Thursday 17 October 2019

Carol Hunt: We'll only be pushed so far, Enda, there's nothing left to take from us

The middle classes, the very backbone of Ireland, are being driven into revolt, writes Carol Hunt

The Coping Classes: The term was first coined by Eoghan Harris, a leading political strategist in Ireland, to analyse the rise of a huge middle-class in the South, which is credited with kick-starting the Celtic Tiger.

-- Telegraph, May 13, 2007

The phrase (was) coined by the Irish politician Eoghan Harris, who explained the demographics and politics of the coping classes.

-- New York Times. April 3, 2009

HISTORICALLY, revolutions were started by leaders of what used to be call-ed the "middling-classes": people like Paine, Washington, Wolfe Tone, Danton, Robespierre, Lenin, Pearse, De Valera, Castro and Guevara.

It was a factor that Karl Marx overlooked when he prophesied the inevitable "withering of the state".

He gave little credence to the very human aspirations of the peasant and later the industrial worker to attain that middling status -- to belong to the group that forms the backbone of every current wealthy democracy.

Here in Ireland, Eoghan Harris replaced the term "middle-class" with "coping classes" to better explain the increasing numbers of Irish people who may not have fitted the traditional (British?) interpretation of "middle-class" but who nonetheless shared the values usually attributed to this group.

So who are we? Well, we're a very ordinary lot really -- but what we all have in common is a belief in the future.

We work, we earn moderate salaries, we have mortgages -- some far in excess of what our homes are now worth -- we pay our bills and taxes and try to make sure our kids get the best chances available to them. We keep the peace, we keep our heads down, we are little or no trouble to our neighbours or to the State.

We try to go away every so often -- for a break, a treat, a family time together that we believe is important for good communication. We save to get braces fitted on our teenagers' teeth or to consult a specialist about their swollen tonsils; we put what we can away for their college fees and we enthusiastically drive them to football, piano or ballet practice.

We ask for little, we give far more than we take and we are happy to be in a position to do so in a civilised and just democracy in a State we call our home.

But now we, the coping classes, are in danger of being wiped out, in many cases we are no longer coping, but barely surviving. Some are not even doing that.

We've become an easy target for a political class that doesn't have the guts to stand up to a bullying European bureaucracy or the imagination to conceive of new approaches to our current woes.

An exaggeration, perhaps, to suggest that an entire class is being relentlessly ground down?

Well, let me count the ways:

- Universal Social Charge l Household charge l VAT increase l Private health insurance levy l Private pension levy l Increase in public trans- port costs l Increase in university registration fees l Rise in Deposit Interest Retention Tax l Pensions tax l Second home levy insurance compensation fund l Septic tank registration.

Did you think it would be so many?

Yes, you probably did, especially if the only pleasure left to you at the end of the week is a low-cost bottle of supermarket wine. (By the way, stock up, because they're planning to target that next "for the sake of our health").

And yes, it is indeed beyond farcical. But, as the Government keeps reminding us -- read their lips -- there have been no income tax increases.

But at the same time we've also had price hikes in: l Private health insurance l Home heating, fuel and electricity lFood l Some mortgage interest rates l Petrol and diesel.

And that's just to name a few, I'm sure that as you are reading this you could give more examples off the top of your head.

All of the above have been introduced, not in a time when incomes and investments are steadily rising, but when we have had pay cuts, hours cut and salaries slashed.

As a working-class child turned middle-class by parental sacrifice and boundless encouragement, my own great fears in this horrible new world of a thousand cuts concern the biggies: education and health.

The first is one that I know many other parents share: how on earth do I send my two bright, bookworm children to third-level college if "fees" continue to rise?

Save hard? Not a chance in this economic climate when treading water is a weekly struggle. Ask their godparents to cough up? Nope, they're in similar if not worse situations.

"File" for unemployment the year before they're due to enroll so that the State will cover their fees? Currently, that seems the only practical solution.

My second?

Even though it was well over a decade ago, the memory of a stay in a public psychiatric ward still has the power to bring on the night terrors -- in broad daylight.

The thought of having to possibly endure it again is more than sickeningly scary; it's something I have promised myself will not happen.

Which is why through sick and sin, I have always ensured that -- beans on toast for the week regardless -- the private healthcare policy gets paid.

Even writing this, I can feel impotent emotions of anger and frustration welling up inside me -- but what to do?

Which reminds me of a prescient observation Tim Pat Coogan made over 20 years ago on the ability of the Irish to keep the head down and say nothing, no matter what. I've noted it before but it deserves repeating.

"We put up with the doings of the faceless mandarins and the political poltroon with equal indifference", he said.

"The stroke-puller, the corner-cutting financial whiz-kid, the lengthening dole queue are all evils tolerated or lazily overlooked until we suddenly find ourselves joining the dole queue, with a mortgage and kids in a fee-paying school."

We are ignoring the lessons of history.

Unjust taxation levied on one specific group -- which all these flat taxes, stealth taxes, hikes and extra charges are -- was the central grievance that ignited the American and French revolutions.

Various historians of different political hues have pinpointed the main steps that lead to revolutions.

I think it may be useful to summarise them (and note if there are similarities with recent Irish history), if not for Enda then at least for the rest of us.

Initially, there exists a period of social and economic progress, followed by a period of sharp reversal.

Then people are forced to accept less than they hoped for; the future does not look promising.

As most potential revolutionaries tend to come from the middle classes; educated, law-abiding people -- with modest ambitions -- start to view the government as pressing on them in a way that threatens their future.

The governing classes generally react to world changes by clinging to the familiar status quo.

Social unrest follows in the wake of national economic reversals that are seen to be the fault of inept, possibly corrupt, governance.

Hope for the future is all but extinguished. The middle classes begin to fight back through peaceful protest and non-compliance and are met with a formal government-backed resistance and refused the right to assembly.

It's at this point that the Bastille is stormed.

Sunday Independent

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