From top: Tanaiste Leo Varadkar at Burke Joinery in Kylemore, Dublin 10 last week; Eamonn Kelly
Leo Varadkar was photo-opping the other day with a huge machine that planes and finishes sheets of prefabricated timber. Leo walked alongside the machine with his hand on the edge of the sheet of timber as the machine did its thing. It was bit like standing at the rear of a vehicle and leaning on it with your hand as the vehicle begins to move, taking credit for the “skill” of the engine causing the vehicle to move.
Apart from the photo op being a compelling demonstration of advanced automation, further supporting the argument for an introduction of a basic income, the photo op was rich in numerous unintended messages.
One, it demonstrated that Leo Varadkar knows nothing about manual labour, which tends to involve a little bit more than walking beside a machine, calling instead for investment of muscle, sinew and bone that, over time, leads to a consequent shortening of life.
It also demonstrates that the now Tánaiste’s PR team are still active on public money in using that money to play perception magician with the public.
The idea of sexing up trade apprenticeships comes with the realisation that the higher aspirations of college credentials and the types of white collar careers such credentials used to deliver are now suffering from the fact that there simply aren’t enough white-collar careers to go around.
The idea is also attractive from an elitist political point of view in that you with your college career – despite what you may be hearing about the value of “skills” – will always be a step ahead of those who don’t have a college education. College education matters. It matters a great deal. It matters particularly in money management and business skills.
Like most things party political, this idea that apprenticeships are a credible alternative to further education only looks to a short-term future.
While it is true that having a manual skill in the trades is a good thing, it is only a good thing in an ideal world. And while the promise of apprenticeships in the trades sounds good on the face of it, the fact is the trades are being decimated by automation and by the privatisation of housing development.
Education is also being decimated by monetisation, so now it barely even delivers the founding promise of the academy, and instead often traps students into long term debt. Both are being decimated by neo-liberal policies, the very policies that Varadkar stands for.
Back In The Day
Back in the 1960s and 1970s Fianna Fáil generated employment in the trades by embarking on vast social housing programmes, something Fine Gael are ideologically opposed to. Which begs the question, what are all those apprentices supposed to do when they acquire the skills of whatever trade they plump for?
The answer of course is, emigrate. Which is probably the idea anyway since emigration has served Ireland’s ruling class so well over the last fifty years, acting as a safety valve that kept their political seats and business interests safe from youthful, hungry competition.
So what is this photo and this encouragement towards the trades all about? Well, in the parlance of building workers it’s called “blowing smoke up your hole”.
It’s designed to make the politician look good and make it seem like he’s looking to the future, but is in fact a ruse to make people lower their ambitions and expectations and be willingly redirected towards lives as manual workers in an automated neo-liberal world that will in all likelihood have no real use for them.
It is a short-term distraction to take away from the fact that in reality all the seats are taken – there are only so many professors the world needs – and the fact that a basic income is the only realistic way forward to ensure a stable society, something neo-liberals like Varadkar simply cannot countenance.
Ultimately Varadkar represents a class interest that depends for its superiority on the existence of malleable lower classes. This promotion of apprenticeships and manual work looks to create and enhance an uneducated service class.
The alternative, given the realities of automation and the sheer lack of career opportunity, which will also, by the way, apply to manual work, is to introduce a basic income and to make third level education free to those that want it, in order that the ideals of the academy be honoured, and the bankers preying on students be run off the campuses.
Further to this, a public works programme should be embarked upon, to provide homes for people and the opportunity of practical application for apprentices who wish to learn a trade. Not providing such realistic opportunities in the field for apprentices creates another monetized education system, which is probably the idea.
Varadkar and other neo-liberals will not even consider these options since these would have the effect of removing the only thing that gives them status: the existence of an uneducated underclass.
The result is this short-term stop-gap idea designed to keep them in power in the short term while they think up ways of ensuring their ongoing survival as a political class, even despite their antiquated ideas.
The problem is that their determination to pretend that it is still 1960 is to create a widening split between haves and have-nots and all the social inequality and unrest that this entails.
Suggesting that everyone learn a trade because the white-collar seats are already filled is a stop-gap measure for politics lacking in vision suitable to the times.
Eamonn Kelly is a freelance Writer and Playwright.
Previously: Eamonn Kelly on Broadsheet