Gilmore’s Book, Tim Cook, and student loans

Campus culture in Trinity has been captured by the corporate viewpoint

COMMENTWhen he set down his will and testament, Ernie O’Malley, accomplished writer and veteran of the war of independence and civil war, specified that when he died he would be buried upright and facing east across the Irish sea so that he could face his old enemy for all eternity. Here though he could not suppress a posthumous literary flourish: “In fact they are no longer my enemies,” he said of the British. “Each man finds his enemy within himself.”

Earlier this month, ex-Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore published a memoir of his time as a senior member of government. You could say that, over the course of his long political career, Gilmore found the enemy within himself, and then, like many former socialists, he became it. As a student Gilmore was an avowed enemy of political and economic elites. As a member, and later elected representative, of the Workers’ Party, Gilmore signed up to a political programme that officially advocated the overthrow of capitalism. As leader of the Labour Party he helped implement a vicious and regressive austerity programme, At what point did he lose his ideals? Was it a slow decline, or a series of punctuated spurts?

Gilmore’s book is titled Inside the Room. As the name suggests, it is the work of an insider, someone comfortable, proud even, of his membership of the political elite. In the book he laments that he was not given the European Commissioner position, a job that he felt he deserved, and he bemoans what he regards as his summary dismissal from the leadership. His petulance was well reviewed. In a cosy and sympathetic discussion of the book on Claire Byrne’s Radio One show, Pat Rabbitte and Fionnan Sheahan agreed that he had been hard done by. Sheahan cited an episode where Gilmore sat crying in his sitting room after he realised he was going to lose his position as party leader.

This forthright sympathy for the diminished ex-Tánaiste is illustrative of the dominance of neoliberal ideology in Irish society. The case is an almost exact duplicate of the reaction to the Joan Burton Jobstown protest, which was aptly dissected by Richard McAleavey on his blog Cunning Hired Knaves. McAleavey points out that neoliberalism “mobilises common feelings of sympathy, respect and veneration” for those who serve its interests. And while it aims to destroy collective solidarity amongst those who oppose it, it fosters sympathy and mutual support amongst the members of the elite in-group. Joan Burton had to sit in her car for two hours and she was treated like the victim of some Dostoyevskian ordeal, her discomfort magnified into a trauma. By contrast, the protestors were dehumanised, portrayed, as McAleavey puts it, like an “an amorphous, menacing swarm.”

Confining Burton to her car was a “fascist crime” (this type of language was actually used at the time). But there was no mention in the hysterical discourse about Burton’s role in implementing austerity policies that have literally forced people to live in their cars. Similarly ignored are the people who have sat in their living rooms crying, not because they are no longer Tánaiste or because they won’t get the commission job, but because they can’t afford to eat or to pay rent.

People like Gilmore and Burton aren’t born with these neoliberal values, they are socialised into beleiving them when they join the elite, through birthright or ascension. This no doubt at least partly explains Gilmore’s political degeneration, and the uniformity of the media. It is also a process which has infiltrated and now dominates our own university’s political culture.

Tim Cook’s Patronage

This was amply evidenced by Tim Cook’s recent visit to College. Cook, Steve Jobs’ successor as CEO of Apple, received the honorary medal of patronage from The Phil. And in return he gave the assembled students an honorary patronising. I didn’t attend the event, having already endured more than a lifetime’s quota of gushing proselytising for Apple products. But the The Phil’s twitter coverage and the University Time’s article on the event gave a clear idea of the kind of reverential and adulatory atmosphere that reigned in the exam hall. Cook lectured the audience on human rights, about how it “takes courage to overcome oppression” and about how he is “deeply proud of the role that our products, like the iPhone, play in social progress.” Not one student challenged the Apple CEO on his company’s evasion of billions of tax dollars, or the gross abuse of human rights by their Southeast Asian suppliers.

The New York Times won a Pulitzer prize for a 2012 series of articles on these issues. One of the pieces revealed that, according to then most recent information released by Apple, Ireland was home to “more than one-third of Apple’s worldwide revenues.” According to The Irish Times, Apple paid an effective tax rate of 2% in Ireland in 2013. Meanwhile millions of Irish people have suffered further government cuts and the effects of the austerity-prolonged recession. The scale of the tax avoidance is highlighted by a recent move by the EU to censure the government for providing this tax shelter. If the ECJ finds against them, the state will be forced to recoup $19bn dollars in tax. (And in a sign of where their true priorities lie, the government is reportedly ready to fight the decision).

Another piece in the New York Times series documented the “human costs built into the iPad.” Foxconn, Apple’s main manufacturing supplier, has seen workers die in explosions and be harmed  by toxic chemicals. Working conditions in the plants violate many labour and human rights codes, with under-age workers being employed and regular violations of the already excessive 60 hour work week limit imposed by Apple. Infamously, the company has installed netting in its dormitories in response to a plague of suicides. Apple regularly conducts safety audits of the manufacturing facilities and finds widespread and massive abuses. Little or nothing is done to address these issues and the company turns a blind eye because actually enforcing change would negatively affect their bottom line. The NYT article quoted an anonymous former Apple executive who said: “We’ve known about labor abuses in some factories for four years, and they’re still going on. Why? Because the system works for us. Suppliers would change everything tomorrow if Apple told them they didn’t have another choice.”

Generational change

Is this the type of “social progress” that Cook is “proud”  to have his products play a role in? We do not know, because nobody asked him. When he was asked about LGBT rights and the soft power of Apple, Cook, according to The University Times said “I don’t think about power. That’s a word that I’m not fairly comfortable with.” It is a bizarre and convenient myopia for Cook not to think of the power he exerts over the tens of thousands of workers suffering in Foxconn’s latter-day satanic mills. But it is illustrative of the obscuring effect of ideology on our own generation of students.

In the modern campus, certainly in Trinity, the huge power that private, for-profit entities exert over our lives is effectively ignored and unnoticed. Our college has been captured by a corporate culture in which the moneymaking activities of such companies are morally neutral processes, and corporations can and do function as the primary vehicles for social progress. We are reminded constantly in lectures, emails, conferences, sponsored events, and arts block stalls, of the prestige and importance of KPMG, Slaughter and May, Microsoft, Google etc. Students compete for the chance to be wined and dined on the company dollar, to slip their CV bullet points in between sips of the house red. Sadly, many will have their pretensions to grandeur realised when they leave college.

Much of this can be contributed to the class composition of college. In an system where socio-economic class is the most important determinant of economic attainment, it is not surprising that the economic interests of the middle and upper classes will be reflected in College political life. Trinity does have a disproportionately high number of private school graduates as well as the lowest proportion of students on the grant (see our InDepth section for more on this). Still, a generation ago, radical political ideology and action had a much greater footing in our college. In the sixties and seventies, Trinity was rife with radical leftwing and republican groups. Revolutionary Struggle, a “small militant Irish Althusserian” group (according to Wikipedia), shot a visiting British businessman. On another occasion Brian Lenihan, Sr had to escape from protesting students through a toilet window. I am obviously not suggesting that Tim Cook should have been kneecapped, or be made crawl through a bathroom window. But isn’t it disappointing that not a single student questioned him on his hypocrisy?

A similar exhibition of ideological capture was displayed recently when TCDSU council opposed a motion proposed by the president, Lynn Ruane, for the SU to oppose a student loan system. The introduction of such a system, recently advocated by Ógra Fianna Fáil, ultimately entails a more expensive and more exclusive college education. Surely this is the type of thing that the student body elected Ruane to oppose? It seems that some students are more attracted to the surface appearance of progress than to its substantiation. Indeed, people voting against their own interest represent the ultimate ideological capture by neoliberalism. If social progress is to be regarded as something more than a bullet point in Apple’s marketing strategy then students need to reject corporate culture and apply the idealism of yesterday’s generation to the problems of today’s.

William Foley

William Foley studies Philosophy and Economics. He is deputy editor of Trinity News.