucrats’ . Where this will all end up, I don’t know, but I’m curious. And from the humor and love in the room more than the indignation, I’m optimistic that some good will come from it. Or maybe Leaving Cert English essays have just trained me to end on a triumphant note whether its justified or not, that tactic always seemed to secure better marks.

Interview with Mark Patrick Hederman, Author of ‘The Boy In The Bubble’.

Recently I met with Mark Patrick Hederman, author of ‘The Boy In The Bubble: Education as a Personal Relationship’ at the Aisling hotel to interview him about all things education. Over the course of a thoroughly enjoyable two hour conversation that spanned topics as varied as US foreign policy, Gay marriage, and the excessive conservatism of the catholic church, we managed to fit in a word here and there about learning as well. So here’s what he had to say, to what I had to say.

On The System –

“The truth is that everyone wants to get a job. And there’s only one gig in town when it comes to that, and that’s the Leaving Certificate – otherwise you’re not going to get into any colleges. And if you don’t go to college, you’re not going to get the kind of work that you… Although nowadays people are realizing that they’re not going to get a job even if they do go to university!

Its a big problem and we haven’t really caught up with it yet. We’re still running a system which was invented in the 19th century – a factory model, and that’s the way it is.

So unless we recognize that every single person is different and therefore requires a different kind of education, not this ‘one system fits all’, then they’re not educated.

So we’ve a big problem on our hands, and the truth is that Ireland is a very small country, and we could provide for every child in this country the most adequate form of education if we wanted to.

If we do something like what Finland has done, invest in that, and that would be the most amazing achievement.

The trouble is that we used to think the child was the center of our education system but the child is the last in the pecking order. On top is the Government, then the civil servants, then the trade unions, then the teachers, and then, when they’re all finished having their feed, they’ll decide what’s going to happen with the children.

Even now the Croke Park agreement – things like money for teachers, holidays for teachers, overtime for teachers. It has nothing to do with the children.

A good education is not difficult. All you do, is find out what that child can do, what they’re keen to do, and them let them at it, and provide them with the facilities. Its so simple.

But we’re training people for this 19th century factory model – to be obedient and to be adaptive to the system”

On Online Courses –

“Face to face is key to education, not only that – it has to be the right face.”

On Creativity –

“Its fine to have teachers teaching creativity but that means they have to tap into their own creativity. And if people haven’t actually found their own creativity and used their own imaginations then they’ll be terrified of any child using their imagination,and they’ll tell them ‘sit down, and shut up and don’t challenge me! Because I’m so insecure and I’m a teacher and I’m in charge.”

On the impending Junior Cert Reforms –

“Well the students arrive into secondary school and the teachers say ‘they know nothing. They’re absolutely uneducated – they can’t read, they can’t write. So we have to clean them up; we have to really take them in hand and get them ready for the big time, which is the Leaving Certificate.

So that means the Junior Cert becomes a sort of a dry run for the Leaving Cert and that’s why the present attempt to reform the Junior Cert is a cop out – because what the minister has done is said ‘I’m not going to make any reforms, I’m going to leave it up to the schools’. So the schools are allowed to change that exam in whatever way suits them. But, as you say, if these children have to do the Leaving Cert two years later then they still have to be put through this shredder so they’re ready. There’s no way the Junior Cert will change for the better, there’s nothing you can do. No one’s going to thank you if a child arrives at the Leaving Cert fulfilled, creative, imaginative and getting an E.

So until we change the Leaving Cert itself, we’re stumped on everything else.

The Junior Cert is the greatest disaster when it comes to instilling competition and fear at a young age when everybody should be just exploring. If we really have to do a final exam, fine, but until then people should be free to explore all sorts of areas.”

On the Sudbury Model –

“Its fine for people who are actually up and running, but there’s other people who may have dyslexia or other problems, people who need huge attention and very special one-to-one care.

I believe people who are able to self-direct should be allowed do that and we should help them with it.

But there are the people who are their own worst enemies, or people who may be depressed or insecure – these are massive psychological problems. If every child had personal attention, we’d be fine, but we can’t afford it.

There’s no person in the world you couldn’t educate if you had the right team. But we don’t have that kind of resource.”

Responding to criticism that Glenstal is an exclusive school –

“If you can educate one person completely, just one person – you can change the world. Because they’re going to have an effect as a human being.

Its just amazing to me the number of people who are supposed to be successful, and yet they’re crippled as human beings.

You can only truly educate a small number of human beings in one place, and that’s going to cost more.”

Me – “Surely in a small Country like ours it must be possible to provide a real education to everyone? Couldn’t you charge sliding scale tuition fees where people pay what they can afford. Where we charge people in accordance with their means and then supplement that with fundraising. There are alot of non-profit schools around the world that use this model.”

Mark Patrick – “Well the thing has to pay, but we have lots of people who don’t pay and that is the same principle – those who can pay, do. But you see, when these things are done voluntarily by Do-Gooders they only last for a short time and then collapse

This should be run bu the Government. This should be our system of education. And we have the possibility, we really do.

And I’m very glad that the Celtic Tiger bubble burst. That was teaching people another form of madness. It was a different kind of unhappiness.”

Me – “Speaking of the Celtic Tiger, are a lot of the problems with education stemming from economics? I mean it already is a Government run, public education system, and the government seem to be very much in the pockets of the Troika. They seem to be prioritizing whatever area happens to have the most potential for jobs right now – say IT – and short term economic success rather than the long term holistic prosperity of the nation’s people.”

Mark Patrick – “And that’s always the way. And if the talk about creativity – they latch onto the word – they mean entrepreneurial, they want somebody who knows how to make the next gadget that’s going to make millions for Ireland. They’re not the slightest bit interested in creativity which is personal development or originality, that may not make any money till a hundred years later. So I agree.

I’m seventy next year, so I’m out of the game. But I still feel strongly that it could be possible, but I don’t know how to do it.

I don’t know what I would do. Well, I would do what I’m doing now, and that is educating any person who comes withing my radar, and that means finding out what that person is, what they want to do, what they’re potential is, and then finding the place that person should go. I mean there’s horses for courses and there’s any number of places for people to go, and if you look at the Nobel prizes that have been won, the music industry and so on – this Country is awash with creativity.

There are endless ways in which a person’s live can be lived fully, when each day is so exciting because their doing something more interesting than yesterday.

We’re singing from the same hymn sheet, you and I, but we’re not in charge. We’re the useless eejits running after the bus, complaining that we didn’t get on.”

Me – “If you were in my shoes, and you wanted to change the system, where would you start?”

Mark Patrick – “I’d start with the teachers, with the teacher training.

If a person is actually able to reach their own creative juices, their own personal fulfillment, they’re going to be a terrific teacher. Its the ones who are terrified of the people they’re teaching, that don’t really feel confidant and they have to teach a hundred students six different disciplines, that are not feeling able.”

On Change –

Quoting Margaret Meade, ‘Never doubt that a small group of citizens can change the world. In fact it is the only thing that ever has’ I asked Mark Patrick what his thoughts were on how we can go about repairing our education system, and if indeed a small group of committed citizens is what it takes to change the world.

“Well I know of one man who chains himself to the railings outside the Dáil every time the Leaving Certificate is on. To me that is a complete waste of railing space. You still have to know how to be a mover and a shaker. You can’t just go outside with a placard and stand there hoping someone’s going to notice.

There’s a book I wrote called ‘Dancing With Dinosaurs’ – we’re dealing with dinosaurs all the time, and unless you learn how to deal and to dance with them you’ll just waste your time and get your feet crushed.

Its important to be cute and knowing how to move and where to move and where the weakness is and where to push and shove. So I don’t believe in just small groups unless they actually have their act together and they know the people who matter and can embarrass them at certain points. Then you’re going to get noticed.

So how do we do that now? I don’t know. Because everybody – the trade unions, the civil service, and the government, and business, are all stacked against you.

So where do you defend the children in that situation?”

Where indeed?

So, to sort of summarize:

– Our education system is as antediluvian as the word antediluvian and needs to change but a vast and indifferent ocean of bureaucracy is separating reality as it is and reality as it should be.

Mark Patrick Hederman is the abbot of Glenstal abbey in County Limerick as well as the former principal of the secondary school there. He is also the author of several books including ‘The Boy In The Bubble – Education as Personal Relationship’, which, if you please, you can order here. Its a funny and insightful read.boy in the bubble

Bridge 21 – Bridging the gap between learning and education

In Dublin City, at the end of Nassau St, behind Trinity college and tucked away in the red brick of Oriel House , is the headquarters of an intriguing educational experiment that has been gathering momentum for five years now. Bridge 21 is a team and tech based learning program (emphasis on ‘team’ rather than tech) that in the words of Kevin, one of the program coordinators, is “basically looking to make school more interesting”.

bridge 21 pic 2

What started out as an outreach program for Trinity College to give student’s on the fence about going to college a taste of what it would be like, has now evolved into something more. When I sat in on a portion of one computer programming focused workshop, the 24 Transition Year students from 13 schools around Dublin were learning to program their own games through ‘Scratch’, they were combining Wii-motes and laser pens they had customized themselves to turn standard laptop screens into multi-touch interfaces, they were testing out and discussing each others ideas, and above all they were enjoying themselves, interested and a picture of what real learning looks like.

 These workshops aren’t the extent of Bridge 21’s work though. They’re working in tandem with 12 secondary schools, 8 of which are in Dublin, to help teacher’s redesign their classroom and reinvigorate learning. The real barometer of Bridge’s success though is in the feedback from the students themselves.

bridge pic 3

After the program I sat down with 6 of the 24 students present who had time to stay back. Full of beans, I couldn’t have stopped them talking, either about the insanities and restrictions of the schools they attended, or how different and empowering they found Bridge 21 to be.

Evelyn from Colaiste Brid: “You have more freedom to do what you want here and be creative. In school you’re shot down for creativity – you’re told it’s not practical or educational, but here they love wacky ideas.”

Lourdes from Mercy, GoldenBridge in Inchicore: “In Bridge 21 we do things, instead of just learning everything by heart from books like in school. If you’re allowed to take learning into your own hands instead of just being instructed you become more confidant. Mutual respect as well. “

Ben, from Droimne Castle: “In Bridge we’re treated equally. Not specially but normally.Kevin is very friendly and he gets everyone involved. If someone is shy he’ll notice and give them the encouragement they need to get them out of there shell.”

 Other points were that the students were afforded a mutual respect in Bridge that they don’t get elsewhere and they were unanimous in their agreement that they learned more and enjoyed themselves more there. They felt they were being trusted to make their own decisions and build on their own ideas, while at the same time being both challenged and supported by their facilitators, who treated them as equals and co-learners.

Bridge 21 is taking our stale, teacher focused traditional classrooms and turning into them into exciting hubs of team based learning through modern technology, leading to more confident and thoughtful young people, and demonstrating that learning and enjoyment are inextricably linked.

For more info on Bridge 21 visit their website at bridge 21.ie.

The Disease of Sexual Objectification: Inside a society that turns women into things.

Giant boobs leaning down at us off billboards, phallic innuendos in ads for everything from Burger King to Tom Ford perfume, teenage boys hooked on lads mags and online porn, girls taught by everything from Disney to Reality TV that their sole worth is through their looks and value as a sex object, that life is a competition to be ‘the fairest of them all’, Paris Hilton and co. plastered all over magazines and portrayed on television as actual news, photoshopped models striking provocative poses in every second shop window, or every few pages of any magazine.

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 Are we living in a culture of sexual liberation for women as some might argue, or are girls being treated and learning to treat themselves as sexual objects, and what effects could this be happening on their development and life satisfaction?

Carole Heldman On Sexual Objectification:

Carole Heldman PHD, a prominent feminist blogger on sexual objectification in society has a pretty powerful answer to this question. On her blog she writes:

“Women who grow up in a culture with widespread sexual objectification tend to view themselves as objects of desire for others. This internalized sexual objectification has been linked to problems with mental health (e.g., clinical depression, “habitual body monitoring”), eating disorders, body shame, self-worth and life satisfaction, cognitive functioning, motor functioning, sexual dysfunction, access to leadership, and political efficacy.  Women of all ethnicities internalize objectification, as do men to a far lesser extent.

Beyond the internal effects, sexually objectified women are dehumanized by others and seen as less competent and worthy of empathy by both men and women.  Furthermore, exposure to images of sexually objectified women causes male viewers to be more tolerant of sexual harassment and rape myths… Theorists have also contributed to understanding the harm of objectification culture by pointing out the difference between sexy and sexual.  If one thinks of the subject/object dichotomy that dominates thinking in Western culture, subjects act and objects are acted upon.  Subjects are sexual, while objects are sexy.

Pop culture sells women and girls a hurtful lie: that their value lies in how sexy they appear to others, and they learn at a very young age that their sexuality is for others.  At the same time, being sexual, is stigmatized in women but encouraged in men. We learn that men want and women want-to-be-wanted. The yard stick for women’s value (sexiness) automatically puts them in a subordinate societal position, regardless of how well they measure up.  Perfectly sexy women are perfectly subordinate.” (http://carolineheldman.wordpress.com/2012/07/06/sexual-objectification-part-2-the-harm/)


There have been a number of studies showing that on the one hand sexual objectification of women is on the increase, and secondly that seeing their gender be sexually objectified is harmful for women’s cognitive development amongst many other things.

A study titled ‘Equal Opportunity Objectification? The Sexualization of Men and Women on the Cover of Rolling Stone’ found that hyper-sexualisation of women has dramatically increased while for men it hadn’t.

“A study by University at Buffalo sociologists has found that the portrayal of women in the popular media over the last several decades has become increasingly sexualized, even “pornified.” The same is not true of the portrayal of men.

These findings may be cause for concern, the researchers say, because previous research has found sexualized images of women to have far-reaching negative consequences for both men and women.” (http://www.buffalo.edu/news/releases/2011/08/12769.html)

Interview With Irish Feminist’s Network (IFN):

I interviewed a representative of the IFN named Collete, and here’s what she had to say:

 Asked how big of a problem she thought sexual objectification is in our culture answered

“Sexual objectification is a huge problem in our culture, for both men and women.”

The next question was ‘What are the roles of media in proliferating sexual objectification in society? What impact do TV, Magazines, Porn etc. have on a culture of sexual objectification?’

She answered –

“We’re surrounded by media images for such a large portion of our daily lives, it’s almost impossible to escape from it. We get the majority of our information today through media, be it music, tv, the internet, advertising or magazines, so it really is incredibly important for us as a society to think about the messages we receive from the media critically. On a personal level, I find the phrase ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’ to ring true for so many girls and women today. If you repeatedly see women presented as sexual objects and not as leaders in a variety of roles and careers, it can be difficult to aspire to leadership positions as a woman. Only around 15% of our Dail representatives are women.

The 2010 Hunky Dorys ad campaign that featured women in revealing clothing, posing as rugby players is a good example of sexual objectification being used in advertising. When you look at how well the Irish Women’s rugby team is doing now, and how little media coverage and funding they get compared to the men’s team, it’s hard not to see a link between the two. Sexual objectification plays into seeing women as sexual objects, and not as individuals with their own experiences, talents and personalities.

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We really need to see more women in positions of influence within the media sector in Ireland. This will lead to more accurate and diverse portrayals of women in our media.”

She added –

“A simple way to tackle inappropriate and irresponsible media in advertising is to make a complaint to the advertising standards authority at http://www.asai.ie.

The Irish Feminist Network have shown the film ‘Miss Representation’ in many places around Ireland. It deals with how mainstream media portrayals of women contribute to the under-representation of women in influential positions.

Sexual objectification of women also contributes to rape culture, it encourages people to see women as sexually available inactive objects, and not as individuals with their own feelings and thoughts.”

Do you think that this culture has its roots in financially powerful media owners pursuit of money?

“I would agree to the extent that these issues can occur when profit is privileged over creating responsible content. However, there are plenty of examples of companies who can turn a good profit without resorting to creating damaging images and messages.

This is a point I have often heard made in criticisms of the beauty and fashion industries/magazines – i.e. that they deliberately encourage low self-esteem and anxiety in women in order to get them to buy products.”

Hollaback Dublin:

In an interview with ‘Hollaback Dublin’ Co-Founder Vanessa Baker she spoke about rape culture in Ireland and Hollaback’s attempts to confront the problem.

“We’re trying to spread awareness that this is a problem. A lot of people we talk to either don’t think it’s a problem and say we’re overreacting or haven’t really heard of it and don’t realize how big of an issue it actually is.”

“We live in a culture that deems this kind of behavior ok, and its new that people are speaking out against it saying that it’s not just a simple ‘boys will be boys’ problem, or refuting people who insist that it’s a compliment to be catcalled, which obviously it’s not.

Society is set up in such a way that men are supposed to pursue women , and a lot of the time street harassment is less of a sexual desire thing than an issue of power and a group of boys trying to show off and assert their dominance.”

d&g offensive ad

In Ireland Ryanair have received criticism for their advertising methods – In 2011 a member of their on board staff rallied together over 7000 people in an online petition to ask for the online advert, which portrays a member of the Ryanair cabin crew posing in a bikini, to be banned for sexism.

Ryanair also release an annual ‘the girls of Ryanair charity calendar’ displaying thirteen members of staff again posing in bikinis.

The letter read that “’Ryanair must stop using this demeaning advert or any other which objectifies their staff in such an offensive way.

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‘You should be selling your service, not the attractiveness of your female staff. Were you actually hiring your female staff based on their looks, it would be illegal.’ (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2073488/7-000-ban-sexist-Ryanair-advert-shows-scantily-clad-crew.html)

But these are only one and two examples among thousands.


Sexual objectification is a disease that has spread throughout Western culture including Ireland, it has a wide range of damaging effects on a wide range of people and unlike some illnesses, there is no cure to be discovered except for people to cop on and stop disrespecting our sisters, our mothers, our friends and ourselves.

This blog might argue against the flaws in our education systems but there is one area where our bottom line obsessed society educates our children very effectively. In the same way as a perverse linguistic experiment might teach a child that the word for ‘love’ was ‘hate’ or that the word ‘pig’ represented people, and let the child off to see how it got on, our media (magazines, movies, billboards, books, mainstream porn etc.) teaches young people that images such as the one at the top of this article are sexy – That a young woman with no life in her eyes about to be fed with a phallic object too big for her mouth, is ‘sexy’. We are constantly assaulted with images conflating big boobs, generic faces, sexual promiscuity etc. with sexual attractiveness when true sexual attractiveness is not a characteristic of an individual but a dynamic between people combining looks, smell, humour, proximity, ideas, ideal, experience and so much more. And if you spend every day since you are a small child around this lie, you will learn to believe it, and think it’s the natural order, just as we learn to think our education system – a mongrel between a prison and a factory is natural and good, just as we took everything the priesthood did as the natural order, just as we failed to question the financial conmen who have us kissing the troika’s bottom.

A lot of people will read this and think ‘whiney moany feminism’, well I’m a boy, I’ve personally been around boys and men all my life. I know how many of them speak in private, away from women, and how many of them speak even when they are there. It is not natural that so many of us know multiple people who have suffered sexual abuse, it is not natural that girls can expect to be catcalled in the streets, it is not natural that women should be so obsessed with, and insecure about their image, or that boys and girls both see women as a sexual object to be possessed and acted upon. It’s not natural that boys grow up with a constant narrative of saving the world and getting the girl while girls grow up with the narrative of be ‘pretty’ and get saved by a handsome prince or be ‘ugly’ and well, it doesn’t bare thinking about. None of this is natural or right – it’s an imposed social order.

There’s definitely room for a couple of posts exploring in more detail the ways our children are brought up by media to think this way, and also the historical context for this happening, which as far as I know has a lot to do with the invention of agriculture and capitalism and their creating a hierarchical and materially unequal society in which men needed to consolidate their lineage and legacy, as well as women’s dependency on them. All for another day!

For more information misrepresentation.org is a fantastic site with a great documentary available on the stuff (I eventually found it online on documentarylovers.net, otherwise you have to order it or arrange a viewing which is a bit stingy on first glance, but otherwise maybe they couldn’t have afforded to make it, I don’t know). They also have an interesting campaign on Twitter called #NotBuyingIt where they call out sexually biased merchandise and get companies to change through the power of the people! They’ve had a few successes too.


So check it out, and if you liked this article please share it or leave a comment.

Mucho amore, Bernardo.